Thousands of Iranian Arabs last week attended an AFC Champions League soccer match between Esteghlal Ahvaz FC and Qatar’s Lekhwiya SC dressed in traditional Arab garb in protest what an opposition news website dubbed were government efforts to suppress their identity.
The English-language website, Ahwaz Monitor, said support for Esteghlal turned into anti-government protests with fans cheering their team in Arabic rather than Farsi. Fans chanted “national slogans” such as “Arabic is my identity and honour” and “Al Ahwaz for Ahwazis and all Gulf state residents are dearest to us.” Fans reportedly recited poetry celebrating their region’s Arab heritage.
Al Ahwaz is the Arabic name for the oil-rich but impoverished, south-eastern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders on Iraq and sits at the head of the Gulf. It is also the name of the province’s capital that hosts Iran’s foremost refinery. Part of Khuzestan’s ethnic and religious mosaic, ethnic Arabs are believed to account for at least one third of its 3.7 million inhabitants. Iranian Arabs put the figure much higher.
Ahwaz Monitor started operations last summer, providing regular reports on Iranian Arabs and government efforts to suppress their identity and deprive them of their rights. It’s not clear who funds or owns the website.
Eruptions of genuine discontent in Khuzestan, particularly on soccer pitches when Asian competition matches are played against teams from the Gulf, have become a fixture in a province that for decades has been an overt and covert battlefield in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony.
Protests have focussed on identity, environmental degradation, and social issues. Iranian politicians warned of a “national threat” in February when riots erupted in 11 cities in Khuzestan after they lost power during a severe dust storm. The outages led to water shortages as water and wastewater treatment plants were knocked offline. Demonstrators chanted "Death to tyranny", "We, the people of Ahwaz, won't accept oppression" and "Clean air is our right, Ahwaz is our city."
International human rights groups have long accused Iran of discriminating against Iranian Arabs even though many are Shiites rather than Sunni Muslims. Dozens of protesters were reportedly killed during demonstrations in Ahwaz in 2011 that were inspired by the popular Arab revolts.
“Despite Khuzestan's natural resource wealth, its ethnic Arab population, which is believed to constitute a majority in the province, has long complained about the lack of socio-economic development in the region. They also allege that the Iranian government has engaged in systematic discrimination against them, particularly in the areas of employment, housing, and civil and political rights,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.
Habib Jaber Al-Ahvazi, a spokesman for the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a group that demands independence for Ahvaz and is believed to be responsible for bomb attacks in the city in 2005, 2006 and 2013, told online Arab nationalist Ahvaz.tv in 2015 that soccer protests were part of an “ongoing confrontation between demonstrators and the forces of the Persian occupation.”
There is little doubt that discontent in Khuzestan is widespread and that repeated spontaneous protests in stadiums as well as on the streets of the province’s cities were genuine. Yet, determining what events and reporting is purely local and what elements may be linked to potential Saudi and Gulf attempts to destabilize Iran is difficult.
Equally, there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs have a long history of encouraging Iranian Arab opposition and troubling the minority’s relations with the government.
Iranian Arabs believe that the government fears that they are susceptible to foreign Arab influence. That suspicion, Iranian Arabs say, is rooted in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s bloody eight-year war against Iran that ended in 1988. Saddam falsely expected that Iranian Arabs would welcome the opportunity to gain independence from Iran.
The Iranian Arab refusal to side with Saddam failed, however, to earn Arabs in Ahwaz the credit they deserved. Government suspicions have been fuelled by recent conversions to Sunni Islam of a number of Iranian Arabs.
Distrust is further fuelled by the fact that much opposition news in Khuzestan is generated by organizations associated with the exiled People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a militant left-wing group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime and traces its roots to resistance against the shah who was toppled in the 1979 revolution.
The Mujahedin based themselves in Iraq during the Saudi-backed Iraqi war against Iran. More recently the group appears to enjoy increased support from the kingdom. In a clear demonstration of Saudi support, former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Britain and the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, told a Mujahedeen rally in Paris last year that "your legitimate struggle against the (Iranian) regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime.”
Prince Turki’s remarks fit a pattern of Arab calls for independence of Khuzestan. Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic who has since been dropped from the paper’s roster after she wrote positively about Israel, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that “the al-Ahwaz district in Iran...is an Arab territory... Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925... It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.”
The notion that external forces may be exploiting discontent in Khuzestan has broader implications amid reports that President Donald J. Trump could revert to a policy of regime change in Iran. Iran has in the past accused the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as Israel and Britain of supporting nationalist insurgents in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan.
The province borders on the Pakistani region of Balochistan where nationalists and jihadists have targeted Chinese investment that is key to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Some analysts have suggested that US and Saudi support for dissidents in various Iranian provinces may be designed to force Iran to weaken, if not withdraw, support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Pakistani General Qamar Javed Bajwa, apparently concerned that potential efforts to destabilize Iran could aggravate volatility in Balochistan, noted earlier this month that “enhanced Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.