Iran's government cannot afford to ignore Khuzestan anymore

The impoverished people of oil-rich Khuzestan can no longer be pacified by empty rhetoric from Tehran.

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    Local men mourn during a funeral for the September 22 attack on a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Khuzestan, Iran September 24, 2018 [Tasnim News Agency via Reuters]
    Local men mourn during a funeral for the September 22 attack on a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Khuzestan, Iran September 24, 2018 [Tasnim News Agency via Reuters]

    Over the past few months, two events occupied the headlines in Iran: the deadly paramilitary attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz, and the workers' strike at the Haft Tapeh sugar factory in the town of Shush. Both events took place in the south-west province of Khuzestan, home to about six percent of the population (including most of Iran's Arab minority) and almost all of Iran's oil and gas reserves. 

    It first became clear that Khuzestan would play a central role in the future of Iran back in 1908, when William D'Arcy discovered the Masjed Soleyman oil field in the north of the region and dug the Middle East's first oil well. Four years later, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) set up the Abadan refinery, the largest in the world for decades to come, in the south of the state. The profitable refinery swiftly transformed Khuzestan into a de-facto colony and placed it at the epicentre of Iranian - and global - politics. 

    The workers' strike in Abadan in 1929 came as the first major blow to the British reign in the south. It set the stage for the nationalisation of APOC in 1952, and the subsequent CIA-orchestrated coup a year later. In other words, the 1953 coup, which toppled the democratically elected prime minister and changed the course of Iranian history, was a direct result of the reluctance of Western powers to give up their control over Khuzestan's vast natural resources. 

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    The oil and gas reserves in the region triggered another major foreign intervention 27 years later. In 1980, taking advantage of the post-revolutionary chaos in Iran, Iraq's Saddam Hussein attempted to annex Khuzestan. That move launched the tragic eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, which took hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides of the border and destroyed large swaths of land.

    On the Iranian side, the people of Khuzestan took the brunt of the war. They lost their homes and were scattered around the country, living a hard life of internally displaced people. Their suffering soon made them the symbol of national sacrifice in Iran: They were seen as the defenders of the motherland against the invaders.

    Successive Iranian governments, even after the war, promoted and politicised this image and tried to use it to ignite nationalistic sentiments in the population whenever necessary. They sponsored so-called "holy defence" films, such as Morteza Avini's "Tale of Victory", which stitched together footage from the front line with a narration that deeply poeticised Khuzestan's landscape and glorified the sacrifice of its people. 

    The reality on the ground, however, comes in stark contrast with this rhetoric.

    After the war, Khuzestan was virtually abandoned by successive governments - reformist and conservative alike. To this day, in cities like Abadan and Khorramshahr one runs into the ruins of the war. Khuzestan has the third highest unemployment rate in Iran, and Ahvaz is among the 10 poorest cities in the country.

    Khuzestan also has the highest number of drug addicts among all states. This is not to mention the rapidly exacerbating environmental disaster, which has turned the province - once poised to be the agricultural powerhouse of Iran - into a wasteland, and Iran's most polluted state. Successive governments have been watching the ongoing disaster in the state without lifting a finger, but have continued to capitalise on its symbolic status whenever there has been a need to ramp up the rhetoric of national unity. The two major events of the last two months neatly captured this contradiction.

    On September 22, three gunmen from an Arab separatist group called al-Ahvaziya opened fire on a military parade in Ahvaz. They killed 29 and injured over 60 people, many women and children among them. To many Iranians, this brought back the memories of the 1980s and revived the symbolic importance of Khuzestan.

    The social media was abuzz with pictures and messages, posted by politicians and celebrities, expressing solidarity with the people of Khuzestan. Many of them invoked the old rhetoric and lamented the continuing suffering of the people of Khuzestan.

    They wrote brief eulogies about the "sacred streets of Khuzestan," and pointed out that the "holy war" to protect Iran didn't end in the 1980s. The sanctification of Khuzestan as the front line of the fight for the integrity of Iran went on for a week and vanished as the media buzz around the attack abated. Khuzestan had once again shown its huge capacity for nurturing poetical talk and emotional nationalism.

    About 40 days later, the workers of Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory in the north of Khuzestan went on strike. They have been experiencing pay delays and cuts since the privatisation of the factory in 2015.

    Their protest swiftly grew and soon swept national headlines. The government first tried to ignore the strike, but when this became impossible, it started to threaten the workers. The head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, suggested that if the strike becomes a risk to the national security, the organisers would suffer consequences. The workers continued to protest. Soon 18 of them, including Esmail Bakhshi, the articulate and charismatic face of the strike, were arrested.

    These events embody all that is wrong with the way the Iranian leadership has been dealing with Khuzestan for decades: They frequently talk about how they revere the state and its people, but they never take any action to solve their problems or make their lives better. And when the people of Khuzestan try to raise their voices to end this injustice, the very same leaders that often praise them as "the symbols of national pride" treat them like the enemies of the state. 

    This back and forth has gone on for at least 30 years, but it is not sustainable. Khuzestan is probably the most sensitive state in Iran today. Its natural resources aside, it is home to a large Arab population, marginalised and ignored for years.

    It also has a long border with Iraq, which is, thanks to the US invasion, far from stable. The ripple effects of events in Iraq is strongly felt in Khuzestan.

    Khuzestan also has a long and strong tradition of workers struggle, which effectively weakened and delegitimised both Pahlavi shahs before the revolution. If the current political leadership of Iran were to learn any lesson from the past, they should start paying some close attention to the simmering tensions in Khuzestan.

    Iran's leaders need to view the recent strikes in the region as an opportunity to match their rhetoric with action. If they don't, the situation in Khuzestan could get out of their control. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 


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