For decades, the Persian shahs and ayatollahs of Iran have uprooted Ahwazi Arabs from their oil-rich region in the southwest corner of the country, forcing an estimated 1.5 million people off the land where their families have lived for generations.
The result, Ahwazi activists say, is the occupation of an Arab homeland in the heart of the Middle East that almost nobody knows about — an occupation, Ahwazis contend, that has stripped Arabs of more land than is at issue in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
“They came at me like a pack of wolves,” said Abu Tarek, who asks that his family name be withheld out of concern for his safety.
Abu Tarek is a native of the region that borders Iraq, Kuwait and the Persian Gulf, once known as Arabistan after its ethnic majority but renamed Khuzestan by the Iranian government. As a campaigner for the rights and autonomy of Ahwazis, Khuzestan’s Arab-majority population, he was considered a grave threat to Iran’s national security.
“For a year, they blindfolded me, electrocuted my hands, beat my penis and smashed my head against the wall,” he said, describing his torture at the hands of Iranian security during 1987, a year before the end of the Iran-Iraq war. “One time, I fell unconscious for two days, and when I woke up, I couldn’t see out of my left eye.”
Like most Middle Eastern countries, Iran has a host of ethnic and religious minorities within its borders. The dominant group is ethnic Persian Shiites, and the government they control derives most of its wealth from oil.e
Khuzestan’s oil fields produce about 90 percent of Iran’s oil, or nearly 10 percent of OPEC’s total production. To replace the autonomy-minded Arabs of Khuzestan, the Tehran government has sponsored a series of vast industrial projects, coupled with massive, organized influxes of Persian workers and their families to replace the Ahwazis.
The government accuses Ahwazi Arabs of plotting foreign invasions with everyone from the CIA to Saddam Hussein.
“The security agents said I was a spy for the Iraqi regime. I told them I didn’t want to change the Iranian occupation for an Iraqi one,” said Abu Tarek. Six years into his second stint in jail, he escaped earlier this year and fled to Syria, hoping for refuge from his persecutors.
He has not found it.
Although Syria, an authoritarian, Sunni-majority country where political Islam is outlawed, and Iran, a hard-line Shiite theocracy, make an unlikely partnership, their strategic alliance transcends founding ideologies.
Abu Tarek may be considered a political refugee by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and the rulers of Syria may still pride themselves on backing the pan-Arab cause, but he nonetheless faces possible deportation back to Iran — and what would probably be a death sentence.
“I thought I’d be protected here in this Arab state. In the past, we used to ask Syria for help in our struggle; now I am asking Europe for help in escaping Syria,” Abu Tarek said. “I am afraid Syrian intelligence will hand me over. I am even more afraid here than in Iran. I knew my enemy in Khuzestan, and I knew where to run. Here I don’t even have a house, so at night I sleep in parks.”
His fear may be justified — other Ahwazis have been sent by Syrian authorities to Iran, even one who lived in Europe.
Dutch citizen Faleh Abdullah Mansuri, the 60-year-old head of the Ahwazi Liberation Organization, the Ahwazis’ leading political opposition movement, was arrested by Syrian security in April while he was visiting an Ahwazi friend in Damascus.
Syrian authorities recently confirmed that Mansuri was deported to Tehran in May at the request of Iran. He is now reportedly in prison in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan, facing what activists say could be death by hanging for charges related to a string of bombings in Khuzestan last year that targeted public buildings and oil fields. Tehran authorities blamed the attacks on Ahwazi dissidents, although the main Ahwazi organizations denied responsibility.
Saeed Saki, a member of the Ahwazi Liberation Organization, had been recognized as a refugee by the U.N. agency. He was living in Damascus and was due to be resettled in Norway when he was arrested and extradited to Tehran. Only high-level intervention from international officials prevented his execution, and he remains imprisoned in Iran.
Three other Ahwazis — Abdullah Abdel Hamid, whose family has resettled in Norway; Jamal Obaidy, a university student; and Taher Mazra, whose family was prevented from leaving Syria for Sweden last month — were arrested in April, and are believed to be in a Damascus prison and facing extradition to Iran.
Laurens Jolles, acting representative of the U.N. refugee commission in Damascus, said that despite numerous requests, the agency had been given no access to the three men.e
“Syria is aware that its own Constitution prevents the deportation of refugees to countries where they will face persecution, as do international laws,” he said. “There should be a clear understanding these men should not be sent back to Iran.”
A source at the Iranian embassy in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that any prisoners of conscience had been extradited from Syria to Iran. “There is an agreement between Syria and Iran that any Iranian who has been jailed in Syria for a crime can be transferred to complete his sentence in Iran. But no prisoners of conscience have been handed over to Iran by Syria.”
Before its annexation in 1925 by the British-backed shah of Iran, Khuzestan was an autonomous Arab emirate. Britain, France and Italy all had consulates in Ahvaz. Activists say about a third of the 5 million Ahwazis have been driven from the province since the 1979 Islamic revolution that swept the monarchy from power and installed the Shiite ayatollahs in power.
A quarter million have been displaced by the state seizure of more than 750 square miles of land for use in a huge sugar-cane project, while an additional 400,000 Ahwazis are set to be made homeless in the creation of a military-industrial complex along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which borders Iraq. In December, Iran announced plans to build a nuclear reactor in Khuzestan, despite the earthquake-prone nature of the region.e
Discriminated against in education and access to health care, Ahwazis are banned from speaking Arabic, and many students drop out of school early rather than receive an education only in Farsi. The result has been soaring unemployment and abject poverty: 80 percent of Ahwazi children are malnourished, according to the governor of Dashte-Azadegan, a district of Khuzestan.
Many Ahwazi towns were decimated in the Iran-Iraq war, and the government has made almost no effort to rebuild them. The land is riddled with millions of land mines left over from that war, which continue to kill or maim Ahwazi farmers. Chemical weapons used by the Iraqi military on Arab-majority cities have led to heart disease two decades later and continue to poison Ahwazi fetus, according to the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, an activist organization.
Since the Ahwazi intifada, or uprising, began in April 2005, Iran has detained more than 25,000 Ahwazis, at least 131 have been executed and more than 150 have disappeared, according to the Ahwazi Human Rights Organization in the United States.
The two-month campaign of civil unrest culminated in a bomb attack on an oil installation east of Ahvaz, prompting Tehran to call on Hezbollah to help quell demonstrations and strikes, said Abu Hisham, another Ahwazi fugitive in Damascus. He also asked that his family name be withheld for his safety.
Hezbollah, a militant Islamist movement based in Lebanon, is financed by Iran, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, became an Arab icon after he waged war with Israel last summer. Iran’s influence on the Shiite Arab factions in Iraq, its sponsorship of anti-Israeli Islamist groups including the Shiite Hezbollah and Hamas, the hard-line Sunni party that controls the Palestinian government, as well as its defiance of Western demands that it curtail its nuclear development program has gained the hard-line Iranian leaders popularity throughout the Arab world.
The Badr Brigade, the militia of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the major parties in the Iraqi coalition government, uses training camps in Khuzestan. Abu Hisham said he was interrogated by Iraqi militants at one such camp.
Abu Hisham said he fled Khuzestan in 2000 after seeing his brother and most of his friends arrested. He, too, now lives alone and in hiding in Damascus.
“Iran occupies more Arab land in terms of square meters than Israel does,” said Hisham, his eye darting nervously as he talked. “Yet we get more attention from the Dutch than from all the Arab states. I wish the world would unite for our cause, like they did to liberate Kuwait, which is a third the size of Khuzestan.”
For Abu Tarek, however, it feels like the time for hope is running out.
“I am afraid. I feel like a bird trapped inside a cage, waiting to be slaughtered. I know I will spend the rest of my life without my family,” he said, the tears welling up in his one good eye.
“The best friend to me these long years has been sadness. All I ask is this: Do we have a land of our own, and will we ever be allowed to rest in peace on this land?”
San Francisco Chronicle
Last Updated November 7, 2006 7:27 AM