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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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The Forgotten Arabs of Al Ahwaz: A Century-Old Struggle for Liberation from Iran

Filed under: Iran

The Forgotten Arabs of Al Ahwaz: A Century-Old Struggle for Liberation from Iran
Protest by Ahwazi Arabs in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels in February 2017 (Kom News)

Every year on April 20, the Ahwazi people mark the loss of their homeland, Arabistan, which means “the land of the Arabs,” an autonomous emirate that for centuries was ruled by Arab tribes. In 1925, the Persians invaded Arabistan, and by brutal force, they implemented measures to erase the Arab identity of Arabistan and change its ethnic composition.

Following the Persian invasion, Arabistan, or Al Ahwaz, as the Ahwazi people call it, was divided in 1936 into several provinces; Khuzestan, Elam, Bushehr, and Hormozgan. The regime in Iran started a resettling program, incentivizing ethnic Persians to move to Al Ahwaz. Today, Khuzestan is the only province that remains populated predominately by Ahwazi Arabs, the descendants of the Arab tribes who lived in this region for centuries.

Map of Iran and Ahwaz
(The Arab Weekly)

Al Ahwaz’ location is highly strategic: it shares borders with Iraq and the area surrounding the Persian Gulf and Shatt-Al-Arab [literally, “Arab stream”] at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.1

The population of Al Ahwaz numbers between 8-10 million. They are ethnic Arabs who have endured almost 100 years of systematic persecution and cultural discrimination under the Shah’s and the Ayatollahs’ rule. Al Ahwaz is home to the third largest oil field in the world, yet its people, the Ahwazi Arabs, are marginalized and poor.2

The Arabic language is banned in schools, peaceful protests are brutally suppressed, and tens of thousands of Ahwazi civilians are lingering in prisons, with many being tortured and executed without a fair trial. Karim Abdian, director of Virginia-based NGO, the Ahwaz Education and Human Rights Foundation, said that his people have endured “political, cultural, social, and economic subjugation, and treated as second and third-class citizens. An Ahwazi Arab cannot even give a child an Arabic name. It must be either Persian or the name of one of the Shiite imams. So, this nation, which owns the land that currently produces 80 percent of the oil, 65 percent of the gas, and 35 percent of the water of Iran, lives in abject poverty.”3

Iranian security forces committed heinous crimes in Al Ahwaz, including “abducting political activists’ female spouses and sisters, raping them to break the spirit and the will of those activists, who finally give up. On several occasions, the Iranian regime also planted bombs in public locations so that they could propagate against our peaceful political struggle and stigmatize our just political fight as terrorism. They use the opportunity to catch and arrest Ahwazis without charges.”4

Shockingly, the plight of the Arabs of Al Ahwaz hardly features in the international media, and many people around the world don’t know much about their very existence. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) spoke to Mr. Methaq Abdullah, the leader of the Renaissance Pioneers Movement for the Liberation of Al Ahwaz. Abdullah told JCPA, “The answer starts with a century of Persian ethnocentric propaganda and a general lack of knowledge about the peoples of the Middle East across the world. It’s just easier for less-informed people to assume that Iran is Persian, that the Gulf is “Persian,” and so on. But you could go a step further and ask rhetorically whether the world cares enough about Arabs. Iran’s flunky Bashar Assad has murdered how many in Syria? Who are the primary victims of Iran’s client terrorist organizations, Hamas, Hizballah – and its various groups in Iraq? Iran continuously oppresses millions of Arabs across the Middle East without condemnation or action, so the world pays even less attention to the Arabs whose homeland has fallen under Iranian control and who suffer the most.”5

Although Iran’s previous and current regimes project an image of a homogeneous Iranian-Persian society, this image is far from reality. 40-45% of Iran’s almost 90 million are non-Persians, with Azeris being the most significant ethnic minority, followed by the Kurds, Ahwazi, and Baluchi.6

On paper, Iran’s constitutional guarantees of equality [Chapter 3, article 19] reads, “All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.”7

Abdullah told JCPA that the oppressive Iranian government practices the most heinous crimes and discriminatory laws and practices against Iran’s non-Persian ethnic and religious minorities. He added that the government is committing those crimes “against humans and humanity, not only in the political geography of so-called Iran but in the entire Middle East region.”

Abdullah explains that the regime in Iran wants to erase the Arab identity of Al Ahwaz by applying discriminatory restrictions on cultural and linguistic rights. Abdullah continued that since the Iranian occupation of Al Ahwaz (April 20, 1925), his people have suffered “racial discrimination, genocide, arbitrary arrests, executions, starvation, and forced displacement against the Ahwazi people.” Abdullah stated that Tehran has tried “all illegal means to obliterate the identity of our people as Arabs.” Among those restrictions are banning the use of Arabic in Ahwazi schools and allowing parents to give children Arabic names. The restrictions imposed on the Ahwazi people include banning congregational prayer according to Sunni Islam,” says Abdullah.

On the issue of the lack of coverage of what’s going on in Al-Ahwaz, Abdullah declared, “There is a clear international abandonment of the Ahwazi people due to the international interests that are consistent with Tehran’s policies.” Abdullah told JCPA that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its agents have kidnapped and assassinated Ahwazi activists in Europe. These crimes are well-known to all, yet nothing was done about them.

See also “Iranian Intelligence Services Abduct Ahwaz Activists from Abroad,” (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs-Iran Desk)

Abdullah believes the need for international public awareness of the plight of Al-Ahwaz stems from several factors. Firstly, the absence of press freedoms or independent media in Iran. Journalists and civil society activists discussing human rights violations in Iran face severe repression by Iran’s security forces.

Here, we can see that the Ayatollahs have cleverly linked every aspect of life in Iran to Shi’ism. Anything that threatens the jurisprudential state meaning the Shi’ism, the Velayat-e Faqih [infallibility] ruling system, Iran’s supreme leader, or any of its institutions, including IRGC, will be confronted and punished. Anything threatening the Ayatollahs’ survival is labeled a Moharebeh, a Farsi word meaning “enmity against God.” Moharebeh is not a crime against a person but rather against God and, therefore, against the Velayat-e Faqih, meaning the state. Moharebeh can carry the death penalty.8 Amnesty International said the Iranian authorities executed at least 94 people in January and February (2023) alone. Among the victims were six Ahwazi Arab men who were charged with Moharebeh. According to human rights lawyers, the victims were tortured, including sexual violence, to force them to confess to a crime they did not commit.9

Diana Eltahawy, the Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said, “It is harrowing that executions routinely occur amid the systematic use of torture-tainted ‘confessions’ to convict defendants in grossly unfair trials. The world must act now to pressure the Iranian authorities to establish an official moratorium on executions, quash unfair convictions and death sentences, and drop all charges related to peaceful protest participation.”10

Hundreds of journalists who covered Iran’s nationwide protests were charged under Moharebeh, with many of their fates still unknown. The two female journalists Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who uncovered and reported on Mahsa Amini’s killing, were arrested within a week of writing the story. The IRGC accused the two female journalists of being foreign agents embarking on a project to destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Fear of state repression and the lack of independent media have led to “obfuscating the Ahwazi issue,” said Abdullah. However, Abdullah continued adding other factors which he says “reflects the extent of international hypocrisy towards Iran, as they disagree with each other in policies but agree on goals, especially since Al-Ahwaz is rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, and many others, and it has a strategic location on the Arabian Gulf, where Iran was able, through the strategic location of Al-Ahwaz, to influence the Arab countries.”

On April 15, 2005, clashes broke out between Ahwazi Arabs and Iranian security forces, sparked by the publication of a top-secret letter outlining a plan for the Persianization of Khuzestan. Khuzestan is predominantly populated by Arab Ahwazi people. The published letter called to change the ethnic composition in Khuzestan by “reducing the Arab population to around one-third of the province’s total population through forced migration and eliminating all traces of Arab culture and language, including names of streets and towns. The letter, signed by former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi and written in 1999, suggests a time-frame of 10 years to accomplish the ethnic restructuring program.”11

During the clashes, at least 50 people were killed by Iran’s security forces, including two children aged eight and 12, and more than 1,200 arrests were made. Joe Stork, Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, said, “The Iranian authorities have again displayed their readiness to silence those who denounce human rights violations. We have serious allegations that the government used excessive lethal force, arbitrary arrests, and torture in Khuzestan.”12

Methaq Abdullah was eight years old then and shared with JCPA a painful testimony of the Iranian regime’s brutality in suppressing the Al-Ahwazi uprising. He related, “I personally witnessed with my own eyes the field executions against unarmed civilians during the uprising of April 15, 2005. Until now, I cannot erase those images from my memory of innocent civilians fleeing and being executed in the middle of the streets of Al-Ahwaz in front of the eyes of the people. This is part of Iran’s policy of intimidation against our Ahwazi Arab people.”

As our interview with Methaq Abdullah drew to an end, Mr. Abdullah emphasized that the Ahwazi people “are not a minority; we are an Arab people of 12 million people who have been under the yoke of the hateful Iranian occupation for more than 98 years.” He added, “Let me be frank about our goal. We in the Renaissance Pioneers Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz, seek not only the overthrow of the Iranian regime but rather our lofty and fundamental goal is to liberate Al-Ahwaz from the Iranian occupation and build an independent Al-Ahwazi state.” Abdullah explained that the people of Al Ahwaz are allies of the Kurds, Baluchi, and Azerbaijani – occupied peoples who, like the Ahwazi people, have been engaged in armed struggle to gain their liberation from the Persian-Iranian occupation.

Month after month, brave people in Al Ahwaz, in Kurdistan, in Baluchistan, and even in Persian cities revolted against the Ayatollah. The IRGC was committing heinous crimes against unarmed civilians, many of whom were killed while chanting “Death to the Dictator.” Thousands were detained and tortured, others were charged with Moharebeh and sentenced to death.

Abdullah concluded, “Unarmed civilians were left alone to defend themselves against the IRGC, a powerful oppressive terrorist force. The international community sat and watched.” However, despite all the regime oppression, Abdullah told JCPA, “The right of a right-seeker will not die.”

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  5. In-depth interview with Methaq Abdullah, the Leader of the Renaissance Pioneers Movement for the Liberation of Al – Ahwaz, August, 12, 2023↩︎





  10. Ibid↩︎