Jan 10, 2007

Ahwazi: Ahmedinejad Fails to Deliver on Indigenous Arab Problem

President Ahmadinejad's four-day visit to the Khuzestan region last week must be seen as a failed attempt to address the root problems of the regions ethnic unrest

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's four-day visit to Khuzestan last week was billed as a chance to listen to the province’s largely Arab population. Instead, it turned out to be a long lecture on foreign policy with little attempt to address the causes of ethnic unrest in the province.

Ahmadinejad's series of rallies were more notable for what he did not say rather than what he did say. There was the usual litany of anti-Western slogans, the defiance of the UN Security Council's censure of Iran over its nuclear programme, the promise of Israel's demise and the Nazi Holocaust denial that has become the hallmark of the Ahmadinejad administration. Yet Arabs in the audience who are a minority in Iran but a majority in Khuzestan did not hear a single word on the civil unrest that has gripped the province since April 2005, when riots broke out after a letter detailing an "ethnic restructuring" plan for Khuzestan was publicised on Al-Jazeera.

There were signs that the audience wanted to hear more about more fundamental issues. Hand-written placards were held up indicating that a massive presence of Bassij paramilitaries had not completely suppressed dissent. One read "Inflation, unemployment, insecurity, drug addiction have desiccated the tree of the revolution" and another said "Oil and gas are our rights. Eliminate youth unemployment."

For most Ahwazis, industrial development has not led to a significant increase in living standards.

Situated in south-western Iran and bordering Iraq, Khuzestan is the motor of the Iranian economy providing 80-90 per cent of its oil output. However, the province's indigenous Ahwazi Arabs are among the poorest people in Iran, with Arab districts enduring African levels of child malnutrition, the highest illiteracy rates in the Middle East and low life expectancy. Poverty has fuelled social problems, such as drug addiction which has led to a dramatic rise in HIV/AIDS. Added to these economic problems are the lingering effects of Iraq's invasion of Khuzestan, which most Ahwazi Arabs opposed and died in their thousands resisting. Saddam promise of sovereignty for Ahwazi Arabs was never realised, but he left in his wake wrecked cities, poisoned soil and the world’s largest minefields which continue to claim lives although the sacrifices of the Arabs who bore the brunt of Iraqi aggression is rarely recognised and little has been done to clear up the devastation of one of history's most bloody wars. The lack of progress in human development reveals that the promises of the Islamic Revolution which the local Arab population had embraced in 1979 have never been fulfilled, despite the province’s immense resources.

Economic inequality is underpinned by racial discrimination and state terrorism. In its first assessment of the Ahmadinejad administration's human rights record, Amnesty International pointed out that Arabs have been "denied state employment under the gozinesh criteria." The report adds that "hundreds of Arabs have been arrested since President Ahmadinejad's election and many are feared to have been tortured or ill-treated. The prisons in Khuzestan province, and particularly the capital Ahvaz, are reported to be extremely overcrowded as a result of the large numbers of arrests ... Children as young as 12 are reported to have been detained with adult prisoners. Some of those detained are believed to have been sentenced to imprisonment or death after grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts."

One of the main issues is land expropriation, which Amnesty says is "so widespread that it appears to amount to a policy aimed at dispossessing Arabs of their traditional lands. This is apparently part of a strategy aimed at the forcible relocation of Arabs to other areas while facilitating the transfer of non-Arabs into Khuzestan and is linked to economic policies such as zero interest loans which are not available to local Arabs." Members of the European Parliament have described it as ethnic cleansing on a par with Serbia's purges on Kosovar Albanians.

The problem of land confiscation predates Ahmadinejad's appointment as president. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing Miloon Kothari appeared to be incredulous at the treatment of Ahwazi Arabs. In an interview following his visit to Iran in July 2005: "...when you visit Ahwaz there are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections ... why is that? Why have certain groups not benefited? ... Again in Khuzestan, ... we drove outside the city about 20 km and we visited the areas where large development projects are coming up - sugar cane plantations and other projects along the river - and the estimate we received is that between 200,000-250,000 Arab people are being displaced from their villages because of these projects. And the question that comes up in my mind is, why is it that these projects are placed directly on the lands that have been homes for these people for generations?"


The Iranian intelligentsia is already warning that failure to deal with the crisis in Khuzestan threatens to turn it from a provincial problem into a regional geopolitical issue. In a recent letter to the Chief of the Judiciary Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi appealing for clemency for a number of Ahwazis sentenced to death, writer and human rights advocate Emad Baghi wrote that "this kind of ethnic issue is rooted in the poverty, socio-economic deprivation and accumulated repressed complexes abused and exploited by foreign forces. It is only through the pursuit and implementation of justice that ethnic concerns can be addressed and external manipulation neutralized." He urged Shahroudi to end the mass execution of Ahwazis "to avoid costly mistakes not only in relation to the taking of precious human lives but also because of the real potential for heightening and injuring ethnic sensibilities." Yet the regime does not appear to be listening to Baghi's words of wisdom. Instead, Baghi has been repeatedly detained for criticising government policy.