Dispossession, proletarianization and the uprising of dispossessed Arabs in Iran’s Khuzestan province

Ardeshir Mehrdad

Soon after the election of Raisi as new President of Iran with a historically low turnout, Iran faced a widespread wave of protests and strikes. The strikes began in June 2021 by the contract workers in the oil industry and were echoed by a series of protests and demonstration in July in various towns and cities of Khuzestan province followed by similar protests across Iran[1]

See https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20210722-protests-over-water-shortages-turn-deadly-in-southwest-iran or https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1358/anger-finds-open-expression/

In the wake of this, it will be useful to take an analytical view of events.[2]The article is an edited version of a webinar organised on August 11, 2021 by the journal Critique entitled Khuzestan in the mirror of political economy. I will begin with several presuppositions:

First, the shortage or absence of water was a trigger that legitimised the explosion of accumulated discontent. It provided a pretext to use the favourable political environment that followed the nationwide boycott of the presidential elections, the strike by contract worker in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries and the widespread protests at the electricity blackouts to successfully mobilise the protests. But the protests had roots in a more profound discontent.

Second, in the recent uprisings in Khuzestan, it was initially the dispossessed Arab population that took to the streets and fueled its explosive potential. It was the farmers, those rearing animals, and fishermen living in small rural towns who initially took to the streets, and who in no time were joined by the destitute marginalised Arab population in the periphery of towns. 

Third, there is a relatively long history of popular protest in the Arab population of Khuzestan. What took place in July of this year was a continuation of protest movements and uprisings that have taken place in this province over the last four decades:

  • June 1979 protest at ethnic oppression and for equal rights, which was put down by bullets.
  • Summer of 1994, Arab farmers on the Eastern Bank of Karun river[3]Largest river in Iran revolted against the expropriation of their agricultural land and suffered both dead and wounded, and were imprisoned and dispossessed of their livelihood in the name of sugar cane development – events that were covered up by a news blackout.
  • July 2000, angry street protests in Abadan against the salination of Karun and Bahmanshir rivers, which resulted in eight deaths, 50 wounded and three to four hundred arrests. And the rivers remained just as salty.
  • November 2004, it was the turn of the thousands of street vendors in Ahwaz. The unemployed whose only means of survival had been broken up (these were the same unemployed Arab farmers from both sides of Karun river whose land had been confiscated by the government in order to extend sugar cane plantation and had taken refuge in towns).
  • April 2005, there were bloody protests in Ahwaz, Mahshahr and Hamidieh in protest at a letter attributed to Abtai’, Head of President Khatami’s[4]Mohammad Khatami, ‘reformist’ President of Iran 1997-2005. office. The Arab population took to the streets for over one week protesting at discrimination, being marginalised and ethnic cleansing and were suppressed with a large number of deaths, wounded and imprisoned.
  • To these we must add numerous other protest that brought on the stage the deprived Arab population in one place or other: from Mallashieh to Gheizanieh, and from Elhaii to Daghaghaleh and Zargan.

But whatever happened in Khuzestan in July 2021 was different from all that had happened in the previous decades in one important aspect: A movement took place in this month that moved beyond the geographic and social limitations of previous movements and uprisings. These protests were in close association and solidarity with the nationwide movements. It had a voice that echoed in the furthest corners of the country. It would not be a mistake to view it as the continuation of the same movement that began in January 2018. A nationwide movement of protest in both large and small towns [5]see Ardeshir Mehrdad, Iran: three waves of urban protest 1992-2019 http://www.middleast4change.org/iran-three-waves-of-urban-protest-1992-2019/

In this discussion I will attempt to answer two key questions:

First, what are the deep-seated roots of the of the discontent that caused the recent protests of the downtrodden Arab population?

Second, what caused a protest that began in small town and agricultural areas to quickly spread to cities, and in particular, the Arab communities living in the margins and periphery of towns?[6]In other words what caused the shift in the geography of the uprising from Hamidieh, Bostan and Shadgan and caused it to spread to Lashkar Abad, Shilang Abad and the end of the asphalt road.

Roots of protests 

The most prevalent current thinking looks for the roots of the recent protest movements in the rise of ethnic nationalism and the growing influence of secessionist tendencies, or even provocation by those outside the government. One also has to see Fars chauvinism[7]Farsi speakers are the largest ethnic group in multi-ethnic multi-national Iran within the same framework (even if they do not ignore the discontent caused by water shortage). Others seek the roots in inequality and ethnic repression, or in the ecological crisis facing the country.

I do not entirely share these views for the following reasons.

1. There is no doubt that the protests of the Arabs of Iran, as that of other non-Farsi-speaking ethnic groups and nationalities, usually takes on an ethnic or national expression, but that does not necessarily signify that a nationalistic ideology or that of national-superiority is either widespread or influential. Moreover, we know that even though the movement began with some degree of subjectivity and a low level of organisation and leadership, its persistence and ability to spread over a wide area was result of direct and bitter objective reality and completely spontaneous.

2. It is also true that the ecological crisis and ethnic-national inequalities, as well as the way the ruling regime views the national question entirely from an intelligence-security perspective, play a role in the discontent. But in my view they are in themselves inadequate to explain a movement with such a broad social base, such enduring motivation for mass action, and such ability to spread.

It is my belief that the roots of the recent protests in Khuzestan should be sought in the discontent brought about by the execution of two sets of programs and policies for the people this province (and particularly for its Arab population) which combine class oppression and ethnic discrimination with an environmental crisis and ecosystem collapse.

The first group consist of political and economic programs and policies under the umbrella of “Construction and Structural Adjustment” initiated by the government of Hashemi Rafsanjani[8]President of Iran 1989-1997 and pursued by successive governments. The second group are the intelligence-security programs of the Islamic Republic (especially its security-focused approach to the national question) that have been adopted since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. I can summarise the reasons for my conclusions as follows:

One

The collapse of traditional forms of production and the ruination of direct producers had begun, albeit slowly, a half a century ago, since the era of land reform,[9]Mohammad Reza Shah’s land reform program was launched in 1963 and clearly not confined to Khuzestan, but across the country with various degrees of effectiveness. In other words, if no other change had taken place in the economic policies of the state, the spread of commodity production would have inevitably involved the direct producers (i.e. small peasants) whether Arab, Fars, Kurd, or Turk. The surge of commodity relations was enough to sooner or later overwhelm them and their subsistence economy. Small producers have no access to funds to adequately finance commodity production nor are they able to survive in a highly competitive market and sell their goods at a price that covers the cost of production and provide a meagre life for them and their family.

No need to go far for an example: date production! This one example suffices for Khuzestan. Let us see how far the product of one palm-grove owner from Qasabeh or Haffar goes towards covering the livelihood of his dependents. If his grove on average produces two to three tons of dates per annum, his average monthly earnings most years will be even less than what the Committee for Relief and Welfare[10]Komiteh-e Emdad va Behzisti has allocated for wage earners. How long will he be able to stand up to the myriad of problems that comes his way before giving up and letting his farm and grove go? And all this is assuming that the water will not become salty, there is no sickness, or storm, or floods or …..

But over the last three decades, this process took a different accelerated route, and resulted in a structural transformation at great speed. That was when, immediately after the Iran-Iraq war, Khuzestan became the first area where the program of economic adjustment and “reconstruction” was implemented, and this province was chosen as the most suitable for implementing the reconstruction program of the central government. This was to be the most suitable site for implementing a model development which in its broad outline was nothing other than the most rabid form of authoritarian capitalist development. At the heart of this model was wage slavery and plundering of natural resources and public wealth. Its overall direction was to feed the interest of a new oligarchy and respond to its economic and military priorities. The results were a destruction of all traditional means of production and social structure and the ruination of peasant toilers and the proletarianization of direct producers.

Two

It was the enormous natural resources of the province that caused Khuzestan to be chosen as the first area to implement this model. Oil, water, fertile lands, and beside them electricity generating plants, important ports, and transport infrastructure are among the many resources that render Khuzestan an important mainstay in the program of “reconstruction” with two important roles:

  • A suitable terrain for rapid spread of industrial farming and the establishment of large industrial companies, particularly in oil, gas, petrochemicals, energy, and steel.
  • The above was to provide backing for instigating projects in other areas of the country. To guarantee its execution, the “National Projects” provided a legal framework to ensure that any opposition to enclosures and land dispossession could be overcome.

Three

The implementation of these projects required numerous enclosures of common resources and widespread dispossession. We can list a few examples.

The project to develop sugar cane has caused 120 thousand hectares of the best agricultural land on both banks of Karun River that belonged to local farmers to be pulled out of their hands. Ditto, 25 thousand hectares for the fishing project, 27 thousand hectares for the Karun Navigation Company, thousands of hectares given over to construct the Ahwaz Stell Complex, and thousands other lands in the construction of towns such as Shirin Shahr (in Dar Khoin District) and Ramin New Town (in Bavy District (Shahrestan) – north of Molla Sani).

And:

The Karun Three dam required the submersion of 24 villages with all its agricultural lands, resulting in a population of about 15,000 losing its home and livelihood. This was echoed in the construction of tens of dams of various sizes which submerged thousands of hectares of arable land. It is not hard to imagine what compensations the dispossessed farmers received and the “market price” paid out, given the imbalance of power between the agents of powerful state or private firms and small peasant farmer, particularly as the former have the bayonets of the state behind them.

Four

The construction of numerous dams, irrigation works, oil, gas and petrochemical projects, multiple sugar cane plantations, and the Steel and Navard industries were disastrous to the ecosystem of the region creating an acute ecological crisis. Consequences included the salination and contamination of the Shadab Ponds (Fallahieh), with 400,000 hectares the largest wetlands in Iran and the sixth largest the world, the drying up of the major part of the Hoor-al-Azim (Hawizeh) Marshes, in part because of oil extraction, and in part because of decline in the water of its feeding river Karkheh.

The drying up of the Karun river, the severe reduction of the water in Karkheh river; the reduction of the water supply to thousands of hectares of the region’s agricultural land; salinization of Karun water; lack of drinking water for hundreds of villages around Shadegan, Dashte Azadagan and other areas; reduction of land for traditional agricultural production; drying up of millions of date-palm trees; death or auctioning off of millions of farm animals; mass extinction of fish and death of fishermen; migration of birds … and replacement of all things lost with floods, dust storms, thirst and other such calamities.

In summary, the renovation and development project has pulled land and water from under the feet of Arab farmers in the largest ethnic-national dispossession in the history of the spread of capitalist production in Iran, and along with it the destruction of the entire source of livelihood for the native population of the region: in many rural Arab communities the farmers, the keepers of farm animals, the fishermen, the owners of orchards and palm groves were separated from their means of production and reproduction.

Seeing Khuzestan and the national question as a security threat

We know that Khuzestan, in addition to its strategic place in the economy also occupies an important place for the regime from the point of view of security. For this reason, in addition to the relative militarisation of the political and social life of this province, the national question too is seen through a security lens. Among the different ethnic and national groups living here, the Arab population has been the main focus.

One of the strategic aims of security apparatus in this respect has been to change in the composition of the ethnic-national make-up of the population and the voluntary or compulsory movement of people, alongside using the harshest means for dispossession and pauperisation.

The policies and actions of the of the regime speak for themselves, particularly the opportunities provided by the eight-year war and its aftermaths. The war offered a great opportunity to implement this security-directed policy. It acted like a secret hand in forcing the migration of Arab farmers and keepers of farm animals from border areas (as well as the zones occupied by the Iraqi army or were in the range of bombardment by either side). The villagers of this region were torn away from the natural place for their reproduction.

Some of the consequences of war, such as mined lands, thousands of hectares of burnt farmland and date groves, ruined drained land, and land turned into salt-marsh, made it difficult for the villagers to return to their previous abodes and mode of living. It provided a suitable excuse for confiscating their land and creating a security corridor along the border with Iraq with military installations, and implementing the project of “National Preparedness” which was passed by the highest organs of the state, where the change in the population mix of Khuzestan Province was a key element.

It was the opportunities provided by the war that:

  • more than 300,000 hectares of agricultural land in Jafir and Meshdakh was given over to non-native ‘dedicated’[11]Isargaran meaning those who had members of their family who died in the war. and ‘dedicated Fars’ immigrants
  • Some 6000 hectares of the land along the Iran-Iraq border in the north of city of Shush set aside to house people from the north and north-east of Iran
  • large areas of Salbukh Island (Abadan) have been taken over by the Revolutionary Guards. Implementing the project to create the Arvand Free Zone and plans to take over 165 square kilometers of agricultural land and orchards.

And by leaving uncleared of mines thousands of hectares of mined land in the border area, the route to their previous habitation has been blocked. In one report it was estimates that two decades after the war ended, 15,000 Khuzestan Arab citizens remain as war refugees in the Beheshti Township of Mashhad on the north-east corner of the country waiting to be repatriated home.

In summary, the objective roots of the discontent in the downtrodden Arab population in villages and small towns of Khuzestan Province has to be seen in the accumulating sum of the economic projects and security measures of the regime in the province. Policies and plans that have at their roots the dispossession of the poorer peasants, enclosure of public land and resources, search for rapid and unlimited profit, and institutional rentierism. At their core lies ensuring the survival of the regime and securing the interests of the oligarchy. To realise such goals requires a combination increased exploitation, pure plunder and unbridled pillage and, alongside this, uninterrupted repression. It is no surprise that such policies would ignore the ecological potential of the region, is uninterested in the living conditions for humans, animals and plants alike, and indifferent to the livelihood and health of its inhabitants.

The direct result of these policies is the collapse of the native societies, ruination of peasants and toilers, their separation from the means of production and reproduction and mass migration to cities.

Migration

Driven by those conditions, many Arab farmers and toilers that had lost their livelihoods moved with their families to the towns during the last three decades in search of a work. According to the Centre of Iran Statistics this region saw the greatest level of migration 2011-2016 (1390-95 in the Iranian Calendar) where 81.1 thousand emigrated to other provinces. This was the period with the greatest rural to urban migration in recent times. Census figures highlight the dimensions of this mass migration:

Between 2011 and 2016, annualised population growth across of the country was 1.24%. Growth in urban and rural areas were 1.97% and 0.68% respectively. Compared to the country as a whole, annual population growth in Khuzestan at 0.78% was below the national average. Interestingly, the urban growth in the province is similar to the national average (1.97%) while the fall in population in villages was four times the national average (-2.41%) which, alongside the rising number of uninhabited villages in the province, shows the dimensions of the crisis. In the decade following 1986, 640 villages became uninhabited, and many more saw major falls in population. Most of these depopulated villages were in the Arab-speaking areas such as Azadegan, Shai’bieh, Elhabi, Souyeh, Shush, Kut Abdollah, and Shadgan.  In 2011, Khuzestan province had 6,419 villages, including 2,118 permanently uninhabited and a further 530 seasonally uninhabited.

What caused the protest to spread in the region?

What were the reasons a protest movement that began in villages and small town to rapidly spread to the cities, and in particular, to the Arab population on the margins of the towns?

It was the same policies that had removed the Arab farmer from their means of production and sent them scurrying to the cities in search of work, and simultaneously sentenced them to unemployment, poverty, living in the periphery of the city, stuck in a vicious cycle where their past is recreated in a different guise in their future. The same policies that made them destitute in the village is operating the same in the shanty town. A look at the characteristics of jobs, income and housing speaks for itself.

Work: The ruined Arab farmer took refuge in town for work, but what work?

  • They joined a labour market overflowing with the unemployed, even higher than the rest of the country. According to the latest employment figures the Statistical Centre of Iran (Spring 2021), the employment rate is 86.9% compared to the national average of 91.2%. The rate of part-employment in Khuzestan is 13.2% compared to 9.8% nationally. Youth unemployment (aged 15 to 24) is 35.7% in Khuzestan and 22.1% nationally, and aged eighteen to thirty-five 25.1% (15.6% nationally).
  • This is a market saturated by unskilled workers, especially in areas with a dominance of Arab-speaking people. According to the governor of the port city of Khorramshahr, of the over 35,000 official applications for work over 25 thousand were unskilled.
  • this is a market where the state (at least till 1996, for which I have seen statistics)[12]It is difficult to find accurate statistics, especially in more recent times. is the largest employer. This means that for Arab applicants in a large section of job applications there is an added filter of belief[13]Khuzestan Arab’s are predominantly Sunni Muslims while the Islamic Republic of Iran is officially Shia’. is added to security-vetting. According to official statistics, in the two decades after 1976, the share of the private sector in wage and salary earners was nearly halved from 30% to 16%. In other words, we are talking of a labour market that is under the control of the security policies of the state, whose aim is to change the ethnic- national makeup of the province and to reduce the share of Arab workers in all the large industries, especially the oil, gas, steel, Navard, and even sugar cane.
  • a labour market where skills, spoken language and education dominate.
  • a market lacking the most basic labour rights.
  • a market without the right to organise, and where protesting is a crime.

The sum total of the character of this labour market is in clear opposition to the limitations and inabilities of the migrating Arab worker who leaves the village for the city looking for work. This is worker with little in terms of education, language and skills to offer and its main body also faces linguistic and cultural barriers.

The choice is between unemployment, part-time work, day labour, and ultimately urban transport, domestic service or resorting to selling bits and pieces on the pavement – and when none of these are possible rummaging in rubbish dumps.

According to the Ahwaz deputy to the Majles[14]Parliament Khuzestan has the greatest number of street peddlers. Another report points directly to a place overflowing with Arab work applicants and writes: “there are over 20,00 persons in Abadan and Khoramshahr with pseudo-jobs.

The place of younger and more educated applicants in the job market is no different. They too are equally likely to be stopped behind the doors of the job market. They not only join a job market where one out of every two are unemployed, but they will also need to pass the security filter. Their Arabic names means that their application forms are stamped with ‘lack of suitable qualification’. In such a job market, equal access to jobs is a myth. To get a permanent, official job with insurance cover and other perks becomes almost a miracle. There exists an ethno-national hierarchy of work where the Arab worker is brutally exiled to its dark and sedimentary end with the lowest salary or wage.

All it needs is to look at the unemployment level at two cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr with a large Arab population, particularly since the end of the war, which caused a change in the makeup of population. In a province with already twice the national average rate of unemployment these two cities have double the rate of unemployment than the province as a whole.

Income: In a province which has the second highest level of poor among the provinces of Iran the average income, according to a sample survey carried out in 2003, was less than 75% of the national average and nearly 50% of that in Tehran Province. The same survey showed the mean income of a typical family in Khuzestan was just over 37milion rials,[15]Rial is the Iranian currency. This figure is below the semi-official line of poverty for a family of four of a monthly income of 45 million R (nominally $150): https://iranintl.com/en/iran/statistics-suggest-half-iranians-living-poverty compared with 42 million Rials nationwide and 52 million Rials in Tehran. It should be noted that the average family in Khuzestan consists of 5.4 persons, nationwide it is 4.4 and in Tehran 3.9 persons. This makes the income per head in Khuzestan 7 million Rials compared to about 9 million in the country as a whole and 13.4 in Tehran province. The same source found that only one in eight persons in the province are covered by the social security (537,000)!

While I have been unable to find a breakdown of how poverty is distributed among the ethnic groups in Khuzestan, we may be able to glean some information from cities with a majority Arab population. Accordingly:

One third of the population of Shadgan are officially below the poverty line and are being covered by the Committee for Relief and Welfare (CRW).[16]Komiteh-e Emdad va Behzisti

Seventy percent of the population of Khorramshahr are under the umbrella of CRW. In 1997 1,400 pupils had not registered at school because they could not afford uniforms, books and notebooks, a pitiable sum of 100 million rials. The governor of the province of the time commented that in Abadan there had twice the number of people on welfare than in the four largest provinces of the country.

Housing: for the unemployed and poor emigrant Arab proletariat seeking work, finding a roof over their hears that is affordable has to be in the shanty towns surrounding urban areas, where there is no drinking water, no electricity, no roads, no school, no hospital, just no, no and no! Here is a fourth inevitable dimension to add to the triangle of unemployment, poverty and peddling. Let us look at the facts:

Official reports say, from a total of 2.89 million inhabitants in urban areas in 2005 (from a total Khuzestan population of 4.35 million) between 800,000 and one million were living in shanty towns (approximately 30% of the urban population). Virtually all the towns of the province from Shushtar to Mahshahr are surrounded by a ring of slum townships. An independent research project carried out by the medical schools in the province in 2015 has found that with 1.56 million people living on the margins of the towns Khuzestan holds the record of slum living in the country. Indeed, 15 percent of all shantytown dwellers of the country live in Khuzestan.

Ahwaz, with half a million slum dwellers, is only second to Mashhad. Field studies in this city shows that most of the marginalised population are Arabs that have been dispossessed and driven by the twin programs of development and security concerns. Secondly, Arabs account for 80 percent of these destitute slumdwellers, the remainders being made up by poverty-stricken Bakhtiary or Lur emigrants. In Ahwaz the neighbourhoods of Silahi, Shilang-abad, Goldasht, Gol Bahar, Karishan, Ein-do, Malashie, Chanibeh, Jongieh, Kut Abdollah, Kantex, Qale’ Kan’an, Kouye Taher, Al Safi, Manba’ Ab, Hasirabad, Zargan, Zavieh-one and Zavieh-two make up the main marginal areas. After Ahwaz the town of Mahshar, Masjed Soleiman, Abadan, Dezful, Andimeshg, and Karun contain the other main areas of slum dwellers.

We can only complete this picture if we include cities such as Khorramshahr and Abadan where it is difficult to distinguish the borders between slums and the city itself, such that these cities can be considered marginalised cities in their totality.

The concentration of Arab populations in the marginal living areas of Khuzestan permits the following conclusions:

The social consequences of the policies of development have meant that the ethnic-national issue in Khuzestan has increasingly become an internal issue of capitalist expansion. The urban areas of Khuzestan are surrounded by a ring of destitute Arabs that the official town has not absorbed. The national makeup of the marginalised sectors of this province indicates that the policies of de-Arabisation has not only not solved the ethnic-national problem but has added a class and urban dimension to the ethnic-national inequalities and divisions; it has moved beyond the rural-urban divide into a divide between the margins and the city proper; and ultimately has elevated the cultural inequalities into a deep social division and given it an explosive potential.

In summary, the Arab population of Khuzestan have been particularly exposed to the miseries inflicted by the imposition of ‘reconstruction’ on the people of the province. What has been enacted under the guise of the ‘development plan’ has added national oppression to the class and environmental oppressions, and through visible and invisible levers, has dispossessed them of their land and water and their ability to produce and reproduce are taken away from them. They were doubly exposed to unemployment, and poverty, and where they found a job it was in the lowest ranks of the job hierarchy, they were forced to live in accommodation with no water, no electricity, no gas, no sewage, no road, no health care, and no schools; only no and no!

It is thus that today:

They are in the forefront of those fighting, in village and township, against the expropriation of their lands and right to water, against thirst for themselves and their flock.

And it is thus that they, ahead of all others, help in prolonging the protests in town and village; leads the others in protesting at unemployment, cost of living, lack of water and electricity; stands up to the officials with orders to clear the pavements from street vendors, stands up against the destruction of their homes, fights (alongside their Lur, Bakhtiari, Fars, Kurd and Turk fellow workers) in the sugarcane fields and the oil, gas and petrochemical installations against meagre wages, the slave-like relations and the inhuman conditions; protests at the previous forced expropriations of their land, water and resources; the factories built with their toil and pain and confronts the avaricious policies of the ruling oligarchy. They pour into the streets against the humiliations, the lack of basic rights, marginalisation, the oppression, the discriminations, and in defence of their human dignity.

From town to village, from farmer to those tending farm animals, to street vendor and slum dweller, they all stand up in a linked uprising to the ruling power as its target.

Selected questions from the webinar audience

Q 1: How much, in your view, have ethnic nationalism and separatist tendencies influenced the mobilising of the Arab population of Khuzestan in the recent protest movements?

AM: In my view, none. In the totality of all the protest movement in large and small towns, from the first day until they were forcibly put down, you could not find any trace of ethnic nationalism or separatist tendencies. But in this regard, I think it might be useful to make a few points.

First, it is quite natural for the protests by the Arab people of Iran, like all protests by all the other non-Fars ethnic groups and nationalities, to take on a national or ethnic expression, or even, as happened in the protests of March 2005, become an open defence of ethnic or national identity. But this is not the same as saying that the guiding force and mobilisation potential behind these movements was the influence ethno-national superiority and ethnic nationalism.

Second, we cannot deny the existence and even the growth of ethnic tendencies among the non-Fars nationalities of Iran. But this reality does not necessarily imply that these have inspired or provoked widespread protest, such as those we saw in Khuzestan.

Third, ethnic nationalism and even separatist tendencies can always ride popular discontents, inequalities and deprivations that have deep roots. They can feed on these roots but are not their basis. As I stressed in this talk, the source of the recent protests and the other protests over the last decades have mostly deep structural and organic roots.

Moreover, if we look closer at the protests of the last two or three decades, we will see that, rather than being influenced by ideological tendencies, there are influenced by structural and organic developments. Their ranks were not made up of the middle or higher layers of urban society but the poorest, the most marginalised and the most deprived sectors of society. Their demands speak clearly: housing, water, electricity, transport, unemployment, being denied jobs. Where the protests took on national hues was where the deprivations and inequalities had an additional ethnic basis.

Q2: Can we see any differences between the policies of (the deposed) Pahlavi regime and the current regime with regards to the Arab people in Iran?

AM: Yes and no. In the sense that both regimes response to the demands for equality were the same, then no, there is no difference. The way both regimes looked at the national question, and particularly in relation to the Arab people, was security, then again no. From the angle that the government ruling the country in both regimes were based on an ethnic hierarchy in a multinational, multilinguistic country, based on the superiority of one ethnic group over the others, where the ruling political power created and encouraged the growth of cultural structures that reproduce the cultural inequality and even the cultural negation of non-Farsi speaking ethnic groups and nationalities, then again my answer is no, there is no difference.

But, yes, there are differences as well. During the Pahlavi regime, the official ideology was to its marrow based on racist policies and on the racial-ethnic superiority of Arians. In other words, on one side we had an the authoritarian political system, where a special elite, who because of blood inheritance, ancestry, rank, or position in the religious hierarchy were considered superior to ordinary people ruled, and with a government that was essentially from one ethnic group, supported by an ideology of racial superiority, and on the other hand we have now the government of Islam where the structure of an ethnically specific government did not fundamentally change, but the dictatorship of blood and ancestry was replaced by a religious dictatorship. Here the ideology of religious superiority replaced that of ethno-racial superiority. The anti-Arab hysteria lessened but, as I highlighted above, the security -intelligence issues when dealing with Arab people remained, and it may have even intensified.

Q3. To what extent the tribal structure, the sheikhs and the leadership of the tribes have influence over, and can direct the political and cultural life of the Arab population of Iran. Is there any indication that they had a role in the recent protests?

AM: In the absence of independent research, I am not sure I can come up with an accurate reply. I will, however, make a few points.

First, evidence shows that not only in large urban areas, where tribal structures have to a great extent collapsed and the influence of tribal chiefs and elders among the Arab-speaking people, especially the young, is minimal, but even in smaller towns, the tribal elders, leaders and sheikhs were all but absent in the early shaping of the protests, where the young (and particularly the educated young) took on the main role.

Second, the sheikhs and leaders, at most, enter the field once the movements and protests have spread and even then mainly in the form of a mediator between the government and protestors, and as a dampener on the protests. In the last century the central government has encouraged the perpetuation of tribal relations. Governments, mainly because of the security considerations, have attempted to use the tribal identity to dilute the national identity of Arabs. Moreover, in tribal societies the individual is almost a semi-slave and never as a civil citizen with equal rights, remaining always a member of a blood-ethnic family. More importantly, tribal societies deny class divisions and the demands and needs of the lower and deprived strata are constantly being trampled under the guise of the interest of the tribe. It is therefore no surprise that the Tribal Headquarters remains active, the inner workings of the tribes are left to the tribal leaders, and in a sense, the members of a tribe are removed from the jurisdiction of common courts. Whenever a protest takes shape in the Arab society, the Provincial Governor, relevant Minister, Deputy President, and Chairman of National Security Committee approach the tribal leaders and ask them to help the government in reining in the protest.

In my view, the tribal chiefs and sheikhs, rather than having a role in shaping protests of the deprived urban and rural Arab masses, have the ability an interest to harness them, and where possible obtain some privileges for themselves. 

Q3: Don’t you think that in the intellectual-cultural space of our country there is either an apathy or even silent support for the anti-Arab policies of the regime?

AM: Sadly, there is an undeniable truth in your question. Our intellectual, academic and artistic environment has little sensitivity towards the discriminations, inequalities and crimes that had befallen the Arab people of Iran over the last century. They have in many ways played a neutral role. Rarely in our literature, cinema, theatre, ethnic research, sociology, or anthropology are the Arab people given any space. Without prejudgments or falling into ideological cliches, I am sad to say that in the cultural field of Iran, the Arabs more than being a disadvantaged nation without civil rights, have been a people ignored. In this environment they, the Arabs, are truly invisible without an identity card.

Sadly, I have to admit that I cannot ignore the existence of Fars chauvinism and the anti-Arab madness in a large section of people involved with politics, a large section of historians, researchers, writers, artists or other creators of culture. Some have gone so far as to not only deny the culture but to deny the entire issue of race (this will need its own discussion).

Happily, there was solidarity with the recent protests of the Arab people of Khuzestan from a variety of social groups and circles across the whole of Iran. These are clear signs of an increasing awareness and political maturity. Particularly when they insisted on repeating the slogans of protest and demands in Arabic. This in my view was a demonstration of solidarity between nations and ethnic groups who recognise the culture and language of one another. This was an example that I should also have followed and, for example, instead of the name Shadgan used its historic-Arabic name of ‘Fallahieh’ or used ‘Mohammareh’ or ‘Khafajieh’ for Khorramshahr and Susangerd respectively.

Read Farsi version of this webinar


Ardeshir Mehrdad is a scholar and veteran political activist. A former editor of iran bulletin-Middle East Forum, he has written extensively, in Farsi and English, on the nature of political Islam and the structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


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