A Framework of Violence: Repression of the Arab Ethnic Minority in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Thursday, 25 September 2014 10:13
(Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014) –Oil-rich Khuzestan province is home to Iran’s Arab ethnic minority. The Arab ethnic minority in Iran—or Ahwazi Arabs as they refer to themselves—has been subjected to a long history of political, economic and cultural discrimination by successive Iranian governments. The policies of the Pahlavi government, such as the forced migration of several Ahwazi Arab families from Khuzestan to Mazandaran from 1934-41, were aimed at centralizing political power. But they also resulted in alienation of segments of the Ahwazi Arab population. While many Ahwazi Arabs participated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, their political aspirations soon collided with those of the new revolutionary government in Tehran. When Ahwazi Arabs sent a 30-member delegation to Tehran, the attempts to reach a negotiated settlement on issues such as greater autonomy failed. In late May 1979, violence erupted in Khorramshahr and culminated on May 30, also known as Black Wednesday. Clashes between government forces and Arab organizations led to numerous deaths. Black Wednesday effectively set the stage for the confrontations and human rights abuses of the coming decades.

The advent of the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980 exacerbated the socioeconomic difficulties facing much of the Ahwazi Arab population. Khuzestan was heavily contested in the war, and many Ahwazi Arabs became refugees.

Ahwazi Arabs enjoyed greater political, social and cultural freedoms during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). In 2005, however, a leaked memo ostensibly from the office of President Khatami led to widespread protests in Khuzestan province. This memo, which was claimed to be forged, set forth a policy aimed at changing the ethnic makeup of the province.  According to reports, dozens were killed and hundreds more were arrested in the ensuing demonstrations.

Two months later a series of bombs targeting government offices and homes of government employees rocked Ahvaz. A string of additional bomb attacks continued into 2006. Despite the IRI’s allegations of foreign involvement, most of the individuals detained on suspicion of the bombings were residents of Ahvaz. While some of those arrested were avowed separatists with links to militant groups, others blamed for the attacks were ethnic Arab citizens who played a prominent role in local politics and who had no history of militant activity or support for militant causes. Many detainees were arrested on the basis of very little evidence and reported being subjected to physical and mental torture while in detention and being denied contact with their family and access to counsel.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) followed a similar pattern of crackdown in 2011, when Ahwazi Arabs again took to streets in 2011 for a “Day of Rage,” akin to protests taking place in Arab countries in the same period.

Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and execution of Arab political activists and other members of civil society constitute serious human rights violations. The latest report from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), “A Framework of Violence: Repression of the Arab Ethnic Minority in the Islamic Republic of Iran”,  examines these and other human rights violations, such as state surveillance, torture, disregard for due process rights, and extraterritorial harassment of Ahwazi Arab activists and their families. This report examines the historical as well the socio-economic context in which the relationship between Ahwazi Arabs and the Iranian state has evolved and provides detailed testimony from witnesses who have been subjected to human rights abuses in Khuzestan. When juxtaposed with the effects of decades of suppression of expressions of local culture, the political proscription and denial of basic civil rights to Arabs activists and ordinary citizens makes continued unrest extremely likely.

Read the complete report