People went out on the streets of Khuzestan to protest against water shortages and power cuts, despite the 50-degree heat. (Supplied)

By Track Persia

July 22, 2021

The ongoing protests in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, the home to Iran’s ethnic Arab minority, have so far resulted in a dozen at the hands of the Iranian security forces according to circulated reports. The Iranian regime media and officials have blamed rioters for these deaths.

Under the theocratic regime in Iran, Arabs of Khuzestan staged many mass protests over many issues and the current protests have been going on for several days. Videos shared on social media showed protesters chanting “Death to Khamenei” and “death to the dictator” —two slogans heard in recent protests against the Iranian regime.

Why the Arabs in Khuzestan are protesting?

In recent months, Iran has witnessed similar protests in which protesters chanted the same slogans against increasingly frequent blackouts. Similar slogans against the regime were also chanted after the shooting down of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January by the Iranian forces and during mass protests against a controversial new fuel tax in late 2019.

The hardline Kayhan daily published an editorial on July 19 that pointed the finger at “separatists and counter-revolutionary groups who took advantage of the public rallies.” However, in marking the start of the Muslim holy Hajj season, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not mention the protests in  Khuzestan, instead, he attacked “the aggressive and arrogant” United States. In a series of tweets in early Monday, Khamenei urged Muslim countries to resist the United States and its ally Israel attacking the ‘passivity and incompetence’ of Muslim leaders. He also said that over the past 150 years these Muslim nations had been subjected to greed, interference and vice urging them to resist the “aggression, interference and evil” of the western powers.

The protests across Khuzestan have largely been peaceful demonstrations. The protesters are simply demanding water for irrigation and drinking in one of the most strategic and agriculturally rich provinces in the country. Their fury of the locals is derived from the fact that their region is suffering from a lack of water despite being geographically blessed. Indeed, Khuzestan enjoys access to three key Iranian rivers—including the Karoun—and much of the country’s water reserves.

The water crisis in Khuzestan has had devastating effects on the agricultural and farming industries. Some observers blame the current dwindling supplies on the rooted mismanagement of consecutive Iranian administrations, given the province’s abundant natural water supplies especially because it has in the past four decades been the focal point of the regime’s ambitious dam construction projects, which have gradually plummeted water flow.

That has been said, the Arab majority in Khuzestan accuse the Iranian regime of practising discriminatory policies designed to target their demographic identity by replacing their predominantly Arab ethnicity in the province with Persian.

Similarly, others attribute the protests to the regime’s failure to address accumulated demands from the local population. Being home to much of Iran’s vital oil industry, Khuzestan has long suffered from the regime’s persistent discriminatory policies against its Arab population. These policies have resulted in their suffering from high unemployment and poverty. The Arabs also suffer from systematic neglect which has forced them to demand the secession of Khuzestan from Iran.

The long discriminatory policies against Khuzestan’s Arabs

Iran is home to a large number of minority groups of various ethnic, linguistic and religious identities. Most of these groups have been subjected to state-sanctioned discriminatory policies. The UN human rights bodies have well documented these policies and violations against the minorities and the multiple forms of discrimination in Iran as a result of belonging to different identity groups.

The obvious case in this respect is Iran’s Arab ethnic minority which is mainly based in Khuzestan. The province, in April 2005, witnessed widespread protests because of a leaked secret letter allegedly written by the former Vice President Mohammad Abtahi. In his letter briefly, Abtahi, outlined a policy to radically alter the province’s demographic makeup by moving Arabs to other parts of the country, replacing them with Persians. He suggested a reduction of the province’s Arab population to a third.

The leaked letter also triggered the anger of Arabs of Khuzestan leading them to protest to give voice to their long-held grievances against the regime. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing who visited Iran in 2005, thousands of people in  Ahwaz, Khuzestan’s capital, were living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections, although the province has been the cornerstone of Iran’s massive oil wealth for more than a century.

The Arabs of the province of Khuzestan receive very little of their province’s wealth, even though their province is  Iran’s major wealth.  The grievances and antagonism of the Arabs in Khuzestan are further inflamed by large government development projects that have uprooted and displaced upwards of 200,000 to 250,000 Arabs, with very little compensation for confiscating their land. To put insult to injury, the regime does not offer jobs in its projects to the local Arabs. Instead, it prefers to plan and build new cities like Shirinshahr for non-Arabs who are brought to the province from places including Yazd in central Iran.

Amnesty International reported in February 2006 that the regime-directed migration of non-Arabs into Khuzestan is linked to economic policies that offer zero percent interest loans to migrants, but not to the Arab locals of this province.

Moreover, Khuzestan is also beset by crises resulting from long-time deliberate neglect and underdevelopment. The Arabs there are still suffering from higher illiteracy, lower life expectancy and higher unemployment rates than the rest of the country, not to mention, economic inequality and persecution.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.