Analysis - Political Transformations

Ahwazi Issue

Why is Iran worried by Arab Ahwazis' demands?
Monday، May 11، 2015
Ahwazi Issue

For the past nine decades, Arabs have been ignoring the highly critical national issue of Ahwaz Region to the degree that the Iranians now think this region is their legitimate right, not even an acquired right. This has been the case since 20 April 1925, when the British occupation authorities plotted to hand over the Arab Ahwaz[i] territory which is blessed with huge natural resources to the Iranian occupation which has been exercising all kinds of pressure and oppression against the Arab population of this region after it changed its name to "Khuzestan".

From time to time, an issue would break out to confirm once again that the Arab Ahwazis continue to reject the reality and the Iranian flag imposed on them which inflicts division and marginalization on their region. The Iranian state continues to neglect development in the region although it holds the biggest share of the Iranian state's resources and assets.

In March, the same old issue took a new shape and the Iranians' reaction was oppressive as it used to be. Iranian security forces cracked down on football fans for chanting pro-Arab slogans and waving the flags of Saudi Arabia and Ahwaz at an Asian championship League qualifier between the city’s state-owned Foolad FC and Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia. The region was rocked by anti-Iranian protests when Iran's security forces killed one of the fans. Violence and wide protests widened to seize the cities of the region which has a population of around six million Arabs. A total of three persons were killed during the protests and more than 1600 were arrested. The Iranian intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, visited the city of Ahwaz to meet tribal leaders in a bid to contain the crisis.

The massive protests came one week after similar demonstrations in Mohammarah[ii]  City when hundreds of Ahwazis took part in the funeral procession of Younes al-Asakirah al-Al-Kaabi, a street vendor who had set himself on fire in protest of the Iranian authorities' confiscation of his fruit and vegetables car and destruction of the stall which was his only source of living.

The Ahwaz Issue: Historical Facts

This region is known in Arabic under the name "Ahwaz", plural of the name "Hawz" and derived from the verb "Haza (past) and Yahuz (present)", which means appropriation. This name simply designates the right a person actually exercises over a territory.

It dates back to the period when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and divided it into provinces. The Arabs of this region reassembled themselves in an independent department they called "Ahwaz", in reference to the properties owned by the various tribes therein. Later on, the Persians named a part of this region Khuzestan during the reign of the Sassanid Empire. After the Muslims conquered Persia, the whole region became known as Ahwaz. But during the reign of the Safavid dynasty, Khuzestan was called Arabistan (The land of Arabs). Before that, that is between 637 and 1258, Ahwaz was part of the Islamic Caliphate until the Mongol invasion. Later on the Arab Moucha'chi'ins established their state and their rule of the region from 1436 to 1724 was recognized by both the Ottomans and the Safavids.

Later on, the Arab Bani-Kaab tribes established their independent state, the Al-Kaabi State, which ruled between 1724 to 1925. In the 1880s, the Karun River was dredged and re-opened to commerce. A newly built railway crossed the Karun at Ahwaz. The city again became a commercial crossroads, linking river and rail traffic. The construction of the Suez Canal further stimulated trade. A port city was built near the old village of Ahwaz, and named Bandar-e-Naseri in honor of Nassereddin Shah Qajar (1848– 1896). Sheikh Khazaal Al-Kaabi ruled Ahwaz from 1897 to 1925 and changed the name of the city to Al-Nasseriyah.

After 1920, the British started to fear the increasing power of the Arab Kaabi state and had an agreement with Persians to remove the Prince of Arabistan (Ahwaz) and annex the region to Iran. One night in January 1920, the British forces arrested Sheikh Khazaal Al-Kaabi and detained him onboard one of his ships (Sheikh Khazaal remained in prison in Tehran till his death on 26 March 1936). In addition, Ahwaz, with its capital city, Muhammarah, became the center of dispute between Iraq and Iran, especially after the discovery of oil in Abadan City in the early 20th century.

In 1937, as Ahwaz continued to be a disputed region between the two countries, the successive governments of Iraq and Iran went into negotiations and signed a treaty to settle the dispute over control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. In 1969, the Iranian abrogation of the 1937 treaty marked the beginning of a period of acute Iraqi-Iranian tension that was to last until the Algiers Accords of 1975 was signed between Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran and Saddam Hussein, then-vice-president of Iraq who abrogated the accord during the Iraq-Iran war which lasted between 1980 and 1988.

Since the Persian army entered Muhammarah City in 1925 in a bid to remove the Al-Kaabi state and consolidate Iran's control on Ahwaz, Iranian authorities have been pursuing a systematic policy to wipe out the Arab identity of the Ahwazi Arab people. This policy includes changing the demographics of the region by bringing in non-Arab people and changing the Arab names of cities, towns and rivers, forcing Arab Ahwazis out of the region through oppressive security measures and continuous crack down on Ahwazi activists, and even buying the loyalty of some Arab tribal leaders.

The Iranians knew that the Ahwaz issue would be a long-lasting one because the Ahwaz region holds 70% of Iran's oil resources in addition to natural gas, minerals and fertile agricultural lands. Accordingly, the Ahwaz region is of immense strategic and economic significance to Iran. Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami even said once that "Iran lives on Khuzestan."

Iran's concerns about the Ahwazi quest for independence

The Ahwazi quest for independence remains a source of growing concern for the Iranian regime because of the ethnic diversity of the country where, in addition to Arabs, the mosaic includes Persians, Azeris, Kurds and Baluchs and others. Each of these ethnic groups retain their own traditions and culture that have extensions beyond the Iranian border. In addition, several organizations are seeking to restore the national gains that these ethnic groups lost in different historical eras, including the Arab national identity of  Ahwaz where relevant organizations run active political arms beyond the control of the Iranian regime. The activity of these organizations are well-received by human rights groups interested in championing the causes of minorities suffering oppression in home countries.

Iran's concern emanates from the fact that raising such issues negatively impacts the stability of the state, its unity and territorial integrity. The continuity of the Ahwazi movement and difficulties hindering the Iranian regime's attempt for suppression will tempt other ethnicities to follow suit. This is particularly important because the state in Iran used to praise the "Islamic" revolutionary regime for its stability, strength and ability to assimilate and accommodate for all the country's ethnicities, despite the fact that such events and their aftermath stand in stark contrast with the claims that the  Iranian regime is attempting to promote.

This is being further affirmed by senior Iranian officials. These officials blame the interference of Iran's foreign enemies for instigating ethnic strife as part of "conspiracy theory" mantra that the Iranians are good at promoting whenever they seek to mobilize the support of the crowds for the regime on the pretext that the state is facing external threats to its very existence.

This was made clear by a special adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a press conference on 9 May 2015 in Tehran. Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi accused "17 regional and trans-regional intelligence services affiliated to the Arab and western states” of running operations “in support of ethnic separatist groups to sow discord among the local people” in the south-western province of Khuzestan (Ahwaz). The top Iranian military aide expressed his concern that the ongoing war in Syria and Iraq would spill over to "Khuzestan" endangering the territorial integrity of Iran. On 2 September 2014, Friday Imam of Ahwaz city, Ahmed Reza Hajati, stressed that 35 intelligence services run operations in the province. The cleric's claims show how concerned the Iranian regime is about any movement in this region (Ahwaz), and also show that its concerns are persistent and not associated with a particular happening.

Issues fueled by the Ahwazi movement

Despite Iran's continuous attempts to bury the pro-independence Ahwazi movement both inside and outside Iran, the practices of all Iranian security services in Ahwaz are backfiring badly. These practices are further increasing the already growing discontent of the population, a situation that will eventually lead the Ahwazis to continue their quest both internally and overseas. Several Ahwazi organizations and groups are operating in some European countries and are affiliated with regional and international human rights organizations that help counter Iran's violations of the Iranian-Arab population rights.

It is impossible for the Iranian regime to succeed in eradicating the Arab Ahwazis' demands and therefore it should pursue objective and more realistic approaches to the issues facing the region and its population. This is particularly important because the persistence of the current situation would lead to real foreign interference regardless of the question of whether or not Iran's claims about foreign intelligence operations seeking to escalate the situation against the regime in this region may be valid.

No doubt, with time, the persistence of the Ahwazi movement will consequently encourage similar movements in other Iranian provinces, Sistan and Baluchistan and Kurdistan in particular, where the population also suffer marginalization and deprivation.

[i] Ahwaz territory located in the southwest portion of present-day Iran and east of present-day Iraq, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Shatt al-Arab.

[ii] Mohammarah is the city’s historical name that Arab Ahwazis insist on using, but the Iranian state calls it Khorramshahr.

Keywords: IranAhwazi