Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is on a drive to attract foreign investment, which he believes is essential for economic health and job creation in a country where more than one in four young people are unemployed. Tehran’s Chamber of Commerce is going all out to woo managers of foreign sovereign wealth funds and major corporations in order to prop-up a failed economy — one that has not only been decimated by sanctions but also by the fact that untold billions are diverted from state coffers to weapons purchases to keep the ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard fat cats happy.
But with terrorism-related US sanctions on Iran as well as a new round of sanctions in response to its illegal testing of ballistic missiles, would-be investors and banks remain cautiously hesitant and they are right to be so.
The investment climate remains unfavorable; it is over-regulated, suffocated by red tape, and company ownership is anything but transparent in Iran where the Supreme Leader and his Revolutionary Guard Corps control massive industrial and business empires. Corruption is rife throughout every sector of society. Iran ranked 131st of 170 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016 compiled by Transparency International — a global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption.
Investing in Iran is not only risky and fraught with obstacles; in my view, pumping large sums of money into a terrorist-sponsoring state with an abysmal human rights record is nothing short of unethical. I have always taken the view that trade with Iran serves its murky goals and should be discouraged no matter the financial rewards.
Frankly, hell would freeze over before I would consider sending a single dollar in Iran’s direction when it has long had territorial ambitions on Arab countries, dominates some Arab capitals via armed proxies and is responsible for prolonging the Syrian conflict as well as funding a Shiite insurgency in Yemen.
Years ago, a prominent British politician who encouraged me to do so received short shrift in response to his advice. To trade with or invest in a belligerent country — that until today occupies three Emirati-owned islands stolen by the Shah — is an affront to my moral compass.
I should stress that I have nothing against the Iranian people. Some of my closest friends are of Iranian origin. Iranians are victims of a cruel, repressive regime that uses force to keep them underfoot, none more so than the 5 to 7 million Ahwazi Arabs residing in the southern Iranian province of Khuzestan, known as Arabistan for more than 600 years until its British-backed Arab ruler Sheikh Khazal was ousted by Shah Reza Pahlavi.
Individuals, companies and fund managers should think twice before inadvertently bolstering Tehran’s capacity to commit crimes. Nothing will come out of profiting from others’ misery, except shame.
Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor
I have long been distressed at the plight of the Ahwazi Arabs who have been forgotten by the international community. I have written extensively in the hope of shining a spotlight on the perpetual injustices they struggle to overcome.
Although Khuzestan provides 90 percent of Iran’s domestic oil consumption, it is one of the country’s poorest provinces where the sons of the soil are relegated to doing menial jobs and also deprived of basic necessities. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked Ahvaz City, the province’s capital, as the world’s most polluted. To say the Ahwazi Arabs are second class citizens is a gross understatement; they are an underclass deliberately being suppressed.
Many Ahwazi families survive in substandard accommodation without access to clean water or electricity and have been subjected to mass expulsions, their agricultural lands carved-up and sold to ethnic Persians. Those who stand up for their rights in public risk being beaten, imprisoned or executed.
Worse, their very Arab identity is threatened. School children learn only Farsi and are punished for speaking Arabic which results in a high number of dropouts. According to the Ahwazi Center for Human Rights, Arab students are bullied by teachers and Persian students because of their ethnicity.
There is not a single Arabic language newspaper published in Khuzestan. People who have worn traditional dress have been forcibly stripped by Iran’s occupying security forces and parents are forbidden to give their newborns Arab names.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Ahwaz Human Rights Organization (AHRO) Executive Director Dr. Karim Abdian, who lobbies in Washington on behalf of the Ahwazi people, often in coordination with representatives of other repressed Iranian minorities in an effort to bring their grievances to the US government’s attention. He is a man who devotes his life to a cause on which the community of nations is wilfully blinkered but he will never give up and for that, he has my admiration and respect.
It is Dr. Abdian’s firm belief that Iranians are suffering increased human rights abuses since the Obama administration’s nuclear pact with Iran was sealed. Just as I predicted, nothing will change the fundamental racist nature of the Iranian regime or loosen the iron fist with which it crushes the aspirations of ordinary people. Speaking at a conference hosted by the Swiss Parliament, he said Ahwazi Arabs are “caught between an unfortunate phenomenon; they are subjected to racism due to historical Persian-Arab animosity.”
He was not optimistic that the so-called moderate Rouhani would make a difference because “he, as other founders of the Islamic Republic, are of the belief that the minorities are secessionists and hence a danger to the territorial integrity of Iran,” he said.
When asked about foreign investment, he affirmed that investments “help the Iranian regime because it lets the regime continue its suppression...”
I strongly second that, and would urge individuals, companies and fund managers to think twice before inadvertently bolstering Iran’s capacity to commit its crimes. Nothing will come out of profiting from others’ misery, except shame.
• Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is renowned for his views on international political affairs, his philanthropic activity and his efforts to promote peace. He has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad.