Every year hundreds of Ahwazis are arrested for dissent; those ‘lucky’ enough not be executed or sentenced to death on the basis of forced confessions extracted under torture are invariably sentenced to lengthy prison terms often for decades.
The former Chief of Police for Ahwaz, Haidar Abbaszadeh, recently announced that the regime’s security services arrested around 1,250 Ahwazi accused of involvement in “separatist activities” between 2017 and 2020. Since this figure comes from the regime itself, however, the real number is likely to be far higher.
Iran’s regime routinely uses several charges against Ahwazis, with supposedly credible international media unquestioningly and uncritically repeating the details given in the regime’s press releases, despite its widely acknowledged history of imprisoning dissidents, never reaching out to Ahwazis or other dissidents to ask about these cases, further helping the regime to slander the already oppressed Ahwazi people and devalue their just cause for freedom and human rights.
Unfortunately, like Tehran’s efforts to impose demographic change in Ahwaz, this is not a new development or one limited to the current totalitarian regime. Since the formerly autonomous emirate was first annexed by Iran in 1925 under the rule of the then Shah, successive Iranian rulers have denied the rights of the indigenous Ahwazi population, changed the original Ahwazi names of towns, cities, villages and geographic features to Persian alternatives, and encouraged immigration by ethnic Persians in a bid to change the demographic balance and eradicate the region’s distinctively Arab character.
Among the other measures pursued by the previous Iranian regime under the second Pahlavi era, after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took power, the regime stripped many Ahwazi farmers of their lands, handing their lands to Persian migrants, a huge number of whom come from Yazd province. They also seized the Al-Khaledieh area on the banks of the region’s Karoon river, whose name was changed to Keyan Pars, meaning ‘the Persian entity’, building a massive settlement there.
A central factor in this policy which Iran consistently attempts to deny or downplay is the overt anti-Arab racism and Persian supremacism promoted and leveraged by successive totalitarian regimes in Tehran as a tool of oppression; in Persian music, poetry, literature and contemporary culture, Persians are representatives of the ‘Aryan’ master race. Meanwhile Arabs are routinely depicted as backwards barbarians and uncivilised savages in contrast to the supposedly more enlightened and civilised Persians, whose imperial history is presented as the height of cultural attainment; tellingly, this racism and glorification of an imperialist past largely finds no criticism from the ‘anti-racists’ and ‘anti-imperialists’ of the West. This fascistic bigotry affects every area of Ahwazis’ and other Arabs’ lives in Iran, with a ‘No Arabs’ policy routinely used by estate agents in letting property and ‘No Arabs’ signs seen outside doctors’ or dentists’ practices.
This supremacist mindset has enables successive regimes in their efforts to deny the fundamental rights of Ahwazis and other minorities who collectively make up more than 50 percent of Iran’s population; with Persians encouraged to view Ahwazis and other minorities as lesser beings whose lands and resources are automatically the property of the ‘superior’ Persian people by virtue of this ‘inferior’ ethnic status, generations of Persians have been raised to believe that this is their birthright, with many emigrants to Ahwaz from Persian areas of Iran enthusiastically enlisting with regime intelligence, security and military forces to continue this legacy of oppression in which they are the beneficiaries.
This supremacism extends to every area, with all education and media apart from those in the Farsi language proscribed in open violation of international law. Meanwhile, the indigenous Ahwazi people’s distinctive Arab culture, heritage and language are reviled and defamed as signs of ‘separatist insurgency’, with Ahwazi academics, writers, poets, artists and activists who commemorate, celebrate and continue Ahwazis’ millennia-old Arab culture routinely arrested and imprisoned on fabricated charges.
One of the best-known regime groups promoting this overtly racist policy in Ahwaz on the regime’s behalf is ‘Ban Iranist’, an affiliate of the regime’s intelligence services, whose members espouse and glorify the supposed innate superiority of the ‘Aryan’ Persian race in a manner that would be familiar to any Western scholar of fascism, while championing Iran’s regional expansionism which they view as a reclamation of the Persian empire that they revere.
When journalism becomes an intelligence tool
In the West, it’s largely still taken for granted that journalists will strive for independence and credibility in their reporting, checking facts and ensuring the reliability of their sources and claims. In free nations, journalists will go to great lengths for the sake of ensuring truth and pursuing justice, ‘speaking truth to power’.
For media in Ahwaz, as in the rest of Iran, unfortunately, this kind of journalistic integrity has no place, with news media being simply one more tool of the regime.
All the news agencies licensed to work in Ahwaz are affiliated with the regime’s intelligence services, with the Ministry of Intelligence ministry defining the issues to be covered and how they should be reported. These media outlets essentially act as regime mouthpieces, assisting the intelligence services by reporting false accusations as fact and justifying the regime’s vicious policies, rationalising its brutality and routine executions and slandering Ahwazis in order to falsify events and mislead the public.
Even worse, due to the lack of any free and independent media – ruthlessly suppressed by the regime – many people believe these mouthpieces of the totalitarian state.
For one example, these state media outlets never discuss or even acknowledge the existence of Ahwazi history and culture, of the region’s long heritage of poetry, literature and music, instead relentlessly promoting the message of Persian supremacism and glorification of the regime and of Persian historical figures.
The regime’s intelligence and security agencies and the aforementioned extremist groups and media outlets which they control work closely together, coordinating to quickly quash any nascent organic movement promoting or raising awareness of Ahwazi culture or history. This process is like a relentless form of cultural ethnic cleansing.
The history of accusations in Ahwaz
Iran began its historical revisionism, erasure and denial of Ahwazi history and culture virtually from the first moment of annexation in 1925 when Reza Khan’s forces first stormed the emirate and colonised it for Iran. Ever since then, the Ahwazi people have been subjected to relentless persecution and an Orwellian denial and rewriting of the past and present in which their heritage is expunged from the history books which have been rewritten to claim that Ahwaz is simply a separatist fantasy. Those who resist and speak out for freedom are persecuted and imprisoned. Even the Ahwazis’ native Arabic language is deemed a threat to this revisionist history, with Tehran imposing Farsi-only education and outlawing Arabic in schools and even punishing the indigenous people for wearing their traditional characteristic Arab garb.
According to successive Iranian regimes’ totalitarian worldview, allowing any political or cultural freedom in the regions and nations annexed by Tehran will lead to insurgency and defiance from the oppressed peoples, with the rulers in Tehran ruthlessly crushing any popular movement in their effort to prevent rebellion.
From the start of this annexation in 1925, unarmed protesters were simply gunned down, with many indigenous Ahwazis feeling that armed rebellion was the only means of resisting the brutality of the Iranian forces. Even armed insurrection provided little protection, however, with Tehran mercilessly retaliating against any expression of resistance or desire for freedom.
For example, if any armed resistance group attacked Iranian army forces in the region, the army would retaliate with unspeakably vicious massacres of the local civilian population, killing all or most of the residents – men, women and children – of the nearest village or neighbourhood.
In order to further impoverish and punish the surviving indigenous Ahwazis, many of whom were farmers or rural smallholders dependent on growing their own food and rearing sheep or cattle, Iranian army forces would storm their farms and homes, killing or stealing their livestock and destroying their crops. After many such incidents, resistance fighters opted to leave the inhabited regions, moving to the forests and marshlands where they could hide out. Even then, they were relentlessly persecuted and hunted down by Iranian forces, with Tehran demanding absolute slavish subjugation of the colonised peoples.
Successive Iranian regimes have employed every means at their disposal in order to continue to destroy the assets of the Ahwazi people. The biggest danger in the eyes of these rulers past and present lies in Ahwazi cultural figures – writers, poets, artists – and political and humanitarian activists who continue to resist Persian supremacism and to embody a spirit of freedom. For this reason, successive rulers have worked to crush and eradicate Ahwazi culture, imprisoning and killing generations of activists and cultural figures, with only the Ahwazis’ indomitable spirit of resilience ensuring that these efforts have been unsuccessful.
Successive rulers and regimes have used different but similar tactics in their efforts to delegitimise and slander Ahwazi figures and justify their murderous persecution. These include:
Tehran’s use of this false allegation against prominent Ahwazi dissidents first became widespread in the 1940s and continued through the 1970s. The useful vagueness of labelling every dissident as a ‘wanted fugitive’ meant it was deployed by the Shah’s infamous SAVAK secret police and security services constantly, reaching its peak in the 1960s. This allegation was usually used on its own without other charges such as having external links with foreign entities or receiving covert support from regional powers. Those accused of being wanted fugitives were routinely subjected to extrajudicial killings or sometimes to sham trials in military kangaroo courts whose verdict – invariably execution – was pre-decided
Among the leading Ahwazi figures labelled as ‘wanted fugitives’ was the resistance icon Hatem bin Jaloush nicknamed ‘Hatteh’. Newspapers in Tehran reported on him on a daily basis and he was massively popular, meaning SAVAK single-mindedly hunted him down. Another prominent Ahwazi resistance figure who faced the same charge was Adeir al-Bustan.
Most of those accused of being ‘wanted fugitives’ were subjected to extrajudicial assassinations, often during car chases by regime forces.
The charge of being ‘Nasserist’ was attributable to the popularity at the time of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who gained fame and renown among Arabs across the Middle East for his charisma and his revolutionary stance against colonisation, a stance with which Ahwazis identified strongly.
The Iranian monarchy’s relation with Egypt’s republic regime worsened after Nasser took power, with the Egyptian government attempting to influence the entire Iranian population, including the Ahwazis.
From SAVAK’s perspective, labelling Ahwazi dissidents as ‘Nasserists’ was a way to justify the persecution and arrest of indigenous Ahwazis, fabricating charges of collusion with Nasser’s government to justify brutally persecuting and imprisoning Ahwazi resistance figures and cultural activists who were once again subjected to sham trials whose verdict was a foregone conclusion.
As with all dictatorial regimes, Iran’s rulers have always sought to create an imaginary enemy in the collective mind of the people, then to accuse dissidents and resistance leaders of collaboration with this enemy; while the enemy changes periodically, the technique remains the same. The Shah’s regime continued using the ‘Nasserist’ allegation against Ahwazis from the period when Nasser first rose to prominence in Egypt up till his death. These accusations were always subject to political variables in the region, especially relations with neighbouring states. Among the prominent Ahwazis executed during this period were: Mohyeddin Al-Nasser, and Dehrab and Eissa al-Mazkhour.
This accusation was among the toughest allegations made against Ahwazi prisoners. When the Baath Party first seized power in Iraq, relations between the regimes in Iraq and Iran deteriorated, with the regime’s state-controlled media seizing the opportunity to build this into another imaginary enemy. As a result, the Iranian monarch created the Rastakhiz Party, a literal Farsi translation of ‘Baath Party’, a false copy of the entity had emerged in Syria and Iraq, in order to suggest that dissidents were conspiring to introduce Baathism to Iran.
The Iranian leadership’s announcement of this party’s formation (though not, obviously, of its own part in this) was successful in creating a hostile atmosphere against the Baathist regime in Iraq via arousing the sectarian sentiments of the Iranian people through regime-affiliated clerics who repeated the regime’s script.
The regime of the time was deeply concerned about the potential influence of the Iraqi Baath Party on the Ahwazi people, especially since Ahwaz shares a land border and a long history of alliance and cultural proximity with the Iraqi people. For this reason, the Iranian regime’s intelligence services focused heavily on Ahwaz and the borders, with SAVAK harshly cracking down on any imitative group or movement emerging in the region, especially in the Ahwazi cities bordering Iraq, particularly Muhammarah and Abadan.
The most prominent of the Ahwazi figures assassinated by the regime over accusations of collaborating with Iraq’s Baath Party was Sheikh Faysal Hazirat, with the regime killing him and all his family members, including women and children, in a village on the outskirts of Khafajiyeh city shortly before the 1979 revolution.
Accusing Ahwazi and other dissidents of membership of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e-Khalq (PMOI/MEK) first became a favorite allegation of the clerical factions in the midst of the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah’s oppressive and unjust monarchy, which was used to justify the arrest of many of those demanding their long-denied rights and freedoms. As a party promoting Marxist theories of class struggle advocating a modernist interpretation of Islam, both of which were antithetical to the hardline conservatism of the theocrats who formed the Islamic Republic, the PMOI was quickly declared persona non-gratis by Ayatollah Khamenei’s new ‘Islamic Republic’ regime.
Most of Iran’s peoples, including minorities were supportive of the revolution which was driven more by strong anger at decades of injustice than by political rationalism, meaning that they accepted the mass arrests and revolutionary trials of hundreds of prisoners, even though the ‘revolutionary courts’ which both issued and carried out the verdicts were a mockery of justice – as they still are.
The allegation of PMOI membership or affiliation has been used by the regime to justify the killing of countless dissidents and political and cultural activists, as well as freedom campaigners in Ahwaz, remaining the regime’s favorite charge against dissidents and protesters for many years and still routinely being used even now.
The people executed on this charge are too many to count, with executions being carried out arbitrarily and without official or recorded trials. Unlike the previous allegations, this charge has not been confined to Ahwazis, but is used against all non-Persian dissidents.
As the term suggests, this charge is clearly linked to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. This accusation was a standard charge against Ahwazis by the end of the 1980-88 Iraqi-Iranian war, with the mobilisation units of the Iranian regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) pursuing such cases zealously, assisted by state-run media, which ran numerous campaigns against Saddam Hussein, ‘the unbeliever’.
The regime doesn’t present the conflict with Saddam Hussein’s regime as a political engagement, but depicts it in sectarian terms in order to inflame sectarian sentiments particularly among the poor who are bombarded with sectarian rhetoric constantly, partly to deflect attention from the regime’s failure to keep its promises to the people.
In reality, Saddam’s rule simply led to different kinds of torture then execution, with no desire for any such affiliations amongst Ahwazis on the ground. Despite this, the regime employed the accusation of Saddamism to conflate Ahwazis and all Arabs with its adversary and to justify its region of fundamental rights for the Ahwazi people.
This once again showed the ability of the Iranian regime and its media mouthpieces to take advantage of any political variables in the region at a given moment to serve its own agenda and support oppression.
Sometimes the regime employs these accusations or links alleged activities to regimes, groups or individuals who could be condemned by the international community in order to justify its own violence towards anyone supporting Ahwazis’ rights for freedom and social justice.
In the late 1990s, the Iranian regime’s courts began punishing Ahwazi cultural and political activists on charges of being ‘separatists’. These rulings were utterly unjust and monstrously disproportionate, with most of those accused of separatism receiving death sentences. This charge was always accompanied by another allegation, namely undermining national security of Iran.
At this point, Iranian state media began attempting to link these activities, real or imagined, to global, not regional, powers. In most cases, Ahwazi activists are accused of being linked to Western countries, primarily the USA, despite the fact there is no significant support for the Ahwazi cause from any of these countries.
As usual, however, facts don’t matter to Tehran, which finds these allegations against Ahwazis useful in winning domestic support from Persian Iranians who are predisposed to believe the worst of Arabs due to the aforementioned anti-Arab racism.
The moral crisis within the Iranian cultural system has been clearly exposed for those paying attention to these issues, especially when they see Iranian/Persian characters side with the regime which call those activists separatists instead of independence seekers. It is true that the result is the same despite semantic difference. However, the word independence has undeniably positive and progressive connotations while separatism, which invariably receives a negative response, is always related to people who refuse to engage in the political process which is a right for all the people. In reality, independence is nothing to do with separatism, with Ahwazis simply wanting independence after almost a century of repression.
This accusation, which is used widely by various Iranian clerics and proxies, surfaced after the political differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran became apparent, with the IRGC using this charge to arrest any activist involved in any political or cultural activities in Ahwaz.
Ironically, while it is easy to find Ahwazi activists who have sporadically been detained and tortured on accusations of being Saddamist, separatist, PMOI-affiliated or Wahhabi, it’s impossible to find any who actually belong in any of those categories, with these charges simply serving as devices for the regime, devoid of any truth or political or cultural coherence. This doesn’t matter to the media whose task is to guide the people on which imaginary enemy is this week’s hate figure. This can clearly be seen by the way in which the regime’s former enemy, Saddam Hussein, was quickly replaced by the Iraqi people.
The accusation of Wahhabism became popular with the regime after 2007 and continues to be used to the present day alongside charges of separatism. Many activists have been tried on this accusation of supposed Wahhabi affiliation, although there is no Wahhabi component amongst Ahwazis. However, as pointed out above, reality is not something that troubles the regime, which simply uses whichever regional variable suits at a given moment to vilify and abort any movement for social justice in Ahwaz and to justify the crushing of freedom.
With the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic Republic of Iran found another tool with which to slander Ahwazi activists and members of the Sunni community in Ahwaz, with hundreds arrested simply for their status as Sunnis.
The greatest irony in the regime’s using allegations of ISIS membership against Ahwazis or any other innocent peoples is that the Iranian regime itself is far more akin to the terrorists of ISIS and al Qaeda than any of the innocents it falsely accuses. Indeed, the Islamic Republic and Islamic State simply mirror images of each other, two poisonous expansionist extremist theocratic entities bent on global domination, grievously abusing faith and vilifying freedom and democracy to create loathsome regressive totalitarian states on a foundation of misogyny, sectarian hatred and inhumanity bolstered by bigotry and insane conspiracy theories. Both the IRI and ISIS can only maintain power through oppressing terrorising and murdering their victims, with both regularly vilifying, demonising and threatening to destroy the USA and Israel.
In the end, we can only hope and pray that, for the sake of Ahwazis and the peoples of the Middle East and the world, the so-called Islamic Republic will go the same way as the so-called Islamic State and their totalitarian predecessors in evil, disappearing down the sewer of history; when that day comes, the Middle East and world will finally see the start of a new progressive era of long-denied democracy, freedom and justice for Ahwazis and other oppressed peoples yearning to breathe free.
By Rahim Hamid and Ruth Riegler
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Ruth Riegler is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom, democracy and human rights who previously lived in the Middle East.