Iranian Arabs’ decades of neglect
The Iranian regime has resorted to its classic strategy of employing brute force and cutting off modes of communication such as the internet in order to crush the latest protests in Khuzestan Province. Tehran also condemned the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet for criticizing the Islamic Republic over the deaths and injuries it has caused, as well as widespread detentions.
The protests are linked to the current water shortage in Khuzestan, which is not a natural catastrophe as Iranian leaders claim; rather, it is mostly linked to the government’s careless transfer of water from Khuzestan to other areas.
However, in the bigger picture, the underlying reasons for people’s frustration and anger in Khuzestan are linked to various social, political, ethnic and religious landscapes, which are the result of four decades of discrimination against the people of the province. Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprisingly revealed last week that, after the Iran-Iraq War, the Islamic Republic approved a plan to prevent investments in Khuzestan and to basically neglect this province, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Arabs.
Even the Aftab-e-Yazd newspaper last month acknowledged that Khuzestan’s problems are not new, stating: “Khuzestan has not got so many problems overnight that it can be treated overnight. Beyond this issue, it is possible to question, from the Hashemi government to the Rouhani government, all the assemblies and all the representatives and all the governors of this province. And this means that, in the case of Khuzestan, ‘we are all to blame’.”
Arabs, who are one of a number of ethnic minorities in Iran, make up about 2 percent of the population. These estimated 1.6 million people mainly live in the oil-producing Khuzestan Province, which is also known as Ahwaz by the Arab community. Arabs also live in two other neglected provinces in Iran, Bushehr and Hormozgan. However, most Iranian-Arabs are in Khuzestan, making up an estimated 70 percent of the population in that province.
Although Khuzestan is the main pillar of government revenues, many people in the province live in poverty.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Although Khuzestan reportedly sits on about 80 percent of Iran’s oil and 60 percent of its gas reserves and is the main pillar of government revenues, many people in the province live in poverty. The indigenous Arab residents are plagued by severe socioeconomic deprivation, suffer one of the highest rates of poverty in the country, and endure a high level of water and air pollution. People in the city of Ahwaz — the capital of Khuzestan — have previously protested over unbearable poverty, pollution and power failures. During protests in 2017, they could be heard chanting “unemployment, unemployment, unemployment… Iranian fellowmen assist us, assist us.”
In order to win the votes of people from Khuzestan, Iranian presidents from across the political spectrum have always promised they would improve the province’s economy. However, they have always done nothing after being elected. This has caused people from Khuzestan to lose faith in their country’s politicians. As Ensaf News wrote last month: “The people of Khuzestan have realized that, by delighting the principlists or reformists, Hashemi, Khatami or Ahmadinejad and Rouhani, and now Raisi, there will be no difference or change in macro water transfer policies.”
Some other underlying issues behind Khuzestan’s problems are related to the excessive emission of pollutants from oil facilities, economic mismanagement, the unwillingness of Iranian politicians to spend money and resources in Ahvaz to upgrade its infrastructure and create jobs, the infinitesimal budget allocated to the large city of Ahwaz, disregard for air safety at oil refineries, and the toxic runoff from oil facilities and mines.
From a political perspective, the people of Khuzestan, particularly the Arabs, have been arrested, imprisoned and even executed for simply expressing their views, in spite of the fact the Iranian constitution guarantees equal rights to all members of religious and ethnic minorities. The ethnic Arab community has also been subjected to discriminatory laws, such as undue limitations on access to socioeconomic benefits and the denial of property and religious rights.
The crucial issue is that institutionalized marginalization exists in Iran. Discrimination against Arabs is a systematic human rights violation practiced by the Islamic Republic.
In a nutshell, across Iran’s political spectrum, there is a consensus to neglect people’s grievances in Khuzestan, specifically the Arab population, and to treat them as second-class citizens or outsiders. The people of Khuzestan have experienced social, economic and political deprivations for decades, as they are disproportionately excluded from sociopolitical and socioeconomic development.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist.