'Collective punishment" is a term used often used to describe Israel's retaliation against Hamas terrorist attacks. Teheran usually rushes to be the first in line to accuse the Jewish state. Yet the Iranian regime's claim to represent the interests of Arabs is belied by its brutal persecution of the indigenous Ahwazi Arabs living within its own territory, who have been under direct rule from Persians since the end of self-government in 1925. This week, Iran cut off drinking water supply to Arab villages along the left bank of the Shatt al-Arab, causing social unrest and fears of an outbreak of disease. Ahwazi Arabs are the most deprived and persecuted ethnic group in the Middle East, with human development indicators at an African level - far below those of the Palestinians. This ethno-national group has been subjected to forced relocation, land confiscation, cultural repression, state terrorism, mass executions and economic disadvantage, even though their land is one of the most oil-rich regions in the world. Being deprived of drinking water is simply the latest atrocity committed against them. Although the area has many large rivers - the Karoon and the Karkeh as well as the Shatt al-Arab - water has become salinated by intensive sugar cane production and polluted by the petrochemical industries. It is now undrinkable, particularly at the mouth of the Karoon where the river feeds into the Shatt al-Arab. In the late 1990s, riots broke out in the oil town of Abadan, which lies on the Shatt Al-Arab, over the lack of clean drinking water. Security forces killed dozens of Ahwazi Arabs during these "water riots." The government eventually responded to the problem by supplying drinking water in tanks to villages and towns in the affected areas. The halt in drinking water supply is likely to lead to outbreaks of water-born diseases such as cholera and typhoid - this in a region which has more oil than Kuwait and the UAE combined. It will also incite yet more Ahwazi Arab unrest. The intention behind the action is two-fold: to punish and intimidate the restive Arab population and to drive them off their traditional lands so as to strengthen the regime's military presence in the region and bolster the economic interests of a predatory religious elite. Ahwazi Arabs are being punished for armed attacks on bus convoys operated by the Rahiyan-e-Nur, a section of the hard-line volunteer paramilitary force the Bassij which is responsible for visits to the Iran-Iraq War battlefields. The Bassij are hated by the Ahwazi Arabs, largely because the Bassijis are deployed to murder any Arab opponents of the regime. Forced relocation is also thought to be part of a long-term plan to force indigenous Arabs from their villages to expand the Arvand Free Zone, a military-industrial complex being developed along the Shatt al-Arab. Arabs living on Minoo Island, south of Abadan, have already faced state intimidation and expulsion. Most Ahwazi Arabs believe this is in line with the government's ethnic cleansing program, which was outlined in a letter written by then vice-president Ali Abtahi and leaked to the press in April 2005. ULTIMATELY, CONTROL over the Shatt al-Arab - achieved by settling a loyal non-indigenous population on traditional Arab land - will give Iran a stranglehold over Baghdad and thereby the entire Middle East. The ethnic cleansing of Ahwazi Arabs is nothing less than a prelude to the extension of Iran's empire and a projection of the principle of Velayat-e-Faqih, rule by Shi'ite religious jurisprudence headed by Iran's supreme leader. The presence of a large, dispossessed and restless Arab population along the border is simply the last hurdle for Iran's plan to expand its sphere of influence. What better tactic than to drive them out with disease and starvation? The plight of Ahwazi Arabs is crucial to security in the Middle East. Yet Ahwazi Arabs can neither rely on their Iranian religious compatriots nor their Arab ethnic brothers for support. Iranian "opposition" movements have often indicated that they would stand alongside the current regime against Ahwazi Arabs to prevent what they see as the destruction of their country by an "alien" race - even though Ahwazis themselves do not advocate secession. Ahwazi Arabs also have few friends in the Arab world. As they are predominantly Shi'ite, Ahwazis elicit little sympathy from their Sunni Arab brothers. Moreover, many governments in the region are careful not to upset the militaristic and aggressive power lying to their north. They view the Ahwazi issue as a struggle that could cause them unnecessary problems were they to be involved. If the Iranian regime is to be prevented from driving the Ahwazi Arabs literally off the map, then it's vital that their predicament be placed firmly on the "political map" in the West as well as the Arab world. International solidarity is essential to ending Ahwazi Arabs' persecution and to secure regional political stability, particularly in Iraq. The writer is the chairman of the British Ahwazi Friendship Society.