Dec 07, 2006

Ahwazi: Address delivered to “Democracy Promotion: The European Way”

Statement by Dr. Karim Abdian of the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization


Conference on “Democracy Promotion: The European Way
European Parliament, Brussels
6 – 7 December 2006

I would like to thank The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe”,  the Transnational Radical Party, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and other organizers for this opportunity and thanks to those with the foresight to consider this very important issue for discussion and considerations.

My name is Karim Abdian; I am the executive director of Ahwaz Human Rights Organization, an International advocacy NGO in support of the rights of the indigenous Ahwazi-Arabs of Iran. I also represent the Ahwazi in UNPO.

I will try to provide you with my perception of the root causes of the problem in Iran and then give you the perspective of the Arab ethnic minority in Iran.

Arabs of Iran are a component and a part of the mosaic of Iran. Contrary to the perception, Iran is not all Persians. In fact Persians are a minority as other nationalities are in comparison to the total population. Two-Third or at least 65% of Iran’s 68 million populations is comprised of ethnic Kurds, Azeri-Turks, Ahwazi-Arabs, Baloch and Turkmen.

A relevant question here may be: what is the Problem in Iran aside from having an authoritarian regime? Why is a country with all sorts of resources, from people to land and minerals, not able to develop, but remains backward politically, economically, socially and otherwise?

The problem is that in this multinational, multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual country an attempt is being made to artificially turn it into a nation-state ruled by the Persian elite and aristocracy at the exclusion of all other constituent national and ethnic groups. For centuries prior to the fall of Qajar dynasty in 1925, Iran was ruled in a de-centralized way, in a traditional federal system  called “mamalek-mahrooseh” or “the union of protected states” where there were at least  6 autonomous regions of Arabistan, Kurdistan/Lurestan, Azerbaijan, Khorassan, Baluchestan, and Fars, called Ayalat. These regions or states enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. There were also other smaller provinces called “valaiat” with lesser degree of independence. 

After the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, the then dominant power and a rival of Russia, Britain, fearing extension of Russian socialist revolution to the south, had a change of hearts and while up until this time, had supported various autonomous regions or Ayalat, sought to establish a central puppet state, a buffer between socialist Russia and its British interests in India. Toward this aim, the British indigence, headed by Ardeshir Reporter, started a search for a military person to do away with autonomous region and establish a Persian-dominated so called modern nation-state of Iran.

Ardeshir J. Reporter, a Brit born in India, was a racist, ultra-nationalist Persian, with the support of a group of like-minded Persian ultra-nationalist intellectuals who were influenced by Fascist ideology of purity of the Aryan Race and Aryan nation and inferiority of others, staged a Coup d'etat in 1921 and overthrow the Qajar monarchy and made Reza Khan to be Reza Shah, the King of Iran.

Reza Shah had over night abolished the autonomy of the autonomous regions or Velayats, declared himself Reza Shah (King Reza) and renamed himself Pahlavi. Successive governments continued this oppressive rule and a centralized national-state was model at the exclusion of non-Persian national and ethnic minorities.

Now in the current Iranian society, I think these ethnic and religious minorities along with the women (who only have half legal rights), are the most discriminated segments of the society. Successive governments have excluded and marginalized these 2 important elements of the society and excluded them from power. They are being kept uneducated and backward. Ethnic minorities cannot study or speak their mother languages or exercise their culture and religion and generally treated like second and third class citizens and face forced assimilation ….and that’s what I think is the root cause of the socio-political instability in Iran.

Now about the Arabs of Iran:

Among the oppressed minorities, Ahwazi Arabs rank at the bottom.  Extensive human rights violation in Ahwaz-region or Khuzestan province, in the past few weeks and months, including mass execution, large-scale arrests and detention, torture, and execution of at least 131; arrest and detention of more than 22,000 men and women, including children as young as 2 and 4, and pregnant women, in addition to forced displacement and ethnic cleansing are daily occurrences that over 5 million indigenous Ahwazi-Arabs are subjected to daily in Iran. As we speak, preparation is being made in the way of lining up construction cranes to publicly hang at least ten or perhaps 19 young Ahwazi-Arab human rights activists.

Ahwazi Arabs live in the south-western region of Iran, in the province of Khuzestan or Al-Ahwaz, near the southern border of Iraq. Ahwazis constitute an indigenous, ethnic, national and linguistic minority in Iran.

Ahwazi-Arabs are indigenous to the southwest of Iran which was part of Mesopotamia. Ahwazi-Arab tribes inhabited this area for thousands of years.

Although the government does not provide demographics data, but through an extensive research of Mr. Yossef Azizi-Bani-Touraff, an Ahwazi Arab journalist and a social researcher -using data from  the past 25 years national and regional elections in Iran,  Arabs in Iran constitute at least 10% of the population or 7-8 million. Out of this, at least 5 million Arabs live in Khuzestan province, which was called Arabistan by the Safvids in the 16th century until 1936 that the name was changed to a Persian name - Khuzestan. However, the regions was called Ahwaz or Al-Ahwaz throughout history pre-dating Islam and hence the name of Ahwazi-Arabs or Arabs of Ahwaz. The indigenous Ahwazis still call it Ehglim-ol-Ahwaz or the Region of Ahwaz.

Ahwazis are about 70% Shiite and 30% Sunni. Historically, this indigenous Arab community has been marginalized and discriminated against by successive governments in Iran.

Prior to its total annexation of al-Ahwaz by the Iranian government in 1925, the region enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and independence and indigenous nomadic tribes lived on this land for thousands of years.

While Ahwazi ancestral lands produces 90% of Iran’s vast oil revenue, none of this is allocated to the Ahwazis. They are kept backward, poor and illiterate. The illiteracy arte is 4 times and unemployment is 6 times the national average. This year a legislation proposed by Khuzestan deputies to allocate 1.5 % of oil revenue to Khuzestan was defeated for the 3rd time.

Persian language is forced upon indigenous Ahwazis and as a result, Indigenous Ahwazi Arab students drop out of schools at 30% during elementary, 50% during secondary and 70% during high school.  i.e. only one out of four graduates from high school. According to government's own data, 80% of the Arab children suffer from malnutrition.

In the past ten years, as directed by the highest levels of government of the Islamic republic of Iran, over 500,000 hectares of indigenous Ahwazi Farmers land have been expropriated and given to non-indigenous Persian settlers, a scheme designed to break up and change the ethnic structure and racial mix of the province.

According to Mr. Miloon Kothari, UNOHCHR Special Rapporteur on Housing who visited Khuzestan in July 2005, he says “when you visit Ahwaz [in the western Iranian province of Khuzestan bordering Iraq] in terms of the very adverse conditions in the neighborhoods, there are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections”. He also says “The third issue in Khuzestan, which is very disturbing, is that there is an attempt being made by the government to build new towns and bring in new people from other provinces. For example, there is the new town of Shirinshah where most of the people being brought into that town are people from Yazd province [in central Iran] - non-Arabs”

Mr. Kothari continues “we drove outside the city about 20 km and we visited the areas where large development projects are coming up - sugar cane plantations and other projects along the river - and the estimate we received is that between 200,000 - 250,000 Arab people are being displaced from their villages because of these projects. And the question that comes up in my mind is why is it that these projects are placed directly on the lands that have been homes for these people for generations? I asked the officials, I asked the people we were with. And there is other land in Khuzestan where projects could have been placed which would have minimized the displacement.”

Ethnic cleansing has been stepped up under the Ahmadinejad administration with the creation of the 155 sq km Arvand Free Zone, a military-industrial zone along the border with Iraq’s Basra province in the heart of Arab reign. Entire villages are being eradicated to make way for petrochemical projects that will profit only the ruling mullahs and the multi-national corporations and China as it investing heavily in the zone.

In a recently leaked government directive/memorandum among other measures it directs all government ministries to:

- Arab population must be reduced to 1/3 within 10 years.  The rest should be Farsi-speaking immigrants.
- Resettle Azeri-Turks to replace forced Arabs out of their land.
- Resettle Arab educated class to Isfahan, Tehran and Tabriz.
- “Proof of existence of this ethnic group (Arab) should be eradicated, including the changing and renaming Arab names of cities, villages, regions and streets to Persian
- Arab-speaking people should be used for execution of this legislation
- Newly approved legislation regarding forced immigration of university students, civil servants, teachers, military and security forces and farmers to other (Persian) provinces are attached 

Singed. Mohammad Abtahi Chief of Staff of Mr. Khatami, President
cc: Monsieur of Information, Interior, Housing and Urban Development and Ministry of Islamic Guidance

Last week the Lejnat Al-Wefaq (Reconciliation Committee) a lawful reformist Arab party to campaign for equal cultural, political and economic rights, set up by Arab intellectuals was banned and all their leaders and cadres were arrested and may be sentenced to death thereby closing down legal possibilities for demands for Ahwazi rights.

The majority Ahwazi-Arabs now have concluded that they could not expect the regime to respect their constitutional right to equality.

Since the implementation of the 1st phase of ethnic cleansing in 1999, as called “Hmemyesh Sarzamini” (Land Experimentations), 1.2 million Ahwazis were forcefully displaced to central provinces and 1.5 million non-Indigenous Persian have been resettled in government paid, resettlement towns of Ramin, 1, 2 and 3, Shirin-Shahr in Arab cities and towns of Khuzestan.  This effort by the Islamic Republic of Iran is aimed to strip indigenous Arabs of Ahwaz from their national identity, culture, language, and customs.

The regime erected dams and diverted the waters of our rivers such Karun and Karkhe to non-Arab central provinces of Isfahan, Yazd while Khuzestan severely suffers from the shortage of drinking water.

Khuzestan’s governor and all other provinces political, military and security commanders, officers, mayors and all high and mid-level government officials of Khuzestan, have consistently been appointed from non-Arabs outside of the native Arab population. This marginalization is more acute in a country that the state is the largest employer.

Often, the Iranian government authorities in Khuzestan refuse to register and issue birth identity cards to indigenous Arab newborn-babies, who do not assume Persian or Shiite names.

Names of cities, towns, villages, rivers and other geographical landmarks were changed from Arabic to Persian during this and the previous Pahlavi regimes. These historical Arabic names existed for centuries.

There is strong evidence that poverty is the result of institutional racism that has recently escalated into full-scale ethnic cleansing and violent repression

On 15 April 2005 in the provincial city of Ahwaz, security forces opened fire on thousands of peaceful demonstrators killing at least 61 men, women and children, injuring over 1800 and arresting thousands, according to Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and BBC and other news organizations. There have been reports of torture according to AI, HRW and other human rights organizations in Ahwaz prisons- Numerous appeals for urgent action have been issued based on reports of torture, ill-treatment, and incommunicado detention and arbitrary arrests by other international NGOs.

Since the April 15, 2005 Entefada (Mass Uprising), at least 160 people were disappeared (believed killed), over 25,000 were detained. Five, including Ali Afrawi 17 and Mehdi Nawaseri 20 were hanged on March 2, 2006 in public in Ahwaz.

Most recently an Urgent Action report by Amnesty International late last month indicated that at least 10 men, all members of Iran's Arab minority, are to be executed any day.

The wives and sons of Ahwazi Arabs opponents of the regime who recently fled the country are being kept hostage in Sapidar Prison in Ahwaz including 2-month old Salma who was born from her mother Fahima Ismail Badawi (26); 4-years old Immad, and Zeidan are imprisoned with their mother Masouma Kaabi and 4-year old Ahmad and 2-year old Osameh imprisoned with their mother Hoda Hawashem (24) in Ahwaz prison.

On the other side of the equation and in parallel with this repression, there is a great deal of national awakening taking place among the non-dominant ethnic minorities as a result of revolution in communication technology and globalization. The advent of the internet and emergence and introduction of satellite TV- where even under the most repressive and intolerant dictatorship, you can read what others write and see and hear what others say and do, all in the privacy of your home- resulted is national self –awakening which is irreversible. i.e. “the genie is out of the bottle”.

So the Ahwazis-Arabs who are in a daily contact with hundreds of satellite TVs such a Al-Jazeera and other Pan-Arab TV and other news stations in real time, can see that while their brethren in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE and others have benefited from oil and have a good life,  their misfortune becomes obvious to them.

As for al-Ahwaz, 28 out of 32 Iran’s vast oil fields, about 2000 of the 2200 oil wells are located in al-Ahwaz. These oilfields supply 40%of OPEC oil export. For Ahwazi-Arabs where the element of oil has been a curse and caused them all the misery and loss of their land, now the presence of 90% of Iran’s main revenue underneath their feet, may in fact be a an opportunity for them to reassert their themselves any be a major player in future of Iran.

So security and stability in Iran in general and in Khuzestan or al-Ahwaz in particular cannot be addresses without addressing the issue of Arab and other ethnic nationalities and meeting their demands.

I believe the hope of a democratic, peaceful, and secular and a federal Iran, a responsible member of the International Community, where all Iran’s constituent national and ethnic groups will unite and chart the future course of Iran, will be a serious challenge to the Islamic Republic of Iran. I believe that this is the only way out of the current crisis in Iran. Other choices are the status quo (which is unsustainable) or facing an uncertain future.

Any solution must recognize that it should be the responsibility of all these nationalities to decide, with equal voice, the future of Iran and to solve the chronic internal crisis brought about by successive dictatorships.

The solution is either the devolution of power from the center to the peripheries or federalism.

Statement delivered by Dr. Karim Abdian, Member of the UNPO Presidency, to “Democracy Promotion: The European Way”, held at the European Parliament in Brussels from 6 – 7 December 2006


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