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Although over 50 percent of Iranians identify as Persian, several other ethnic groups make up a significant proportion of the population. Even those who identify as Persian are likely to have other ethnic roots and connections. Indeed, for centuries, various ethnic groups and communities have intermingled and intermarried, giving Iran a complex socio-cultural composition.
In addition to large Azeri, Turkmen, Baluch and Kurdish communities, a relatively large number of Arabs live in Iran. There is a widespread misconception that the Arab presence in Iran only began with the Islamic conquest in 633 AD. In fact, for centuries before the defeat of the Sasanian Empire, which led to the gradual conversion of Iranians to Islam, Arabs had links to Persia. Iranian rulers dealt with both Arab subjects and client states, including Yemen and Iraq, at times settling Arab tribes in various parts of the Iranian plateau for political reasons.
Although after the 7th century, many Arab tribes settled in different parts of Iran including Fars and Khorasan, it is the Arab tribes of Khuzestan that have preserved their social structures and language. These tribes speak different Arabic dialects, although many share similarities with Iraqi Arabic, and predominantly adhere to Shia Islam. However, some small Arab communities in the coastal regions such as Bushehr and Hormozgan are Sunnis (Shafi’is).
Like most Middle Eastern countries, the census in Iran is highly sensitive and can have security and political implications for the state. Hence, the exact size of ethnic and religious groups cannot be verified. According to some sources, Arabs make up about 2 per cent of Iran’s population, which means that there are approximately 1.6 million Iranian Arabs in the country. Iranian Arab activists suggest the figure is much higher.
During the 19th century, the concept of a ‘state’ was a loose one in Iran, and the central power was often challenged by the marginal provinces. Khuzestan was a semi-autonomous sheikhdom until 1925 when it was brought under central government control.
Like many other ethnic communities, the Arab tribes of Khuzestan were affected by the Persian-centric policies of the Pahlavi Shahs during the 20th century, which included a ban on the use of minority languages in schools and newspapers. The discovery of oil in Khuzestan in 1908 paved the way for the arrival of other Iranian communities, Persian and non-Persian, which changed the region’s demographic composition.
Since then, many Arab activists have complained about the ‘Persianification’ of Khuzestan, which, they argue, has a clear political intent. Moreover, although the bulk of Iran’s 137-billion-barrel oil reserves lie in Khuzestan, the region is severely underdeveloped. Recently, the World Health Organization named Ahvaz, the provincial capital, the most polluted city in the world.
In the 1980s, Ahvaz and Iran’s Arab population had a lot of symbolic importance for Arab nationalist leaders such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Saddam attempted to annex Khuzestan, in the hope that the Arab majority there would join the invading army. Most did not, instead joining the national forces to resist the invasion, although several thousand crossed into Iraq during the war and some were given land. Also in 1980, with Iraqi support, Iranian Arab separatists took 26 people hostage in the Iranian embassy in the United Kingdom. After a six-day siege, two hostages and five captors were killed.
With the demise of the Baathist regime in Baghdad, the Arab cause dropped out of the spotlight in Iran. However, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war 2011 and increasing sectarian tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbours, the issue of Iranian Arab minorities has been put back on the agenda.
Although Iranian Arabs are overwhelmingly Shia, Sunnis across the Arab world have taken up the Ahvazi cause with a passion. For example, in Bahrain, a street in the capital Manama has been renamed Arabian Ahvaz Avenue. In Syria, the Free Syrian Army symbolically named one of its battalions the Ahvaz Brigade.
In recent years, there have been several reports about the conversion of some Shia Iranian Arabs to Sunni Islam, which has added to the security concerns in Khuzestan. Reportedly, these conversions were an act of defiance against a state that considers itself the champion of Shia Islam. However, the vast majority of Arabs in Khuzestan remain committed to Shia Islam.
Activists claim that since 2005, the regime has arrested about 25,000 ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan. A number of activists remain in prison, and many of them have been executed. In this tense situation, Tehran has accused Britain, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of provoking unrest among Arab Iranians to undermine the regime. Iran dismisses Arab grievances and says reports of their mistreatment are sheer propaganda, often pointing out that a number of inner circles of political and security elite in the Islamic Republic are ethnic Arab.
Although there is an element of truth to this claim, Khuzestan remains underdeveloped and neglected. The vast amount of oil wealth that is produced in the region has little impact on the economic lives of its Arab inhabitants. The pressing economic problems, paralyzing air pollution, and transnational identity politics have made Khuzestan an important challenge for the Islamic Republic.
Although the Arab separatist movements are still weak, the status quo, if left unchanged, will provide a breeding ground for further politicization of ethnic Arab identity in Iran. Internal Arab grievances will lead to more racialization, which could be exploited by Iran’s regional rivals, notably Saudi Arabia.