Iran’s Arabs take to the streets in weekly protests
London - Iran’s Arab Ahwazi minority has re-emerged into the spotlight after anti-government protests over the past two months.
Arabs make up the majority of the country’s resource-rich, south-west Khuzestan province, whose capital is Ahwaz City.
Mass protests kicked off in February over electricity cuts, water shortages and pollution in the region, with demonstrators chanting “Clean air is our right. Ahwaz is our city” and “Death to tyranny.” Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps forces were sent from central Iran to quell the unrest.
Politicians responded to the demonstrations with mixed messages. Some called the protests a “national threat” and others urged for an improvement in residents’ standards of living.
Since the beginning of March, Ahwazis have been having protests about environmental conditions every Friday.
Security forces opened fire on protesters in Shush, north of Ahwaz City, shooting a 24-year-old man in the legs before arresting him. Other arrests have taken place in the region, where protesters have reportedly been sentenced to up to six years in prison for alleged violence.
“These peaceful protests effectively serve as a countermeasure to the central government’s iron-fist rule and under-reporting of the disaster in Iran’s state-controlled media,” said Mosa Zahed, the executive director of the Britain-based Middle East Forum for Development.
“If the government contemplates that somehow the dissatisfaction and concerns of the residents of Khuzestan will magically evaporate through the intensification of oppression, it is badly mistaken,” he said. “An environmental disaster is looming which will necessitate Tehran to brace itself for an increase of these protests.”
Reports by the World Health Organisation ranked Ahwaz City as the most polluted city in the world.
Reports indicate that the region provides about 35% of Iran’s water and electricity and locals blame the draining of the region’s wetlands for electricity outages. Residents said draining wetlands led to dust storms that cause the electricity grids to fail, which then causes water supply cuts.
On February 2nd, designated World Wetlands Day, the UN Development Programme resident coordinator in Iran, Gary Lewis, tweeted: “As wetlands dry out, one problem is dust and sand storms. Now major problem in Iran.”
Iran has chosen to blame Iraq for the problem. Masoumeh Ebtekar, head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organisation, said the dust storms originate in its neighbour country and called on Iraq to spread mulch over its deserts. Ahwazi demonstrators are demanding Ebtekar resign.
Environmental concerns are only part of the Ahwazis’ grievances. They have insisted on adopting the province’s historical name “Arabistan” to stress their ethnic identity, which they say Tehran is trying to erode.
Since the region’s annexation in 1925, “the Ahwazi people were deemed to be second-class, unwanted Arab citizens and were immediately subjected to daily institutionalised and codified racism and persecution,” said Rahim Hamid, a human rights activist who is a co-founder of the Ahwaz Monitor website.
Iran’s revolution in 1979 did little to alter the way Tehran treated the Ahwazis, who sought to secure more rights for Arabs and opposed the theocratic velayat-e faqih ruling ideology of then leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s, despite mostly sharing his Shia background.
In 2005, there was an armed insurgency and calls for separatism but the violence was quickly brought under control.
Even Iranian opposition groups have shown little solidarity with Ahwazis, with most having the same racist attitude as the regime, Hamid said.
While speaking Arabic is permitted by the Iranian constitution, and secondary school students take an Arabic course once a week, authorities have cracked down on Ahwazis speaking the language in public, as well as wearing traditional Arab dress, Hamid added.
Investment in the region is so scarce that the scars of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s have still not been repaired. More than 40% of Ahwazis are unemployed, with poverty at about 70% in the province’s major cities. Ahwazis also have the highest suicide rate in Iran.
The Ahwazis’ grievances stand in sharp contrast to the region’s natural wealth: It supplies 90% of Iran’s national oil production as well as one-third of its petrochemical and steel output. If the Ahwaz region were an independent state, it would be the world’s third largest producer of oil.
Despite seeing the situation in the Ahwaz region as “dreadful”, Kamil al-Boshoka, an Ahwazi international law researcher at Birkbeck, University of London, said he found cause for optimism.
“The protests have achieved several major things,” he said. “We found sympathy from international organisations and Arab political supporters, media coverage on the Ahwazi case, and Western institutions have begun to contact Ahwazi politicians and human rights activists.”
Hamid said that a lack of attention from the international community has given Iran a “free hand” in Ahwaz. He hopes that will change.