April 17, 2005
Demonstrations broke out after the publication of a top secret letter from President Khatami's office, which detailed plans for a programme of ethnic "restructuring" in the Iranian-occupied province of Khuzestan.
State Security Forces were brought in to halt the protests and began shooting at unarmed demonstrators. The authorities also cut off the power, telephone connections and water supplies to the city's Arab districts of Ahvaz. The districts are now beseiged by the SSF, which is preventing people from entering or leaving.
President Khatami has reportedly ordered the Intelligence Ministry and the Supreme National Security Council to identify those behind the unrest, alleging that "the hands of foreign agents and enemies of the revolution are at work".
The plans outlined in the letter include reducing the Arab population to around one-third of the province's total population through forced migration and eliminating all traces of Arab culture and language, including names of streets and towns. The letter, signed by former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi and written in 1999, suggests a time-frame of 10 years to accomplish the ethnic restructuring programme.
On his personal website (www.webneveshteha.com), Abtahi denied writing the letter saying: "I've never had such a power to issue a directive to change the population." Government officials also claimed the letter was forged.
However, the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS), which received the letter three weeks ago, gave a copy to a former member of Khatami's staff now living in exile, who has verified its authenticity. BAFS has also obtained video evidence that shows the destruction of Ahwazi Arab homes by the Iranian army and interviews with those who were made homeless. This will be broadcast to Iran via the Al-Ahwaz TV channel. The destruction of houses owned by Ahwazi Arabs appears to be a part of a programme of ethnic cleansing in Khuzestan.
In a statement, the BAFS urged the UN to set up an inquiry into the killings and the problem of human rights abuse in Khuzestan. The BAFS has also called for international solidarity with the Ahwazi people and other ethnic minorities facing similar abuse in Iran.
"Crimes against humanity are being carried out against Ahwazi Arabs and other Iranian minorities," said BAFS Chairman Daniel Brett. "Now we have the irrefutable evidence that President Khatami is directing a policy of ethnic cleansing in Khuzestan. We can prove this letter is genuine and that the orders in Ali Abtahi's letter are being carried out through the use of violent coercion. It is time for the international community to say enough is enough and address this systematic abuse of human rights firmly and decisively."