The Ahwaz region of the south and southwest Iran is beset by multiple crises with protests increasing since July as the long-suffering Ahwazi Arab people reach the limit of their endurance.
Ahwaz is simultaneously one of its richest and poorest regions, with resources that could make it another Brunei and a population living in medieval poverty. Now, the regime in Tehran is even withholding the once-bounteous water supply, in a region where daytime temperatures routinely reach over 50 degrees Celsius (122o Fahrenheit).
In this article, we’ll first analyse the economic importance of Ahwaz to Iran and its diverse range of resources before examining the challenges facing Ahwazis, and the regime’s repression in reaction to the Arab people’s protests over the systemic injustice to which they’re subjected.
The Ahwaz region is made up of parts of Ilam, Khuzestan, Bushehr and Hormozgan provinces, runs from the Iraqi border down the eastern Gulf coast.
The region’s history is believed to predate modern Iran by thousands of years, according to Iranian historian Seyyed Ahmad Kasravi Tabrizi, who discussed Ahwazi history in detail in a controversial book released in 1933 entitled ‘Five Hundred Years of Khuzestan’s History’. In it he wrote, “The land that we call Khuzestan (Arabistan or North Ahwaz) today has a deep-rooted history that’s thousands of years older than Iran.” In his book, Tabrizi cites many signs proving the venerable age of the region and its non-Iranian roots.
There is some historical debate over whether the geographic region named Ahwaz was historically part of Iran. Many sources said that the territories of the Ahwaz region are topographically distinct from the Iranian territories, most of whom are mountainous, bearing a greater resemblance to the Arabian territories. As some analysts have noted, the close resemblance between the region’s geographical and other features —from the topography and climate to societal and economic characteristics —and those of Iraqi and other Arab territories on the other side of the Arabian Gulf, along with their millennia-long relations, provide further confirmation that Ahwaz has never been part of Iran’s territories, geographically or societally. Many other factors also demonstrate this difference, such as the disparities in language, culture, customs, history, etc. This is such a complex issue, requiring whole books in itself to do it justice, that we can’t provide the proper detailed discussion here.
In the following lines, we will discuss the importance of this economically vital region.
First: Ahwaz’ economic importance for the Iranian regime
Ahwaz represents a tremendously important asset for the Iranian regime, with its vast gas, oil, mineral and agricultural resources, in addition to its vast quantities of water, making it essentially the lifeblood of the entire economy, before even mentioning the industrial and commercial complexes throughout the region. In other words, this region alone provides much if not most of Iran’s prosperity.
Here, we’ll summarise the region’s most economically vital resources and how its exploitation of these impacts the long-suffering Ahwazi people:
- Water resources: The region is home to six major rivers, including the Karoon, Karkheh, Dez and Jarahi, which account for over a third of Iran’s freshwater supply. This makes it an essential source of water for irrigation, drinking and household use, not only for Ahwazis but for all Iran.
These water shortages, caused not by climate change but by the regime’s massive programme of dam-building and river-diversion in Ahwaz, have fanned the flames of anger among the long-suffering Ahwazi population, already denied fundamental rights and subjected to systemic anti-Arab racism by the regime, as they see even their rivers dry up, their livestock die and their crops wither, with large areas of land desertified by this very deliberate policy. While the indigenous Ahwazi people suffer a manmade drought and rapidly escalating desertification, the water transferred from their rivers is sent to ethnically Persian regions of Iran, primarily Kerman, Yazd and Isfahan. As if this weren’t insulting enough to Ahwazis, this precious water is not transferred for drinking, but primarily for industrial use, with these three provinces being the main locations of Iran’s industrial centres, including its auto and steel industries.
Iran has built several dams on the upstream stretches of rivers passing through Ahwaz, known by the native Ahwazi Arab people as the ‘Arab killer Dams’ since they are deliberately used by the regime as tools to crush Ahwazi resistance and drive them from their lands by making the region uninhabitable; this is achieved by cutting off water supplies and creating unbearable drought and desertification in the searing heat of summer, then opening the sluice gates in the rainy seasons in winter to flood Ahwazi lands, towns and villages (after constructing berms to divert the waters and protect the regime’s oil and gas platforms and refineries in the waters’ path).
- Petrochemicals and Power
Around 95 per cent of the oil and 90 per cent of the gas resources on which Iran’s economy depends are located in Ahwaz, with the revenue from 2019 alone coming to $30 billion. Ahwaz also supplies around 74 per cent of Iran’s electricity requirements via dams and natural resources.
The Ahwazi people see nothing of the vast profits from their resources, and are even denied jobs in the petrochemical facilities, which are reserved for Persian incomers offered well-paid jobs and homes in specially built, well-appointed settlements in exchange for moving to the region. Meanwhile, the landscape is scarred by thousands of oil and gas platforms belching out flames and thick smoke around the clock, along with miles of pipelines, massive refineries and petrochemical processing plants. The coastal area also houses the ports used to ship these fuels worldwide. The pollution from this wholly unregulated industry gives the regional capital, Ahwaz city, the unenviable status of one of the most polluted places on earth, as well as leading to high levels of illness, plus ecological catastrophe as the runoff and untreated industrial waste from the refineries is pumped into what remains of the rivers or leaks into the groundwater, leading to high levels of cancerous diseases and poisoning plants, animals and marine life. In an area historically renowned for agriculture and fishing, the impact of the oil industry has been nothing short of devastating.
- Ports, trade and customs
Ahwaz has four major ports on the Arabian Gulf which are considered among Iran’s most important ports, through which the majority of Iran’s exports and imports are carried out, with over 80% of Iran’s imports of basic commodities entering the country via M’shour port or Bandar Imam Khomeini in the region.
This means the region is Iran’s most important trade corridor and the main sources of the customs’ revenues flowing to the state treasury.
- Industries and minerals: As well as being a key hub for Iran’s petrochemical industries, and heavy industries such as iron, steel and construction materials, Ahwaz is also a centre for Iran’s strategic food industries such as sugar.
- Agricultural resources: Ahwaz’ many rivers help endow it with excellent rich agricultural land, with its abundant agricultural output including staple crops, leading to it being known as the regional breadbasket. Now, however, thousands of farmers have been dispossessed, either driven from their lands by the regime requisitioning them for vast state-owned agricultural firms, or by the desertification caused by the regime’s dam-building and river diversion projects. In neither case are the farmers compensated for their suffering.
Based on all these points, I can state that, while most Ahwazis live in abject poverty, their lands and region are literally the most important and richest in Iran in terms of resource wealth, providing a stable source of income that benefits the regime but not the indigenous people.
An Ahwazi female environmentalist whose name is withheld for security reasons told DUSC, “Sugarcane plantations were established on the thousands of hectares of Ahwazi land forcibly seized from farmers who were dispossessed without compensation.”
She said, “The regime’s ruinous and loss-making sugarcane industry places heavy demands on local water supplies already greatly diminished by the regime’s massive dam-building programme upstream on the region’s rivers, most of whose waters are now diverted to Persian regions of Iran via a vast network of pipelines.”
She explained, “As if this weren’t enough, the refineries used to process the sugarcane are also built on the banks of the River Karoon, whose remaining waters are used in the refining process, with all the untreated chemical waste from this process pumped directly back into the river, whose waters form a large part of the supply for both the rural and urban areas of Ahwaz.”
She added, “The combination of water shortages and intensive pollution from chemical waste dumping makes the remaining water heavily saline, contaminated and undrinkable, killing even the riverside plant life, marine life and local wildlife, as well as proving poisonous when used for crop-irrigation.”
The iconic palm tree is one of the most important agricultural products for Ahwazis, but the salt imbalance in what’s left of the water supply from largely diverted local rivers has destroyed the palm trees, depriving the Ahwazis of the ability to derive any traditional livelihood from this agricultural staple.
The livestock of the Ahwazi people also die of thirst and lack of sufficient fodder. Worse, the oil and gas industries exclude Ahwazis from any employment in order to force Arab people to move to other areas or abroad to seek job opportunities. This racist exclusion and compelled migration is the deliberate result of the regime’s yearly expansion of its oil and petrochemical industry.
Even educated Ahwazis with degrees in oil and gas and petrochemical areas of study are systemically rejected in the employment’s tests or in their interviews, leaving many young Ahwazis desperately changing their names to hide their Arab identity in the hope they may get hired on their qualifications rather than rejected for who they are.
Attorney, researcher and analyst Aaron Eitan Meyer commented that “it seems clear that there is a direct correlation between Iran’s need to exploit the natural resources of Ahwaz and its burning desire to remove its people from their land. This is a rapacious and viciously racist form of colonialism that cannot be excused or tolerated. As I’ve said repeatedly, if international law – and human rights law in particular – is to be worth anything as law, the place to start is to end the Iranian regime’s impunity.”
Second: Major challenges facing the region
The Iranian regime and even Persian opposition groups claim that Ahwaz’ Arab population is estimated at 4.7 million, sometimes even estimating it at as low as only 3 million Arab residents. Since there is no accurate way to conduct formal census in Iran, much less in the peripheral areas, such claims are unreliable, likely fabricated, and self-serving. Moreover, in its census, taken every ten years, Iranian governments have avoided recording ethnicities to keep non-Persian communities including Ahwazis in the dark about their true numbers, allowing the state to downplay their significance.
This numbers game is just one aspect to multifaceted oppression, both by Iran regime and the silent enablers of Tehran’s systematic and continuous discrimination against the Ahwazi population. These enablers include hardline royalists abroad, as well as other opposition group, and of course, the regime lobbyists. To add insult to injury, the international community rarely if ever weighs in on this issue. In some of the Western countries, racism against Arabs is pervasive; Iran’s domination of the history departments in Western universities has warped the perception of the history of the region, eradicated the role of non-Persians, and downplayed their cultural, linguistic, and social contributions while distorting and aggrandising the ethnocentric Persian mythology. On Tehran’s side, oppressing and engaging in ethnic cleansing and depopulation policies in the Ahwaz region is a mixture of racism as well as a power-driven interest in securing a monopoly on the oil, gas, and water in the region, consolidating control, empowering loyal Persian groups, and liberating a path to looting, corruption, and unmitigated support for the export of the Islamic revolution.
The Arab world, which feels unable to stand up to Iran independently of the open and unequivocal US support, has chosen to avoid antagonising Tehran by publicly backing the Ahwaz issue. Some of the states are also concerned about the reciprocity of Iran meddling in their local issues or increasing that meddling more aggressively in the event they publicly come out in support of Ahwazi autonomy or independence, or even human rights issues. This lack of support reverberates to the West. Unlike the Palestinian issue, which has had a universal support in the Arab and Muslim world for decades, with billions dedicated towards humanitarian aid, awareness campaigns, and other resources, the Ahwaz issue has not garnered even a fraction of the attention. Despite Iran’s colonialist role in the Middle East and beyond, it is seen as too much of an immediate and direct threat to Arab state interests to be used as a scarecrow to galvanise the masses as has been the case with the Palestinian cause in the past, and quite simply may backfire if implemented with the same level of intensity. The Western states, not seeing mass mobilisation of the Arab/Muslim world behind the Ahwazi human rights, do not see the issue as a priority for anyone; only policymakers are aware that the issue exists; most regular Westerners have never heard of anything related to this situation; when the events in the area make the news, they are reported from a Persian-centric perspectives as related to the rights of “Iranians” in “Khuzestan”.
As a result, the fictitious census numbers in Iran raise no eyebrows in the West; the majority hardly sees the issue of immediate importance or relevance to their own interests. In addition to that Iran doesn’t include the Ahwazi Arab population in Illam, Abu Shahr (Bushehr in Farsi), and Jambrun (Hormozgan in Farsi), depicting Khuzestan alone as being the home of Ahwazi Arabs. When one includes the number of Ahwazi Arabs in Ilam, Khuzestan, Bushehr and Hormozgan, however, the number of Ahwazis comes to no less than eight million people overwhelmingly of Arab ethnicity.
This variation in statistics is a problem that creates tension between the government and the local population, and one which the regime is desperate to play down; after all, the needs of 8 million people in terms of infrastructure, financial appropriations and different government services are very different from the needs of 4.7 million or just over half of the region’s residents. This deliberate under-counting or ‘imaginative accountancy’, which allows the regime to spend far less on the region than others in Iran is in itself sufficient reason for the deterioration in the quality of life and already abysmal living standards, which have been repeatedly denounced by the Ahwazi Arab residents of the region.
This refusal to recognise the actual Ahwazi population size is not the only one, although it may be linked to the regime’s longstanding efforts to deny Ahwaz’ Arab identity and to forcibly assimilate or subjugate the indigenous people under Persian Iranian control. Ahwazi opposition groups have long accused the Iranian regime of a planned policy of ethnocide and demographic change as a means of seizing the indigenous Ahwazi Arabs’ land and resources and changing the demographic structure of the region to make it majority-Persian. This charge was confirmed in 2005 with the leaking of an official document from the office of then-President Mohammad Khatami revealing the details of the regime’s demographic change policy in the entire Ahwazi areas. In addition to the regime’s policies of seizing the region’s resources, including its agricultural assets, and crushing its people’s hopes of economic prosperity, while denying them basic infrastructure and withholding development funding granted to Persian regions, this strategy has led to widespread anger and public protests.
As well as enduring these injustices, Ahwazis also suffer from high unemployment rates, poverty and denial of basic government services. The regime’s abuse of the Ahwazi people is confirmed by a UN human rights report which noted the existence of blatant discrimination against the indigenous people in the regional oil and gas sector’s labor market – by far the largest employment market in the region —which noted that Persians are appointed to all senior positions while Ahwazis get only the most menial jobs, with Ahwazis accounting for only five percent of the oil and gas sector’s workforce in the Ahwaz region.
The aforementioned issue of diverting the courses of the region’s rivers to other Iranian regions is one of the most pressing and urgent challenges facing the Ahwazis, especially during a period when the whole of Iran is facing the most severe drought in five decades due to low rainfall levels, which have fallen by over 60% compared to previous years’ levels amid surging temperatures. This has also impacted the Ahwazi dams’ production of hydroelectricity, affecting the entire Iranian republic, with Ahwazis doubly punished by seeing their precious water resources seized to power hydroelectric projects that don’t even provide them with power. The greatest dangers facing Ahwazis when it comes to drought and the diversion of their rivers, however, are the lack of drinking water, the destruction of their agricultural heritage, with even livestock dying due to extreme heat and lack of water, with thousands of Ahwazis forced to leave the region or emigrate to survive.
Third: Iran’s brutal reaction to ongoing protests
Protests have been almost continuously roiling the Ahwaz region since July 2021 up to the publication of this report in mid-August. Protests are not a new phenomenon, with demonstrations increasing over the past 16 years against the regime’s brutal policies and systemic racism towards the Ahwazi people and the deteriorating living conditions.
In some years, Ahwazis’ frustration and despair at the regime’s relentless brutal repression and the impossible situation they face has escalated to the level of attacks on government offices and facilities important to the regime. Many Ahwazis feel, with some justification, that the regime uses water as a weapon against them to force them to abandon their lands, with its diversion of the rivers causing devastating droughts and desertification in summer, while during the rainy season in winter, the sluice gates on the dams upstream are opened – though only after the regime has constructed berms to divert the water away from its lucrative oil and gas facilities – causing massive flooding of Ahwazi land and villages. This suffering is worsened by the collapsing infrastructure, with the effluent from the decades-old, woefully inadequate, often broken-down sewage systems mixing with the flood waters and the drinking water supply, leaving the people simultaneously inundated and without potable water.
The Iranian regime’s response to any protests in any regions of Iran, and in Ahwaz in particular, is always harsh. It begins with dispersing protests, quickly escalating to terrorising protesters through firing live bullets at anyone participating in demonstrations. Mass arrests are standard, with dozens of Ahwazis summarily executed as a means of silencing dissent. Protesters are arrested simply for participating in demonstrations and subjected to kangaroo trials lasting a few minutes on fabricated charges before being given prison sentences that often extend to decades, or sentenced to death, with confessions obtained under torture; grotesque ‘confessions’ are often televised on state TV, with the clearly terrified detainees, often with black eyes or other signs of torture, reading a script by rote. Common charges include ‘waging war against God’, threatening national security, supporting separatism, or being a spy for regional countries; under such charges, the ‘lightest’ sentence for Ahwazi detainees is years of imprisonment or a life sentence.
This may well be the strategy used by the Iranian regime to crack down on the current protests and demands, with regime media already deploying their favourite conspiracy theories, accusing the protesters of being incited by regional and international powers, as though only a ‘foreign agent’ would want fundamental human rights, freedom and justice.
In the latest protests, over 2,000 Ahwazis, mostly aged between 15 and 21, have been detained, with at least 12 shot dead by regime security forces.
Like previous protests led by Ahwazis, the regime responded by brutal forces and shipment of tear gas and even deploying snipers targeting the protesters, mostly in their neck and head and spinal cord.
One of the Ahwazi Arab detainees was murdered under torture in Dezful prison. Mohamad al-kanani, who was arrested in July following water crisis protests in the Ahwaz region, was reportedly killed under torture by IRGC. Mohamad and hundreds of other Ahwazi Arabs are kept in IRGC centres and received severe torture by Iran security forces.
In addition, the regime intelligence services placed conditions to hand over the protesters’ dead bodies to their families. The condition is not to organise any funeral ceremony, the dead protesters should be buried at night, the families must not talk or be in contact with exiled human rights groups.
All of these routine measures employed by the regime are illegal under international law, from the use of snipers to disburse peaceful protests, to the torture of prisoners, and even extend beyond the deaths of the regime’s victims.
Meanwhile, the new president, Raisi, may try a combined ‘carrot and stick’ approach, being aware of the growing rage on the Iranian street amid worsening living conditions and desperate to avert a societal explosion; this may lead to attempts by the regime to pacify protesters and appease them to some degree rather than unleashing even worse brutality, as has been seen recently. These efforts include the release of some detainees and sending water tankers to areas experiencing the worst drought.
At the same time, however, the regime won’t allow protests in Ahwaz or elsewhere to reach the extent where its economic interests could be challenged or its industrial and commercial activities disrupted, damaging the already-ailing Iranian economy; for Tehran, profit will always supersede humanity.
One thing is certain; the current regime will not change its policy of marginalisation and systemic racism towards the Ahwazi people, whose resources are its lifeblood; this means that, for Ahwazis, there will be no choice but to continue protesting, with the regime’s cruelty and refusal to address the root causes of the people’s anger making dissent and demonstrations inevitable.
By Rahim Hamid and Irina Tsukerman
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Irina Tsukerman is a New-York based Human Rights Lawyer, National Security Analyst. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.