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Iran's Nobel Laureate Ebadi Warns Of Unrest Among Ethnic Arabs In Iran

A resident covered up against a dust storm blowing through Khuzestan Province (file photo)
A resident covered up against a dust storm blowing through Khuzestan Province (file photo)
By Golnaz Esfandiari
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has warned the United Nations of the possible spread of unrest in Iran's Khuzestan Province, home to most of the country's ethnic Arab minority.

Ebadi sent a letter to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay in which she describes a deadly crackdown by Iranian security forces last week on a peaceful protest in Khuzestan's capital, Ahvaz.

The April 15 protest, which some dubbed the "Ahvaz Day of Rage," was aimed at protesting what participants say is discrimination and injustice against ethnic Arabs, who make up about 3 percent of Iran's population.

The event was reportedly planned with the help of social-media sites, including Facebook, by political groups and young people both inside and outside the country who are said to have been inspired by popular uprisings in Arab countries.

Iranian officials have praised street demonstrations across the Arab world as an "Islamic awakening" but themselves have used force against Iranian protesters who have taken to the streets to demonstrate for democracy and human rights.

Deaths, Injuries, And Arrests

Force was also Iranian authorities' response to the April 15 protest in Ahvaz.

In her letter, Ebadi says that at least 12 people were killed in the clashes, 20 others were injured, and dozens were arrested.

Lawyer Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.



Human rights activists told RFE/RL they have received reports that there were more than 150 arrests, including a number of intellectuals, artists, and women's rights activists. They said the province has been turned into "a military base" by security forces who have warned activists not to speak to the media.

Ebadi urges the UN to push for the unconditional release of those arrested in order to prevent widespread unrest in the province. She tells Pillay that ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan have been living in poor conditions and have endured discrimination for more than 30 years.

Long List Of Grievances

Yousef Azizi Banitorof, an ethnic Arab Iranian and the head of the U.K.-based Center for Combating Racism and Discrimination Against Arabs in Iran, told RFE/RL that protest organizers were demanding an end to racial, cultural, economic, and political discrimination.

"They also protested against [discrimination] in April 2005 when they took to the street to protest a letter allegedly signed by former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi," Banitorof said, referring to a letter that Abtahi described as being forged, which called for forcibly relocating the local Arab population and replacing it with Persians. "They were met with [force] and 15 people were killed. They now wanted to mark that day and also to call for their rights."

Banitorof said many people in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan live in extreme poverty. "They're sitting on a sea of oil but the oil money goes to the rulers in Tehran," he said, citing reports on the state-run news agencies Mehr and ISNA that say the poverty in the region is worse than in Africa.

A Hard Line


Banitorof also said he had heard reports that two people were killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces on April 14. Hamed Kanani, a member of London's Ahvaz Human Rights organization, told Radio Farda that several women and a 17-year-old were among the dead.

Kanani said that before the planned protests, authorities sent warnings via short text messages to people in Ahvaz telling them not to take to the streets.

Intelligence officials also summoned dozens of young people who were already under scrutiny for political activism.

"In Hamidieh, they took 161 young people to the Intelligence Ministry and made them sign a written statement that they won't take pictures, they won't participate in demonstration and also that they won't tell any news in interviews with media and TV channels based outside the country," Kanani said.

There has been very little coverage of the violence that took place in Ahvaz in Iranian state media. Ahmad Naseri, a police chief in Khuzestan, was quoted by Fars News Agency as saying that one person was killed and another injured in clashes in Shadegan region. He described the two as "armed rogues."

Fars reported that members of the parliament's foreign policy committee at an April 17 meeting discussed "recent events in Khuzestan." Fars did not provide details of the meeting.

Radio Farda broadcaster Roozbeh Bolhari contributed to this report
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by: Sate
April 19, 2011 09:54
Ebadi should be ashamed of helping those who want to split Iran into pieces!

by: Ali Abojrah from: London
April 19, 2011 10:16
With great respect for those who wrote this report I can say that the number of the Arabs population in Iran much more than 3% and I think it's more than 10% regarding the Official Statistics by the Government of Iran in 1966 when the number of the whole population in Iran, was about 26 milion people, and the number of Ahwazi Arab citizens was 2.6 million, or 10%. We also know that most Arabs live in villages and villagers in Iran reproduce a lot and their newborns are always on the increase it is to make the Assembly of Iran today, almost 80 million people. Ahwazi Arabs According to last Official Statistics 10% of Iran’s Assembly. Anybody who does not accept it by pushing the Iranian regime to do to count the number of all minorities on either end, such as Azeris and Kurds, Arabs, Belches, Persians, and we will know the exact number and this is their basic right.

by: Ahmad from: London
April 19, 2011 17:32
I am an Arab from Khuzestan. I am an Iranian first with Arab heritage. I am proud of both. Although we were desriminated against prior to the reveloution, my family and I have had no encounter with racism or descrimination. It has been suggested that the Arabs live in poverty when they are sitting on one of world's largest oil reserves. The fact is the whole of Khuzestan lives in poverty including the Ajams(Persians). In fact the richest families in Khuzestan are Arabs. Our former Minister of Defence was from a wealthy Arab family from Ahvaz. The distribution of wealth should be better in the whole of Iran not just Khuzestan. The majority of population in Shushtar, Masjed soliman, and Dezfoul are Ajams. The infestructure in all these cities is so poor that you would not even be able to drink the water.
Payandeh Iran

by: Anonymous
April 19, 2011 18:22
Thank you Ahmad for your comment. I am Iranian and I am sad to read that our countrymen are being discriminated against. Arab, Turks, Lor, Rashti, ... we are all Iranians. Let's not forget that. I'm saying that because I know some crazy separatist groups might want to use this issue for their own agenda.

by: Ahmad from: Iran
April 21, 2011 19:41
Big thanks to Ahmad.

I hope one day we all live freely and help our country to improve

by: Ahwazi Arab from: Glasgow
April 22, 2011 01:36
To all observers of Iran’s crisis: The Iranian government is very different from other governments in terms of dealing with the protesters.
It deals with anybody who claims any right with all the brutality and tyranny and evidence of this is the rape of prisoners in Tehran prison ( Kahrizk) which Mr. Karroubi, who was earlier Chairman of the Shura Council in Iran, caused the scandal at that prison, because he knows exactly what can be done by men of the regime against the prisoners.
Therefore, the Iranian security services a few months before the outbreak of the intifada in Alahwaz (Khuzestan+Busheher+Bandar Abbbas) in the case of tight security announced that all the Al-Ahwaz (Khuzestan) is a security zone and asked for foreigners to get out of regions so they have a chance to make brutal and bloody suppression against Ahwazis.
on every free person in this world is to protect Ahwazi Arabs in Iran so that Iranian government will not being singled them away from the eyes of the world, and commits another crime of ethnic cleansing, as the one occurred in 1979 in Mohammarah (Khorramshahr) and this is strongly possible for a Chauvinistic racist system like that governs Iran.

by: Ahwazi Arab Solidarity from: London
April 22, 2011 12:53
It is fantastic that Shirin Ebadi has helped break a glass ceiling for the Ahwazi Arab cause that has been for too long misrepresented by both the regime and many of its opponents as a violent extremist insurgency directed by foreign governments. Ahwazi Arabs suffer systematic discrimination, higher levels of poverty than the rest of Iran and low levels of education due to the lack of education in their mother tongue as well as the denial of their political and cultural rights.

However, Shirin Ebadi is wrong in her portrayal of Arabs. She refers to them as "Arabic-speaking Iranians". They are ethnically Arabs, not Iranians who happen to speak Arabic. It's an important distinction.

Secondly, she refers to them as a Sunni group. The majority of Ahwazi Arabs are Shia, although more and more are converting to Sunni Islam in rebellion against the Shia theocratic dictatorship. Moreover, the protests were not religious in character and there is no communal divide between Shia and Sunni among Ahwazi Arabs. The problem is that the regime's propaganda that portrays Ahwazi Arab unrest is due to Wahhabism supported by Americans, Saudis, British and Israelis has distorted the Iranian intelligentsia's understanding of this ethnic group. It demonstrates how little educated Iranians know about the cultures and peoples of those on the periphery of the country and their struggles. This is why the "Green Movement" has struggled to generate much support among Arabs, Kurds and Balochis, among others. With Shirin Ebadi's statement, perhaps they will seek to learn more and open their minds instead of alienating a significant proportion of the Iranian population. Anyone who is interested in unity against this violent fascistic regime should embrace all struggles, including those of the Ahwazi Arabs.

by: Irani Arab from: Paris
April 23, 2011 00:39
Sate! you should be a shame of being aside from oppressed people.you should feel sorry for these people.they have been always marginalized just by chauvinist and totalitarian thoughts like you have.bear in mind that there is no change will take place in Iran unless you correct your thoughts about other people.the revolution in Egypt has become an icon for the world because the stopped betraying their citizens trust.thanks to Ms Ebadi for her support toward Ahwazi Arab people.

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