Studies

Ahwazis Face Further Pressure as Iran Pushes for Demographic Change in Abu Shahr

This report seeks to paint a picture of Abu Shahr’s actual status outside the official government’s largely fictional, airbrushed version of reality by establishing a logical relationship between the variables in the creation and development of unemployment, poverty and geopolitical change in Abu Shahr governorate. To do this, first, the areas that have witnessed geopolitical changes in Abu Shahr are identified by identifying the affected groups, until a fundamental analysis of the presence or absence of a systematic geopolitical change is drawn in Abu Shahr. Second, the focus will be on government officials’ statistics and data on the issue of unemployment, building new cities (settlements), displacement and violations of heritage. Third, the research examines Iran’s approach to the geopolitical change of Abu Shahr.

The Ahwazi territories run from the Jaghin River at the borders of Baluchistan to the Shatt al-Arab at the borders of Iraq. However, following the Iranian occupation in 1925, most of these territories were divided into three parts: Jambrun (Hormuzgan), Abu Shahr (Bushehr in Farsi), and northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan in Farsi), whilst some lands were annexed by other Iranian provinces such as Elam, Boyer Ahmad and Fars province. Northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan) is a flat and warm region with enough rivers to support agriculture. There are also colossal mineral, oil and gas resources in the region. However, southern Ahwaz (Abu Shahr and Jambrun), despite lacking agricultural lands like northern Ahwaz, possesses substantial gas wealth and the largest commercial ports in Ahwaz, as well as occupying a vital strategic location in the Arabian Gulf. [1]

Within the first years following the 1925 occupation, the Ahwazi territories were divided geographically by the then leaders of Iran in order to exert control over the predominantly Arab Ahwazi population. Both the Iranian regimes that have ruled since then (the Pahlavi era monarchic dynasty and the current theocratic regime) have relied on a policy of imposing geopolitical change to gain absolute control over Ahwazi lands, with Abu Shahar providing an archetypal example of the systemic changes imposed on all these areas.

Geopolitical change in Ahwaz does not take place solely on the basis of changing the economic balance in favour of Persians, with this being just one aspect of the policies adopted by the Iranian regimes since 1925. Another aspect common to Tehran’s policies in all  Ahwazi territories, including Abu Shahr, is systematic demographic change, imposed to alter the geopolitical balance in Ahwaz and influence the security, stability and economy of the Arab Gulf region. The regime’s overt if unofficial policies of prejudice toward the indigenous Arab population means the native peoples in areas subjected to this systematic demographic change face economic crisis and forced displacement. Rural residents in Abu Shahr province have also  been subjected to demographic change through the construction of settlements for ethnically Persian settlers attracted to the region by regime offers of jobs and homes not available to its indigenous people, in  an effort to disrupt the geographical and societal contiguity between the Arab territories and peoples in northern and southern Ahwaz.

A large number of Ahwazi researchers believe that the primary goal of the Iranian regime through imposing these geopolitical changes in Abu Shahr is to cut communication between the north and south of Ahwaz because Abu Shahr is like a bridge linking the northern and southern areas. Hence, these researchers assert, the regime targets Ahwazis economically through withholding funds, rights, essential infrastructure, jobs and resources for the indigenous people, ensuring poverty, unemployment and confiscation of their lands as a way of forcibly displacing them. Other researchers argue that  these geopolitical changes are currently being imposed in all areas of Ahwaz, not only Abu Shahr, and are not related to the economic situation, but rather form part of an Iranian geopolitical strategy (one common to all Iranian parties and political currents) to bring settlers to the region to live there, essentially in order to diminish and ultimately eradicate its distinctively Arab Ahwazi identity, culture and heritage. Meanwhile, the regime maintain a consistently hostile political, military, security and geographical strategy in international relations in any conflict or negotiation with the West, most particularly the United States, which threatens the stability of the region and further jeopardises the existence of the already oppressed peoples under Iranian territorial control, such as Ahwazis, under the pretext that all Ahwaz is Persian territory which is inhabited by an Arab minority (a similar strategy to  that used in the former Yugoslavia against the demographics of Kosovo and Bosnia and the same strategy currently deployed by China in Tibet and against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang).

Concept of Geopolitics

The concept of geopolitics is the study of the effects of Earth’s geography (human and physical) on politics and international relations. Geopolitics focuses on the political power linked to geographical space. Therefore, political geography or geopolitics is a science that sheds light on the nature of the relationship between geography and politics, acknowledging the significant influence of politics on geography and vice versa. Researchers in geopolitics believe that geography plays a central role in influencing the behaviour of states in their international and domestic relations. [2]

Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer of the eighteenth century, was one of the pioneers of the concept of geopolitics (political geography), who initially noted the crucial role of geography as a determining factor in the social life of people in their location. He likened governments to living organisms that must grow and adapt or die in the surrounding environment. Ratzel’s ideas had a profound impact on American, European and other Western nations in their geopolitical research and studies as these countries used this science in developing their states. Some researchers in the field of geopolitics, who are proponents of Ratzel’s ideas, also believe that geopolitics has a strong influence on the position of governments and states. As a result, these countries use economic strategies tailored to the characteristics and type of population living in each nation’s specific geographic area. [3]

Geographers note that natural factors, such as diversity in borders, access or lack of access to open waters, number of neighbouring nations and national standing in the international system are among the essential and influential indicators in the national, regional and international policy process – with these factors being interpreted as having geopolitical relevance.

Geopolitical importance of Abu Shahr

The Ahwazi province of Abu Shahr is a vital territory that could play a pivotal role in the Iranian geopolitical agenda due to the province’s status as a ‘bridge’ linking two parts of Ahwaz, namely Hormuzgan (south of Ahwaz) and Khuzestan (north of Ahwaz). Abu Shahr also has control of several islands in the Arabian Gulf, such as Kharj, from which 90% of the oil claimed by Iran is exported. Abu Shahr’s geopolitical location means it has 625 km of coastal borders on the Arabian Gulf, with the governorate being located directly across from Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. [4]  

Abu Shahr’s political and economic importance in the region is linked primarily  to its oil and gas wealth and secondarily to its status as a popular marine tourism location, with  both these factors giving the province geopolitical significance. In addition, due to its location in the centre of the Arabian Gulf, Abu Shahr plays an important role in controlling the transit of ships travelling towards the western and southern regions of the Arabian Gulf.

Jawad Al-Haidari, a researcher in international relations, believes that the Ahwazi province of Abu Shahr possesses immense potential to be a hub of vast and diversified economic power, in addition to its excellent geographical location. As a result of these factors, the province has great strategic, geopolitical, economic, cultural and recreational importance. Speaking with DUC, Al-Haidari explained, “Although Abu Shahr has eight ports, the main port of Abu Shahr is the third largest and most important port in Iran, and has strategic military and economic importance in Iranian calculations.” He added: “The borders of Abu Shahr with the Gulf play an important role in its importance for industrial centres on the southern borders of the Gulf.” He also revealed, “Abu Shahr is one of the leading Ahwazi cities in generating clean energy, especially offshore wind energy. More importantly, Abu Shahr is the most important energy centre for sources like nuclear energy in all of Iran. Hence, the Iranian regime has exploited these important factors to bring settlers to the area and develop the economy of the province for the sake of imposing geopolitical change in the region.”

Iran’s method in Abu Shahr’s geopolitical change

Al-Haidari emphasised that “Iran is using several methods to change the geopolitics of Abu Shahr province, including forced displacement, specifically the displacement of rural residents by destroying villages and building military bases and settlements.” Amongst other methods used by the regime to achieve this objective,  he cited “damaging the independent economy such as agriculture, fishing and livestock, dismantling the province between settlements, army and IRGC military bases, in order to change the demographics and militarise the province, because Abu Shahr links the north and south of Ahwaz and has a strategic location on the Arabian Gulf.”

One example cited by Al Haidari was Iranian security forces’ destruction of about 41 homes in the village of Ali Changi in the city of Rais Ali Dalwari in Al-Haram county (Tangestan) in Abu Shahr in January of 2020 to force rural residents to leave the area. [5]

The researcher further noted that “the central and western areas of Abu Shahr governorate have undergone more demographic change than the eastern areas, because the western areas are completely connected with northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan), with the largest population of Ahwaz living in the north.”  He cited other moves by the regime, saying “economic factors, on the one hand, and on the other hand, geopolitical factors, such as building nuclear power plants, air and naval bases, marine industries, oil and gas extraction, led to bringing a large number of settlers to the main cities in the governorate such as Abu Shahr, Tuj (Barazjan), Janabi (Ganawa) and Dilam.

According to official statistics, the population growth rate of settlers in Abu Shahr has grown steadily since 1966. [6] Thus, Jawad Al-Haidari said that “a factor such as the Iran-Iraq War pushed Iran to bring a large number of settlers to Abu Shahr governorate, particularly to the city of Abu Shahr.” Al-Haidari added that “after the liberation of important cities in northern Ahwaz, such as Muhammarah, Abadan and   Khafajiyeh, and the arrival of the Iraqi army near the city of Ahwaz, the capital, Iran sought geopolitical change in several areas, not just Abu Shahr. Now, Iran is attempting to change the demographics of all the Ahwaz islands in the Arabian Gulf and the city of Jemberoun (Bandar Abbas).”

Dr Imad al-Din al-Jubouri, a specialist in international relations, told DUC, “Iran has a different strategy for geopolitical change for each region. Iran often relies on sectarian penetration to establish a popular base affiliated with it in that specific area in order to enable its plan for geopolitical change.” For example, Iran brings settlers who have different sects and ideologies to the native population. The goal of this plan is to displace native people through marginalisation and impoverishment or change their national and patriotic beliefs until they become part of the Iranian project, with Iran using the same strategy in Iraq. Al-Jabouri noted that “there is no doubt that adopting the demographic change approach towards the indigenous inhabitants should be classified as a crime, and the international community must stand against this policy practised by the Iranian regime, whether against Ahwazis or Iraqis and Syrians.”

Social methods’ impact on Abu Shahr

Unemployment, poverty, displacement and forced migration through confiscation of lands, and destruction of the indigenous people’s heritage sites and local businesses are among the main forms of persecution used by the Iranian regime in Abu Shahr to incite settlers against native population, with many of the indigenous Ahwazi people in this region rich in natural resources suffering from horrendous poverty.

A statement issued by the Public Relations Committee of the Khomeini Relief Foundation in Abu Shahr, quoted Gholam-Hussein Karami, a lawmaker at the Iranian parliament, in a meeting with aid workers in the city of Abu Shahr, as saying, “Forty percent of the residents of Khormoj (Dashti) and Al-Haram (Tangestan) districts receive financial support from the organisation due to poverty and unemployment.” Karami pointed out that “this situation is unacceptable in the province of Bushehr because this governorate plays a major role in the production of national wealth, and citizens should not suffer from injustice in the distribution of resources.” [7]

Ahmad Lotfi, the Director-General of the Relief Commission in Bushehr Governorate, stated: “Sixteen percent of families in the province, which is equivalent to 8% of the total population of Bushehr governorate, receive financial support from a relief committee.” The senior official further revealed that “Fourteen thousand families were receiving financial support prior to 2017, but now that number has reached 43,000 families in the province,” adding, “In recent years, many young people in Abu Shahr have been suffering from poverty, which threatens the economic stability in the governorate.” [8]

Another regime official, Rasoul Rostami, the Director-General of the Office of Investment Attraction and Support in Bushehr Governorate, revealed, “in 2017 and 2018 the average unemployment rate in the province was 11.2% and 10.5%, and in the summer of 2019 the figure was 10.4%, and in January 2020 the figure reached 9.4%.” Rostami added that “Twenty-three percent of the urban population in Kankan suffer from unemployment in 2020, although the city has enormous economic wealth.” [9]

Iran’s strategy of building settlements in rural areas through forcing the indigenous population to leave and damaging their agricultural areas and heritage sites is among the regime’s most destructive policies to change the geopolitical situation in Abu Shahr governorate. According to Iranian regime reports, the regime seeks to build huge settlements around the city of Abu Shahr and to the east of the city of   Asaluyeh . While the population of the city of Sheikh Sa’adoun (Aali Shahr in Farsi), which lies 24 kilometres from the city of Abu Shahr, exceeds 30,000, the Iranian regime aims to bring 70,000 more settlers to increase the city’s population to 100,000. Meanwhile, by destroying more than 20 villages in Abu Shahr and Al-Haram districts, with a collective population of nearly 15,000 people, Iran’s regime is very clearly seeking demographic and geopolitical change in the belt of the city of Abu Shahr. [10]

The CEO of Omran Company, Ali Moqatli, has announced the design of a ‘new city’ in   Asaluyeh , saying: “This city, which is designed with an area of 2,000 hectares, will begin its infrastructure operations soon.” Moqatli noted that “the new city in   Asaluyeh , located near Bostano village in the northern part of the current city, was designed to accommodate 120,000 residents.”  The current population of the city of    Asaluyeh is under 15,000 people (this number does not include the population in the rural and urban areas elsewhere in    Asaluyeh county). [11]

Conclusion

The Iranian regime has already been able to some extent to change the demographics of Abu Shahr and Toj (Barazjan) in Abu Shahr governorate. The regime is also trying to change the demographics of other districts in the province in pursuit of the same political agenda. This confirms that the crises in the province cannot be settled through the use of economic strategies since the Iranian regime’s goal of geopolitical change in Abu Shahr is based on a purely geopolitical perspective. The Iranian project is a long-term endeavour which also targets the other Ahwazi territories, as well as having a damaging impact on economic, political and security stability in the wider Arab Gulf region.

If the geopolitical crisis in Abu Shahr were solely related to economic issues, the Iranian regime could have solved the crisis quite straightforwardly, but as noted above,  in reality this crisis has roots in Iranian political projects that target and aim to thwart Ahwazis geopolitically. For another example of this, although the Iranian Statistical Centre has not provided accurate statistics on the job opportunities created in Abu Shahr, a brief review of the employment documents approved by the provincial administration between 2006 and 2016 shows that around 50,000 jobs are created annually. By opening even one-third of these opportunities (around 17,000 job opportunities annually) to the indigenous Ahwazi people, the regime could create nearly 170,000 jobs for the people of Abu Shahr  within 10 years. According to the unemployment statistics in Abu Shahr, it can be concluded that this number of job opportunities would ensure jobs for all the unemployed people in the province. Despite this, however, a large number of citizens are still mired in often long-term unemployment which is at critical levels. [12]

There is no doubt of the clear correlation between geopolitics and economics in influencing the behaviour of states, so by changing the geopolitical reality of Abu Shahr, the Iranian regime aims to change the province’s economic structure. Thus, the regime targets the vast majority of the local economy in order to create a new economy to reflect and benefit the wishes of the Iranian regime. Through this policy, the regime also aims to separate the Ahwazi people from each other by severing the geographical contiguity between North and South Ahwaz.

In conclusion, the Iranian regime aims to affect the Ahwazi cause by changing the geopolitical reality of Abu Shahr. Despite Iran’s imposition of changes in the political geography of some cities in the region, however, the province is an integral part of the geopolitical map of Ahwaz. Hence, the entire Iranian regime’s agenda against Ahwazis is inconsistent with international law and international relations, because Iran targets international security by displacing citizens, destroying the components of society and sabotaging all the Ahwazi heritage. Iran also wants to target the security and stability of the Gulf region through its policy of Persianisation in Abu Shahr.

References

[1] Dur Untash, October 2019. Link <https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/4800/>

[2] The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Page: 5-8. Link <https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/196701/wp91-Geopolitics.pdf>.

[3] Imperialism and the nation-state in Friedrich Ratzel’s political geography, 2016. Link <https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.860.5660&rep=rep1&type=pdf>.

[4] CIA, 2010. Link <https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP85T00283R000600100007-4.pdf>.  

[5] Mehr News Agency, January 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/2SsVZpH>.

[6] Civilica. Link <https://civilica.com/doc/82855/>.

[7] IRNA News Agency, August 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/2GhqNa4>

[8] ibid

[9] IRNA News Agency, January 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/30i0583>. 

[10] PG News, 2016. Link <http://pgnews.ir/module/news/92263/>.

[11] Tasnim News Agency, 2018. Link <https://bit.ly/2SgJIVe>.

[12] Dur Untash, September 2020. Link <https://www.dusc.org/fa/drasat/7578/>. 

 

 

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