9 min read

Iran's Ahwazi and systemic oppression.

When I first launched this newsletter almost six months ago, I envisioned it as a place to showcase both international news and the stories of migrants, minorities, diasporas, and other groups that tend to live multiculturally. So with that in mind, this week, I spoke with Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi writer and human rights activist currently living in exile.

The Ahwazi Arabs are one of Iran's largest minority groups, but I didn't know a lot about their history or culture before speaking with Rahim. I hope you learn as much as I did from our conversation.

As a reminder, the opinions expressed here belong to Rahim alone, and if there's something you disagree with or would like to see corrected, you can always email me or contact him directly.

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Cristina: When people think of Iran, they often think of the Persian population. What other ethnic groups live in the country?

Rahim: Iran is ethnically and culturally diverse, with a population consisting of several ethnicities, including Azerbaijani Turks, Ahwazis, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis, and Caspians, in addition to its better-known Persian population.

The non-Persian ethnicities, in fact, collectively make up around 70% of the population. Despite this diversity, the Persian race, culture, and identity are promoted as dominant and superior.

Like the Shah before it, the Islamic Republic adheres to an ethnocentric state model instead of promoting common interests and celebrating diverse cultures.

Under the monarchy and the Khomeinists, Iran expected the non-Persian ethnicities to give up their distinct identities altogether and consider themselves Persian in dress, language, cultural attributes, and so forth.

But even if they are fully committed to forgetting their own history and identity, they still face discrimination and oppression based on ethnic origin.

Non-Persians, therefore, are expected to adhere to contradictory expectations: to avoid identifying themselves by their cultural origin even as they are routinely stigmatized due to that same origin. It is, to be blunt, institutionalized racism.

Cristina: Where are you from in Iran, and what is day-to-day life like there?

Rahim: The Ahwazi Arab ethnic minority has inhabited the south and southwest of Iran for centuries. The Arab population calls it the Ahwaz region. The region is rich in oil, gas, water resources, and fertile agricultural lands.

But unfortunately, its native Ahwazi Arab population is suffering from decades of various oppression and discrimination. For example, Ahwazi Arabs are constantly denied employment in the oil and petrochemical industries that have risen in the areas they populate.

At the same time, Persian speakers are allocated the majority of jobs, varying from managers and engineers, even down to laborers. Thus, the educated Ahwazis, like the rest of the Ahwazi population, are being driven out of employment throughout the entire energy sector.

Any protests demanding reforms and an end to discrimination are met with – at best – empty promises by successive Iranian governments. More often, even the most peaceful protests are met with brutal and lethal force, particularly when the protesters are minorities.

Cristina: What can you tell me about the Ahwazi culture? Can you describe your music, language, and traditions?

Rahim: The Ahwaz culture is considered one of the most ancient cultures in the world. In the past, Ahwaz was called Elam, and it was the cradle of the Elamite and Maysani civilizations.

Ahwaz has a rich history of constructing buildings, monuments, and obelisks on which cuneiform writings were engraved, which depict the nature of life and prevailing culture in those ancient times.

In Ahwaz, there are a lot of monuments that contain colossal buildings called Ziggurat. They are stepped temples. Among the most prominent temples of this kind is Dur Untash Ziggurat, registered with UNESCO.

The Ahwazi people’s language is Arabic. In general, hospitality and generosity to guests are deeply rooted in the Ahwazi Arab culture and traditions. People treat guests with noticeable care and paramount attention.

Cristina: Were Ahwaz people ever free to express and celebrate their cultural heritage in Iran?

The Reza Pahlavi regime and its successors instituted an effort to eradicate the Ahwazi's Arab history and culture, changing the names of streets and districts, cities, towns and villages, and even natural landmarks such as rivers and hills from Arabic to Farsi.

Following the 1979 ‘Islamic Revolution,' the new theocratic regime did not change this policy of cultural eradication but rather accelerated it. Ahwazis were subsequently forbidden from giving their children Arabic names and instead were forced to choose from a list of Farsi names approved by the regime.

Both the Pahlavi dynasty and the Khomeinist regime actively worked to change the region's demographic composition to eliminate its Arab character and subsume it into a Greater Iran.

For Ahwazis, 1925 marked the beginning of the brutal occupation and oppressive suppression, which has continued since, characterized by cultural, political, economic, and linguistic injustice and oppression based on virulently anti-Arab bigotry and prejudice.

Cristina: Do the Ahwazi's have an activist community, either in Iran or in exile?

Any attempt by Ahwazi peoples to protest at the horrendous injustices inflicted by successive regimes is brutally crushed.

On April 15, 2005, Ahwazis across the region in Ahwaz, Hamidiyeh, Ma’shour, Howeyzeh, and other cities, towns and villages, and staged peaceful anti-regime demonstrations unprecedented in their size.

They were protesting the revelations in a leaked letter from a senior regime official. That senior regime official said the regime wished to reduce the Arab population in the region further. In the letter, reportedly from Mohammed Ali Abtahi, the head of the office of the then-president Mohammed Khatami, the author detailed a plan to reduce the Arab population within ten years.

The regime was enraged by the demonstrations, with around 60 protesters killed and hundreds more injured and arrested by security forces and police.

Anti-Arab discrimination permeates every facet of life for the Ahwazi people.

For the rulers in Tehran, this culture of discrimination and denial of the most fundamental rights in every area of life is a means of ensuring that Ahwazis remain powerless and marginalized.

What I'm writing:

• There are only a few weeks left for diplomats to save the Iran nuclear deal, or the agreement will no longer work as a nonproliferation mechanism, and negotiators will have to start at the beginning.

Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Ron Johnson sent a letter to the State Department, urging officials to maintain the peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The letter expresses concern that efforts to support electoral and constitutional reforms are not bearing sufficient fruit and applauds the Biden administration for sanctioning Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik.

• U.S. President Joe Biden announced $200 million in military aid to defend Ukraine this week, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling for more.

What I'm reading:

The United Kingdom is sending short-range anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to help the country defend itself, the BCC reports.

• The U.S. State Department cleared Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the U.K. to send U.S.-made weapons  – including Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger missiles – to Ukraine, Reuters reports.

• Senior officials in the Biden administration warned that the Pentagon and the CIA would seek to help any Ukrainian insurgency should Russia invade, the New York Times reports.

• During a press conference, U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to admit that NATO is divided on how to respond if Russia undertakes only a “minor incursion” into Ukraine, the Guardian reports.

• The European Journalism Fund has a report on eight Russian spies discovered in NATO headquarters.

• The U.S. unveiled new sanctions against Russian-backed Ukrainian officials and accused Russia of recruiting current and former Ukrainian government officials in an attempt to take control of Ukraine’s government (There's a screenshot of the full statement below).

• Ukraine's military intelligence claimed that Russia is actively recruiting and training mercenaries in the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine and moving fuel, tanks, artillery, and mortars into the area, Reuters reports.

• Russia has almost completed its buildup of forces near Ukraine’s border, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said. The total number of personnel is over 127,000 servicemen, according to CNN.

• Russia’s Foreign Ministry reiterated that Moscow is seeking guarantees that NATO forces would leave Romania and Bulgaria, countries that joined NATO in 1997, the Guardian reports.

• Spain is sending warships to bolster NATO naval forces in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and is weighing sending fighter jets to Bulgaria to deter Russian aggression, Reuters reports.

• Russia announced that its navy will stage exercises this month involving all its fleet, including drills in the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the northeast Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific, Al Jazeera reports.

• Microsoft discovered destructive malware that wipes devices of data and renders them inoperable on dozens of Ukrainian government and private-sector computers.

• Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko returned to Kyiv, where he faces possible arrest on charges of treason and supporting terrorism, the New York Times reports.

• Russia started moving troops to Belarus for joint military exercises, the Guardian reports.

• A new United Nations report on Belarus’s forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet and subsequent arrest of a dissident journalist on board last year raised more questions about the veracity of the Belarusian government's statements at the time, the Wall Street Journal reports.

• U.S. prosecutors charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy in connection with the forced landing of the Ryanair flight. The indictment was filed in the Southern District of New York.

• A group of members of the European Parliament called for large-scale election observation for Hungary's upcoming parliamentary elections amid fears of falling democratic standards, the Guardian reports.

• Brussels is preparing to withhold EU funds from Poland over Warsaw’s refusal to pay fines imposed by the EU’s top court, according to Politico Europe's Playbook. The looming decision concerns a €500,000 daily fine which the Court of Justice of the EU ordered Warsaw to pay for not shutting down a coal mine on the Czech border.

• The European Commission also sent Poland a letter demanding that it pay €69 million in fines over its failure to comply with a court order to suspend a controversial disciplinary mechanism for judges, Lili Bayer reports for Politico Europe.

• Poland, Hungary, and Estonia are threatening to veto a proposed EU directive that seeks to introduce a 15 percent minimum corporate tax rate, Politico Europe reports.

• Far-right French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour was found guilty of inciting racial hatred and fined $11,400, the Washington Post reports.

• Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik has been courting the French far-right, Balkan Insight reports.

• Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke out against the recent unrest in the country, arguing that the purpose of the riots was to destroy the integrity of the country and the foundations of the state. He also denied that he had fled the country.

• The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project released a new report revealing that Nazarbayev hid banks, hotels, and a $100 million jet in a network of foundations that answer only to him.

• The home and campaign office of Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, were raided as part of a federal investigation into Azerbaijan and a group of U.S. businessmen who have ties to the country, ABC News reports.

• Israeli police evicted a Palestinian family and demolished their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Reuters reports.

• Israel’s Attorney General ordered an investigation into the police’s surveillance tactics amid reports of misuse of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, Reuters reports.

• U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres released a report, obtained by the Associated Press, noting that over 12,000 detainees are held officially in prisons and detention facilities across Libya. Thousands more are held illegally, often in inhumane conditions in facilities controlled by armed groups.

• Four alleged members of the Nigerian mafia were arrested in southern Italy after a young sex-trafficking survivor spoke out against them. The men allegedly belong to the Black Axe, a cult-like criminal gang that emerged in the 1970s at the University of Benin, the Guardian reports.

• U.S. athletes heading to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games were advised to use burner phones instead of their personal devices due to possible surveillance, the Wall Street Journal reports.

• Myanmar’s military arrested three people working for the independent news portal Dawei Watch, Reuters reports.

• A sophisticated cyber attack targeted servers hosting data on 500,000 people held by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the organization said. The ICRC was forced to shut down the system it uses to reunite families separated by war and pleaded with whoever has the data not to leak or share it.

What the State Department says:

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