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Iran: Blaming British For Arab Unrest Has Historical Roots

  • Bill Samii

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.

Looking Back

British 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.
Tehran 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 foreigners.


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.

Ahvaz Amok

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 bloodshed.

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 British interference.

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.

Unrest in Khuzestan continued despite the government crackdown. Arab irredentists took credit for June bombings in Ahvaz that targeted government facilities or officials.

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.

Finding Scapegoats

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 foreigners.

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