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Home » Insurgencies, Protest Movements, Religion, Southwest Asia and North Africa

Oil and Arabic-Speakers in Iran’s Troubled Southwest

Submitted by on October 22, 2011 – 3:58 pm 9 Comments |  
Map of Iran's Major Oil Fields and Its Arabic-speaking populationIf Saudi Arabia faces a restive Shia minority in its main oil-producing area (see GeoCurrents Oct. 14, 2011), Iran has a similar challenge. Its foremost oil-producing zone—the southwestern province of Khuzestan (Ahwaz in Arabic)—is the heart of Iran’s dissatisfied Arabic-speaking minority. Fear of unrest in Khuzestan looms large in Iranian security deliberations. Not only does the region suffer pervasive ethnic tension, but its physical geography makes it vulnerable to invasion. As the maps indicate, most of Khuzestan lies in the flat plains of the greater Tigris-Euphrates Valley, cut off from the Iranian heartland by the rugged Zagros Mountains.

The vulnerability of Khuzestan, along with its ample oil and disgruntled populace, enticed Saddam Hussein to invade the region in 1980, initiating the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Hussein proclaimed himself the liberator of the Iranian Arabs, hoping they would rally to his cause. The invasion backfired. Not only did Khuzestan’s Persian population remain loyal to Iran, but so did most of its Arabs. As Shiites, most of Iran’s Arabic-speakers saw little to be gained from Saddam Hussein’s anti-Shia regime. The resulting war devastated the province, where many of its most ferocious battles were fought. As summarized by Wikipedia, “many of [Khuzestan’s] famous nakhlestans (palm groves) were annihilated, cities were destroyed, historical sites were demolished, and nearly half the province went under the boots of Saddam’s invading army. This created a mass exodus into other provinces …”

Iran Physical Geography and Khuzestan MapAlthough Khuzestan’s Arabs remained loyal to Iran in the 1980s, evidence indicates that few are currently pleased with Iranian rule. Major demonstrations and rioting broke out in 2005; all were firmly suppressed. Iranian Arabs complain of discrimination and lack of linguistic and cultural rights. The community is relatively poor overall, despite inhabiting the most economically productive part of the country. Drug addiction is widespread and Khuzestan is reputed to be one of the main gateways for the importation of heroin and other narcotics into Iran. A recent report claims the city of Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan, is the most polluted urban area in the world. Iran has responded by investing in the province, inaugurating “a number of giant petrochemical projects in Khuzestan” in early 2011. Official Iranian news outlets, however, continue to caution the country about the potential dangers of Arab separatism. On October 7, 2011, PressTV warned its viewers that “The Khalgh-e Arab group, who want Khuzestan province separated from Iran, [get their] doctrine from Iraq’s Baath Party. These groups have blown up several public places in Iran’s southern region, killing scores of people.”

Arab-Iranian activists, for their part, deny that Khalq-e Arab even exists, claiming that the Iranian state uses the phantom organization as an excuse to crush dissent. According to the Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network, the Iranian government has been busy “concocting conspiracy theories” linking unrest in the region with US and British effort to destabilize the country. The same source further claims that Iranian news agencies have also been pushing the line that “militant Wahhabi (Sunni fundamentalist) groups were being supported by Gulf states to foment separatist sentiment in the oil-rich region that forms the Ahwazi Arab homeland.” The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network itself maintains that the oppositional movement of Iranian Arabs is peaceful and above-board:

  Ethnic Ahwazi Arabs are demanding collective rights, including the redistribution of oil revenues, an end to forced displacement, equal labour  rights, environmental protection and cultural freedom. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network supports non-violent direct action as well as the use of   international lobbying and awareness-raising to assert the collective rights of  this persecuted ethnic group.

            Other Arab-Iranian websites strike a less accommodating tone. The National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz, for example, supports the full independence of the province, and seems to advocate revolutionary practices. It is difficult for someone who does not read Arabic, however, to determine the group’s actual agenda, as the prose on its English-language website is delightfully mangled:

  However, in the name of Islam apparently, Islamic republic and its interior,  truthfully, and the way in practice on the ground will translate legacy Persian Khosrawi authoritarian racially hateful everything is not set in all walks of  life, starting of human rights through the rights of peoples bonded who under  the yoke occupation and colonialism Persian racial and ending the  destruction of those nationalities oppressed in the case of claiming their  legitimacy and the historical.

            Incorrect Map of Sunni/Shia Distribution in the Middle EastNot surprisingly, even the most basic demographic information on the Iranian Arabs is disputed. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network claims that around four million Arabs live in Khuzestan alone, whereas the Wikipedia pegs Iran’s entire Arabic-speaking population at something between 778,000 and 2,336,000. By most accounts, Khuzestan’s rural population is mostly Arab, whereas the urban population is mixed, with Persians predominating.  The religious disposition of the Ahwazi community is also unclear. Most sources claim that “most” Iranian Arabs are Shiites, which certainly makes sense. Some unspecified proportion of the community, however, follows Sunni Islam, which would greatly intensify its hostility toward the Iranian state. Surprisingly, the most widespread map of Islam on the internet portrays Khuzestan as mostly Sunni, which is almost certainly incorrect.

The situation in Khuzestan also figures in discussions of US–Iranian relations, especially in regard to the impending withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. A recent article in the left-leaning New American Media website, for example, speculates that Iran might be tempted to move military forces into southern Iraq to safeguard its own oil reserves; in the face of any such advance, the author continues, “Washington would have little alternative to an invasion of Khuzestan, ostensibly aimed at halting Iranian incursions…” This scenario seems highly unlikely, but the potential for serious, near-term conflict in the province does seem real.

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  • Anonymous

    Muslim Distribution Map should reflect that the majority of Omani’s are of the Ibadhi branch of Islam, which is distinct from both Sunni & Shia branches.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Great point — thank you.  I have been thinking of doing a post on Ibadi Islam, also found in Zanzibar, Algeria’s Mzab oasis, and Tunisia’s Djerba Island. The history of the group is fascinating. 

  • Ario Barzan

    From ground experience in Khuzestan ,i think your map far enlarges the arabic speaking part,
    you are right about the overall disturbution of demographics but there is almost no arabic speaking community (wether rural or urban)anywhere north of Ahwaz,

    • Arabs Ahwazi

      You are totally wrong about Ahwazi. They are fully Arabs and of course they speak in Arabic and their homeland called Alawahz not (Khuzestan) which this name had been chosen by Persian nationalist at 1936 after invasion in the 1925. By the way the country which calls Iran today is consist of many indigenous people and they are as independent nations within specific borders and speaks by their mothers languages and they are noon persian, like Azeri, Arabs, Kurds, Balochi,Turcoman and including  Persian as minority.

    • Arabs Ahwazi

      You are totally wrong about Ahwazi. They are fully Arabs and of course they speak in Arabic and their homeland called Alawahz not (Khuzestan) which this name had been chosen by Persian nationalist at 1936 after invasion in the 1925. By the way the country which calls Iran today is consist of many indigenous people and they are as independent nations within specific borders and speaks by their mothers languages and they are noon persian, like Azeri, Arabs, Kurds, Balochi,Turcoman and including  Persian as minority.

      • Doctortiter

        Can’t you at least come up with a slightly different version for your answer, instead of parroting the same words all over again?

        The term “Ahvaz” is actually Iranian in origin. It has no meaning in Arabic or any other Semitic language. Why on Earth should Persians deliberately dismiss their own derived term, “Ahvaz”? 

        Secondly, Arabs of Ahvaz are categorized into 2 groups:
        1. Arabized Persians – i.e. the majority. 
        2. The pure Arabs – i.e. the minority. 

        Ahvaz was first settled by pure Arabs in the days of the Qajar dynasty. The pure Arabs who live there today are descendants of immigrants, who left their countries and settled in the modern-day nation-state that is now known as Iran (formerly known as Persia, before the Shah Reza Pahlavi changed its name in order to be more inclusive of all Iranian peoples). Therefore, it’s up to the pure Arabs to assimilate with the local culture. These pure Arabs are very minute in number, and the chief tribes there are Bani Kaab and Bani Mutair. 

        The Arabized Persians, on the other hand, were Persians who settled in Ahvaz since Pre-Qajar times, particularly during the days of the Safavid Dynasty. These were Persians who traveled back and forth Iran and Iraq, due to religious pilgrimage related to their Shiite sect (i.e. visits to Karbala and Najaf). Over time, they learnt Arabic and become bilingual Arabs. Hence they were Arabized. 

        Now quit posting your propaganda and embrace reality for once…

  • Arabs Ahwazi

    Arabs Ahwazi are fully Arabs and of course they speak in Arabic as mothers language, also their homeland called Alawahz not (Khuzestan) which this name had been chosen by Persian nationalist at 1936 after invasion in the 1925. By the way the country which calls Iran today is consist of many indigenous people. They are  independent nations within specific borders and speaks by their mothers languages and they are noon persian, such as Azeri, Arabs, Kurds, Balochi,Turcoman and including Persian as a minority

  • Arabs Ahwazi

    Arabs Ahwazi are fully Arabs and of course they speak in Arabic as mothers language, also their homeland called Alawahz not (Khuzestan) which this name had been chosen by Persian nationalist at 1936 after invasion in the 1925. By the way the country which calls Iran today is consist of many indigenous people. They are  independent nations within specific borders and speaks by their mothers languages and they are noon persian, such as Azeri, Arabs, Kurds, Balochi,Turcoman and including Persian as a minority

  • Amrtas1

    Arab Ahwazi and not Arab speakers..