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Arab separatism in Khuzestan
Locator map Iran Khuzestan Province.png
Map of Iran with Khūzestān highlighted
LocationKhuzestan, Iran
  • Several revolts suppressed
  • Political crackdown on civilian resistance in Iran

Iran Imperial state of Iran

Iran Islamic Republic of Iran

Sheikhdom of Mohammerah


Iranian Arab protesters
Commanders and leaders

Iran Reza Shah Pahlavi

Iran Taqi Riahi

Iran Admiral Madani

Khaz'al al-Ka'bi

Oan Ali Mohammed

Arab separatism in Khuzestan[1] refers to the ethnic dispute in Iranian Khuzestan province between Arabs from the western part of Khuzestan and the Iranian government. The Iranian government denies ethnic discrimination and conflict in the country.[1]


Khuzestan is inhabited by many different ethnic groups,[2] the population of Khuzestan consists of Lurs (including Bakhtiari people), Iranian Arabs, Qashqai people, Afshar tribe, indigenous Persians and Armenians.[2] Half of Khuzestan is mostly inhabited by Arabs, the other half of Khuzestan is inhabited by Lurs people.[3] The Arabs in Khuzestan have experienced racial discrimination.[4] Most Arabs in Khuzestan are Shia Muslims.[4] Both the urban and rural Arabs of Khuzestan are intermingled with the Persians, Turks and Lurs who also live in the province and often intermarry with them.[4] However, Arabs in Khuzestan consider themselves a distinct ethnic group and continue experiencing discrimination.[4]


Shaykh Khazal rebellion

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 nominally 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-Lurs khans because the eastern part of Khuzestan was mainly inhabited by Lurs 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, climaxing in November 1924, quickly crushed by the newly installed Pahlavy 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. A low level conflict between the central Iranian government and the Arab separatists of the western part of the province continued since.

Further unrest (1920s-1940s)

Riots broke out as early as 1925, then in 1928 and 1940.[5] The name Khuzistan came to be applied once again to the entire territory by 1936.[6] In August 1941, Reza Khan, who had been close to the Nazis, was replaced by his son Muhammad.[5] New revolts in Khuzestan under new Iranian leadership occurred in 1943 and 1945 and were quelled in blood.[5]

After WWII

In 1946, the Al Saada party was founded in Muhammar and demanded the independence of Khuzestan.[5] The Iranian army took advantage of its conflicts with the Communist Party, Toudeh, to commit massacres.[5] 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".[5] Sporadic Arab insurgency in Khuzestan continued through the 1950s, but reduced in the final decade of Pahlavy rule (1970s).

1979 uprising

With the change of regime, the 1979 Khuzestan uprising became one of the nation-wide uprisings, which erupted in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. The unrest was fed by demands for autonomy.[7] The uprising was effectively quelled by Iranian security forces, resulting in more than a hundred people on both sides killed combined.[7] 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.[8]

Civil unrests 2005-present

In 2005, a wide scale unrest broke out in Ahvaz and the surrounding towns.[9][10] 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.[9] Consequently, a series of bombings was carried out in Ahvaz and other cities in Iran, 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.[11] Crackdown on Arab political opposition in the area continued since with arrests and executions.[12] Four Ahwazi men were executed in Iran on June 2012, in relation to the 2011 unrest.[13] The crackdown on Arab Sunni opposition has been condemned by the Human Rights Watch,[14] Amnesty,[13] and others.

Human rights

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.[1] While the moderate regime of Khatami had put into place some remedial policies for the Arab population, these were removed under Ahmadinejad.[1] Following mass protests in 2005 and 2006, Arabs have faced generally repressive policies placed on the entire population.[1]

Arab organizations in the conflict

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.[15] 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.

Islamic Reconciliation Party

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:

  • violence against Arab demonstrators by security forces
  • land confiscation
  • the destruction of Arab residential compounds
  • the high level of drug abuse among Iranian Arabs, which he claims is rooted in poverty
  • racial discrimination and the official view of Arabs as a security threat
  • the government's failure to issue activity permits for the Islamic Wefagh Party and affiliated non-governmental organisations

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.

Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front

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.

Ahwaz Arab Renaissance Party

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.

Democratic Solidarity Party of Al-Ahwaz

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[citation needed] 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, Bakhtiaris 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.

Ahwaz Liberation Organisation

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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18] Although the Iranian government did not name the men who were taken into custody, officials said that the men arrested in Syria were Salafists who they accused of involvement in bomb attacks.[citation needed] However, the ALO's website makes no indication that it is motivated by a religious cause, but rather has stayed within the ideology of secular Arab nationalism.[citation needed]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Province of Khuzestan
  3. Languages of Khuzestan
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 [2]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Munier, G
  6. Journal of Middle Eastern studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (August , 1993), pp. 541-543
  7. 7.0 7.1 Ward, p.231-4
  8. See:
  9. 9.0 9.1 Dr. Babak Ganji. Civil Military Relations, State Strategies & Presidential Elections in Iran. Conflict Studies Research Center, Middle East Series, June 2005: p.12.
  10. Rasmus C. Elling. State of Mind, State of Order: Reactions to Ethnic Unrest in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Wiley publishing doi:10.1111/j.1754-9469.2008.00028.x. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism Volume 8, Issue 3, pages 481–501, December 2008. "...The first, which will be called the Ahvaz unrest, took place in the south-western Iranian province of Khuzestan, which borders Iraq, and in particular in the regional capital of Ahvaz..."
  11. [3]
  12. [4]
  13. 13.0 13.1 [5]
  14. [6]
  15. Mahan Abedin and Kaveh Farrokh (2005-11-03). "British Arabism and the bombings in Iran". Asia Times. Retrieved 2009-04-11. 
  16. Martin Arostegui. Twilight Warriors: Inside the World's Special Forces,. p. 78. ISBN 0-312-30471-4. 
  17. James, Erwin (2006-05-25). "The last hostage". London: Guardian (UK). Retrieved 2009-04-11. 
  18. "Syria: Fear of forcible return". Amnesty International. 2006-05-14. Archived from the original on 2006-12-02. Retrieved 2009-04-11. 

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