|Arab separatism in Khuzestan|
Map of Iran with Khuzestan highlighted
Sublime State of Persia (1918–25)
Sheikhdom of Mohammerah
|Imperial State of Iran (1925–79)||
Islamic Republic of Iran (1980−)
|Commanders and leaders|
Oan Ali Mohammed †
Habib Jabr al-Ka'bi Ahmad Mullah Nissi †Salah Abusharif al-ahwazi
Arab separatism in Khuzestan refers to a decades-long separatist movement in the western part of Iranian Khuzestan, which seeks to establish a separate independent state for its Arab people. Since the 1920s, tensions have often resulted in violence and attempted separatism, including major riots, uprising in 1979, unrest in 2005, terrorist bombings in 2005–06, protests in 2011 and the 2018 Ahvaz military parade attack, drawing much criticism of Iran by international human rights organizations. Iran denies that ethnic discrimination or conflict exist in the country.
Khuzestan is inhabited by many different ethnic groups aside from Iranian Arabs, including Bakhtiari, Qashqai people, indigenous Persians and Armenians. Most Arabs in Khuzestan are Shia Muslims. Both the urban and rural Arabs of Khuzestan are intermingled with the Persians, and Lurs who also live in the province and often intermarry with them.
Khuzestan has been a troublesome province of Iran since the ascent of the Pahlavi rule in the 1920s.
In the two decades before 1924, although officially part of Persian territory, the western part of Khuzestan functioned as an autonomous emirate known as "Arabistan". The eastern part of Khuzestan was governed by Bakhtiari khans because the eastern part of Khuzestan was mainly inhabited by Bakhtiari people. With rising power of Reza Khan and his increasingly negative attitudes on tribal autonomies in Iran, tensions with shaikh Khazal of Mohammerah had grown from 1922 to 1924. Attempts to withdraw more taxes and reduce Khazal's authority heated it up even more. In response Khaz'al al-Ka'bi initiated a rebellion. The short rebellion by Sheikh Khazal, at its peak in November 1924, was quickly crushed by the newly installed Pahlavi dynasty with minimal casualties. The emirate was dissolved by Reza Shah government in 1925, along with other autonomous regions of Persia, in a bid to centralize the state. At least 115 people died in the insurrection. A low level conflict between the central Iranian government and the Arab separatists of the western part of the province continued since.
Riots broke out as early as 1925, then in 1928 and 1940. The name Khuzistan came to be applied once again to the entire territory by 1936. In August 1941, Reza Khan was replaced by his son Muhammad. New revolts in Khuzestan under new Iranian leadership occurred in 1943 and 1945 and were quelled in blood. In 1946, the Al Saada party was founded in Muhammar and demanded the independence of Khuzestan. The Iranian army took advantage of its conflicts with the Communist Party, Toudeh, to commit massacres.
Later in Arabistan, new independent or autonomist parties came into being: the "Arabistan Liberation Front" in 1956; the "National Front for the Liberation of Arabistan" and the "Arab Gulf" in 1960; In 1967, the "Arabistan Liberation Front" became the "Al Ahwaz Liberation Front". Sporadic Arab insurgency in Khuzestan continued through the 1950s, but reduced in the final decade of Pahlavy rule (1970s).
With the change of regime, the 1979 Khuzestan uprising became one of the nationwide uprisings, which erupted in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. The unrest was fed by demands for autonomy. The uprising was effectively quelled by Iranian security forces, resulting in more than a hundred people on both sides killed combined. The Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980 in London was initiated by an Arab separatist group as an aftermath response to the Iranian crackdown in Khuzestan, after the 1979 uprising. Initially, it emerged the terrorists wanted autonomy for Khuzestan; later they demanded the release of 91 of their comrades held in Iranian jails.
In 1999, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) was established by Habib Jabr al-Ka’bi in order to pursuit political struggle for the independence of Ahwaz (Khuzistan).
In 2005, a wide scale unrest broke out in Ahvaz and the surrounding towns. The unrest erupted on 15 April 2005, and lasted for 4 days. Initially, the Iranian Interior Ministry stated that only one person had been killed, however an official at a hospital in Ahvaz said that between 15 and 20 mortal casualties.
Consequently, a series of bombings was carried out in Ahvaz and other cities in Iran in late 2005 and early 2006, blamed upon Sunni Arab separatist groups of Khuzestan.
The 2011 Khuzestan protests, known among protesters as the Ahvaz Day of Rage, erupted on 15 April 2011 in Iranian Khuzestan, to mark an anniversary of the 2005 Ahvaz unrest, and as a response to the regional Arab Spring. The protests lasted for 4 days and resulted in 12 to 15 protesters killed and many wounded and arrested. 1 security officer was killed as well, and another wounded. Crackdown on Arab political opposition in the area continued since with arrests and executions. Four Ahwazi men were executed in Iran in June 2012, in relation to the 2011 unrest. The crackdown on Arab Sunni opposition has been condemned by the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, and others.
In 2013, bombings were carried out in Ahvaz, reportedly made by the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA).
On 23 March 2015, a football match discontent resulted in anti-government protests in Ahvaz. Local football fans defiantly expressed support for Saudi al-Hilal football team during the match and burnt pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late Iranian spiritual leader who spearheaded the 1979 Iranian revolution. The opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran said that fans further carried banners declaring that “We are all Younes,” a reference to a street vendor, who immolated himself a few days before the match in the nearby city of Khorramshahr. In parallel, Iran's state-run Press TV has broadcast confessions of captured ASMLA members who said they had carried out scores of attacks. An Arab protester was killed by Iranian security forces during the events.
Additional 2 casualties were sustained by the Iranian security on 26 October 2015.
In early June 2016, a Sunni group known as Suqour al-Ahvaz ("Hawks of Ahvaz") blew up the Bou-Ali-Sina Petrochemical Complex in Bandar-E Mahshahr, Khuzestan.
In July 2016, on two occasions Ahwazi militants of al-Farouq Brigade of the Ahwazi National Resistance blew up pipelines in the Johar as-Sabaa' district. Reportedly, members of the al-Farouq Brigade managed to escape after the operation, despite efforts of the security forces and Revolutionary Guards to track down the offenders. According to Algemeiner, the group responsible for the 11 and 17 July attacks was Suqour al-Ahvaz ("Hawks of Ahvaz").
In August 2016, Iran executed 3 men, charged with terror attack which led to the death of 3 Iranian policemen in Khuzestan province back in April 2015.
In October 2016, a young girl was killed, when Iranian security forces attempted to arrest her father, wanted for security reasons.
In early April 2017, Ahwazi activist killed by Basij militia in Ma’shour city
In October 2017, Ahmad Mullah Nissi, head of the Arab Struggle Movement for Khuzestan was assassinated in the Netherlands.
Massive demonstrations erupted in the Khuzestan province during April 2018, spreading from Ahwaz to several large cities of the province. 10 people were reported killed in a fire during one of those demonstrations, which was blamed on Iranian intelligence services by the protesters.
On September 22, 2018, a group of terrorists opened fire on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's parade, killing 25 soldiers and civilians in Ahvaz. The Ahvaz National Resistance, an umbrella organization of all armed separatist movements, claimed responsibility for the terror attack. The responsibility for the attack was claimed in parallel by the Ahvaz National Resistance and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Iranian government blamed ISIL for the attack and retaliated.
Total estimate: 206-345 killed (1922-2017):
Minorities at Risk (MAR), a university-based research project, states in its website that Arabs in Khuzestan have experienced discrimination. While all Khuzestanis are accorded "full respect" in the Iranian constitution, in practice and through social exclusion, they suffer discrimination. Arabs face restrictions on use of and instruction in Arabic language. While the moderate regime of Khatami had put into place some remedial policies for the Arab population, these were removed under Ahmadinejad. Following mass protests in 2005 and 2006, Arabs have faced generally repressive policies placed on the entire population.
There are a number of Iranian Arab political parties operating in exile, but no known political party representing other ethnic groups in Iranian Khuzestan. The ideology of Arab parties varies, although most are secular in their political outlook. Ideology, tactics, tribal loyalties and personal ambition have prevented these parties from forming a united front. Some advocate armed resistance, while others believe in non-violent action. Most refer to the entire province of Khuzestan as al-Ahwaz (which only refers to a region in the southwest portion) or Arabistan, although some define Arabistan as also including territory along the Persian Gulf coast to the Strait of Hormuz. Whether these views are popular or even accepted amongst most Iranian Arabs is uncertain. Khuzestan's deputy governor Rahim Fazilatpur claimed that the Arab Martyrs of Khuzestan, the Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front (AADPF) and the Ahwaz Arab Renaissance Party (AARP) were given support by the British and US governments to carry out the bomb attacks of June 2005.
The Arab political parties are divided into two camps: those seeking a separate state and those seeking regional autonomy within a federal Iran. Critics of these parties claim that separatism has no support among Arabs, pointing to the decision by many Iranian Arabs to defend Iran during the Iran–Iraq War. The support shown by Iranian Arabs may have been a result of the knowledge of Shiite Muslims in Saddam's Iraq. They also contend that separatism has always been instigated by foreign governments – particularly the British – to weaken Iran in order to control the country's natural resources and extend their influence over the Middle East. Many make no distinction between separatists and federalists, claiming that those seeking federalism have a separatist agenda and that the devolution of power to regional ethnic groups would lead to the break-up of Iran.
The Islamic Reconciliation Party (Hezb al-Wefagh), also known as the Reconciliation Committee (Lejnat al-Wefagh), was the only known Arab group to have been tolerated by the Iranian government. Jasem Shadidzadeh Al-Tamimi was the party's secretary general. He was a member of the Sixth Majlis (2000–04), representing Ahwaz as a member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, but was barred from standing for election in 2004. Following the unrest in Khuzestan in April 2005, Al-Tamimi wrote to the then President Khotami calling on him to remove the "wall of mistrust between the proud Iranian ethnicities, so that the infected wounds of the Arab people of Ahwaz may heal." He added that "our wishful thinking about reforms in Arab affairs by the Reformists has been only a mirage", indicating that he no longer had faith in the Participation Front. He listed a number of grievances, including:
He indicates that he opposes separatism and the ideology of "extreme Persian nationalism" he associates with the previous monarchist government. The Islamic Wefagh Party claims to have an "extensive" base of support in Khuzestan. The group was banned in November 2006 and labelled a "subversive organisation trying to unseat the current system by spreading racial hatred and provoking ethnic clashes." At the same time, three of its leading members were arrested.
The Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front (AADPF) is based in London and is led by Mahmud Ahmad Al-Ahwazi, aka Abu Bashar. The group calls for human rights and democracy for Iranian Arabs and believes that Al-Ahwaz was occupied by Iran in 1925. The ADPF has a number of activists in Iranian custody. Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the Minister of Defense and Logistic Affairs of the Armed Forces, accused Mahmud Ahmad Al-Ahwazi of involvement in the April 2005 unrest, while simultaneously claiming that his group had "zero popularity" amongst Arabs in Khuzestan. The ADPF has also claimed it led what it calls an "intifada" in Khuzestan. Shamkhani also claimed that Mahmud Ahmad Al-Ahwazi was a former member of the SAVAK (the Shah's secret police) before the revolution who defected to Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War. It is not known how much, if any, of Shamkhani's claims are true.
The AARP is another separatist group advocating armed resistance to the Iranian government. It was originally set up in the 1990s by the Syrian government, but has since moved its leadership to Canada. In April 2005, it claimed on a pro-Iraqi Ba'athist website that it had exploded a bomb on the Ahwaz-Tehran pipeline. It also claimed responsibility for the June 2005 bombings in Ahwaz City. Two other groups also separately claimed responsibility for the attacks. It is led by Sabah al-Musawi, a Canadian resident.
The Democratic Solidarity Party of Al-Ahwaz (DSPA), based in the US and the UK, claiming to represent the Iranian Arabs of Khuzestan. The DSPA's ideology is different from the separatists in that it explicitly rejects the use of violence and advocates what it calls "internal self-determination". It also limits its territorial focus on Khuzestan, making no stand on Arab-populated living outside the province.
The DSPA claims that Khuzestan has a historical Arab identity and this means that the province should be given autonomy within a federal political system, but it says it respects Iran's territorial integrity. To achieve its ends, it has formed a coalition with like-minded parties representing Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, Turkmen and Lurs, some of which have been in armed conflict with the Iranian state. Formed in London in March 2005, the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran (CNFI) brought together the DSPA, the Baluchistan United Front, Federal Democratic Movement of Azerbaijan, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, Balochistan People's Party, Organization for Defense of the Rights of Turkmen People and Komalah, a militant Kurdish opposition party.
The Ahwaz Liberation Organisation (ALO), based in Maastricht in the Netherlands, was formed out of the remnants of three Iraqi-backed groups – the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA), People's Front for Liberation of Arabistan (PFLA) and the Arab Front for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz (AFLA). It is a secular pan-Arabist group seeking independence from Iran. The DRFLA was the most notorious, having been sponsored by Saddam Hussein.
It was founded after the newly installed Islamic government fired on Arab demonstrators in Khorramshahr, killing many of them. The DRFLA was behind the May 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege in London, taking a number of hostages in an effort to draw attention to its demands for the self-determination of the Arab population of Khuzestan. The British Special Air Service (SAS) stormed the building and freed the hostages. Fowzi Badavi Nejad, the only survivor of that group, had survived only because some of the embassy hostages had put themselves between him and the SAS soldiers. Some evidences indicated the Iraqi intelligence services had duped Nejad into taking part in the siege. The evidence showed that once he knew the true nature of the group's plans, he only continued because he feared that his family, who had fled from Iran to Iraq, would suffer if he tried to withdraw the last hostage.
The ALO's constituent groups operated as a mercenary force on behalf of Saddam's regime during the Iran–Iraq War, carrying out assassinations and attacking oil facilities. Bomb attacks on oil and power facilities have continued since the end of the Iraq War, although the ALO has not formally claimed responsibility. The ALO's leader, the self-styled "President of Al-Ahwaz" Faleh Abdallah Al-Mansouri, was living in exile in the Netherlands since 1989, shortly after the end of the Iran–Iraq War, gaining Dutch nationality. He declared himself to be the "President" of Al-Ahwaz, which he claims extends beyond Khuzestan, including much of the coast of Iran. However, during a visit to Syria in May 2006, he was arrested along with Iranian Arabs who were registered as refugees by the UNHCR.
Ansar al Furqan states that “a major oil pipeline was blown up in Omidiyeh region of occupied Ahvaz, Iran.” The group added that it had established a new unit, the Ahwaz Martyrs Brigade. The area of Ahvaz has historically had a large Arab population.