Politics of Khuzestan Province

Map showing Khuzestan in Iran

This article focuses on the politics of Khuzestan Province, a petroleum-rich and ethnically diverse province of southwestern Iran.


Khuzestan is inhabited by many different ethnic groups,[1] the population of Khuzestan consists of Lurs (including Bakhtiari people), Iranian Arabs, Qashqai people, Afshar tribe (subgroups of Azeris), indigenous Persians and Armenians.[1] Half of Khuzestan is mostly inhabited by Arabs, the other half of Khuzestan is mostly inhabited by Luri people.[2] Khuzestan's ethnic diversity has a bearing on Khuzestan's electoral politics, with ethnic minority rights playing a significant role in the province's political culture. The province's geographical location bordering Iraq and its oil resources also make it a politically sensitive region, particularly given its history of foreign intervention, notably the Iraqi invasion of 1980. At the same time, there are ethnic grievances among the province's population, mostly from some Arab groups.

Some ethnic groups complain over the distribution of the revenue generated by oil resources with claims that the central government is failing to invest profits from the oil industry in employment generation, post-war reconstruction and welfare projects. Low human development indicators among local Khuzestanis are contrasted with the wealth generation of the local oil industry. Minority rights are frequently identified with strategic concerns, with ethnic unrest perceived by the Iranian government as being generated by foreign governments to undermine the country's oil industry and its internal stability. The politics of Khuzestan therefore have international significance and go beyond the realm of electoral politics.

According to Jane's Information Group, "Most Iranian Arabs seek their constitutionally guaranteed rights and do not have a separatist agenda ... While it may be true that some Arab activists are separatists, most see themselves as Iranians first and declare their commitment to the state's territorial integrity."[3]

Prominent Khuzestani politicians

Khuzestan has produced many prominent politicians. Iran's former Minister of Agriculture Mohammad Reza Eskandari, Mohsen Rezaee (secretary of Iran's powerful Expediency Discernment Council) and some parliamentary committee chairs have been from Khuzestan.

Ali Shamkhani, an Arab from Ahvaz, held Iran's sensitive top military post of Minister of Defense from 1997 to 2005, in President Khatami's government.

The Iraqi-born Ayatollah Mohsen Araki served as a Khuzestan representative in the Assembly of Experts, was the personal representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the Supreme Leader of Iran) in London and headed the Islamic Centre of England until 2004.

Local grievances

Endemic poverty in Khuzestan is contrasted with the wealth generated by the province, particularly from oil, petrochemicals and agriculture. This poverty, however, is a fact of life throughout Iran for all ethnic groups.

Khuzestan is inhabited by many different ethnic groups,[1] the population of Khuzestan consists of Lurs (including Bakhtiari people), Iranian Arabs, Qashqai people, Afshar tribe, indigenous Persians and Armenians.[1] Half of Khuzestan is inhabited by Arabs, the other half of Khuzestan is inhabited by Luri people.[2] Iranian Arabs in particular have experienced racial discrimination. Articles 15, 19 and 48 of the Iranian Constitution establish the basis for ethnic, linguistic and cultural minority rights in the fields of education, employment and the distribution of resources. However, human rights groups have claimed that Iranian minorities often face discrimination and estrictions on social, cultural, linguistic and religious freedoms (see Ethnic minorities in Iran). Minority issues are therefore a major feature of political debate in Khuzestan.

Human rights

Khuzestan has been a focus of criticism by human rights groups. Amnesty International routinely raises human rights concerns relating to Khuzestan's Arabs through linking with separatists websites who provide information, in particular the arrest and detention of political activists, torture and executions. While Khuzestan is not unique in terms of its human rights record, Amnesty notes that often these abuses are related to institutional discrimination. In its report entitled New government fails to address dire human rights situation published in February 2006, Amnesty states:

Even where the majority of the local population is Arab, schools are reportedly not allowed to teach through the medium of Arabic; illiteracy rates are reportedly high, especially among Iranian Arab women in rural areas ... land expropriation by the Iranian authorities is reportedly so widespread that it appears to amount to a policy aimed at dispossessing Arabs of their traditional lands. This is apparently part of a strategy aimed at the forcible relocation of Arabs to other areas while facilitating the transfer of non-Arabs into Khuzestan and is linked to economic policies such as zero interest loans which are not available to local Arabs.

In 1997, Human Rights Watch reported that "Iranian Arabs, an ethnic minority centered in southwest Iran, have cited significant restrictions on their language and culture, and on their right to participate effectively in decisions affecting the area in which they live."[5] According to another report in the same year, "Arabic is not taught in elementary schools, and the Arabic teaching in secondary schools focuses exclusively on religious texts. The governor of Khuzestan is not an Arab" while "Arabs make up 35-45 percent of the three million inhabitants of Khuzestan province in the southwest of Iran."[6] In 2005, separatist groups claimed that there was "inadequate attention to their culture and language by state media, facing discrimination in getting jobs, unfair distribution of Khuzestan's oil wealth."

Joe Stork, the director of HRW's Middle East division, said: "The Iranian authorities have again displayed their readiness to silence those who denounce human rights violations. We have serious allegations the government used excessive lethal force, arbitrary arrests and torture in Khuzistan."[7]

The claims made by human rights groups have been strongly contested by the Iranian government, which claims that efforts to disproportionately accentuate the problems in Khuzestan are being led by foreign media or political groups, particularly those based in the UK.[8] The governor's office of Khuzestan claims the provincial GDP to rank 3rd in the nation, yet to what extent the local population benefits from these fruits remains unclear.

It is also contended that the rights of Iranian groups of Khuzestan, such as the nomadic Bakhtiari and Lur tribes, are often overlooked due to the publicity surrounding Khuzestani Arabs.

Alleged forced displacement

The problem was highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, following a visit to Khuzestan in July 2005. He claimed that industrial and agricultural development projects had displaced Arabs from their land, who received compensation that amounted to a fraction of the market value. He also claimed that new housing developments, such as the one new town in Shirinshah, were being created for non-Arab workers brought in from Yazd, while local people continued to suffer joblessness and poor housing.

Kothari also drew attention to the situation facing the Laks, who are an Iranian people indigenous to Khuzestan. He called them "... a very deprived group ... living in conditions of high density, again without access to adequate sanitation and water. And just nearby, you see other neighbourhoods with much better services."

Kothari's description of the position of the Laks suggests that economic marginalisation in Khuzestan is not only experienced by Khuzestani Arabs, but also other ethnic groups who are indigenous to the area.

Kothari's findings led to condemnation of forced displacement of Khuzestani Arabs in a European Parliament resolution, passed in October 2005. The resolution, sponsored by all the European Parliament's political groups,

condemns the treatment of minorities such as ... the inhabitants of the area around Ahwaz city, the provincial capital of the ethnic Arab dominated Khuzestan province, who are being displaced from their villages according to statements by Miloon Kothari, UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing.

The European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution in November 2006 which repeated its condemnation of forced displacement in Khuzestan, based on Kothari's findings.[10]

Religious minorities

Although the majority of the population of Khuzestan is Shia, there are other religious groups in the province. The 5-10,000 Mandeans, a unique religious group that is neither Muslim nor Christian, living in Khuzestan claim to have second-class status due to both Iranisation and Persianisation. Their places of worship have reportedly been closed down and their cemeteries. However, they lack any support group to lobby on their behalf and their plight is often overlooked by human rights organisations. Their small numbers also mean they are politically marginalised.[11]

Foreign influence

See also: Anti-Iranianism

Some Iranian opposition parties operating abroad launched a campaign to stop the American Enterprise Institute hosting a conference entitled "The Unknown Iran: Another Case for Federalism?" in October 2005.[12] A petition to stop the event attracted more than 1,000 signatures from members of the Iranian diaspora. Some added that the meeting indicated a new alliance between US neo-conservatives and Iranian separatists, ahead of a possible invasion of Iran by the US and its allies. Dr Ali Al-Taie, a member of the Democratic Solidarity Party of Ahwaz which upholds a federalist agenda for Iran, said at the debate: "When it comes to ethnic rights, Persian opposition groups are on the same side as the terrorist Islamic Republic. If this continues, we will see the Balkanization of Iran." But he added that: "Despite the long history of persecution, the Arabs of Khuzestan/al-Ahwaz are Iranian. There will never be, nor should there be, disintegration or separatism in Iran. Rather, all Iranian people, regardless of their ethnic background, should live under a pluralistic, tolerant, and federal society."[13]

Arab protests

Main article: Khuzestan conflict

With the change of regime, the 1979 Khuzestan uprising became one of the nationwide uprisings, which erupted in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. The unrest was fed by Arab demands for autonomy.[14] The Arab uprising was effectively quelled by Iranian security forces, resulting in more than a hundred people on both sides killed combined.[14]

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.

Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front

AADPF logo

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 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 Iranian Nationalities for a Federal Iran (CINFI) brought together the DSPA, the Baluchistan United Front, Federal Democratic Movement of Azarbaijan, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, Baluchistan 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 in Syria in May 2006 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. 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.



The editor of Ahvaz's Persian language Hamsayeha newspaper, Mohammad Hezbawi (also known as Hezbaee Zadeh), was arrested in September 2005 but later released.[19] The newspaper was banned by the Justice Department in February 2006 under clauses four and five of Article 6 of Iran's Press law.[20]


Television broadcasting in Arabic language in Khuzestan is state-owned (e.g. Al Alam) as is the case in other parts of the country, but many inhabitants also watch foreign Arabic language satellite channels. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news channel was blamed by the Iranian government for its coverage of anti-government protests by Arabs in April 2005. It was also angered by Al-Jazeera's interview with a member of the separatist Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front (ADPF) who spoke of "80 years of Iranian occupation in Khuzestan". The International Federation of Journalists claimed the government was scapegoating the media for civil unrest in the province.[21]

In recent years, Iranian Arab groups have attempted to broadcast to Khuzestan. However, their attempts have been frustrated partly due to satellite dish confiscation in Khuzestan. Different political factions have run short weekly or daily television broadcasts to Iran, but these have closed down.

Election results

Khuzestan has tended to elect reformists to power, particularly those campaigning on a pro-minorities platform. However, bomb attacks in the region have led to a polarisation of opinion, with some Khuzestan representatives such as Ahwaz City representative Nasser Soudani calling for hardline measures against Arab dissent, which the government believes is being encouraged by British spies.[22]

Presidential elections

Summary of the 17 June 2005 Iranian Presidential election results for Khuzestan province compared with the national election results[23]
Candidates Votes Khuzestan % of votes Khuzestan Votes Nationally % of votes nationally
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani 319,883 20.50 6,211,937 21.13
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 224,427 14.40 5,711,696 19.43
Mehdi Karroubi 539,158 34.50 5,070,114 17.24
Mostafa Moeen 148,375 9.50 4,095,827 13.93
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf 148,207 9.50 4,083,951 13.89
Ali Larijani 58,554 3.70 1,713,810 5.83
Mohsen Mehralizadeh 20,253 1.30 1,288,640 4.38
Total (national turnout 62.66%, Khuzestan turnout 56%) 1,563,000 100 29,400,857 100

In the first round of the presidential election, Khuzestani voters favoured reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who is a strong critic of the Guardian Council, who only achieved third place nationally. Karroubi's share of the vote in Khuzestan was twice the national average. Former president Rafsanjani came second in Khuzestan, although he achieved the highest number of votes nationally, followed by conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the overall winner of the second round of the presidential election.

Elections to Parliament

Shabib Jouijari won a by-election for the Ahvaz parliamentary seat in December 2006, with 17.9% of the 406,808 votes cast.

Elections to the Assembly of Experts

Khuzestan has six directly elected representatives in the 86-member Assembly of Experts, which is normally elected every eight years and has the power the select and supervise the Supreme Leader. The most recent elections were held in December 2006, with members appointed for 10-year terms

Summary of the December 2006 Iranian Assembly of Experts election results for Khuzestan province[24]

Representative Votes % of electorate
Sayad Mohammad Ali Mosawi* 640,943 40.6
Abbas Ka'abi Nasab* 498,218 31.6
Sayad Ali Shafiee* 457,399 29.0
Ali Falahian* 386,767 24.5
Mohammed Hussein Ahmadi 349,825 22.2
Mohsen Haydari al-Kasiri 332,601 21.1
Total (Khuzestan turnout 54%) 1,578,237 n/a
Note: percentages do not add up to 100% as voters are given more than one vote
* = members who have been re-elected

Municipal elections

Summary of the December 2006 Ahwaz City Municipal Council election results[25]
Representative Votes
Dariush Mombaini 48,629
Arezo Bababi 36,561
Qasem Jamadi 35,471
Sayed Mehdi Albu Shokeh 32,293
Sayed Reza Falahi Moghadam 32,176
Skander Zanganeh 27,897
Ramadan Monjezi 26,733
Sayed Mohammed Hassan Zadeh 26,269
Gholam Reza Sabze Ali 3,588
Total turn-out 226,709

The 2006 Ahwaz City elections were won by reformist and conservative candidates. The previous elections to the municipality were won by the Reconciliation Committee (Lejnat Al-Wefaq), which won all but one of the seats. It appealed to the city's Arab population and their grievances. However, it was barred from registering and was outlawed by the government, which alleged that it was a threat to national security. Candidates for the 2006 elections were subject to a heavy vetting procedure before they were allowed to stand.

See also



  1. 1 2 3 4 Province of Khuzestan
  2. 1 2 Languages of Khuzestan
  3. "Anger among Iran's Arabs". Janes Information Group. Archived from the original on 2007-07-08. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  4. "Iran: New government fails to address dire human rights situation". Amnesty International. 2006-02-16. Archived from the original on October 12, 2007. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  5. "Human Rights Watch Urges Government to End Persecution and Official Discrimination Against Religious and Ethnic Minorities". Human Rights Watch. 1997-09-24. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  6. "ETHNIC MINORITIES". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  7. "Iran: Reports of Ethnic Violence Suppressed". Human Rights Watch. 2005-05-09. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  8. "Britain-Iran Tensions Escalate Over Bombing Accusations". CNSNews.com. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  9. "European Parliament resolution on Iran". European Parliament. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  10. "European Parliament resolution on Iran". European Parliament. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  11. Julie A.J. Ebadirad. "Information on the Mandaeans in Iran in Regards to Human Rights" (PDF). ASUTA: The Journal for the Study and Research into the Mandaean Culture, Religion, and Language. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  12. "The Unknown Iran: Another Case for Federalism?". American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  13. "The Unknown Iran: Another Case for Federalism?". American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  14. 1 2 Ward, p.231-4
  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.
  19. "Iran: Incommunicado detention/Fear of torture or ill-treatment". Amnesty International. 2005-09-22. Archived from the original on December 2, 2006. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  20. "Press Board Ban Denounced". Iran Daily. 2006-03-05. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  21. "IFJ Condemns Iranian Ban on Al-Jazeera as "Spiteful Act of Censorship"". International Federation of Journalists. 2005-04-21. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  22. "Iran: Bombings In Southwest Blamed On Usual Suspect". Radio Free Europe. 2005-10-17. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  23. "Election results for Khuzestan". British Ahwazi Friendship Society. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  24. "پورتال وزارت کشور – انتخابات خبرگان". MOI. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  25. "پورتال وزارت کشور – انتخابات خبرگان". Retrieved 2009-04-11.


External links

Arab political groups

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