Studies

Qais & Jessem Islands: The latest Ahwazi targets of Iranian security policies

The exceptional strategic location of Ahwaz in the Arabian Gulf, particularly due to the important islands such as Qais and Jessem, means it plays an important role in Iran’s annual economic output. Jessem Island, known as the largest island in Ahwaz and the Arabian Gulf, is located in the Strait of Bab Al-Salam (Hormuz) and has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ahwaz in recent years, with the islands’ natural beauty and historical features and the culture of its native people attracting large numbers of visitors annually. The nearby Ahwazi island of Qais, also known as the ‘Pearl of the Arabian Gulf,’ is also well-known as a beautiful resort in the Middle East and the Gulf region.

The original inhabitants of Qais and Jessem in Ahwaz are Arabs, primarily a number of prominent families, mainly the Al-Buainain, Al-Sabah, Al-Sudani, Al-Suwaidi, Bani Yas, Al-Moein, Bani Khalid, and Al-Qasimi tribes. The economy of the islanders depends mainly on fishing, agriculture, and trade with the Arab Gulf states. Nevertheless, the two Ahwazi islands have been affected by the policies of the Iranian regimes since the arrival there of the Iranian army in 1928 and 1933 (a few years after the occupation of Muhammarah), when the regime changed the Arab names of the islands to Farsi (Qais to Kish and Jessem to Qeshm) and built a commercial port to encourage settlers to migrate to both islands. [1] The current regime established the commercial zone in the 1990s in order to encourage a large number of Persian merchants to invest in the islands. This policy has affected the local economy of the native population.

 

Geography of the islands 

The Ahwazi island of Qais, located in the centre of the Arabian Gulf, has a total area of 92 square kilometres and an estimated population of around 41,258 people. The island is located 250 kilometres from Bandar Abbas (Jambroun), 90 kilometres from the port of Lanja, 28 kilometres from the port of Al-Ebadla (Hondurabi), and 18 kilometres from the port of Kharj Island, the nearest port to Qais. [2]  

Jessem, meanwhile, is an arrow-shaped Ahwazi island in the Strait of Bab Al-Salam (Hormuz). According to Iranian data in 2016, Jessem’s population was about 148,993 people and covers an area of 1,491 km. The island is subdivided into three districts: The Central District, Shehab, and Bab Al-Salam (Hormuz). The island, which has four towns – Jessem, Darajahan (Dargehan), Suza, and Hormuz – as well as 75 villages, is located a few kilometres away from the Iranian coastal port cities of Bandar Abbas (Jambroun) and Jomir (Khamir), just 60 kilometres from the Omani port of Khasab, and about 180 kilometres from the UAE’s Port Rashid. [3] 

 

Strategic importance

The Ahwazi islands of Jessem and Qais have strategic importance economically (for energy and trade) and geopolitically due to their location in the Arabian Gulf. Most of Ahwaz’s oil and gas reserves are located in the Gulf, and more importantly, nearly all Ahwazi oil is exported through the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Due to these factors, Iran believes that changing the demographic composition of these two islands’ populations is vital to the Iranian regime’s political agenda in the Gulf region. Hence, by establishing free trade zones in these islands, Iran’s regime seeks to attract a large number of settlers to move there.

In recent years, the ‘Kish Free Zone Organisation’ has taken rapid steps to achieve this objective, implementing numerous large and small projects, such as building villas, apartment complexes, mega-hotels, and commercial centres and developing popular tourism areas to attract Persian tourists and investors to the island. Iranian statistics indicate that more than 1.5 million domestic and foreign tourists visit the island annually.[4] However, tourism and other investments are not conducive to the economic development of the island’s native people, who suffer from poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, and poor infrastructure.

Jessem Island also has undeniable importance, so Iran is exploiting the island’s strategic location to make it a base for military activities instead of providing investment opportunities to develop the economy of the native population, while simultaneously backing economic projects to benefit Persian settlers in the island. 

The Deputy Commander of the Navy in the Revolutionary Guard, Brigadier General Alireza Tangsiri, stated recently: “Jessem Island, with a length of 140 km, plays an important role in military calculations as a defensive barrier for the port of Jembroun (Bandar Abbas) and even for all of Iran. Therefore, Iran plans to build a bridge to connect Jessem Island to the city of Jembroun [on the mainland], which could create significant opportunities for the ‘Qeshm Free Zone’.” According to Iranian documents, it appears that the bridge-building plan has assumed strategic importance in security and military issues. Indeed, the construction of the bridge would play a significant role in displacing the native population and replacing them with Persian settlers. [5] 

 

Demographic change

According to Iranian statistics, the population of Jessem Island in 1951 was about 14,000 people, with the majority of the island’s population emigrating to Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Some Ahwazi sources indicate that in 1928 the Iranian army attacked citizens and destroyed shops and villages intending to intimidate and displace the indigenous islanders from the island. The fact these were not isolated attacks, and it is supported by the recollections of Iranian poet Ali Asghar Khan Hikmat, who said that during his journey to Jessem in 1951, he witnessed destruction, the closure of shops, and the vandalism of local commercial centres on the Ahwazi island of Jessem. [6] 

The regime’s previous plans to increase the island’s population did not live up to expectations, while most of the island’s indigenous residents were displaced to the city of Jembroun in southern Ahwaz and the Arab Gulf states. At present, Jessem has a population of about 150,000 people (the majority of whom are Ahwazis), but the Iranian regime plans to rehome about 230,000 ethnically Persian settlers there within five years so that the island’s population will reach 380,000 by 2025. 

Through the establishment of the ‘Qeshm Free Zone,’ which dates back to 1999, the Iranian regime has managed to boost essential activities in various social, economic, and cultural fields. Prior to the establishment of the free zone, there were few indicators of economic development to encourage Persians to emigrate there. As a result of the development of the free zone, however, indicators of economic development have increased significantly, including the expansion of commercial markets, customs houses, and a burgeoning tourism industry, leading to the construction of tourist centres, hotels, restaurants, and stores. 

Successive Iranian governments have attempted to turn Jessem Island into a tourist hotspot. In 1971, Iran’s then-rulers began investing in the island in the hopes of making it a winter holiday destination for Persian Iranians. The next year, 1972, the Shah’s regime established the first free trade port there. These efforts were modest, however, next to those of the theocratic regime that came to power after 1979, which was determined to launch economic projects to support its policy agenda, particularly during the era of Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), when the Iranian regime developed a plan to purchase land from the native population. As a result, the regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began to play a major role in supporting the regime’s economic and political projects to change the demographic composition of the island’s population. After the advent of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the Iranian regime, via the IRGC, established the commercial zone in 1999 to bring settlers and settle them in the island. [7] 

The Iranian regime used a similar strategy in an effort to change the demographic make-up of the Ahwazi island of Qais, turning the island into a major tourism destination to encourage ethnically Persian businessmen to settle here, buy land and build trading and tourist centers. Through the establishment of the ‘Kish Free Zone’ in 1992, the regime tried to encourage economic growth – though only for its own, ethnically Persian, loyalists, with a large number of Persian merchants moving to the island, even while the native residents in Qais are very deliberately deprived of economic development opportunities and denied the same encouragement. [8] 

Iran also plans to establish an international oil exchange for the trade of petroleum and petrochemicals in the ‘Kish Free Zone,’ the first phase of which was inaugurated in March 2008. The stock exchange played a major role in bringing Persian traders from Tehran and Isfahan to the island. The Director of the Kish Free Zone, Gholam-Hussain Muzaffari, even revealed plans to build an artificial island adjacent to Kish to encourage more inwards migration, saying, “The Kish Free Zone has a plan to build a new island next to Kish to motivate more traders to invest in the energy field.” [9]    

 

Current circumstances 

The purpose of establishing and developing free zones in Jessem and Qais is to increase regime exports, create job opportunities for settlers, and increase public revenues. However, in recent months, Iran’s regime has sought, through cooperation with China, to lease the two islands for 25 years without making any concessions to the indigenous islanders. 

Another Iranian policy on the Ahwazi island of Qais is the displacement of rural citizens. The CEO of the Kish Free Zone Organisation, Gholam-Hussein Muzaffari, said: “The organisation seeks to change the quiet village of Bago in the island into a tourist village,” noting that “more than 50% of the project has been completed.” Muzaffari further revealed that “we have more than 100 projects under implementation in Kish in the fields of infrastructure and the private sector,” saying that “many projects were implemented at an appropriate speed.” He added that these projects still require more than 30,000 billion tomans ($150 million) for completion. [10]

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also emphasised that “the free economic zones have greatly supported the Iranian economy, as Iran’s exported about $134 billion from 2013 to 2020 through free economic zones.” [11] According to Ahwazi reports, meanwhile, the native Ahwazi citizens in Qais and Jessem have received nothing from this enormous wealth, as poverty hangs over the lives of the indigenous people there. 

As mentioned earlier, the Iran-China strategic partnership for 25 years is the most dangerous point to date in threatening the Ahwazi residents in Qais and Jessem since, according to the agreement, China will control sovereignty over the two islands for 25 years without providing any economic opportunities to citizens. The Ahwazi citizens of the two islands believed that the Chinese presence will directly threaten their local economies, such as fishing and agriculture. The Iranian government has denied the reports of a strategic partnership with China in the islands of Kish and Qeshm, saying that “the Iranian partnership with China will not include both islands, but rather will include oil and gas only.” [12] 

 

Conclusion 

Iran is pursuing several policies in the Ahwazi islands of Jessem and Qais in order to gain control, with the most important of these policies concerning military and economic issues. By encouraging settlers to invest in the islands, it is clear that the Iranian regime aims to change the Arab identity of the Gulf region. The Iranian regime also uses the islands’ geographic location to threaten other Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the American fleets in the Arabian Gulf. 

In fact, since the occupation of the islands in 1928 and 1933, Iran has consistently pursued three strategies in these two islands. The first strategy, adopted during the reign of Reza Pahlavi until 1941, was based on intimidating citizens to force them to leave the islands, with a large number of them doing so, mostly going to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The second strategy was adopted during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, specifically in the 1970s, when Iran’s regime encouraged Persians to settle on the islands through tourism and economic projects, although the number of Persians who settled there was small. Another step that Iran took during the Shah’s era was the militarisation of the islands, specifically after the occupation of the three UAE islands in 1971. The third and last strategy, adopted during the era of the current regime, is the most dangerous one for the Ahwazi peoples of the two islands, with the demographic composition of Qais already severely and entirely changed by establishing a free zone and providing economic opportunities for Persian merchants during the reign of Rafsanjani and Khatami. Khatami also continued the same approach on Jessem Island after the establishment of the free zone in 1999. The current Iranian plan aims to completely change the demographic composition of Jessem Island by bringing about 230,000 Persian settlers to the island within five years.

There is no doubt that these policies severely impact the identity and heritage of the islands’ peoples. It is clear that Iran’s regime not only aims to change the demographics of the two islands but rather seeks to violate the heritage and economy of citizens and displace them from their historical lands. Iran also threatens the security of the Gulf region by transferring military equipment to the islands. Indeed, Iran is violating all kinds of human rights, security, international law, and international relations through the militarisation of the two islands and the displacement of native peoples. 

 

References

[1] Bahmani Qajar, M. A, Ensani News, page: 84-88. Link <https://bit.ly/3cnxS4x>

[2] Wikipedia. Link <https://bit.ly/2Hd8XoT>

[3] Fodasun. Link <https://fodasun.com/en/gheshm/>

[4] IRNA News Agency, June 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/3iU2wVU>

[5] Tasnim News Agency, 2013. Link <https://bit.ly/35VXTH0>

[6] Eghtesad Online News, February 2018. Link <https://bit.ly/363roHf>

[7] Qeshm Online News. Link <https://bit.ly/2ZWomAo>

[8] Wiki Free Zones. Link <https://bit.ly/2ZWh3Ji>

[9] Hamshahri Online Newspaper, 19 September 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/2RP1y1m>

[10] Khabar Online News, 17 September 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/33RWNcD>

[11] IRNA News Agency, 10 September 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/2ZXHi1T>

[12] Washington Institute, 3 August 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/35YpGXm>

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