Iranian regime forcing major demographic changes in Ahwaz

In the recently published UN report of the Special Rapporteur the situation regarding human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) was discussed.

It was presented to the UN’s General Assembly, and in it the Secretary-General revealed “detailed information about the reported persecution of the Arab ethnic minority in the IRI known as the Ahwazi Arabs, which included allegations of a change in the ethnic composition of the region through the confiscation of land and the establishment of settlements.

The Iranian authority has followed the policy of constructing new self-contained cities, particularly for settlers coming from central Iran, with the aim of decreasing the number of Ahwazi residents and increasing the size of the Persian community. Consequently, with comprehensive support and endorsement from the IRI, tens of thousands of people from different parts of Iran have settled in Northern part of Al-Ahwaz.  These intentions were revealed when a top-secret letter from former Vice President Sayed Mohammad-Ali Abtahi dated 24 July 1998 was leaked to the public. This letter contains details of the intended procedure for eradicating Arabic culture and identity and a plan of action to reduce the Arab population to less than third of the total current residents within 10 years by displacement of Ahwazi people to other parts of the country and replacing them with other ethnic minorities such as Azari or Persian groups.   The Ahwazi uprising in 2005 began partly in response to such ongoing negative colonisation strategy which led to the documented death and imprisonment of hundreds of Arabs by security forces and the Iran regime’s Revolutionary Guard.

The confiscation of lands originally owned by Ahwazi Arab farmers has also been documented by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing since 2005.  The Special Rapporteur quoted in his report in 2005 that “the affected population had no access to legal remedies to challenge the legitimacy and legality of the expropriation orders and existing legal remedies only enabled the inhabitants to initiate discussions related to the price offered for their lands.  Allegedly, even in the very few cases in which the prices were slightly raised by courts, they were still fixed much lower than market values. The affected population was not consulted before or during the expropriation procedure.” The consequences of these actions have had serious repercussions for the Ahwazi Arab population.

The Revolutionary Guard’s economic institutions in collaboration with Iranian oil company has continued, with the expropriation of thousands of hectares from Arab farmers owing to the discovery of oil and gas in their lands. The majority of confiscated lands were given to Persian settlers or used in national sugar cane projects, which are increasingly becoming the pretext for officials to void the ownership of native agriculturalists. It can therefore be argued that the construction of numerous settlements and a large increase in the number of non-Arabs in Al-Ahwaz are the biggest challenges facing Ahwazi people in the future. The IRI is preparing for upcoming changes in the Middle East region in relation to international movement towards enforcing the legal rights of minorities to self-determination and freedom, which is happening in various regions already.

In addition to an emphasis on the demographic changes in the Ahwazi region, the report of the Special Rapporteur on Iran’s situation contains “information about 45 cases involving the arrest and detention of Ahwazi Arabs” simply because the victims participated in cultural and traditional ceremonies or spoke out publicly against the IRIs actions resulting in local environmental deterioration and the policy of diverting water from Ahwaz to central provinces in Iran. The report in particular shed light on the plight of three Arab ethnic rights activists and their cruel punishment by branch 4 of the Revolutionary Court in Ahwaz for organizing Arabic-language classes and promoting ethnic rights.

It is interesting to observe Iran’s condemnations of Israel settlements in West Bank in Palestine whilst they themselves are employing similar policies since 1925, with the aim of ethnic cleansing and eradicating Ahwazi Arabs through the implementation of plans such as “Comprehensive Security Projects for Khuzestan (Al-Ahwaz) that was conducted by the Iranian Interior Minister under Hassan Rouhani’s government in as recently as 2014.

The IRI’s assumption of racial superiority, and extensive anti-Arab sentiment have played an important role in the process of supressing Arabs’ identity and existence in Al-Ahwaz. Although the proportion of Persian people is only just over half of the population in Iran, the IRI believe in controlling the other half of the people inside Iran, including Azari, Kurds, Arabs and so forth through land seizure, forced displacement, illegal settlement and violating the right to housing and property of non-Persians.  These human rights violations have been widely documented by organisations such as Amnesty International among others.

The Iranian administration continues to use various instruments to carry out these violations,  including physical and mental torture, long term imprisonment and often execution to silence the voice of Arab activists who oppose the regime’s suppressive policy. The alleged campaigners are often accused of acting against national security, spreading anti-regime propaganda, being foreign agents and traitors and encouraging secessionist sentiments. These statements are also the typical language used by the IRI to describe anyone attempting to advance human rights for ethnic minorities.  One Ahwazi political and social campaigner described his captivity and the horrific pain and distress that he had witnessed and experienced, saying: “I was incarcerated in solitary confinement, without trial, in section six of the infamous Sepidar prison, where I endured two months of relentless abuse and torture. Only the solidarity and brotherhood of fellow activists and cellmates gave me the inner strength to not give up.” According to Amnesty International the situation of human rights defenders has deteriorated since Hassan Rouhani took over the power in 2013, with a new wave of aggressive measures by judicial bodies and security forces, “demonizing and imprisoning activists who dare to stand up for people’s rights”.

It can certainly be argued that the time for international communities to intervene has arrived.  An end is needed to current policy, law and practice in Iran which continues to discriminate against ethnic minorities, in particular Arabs.  The international community, including world leaders, should also urge the IRI to stop forced evictions, land confiscation and settlement policy in Al-Ahwaz.

By: Abdulrahman Hetteh (Specialist in the Field of International Law and Human Rights)

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