Ahwazi national flag.
The Arab Spring swept across the Middle East last year, toppling authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, while violence still rages on in Syria. Global commentators speculated about whether the Arab Spring would reach Iran and reignite the anti-Ahmadinejad Green Movement that was brutally suppressed after it started protesting election results in 2009. However, as soon as protests started this February, the police moved in to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that unfolded a few years back. Foreign news coverage then became severely limited, after news bureaus were threatened with closure and their staffs with deportation if they dared print anything negative.
However, the clampdown didn’t stop the protests. Two months later, Iranian Arabs in the western province of Ahwaz took to the streets of the capital, which is also called Ahwaz, and were attacked by the security forces, who fired live ammunition into the crowd, killing 15 and wounding dozens more.
Never heard of Ahwaz? That’s because, officially, it’s called Khuzestan and is home to one of Iran’s longest running independence movements—a movement that Iran has been fighting and brutalizing to keep quiet. If the name rings a bell at all, it’s probably from the 1980 Iranian embassy siege in London, which was carried out by Ahwazi separatists demanding the release of Arab prisoners in Iranian jails.
Ahwaz is a mainly ethnically Arab province that was an autonomous state before 1935. Ever since, Ahwazis have been protesting both peacefully, and not so peacefully, to regain their independence. But, surprise surprise, Iran isn’t listening. And not only is it not listening, it’s shooting protesters and often torturing and executing the ones it captures while branding them traitors and heretics.
Unsurprisingly, Ahwazis are getting tired of demonstrating, and there’s now talk of armed insurrection. I got in touch with Kamil Alboshoka, who was forced to flee Iran and now works as an Ahwazi human rights campaigner, to find out exactly what’s going on.
VICE: Hey, Kamil. Can you tell me a little bit about Ahwaz please?
Kamil: Ahwaz is a very rich and fertile land, with many rivers that help it sustain its vast agricultural output. Ahwaz is Iran’s third richest province by GDP, but the country now suffers. Ahwaz is rich, but its people are not. We’re not allowed to study our own language, not allowed to engage in politics, not allowed to wear our traditional clothes, not allowed to use our traditional names, and we’re not allowed to have our own economy. The country is in a really bad situation.
How did it all start?
It was independent before 1925, then Iran attacked my country, occupied the land, and killed thousands of people. In 1935, Iran officially declared that Ahwaz was a part of the country, then they changed the name to Khuzestan in 1936. Since then, Iran has moved thousands of ethnic Persians to Ahwaz to change the demographic of the land. Now there are nearly two million Persians in Ahwaz, but they live in the centers of the towns and they don’t mix with people, exactly like Kosovo in the past, or like the West Bank. They’re Persian settlements and they have the power to take agriculture from the people. The economy is run by them and they’re supported by the Iranian state.
So the 1979 revolution changed nothing?
No, nothing changed. It just became worse, because, in 1979 Persians weren’t supposed to take power again—it was supposed to become a federalist state. During the revolution, the ethnic Turks started the demonstrations across Iran, and Arabs blockaded the oil and gas in Ahwaz, so that made the previous regime close down. Before Ruhollah Khomeini took power, he told them he’d give them rights to speak their language, rights to be federalist, and rights to have a percentage of their economy, but didn’t fulfill any of his promises. The only thing we have left now is self-determination.