The Impact of the Ahwaz protests in Iran (2024)

July 18, 2021| Policy Brief
July 18, 2021 | Policy Brief

The Impact of the Ahwaz protests in Iran

Dr. Brenda ShafferSenior Advisor for Energy

Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority on July 7 launched extensive anti-regime protests centered in the country’s western Khuzestan Province. Extreme water shortages affecting the Ahwaz were the catalyst for the demonstrations. They escalated on July 15, with activists blocking major roads in the province. Last week, demonstrators stormed the municipality office in Ahvaz City. Regime security forces have fired live rounds against the demonstrators. Local activists report that three demonstrators have been killed. The regime has acknowledged one death. Iran has reportedly intercepted illegal weapons shipments to Khuzestan province, indicating that the showdown with the regime forces is likely to escalate further.

Iran faces chronic water shortages. These shortages are especially severe in Iran’s border provinces, which are home to the ethnic minorities. They have amplified the grievances of these minorities, which view the shortages as part of an intentional policy of favoring the needs of the Persians. Among their complaints, the Ahwazis decry the deviation of the Karun River that runs through Khuzestan. Indeed, Ahwazis claim that Tehran purposefully diverts water from the regions where Ahwazis live, and builds dams and industry in their marshlands, to force Ahwazis to leave.

While water may be a trigger, the current protests are undeniably ethno-national. The chants and banners are in Arabic, aiming to mobilize more Ahwazis. A popular chant at the protests is, “We shall redeem you, Ahwaz, with our spirit and blood.”

Iran’s Ahwazis number approximately 5 million people. They live in two strategically important locations: Khuzestan province (home to Iran’s primary oil and natural gas production and major ports), and the Persian Gulf region between Busher and Bandar Abbas, which sees significant maritime traffic. Ahwazis are among the least assimilated of Iran’s ethnic minorities. According to surveys, 82 percent of the Ahwazis speak Arabic at home.

For decades, Tehran has deliberately endeavored to dilute the ethnic Ahwazi majority in Khuzestan, due to the strategic importance of this province. The regime runs programs to encourage Persian and other non-Arabs to move to the province for the sake of demography. In his spring 2021 report, Javid Rehman, the UN Human Right’s Council special rapporteur on Iran, cited “reports of forced evictions in ethnic minority areas” impacting Ahwazis. The Ahwazi Arabs face employment discrimination in the oil and gas industry in Khuzestan; Persian residents hold the high-paying jobs, while Ahwazis are mostly blue-collar workers. On January 6, 2021, Mohsen Haidari, representative of the supreme leader in Ahwaz, ceded that ethnic Arabs hold just 5 percent of the province’s management-level jobs in the oil industry.

In recent years, violent confrontations between the regime and Ahwazis have erupted. Ahwazi groups have conducted several audacious violent attacks on Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units in Khuzestan. The most daring recent attack occurred on September 22, 2018, when an armed group attacked a military parade in Ahvaz city, killing more than 30 Iranian security forces as well as attendees. Following the attack, the regime executed more than 20 Ahwazis and arrested hundreds more in Khuzestan province.

The UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for Iran reported that the regime crackdown on the Ahwazi following a broader wave of protests in 2017 and 2018 was particularly harsh, leading to 84 deaths in Khuzestan. In winter 2019, amidst a crackdown on protests that erupted across Iran, the regime killed dozens of Ahwazis who escaped to Khuzestan’s marshlands.

Tehran has enlisted foreign Arab militias to squash Ahwazi unrest. In the spring and summer of 2019, floods in Khuzestan caused widespread death and destruction. To quell the subsequent protests, Tehran deployed foreign fighters from Lebanon and Iraq, including Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi) and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Tehran also targets Ahwazi leaders living outside Iran. In November 2017, Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi, a Dutch citizen of Iranian origin, was shot dead at his doorstep in The Hague. The Dutch government officially fingered the regime. In October 2020, the regime kidnapped Sweden-based Iranian Arab activist Habib Chaab in Istanbul and brought him to Iran.

On July 16, a State Department spokesperson acknowledged “reports of Iran shortages and resulting protests, and we continue to urge the Iranian Government to support the Iranian people as they exercise their universal rights to freedom of expression as well as freedom of peaceful assembly.” Amidst ongoing and sensitive nuclear negotiations, it is unlikely that Foggy Bottom will press the issue much further.

At present, other anti-regime forces are unlikely to join the Ahwazi protests. Indeed, most of Iran’s mainstream opposition does not support the political activity of Iran’s ethnic groups, which they fear could undermine the integrity of Iran. The impact, for now, is likely to remain isolated to the oil and gas industry sector, where ongoing protests could disrupt production. Regime crackdowns will almost certainly continue.

Brenda Shaffer is a senior advisor for energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’sIran Program. She is the author of the FDD monograph Iran Is More Than Persia, which examines ethnic politics in Iran. She is also a faculty member at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. For more analysis from Brenda and the Iran Program, please subscribeHERE. Follow Brenda on Twitter@ProfBShaffer. Follow FDD on Twitter@FDDand@FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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IranIran Human Rights

The Impact of the Ahwaz protests in Iran (2024)
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