Jan 28, 2005

The Plight of the Ahwazis

Given the nature of the "war on terrorism" discourse, one would be forgiven for believing there are no Arab moderates and that democracy is culturally alien to the Arab world. While Western states act as puppeteers to the despotic clowns in the Arab League, their opponents act as apologists to violent Islamic fundamentalists and there appears to be no centre ground. Yet, secular democrats are out there, victimised by all sides in this supposed clash of civilisations.

This week I met Mansour Al-Ahwazi, a leader of the Democratic Solidarity Party of Al-Ahwaz (DSPA). The DSPA is campaigning for self-determination for the Iranian province of Khuzistan, which is the homeland of five million indigenous Arabs known as the Ahwazi. The DSPA is recognised by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) as the representative of the Ahwazi people. As a socially liberal, centre-left and anti-aristocratic party, the DSPA is rejected by Arab traditionalists. But its repudiation of Nasserite pan-Arab nationalism, refusal to co-operate with the Iraqi Ba'athists during the Iran-Iraq War, rejection of violence and disinterest in Marxist ideology means it lacks outside support from secularists and liberal democrats. So, the Ahwazi remain friendless and forgotten, despite the campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Persian fundamentalist elite that rules Iran and dire poverty that affects their daily lives. Yet, their story of repression is intimately bound up with regional geopolitics. They are a casualty of Britain's colonial misadventures and Western hunger for oil.

Under agreements with the British, Khuzistan (then known as Al-Ahwaz )) enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. Al-Ahwaz was the first emirate in the Gulf region and was ruled by Sheikh Khazal between 1897-1925. The region's autonomy ended in 1925 with the imposition of Persian rule over the region by the regime of Reza Shah, whose move to centralise the administration of Iran was supported by the British. The British regarded strong government in Iran as crucial to its efforts to prevent the spread of Bolshevism in the Middle East.

The Shah's attempts to impose Persian identity on Khuzistan, including banning the use of the Arabic language in schools and government, confiscating Arab land and creating Persian settlements, were resisted by the Arabs. While the Arabs got poorer, Iran's ethnic Persian elite got richer on the proceeds of revenue from oil extracted from Khuzistan, which accounts for 80-90 per cent of Iran's oil production or four million barrels of oil per day. The Shah, who benefited from Western aid and support, put down a number of Arab uprisings and armed rebellions led by groups such as the Arabistan Liberation Front (formed 1958) and the Arabistan National Liberation Front (formed 1967).

Although Iranian Arabs participate in the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Republic that emerged following the 1979 revolution continued the Shah's repressive policies in Khuzistan. Three months after the revolution, the Islamic regime fired on Arab demonstrators in the town of Khorramshahr in Khuzistan, killing 800. Following the massacre, a number of Iraqi-backed armed Ahwazi groups emerged, the most infamous being the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA). In May 1980, the DRFLA besieged the Iranian embassy in London, taking a number of hostages in an effort to draw attention to its demands for self-determination for Khuzistan. The British Special Air Service (SAS) stormed the building and freed the hostages. The one surviving hostage-taker was brought to trial and imprisoned - he remains the longest held prisoner under the UK's anti-terrorism legislation and Blunkett has rejected his release.

With Khuzistan one of the main territorial battlegrounds during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein set up a number of Iranian Arab insurgent groups to seize control of Khuzestan and the Shatt Al-Arab waterway. Following the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq's attention shifted away from capturing Khuzistan and support for Ahwazi militants declined.

The Arabs of Khuzistan continued to resist Iranian rule, despite a loss of interest from Saddam and the outside world. They staged civil uprisings in 1994 and 2000 against confiscation of Arab land for oil extraction, but little is heard of their struggle against Persian chauvinist mullahs. Instead, oil companies from Europe and the Far East are focussed on grabbing production sharing agreements for Khuzistani oil, which represents around 20 per cent of OPEC production.

Their voices muffled by global media silence, Ahwazi civil rights activists are routinely rounded up, tortured, imprisoned and forgotten. On Tuesday, I met some Ahwazi asylum seekers who had fled Iran to seek sanctuary in the UK, where they have family. But they have received little sympathy from the British government. Despite evidence of grotesque torture - gential mutilation, women's breasts being cut off, flogging, etc - their asylum applications have been dismissed. Not surprising, as many of the corrupt lawyers appointed to represent them don't even bother to attend court to defend their applications. British racism and xenophobia is being kept alive and well by the right-wing press, which makes it difficult for them to find a voice; they are "unpersons".

When Mansour and the other Ahwazis told me "you are one of the few friends we have", it touched me. Who is going to befriend them? Who is willing to put aside their prejudices and political agendas to help an indigenous minority suffering a plight far worse than the Palestinians?

Mansour said: "We don't hate Westerners. We don't hate Israelis. We don't hate Americans. We just want to live in peace and be compensated for our lands that have been stolen for oil."

So tell me all you "progressives", "socialists" and "liberals": aren't the Ahwari a cause that should be supported by those who believe in social justice, peace and democracy?

Just compare the Ahwazis to the Palestinians. There are five million Ahwazis - twice the number of Palestinians in the West Bank. Khuzistan is about 69,000 square km in size, 12 times larger than the West Bank. Khuzistan is richer in oil than the Niger Delta, but 50 per cent of the indigenous Ahwazi live in absolute poverty and 80 per cent of Ahwazi children are malnourished. Unlike the Palestinians who are free to speak Arabic, the Ahwazis are forced to use the language of their oppressors - Farsi. But just 40 per cent of the Ahwazi speak the language; 60 per cent of Ahwazi men and 80 per cent of Ahwazi women are illiterate. If anyone feels as angry and moved by the plight of the Palestinians, they should not forget the Ahwazi.

Ahwaz Study Centre
Ahwaz Revolution Information Centre
Ahwaz Revolutionary Council
The Identity and Ancestry of the Indigenous Khuzestani (Ahwazi) Arabs of Iran
Ahwaz statement at the WGIP
Norwegian oil firms in Khuzistan