ANALYSIS: ‘Ethnic restructuring’ behind Iranian oppression of Ahwazi Arabs

Tony Duheaume

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Already, the streets of Khuzestan (previously known as al-Ahwaz until it was annexed by Shah Reza Pahlavi’s forces in 1925), are seething with discontent, as hundreds of demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest against the conditions they have been forced to live in.

But such is the ordinary Iranians disgust of the way that Ahwazis are being treated, many have already taken to the streets of Tehran in their support, and even though the Basij militia have been sent in to quell these peaceful demonstrations, there are signs that the regime is in trouble.

With the clerical administration of Iran, its political decisions are often ruled by their racist attitude toward ethnic minorities. But even so, the terrible oppression being rent upon the Ahwazi population cannot be put down to the government’s religious beliefs alone, as many Ahwazi Arabs are Shiite Muslims.

Having to suffer constant crackdowns by this oppressive regime, countless numbers of local Ahwazis have been forced from their land and relocated to other areas of the country. On the other hand, many non-Persians have also been forced to convert to Shiism to enable them to find work and feed their families, as the Iranian administration discriminates against Sunnis or other ethnic minority groups in the job market.

So looking at the Ahwazi situation as a whole, the “ethnic restructuring” of their land is not just aimed at belief alone, there are also racist connotations, due to the fact that true Ahwazis are ethnically Arab.

As far as those living within the confines of al-Ahwaz is concerned, the proof is most certainly there as far as ethnic discrimination is concerned, as it is highlighted in the regime’s continued attacks against the Ahwazi Arabs. With an ongoing campaign of “ethnic restructuring”, the regime has been destroying Ahwazi culture by banning the Arab language from all publications, which includes place names on maps. By following a program of intimidation, the administration is also said to be employing kidnap, arrest and torture as tools to control all forms of dissent in Al-Ahwaz.

Pollution and poisonous residues

But there are also other serious issues concerning the treatment of Ahwazis, especially the terrible incidents of pollution that are taking place across the region. Rivers have become heavily polluted, as chemical plants pump poisonous residues into them. The Bandar Iman petrochemical plant has caused an environmental catastrophe, and with the pollution lowering fish stocks, it has seriously affected the livelihoods of Ahwazi fishermen.

There are also serious incidents of pollution occurring from the storage and use of chemical and biological weapons materials connected to the Iran/Iraq war, which are known to be linked to many outbreaks of disease in the area, and there have also been large incidents of premature births, as well as babies born with serious neurological diseases and deformities.

So with local hospitals being barely adequate in terms of equipment, numbers of doctors, and sufficient medicines to cope with even the minor of ailments, all due to government underfunding for the area, the death rate of patients is also unacceptably high.

Due to the amount of pollutants ravaging the region, Ahwaz, the capital city of Khuzestan, has earned the dubious title of being the world’s most polluted city, as thousands of its citizens have suffered from breathing difficulties due to the severe contamination.

The Iranian government has consistently tried to blame dust storms for the problem but with so much heavy industry in the area, pumping pollutants skyward, as well as the question of extremely arid air, which has been caused by the destruction of the marshes, and heightened by the vast dam construction that had been taking place, the Tehran administration had little room to argue as to who was the main instigator of these health issues.

Iranian rescuers clean the scene of a bomb attack in Ahwaz where a scheduled visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been cancelled at the last minute, 24 January 2006. (File photo: AFP)
Iranian rescuers clean the scene of a bomb attack in Ahwaz where a scheduled visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been cancelled at the last minute, 24 January 2006. (File photo: AFP)

The landmines

Then there is also the issue of landmines, which still haven’t been fully cleared since the Iran-Iraq War, that effect thousands of acres of farmland, and with a multitude of these explosive devices laying undiscovered, it isn’t surprising that hundreds of Ahwazis have died or been severely injured after coming into contact with them.

This issue has been dealt with to a certain extent by the government, by the hiring of unemployed Ahwazi youths, who are so desperate for work, they take part in mine clearing details, and having been given totally inadequate equipment for the work, many are killed or suffer horrific injuries.

Even though Al-Ahwaz is an oil rich province, a third of its urban population live in appalling poverty, around 50 percent of children in Arab populated areas suffer from malnutrition, and with lack of medical services dire in the area, there are no doctors to come to their aid should they fall seriously ill, and something like 20 percent of deaths are among children.

With the Iranian government virtually blocking education to non-Persians, there are hardly any schools in the villages, and the children of the poor have to travel to the city for education on a daily basis, which is close to impossible for many. But even with these high levels of illiteracy in the Ahwazi community, the regime has plans to build 3,000 schools in neighbouring Iraq.

Shanty towns

Many Ahwazis living in urban areas are forced to live within the confines of shanty towns, where there is virtually no plumbing, and a shortage of fresh drinking water, electricity and sanitation. Just to add to the misery, the Iranian authorities have introduced ethnic segregation, constructing walls to divide the poorer Arab districts from the more affluent non-Arab neighbourhoods, which is just another example of the ruling mullahs doing their utmost to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Arabs living in Al-Ahwaz.

There is nothing the Iranian government wouldn’t do to thin out the Arab population. So besides physically forcing them from their land and resettling them in other provinces, other ways that they have found to be very effective over the years in keeping any opposition subdued, include torturing to death, forced disappearances or the hanging of young men in street executions for crimes they did not commit.

Academics, bloggers, journalists, who have leanings towards dissent, and any others likely to influence the general public, are among those often finding themselves at the end of a hangman’s rope, sentenced to death for encouraging others to speak out against the mullah administration.

So when you consider that those making up the main core of Iran’s government, have made their careers from murder, having been tied into various forms of mass killings, and the assassination of dissenters since the 1980s, their violent excesses in directing further murder and mayhem across Ahwaz isn’t surprising at all.

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