This study focuses on the issues arising from petrochemical extraction and refinement in the Ahwazi territories, including the different types of extraction involved, as well as their impact on the coastal cities and the indigenous Ahwazi people.
We will also reveal the role of petrochemical companies in changing the region’s demographic makeup and the systematic displacement of the indigenous ethnically Ahwazi residents of these cities, in favour of Persian settlers transferred there from central areas of Iran. In recent years, the disparate levels of employment of Persian and other non-Ahwazi settlers in the region, even as Ahwazis suffer from chronic unemployment and harsh poverty, has become openly discriminatory, with companies now free to include ethnicity among job application questions.
This study, published by the Dur Untash Studies Centre (DUSC), which specialises in analysis of Ahwazi and Iranian issues, relies upon official data, published and recognised by Iranian regime institutions. These statistics include the number of companies and employees in Ahwaz and breakdowns of employee data according to Ahwazi and non-Ahwazi ethnicities.
This racist practice has grave deleterious effects on the regional population, adding to the oil and gas industry’s negative impact on the region’s environment, addressed in this report. This study will include statistical evidence relating to the level of pollution, and provide information on levels of skin diseases and asthma in these areas where the petrochemical companies and oil and gas refineries are concentrated and growing. We will also address the disproportionate number of deaths resulting from abnormal cancer infections, which in most cases result from the waste and environmental impact produced by these companies which have mushroomed in Ahwazi coastal cities.
Finally, in terms of methodology, we also rely on the immigration figures documenting the numbers of settlers travelling from central Persian areas to the Ahwazi cities and the Ahwazis forced by poverty and destitution to move elsewhere in Iran, with both caused by the discriminatory recruitment practices in the state-controlled petrochemical industry.
In the words of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahwaz is the ‘beating heart’ of Iran. The region’s natural resources, which are responsible for more than 80% of Iran’s mineral wealth, as well as accounting for much of its water supply and agricultural lands, are viewed as prize assets by the regime, along with it prime location on the eastern Arab Gulf coast.
The competition and conflicts among various nations and powers over fossil fuels that have marked territorial and other disputes since the discovery of ‘black gold’ at the start of the 20th century have never truly ended; although the various powers should have seen energy trade as a zero sum game and learned more effective and peaceful way of sharing these resources, instead since the earliest days, these resources have been a source of dispute among the peoples and colonisers, claiming the lives of millions of innocent people.
These conflicts continue up to the current day in the Middle East, with global powers still cutting cynical deals to seize the region’s oil and gas resources in exchange for protecting these regimes and tyrants that would likely fall under waves of popular dissatisfaction or due to tribal disputes if not for such foreign support.
Oil has been – and is still – a boon to some people and a curse for others, such as the Ahwaz region occupied by successive Iranian regimes, which have now been rapaciously devouring the indigenous Ahwazi people’s oil, gas and water for almost 100 years. This possession of resources led to mass oppression and discrimination of the Ahwazis by the Iranian regimes, which continue to this day.
In terms of natural resources, Ahwaz is or should be among the richest and most prosperous regions in the world. It possesses the third-largest oil reserves globally after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and the second-largest natural gas reserves behind only Qatar (which shares some of its gas reserves with Iran). It has also more than seven living rivers and underground waters plus the fishing resources and wells.
To justify the self-serving theft of these resources, successive Iranian regimes, including the Islamic Republic in power for the past 42 years, have sought to deny Ahwaz’s long history, ignoring or renaming the archaeological landmarks dating back to at least the 2000s BCE that show the indigenous people’s heritage.
The plunder and confiscation of Ahwazis’ resources and lands began with the era of the first Reza Shah Pahlavi, following the occupation of Ahwaz in 1925, with the region’s vast natural wealth used solely for the benefit of the newly constituted state of Iran. During the second era ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iranian authorities began ordering the establishment of petrochemical companies, oil refineries and related facilities, with the search for and theft of the region’s oil, gas and other lucrative mineral resources continuing to the current day.
These operations are concentrated in the coastal cities of Ahwaz overlooking the Arabian Gulf, such as Kangan, Bushehr and Asaluyeh, Ma’shour port, Khor Moussa, Abadan and others. The state-owned petrochemical companies operating in these regions make up nearly 90% of the Iranian regime’s investment in the petrochemical sector, plundering the region’s resources with no regard for the lethal environmental impact of the devastating and unchecked pollution unleashed.
A breakdown of the petrochemical companies in different Ahwazi coastal cities
The coastal port city of Ma’shour, is a maritime and coastal municipality containing docks vast enough to provide berths for the massive oil tankers used for import and export, as well as vast storehouses for foodstuffs such as wheat, corn and other staples which are then distributed across all the Iranian cities, to food-production plants and companies.
An Iranian-Japanese company, currently known as the Bandar Imam Petrochemical Company Ltd., was established in Ma’shour in an area covering approximately 270 hectares during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, five years before the current regime took power in 1974.
This was the first petrochemical company to be established wholly within Iranian territory. It was established in Khor Moussa following a massive operation to ‘reclaim’ an area of the bay by filling it with sand and cement, rerouting the previous channel running into the Gulf. From the beginning, this company produced primary chemical gases such as methane, propane, and cyanide, as well as liquids and alcohols such as ethanol, methanol, and other substances that are considered primary materials for the production of the first plastic material, or the so-called LD.
This company was not the only one established according to the plans of the late shah. Indeed, a group of subsidiary companies was established, obtaining their materials from this first massive company.
With Iranian industry not developed enough at that stage to establish and run an effective corporation of this size, Iran reached out to Japan offering it partnership in establishing a Japanese company on Ahwazi soil. After the Khomeini-led revolution of 1979, nothing changed as far as the indigenous peoples of Ahwaz were concerned, with the brutal state subjugation continuing in tandem with the late shah’s industrial projects, simply under new management. (1)
In a move typical of newly established despotic regimes, the Khomeneist regime terminated the contract with Japan, seizing the Japanese company after first confiscating the high-tech equipment. Thereafter, Turkey was invited to establish and lay the foundations for a new petrochemical company, the ‘Razi Petrochemicals Company’, to produce acids and ammonia. After this corporation was fully established, the contract was likewise terminated with Turkey and all the technological, industrial and scientific equipment provided by Turkey were confiscated. Thereafter, the Khomeini regime invited other countries to establish companies on Ahwazi soil, especially near Ma’shour and its sea.
As noted above, in order to transform the area for petrochemical exploitation and transfer, a massive part of the waterway and bordering land, covering an area of 2,500 kilometres, far larger than the city itself, was ‘reclaimed’ and filled in with cement. The number of petrochemical companies established in the city, including those mentioned above, reached 34, also including affiliated companies, such as Khawarizmi, Faraorsh, Pesparsh and others, in addition to the Marun Petrochemical Company and its two affiliates.
A number of other sizeable private and state-controlled companies are also based in Ma’shour, such as Abu Ali Sina, Amir Kabir, Fajr 1, Fajr 2, Karun, Khuzestan Petrochemicals, Fanavran, Regal, Arvand, Ghadeer, Farabi and others. Most of these companies’ production consists of acids and petrochemicals such as ammonia and related substances, sterilisers and disinfectants, alcohol, and raw and primary plastic materials. These materials are then sent to factories in the Iranian centre, such as Isfahan, Tehran, Yazd and other Persian cities for final production, export and distribution.
As we noted above, and as will be further detailed below, the toxic atmospheric pollution and pollution of the local environment and water supply from these companies’ operations has caused significant and long-term damage to the local population, which continues to be documented despite regime obstruction, and includes lethal diseases such as leukaemia, lung cancer and skin cancer, as well as conditions such as asthma; while these medical conditions are difficult to treat in the best of circumstances and with the best medical care and facilities, none of these features are available to the impoverished indigenous Ahwazi population.(2) Each of these companies daily burn tons of toxic substances from the production processes, with much more simply dumped into the Gulf’s waters, doing incalculable environmental damage. This is also devastating to the local marine life, with fish in the area poisoned by ingesting heavy metals such as mercury as well as oil derivatives; these in turn are passed on to the Ahwazi people in the area for whom these fish are a staple part of their daily diet, leading to further outbreaks of disease.
The city of Abadan is located in the northwest of Ahwaz. Sometimes incorrectly described as an ‘island’, it is a peninsula city simultaneously bounded by land, sea and river. Abadan is one of the ancient Ahwazi cities mentioned in poems by Abbasid era poets such as Abi Al Atahia, Ibn Zaidoun and others. The city of Abadan is notable for its palms and its fertile soil in which everything can be cultivated and grown easily. In the past, the city of Abadan and the surrounding area contained more than 6 million of the finest types of palm trees. (3) This verdant welcoming environment has been horrendously scarred, however, by vast atmospheric and other pollution caused by the belching sulphurous smoke and other toxic pollutants produced by the refineries there that work day and night. As though this were not enough, additional damage is caused by the city’s bitumen and plastic insulator factories, since this now-industrial city contains more than 200 factories in various industrial and petrochemical fields, which operated with no oversight.
Here, we pause to focus on the internationally known Abadan Oil Refinery, the first oil refinery in the Middle East, and the Abadan Petrochemical Company, one of the first companies, established by Britain during the time of the late Shah Mohammad Reza. It was established in 1970 and began to produce PVC product, without any significant subsequent pause even during Khomeini’s revolution.
The company was forced to suspend work during the Iran-Iraq war, due to a number of missile strikes that ultimately left it completely destroyed. This halted production for 20 years until it was rebuilt and production resumed with three produced outputs in addition to PVC, the burning sodium solution, and dodecyl benzene. (4)
The well-known oil refinery in Abadan was first built and established under Sheikh Khazal bin Jaber, the emir of Muhammarah, in 1912 in cooperation with Great Britain. At that time, the oil refinery’s work was, necessarily, far slower than it is today, being restricted by the primitive technology of the period. The refinery played a major role in World War II by manufacturing newly developed jet fuel for the Allies, which was critical for the operational deployment of Spitfires and other fighter aircraft across all theaters of operation.
The refinery saw its operations suspended during the Iran-Iraq war, losing a significant proportion of its equipment due to missile attacks. It was rebuilt following the war, with its refinement production subsequently reaching 400,000 barrels of oil per day. It remains the largest and most impressive oil refinery in Iran, and one of the largest such facilities in the world despite the passage of over a century since its establishment under the aegis of the Ahwazi sheikh who established its operation along with the British Empire.
In the past, Abadan only used to take its crude oil from the area near the Masjed Soleyman in northern Ahwaz, but now it takes crude oil from the fields of Dor Khwain, north of Falahieyeh, Masjed Soleyman, Gheyzaniyeh oil fields, with the oil refining process continuing around the clock in order to maximise production levels.
Bushehr, Asaluyeh and Kangan
We discuss these three cities jointly as they are not only geographically contiguous, but their Arab population follows the same religious doctrine. Despite amply documented efforts by the Khomeneist regime to convert them, up to 90% of the residents of the three cities continue to embrace Sunni Islam. Until roughly 10 years ago, there was not a single Shiite mosque, with the people living happily and in peace with each other and intermarrying.
These three Ahwazi cities are blessed (or possibly cursed) with a strategic geographic location, being are bounded by mountains to the east and the waters of the Arabian Gulf to their west, which lies on the Gulf’s eastern coast. Their Arab inhabitants are therefore referred to as residents of the eastern coast. (5)
The significance of their location lies in their proximity to the Arabian Gulf and therefore to nearby Arab countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Oman. This geographical juxtaposition is an additional asset on top of their gas and underground water resources; the relatively low population density and the fertile arable lands in the area previously enabled residents to grow everything there, with these benefits attracting the attention of the Iranian leadership.
Bushehr nuclear reactor for energy
More than fifty years ago, Iranian authorities turned their eyes to this coastal region and saw the Arab identity thriving there, along with the area’s connection to the Arabian Gulf and the huge swathes of land around the three aforesaid cities. The Iranian regime’s destructive efforts began with turning this region into a hub for favoured non-Arab settlers and major petrochemical companies, with the Shah’s regime establishing a number of companies with the help of European countries on the southern Ahwazi lands. (6)
The Iranian regime created its first nuclear reactor in Bushehr, with the orders for this project first issued by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1974.
The company initially manufacturing the reactor was German, which planned for the reactor to become operational in 1984. After the Khomeinist revolution, however, the reactor project was completely suspended until 1995 when the Iranian regime government signed an agreement with a Russian company, with the reactor becoming operational in 2011.
Bushehr Petrochemical Company
The initial phase of establishing this company began in 2010 on the orders of the then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This major firm was divided into three sections, one based in Bushehr, the second in Asaluyeh and the third in Kangan. The company was part of the massive South Pars project to extract various petrochemicals, established in concert with foreign companies.
The Asaluyeh part was completed and opened in June 2020 by the current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in the presence of a number of IRGC commanders. This company produces the raw materials refined by other state-owned firms established by the regime, with their products including gases, such as propane, butane, positive pentane, hydrocarbon sheets, methanol, acid, ammonia and other raw materials needed for the companies that utilise these raw materials in the production of PVC and plastic and chemical materials.
The establishment of the two remaining divisions will be accomplished within the next two years; although they had been scheduled for completion this year, the sanctions imposed by the US on the Iranian regime shackled the contracting companies and led foreign companies to withdraw from the project.
This was a severe blow dealt by the former US President Donald Trump to the Iranian regime authorities, which has not received adequate attention. The companies effected include Borzouyeh Petrochemical Co., Marun petrochemical complex, AmirKabir Petrochemical Co., Shahid Tondgooyan Petrochemical Co., Khark Petrochemical Co., Pars Petrochemical Co., Tabriz Petrochemical Co., Fanavaran Petrochemical Industries, Khorasan Petrochemical Co.,Tabriz Petrochemical Co., Isfahan Petrochemical Co., Kharg Petrochemical Co., Shiraz Petrochemical Co., Orumiyeh Petrochemical Co., Bu-Ali Sina, Shahid Tondgooyan Petrochemical Co., Fajr Petrochemical Co. (Phase. 1), Mobin Centralised Utility, Jam Petrochemical Complex, Pardis Petrochemical Complex, Zagros Petrochemical Complex, Morvarid Petrochemical Plant, Arya Sasol Polymer Co., Nouri (Borzouyeh) Petrochemical Complex, Abadan Petrochemical Co., Polica Nowin Industrial Polymers Co., Rahavaran Fonoon Petrochemical company, and VenIran Petrochemical Company (VIPC). This is in addition to Hemmat, Entekhab, Kavian, Takht Jamshid and dozens of other petrochemical companies and others producing oil and gas derivatives which we cannot separately quantify at this time.
Explosions and the dangers of annihilating life
Given their combustibility, petrochemical explosions present a constant and catastrophic risk, and may be unavoidable even in places with adequate safety and environmental oversight. A specific date for the first petrochemical explosion cannot be definitively determined as the Iranian regime has relied upon a Soviet-style policy of informational blackouts, prioritising secrecy and refusing to provide any details of its failures or even to admit them unless wholly essential. The first documented explosion is perhaps the one which took place at Razi Petrochemical during the Iran-Iraq war, a massive blast that left dozens dead and wounded. The Iranian regime alleged that it was caused by bombing conducted by the Iraqi Air Force, although the Iraqi authorities categorically rejected this allegation.
Another documented explosion took place in 2003 at Bandar Imam Petrochemical Company, where Ahwazi firefighters were killed in the blast and workers and technicians were maimed in the explosion, which threatened to blow up nearby nitrogen warehouses whose temperature was maintained at -25. Had the explosion reached those warehouses, it could have turned the nearby region arctic, with massive cancer outbreaks and other humanitarian disasters.
At the same company ten years ago in 2011, an explosion took place at the storage department which killed one and wounded four workers who later died at hospital due to the severe chemical substances to which they were exposed.
We can also note here the explosion at the oil derivatives warehouse in Bu-Ali Sina and the fire which raged for an entire week. The Iranian regime failed to put out the fire; instead the oil derivatives at the warehouse evaporated into the atmosphere due to the blaze until the fire died down and ultimately ended on its own.
At the time, Iranian state media outlets claimed falsely that they had been responsible for putting out the fire at one of the biggest oil derivatives warehouses, which left workers and firefighters suffering from skin diseases.
Here, it should be emphasised that we are only mentioning the most severe among these explosions. For example, a warehouse used for mutagenic materials at the AGENCY company’s factories saw a smaller blaze two years ago and Shahid Tondgooyan Petrochemical Company suffered a fire several months ago.
These fires are insignificant, however, compared to what happened in October 2020 at the Bandar Imam company, or the “ill-starred company” as the residents of Ma’shour call it due to the recurrent fires and explosions there. This explosion left several people wounded and suspended all local companies’ operations for days, with millions of dollars wasted due to the Iranian regime’s woeful mismanagement of even these localised crises.
Considering that the presence of oil refineries and petrochemical companies even over 100 kilometres from a city is potentially dangerous in itself, how much more grossly unsafe is it when the petrochemical company or the oil refinery is within the city itself? Such is the situation in Abadan, with the refinery, the Petrochemical Company, and the industrial zones containing 200 factories all located within the boundaries of the city itself.
The presence of these facilities threatens the lives of all Abadan’s residents, with the industrial zones constantly expanded and encroaching on the city’s boundaries. This means that such incidents have not been limited to the one explosion at the massive refinery or the other at Abadan Petrochemical Company during the Iraqi-Iran War, but have recurred at both firms, most notably in 2012 during a visit to the city by the then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was there to open the new expanded extension at Abadan refinery. A tremendous explosion took place when the refinery launched its operations, though not whilst Ahmadinejad was in the building, causing a fire which claimed the lives of a number of workers, with the poisonous gasses spreading, resulting in a number of deaths not only that day but later from the resulting lung diseases.
The explosion that day caused a tremendous disaster of a terrible magnitude. Even worse, experts had warned of the high probability of such a tragedy beforehand, with authorities ignoring the warning. According to statements issued by the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, Katouzian, all employees, experts and engineers specialising in this field had warned of the potential for an explosion that might well lead to a humanitarian disaster with the refinery being operated in these conditions.
Despite these warnings, however, the regime officials insisted on opening the refinery and launching its operations in order to appear in media to be ‘resisting the West.’
It was this misbegotten launch that led to the deaths of a number of Ahwazi workers and citizens from lethal burns and poisonous gasses caused by the foolishness and insistence of politicians and decision-makers.
Again, in early 2018, an explosion created a massive fire which wounded more than 20 workers and killed two others. Three workers who sustained critical wounds were taken to Tehran. The rest were taken to hospitals in Abadan and Ahwaz. After all these losses, no Iranian official, director or politician dared to disclose the details of the incident. Iranian regime authorities remained silent regarding the incident, stopping far short of holding accountable the perpetrators and those who caused the incident as well as those who acted negligently.
Bushehr, Asaluyeh and Kangan
Among the best-known explosions etched deeply into the memories of Ahwazis in the south is the massive one that took place in early 2009 at the Pardis Petrochemical Complex in Asaluyeh just after the vast complex had been opened by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The explosion killed more than five workers and wounded 20 others, with the resulting fire engulfing a huge part of the massive complex, leading to concerns of a far larger blast which could have been as disastrous as the Chernobyl disaster. The executive director of the company later revealed that the explosion was the result of a botched repair job on the gas pipeline in the complex, which ironically was carried out in order to prevent an explosion.
Another disastrous explosion, in the Kangan section of the Bushehr complex in 2019 resulted in massive fires whose flames rose 20 metres into the air. This time, the explosion took place due to a combination of a lack of technicians with specialist skills in gas transfer pipelines and a lack of proper organisation in transferring and suspending transfers on various gas pipelines connecting the industrial districts and companies. Mistakes like this have killed hundreds of innocent people. (7) &(8)
Many indigenous Ahwazis have warned that, given the vast quantities of toxic chemicals stored in the depots in the area, any explosion at one of these warehouses could wipe out entire cities; given the track record of the regime in reacting poorly, this is no idle fear.
Environmental damage and health ramifications
The constant atmospheric diffusion of the burn-off from methane gases mixing with the soot particles from the oil and gas flares by heavy industry in the city of Ma’shour has led to the city being recognised as the most polluted city in Ahwaz in recent years, and one of the worst polluted in the world. Of the 34 petrochemical companies operating in Ma’shour, only six have what is known as the ‘Green Paper for Environmental Health License’ certifying that their operations are within acceptable limits on environmental pollution. Calls for proper oversight and licensing, notifications and demands alike are ignored due to the widespread corruption and payment of bribes to the municipal officials of Ma’shour. These officials should be spending the public funds they receive on improving the city, establishing more green areas in it and cleaning up the dilapidated and woefully inadequate water system. Instead, the funds go into the officials’ pockets, along with bribes from the oil and gas companies, with the official attitude towards the choking pollution that blights local Ahwazi residents’ lives and wrecks the local environment being one of indifference. (9)
Petrochemical companies that discharge their waste products into the Gulf, meanwhile, can destroy the marine environment, annihilate the fields of coral reefs, kill marine life, and leave poisoned, dead water that is harmful and disruptive to the environment. (10)
The chief health officer in Ahwaz warned in a recent interview with Turkey’s Andalou News Agency that “These companies can have a massive effect on people, as these problems will cause humanitarian disasters if they are not addressed properly.”(11)
In the same report, the chief health officer revealed that more than 6,000 Ahwazi citizens are diagnosed with cancer in the region annually, with men accounting for about 53 percent of this number.
The most common types of cancer diagnosed among men in the region are skin cancer, lung cancer and bowel cancer, while the most common among women are breast cancer, skin cancer, leukaemia and lung cancer. In the past year alone, more than 10,465 Ahwazi citizens have died of cancer, of whom 4,906 died of cardiovascular disease, and 1,156 died from cancer, 206 from diabetes, and 480 from asthma and acute lung obstruction.
There is no doubt that rates of cardiac, pulmonary and cancer diseases are massively and disproportionately high in the region, affecting more than 60% of the Ahwazi population, almost wholly as a result of the petrochemicals found in Mashhour, Ahwaz city, Abadan and other Ahwazi cities whose location, geostrategic position, and rich verdant environment these companies have exploited and devastated.
In a recent interview conducted by the Iranian state news agency Voice of Abadan with Ahmed Mousavizad, the chief of the regime’s environmental health department in Abadan, the senior regime official indicated that the main factor responsible for polluting and poisoning the city’s atmosphere and killing off its once famed date-palm trees is the major oil refinery and petrochemical companies pumping toxic chemical substances into the air and water in the area round the clock.
He also reiterated that these entities do not cooperate with his agency or otherwise introduce even the most basic essential remedial measures to minimise pollution of the air and water and prevent citizens from being poisoned via ingestion of both.
These two state-owned companies don’t possess the environmental green licenses supposedly required by the government, as mentioned above, and do not otherwise abide by the regulations set by the World Health Organisation as recognised internationally, or any other environmental norms.
Mousavizad further noted that these companies have played a significant role in burning areas of papyrus bullrushes and sugarcane growing in the areas surrounding their facilities, as well as burning surplus goods and waste materials, dumping them into the adjacent Gulf’s waters or even jettisoning them in the city’s open drainage channels. He noted that these clearly environmentally devastating activities cause the spread of noxious gases from these highly toxic substances that significantly adversely affect citizens’ health, as well as atmospheric conditions. The official further revealed that measurements of the city’s atmospheric pollution levels show that these are more than 12 times the level defined as intolerably dangerous, making Abadan the third most polluted in the Ahwaz region behind Ahwaz and Mahshour, and leading directly to extremely high rates of asthma, cancer and other diseases.
In recent years, the overwhelming majority of rainwater falling on the city has been contaminated and poisonous ‘acid rain’, polluted by the industrial activities, leading to terrible effects on the human population, as well as on agriculture and farming in the area. Thousands of citizens continue to suffer respiratory crises following this toxic rainfall due to the rainfall bringing with it the corrosive acidic molecules from these facilities that had been suspended in the atmosphere. There is a cyclical affect to this; even while the air is being cleared by the rainfall, the companies continue to incinerate and dump the toxic substances and industrial waste around the clock, with the atmospheric pollution having a cumulative effect. For the indigenous Ahwazis, the regime’s refineries and affiliated companies add further insult to injury by first poisoning the environment via the oil and gas resources stolen from Ahwazis’ lands then refusing Ahwazis medical treatment at the hospitals set up by the state refineries and petrochemical firms which institute an openly racist ‘Persians-only’ policy, refusing treatment to the region’s native Ahwazi peoples.
As well as being plagued by cancer and respiratory diseases as a result of the refining and manufacturing operations, Abadan is also beset by other terrible diseases such as immunodeficiency and acute kidney failure, as a result of the ongoing contamination of drinking water by the oil and gas derivatives, oil residues, and waste materials from the production of companies and oil refinery which are pumped directly into the open drains or dumped in vast quantities, leaching into the groundwater and tainting the drinking water supply. This is caused by the companies’ failure to take even basic precautions such as covering open drainage outlets and treating waste materials using technical and scientific methods, exacerbated by the existing lack of any basic and appropriate infrastructure for drinking water purification and separation from the city’s sewage and drainage water networks.
This has led to the largest percentage of kidney failure cases in Iran being found in Abadan. (13) As noted above, Ahwazis are also deprived of receiving free government-subsidised treatment since they are ineligible for health insurance provided by the state-owned refineries and affiliated petrochemical firms to their employees. This grossly unjust situation has continued for decades without any effort by Iranian regime authorities to minimise the pollution from these facilities or to help the indigenous Ahwazi people and put an end to this injustice.
Bushehr Asaluyeh and Kangan
A shocking but little-known fact is that residents of Asaluyeh and Kangan are barred from donating blood due to the high prevalence of heart disease and other life-threatening conditions in the area caused primarily by pollution and poor living conditions. Residents should be monitored and receive constant medical treatment to prevent blood-clotting or other life-threatening conditions causing diseases including leukaemia, arterial blockages and heart attacks. (14)
In recent comments quoted by Tasnim news agency, Ferhad Qullinejad, the head of the regime’s environmental health body in southern Ahwaz, said: “The petrochemical companies’ establishment and concentration in the South Pars area and the noncompliance of these companies and petrochemical complexes with the basic criteria for accurate work and appropriate technical handling which causes no harm to the environment or climate is the reason behind the devastation and pollution of the air in Kangan and Asaluyeh. This poses a threat to the lives of humans and animals, and wreaks havoc on agriculture and plants too.” (15)
Changing the demographic makeup and granting jobs to migrants
Ever since first establishing petrochemical companies in Ma’shour, the Iranian regime has deliberately and systemically marginalised the indigenous Ahwazi people of Ahwaz, denying them even the most menial of employment opportunities at these facilities, instead granting jobs to Persian settlers brought in from the central parts of Iran. (16)
The regime has created entire settlements for these immigrant workers consisting of thousands of well-appointed housing units, providing a generous range of welfare services and virtually unlimited amenities to them to tempt people into moving there, including free housing, free restaurants, free schools and universities, as well as free welfare centres for both the companies and settlers.
According to the latest statistical study, conducted in 2016, the employees and officials of the petrochemical companies, ports, factories and government departments in Ma’shour are all Persian immigrants transferred there from central areas of Iran such as Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and other ethnically Persian cities. According to the last census, carried out 16 years ago in 2005, these settlers and their families now make up nearly 40,000 or one-fifth of Ma’shour’s total population of 200,000; this percentage has no doubt risen since then.
Those settlers enjoy all the facilities, services and welfare amenities denied to the indigenous Ahwazi population, who are effectively treated as fifth-class citizens and denied all rights, mimicking the British colonial model.
During an official event held on 6 January of this year, Mohsen Haidari, the representative for Ahwaz in the Iranian Supreme Leader’s ‘Council of Experts’, admitted that the Ahwazi indigenous population faces serious racial discrimination at the hands of the Iranian authorities. In his speech at the event, Haidari said, “There is an unacceptable level of discrimination against Arabs in Ahwaz. Although Arabs constitute the majority of the province’s population, they hold less than five per cent of the local management positions. In job interviews, when the interviewers check the identity card of an Ahwazi applicant and realise that the person is Arab they reject them. Young Ahwazis have started changing their names to hide their Arab identity in order to get hired.” This rare admission of the regime’s racism from a regime official reflects Tehran’s concerns over growing discontent among Ahwazi citizens and the increasing unwillingness to tolerate the regime’s systemic racism and injustice. (17)
Abadan was the first Ahwazi city affected by this demographic transfer campaign of resettlement almost a century ago, with this policy implemented, then as now, as part of a deliberate and well-planned erasure of its Ahwazi identity. The choice of Abadan as the template was no coincidence, with the city being widely known as a regional capital of Arab culture in the early 20th century; many contemporaries noted that, under Sheikh Khazal’s rule, Abadan was more cultured and far cleaner than the Persian capital, Tehran. Abadan was also adjacent to the regional capital Muhammarah, as well as enjoying a strategic location on a peninsula bounded by water from nearly all directions, at a point where the Gulf and the Shatt al-Arab meet, with the nation of Iraq, with which the autonomous emirate of Ahwaz had long enjoyed fraternal relations, on the other side of the river.
Another reason for successive Iranian regimes’ choice of Abadan as the first target of their demographic change policy was the presence there of the first oil refinery constructed on the orders of the Ahwazi then-ruler Sheikh Khazal with help from British engineers, as previously noted.
Following the 1925 annexation of Ahwaz and the departure of the British engineers from the refinery, the Shah implemented the first effort at instituting demographic change in the region by importing more than 2,000 Lor and Bakhtiari Persians, known for their venomous anti-Arab bigotry and animosity. Both these groups embrace a hardline anti-Arab worldview which states ‘Arabs are our enemies whatever they are, and wherever they exist’.
In the aftermath of this campaign, prominent Persian poets and writers of the period including Ebrahim Golestan, Ferough Farkhzad and others, were dispatched to the city to reshape its culture in a new ‘Persianised’ image.
These cultural ethnosupremacists published numerous works concerning Abadan, changing its name and garlanding it with titles celebrating its supposedly Persian character, such as the ‘pearl of the Persian Gulf’ as well as addition to changing the Arabic names of the city’s neighbourhoods and adjacent villages to Farsi. This was accompanied by mass displacement and expulsion of the city’s indigenous Arab population, the destruction of Arab cultural centres and the killing of prominent and distinguished Ahwazi cultural figures such as the chairman of Saadet Party, Haddad Kenani, who was burned alive along with his wife in their home by Iranian forces. (18)
These brutal policies did not change in subsequent decades or following the 1979 revolution, which simply changed the oppressors’ identity from secular monarchy to totalitarian theocracy. Indeed, following the outbreak of the Iraqi-Iranian war in 1980, under the guise of evacuating the city to thwart Iraqi military control, the Iranian authorities began moving local Ahwazis to central and northern provinces of Iran while simultaneously ensuring they would never return by appropriating their devastated homes for government ownership. These forcibly displaced Ahwazis were then left to live in wretched conditions as internally displaced refugees in the northern cities of Iran.
In tandem with this forced displacement of the indigenous Ahwazi people, Iranian regime authorities also ratcheted up what might be called a demographic transfusion, replacing the displaced Ahwazis with ethnically Persian citizens after the war ended in 1988, granting all reconstruction projects to Persians, and ignoring the Ahwazis who lost all their possessions and were the only group adversely affected following the bloody war.
If we want to analyse the origins of the debate concerning the current role of the oil refinery and the affiliated petrochemical companies in changing the demographic makeup of Abadan, we could note that more than 80,000 non-Ahwazi immigrants now live in Abadan where they occupy the most senior positions, administrative and government posts as well as the management of companies and the huge industrial zone in the city.
This gives the Persian settlers the final say over all decision-making in the city, in line with the Iranian regime’s wishes, leaving the remaining indigenous Ahwazis wholly powerless and largely living in grinding poverty, with no say over their own city, leaving them to the whims of Persian officials, who issue orders and make ultimate decisions.
Bushehr, Asaluyeh and Kangan
The presence of the petrochemical refineries and affiliated manufacturing firms, as well as the creation of dozens of new companies currently under construction in south Ahwaz, especially in Bushehr, Asaluyeh and Kangan, have made these cities attractive for ethnically Persian migrants who’ve fled their own increasingly barren lands for well-paid jobs and homes created at the expense of Ahwazi locals.
The cities of Bushehr, Asaluyeh and Kangan and the Gulf islands will house some of the largest settlements for Persian immigrants in the near future. This will lead to a radically severe change in the region’s culture as well as in its demographic makeup, which will be turned upside down. Most of the vast state-owned petrochemical and other companies in these cities currently employ between 5,000 to 10,000 people, with some employing even more; all of these workforces are ethnically Persian. Many currently live in specially built barracks and living quarters allocated to them, while the state oil company, an affiliate of the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum, is constructing more Persian-only settlements to house these personnel.
Given the regime’s fundamentalist theocratic nature, it should be no surprise that Iranian authorities also prioritise sectarianism, focusing on recruiting Shiites in all state offices (which is to say all official bodies) in this largely Sunni region, building Shiite mosques, along with offices and other facilities for the state’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated Basij (plainclothes militias) personnel in all the aforementioned regions in order to obliterate the Ahwazi Arab identity of this region.
Nearly 80% of the migrants are from the Lor and Bakhtiari ethnicities hostile to Arabs and Ahwazis and known for their vehement anti-Arab animus, as noted above. (19)
Conclusion and Recommendations
There are several points to take away from this study introduced by the Ahwazi Dur Untash Center for Strategic Studies. Although this study is somewhat lengthy, the points it raises are simply the tip of a vast submerged iceberg, showing only a minute part of the sufferings of the Ahwazi people and the marginalisation and discrimination exercised against them through the Iranian state’s attempts at cultural annihilation; these also include Orwellian Persianisation projects meticulously planned by the Iranian regime’s Persian language institute that merit separate reporting.
It is safe to conclude from decades of copious evidence that the Iranian regime’s central plan for the Ahwaz region’s indigenous Arab people is to obliterate them or subsume their Ahwazi identity, expelling them to Persian areas and replacing them with ethnic Persians in order to undermine and annihilate Ahwazi resistance. This is being carried out in addition to projects that wreak environmental havoc on the ecosystem in Ahwazi territory, which are noticeably not extended to Persian areas of Iran, with the most virulently anti-Arab regime loyalists recruited to manage these initiatives. The regime also builds settlements in order to demographically minimise the remaining indigenous residents in and around Ahwazi cities, especially in Mahshour and Abadan. (20)
These practices are being actively carried out on an accelerating basis in southern Ahwaz, particularly in Bushehr, Asaluyeh and showing only a minute part. The only way for Ahwazis to confront these openly racist policies, according to experts, is to absolutely reject them and to strongly resist this effort to break the indigenous people, breaking the barrier to employment in these companies and thereafter campaigning to see their relatives and friends appointed to work with these companies. They should also express visible resistance in the face of discriminatory Persian employment policies and shame the Persian workforce for participating in such injustice, making it clear that Ahwazis reject these efforts to silence their voices, more especially on the future of their own lands, and demand their long-withheld rights. This can happen only through relentless efforts, prolific knowledge and a constant, well-defined and agreed objectives.
Ahwazis should unite to take advantage of the social media platforms and media outlets which have made the world a global village where all people can reach out to one another in a matter of seconds. Ahwazis could document and disseminate information about the crimes, discrimination and profoundly racist practices perpetrated by the Iranian regime against the Ahwazis in all aspects of life whether in the field of employment, housing, food, welfare, medical treatment, insurance, private hospitals or cultural centers, all of which are reserved for Persian immigrants.
In conclusion, no weapon is more powerful than the human voice, than culture and cultural resistance; these are the only weapons which Ahwazis possess, and they cannot abandon these, whatever the cost.
The need to resist the Iranian regime’s efforts to eradicate Ahwazis’ identity, culture and lives is made all the more pressing by the regime’s recent signing of a multibillion-dollar 25-year bilateral cooperation agreement with China, strengthening their longstanding political and economic alliance, which will see the Chinese regime helping its totalitarian allies in Tehran to further crush dissent. Amongst other features of the new agreement, it’s understood that China will help Iran to exert even greater control over cyberspace, with a high-ranking Iranian regime insider, Mahmoud Navabian, quoted by Iranian state media in early April as saying “It is very important for us to be able to establish control over our cyberspace with the help of China.” (21) & (22), (23) & (24)
The next step in this resistance movement must be to expose the regime’s thoroughly racist practices to the world before it can create its new ‘facts on the ground’ in Ahwaz and pursue its efforts to obliterate Ahwazis’ heritage and very existence.
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
DUSC and the author would like to thank Ruth Riegler, Irina Tsukerman, and Aaron Meyer who made valuable contributions to this paper.
Sources and references
1: DUSC, Ahwazis’ Silent Suffering in The Shadows of Iran’s Petrochemical Pyramids. Link: https://www.dusc.org/en/%d8%ba%d9%8a%d8%b1-%d9%85%d8%b5%d9%86%d9%81/5167/
2: DUSC, Rising cancer rates compound the suffering of Ahwazi children, link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9298/
3: Academia.edu, Iran’s Systematic Environmental Destruction is Genocide Against the Ahwazi People. Link: https://www.academia.edu/44577306/Irans_Systematic_Environmental_Destruction_is_Genocide_Against_the_Ahwazi_People
4: Center for Free and Special Economic Zones> Free Zones> Arvand, Link: https://web.archive.org/web/20111116083631/http:/www.freezones.ir/Default.aspx?tabid=96
5: DUSC, Geopolitics, natural wealth give Ahwaz strategic importance in international equations. Link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9573/
6: DUSC, Ahwazi region is facing slow extermination like Chernobyl, Three Ahwazi provinces (Abu Shahr, Khuzestan and Hurmozgan) Suffer From Iran’s Nuclear Negligence. Link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9438/
7: Radio Farda, Explosion in Bardis complex in Asaluyeh. Link: https://www.radiofarda.com/a/2118623
8: Nipna (Wednesday, March 5, 2017) Report on the explosion in Bushehr chemical industrial company. Link https://www.nipna.ir/fa/newsagency/20324
9: https://www.eghtesadonline.com, Energy-Section-9/336561-The-center-of-the-petrochemical-industries-of-the-country-lacks-a-green-document-Mahshahr-Petrochemical-Industries-holds-a-record-receipt-of-environmental-warnings -Khuzestan Eghtesadonline. link: https://www.eghtesadonline.com/بخش-انرژی-9/336561-قطب-صنایع-پتروشیمی-کشور-فاقد-سند-سبز-است-صنایع-پتروشیمی-ماهشهر-رکورددار-دریافت-اخطاریه-های-محیط-زیستی-خوزستان
10: BBC Persian, How serious is the pollution of natural resources in Mahshahr with mercury? Link: https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-50700575
11: Anadolu Agency, 25 January, 2017. Every year, 6,000 people in Khuzestan, Iran, get cancer. Link https://www.aa.com.tr/fa
12: The Voice of Abadan. Refineries and petrochemicals are the main cause of air pollution in Abadan. Link: http://www.sedayeabadan.ir/headlines/9546-
13: IRANIAN JOURNAL OF CRITICAL CARE NURSING (IJCCN) Journal 1988 Shamsi. Causes of chronic renal failure in hemodialysis patients in Abadan Link: https://www.sid.ir/fa/journal/ViewPaper.aspx?id=102139
14: Deutsche Welle in Persian, it is forbidden to use the blood donated by the people of Assaluyeh. The people of Assaluyeh say they are not allowed to donate blood. The officials blamed blood transfusion for the outbreak of malaria in the area, although it has been eradicated for years. But experts say air pollution in the area has entered the bloodstream. Link: https://bit.ly/3uaqems
15: Tasnim News Agency of Iran, citing the head of environmental health entity in southern Ahwaz https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1398/03/24/2031953
16: DUSC, Ahwaz Demographic Change Project – Settlement and Housing for Non-Indigenous Peoples. link: https://www.dusc.org/fa/drasat/9315/
17: Padmaz, Official confessions: Arabs are seriously discriminated in Iran. Link: https://padmaz.org/en/?p=268&
18: Ahwaz Culture website, Hamed Kenani, We should not forget the history of great Ahwazi men. Link: https://bit.ly/3taEZnR
19: DUSC, Qais & Jessem Islands: The latest Ahwazi targets of Iranian security policies. Link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/7595/
20: Alef Analytical New: Annoying Discrimination in favour of non-natives at the expense of the rights of local residents in the city of Bandar Mahshahr and its surrounding areas Links: https://www.alef.ir/news/3980926060.html
21: DUSC, The Geopolitical and Security Impact of the Iran-China Agreement. Link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9652/
22: DUSC, Iran-China agreement impact on domestic, regional environment Link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9672/
23: DUSC, The Iran-China agreement’s impact on the regional and global economy, link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9680/
24: DUSC, The Iran-China agreement’s devastating impact on the Ahwaz region. Link: https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9684/