Tehran-based analyst Karim Sadjadpour told Aljazeera.net on Wednesday that the separatist cause remained a minority movement.
Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist for the International Crisis Group, said the vast majority of ethnic-Arab Iranians fought against Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq war, demonstrating their loyalty to the Iranian nation.
But he added that there were plenty of reasons for significant dissatisfaction in the region.
“Like elsewhere in Iran, there is substantial discontent in Khuzestan but those in favour of separatism are in the minority.
“It suffers from higher than average unemployment. The region’s ethnic Arabs – half of whom are Sunni – feel neglected by the central government, they don’t feel as if they’re offered the same opportunities as their Persian and Shia compatriots”, Sadjadpour added.
A few senior Iranian officials have accepted partial responsibility for Ahvaz’s troubles.
Presidential hopeful Mohsen Reza’i told the Fars news agency in April that poor, self-interested management was to blame for the unrest, adding that if more attention were paid to development, there would be less insecurity.
Hasan Rowhani: Tehran must look
Hasan Rowhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said the government would “examine if the inhabitants of the province have demands from the government”.
And local parliamentarian Sayyid Nezam Mula-Hoveyzeh was more specific, telling national media that the unrest was due to the regional administration.
“I have given a note to the president that if he wants to restore peace in Khuzestan, he should issue a special order to dissolve the [Islamic Iran] Participation Front,” he said on 19 April, referring to the party in power in the region of which Ahvaz is the capital.
But most of Iran’s political elite lay the blame for the southwest’s civil unrest firmly on the shoulders of fringe movements and their foreign backers.
Ahvaz’s deputy governor Rahim Fazilatpur named those responsible as the Arab Martyrs of Khuzestan, the Arab People’s Democratic Front and the Armed Renaissance Group of Ahvaz.
Ali Aqa-Mohammadi, the official spokesman for Iran’s Supreme Council on National Security, also referred to foreign elements.
“It has become clear that several counter-revolutionary groups in Iraq have been dispatched to Iran from the region where the Americans and the British are deployed,” he said on Monday.
Gholamreza Shariati, the deputy provincial governor for security affairs, suggested that the reason for the attacks was the destruction of Iran’s territorial integrity and the deterrence of voters from participating in the upcoming presidential elections.
Missing the point
Many Iranian Arabs say Tehran is missing the point. For them, Khuzestan is a rich province that provides almost 10% of Opec’s oil production but little investment.
Rejecting any talk of independence, Ahvaz resident Hasan Ali told Aljazeera.net on Wednesday that most people in the region were living in extreme poverty.
“Our province produces millions of barrels of oil a day. We are funding the economy but not sharing in its wealth”
“We lack basic services – our children don’t get a good education, healthcare is substandard. We can’t even take electricity for granted, and as you have probably guessed by speaking to me, the telephones are a joke.
“Our province produces millions of barrels of oil a day. We are funding the economy but not sharing in its wealth,” Ali said.
But he insists most people want to solve the investment problem with the government and not fight against it.
Arab Iranian officials are representing their community’s grievances in Tehran, a point they say undermines the separatist claims made abroad.
Jasim al-Tamimi, a former member of parliament and the secretary-general of the Islamic Wefagh Party, wrote an open letter to President Mohammad Khatami in May, asking him to deal with the “wall of mistrust between the proud Iranian ethnicities, so that the infected wounds of the Arab people of Ahvaz may heal”.
But time is of the essence, according to Ahvazi journalist Hadi Yunesi.
Yunesi says the bombings were “very likely connected to April’s violent protests”, when a former government official allegedly wrote a letter concerning the de-Arabisation of Khuzestan.
Yunesi suggests that if action is not taken, more may take up a more aggressive position.
“Observe that the so-called Abtahi letter was addressed to the planning department – which was one of Sunday’s targets along with the governor’s office, the housing department and the provincial radio and television stations.”
However, support for more aggressive methods is easier to find from outside rather than inside Iran, with Ahvazi groups in Europe and North America keen to spell out their political aspirations.
A spokesman for the London-based Democratic Front for the Ahvaz People, Mahmud Ahmad, told Aljazeera on Monday why the blasts had targeted a volunteer force affiliated to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, known as the Basij.
Iranian Arab Esa Sharifi was
“The regime knows well that nobody supports it in Ahvaz. It has no supporters, neither in Ahvaz nor in any area where non-Persian ethnic groups live in Iran.”
And speaking to Aljazeera from Toronto, the head of the Political Bureau of the Ahvaz Arab Awakening Party – Sabah al-Musawi – said the attacks were not linked to the elections.
“The action is completely separate. What is taking place in Ahvaz was not born today, but has its roots and is related to the Ahvaz people’s struggle for the achievement of their usurped rights.
“The regime must bear its responsibilities towards the people it brought as settlers to Ahvaz,” al-Musawi added.
List of grievances
Two weeks before Sunday’s attacks, the director of the Ahvaz Education and Human Rights Foundation told the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights that Tehran needed to address basic issues.
Khalid Abdian alleged that the government continues ethnic restructuring, confiscation of Arab land and forced displacement of Ahvazi.
“We are being perceived as disloyal, suspicious and a security risk – who some day may reclaim the oil-rich land of Khuzestan,” he said.
“The policy of the Islamic republic, like its predecessor, is directed at the eradication of the national identity and forceful assimilation of Ahwazi Arabs, and to a lesser degree, other nationalities such as the Turks, Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmen.
“In the past 15 years alone, over 250,000 hectares of Ahwazi farmers’ land in regions of Jufir, Shosh, Hoizeh and Hamidieh have been confiscated and given to Persian settlers.”
Indigenous Ahvazis, he said, believe self-determination is the way to resolve the conflict with the Iranian government.
Iran’s attorney-general, Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, rejected Abdian’s allegations and said that dissident groups outside the country were intent on provoking civil unrest for their own purposes.
“Half the ethnic-Arabs in Khuzestan are Sunnis, not Shia – this also contributes to a feeling they are second-class citizens and do not have equal opportunities”
In comments published in Persian on the Hemayat website, he said: “Iranian ethnic minorities, including Turks, Persians, Baluchis and Kurds all form one nation and have the same identity, but certain people consciously or unconsciously fuel some issues. I warn them to beware; otherwise, they will be held accountable.
“Some foreign media, which it seems are mostly tools in the hands of the British, have aggravated this issue,” added Dorri-Najafabadi, who is an ayatollah, a Shia cleric and expert in Islam.
But he acknowledged that government officials were going to have to do better. “Officials must serve the people through sincere endeavour and greater selflessness so that the people would come to trust them more.”
Many of the Ahvazi websites sympathetic to the separatist cause say that Khuzestan – or Arabestan – was annexed by Iran in 1925, ending the ethnic group’s independence.
But Sadjadpour told Aljazeera.net that this is a type of historical revisionism that does not stand up to scrutiny.
“Unlike the nation states created following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, Iran is an ancient nation.
“Clearly, at different stages of its history, the strength of the central authority has changed… But any impartial look at the history of Iran over hundreds of years will see that the separatist argument is revisionist,” Sadjadpour said.
Even the imprisoned and most prominent Arab-rights activist in Iran – who argues that “Khuzestani Arabs” have a separate identity from the rest of the Iranian peoples – does not claim that Ahvaz should be a separate state.
Often championed on separatist websites, Yossef Azizi Bani-Turoof said in a speech he delivered at Isfahan University that the “Arabs of Khuzestan … are inseparable parts of the Iranian nation” – along with Tabrizi Turks, Isfahani Persians and Mahabad Kurds.