Iran’s stepped-up crackdown on the Arab minority

It seems, the Islamic Republic has stepped up its crack down on the Arab ethnic minority

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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Although there have been a considerable amount of reports, media coverage and scholarly debates about the marginalization, discrimination, and persecution of minorities such as the Bahai community in the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the less discussed minority groups that has received scant attention is the Arab ethnic group living in the country.

Arabs in Iran, which are among a number of ethnic minorities, roughly constitute three to seven percent of Iran’s population; translating to approximately two to five million people mainly living in the oil-producing Khuzestan province in southern Iran, which is also known as Ahwaz by the Arab community.

Arabs in Iran also live in other provinces, such as Bushehr and Hormuzgan. Most Iranian-Arabs are settled in the Khuzestan province, making up estimably 70 to 75 percent of the population in the province. Although there are common perceptions that Arab presence in Iran started during the Islamic conquest of Persia, Arabs have lived in Iran for much longer than that period.

In addition to the discriminatory laws practiced against the minorities— documented by Amnesty International and other human rights groups— the ethnic Arab community has also been subjected to disproportionate exclusion from economic, social, and political developments, along with systematically imposed Persianization, policies aimed at changing the ethnic makeup of Khuzestan province and Arab communities.

Oil-rich Ahwaz

Although Khuzestan reportedly represents about 85-90 percent of Iran’s oil production and is the main pillar of Iran’s economy and the government’s revenues, many Ahwazis live in poverty and don’t receive their equal share of pay.

According to Human Rights report, although most of Iran’s oil export comes from the Khuzestan province, a third of the urban population in Khuzestan lives in poverty, is poorly educated and suffers from malnutrition. Reportedly, the rate of unemployment among the Arabs in comparison to the national unemployment is rate, is much higher. In addition, despite the resources and wealth that Khuzestan has, the province still suffers from water shortages, electricity problems and sanitation issues.

Fundamentally, Ahwazi Arabs have been excluded from Iran’s economic development

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

More fundamentally, Ahwazi Arabs have been excluded from Iran’s economic development and the same prosperity derived from the region’s oil exports. The discrimination of Arabs is not limited to the province of Khuzestan, and has been documented in other major provinces such as Tehran and Esfahan.

Stepping up crackdown: systematic discrimination or isolated case?

Most recently, the news of an Iranian-Arab poet and human rights activist, Hashem Shabaani Nejad and others, who were hanged in an unidentified prison according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, took the spotlight in international news. Shabaani was from Iran’s Arabic-speaking ethnic minority, Ahvazis.

According to local human rights groups and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the charges against the 32-year-old poet were listed as being an “enemy of God,” spreading “corruption on earth” and threatening “national security.”

According to several news outlets, Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani ordered the hangings of the poet and human rights activist and his friends. He was arrested in early 2011 and spent his time in prison until his order of execution came.

The 32-year-old was popular due to his poetry, promotion of literature, and was the founder of the Dialogue Institute. In 2012, Shabaani appeared on Iran’s state-owned Press TV, and was forced to confess to “separatist terrorism,” according to human rights groups.

The crucial issue to draw on is that the recent increasing of cases of the execution of Arabs, or other current cases of discrimination against the ethnic Arab in Iran, are not isolated incidents devoid of institutionalized marginalization. These cases of discrimination are systematic human rights violations practiced by the Islamic Republic against the Arab ethnic minority.

Although the Iranian constitution guarantees equal rights to all members of religious and ethnic minorities, the Arab ethnic community have been repeatedly subjected to discriminatory laws such as, but not limited to, undue limitations on access to socio- economic, cultural-linguistic, property and religious rights, to name a few.

Unfair treatment

Amnesty International has indicated in its 2014 report that the Arab ethnic minority in the Islamic Republic has been frequently subjected to property confiscation, limitations on movement, rejection for state employment, arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, other methods of ill-treatments and egregious and unfair trials of political prisoners. More fundamentally, the number of executions has disproportionally affected members of the Ahwazi Arab minority in the Islamic Republic.

Other practiced violations of international laws, which also appeared in the case of the Iranian-Arab poet Shabaani, has been seen in the Iranian authorities refusal to inform the families of prisoners on the location of the prisoner and the judicial process, along with their rejection in handing over the body of the executed person.

This practice is considered to be a violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Based on the U.N. Human Rights Committee “persisting uncertainty of the circumstances that led to execution, as well as the location of grave[...] the complete secrecy surrounding the date of the execution and the place of burial, as well as the refusal to hand over the body for burial[...] have the effect of intimidating or punishing the family by intentionally leaving it in a state of uncertainty and mental distress.”

These recent reports reveal the disproportionate number of executions of Arabs every year, particularly after the latest protests. In the last year, the mass arbitrary arrests of Arab human rights or political activists, and the number of death sentences ordered in closed-door Iranian courts strongly indicate that the Islamic Republic has stepped up its crack down on and repression of the Arab ethnic minority, even under the presidency of the moderate Rowhani.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC, Harvard scholar, and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected]

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