Water Is Iran’s New Weapon Against Its Ahwazi Minority

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Fetid water from the tap in the Ahwazi region of Iran.
Fetid water from the tap in the Ahwazi region of Iran. (Photo: courtesy)

This fetid brown liquid is not raw sewage but the massively polluted normal drinking water provided by the Iranian regime for the Ahwazi Arab people of southwest Iran.  This foul-tasting and foul-smelling brown discharge is the only source of water for drinking and bathing, with the people of the region joking grimly that they don’t drink water but “chocolate milkshake.”

Activists on social media have circulated these pictures to show what the people of Ahwaz endure on a daily basis.  This has led to widespread illness and many outbreaks of disease.  This is taking place while the regime in Tehran provides Iranian-only settlements in the Arab region with all the standard modern amenities including clean drinking water.   With the regime damming and diverting the rivers in the Ahwaz region to provide water to other, non-Arab areas of the country,  desertification and pollution of the remaining water sources are steadily worsening, with the pollution from the oil and gas industry in the area adding to this toxic environmental mix.

The Ahwaz region was once the home to over 95 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran. The region, which was once lush and verdant, should be the richest area in the country; instead its people are denied even a fraction of the wealth from their own resources, living in conditions of medieval poverty and subjected to systemic racism.

Although it’s now a region divided between three provinces in the south and southwest Iran, Ahwaz was, until 1925 an independent emirate.  As with much of the history of the Gulf region, Ahwaz’ troubles began with the discovery of massive oil and gas reserves at the beginning of the 20th century, with the regional and global powers competing for control of the regional resource wealth.

Unlike the other regional Emirates, however, Ahwaz found oil to be a curse rather than a blessing, since it led directly to Iran’s annexation, colonisation and almost a century of a brutal and racist occupation.

The indigenous Arab people of Ahwaz, who have suffered under successive Iranian regimes, are united by race, culture and language, with their Arabic dialect resembling that of their Iraqi and Arab Gulf brethren.  The majority of Ahwazis are Muslim, although there are a number of other religions and sects, including Christianity and Mandeanism.

Despite the fact that the Ahwaz region contains over 90 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, the indigenous Arab people of Ahwaz are among the poorest in the world, with the majority living in conditions of medieval deprivation, denied the most basic of amenities.  Meanwhile, the regime creates purpose-built settlements provided with the latest mod-cons to attract non-Arab Iranians to the region where they are given the oil and gas industry jobs that are denied to Ahwazis.

These policies are no historical accident, but the result of a longstanding, very deliberate policy of systemic racism and subjugation, adopted by successive regimes, bolstered by a centuries-old culture of anti-Arab prejudice and Persian supremacy.

Arabs are routinely depicted in Iranian media, literature and art as inferior, feeble-minded, evil or as non-human grotesques in ways that Joseph Goebbels would have recognised, with anti-Arab discrimination being the norm rather than the exception.

These profoundly racist perceptions of Arabs, encouraged by successive regimes and intensifying in recent years following hostility of Tehran towards Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in its regional battle for power and expansionism at the expense of Arab nations, have translated into the creation of a de facto apartheid system towards the Ahwazi people, who are denied even the right to publicly wear their own traditional Arab garb or to openly speak their own language.

Ahwazis are routinely evicted without warning from their homes and lands by regime authorities, with their properties either razed or given to incoming ethnically Iranian settlers as a “reward.”  Ahwazis have no legal right to contest such grotesque abuses.

Anti-Arab discrimination permeates every facet of life for the Ahwazi people, who are denied the opportunity to be educated in their own Arabic language and forced instead to learn only in Farsi, which most view as the language of occupation and oppression.

This culture of discrimination and denial of the most basic rights in every area of life is, for the rulers in Tehran, a means of ensuring that Ahwazis remain powerless and marginalized. Those who dare to object to this systematically unjust and racist system are targeted as “troublemakers,” with thousands arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, tortured and all too often executed on ludicrous charges such as “enmity to God.”

The injustices heaped on Ahwazis are methodical from cradle to grave, beginning in childhood, with education being viewed by the regime as essential only for those of Persian ethnicity. As a result, 80 percent of Ahwazi women and around 50 percent of Ahwazi men are functionally illiterate.  Those who manage to obtain an education struggle to get accepted at university, and even after graduating the chances of a decent job reflecting their qualifications are slender to non-existent.

Unsurprisingly, suicide figures among young Ahwazis are among the highest in the world.

Apart from its oil resources, the Ahwaz region was also environmentally blessed with lush farmlands, thousands of acres of wetlands and major rivers, with generations of Ahwazis making their living as fishermen and farmers.

Unfortunately, since the current regime instituted a massive plan of upstream damming and river diversion, redirecting the waters of the two largest rivers to non-Arab regions of Iran, many of the wetlands areas have dried up, with the remaining waters massively polluted by industrial plants and oil and gas extraction operations.

This has left Ahwaz battling a looming environmental catastrophe, with climate change also accelerating the desertification, forcing countless rural Ahwazis to flee to the towns and cities.

Despite this relentless injustice, oppression and suffering,  Ahwazis continue to resist and to demand the freedom, dignity and human rights that are the birth right of every human being, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Rahim Ahwaz

Rahim Hamid is a freelance journalist and human rights advocate and co-founder of Ahwaz Monitor website who writes about the plight of his community – the Ahwazi Arabs – and other ethnic groups in Iran. You can follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/samireza42

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