Last week’s gun attack at an Iranian Revolutionary Guard parade in Ahwaz brought to the attention of the world an issue that hardly registers outside of the Middle East; namely the long running aspirations of the Arab minority who dwell within the borders of present day Iran, for self-determination. The cause for Ahwaz and Khuzestani independence has long been an issue of contention, lying as it does within a foment of geopolitical and Arab/Persian antagonisms.
The Arabs of Ahwaz and the wider Khuzestan region have long complained of discrimination. Agitation, both political and armed resistance has scarred the province for generations. In 2012, the academic Amal al-Hazzani wrote that ‘The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz is an Arab territory. Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persians state seized control in 1925. It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from an humanitarian perspective.'
It is reckoned that over eight million Arabs live in Khuzestan province but their demands for autonomy are always stifled. This sense of continued frustration by the Arabs of Ahwaz manifested itself in March 2018 when Asharq Al-Aswat reported that ‘Thousands of people took to the streets in Ahwaz province protesting what they called the Iranian authority’s marginalisation of Iranians of Arab origin.’ The report went on to claim that in recent years the Tehran regime has been actively encouraging the settlement of people from outside Al-Ahwaz as a means of ethnic dilution.
The constant denial of ethnic Arab aspirations has resulted in cyclical insurrection. There have been bomb and gun attacks and, off course executions ( Iran is second only to China for the number of executions it carries out annually). Writing in the The Weekly Standard last week, Reuel Gerecht commented on both the fragility of the whole Iranian state and also its problems with minorities. ‘Ethnic clashes often go unreported and misreported in the West...The clerical regime rules over many obstreperous peoples that might bolt if they were allowed to do so.’Gerecht goes on to explore the Persian mind-set, by saying that as far the Iranians are concerned the current borders are ‘settled.’ He explains that Iranians believe that an all-encompassing idea of Persianness transcends ethnic allegiance.
Against Iranian allegations that Saudi Arabia’s hand lies behind the recent attack in Ahwaz Gerecht states that ‘it is far more likely that Khuzestani Arabs who hate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps undertook this mission without Saudi guidance and support.’
The podwerkeg that is Ahwaz is exacerbated by the fact that it has the highest suicide rate in Iran. 40% of the Arab population are unemployed and 40% of its residents do not have access to clean drinking water. Child malnutrition runs at 50%.
On a wider geopolitical scale it is salutary to mention that in the wake of the Ahwaz attacks the Iranian government summoned the ambassadors of Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands. These are some of the countries where pro-Ahwaz independence been free to organise. Moreover, there have been assassinations and harassment of pro-independence figures in Europe.
British foreign policy in particular could be a more significant factor in the ongoing demands of Ahwaz Arabs. Britain is seeking to find its place in the world post-Brexit. It needs to markets and access to new energy commodities. So, what is the case for self-determination and its benefits for the both the region and the wider world? Both China and Russia are backing the Shia imperialism of Iran. They do this to both gain access to Iranian resources and to neuter Western influence, and power. Russia in particular as, James Dorsey writes on the Modern Diplomacy page ‘is effectively turning its back on Europe as it reinvents itself as an Asian power.’ The dream of a Western-backed independent Ahwaz Arab state would guarantee ethnic Arabs the promise of a future without discrimination. If the Ahwaz Arabs could secede from Iranian control the new state would be oil rich and homogenous, with safe harbours. It would offer the promise of Western access to competitive energy supplies. In the new world order of competing blocks the cause of independence for Arabs in Al-Ahwaz is becoming a one that will either be fought for by the West or lost to more predatory powers. Britain’s long standing support for the Ahwaz Arabs could be crucial in the next few years.