Oct 24, 2007

Ahwazi: Tales of Forced Displacement

Daniel Brett, Director of the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, explains the current situation of Ahwazis in Iran, highlighting the ‘demographic restructuring’ of the region.

Daniel Brett, Director of the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, explains the current situation of Ahwazis in Iran, highlighting the ‘demographic restructuring’ of the region.

Below are excerpts from an article published by The British Ahwazi Friendship Society:

The following is a translation of an interview conducted by Germany's award-winning on-line current affairs magazine, Telepolis, with Daniel Brett, Chairman of the British Ahwazi Friendship Society.

The Iranian government has problems with minorities: notably the Kurdish separatists in the Northwest , a little less known are the Balochis in the South East and largely unknown are the "Ahwazis", who are predominantly Shiite Arabs in Khuzestan, in the south-west of the country. Following the removal of Saddam Hussein, the horrific scenario of conquest by a Sunni-dominated government disappeared. However, the fear was greater in Iran, with the possibility of separation of the highly oil rich region. We interviewed Daniel Brett, the Chairman of the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, which is lobbying for the Arabs in Khuzestan.

What has happened in the last few years in Khuzestan?

Daniel Brett: In April 2005, there were protests triggered by the publication of a letter from the then Vice-President Ali Abtahi for the 'demographic reconstruction' of Khuzestan province. In essence, the programme involves the reduction of the Arab share of the province's population. Not by a violent genocide, but by forced migration and incentives to draw in Farsi-speakers. Since [the demonstrations], at least 12,000 people have been arrested. There were also a number of killings. We estimate that about 160 people were killed; we know the names of 60 of them.


Is your information verified by the Iranian government’s official accounts?

Daniel Brett: Generally, our information is confirmed by the Iranian authorities and government spokesmen, although the reasons for unrest are not mentioned. Some MPs and local NGOs have also confirmed the background information we receive from our contacts in Khuzestan.


In relation to the resettlement, which you have already mentioned. How do you see that exactly?

Daniel Brett: The government says, "We will take your land." And then they take it. And tear the houses with bulldozers. We have video evidence of this.

Do the landowners receive any compensation for this?

Daniel Brett: Little to none. As Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, following a visit to Khuzestan in July 2005, said, the Iranian government gives compensation for just a fortieth of the current land value. In many cases, no compensation is paid and the victims end up in huts and slums.

Can the dispossessed be free to decide where they relocated?

Daniel Brett: Officially, they are not relocated, but told to leave their homeland. They end up living on relatives' land, mostly in temporary dwellings, such as huts or tents. Alternatively, they move to the slums on the periphery of Ahwaz City. These areas were the focus of riots in the city. There is a direct connection between land expropriation and unrest.

But most Ahwazi Arabs are still in Khuzestan, right?

Daniel Brett: Many simply do not have the money to leave. Some are relocated to other provinces, especially in the small Arab enclaves in the north-east of the country, in the Arab areas in the most distant regions of Iran, where they are culturally uprooted, suffering poverty, drug addiction and crime.

What happens if a landowner refuses to leave his plot?

Daniel Brett: You have no choice. You can not say, 'we won't go'. The whole exercise is carried out at gun-point. In this video, a woman describes how her property was confiscated. Because they do not know where they are going to live while they are still on their land, they live under open skies as their houses have been confiscated by the government and destroyed.

Are the Ahwazi Arabs mostly Sunnis or Shi'ites?

Daniel Brett: They are 80% Shi'ite. They do not think primarily in religious categories. Ahwazi society is traditionally tribal, with people identifying with their rituals and customs. Religious differences are not as important as elsewhere. They live according to conservative values and traditionally identify with local tribal leaders, whose influence the Iranian government is attempting to undermine.


Is there a movement among Ahwazis and the Ma'dan in Iraq for an Arab Shi'ite state?

Daniel Brett: I do not believe that the similarities between the two groups are sufficient to jointly articulate political demands. The Ahwazi movement is itself quite fragmented. One has to bear in mind that half the Ahwazis are illiterate. They are incredibly poor, and there is no effective civil society organisation. There is no real connection between their movement to events outside. Another point is that the Shiites in Iraq are so heavily influenced by Tehran, although there are many moderate Shiites in Iraq who sympathise with Ahwazi Arabs.

What is the reason for the demographic reconstruction - the energy resources in Khuzestan?

Daniel Brett: That was the main reason why the Pahlavi Dynasty imposed direct central government control over "Arabistan". It contains 90% of Iran's oil. There are other reasons why the area is important for the Iranian government. One of them is water, another is the fertility of the soil. There are huge sugar cane plantations, a lot of agriculture and rivers, whose water is diverted to neighbouring regions. Of course, this is another reason for the tension between the Ahwazi Arabs and the Iranian authorities, and from the perspective of the Arabs this represents a threat to their traditional agricultural livelihoods. There is also tension over poor water quality, which is the consequence of newly introduced intensive agriculture in the region. The petrochemical industry is also contributing to water pollution. Khuzestan is now one of the most polluted parts of the world. Moreover, the region is also of strategic importance.

[T]he new projects, such as the sugar cane plantations or the harbour, attract new settlers. Are they solely Farsi-speakers?

Daniel Brett: No, they also include Azeri Turks, who comprise a quarter of the total population of Iran. Many of the immigrants belong to the middle class, are specialists and engineers. The government has built settlements for them, such as the Ramin townships or Shirin Shah, where they live exclusively, without the presence of the local Arab population. Arabs find it harder to find work, due to poverty, discrimination in education and social prejudice. Therefore, they are largely excluded from the economic development projects in the region. The jobs are predominantly given only to people from outside Khuzestan. That is a cause of ethnic tensions.

What about the discrimination in education exactly?

Daniel Brett: Iran is an Islamic state. Classical Arabic, in which the Qu'ran is written, is of course taught in schools. But other subjects are taught only in Farsi and not in minority languages, such as science, literature and geography.

So there is no separate curricula for the Ahwazi minority?

Daniel Brett: No. There are no schools that teach in the Arabic language. But even if there were such schools, I am not sure whether it would lead to Ahwazis being employed in larger numbers in development projects. The government and the companies that belong to it are run by fluent Farsi speakers. And most of the projects belong to the state. It is a major dilemma. I can understand both sides: In such a multi-ethnic society, with so many different languages, there needs to be a lingua franca. This means that the non-Farsi speakers and have fewer opportunities available to them and are economically worse off. The Iranian government, however, refuses to recognise the problem or regard it as a priority.