Forgotten by History and the World

by Rahim Hamid, Dur Untash Studies Centre

The protests in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan region have won some international media attention. But coverage has not noted that this region, known to its Arab inhabitants as Ahwaz, had for centuries been an independent emirate before its incorporation into Iran in 1925. This annexation was effected through military force, and with the acquiescence of the Great Powers of the day—principally Britain and Russia. With the US and European Union now attempting to revive the nuclear deal with the Tehran regime, it remains to be seen if the Ahwazi people’s re-emerging aspirations to self-determination will again be betrayed. Rahim Hamid, writing for Canada’s Dur Untash Studies Centre, provides an in-depth analysis.

In order to understand the current tragic situation in Ahwaz, it’s important to understand its long-neglected and airbrushed history of colonialism and occupation. The protests over water shortages now rocking the Arab region, a narrow band running from the Iraqi border down the eastern Gulf coast, have won solidarity from other ethnic minority regions of Iran. They aren’t a new phenomenon, but the latest consequence of decades of Iranian ethnic repression and racism, dating back almost a century.

Many in the international media cite climate change or the Iranian regime’s customary intolerance of dissent as the reasons behind the latest protests roiling Ahwaz. But they show little understanding of the history and complex dynamics of this region, or its relationship to the central Iranian state—whether under the Islamic Republic, the Pahlavi dynasty before it, or the Qajars who preceded them.

Arabistan between rival empires
The Mesopotamian region (modern-day Iraq and southwestern Iran) has been a frontier between the two major empires that existed in some form or another for a least a thousand years—the Turkish or Arab empire to the west and the Persian empire to the east, forming a frontier and buffer zone, politically and militarily, between these rival regional powers.

Throughout much of this history, there was an independent Arab emirate called Arabistan, or Land of the Arabs, which was ruled by a series of tribal dynasties from the 1400s up until 1925. Arabistan was not the only such emirate, with much of contemporary Iran’s coastline consisting of a patchwork of Arab-majority emirates running from the Shatt al-Arab waterway down to as far as Bandar Abbas at the edge of the Strait of Hormuz.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, these emirates were stripped of their autonomy, conquered and annexed one by one as part of Greater Persia by Tehran’s increasingly expansionist rulers. Before the fall of the Emirate of Arabistan in 1925, the Emirate of al-Maraziq, which consisted of what are now the provinces of Hormozegan, Bushsher and Bander Abbas, was annexed by Persia in 1922.

The last emirate holding out against annexation was Arabistan, which managed to maintain a degree of independence by playing Istanbul (Constantinople) and Tehran off one another for centuries.

The discovery of massive oil reserves in Arabistan in 1908 by British prospectors, whose masters in London were keen to build imperial ties with Persia, effectively sealed Arabistan’s fate. Although the then-ruler, Emir Khaz’al bin Jaber al-Kaabi, signed a number of agreements with the British, who vowed to recognize Ahwazi independence and protect Ahwaz from Persian conquest in exchange for his support and access to these resources.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 may have helped in changing British calculations; although most of the fighting took place in Europe, the Ottoman and Russian empires were also involved, with the Emirate of Ahwaz becoming one of the contested territories due to its strategic location.

The First World War saw the Ottoman pitted Empire against the British Empire, with the British government deploying troops to Abadan and to the capital of Arabistan, Mohammareh. This military mission was given the strategic objective of securing Ahwaz and seizing control of its oil reserves Accordingly, Emir Khazaal allied with Britain in the hope of securing the Emirate’s independence. Arabistan served as an important base for Britain’s operations during the war.

Emir Khazaal was fully aware that Ahwaz stood between three imperial fires—Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Persian state—but probably felt he had no alternative but to ally with the first, because the other two presented immediate threats, as they geographically encroached upon Ahwaz territory. Khazaal cooperated with Britain, hoping that it would support his rule over an independent Emirate of Ahwaz—in the erroneous belief that Britain was the most reliable and trustworthy of the three.

The diaries of Reza Khan, Iran’s rising would-be king, make his intentions clear: “It is necessary to eliminate the prince of Ahwaz, whose rule has lasted for years independently within the boundaries of his emirate as a result of foreign support; Tehran’s government has no authority whatsoever over him.”

Reza Khan became the top commander of Iran’s armed forces in 1921 following a coup that saw Defense Minister Zia’eddin Tabatabaee overthrown. Within a few short years, Reza Khan became prime minister, assuming autocratic rule, and in 1925 proclaiming himself King of Persia. This marked collapse of the Ghajari (Qajar) reign in Persia (Iran), and the beginning of the Pahlavi monarchy.

During this period, Reza Shah sought to balance British and Russian interests in Iran to advance his own power. The Russo-Iranian Treaty of 1921 resulted in full Russian recognition of Persia’s independence, cancelling all previous Persian financial debts to the Soviet Union. Russia’s interests in maintaining friendly political ties with Iran were clearly motivated by the need to have access to warm-water ports in the Arabian Gulf and to counter Britain’s ambitions to control the region’s petroleum resources.

In light of these geopolitical changes, Britain astutely recognized that maintaining and preserving its existing regional interests would require closer political ties with Iran. As a means of achieving this, it sought to strengthen Reza Shah as a bulwark to prevent communist Russia from accessing the Arabian Gulf. At the same time, Britain wanted to dominate Persia to guarantee its own political and economic interests in Persia and the Arabian Gulf region.

Reza Shah seized the opportunity to request that Britain abandon its protection of the Emirate of Ahwaz. Britain acceded to the request, paving the way for the Shah to occupy the Emirate of Ahwaz, with Persian forces murdering Emir Khazaal on April 20, 1925.

Cultural cleansing
Following the occupation of Ahwaz and the deposition and murder of Emir Khazaal, the Arabistan emirate was stripped of any autonomy and officially incorporated into the Iranian state as a province under central government control. In 1936, Arabistan was divided between several Persian provinces. Most of the territory was in Khuzestan, with smaller portions in Ilam, Bushehr and Hormozgan. The effort to eliminate all traces of its Arab heritage and deny the indigenous Arab culture and identity, which has continued up to the present day, began in earnest in the 1930s, with Arabic place names being replaced with Farsi equivalents.

Successive regimes have also resettled large numbers of Ahwazis in other parts of Iran in an effort to change the region’s demographic composition, denying the Ahwazis’ heritage or sovereignty. As part of this profoundly racist policy, ethnically Persian settlers are transferred to the area from other areas of Iran to work in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries. They are given well-paid jobs and housing in specially built settlements, provided with all the services and amenities denied to the local Ahwazi Arab population. These settlements are often created through the razing of Ahwazi villages, whose inhabitants are given no warning and receive no compensation.

While the Middle East is replete with historic examples of territories and populations conquered and peoples forcibly assimilated into new or existing nation-states, the specific circumstances of the Ahwazi Arab people in Iran are harrowing. Successive Iranian regimes have, regardless of ideology, attempted to erase and deny the very history and existence of the Ahwazi people and pretend that they never had an autonomous nation of their own. This policy rests on a deep-rooted anti-Arab prejudice, which has normalized structural racism while propagating a revisionist history in which Persian ethnic supremacy is a core tenet.

Few in the West are aware that Iran’s population is made up of a patchwork of peoples, inclduing several non-Persian minorities—Kurds, Balochis, Azerbaijani Turks, Ahwazi Arabs, Turkmen, and Gilaki Caspians. While ethnic Persians are traditionally held to make up 60% of the population, this figure is increasingly questioned as too high. Some believe the ethnic Persians may themselves now constitute a minority. Similarly, while Iran is majority Shi’a Muslim, other religions are represented in the populace, whose adherents the regime routinely persecutes for their beliefs—Sunnis, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Mandeans, Bahai and Ka’kai (Yarsan).

It is also important to note that the population of almost every Iranian province bordering a neighboring country is made up mostly of citizens of the same ethnicity as those countries, with families often living just across the border from one another. Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Balochis and Ahwazis are primary examples. These minorities are not represented in any way in the power structure of the Iranian state, with the levers of power and most of the economy firmly in the hands of ethnic Persians. Ethnic and religious minorities are actively persecuted and denied any political voice or access to economic power. While the Iranian state has employed different strategies in its dealing with these different communities—being heavy-handed towards Kurds while attempting to co-opt the nomadic Lurs and assimilate them into the ethnic Persian population—the attempt at the outright erasure of the Ahwazi Arab people is unique even by the Iranian state’s standards.

For these reasons, the bid for renewed autonomy and independence amongst the Ahwazi population continues to gain popularity, with a low-level conflict between the region’s Arab inhabitants and the central Iranian state ongoing up to the current day. Although the 1979 Islamic Revolution briefly brought hope that there might be a change for the Ahwazis,the situation for the eight million members of the Ahwazi population has only worsened since then.

The current Iranian regime has maintained Reza Shah’s Persian ethno-nationalism and applied an additional veneer of religiosity in the form of Shi’a fundamentalism. This has further consolidated power in the hands of a specific authoritarian sector of the population, to the exclusion of everyone else.

Various reasons lie behind successive Iranian regimes’ repression of minority communities and their omission from the national identity framework. Primarily these are:

  1. Most of the population in Iran’s border provinces with neighboring countries share the same ethnicity as the neighboring countries.
  2. Most of Iran’s resources, including oil, gas and water, are found in these provinces with predominantly ethnic minority populations.
  3. Iran’s access to the Arabian Gulf and major ports are located in these provinces with predominantly ethnic minority provinces.

Simply put, the Iranian state’s existence depends on maintaining control over its frontier provinces. When it comes to the regime’s disposition towards Ahwazi Arabs, all three of these motives come into play—the Ahwazi Arab homelands contain most of Iran’s oil and gas deposits, and much of the Iranian coastline along the Arabian Gulf. As a result, while regimes have come and gone since 1925, the rulers have always seen the need to negate the existence of the Ahwazi Arab people.

Iranian state’s demographic contradiction
It is a sad irony that if Iran had charted a different course long ago, it could have become a multi-ethnic democracy offering a beacon of hope to the entire region. Instead, however, it has become a leading cause of massive pain and suffering to millions of people across the region, not least the millions of people forced to live under the current regime’s repressive and unrelenting rule.

The Ahwazi national movement is struggling not only for fundamental human rights, but political recognition based on the Ahwazi people’s historic sovereignty, recovering the long-denied freedom and dignity of the Ahwazi people—whether that means an equitably applied form of ethnic federation or outright independence.

The current protests in the Ahwaz region are due in large part to the feeling that, after decades of the Iranian regime attempting to forcibly assimilate the Ahwazi people through the suppression of language, cultural identity and the denial of access to the economy, the regime has opened a new phase in its war against the Ahwazi people, namely the denial of water.

Most Ahwazis now believe that the regime is deliberately damming and diverting the region’s rivers, transferring their waters to ethnically Persian areas of Iran, in order to destroy the Ahwazi people’s ability to survive on their land. The people have seen thousands of acres of farmlands turned to barren desert and their vast marshlands reduced and heavily polluted, with barely any marine life left. The only conclusion left to many is that the Iranian regime is embarking on a renewed strategy of demographic engineering in order to ensure its continued iron grip over a portion of territory vital to its own survival. This is ethnocide by any other name. Even those Western media who do mention the water shortages talk about climate change, but not about the regime’s very deliberate redirection of water resources.

As noted, this is not the first time that Iran’s central government has attempted to forcibly change the demographic character of the ethnic minority regions. For example, in 1963, the Shah’s regime instated “Land Reform” legislation, through which it confiscated more than half of Ahwazis’ agricultural lands, which were turned over to ethnically Persian settlers and military institutions. This led to the mass displacement of tens of thousands of Ahwazis from rural areas of the region.

Moreover, there is strong evidence that the regime is currently orchestrating a new policy to confiscate agricultural lands and displace many of the remaining Ahwazi farmers. A top-secret letter was written by the former Iranian Vice President Seyed Mohammad-Ali Abtahi in 2005 outlined a plan to change the demographic composition of Ahwaz from predominantly Arab to mainly Persian. The leaking of Abtahi’s letter leading to a popular uprising unprecedented in scope, which engulfed the entire Ahwaz region.

Iran has only two navigable rivers—one of which, the Karun River, runs through the length of the Ahwaz region. This river comprises about 33% of Iran’s total water resources. The Iranian regime’s damming of the river upstream has diverted much of its water to ethnically Persian provinces in the country’s interior.

Despite more than 90% of the major oil and gas deposits in Iran being located within the Ahwaz region, the Ahwazi Arabs continue to be one of the poorest, most resource-starved communities in Iran. The Balochi community likely the only one poorer and more disenfranchised than the Ahwazis.

As if these problems were not enough, the Darkhovin Nuclear Power Plant is being built in the Ahwaz region, along the Karun river. The Ahwazi people already suffering from poor health related to pollution and environmental degradation due to Iran’s unregulated petrochemical industry in the region. It is very concerning that the Ahwazi people could now be subjected to radioactive contamination.

After more than a month of protests, the regime’s crackdown on the Ahwazi community is still continuing. Over 2.000 Ahwazi Arab protesters are reported arrested; 12 Ahwazi protesters have been confirmed shot to death so far. The regime has refused to hand over the bodies of the protesters to their families, burying them without notifying their loved ones or telling them where they’re buried. The regime also deployed vast numbers of heavily armed troops, Revolutionary Guard personnel and Basiji militiamen. Even Iraqi paramilitary “Popular Mobilization Forces” have crossed the border to help put down the protest movement. Reports of tanks and armored vehicles in the streets have emerged, despite an attempt by the regime to create a communications and internet blackout in the Ahwaz region.

Widespread protests in solidarity with Ahwaz have also spread to other areas of Iran, with demonstrators taking to the streets and chanting anti-regime slogans in Tabriz, Urmia, and Meshgin Shahr in the predominantly Azeribajani northwest of the country. Minority communities across Iran are developing a heightened sense of their own identity.

The Iranian regime has embarked on a campaign of extrajudicial killings of Ahwazi dissidents abroad, targeting and sometimes successfully assassinating those living in exile in Europe and in North America. Thus, Western powers attempt to negotiate a return to the nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, the question of the West’s commitment to human rights and democracy abroad will be sorely tested when it comes to the Ahwaz question.

If the US and the EU are truly serious about their commitment to these principles, a review of Tehran’s campaign against the Ahwazi community and the other minority communities needs to be part of the negotiations. Demanding a democratic Iran is not a Washington-directed “regime change,” as some Western supporters of the current Iranian regime contend. It is the just demand of communities like the Ahwaz that suffer disproportionately under the current system, which is predicated on structural racism, and ethnic supremacy. Without a consensus on how to provide human, political and economic rights to the Ahwaz people and the other minority communities in Iran, the country’s demographics will be a ticking time-bomb, that could ultimately be the downfall of the current regime in Tehran, long before any meaningful Western intervention can take place.


Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets at @Samireza42.

This story and photo first appeared Sept. 15 on the website of the Dur Untash Studies Centre, Toronto.

From our Daily Report:

Iran: protests over water rights in Ahwazi region
CounterVortex, July 21, 2021

Can Iran nuclear deal be salvaged?
CounterVortex, Feb. 15, 2021

See also:

by Frieda Afary, Iranian Progressives in Translation
CounterVortex, July 2021

How Iran’s Regime Uses Floods and Drought as Tools of Ethnic Cleansing
by Rahim Hamid, Dur Untash Studies Centre
CounterVortex, March 2019


Reprinted by CounterVortex, Sept. 16, 2021