Chances are you have never heard of Khuzestan. But the oil-rich province in southwest Iran is home to the biblical city of Susa (better known as Shushan, from the Book of Esther) and the site of some of the bloodiest fighting during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Nearly 4.5 million Iranian Arabs - or, as they call themselves, Ahwazis - live in Khuzestan, and though they are mostly Shi'ite, they are at odds with both the central government in Teheran and its Arab clients in southern Iraq. A few groups, such as the Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front, even seek an independent "Arabistan."
Sweeping in from what is now southern Iraq, the Arabs first took Khuzestan from the Sassanids in 639 CE, only to have another Persian dynasty snatch it back some 300 years later. Over the years, foreigners invaded, people moved and empires broke apart.
In 1435, a Shi'ite dynasty took power in Khuzestan, which by now had become a heavily Arab region. But the Musha'sha'ids were like a small ship trying to navigate between the crushing reefs of Persia and the Ottoman Empire. In 1514, the Arab emirs threw in their lot with the Persians, the defenders of Shi'ite Islam, and were incorporated into the kingdom as rulers of the new, autonomous province of Arabistan (al-Ahwaz). This situation lasted until 1925, when Persia dismantled the emirate.
Arabistan was renamed Khuzestan a few years later. Since then, the central authorities have conducted a policy of "Persianization," charges Nasser Ban Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society.
This includes, says Ban Assad, "changing the historical Arabic names of cities, villages and streets and replacing them with mock Persian names and banning the use of Arabic language in schools and governmental offices throughout the Ahwaz area. It also involved mass exiles, land confiscations, and creating Persian settlements."
IN JUNE 1979, Arab radicals bombed oil refineries and pipelines in Khuzestan, and the following May, the Iraqi-backed Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan took over the Iranian Embassy in London. But when Iraq invaded in 1980, most Iranian Arabs fought against Saddam Hussein's forces.
"The Khuzestani Arabs are selfless Iranians and staunchly opposed to separatist ideas, but they also have righteous demands that the system needs to recognize, confirm, and meet," Iranian Defense Minister Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, himself an Ahwazi Arab, told the Islamic Republic News Agency in May.
Still, the British Ahwazi Friendship Society's Ban Assad says the Iran-Iraq War "contributed to the desire to move Arabs away from the southern borders in order to militarize the province and control the population."
The recent spate of violence began in April, when rioting broke out in Ahvaz after the federalist Democratic Solidarity Party of Al-Ahwaz circulated what it said was a top-secret Iranian plan to dilute Khuzestan's Arab population. The Iranians say the document is a forgery.
Ahwazi sources claim more than 160 Arabs were killed by Iranian security forces during the uprising, and that foreign Shi'ite militias like Hizbullah and the Badr Corps took part in the repression. In fact, given its rather harsh treatment of its own Arab population, Iran's championing of Palestinian terrorism is hypocritical, says Ban Assad.
"The Palestinians have their own Arabic language universities," he notes, "but Ahwazi Arabs are not even allowed to run an Arabic-language nursery school... [President] Ahmadinejad condemns the destruction of Palestinian homes, while simultaneously ordering his forces to destroy Ahwazi Arab homes occupied by people who only have rocks as weapons."