Middle East transfer: The continuing Iranian persecution of its Ahwazi Arab population

By Nir Boms and Roee Nahmias, Henry Jackson Society,

6th September 2007


  • Over a million Arabs have been deported from the district of Al-Ahwaz, home to some eight million Arabs, in Southern-East Iran, near the Iraqi border. They have been replaced with Persian Iranians.
  • Human rights activists in this area have been arrested and placed in detention centres. Detainees have been subject to torture and at times execution.
  • As part of a broader Iranization policy, the teaching of Arabic is forbidden in Ahwaz while it is compulsory for students to learn Farsi.
  • This process is leading to greater Arab discontent in the region along with the Arabs associating Iran’s “imperialism” with that of Israel and the United States.
  • There are regional repercussions to the Farsi-Arab tensions. Clashes recently erupted between Iranian military forces and ethnic Arab Iranians who are calling for an independent state in southern Iran. Hussain Shariatmadari, presidential aide to president Ahmadinejad suggested uniting neighboring Bahrain with its “motherland” Iran. The Baharenis, on their part responded in furious demonstrations demanding the “liberation of Ahwaz” from Iranian occupation.
  • Iran’s belligerent posture towards its neighbors and Arab population echoes a dark European past of WWII. It is natural that an autocratic regime, lacking human rights values will manifest the same approach in its foreign policy vis a vis neighboring states.

There is a non-Arab country in the Middle East which, according to Western and Arabic media, has been deporting tens of thousands of Arabs from their homes while building new settlements to fill with non-Arabs – all in an attempt to change the demographic composition of its region.

Under the framework of an organized government plan, this country has been oppressing Arabs, violating basic human rights, detaining women and children, and expropriating farmlands for the newly constructed settlements.

If you thought that this is yet another report on some events in Gaza or the West Bank, you may wish to think again. This phenomenon is taking place in the district of Al-Ahwaz, a province of 43,000 square miles in southern-east Iran, near the Iraqi border, which is home to some eight million Arabs. Ahwaz was an autonomous Arab territory until 1925 when it was conquered by Persian General Reza Khan, later a king of Iran. Since 1925, Ahwaz has been under tight Iranian control – and for good reason. Al-Ahwaz has the second largest oil and gas reserves in the world with reserves of over 40 billion barrels of oil and 210 billion cubic meters of natural gas.

Recently, Karim Bani Sa’id Abadiyan, the chairman of a human rights organization from the Al-Ahwaz district, offered a rare view in light of the Iranian regime taking great pains to conceal embarrassing facts from the media. In an interview to the liberal newspapaer, Elaph on July 19, 2007, he described a gradual transfer and said that in the past eight years the Iranian government has deported some 1.2 million Arab residents, replacing them with 1.5 million non-Arabs.

The newcomers, mostly Persian Iranians, moved into new government-constructed settlements in the region. The UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization – a NGO dedicated to minorities an indigenous people) claims that the confiscation of Arab-owned land by the Iranian government has been a stated policy since 1925 but that the last decade had seen a rapid implementation of an actual transfer. The NGO stated,

“The Arabs who live in Al-Ahwaz are at the lowest of the low (in Iran),” says Abadiyan who added that in the past year 131 human rights activists were executed and thousands more put in detention centres. On Jan 24, 2007, Amnesty International confirms the “alarming rate” of executions in the region and notes the recorded verdicts of Ahwazi detainees that included “execution, cross amputation [amputation of right hand and left foot], crucifixion for three days and banishment.”

While teaching Arabic in Ahwaz is banned, the study of Farsi is compulsory in every school, which is a part of a broader Iranization policy. This process is causing an approximate 30% drop-out rate from grammar schools, 50% out of middle schools, and 70% out of high school. The de-Arabization of Ahwaz is reinforced by poor living conditions in Ahwaz. UNPO adds that the quality of the drinking water and irrigation water in this area is poor due to an inadequate sewage system and industrial contamination. Reaction to these policies has led to the development of a resistance movement. A local editorial in the newspaper Arabistan described Iran as, “an imperialist country, just like the United States and Israel.” Pictures and caricatures compare Ahmadinejad with Americans, Israelis, and the Nazis. Internet sites even carry pictures of “the shahids (martyrs) of the intifada (popular uprising) against Iran,” which is the name given to the Al Ahwaz uprising.

Recent tensions led to a crisis between the Iranian government and the Qatari news network Al-Jazeera. In April 16, Al-Jazeera reported that clashes broke out between Iranian military forces and ethnic Arab Iranians who are calling for an independent state in southern Iran. The network further reported that three Arabs had been killed and many more were injured during brutal confrontation with Iranian military in the southern province of Khuzesta. Teheran, angered with that sort of media coverage and decided to suspend the network’s activity in the country (which has resumed in the meantime).

But this last episode did not interfere with a new Farsi-Arab dispute over another piece of land. The recent attempt to generate tension between Iran and the Arab world was led by Hussain Shariatmadari, presidential aide to president Ahmadinejad who suggested uniting neighboring Bahrain with its “motherland” Iran. Writing in an Iranian newspaper, Shariatmadari alleged that Bahrain was separated from Iran based on an agreement signed by the former Shah and the US and British governments – an agreement that is no longer valid. The Baharenis, on their part responded in furious demonstrations demanding the “liberation of Ahwaz” from Iranian occupation.

While the people of Al Ahwaz prepare to commemorate 83 years of occupation, Iran just sentenced two more Ahwaz women to death by stoning. Other countries can only hope to get better treatment from Iran than that it gives its very own citizens.

Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Roee Nahmias is the Arab Affairs Correspondent of the Internet Daily YNET.

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