Little attention has been paid in Western media to Iran’s role in current regional upheavals across the Middle East. Recent reports that Iran has sent Special Forces to Syria and Iraq and Afghan militia members to Syria, along with claims that Iran is engaged in ethnic cleansing there have received little or no coverage.
It’s no longer a secret to the Arab peoples, however, that Iran’s ruling theocratic regime uses a mantle of Shiism to serve its regional interests and expansionist objectives. Indeed, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), General Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared openly in November 2015 that Tehran’s forces are in the process of forming a “single Islamic nation” in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; despite this open declaration of its regional expansionism in the name of a fundamentalist Islamist ideology, the same global powers which claim to be fighting to eradicate another brutal expansionist ‘Islamic state’ remain keen to partner with Iran.
The regime’s expansionism, its rhetoric about “fighting terror”, its venomously anti-Arab racism and its implausible claims that its occupation of Arab lands, ethnic cleansing and oppression of the Sunni Arab populations is being carried out to protect a persecuted religious minority, are simply reclaiming its regional empire after an absence of a couple of millennia.
Ahwazi Arabs know all too well about Iranian occupation and subjugation, having been under the yoke of such an occupation, which was also – ironically – originally backed by the then-British empire, for over 90 years. While Ahwazis have warned for three decades to date about the grave risks posed to the Gulf Arab nations and to the other nations of the Mashreq region by the Islamic Republic’s expansionist objectives which are outlined in its constitution, Ahwazis’ warnings weren’t taken seriously by the Arab states until the Iranian regime began implementing its policy across the region.
Ahwazis’ experience serves as a warning to other Arab peoples of what they can expect if they fail to unite in confronting the threat posed by the regime to the rest of the region.
While the Iranian regime makes much of its supposed anti-imperialist stance, the initial annexation and ongoing occupation of Ahwaz, renamed Khuzestan province in 1936, is a textbook exercise in supremacist colonialism with the overt and tacit backing of superpowers past and present.
The last leader of Ahwaz, Amir Khazaal Al-Kaabi, was promised support under a number of treaties with the Western superpower and empire of the time, Britain, when the then-Shah Reza Pahlavi threatened to annexe the state adjacent to modern-day Iraq in the post-WWI period. In what’s become a depressingly familiar regional theme, Al-Kaabi and the Ahwazi people were subsequently betrayed by the British, who felt their interests would be better served by siding with Iran’s rulers, who offered them sweetheart deals on the massive Ahwazi oil and gas resources (which comprise over 90 percent of those claimed by Iran), disregarding the earlier treaties in favour of backing Iran’s 1925 annexation and military occupation of Ahwaz.
Although the leadership of Iran has changed hands since then, with the Shah and his descendants being overthrown in the revolution of 1979, the military occupation has never ended, with the same brutality and injustice inflicted on Ahwazis by successive regimes.
Although the current regime claims to rule in the name of Shiism, the predominantly Shiite Ahwazi peoples continue to be persecuted for their ethnicity and denied the most basic of rights, including the rights to any benefits from the oil and gas resources in their own lands. The only change for Ahwazis in the period since 1979 has been that they are now brutally oppressed under a de facto apartheid system of rule in the name of welayet e-faqih rather than in the name of dynastic monarchy, with the oppression itself remaining the same.
While Western governments and human rights organisations do periodically speak out against the Islamic Republic’s systematic abuses of human rights against Ahwazis and other minorities in Iran, there has been no serious effort to take the regime to task for these egregious injustices, despite the existence of international human rights laws which could be used to bring pressure on the Iranian leadership. Indeed, the regime’s latest deals with the US and Russia suggest that the international community is keen to strengthen the regime not just domestically but regionally, possibly viewing Iran as useful non-Arab ‘regional policeman’ to help keep aspirations for Arab freedom in check.
Arab leaders and peoples need to learn from Ahwazis’ long and bitter experience. There can no longer be any illusions either about the Iranian regime’s intentions towards the nations of the Mashreq or about the fact that the international community will happily sacrifice Arab wellbeing once again for the sake of the superpowers geopolitical machinations.
Without Arab unity and solidarity to repulse the regime’s efforts, Iran will be another regional powerhouse assisting the global powers to crush Arab freedom in the name of an abuse of faith.