Poverty, Separatism, And Bloody Memories Of War: Why Iran's Khuzestan Matters

In a conversation caught on camera, a woman in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's southwestern Khuzestan Province, didn't hold back as Labor Minister Ali Rabiei stood listening.

"Khuzestan's [people] have nothing. We only had security, which is gone now. Be sure that those young men who committed [the attack] did it because they were unemployed…. Go to [neighborhoods] in Ahvaz and see for yourself the misery people are living in," the woman said in a video which went viral on social media.

The woman was referring to September 22, when gunmen attacked a military parade, killing at least 25, including a dozen members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), civilian spectators, and a four-year-old boy. That bloody attack has once again highlighted the region's economic woes and the potential threat of separatism.

Resource Rich

Khuzestan Province is home to around 80 percent of Iran's oil fields and 60 percent of the country's gas reserves. The southwestern province, which borders Iraq and is home to the majority of Iran's ethnic Arabs, is also known for its historical sites, including the ancient city of Shushtar, stunning vistas, and date palms.

Yet many of the province's residents are poor and unemployed -- Khuzestan has the third-highest rate of unemployment in Iran -- and locals say that they don't benefit from the province's wealth.

In Khuzestan, ethnic Arabs, which in total make up about 3 percent of Iran's population, have long complained of social, political, and economic discrimination.

In 2011, hundreds took to the streets of Ahvaz, Abadan, Khoramshahr, and other cities in the region to protest what organizers described as discrimination and injustice against ethnic Arabs. The protests were suppressed by security forces, who arrested dozens. According to news reports, several of them were later hanged.

Rasmus Christian Elling, an associate professor at Copenhagen University and author of a book on minorities in Iran, says that some Arabs in Khuzestan "clearly see their socioeconomic situation as a result of what they perceive to be institutionalized discrimination from local and national governance dominated by the majority."

"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of everyday discrimination. But apart from reports about large-scale evictions of mainly Arabic-speakers from particular areas for industrial or infrastructural development, there is little evidence of ethnic discrimination being systematic or official policy," Elling adds.

To compound people's economic woes, in recent years Khuzestan has been hit hard by drought, pollution, and a water crisis that has caused a shortage of potable water. In February 2017 and July of this year, demonstrators took to the streets of several cities, including Khoramshahr and Ahvaz, to protest pollution, water shortages, and power cuts.

A national lawmaker, Ali Golmoradi, recently warned that the province could be void of its population within two decades if the authorities do not take immediate measures to resolve the issues of pollution, water shortages, and unemployment.

'City Of Blood'

To many Iranians, Khuzestan is associated with the death and destruction caused by the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, when the province became a frontline after coming under attack by the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The city of Khoramshahr was captured by Iraqi forces in 1980 and then taken back by Iran in 1982. Tens of thousands of Iranians were killed in Khuzestan and many of the region's cities were left in ruins. Khoramshahr came to be known as "Khouninshahr," or the "city of blood."

Khuzestan has experienced terrorist attacks before, including a string of bombings in 2005 that killed six people and injured many more. The Iranian government blamed the attacks on separatists and foreign governments.

Iranian officials, who often blame foreign enemies for unrest in the country, have claimed in the past that Persian Gulf countries are provoking ethnic strife in Khuzestan by attempting to exploit the legitimate demands and grievances of the people.

After the September 22 attack, Iranian officials blamed Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and the United States, accusations that all those countries denied.

Within Iran, there were claims of responsibility from the extremist group Islamic State (IS), which released a video of the alleged attackers, and the Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian ethnic Arab opposition umbrella group which seeks a separate state in Khuzestan. The latter group includes the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahvaz, which has recently launched a television station in Europe.

Analysts say that Tehran also appears troubled by the tough line of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and comments by Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said last year that the kingdom would take the fight "inside Iran."

"The fact that senior U.S. officials, like John Bolton before he became national-security advisor, had openly advocated supporting Iran's ethnic and sectarian minorities as a means of destabilizing Iran deepens Tehran's suspicions," says Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

Professor Elling says it's possible that separatist groups active in Khuzestan might receive support from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

"Although several of the so-called Al-Ahwazi groups do not wish to appear to be funded by foreign governments, there are certain indications that groups such as ASMLA [the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahvaz] are receiving support, either from private individuals or state institutions in Gulf countries. It would be interesting, for example, to know how they can afford to launch TV stations with brand new equipment in places such as the Netherlands and Denmark," Elling says.

Vaez at the International Crisis Group says that Tehran appears to have "plenty of intelligence of the Arab separatist groups' renewed activism and their ties to some Gulf countries."

Little Support For Separatists

Despite widespread discontent in the province, analysts, including Elling, say that separatist groups don't have much support among Khuzestani Arabs who see themselves as Iranians.

"Separatist fringes have existed ever since the 1910s, but they have never succeeded in mobilizing broad movements," Elling says.

"Many Arabs I've spoken to say that, although they wish [for] considerably more autonomy and rights, they are not in favor of the idea of splitting with Iran. In fact, many of them are ardent Iranian nationalists, even if they are critical of the current political system in Iran," he says.

"Thus you often hear Arab dignitaries in Khuzestan reminding the Iranian public of the huge price they paid for defending Iran against Iraq in the 1980-88 war between those countries. Despite what Saddam Hussein may have hoped for, there was no significant pro-Iraqi sentiment among Iran's Arabs," Elling says.

Following the attack in Ahvaz, many Iranians, including those based in Khuzestan, rallied around a hashtag on Twitter (#LoveOfIranBringsUsTogether in Arabic) condemning the violence, pledging unity, and opposing groups that sow discord.