The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), seeking autonomy for the Ahwazi Arab minority in Iran's southwest, held its third annual conference in Copenhagen last week—drawing attendance this time from George Sabra, former leader of the opposition Syrian National Council. Sabra told the conference, "What unites our two nations is our joint path and destiny in the struggle to gain our freedom and human dignity." ASMLA chairman Habib Jabor charged that "the mullahs' savage regime has enforced ethnocide policies against the Ahwazi Arab people and other non-Persian peoples… Several million Ahwazi Arabs are denied equal rights by the Iranian regime under a system of apartheid, defined as a deliberate policy of racial or ethnic segregation… [T]he international community's lack of reaction concerning the state of human rights in the Ahwaz region…has given the Iranian regime and its elite a right of life and death over entire communities. Ahwazi Arabs…are victimized, robbed and plundered because of their ethnicity."
Jabor decried the "wretched destitution" in al-Ahwaz, despite the fact that the region contains over 90% of Iran's oil and gas resources. He also implied a move towards seeking actual independence from Iran, and an alliance with other non-Persian minorities: "In an effort to change the demography of Ahwaz region, Iran has been waging a silent war against Ahwazi Arab people by constructing ethnically-exclusive [Persian-only] settlements, as part of a systematic policy of clandestine ethnic cleansing. Subjected to these ongoing national atrocities, Ahwazi Arabs have given up hope for having their equal rights along with other four non-Persian nations, Turks, Kurds, Baluchs and Turkmens. There is a consensus…among Iranian nationalists that those of non-Persian nations must be oppressed under the pretext of preserving Iranian sovereignty and national integrity." (Araz News, Dec. 7)
By "Turks," Jabor presumably meant the Azeris. The most comprehensive account of the Copenhagen meeting ran on Araz News, a website dedicated to the liberation of "South Azerbaijan."
Historical outlines online at advocacy websites Ahwaz Media, National Assembly of Ahwaz and State of Arabistan (PDF) indicate that al-Ahwaz was a de facto independent state from the end of Mongol rule until the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925—most recently as a British protectorate under the rule of Sheikh Khazaal bin Jabber, whose family had held power for over a century. It was known to the Persians as Arabistan, and its autonomy apparently respected by successive dynasties. Britain betrayed the Ahwazi Arabs upon placing their client Pahlavi shah on the throne in Tehran, and al-Ahwaz was occupied and annexed by Iran. In 1936, it was renamed Khuzestan as a first step towards eliminating its Arab identity.
Not surprisingly, the Gulf states have taken up the cause of al-Ahwaz. On March 29, UAE-based al-Arabiya News ran an opinion piece by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, a pillar of the Emirates' establishment, "Arab Ahwaz must be liberated from Iran." It recalled that British colonial administrator Sir Arnold Wilson once said that Arabistan is "a country as different from Persia as is Spain from Germany."
Frank Jacobs of the Strange Maps blog calls al-Ahwaz "The Phantom Emirate," and notes that the map on the National Assembly of Ahwaz website actually claims far more territory than currently makes up the province of Khuzestan—virtually all of Iran's Persian Gulf coastline. Al-Ahwaz.com, the National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz (Al-Awaz.net) and the Ahwazi Centre for Media and Strategic Studies (Ahwaz Media) websites are mostly in Arabic, but have some English-language material and seem to indicate a refreshingly secular pan-Arab nationalism.
The ASMLA apparently has an armed wing which claimed credit for the bombing of a bank and government offices in Ahwaz city that left eight dead in 2006. Tehran accused British forces in Iraq of complicity in the attack. (BBC News, Jan. 25, 2006)
A phantom emirate to join the world's phantom republics…