Iran: Blaming British For Arab Unrest Has Historical Roots
Southwestern Iran -- home to many
ethnic Arabs (3 percent of the total population of approximately 68 million) --
has witnessed violent unrest in recent months. Most of Iran's crude-oil reserves
are located in giant onshore fields in this part of country, so the regime is
particularly sensitive about developments there.
Tehran's reaction to the
unrest has been to blame it on foreigners, particularly the British. Accusations
of British interference in the southwestern part of the country have historical
roots, but they might also be connected with Iranian hard-liners' isolationist
tendencies. As a recent UN study notes, however, Tehran's policies contribute to
the problems in the southwest.
involvement in the southwest dates to early in the previous century. In 1901,
the Englishman William Knox D'Arcy obtained an agreement from the Iranian
monarch, Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar, to explore for oil. D'Arcy made his first
commercial discovery in Masjid-i Suleiman in 1909, and the next year the
Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was created. APOC bought British Petroleum (BP)
in 1917, and it merged with Shell in 1932. The company was renamed Anglo-Iranian
Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935, and Tehran nationalized its assets in Iran in 1951,
triggering a major international crisis that resulted in the overthrow of Prime
Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. The Iranian oil industry went back on stream in
1954, and in the same year AIOC was renamed The British Petroleum Company.
Royal Dutch/Shell was one of the original companies in the 1954
consortium, along with BP, Esso, Gulf, Mobil, Chevron, and Texaco from the
United States and Compagnie Francaise des Petroles. Currently, Shell Oil is
involved with several projects in Khuzestan Province.
Concern about British intentions arose
shortly after the inauguration of the now hard-line parliament in 2004.
Legislators connected with the Developers Coalition (Abadgaran) expressed
concern over Shell's activities and threatened to interpellate the minister of
Islamic culture and guidance, "Mardom Salari" reported on 12 June. Among Shell's
objectionable activities, the newspaper reported, were its sponsorship of teams
of deaf athletes, sponsoring the international travel of top students for
academic Olympiads, sending the Iranian philharmonic orchestra to Abu Dhabi, and
building schools in the less developed areas of south Tehran and Zahedan.
Large-scale riots in Ahvaz in mid-April
followed rumors of a government plan to forcibly replace local Arabs with
Persians from other parts of the country. The government acknowledged making
numerous arrests, and dissident websites alleged that there was wide-scale
At that early stage, there were allegations of involvement by
Shell and other foreign agencies. Abadeh representative Mahmud Mohammadi said
the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee would look into
Shell's possible role in the unrest, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 19 April.
Another legislator, Tehran's Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, warned that some European
countries have a policy of stirring up ethnic unrest in resource-rich provinces.
"Siyasat-i Ruz" went on to report that the World Bank has allocated $150 million
for development projects in areas that include Khuzestan Province. "The policies
of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund created commotion and
crises in different countries, especially Argentina," the newspaper warned.
Shahrud representative Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the National Security
and Foreign Policy Committee, decried British involvement in the Khuzestan
unrest, "Kayhan" reported on 25 April. He called on the Foreign Ministry to stop
Ahvaz prosecutor Iraj Amirkhani announced on 24
April that the five people mainly responsible for the 15-18 April unrest in that
city had been arrested. The authorities also arrested Iranian-Arab activist and
journalist Yusef Azizi Bani-Taraf at his home in Tehran on 25 April.
"Kayhan" newspaper -- whose reports frequently precede related
government crackdowns -- announced on 26 April that another detained Arab
activist, Ebrahim Ameri, was a negotiator for Shell. Ameri, the hard-line daily
reported, worked for the Ahvaz mayor's cultural-affairs office.
in Khuzestan continued despite the government crackdown. Arab irredentists took
credit for June bombings in Ahvaz that targeted government facilities or
Akbar al-Sadat, the head of the Khuzestan Province Justice
Department, said on 22 July that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security was
investigating the June bombings due to the possible involvement of foreigners,
ILNA reported. "Obviously, in such incidents some domestic agents are
manipulated by foreign agents," al-Sadat added. Turning to the arrests that
followed the events in April, al-Sadat said all but one of those arrested had
been freed. Indeed, Bani-Taraf was freed in late June.
Yet more riots
took place in Ahvaz in late July. A local official, Said Saadi, said the riot
was the angry reaction of people who paid for goods but failed to receive them,
and he added that a local bank was set on fire and 30 arrests were made. Arab
separatists cited by the Reuters news agency, however, said the riots mark the
100 days since April protests in Khuzestan.
The April allegations of foreign involvement in the southwestern unrest
came to fruition in mid August. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi
said on 14 August that the people responsible for the unrest trained at British
bases in southeastern Iraq, IRNA reported. The Ministry of Intelligence and
Security announced on 15 August that the leaders of the Khuzestan unrest were on
foreign intelligence services' payrolls, "especially Britain," according to
state television. An anonymous source on Iran's Arabic language Al-Alam
television said on 17 August that Tehran has complained to the British Embassy.
It is not out of the question that some Iranian-Arab irredentists are
operating from Iraq. A number of Arabs who left Iran in 1979 describe fleeing
forcible relocations and express regret about an inability to return, the "Los
Angeles Times" reported on 10 July. Such individuals refer to "Arabistan," and
some of them advocate violence and separatism.
However, the Iranian
government arguably is not helping the situation by blaming foreigners.
Government policies only add to the trouble. A preliminary United Nations report
by special rapporteur Miloon Kothari notes discrimination all along the Western
border regions, Reuters reported on 30 July. Kothari said Arabs in oil-rich
Khuzestan live in squalor, and he said land confiscation by the state appears to
have a disproportionate impact on ethnic and religious minorities.
Tehran, therefore, is the party most responsible for the problems in
Khuzestan. Greater attention to local demands for economic development and
political representation will be more effective than blaming
Copyright (c) 2005 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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