Recent violence in Iran has brought the city of Ahwaz to the front pages. In late September 2018, four gunmen opened fire at a military parade in the city, killing 29 people. Responsibility for the attack has thus far been claimed by the Ahwaz National Resistance in the name of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). Responsibility has also apparently been claimed by Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS), and Iran has decided not unreasonably to blame them both – though at the end of the day, only one of them did it.
Located in the southwest of Iran in the province of Khuzestan, Ahwaz is one of the most oil-rich regions in the country. However, despite the abundance of natural resources, the central government has deliberately underdeveloped the region. The infrastructure of Ahwaz is lacking far behind the rest of the country, all of which is not helped by the city’s status as having the world’s worst air pollution.
Unknown to most, there are an estimated 5-7 million Arabs in the Khuzestan region. In a majority ethnic Persian Iran, they constitute a small minority with most of them concentrated in the Khuzestan region. In 1925, the British had control over the region, formally known as Arabistan. This area was later annexed and renamed by Iran as Khuzestan. As such, some Arab Ahwazis consider themselves as under Persian “occupation” and have been vying for an independent country of their own.
Ahwazi Arabs argue that they face state entrenched discrimination at the hands of Iranian governments both past and present. A Home Office report points out that Ahwazi Arabs suffer from persecution, arbitrary detention, poverty and a lack of basic rights. They are provided with limited access to services such as housing, water, sanitation, employment, and education. The report also highlights that many Ahwazi Arabs have had their lands confiscated, without any compensation for loss of land.
In addition to this, the Arab people of Ahwaz have been subject to a policy of ‘Persianisation’ through which they have experienced ethnic and linguistic repression. As a result, Ahwazi Arabs are not formally permitted to learn their mother tongue nor express their culture. It is speculated by some and noted by Arab Ahwazis that the government has attempted to alter the demographic makeup of Ahwaz by renaming town names to sound more Persian and also by resettling Persian speaking families into the area. In theory, the Iranian constitution does afford respect and rights to all ethnic minorities and considers all Iranian citizens equal but there is little evidence of this in practice.
Ahwaz is no stranger to civil unrest and has continuously seen anti-government protests. Violence from Ahwazi Arab separatist groups has also taken place over the decades, and if the claims are true, the killing of civilians at the military parade in September being the most recent example. Despite being a low-level conflict, violent activity in Ahwaz has increased since 2005 with September’s attack being one of the deadliest in nearly a decade
The cause of Ahwazi Arabs has been championed by nationalist groups such as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). The group has been involved in political activity, but have on a number of previous occasions resorted to violent means such as bombings to achieve their goals.
Acts of violence do very little in highlighting the very legitimate issues that the Ahwazi Arabs and other minority groups face in Iran. Iran has largely attempted to contain discontent from their population by cracking down on protests but it is increasingly difficult for them to do so in a region that is fraught and fragmented by divisions. This is particularly true for Ahwaz.
Ahwaz is key to the national security of Iran and is also the economic lifeline for the country; housing almost 90% of the country’s oil. The presence of the armed wing of the ASMLA and the grievances of the Arab population should be a cause for concern for Tehran, taking into consideration Iran’s relationship with hostile states such as Saudi Arabia and the United States who could themselves exploit this unrest.
“The nation’s security is the red line. Terrorists used bullets in Ahvaz , we answered the them with missiles”. That was the statement made by IRGC general Hajizadeh hours after Iran pounded alleged Daesh targets in Syria with ballistic missiles. Iran’s leader had warned after the recent attack on the military parade in the city of Ahvaz that, “The terrorists will be punished soon”. Iran claimed it was proving it was serious in safeguarding its security by responding in kind when it came under attack.