The Ahwazi Arabs in Arabistan Al Ahwaz are facing different problems in comparison with other ethnic and religious groups.
Around 15 April 2005, a controversial letter dated 1999 and attributed to Mr. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, advisor to then President Khatami, surfaced in Ahwaz. While the alleged writer denied its authenticity, the letter suggested policies for transfer of Arabs in other parts of Iran, the settling of non-Arabs in Khuzestan, and removing Arab names of places. The Arabs who peacefully demonstrated against the letter in Ahwaz were fired upon by the police and the security forces.
Consequently, protests spread to many other cities in the province and in the resulting excessive use of force by the authorities, scores of people were reported to have died including at least two children; hundreds were injured and hundreds arrested, including women and children.
Regardless of the authenticity of the letter, those policies aimed at changing the demographic composition of the Arab-inhabited regions have been gradually implemented over the years. Several hundred thousand non-Arabs have been settled in Ahwaz from 1996-2006. This policy goes hand in hand with measures aimed at confiscation of land and displacing the local Arabic-speaking population as well as denying them their cultural rights.
The above discriminatory practices were voiced by the former MP for Ahwaz (2000-2004) and leader of the Lejnat al-Wefaq al-Eslami (Islamic Unity Party; IUP), Jasem Shadidzadeh Al-Tamimi, in an open letter to then President Khatami in late April 2005, a few days after the outbreak of the protests.
Those concerns are summarised as follows:
- More than 15,000 people have been displaced to Mashhad because their lands have not been de-mined properly and the military forces are quartered there.
- Many refugees of the Iraq war are still living in other cities, 20 years since it ended.
- People’s lands have been confiscated with no or negligible compensation, e.g:
- More than 120,000 hectares were expropriated for a cane sugar expansion project, more than 47,000 hectares for an agricultural project of the war veterans in the Jofeir region.
- more than 25,000 hectares for fishery construction, and more than 6,000 hectares for housing ‘devout Persian people’ from northern and north-eastern Arabistan al Ahwaz (Khuzestan) province in areas bordering the city of (Susa) Shoush;
- More than 50,000 were displaced in Shirin shahr residential estate for expansion of cane sugar project;
- More than 4,000 people were made homeless due to the demolition of the housing complex in Ahwaz;
- Arabs were discriminated against by the denial of licence to the IUP, the refusal of publication licence for an Arabic-language newspaper and the refusal of permission to establish NGOs.
- Arabs are the most numerous prisoners in Khuzestan.
- Mr. Shadidzadeh, having been disqualified from standing for parliamentary election in 2004, was detained and later released without charge. The IUP had engaged in lawful peaceful activities to represent the rights of the Arab population and its list of all-Arab candidates had won all the seats with the exception of one in the municipal council elections in Ahwaz in 2003.
- The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, who visited Iran in July 2005, confirmed these concerns and added her own:
“The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing observed disproportionately poor living conditions that may point to a significant degree of neglect in relation to the housing necessities of ethnic minorities. Such groups seem to have been suffering from uneven distribution of development resources from the national authorities in Tehran.
“The living conditions in Arabistan Al Ahwaz and Kermanshah in poor neighbourhoods mainly inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Muslim Sufis were extremely unsatisfactory. Particularly serious conditions were observed in places like Ghal’at Channan and Akhar Asfalt in Ahwaz with, in some cases, a complete lack of basic services impacting negatively on the populations’ health status, in addition to contributing to severe security problems.
Most poor neighbourhoods were unpaved, open-air sewage was sometimes observed and uncollected garbage blocked streets, obstructing traffic and access from the outside in case of emergencies…“Information was also received suggesting that displacement caused by development projects and land confiscation disproportionately affected minority groups.
In Arabistan Al Ahwaz, the Special Rapporteur visited lands traditionally cultivated by Iranian Arabs, which were expropriated by the Government for remarkably low prices in order to provide space for development projects and plantations.
The rate of unemployment among the Arabs is reportedly much higher than the national average.
There is a shortage of water, electricity and sanitation in Khuzestan. Despite the pressing water shortage in the province, there are reports that water is to be channelled from the Karun River in [Arabistan Al Ahwaz] Khuzestan to Isfahan, Yazd and Rafsanjan in other provinces. Since the 2005 protests, there have been reports of high numbers of executions of Arabs every year.