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Comment | Cycle of Repression and Protest: Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan

by HAMED ALEAZIZ and ROBIN MILLS

16 Jul 2012 18:32Comments

Government vs. ethnic minority in region crucial to Iran's oil industry.

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Hamed Aleaziz is a frequent Tehran Bureau contributor and previously an editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy, Dubai, is the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.
[ comment ] This past March, a rural province in Iran found itself the subject of a sensational documentary on the state-run English-language news outlet Press TV. Khuzestan, which borders Iraq and is more than ten hours by car from Tehran, is home to most of Iran's Arab minority and the bulk of the country's oilfields. The Press TV documentary, Al-Ahvazi Terrorist Groups in Khuzestan, paints a sinister picture in its "dramatic reconstruction" of an angry group of Iranian Arabs wearing red-and-black keffiyehs, a symbol of their Arab ethnicity, as they track down and kill an innocent Iranian.

The Iranian Arab men, whose confessions play throughout the documentary, say that they've been victims of "mind termination." One of the alleged criminals, Ahmad Dabbat, declares, "We stopped thinking and someone else thought for us.... We would go shoot at houses and security forces."

While the documentary is certainly dramatic, it offers a relatively realistic glimpse into the tales that the Islamic Republic tells about Arabs in the country. The Iranian government, harnessing cultural prejudice and concerns about the region's strategic importance, consistently portrays the Arabs who live in Khuzestan as easily controlled pawns of Western aggressors and radical Islamist groups. It doesn't help that Saddam Hussein called Khuzestan "Arabistan" and disastrously tried to "liberate" it during the Iran-Iraq War -- though, in spite of his rhetoric, Iranian Arabs for the most part remained loyal to Iran during the invasion. Beyond media tools, the government also uses its judicial system to penalize those Iranian Arabs who decide to protest; in late June, it executed four Iranian Arabs in a move that came in for criticism at the United Nations.

As Iran struggles to contain the collapse of its economy, the government must also keep tabs on yet another potentially problematic front: its Arab minority in Khuzestan, which happens to live in the most oil-rich part of the country.

For decades now, Iranian Arabs have believed that the Islamic Republic has "systematically discriminated against them, particularly in employment, housing, and civil and political rights," according to a report on the Human Rights Watch website. While Iranian Arabs have been concerned with discrimination for decades, the government has been largely successful in silencing their dissent.

In 2005 and 2006, when Iranian Arabs coordinated protests in the streets of Khuzestan, the government used tactics it would later repeat (with lesser force) throughout the country in the protest movement that unfolded following the 2009 presidential election.

While statistics by ethnicity are nearly impossible to come by, Amnesty International stated in a 2006 human rights report that Iran's Arab population "is one of the most economically and socially deprived in Iran." The report also notes that Arabs have "reportedly been denied state employment." Amnesty International includes a U.N. official's stark description of his 2005 visit to Ahvaz: "There are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections.... Why is that? Why have certain groups not benefited?" And, perhaps unsurprisingly given the region's strategic importance to the oil industry, the Amnesty International report describes the Iranian government's land expropriation as "so widespread that it appears to amount to a policy aimed at dispossessing Arabs of their traditional lands."

Any discussion of Khuzestan must begin in April 2005, with a leaked letter that an adviser to then President Mohammed Khatami allegedly wrote about the Iranian Arabs. According to Amnesty International, the letter "included proposals for resettling Arabs in other regions of Iran and resettling non-Arabs in Khuzestan." Predictably, Iranian officials denied the authenticity of the document, but its impact reverberated throughout Khuzestan, where throngs of protesters headed for the streets. Iranian officials arrested hundreds and killed at least 50 of the Arab protesters. After the media, including Al Jazeera, covered the protests, Iran barred foreign reporters from the region for a period of time.

Given Khuzestan's economic importance, unrest in the region no doubt proves particularly disconcerting to the government. The province holds some 85 percent of Iran's oil reserves, including its two largest producing fields: Ahwaz, under the city of the same name, and Marun to the northeast. Two of Iran's largest recent oil discoveries, Azadegan and Yadavaran, are located in the province near the Iraqi border. A complex of major pipelines runs north to demand centers in central Iran and around Tehran. Gas flares pollute the air and trigger complaints from local people about pollution.

Iran's main oil export terminals at Kharg Island lie just offshore; they have the capacity to load five million barrels per day, considerably more than the country's entire production. Khuzestan's largest and oldest refinery, at Abadan, represents about a quarter of the country's capacity.

And Khuzestan's oil is unquestionably vulnerable. In the chaos preceding and surrounding the 1979 Revolution, pipelines in Khuzestan were frequently blown up. Both Abadan and Kharg were badly damaged during the Iran-Iraq War, and some of the border fields are still strewn with mines. More recently, a number of explosions have struck facilities, including at the Abadan refinery in May last year just before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was due to visit, a pipeline blast in August, and three explosions at an oilfield in October.

It remains unclear whether and which of these incidents were due to sabotage or poor safety standards. In the oilfield areas around the towns of Gachsaran and Behbehan and into the mountains where Arab and Persian populations mingle with Bakhtiari and nomadic Ghashghai tribes, small pipelines linking wells and processing plants sprawl across open fields and under roads with minimal protection.

The experience of Iraq, under much worse security conditions, suggests that local groups can cause frequent interruptions and breaches, particularly in vulnerable pipelines. But these are quickly repaired. Inflicting serious damage on a processing plant or storage tank would be more likely to affect production, but these are well defended and would require a more sophisticated attack.

While only time will tell the strength of the Iranian Arab dissent, protests have increased in frequency over the past year and a half. When they picked up in April last year, the government's reaction was swift and deadly: more than a dozen protesters were reportedly killed by Iran's security forces and Human Rights Watch reported that Iranian authorities used "live ammunition" on demonstrators. Shirin Ebadi, Iran's Nobel Peace Prize winning activist, incensed by the government's reaction, said, "In the 32 years' history of the Islamic Revolution, Arabic-speaking Iranians have suffered from inequality and an extensive discrimination."

Since then, according to Human Rights Watch, government forces have detained more than 65 Arabs in Khuzestan. Iranian Arab activist groups claim that during May 2011 alone, eight Iranian Arabs, including a 16-year-old boy, were executed. The cycle continued this past April, when authorities arrested another 26 Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan in an effort to quash planned protests. Those arrests followed the deaths in February of two Iranian Arabs while in the custody of Intelligence Ministry officials.

Protests continue in Khuzestan: In April, 50 demonstrators came out against the "confiscation of their lands by the National Oil Company of Iran," according to Al Arabiya. Per routine, the protesters were arrested and thrown in jail. Protests erupted again in response to the four executions last month, according to Radio Zamaneh. Afterward, authorities sent 15 protesters to jail.

From here, it seems unlikely that the Iranian Arabs will cease their protests any time soon. The Iranian government, relentless in its approach, would sooner continue to utilize arrests and force than cede to Iranian Arabs' demands. But as the executions and resulting protests last month demonstrate, this movement resists silencing.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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