The September gunfire assault on a military parade in the predominantly Arab Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran and the alleged Iranian retaliatory assassination plot in Denmark shed rare light on the plight of Khuzestan’s estimated four million ethnic Shia Arab minority.
The Arabs of mostly Shia Khuzestan, unlike their Sunni counterparts who are scattered around the country, have a history of political and separatist struggle against the central government. Sunni Arabs, not small in number, have rarely, if at all, had a political movement to highlight their ethnic or religious demands. Perhaps being scattered has weakened their political identity.
The origins of Khuzestan’s Arabs, who are often wrongly assumed to be Sunnis, are partly obscured by competing historical accounts.
Discrimination and Separatism
With no official statistics, most figures provided by various sources for the number of Iran’s Shia Arabs are estimates, ranging from four to six million. They speak an Iraqi dialect (the language of Iran’s Sunni Arabs is closer to that of the Gulf states).
Despite their shared Shia faith with the religion-based regime, Khuzestan’s Arabs have not fared well politically, socially, and economically, even though the oil-rich province is the backbone of the Iranian economy. The Arabs—who still fare better, at least constitutionally, than the country’s Sunni minority of various ethnicities—have long complained of discrimination, unequal treatment, and barriers to fair employment.
It’s not only government policies that hurt the Arab community in Iran—whether under the Pahlavi monarchy or the Islamic republic. Anti-Arab racism is deeply embedded in the general Iranian psyche, perhaps a hangover from the Arab Muslim conquest that ended the Sassanian Empire in 651 and led to the decline of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Popular modern Persian literature is ripe with derogatory anti-Arab portrayals. For instance, the celebrated author Sadeq Hedayat depicted the people of the Arab world as “dirty, diseased, ugly, stupid, cruel and shameless, bestial and demonic,” while Iranians, according to him, are “attractive, courageous, intelligent, cultured and virtuous.” An infamous Persian proverb illustrates this racism: “In the desert, the Arab eats locusts; the dog from Isfahan drinks cold water.”
Anti-Arab racism has become even more politicized among critics of the Islamic republic, who see the regime as an extension of Arab cultural influence.
Arab separatism—championed by a plethora of non-religious militant groups—has deep roots in Khuzestan. The region, which borders Iraq and was once called Arabistan, was an autonomous emirate for two decades before Reza Shah Pahlavi seized control from its last Arab ruler Sheikh Khazal al-Kaabi in 1925. Armed separatist groups, such as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), have carried out attacks on energy infrastructure, government buildings, and security forces in Khuzestan. Late last month, a Norwegian man of Iranian heritage was arrested for plotting to assassinate the leader of the Danish branch of ASMLA in Sweden. Denmark accused Iran of being behind the plot, a charge Iran has denied.
The armed groups have, however, failed to build a strong support base among the people, whom locals commonly referred to as Ahwazi Arabs.
The September 22 Attack
Initially, the Ahvaz National Resistance, an umbrella organization for several Shia Iranian Arab separatist groups, including ASMLA, took responsibility for the September 22 attack on a Revolutionary Guards parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahvaz that killed at least 24 people, including spectators, and injured more than 60. However, ASMLA denied that it was involved. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei linked the attack to U.S. “puppets in the region”—a reference to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The strongest responsibility claim came from the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which released a video of the alleged perpetrators. IS espouses a Salafist ideology—a puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam that came from the Arabian Peninsula and regards Shia Islam as heretical.
According to Amnesty International, the Iranian authorities have arrested hundreds of Arabs, including students, writers, civil society representatives, and minority rights and political activists since the attack. The most common charge against political activists is Wahhabism, which translates into conversion from Shiism to Sunnism, in other words linking them to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Although some have indeed converted to the Sunni faith, the numbers are very small. The conversion, which is more politically than religiously driven, began in the early 1990s and has increased slightly in the past two decades as a reaction to the regime’s “oppression and persecution” of Arabs, according to Saleh Hamid, head of the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization. Tehran, however, blames it on external influences and has since 2010 organized annual anti-Wahhabi educational courses for the youth. But the measure has backfired, alienating many more from religion and leading others to convert to the Sunni faith, says Hamid.
Other experts say that the motives of Arab separatists converting to Sunnism are not only because of oppression and discrimination but a reaction to regional events and a desire to break the religious link with the central government.
IS’s possible role in the attack “reflects regional developments that are trans-border and in some cases even trans-ideological,” says UK-based scholar Alam Saleh in an interview. “Since the mid-to late 2000s, armed Arab separatist insurgency has overridden religious affiliation. The two opposing ideologies are bound by common strategic interests.” He adds: “Having a common enemy—Tehran—can unite sides which may not necessarily share the same beliefs but are fighting for the same goal—hence the recent Ahvaz incident.”
Sunni conversion also has to do with separatist groups hoping to receive support from Iran’s regional rivals, even though the extent of this support is not clear. “The countries in the region exploit their plight and these groups in turn try to gain their trust by converting to Sunnism, or even Salafism,” says Saleh.
Yet there is no evidence of widespread conversion among Khuzestan’s Arabs to the Sunni faith or support for separatist groups—mainly perhaps because these groups have no “clear manifesto,” says Saleh. “Even political prisoners or the most prominent Arab rights activists in Iran—who call for a separate Arab Khuzestani identity—do not claim that Ahvaz should be a separate state.”
Most Arabs prefer reform to secession—“if only Tehran showed the least attention to our rights,” says Ali Haidari, who was elected to the Ahvaz local council during reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s administration in the late 1990s. Like most other Arab opposition activists, Haidari favors regional autonomy for Khuzestan within a federal Iran.
Saleh says that there may be a few, especially among the youth, who follow the discourse of the Khuzestan opposition in exile and believe that the central government is the enemy of Arabs. The government’s policies toward the Arabs will ultimately determine to what extent these people will be persuaded.
A Question of Identity
Since before the advent of Islam, Iranians and Arabs have traveled back and forth across the Persian Gulf. Arab tribes began moving into Persia as far back as the third century, during the Sassanid period when they were forcibly settled in Kerman and Fars provinces. Following the Muslim Conquest, Arabs arrived in Khorasan in northeastern Iran. Over time, they intermarried with local Iranian inhabitants and shed their cultural identity.
The first apparent historical reference to Arabs settling in what is now Khuzestan was in the second half of the 10th century when a group of the Banu Asad tribe settled where a group of the Tamim tribe had already been living, perhaps since pre-Islamic times. Both tribes are thought to have originally become nomadic in northeastern Arabia along the fringes of the Nafud desert in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, says historian Elton L. Daniel in an interview.
Later, at the end of the sixteenth century, the Kaab tribe settled in Khuzestan, and in the succeeding centuries many more Arab tribes moved from southern Iraq to the province resulting in an extensive Arabization of the area.
Khuzestan’s history dates even further back, to the fourth millennium BC, when it was the seat of the first major empire, the powerful Elamites of Susa, the earliest civilization of Persia. Daniel discounts claims by some Iranian Arabs that Elamite was a Semitic nation— apparently to bolster the argument that ethnic Arabs were the original inhabitants of the area.
“The Khuzi people are usually identified with the Elamites of Susa,” the original inhabitants whose “language, like the Sumerian language, is unique and doesn’t seem to have connections with any other known language group, including the ancient Semitic languages,” says Daniel.
The classical Arab geographers and historians often referred to the area around Ahvaz as Khuzestan. Arabistan is a much later usage that persisted from Ottoman and Safavid (1501-1722) times and was picked up in English. Reza Shah went back to the earlier terminology, says Daniel.
After the nationalization of oil in 1951, there has been a flood of non-Arab migrant workers to Khuzestan from around the country. Almost all the mid-level and senior jobs in the oil and petrochemical industries are in the hands of non-Arabs. Attacks on oil pipelines seem to be in reaction to this.
Still, according to Haidari, Arab identity is inseparable from being Iranian—but the feeling of being Iranian fluctuates depending on government policies, regional events, or racism inside the country. So, support for separatism shifts accordingly.
“I feel a part of my identity is Iranian, but an Iranian that should also believe that geographically there are Arabs within its borders and have rights,” says Haidari. “But when the regime and even popular culture and literature do not accept you as an Arab or even as a human being, you react. You’re only human.”