According to many Persian, Arab and foreign historians, Arabs have resided in the South of Iran for thousands of years even before Islamisation of Iran. They are descendants of the earlier ancient civilization of Sumer, Akkad and Babylon.
After the conquest of Iran by Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, Ahwaz and then Arabistan (current Khuzestan) has sometimes been independent and sometimes been autonomous.
In 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi ascended to the Iranian throne. He strongly believed in Persian superiority over non-Persians and non-Aryans, and invaded Arabistan in force. Consequently, the local administration and sovereignty of Arabistan was fully demolished by him to create a fully centralized system. Reza Shah deposed Sheikh Kazaal, the last Arab ruler of Arabistan, later assassinating him while he was in exile in Tehran. He also changed the region’s name from Arabistan to Khuzestan. Since then, the region has been under the direct control of Iran’s central rule and, along with other non-Persian regions, has been fully subjugated and subjected to practices aimed at cultural and identity eradication.
Arabs in Iran constitute about 8% of the country’s total population, and the majority of them live in the historical Arabistan in the south-west of Iran with its capital of Ahwaz. The region neighbors Iraq to its west and Lorestan region to the east, Kurdistan to the north and the Gulf to the south. This large majority of Arabistan population follow the Shia sect of Islam and speak Arabic in a dialect similar to those in South of Iraq (Mesopotamian) and are known as Ahwazi Arabs. In addition, other Arab people live on the east bank of the Gulf and its islands whom are known as Hawaleh Arabs or Coastal region Arabs. They are predominately Sunni Muslims and speak in a dialect close to the Gulf States inhabitants.
Arabistan provides around 80% of Iran’s total revenue. However, most of this income is spent on development of the central part of Iran in such places as Tehran and Isfahan. With direct support from the central government, a non-Arab ethnic minority has dominated all sectors of life in Arabistan including economics. This state of affairs has eventually led to the political and economic marginalization of the majority Arab population who live in conditions of extreme poverty.
The Iranian regime clearly spends an enormous amount of effort and resources to impose specific demographic changes in Arabistan (or Khuzestan) in favor of non-Arabs while intentionally neglecting important issues, such as air and water pollution. To add insult to injury, the historic and traditional name of the region has been changed from Arabistan to Khuzestan. Likewise, the names of cities, villages, rivers, landmarks have been renamed to Persian equivalents during the monarchy and the republic in order to repudiate the Arab identity in favor of the Persian one.
The revolution of February 1979 was, in one aspect, a consequence of the ethnic problem in Iran. The nations of Iran, after decades of Shah dictatorship could have had a fresh breath of freedom. However, given that the issue of nations of Iran is a democratic problem, it was not in line with the vision and thoughts of the clerics. They had no affinity for modern political and democratic discourse.
At the time of the revolution, the Arab people of Iran did not possess any institution or political party outside the circle of the influence of the clergy. Even after the revolution the left-wing organizations that came to the aid of Turkmens and allied with the Kurdish people viewed the Arab of Iran with suspicion and only focused on labor movements. A few days after the success of the Iranian Revolution, a political party and a number of Arab cultural institutions were established in some cities of the province. In response, the new government appointed a naval general, the nationalist, anti-Arab General Ahmad Madani, as the provincial governor of Khuzestan, while maintaining his military office. He, along with fanatic religious elements, strengthened and agitated the non-Arab minority in the province against the cultural and political institutions of Arabs, especially in the city of Muhammarah (Khorramshahr). Therefore, it is clear that it is not only the traditional clergy who are opposed to the discussion and solution of the issue of nations of Iran, but also the Persian nationalist forces.
In May of 1979, I was one of a 30-member delegation sent to Tehran by Sheikh Shobair Khaghani. This delegation carried 12 demands which included the change of names of the province and cities to their original Arabic ones and granting self-autonomy to the province of Arabistan (or Khuzestan). These demands were presented to Amir Entezam, deputy to the prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, Mahmoud Taleghani, the number two on the Revolutionary council, Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution, Golpaygani, and other opposition parties. However, the bigoted leaders of Iran, drunken with power of Revolutionary victory, did not pay regard to the requests of Iranian Arabs. On the contrary, General Madani and his armed forces, under the direction and support of Khomeini and the transitional government of Bazargan, used tanks and machine guns to attack the political and cultural centers of the Arab people in different cities. They even violently attacked the peaceful protests in Muhammara (or Khorramshahr) culminating in the bloody slaughter of the Arab demonstrators on the Black Wednesday of June 30, 1979. This was followed by an organized operation of arrests and executions, which, officially, led to the death of 58 people. However, the true toll of the killings, executions, and the missing during the Black Wednesday and the succeeding oppression was more than 200 people.
In July 1979, during the Constitutional Review Seminar, once again the Arab delegation, in conjunction with the Kurds, Turks, Turkmens, and Gilaks, put forward a proposal for the autonomous governance in the areas inhabited by non-Persian nations. But Ayatollah Khomeini changed the proposed Constitution, adding the principle of Velayat-e-Faqih (grand jurist) to it. The autonomous governance of non-Persian nations was watered down to the 15th article of the constitution on teaching non-Persian languages in schools, which is yet to be actualized. A few years ago, when whispers of possible implementation of this article were heard, most elite thinkers of the dominant nation, from members of the Academy of Persian Language and Literature to academics and intellectuals, strongly opposed it. From my own experience in the cultural and political spheres of Iran, as a member of both The Iranian Writers’ Association and Association of Iranian Journalists, I have come to realize the issue of non-Persian nations’ rights is not well understood or accepted within them. Persian chauvinism, in particular anti-Arab sentiments, are well entrenched and wide spread in these circles. Anti-Arab sentiments permeate the majority of the middle-class Persian-speaking society and has, also, spread to a large segment of the working class. Nonetheless, in recent years, some small openings can be detected in these dark clouds.
The first experience in coordinating efforts among Iranian nationalities was creating the National Democratic Front in summer of 1979.
The presidency of Khatami and governance of the reformists provided the Iranian society with a dose of freedom from which the Arabs equally benefited. Despite maintaining their requests well below those demanded after the revolution to what is provided in the Constitution, the regime was still unwilling to fulfill its duty. In the past several decades, the Ahwaz region has been the grounds for two major workers and national movements. The working class of Ahwaz put a final bullet in Shah’s regime by turning off the petroleum pipes. Now, this same working class is the foremost in the fight in cities of Haft Tappeh and Ahwaz, among others. Given that the majority of these workers are Arab, this movement will eventually and at the right time fit within its natural frame which is the movement for national rights.
We now face two distinct political legacies in Iran: a 24-century old decentralized government versus an extremely centralized one that is less than a century old. The history of the Persian Empire is rife with accounts of struggles between various ethnicities, particularly Turks and Persians, to gain power, wealth, and esteem. With the turn of the twentieth century, following the spread of economic and societal relations among them, these ethnicities transformed into nations. For reasons beyond the scope of this talk, one of these nations dominated the others, ignoring their rights and suppressing their demands. Since the ‘40s of the last century, many attempts have been made to break this hegemony of a single nation over others, and these efforts continue to this day. Iran has been an empire from the time of Achaemenids until now. The revolution of 1979 did not fundamentally change the character of the political system in Iran. Since the rule of Seljuk dynasty, the political system of the Persian Empire was that of the Protected Countries (or Guarded Domains), which became more formalized during the Safavid to Qajar period. Some of these countries (or domains) separated from Iran over time, such as Georgia in 1813 followed by the Caucuses khanates, Kandahar, Herat, and finally Bahrain during the time of Mohammad Reza Shah.
Moreover, for the last 600 years, the countries (or domains) of Arabistan (the current Ahwaz region), Kurdistan, and Azerbaijan, have often changed hands between the Ottoman and Persian empires, and some, like Arabistan, enjoyed a level of independence at times. The essence of the Iranian empire (including the current one) is no different from other historical ones, such as Austria-Hungary, Ottoman, Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia.
Nowadays, of course, the ethnic inequalities between the ruling nation and the ruled nations under ethnic and national oppression are clear to everyone. And the national forces with political awareness and some degree of readiness for establishing equality in national rights have become stronger. Undoubtedly, the element of foreign influence is an important factor in shaping Iran’s future, as it has been throughout our modern history. Therefore, the dominant governing nation must accept the relative equality among all the nations making up the fabrics of the current Iranian society or pay the heavy price of disintegration of this country. Such relative equality will be based on the historical and native system of Protected Countries (or Guarded Domains) to achieve a modern, democratic, federal system.
It was at the initiative of the National Democratic Front, (founded by H.matin Daftary – Mosadegh’s grandson – in 1979) that Ezzeldin Hosseini and the Kurd institutes set out to host the first Congress of Iranian Nations near the end of August 1979 in Mahabad. This congress stoked fears in Khomeini who ordered the deployment of troops to Kurdistan. At the time, NDF invited two of the strongest opposition groups, People’s Mujahedin of Iran and Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, to cooperate with the non-Persian groups and create a powerful front against religious dogmatism and fascism. They, of course, did not agree giving the excuse that the front was too liberal. However, it was not long before first the organizations of non-Persian people were suppressed and then the so-called nation-wide parties were targeted whose fate is well known. The leaders of the above mentioned two organizations did not possess extensive political experience. This lack of experience, along with arrogance from large numbers of supporters, and other miscalculations caused their strategically erroneous historical decision not to cooperate with non-Persian nations. We can still feel the ramifications of that decision, and, in my opinion, the creation of such an inclusive front could have shaped the modern history of Iran in a different way. Nowadays, however, the discourse of non-Persian nations rivals that of other discourses on the Iranian political scene, within and outside of Iran. It has become a force with its own weight alongside other forces of the Iranian political arena including People’s Mujahedin of Iran, Monarchists, and Leftists. At the moment only the tip of the iceberg is visible, and slowly the true scale of this force is becoming more apparent. However, this relative coordination among the political leaders in exile is not strongly reflected amongst those inside the country. How often do Kurd, Arab, Turkmen, Baluch and Persian cultural and civil activists within Iran coordinate and meet with each other? I have set aside the very complicated political aspect of the matter. Therefore, if we do not create the basic coordination and contact among the various nations of Iran, in the future the regime will be able to singly suppress each of them as it has done before.
*The full text of a speech by Yousef Azizi Benitorof at a symposium in the French senate on “Arab nation in Iran: 40 years under the authority of the Islamic Republic”.