Down in the Second Class
Iran's government fails to read the warning in an Arab riot. READ MORE
Conspiracy-minded Iranians have had a field day arguing over who circulated a provocative letter which sparked three days of sectarian rioting earlier this month in Ahwaz, capital of the southern province of Khuzestan. Persian nationalists suspect Arab neighbours of stoking resentment in Ahwaz's big Arab minority. Others recall the area's former subjugation by outsiders; one blogger detected “the stench of British policies” in the unrest. In any event, Iran's governing reformists suspect that their conservative opponents will use the riots to add threat and fear to the presidential election in June. Do not expect Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the canny former president who this week strongly hinted he would seek to get back his old post, to make minority rights a plank of his campaign.
Few people think that the offending letter, which proposed measures to reduce the proportion of Arabs in Khuzestan, was the work of the official whose signature—forged, he insists—it carried. Broadcast by al-Jazeera, a popular Arab television station with a big following among Khuzestan's 2m or so Arabs, and widely circulated by hand, the letter inspired crowds of young people to attack government buildings. This went on until the police intervened with rubber bullets, say the authorities—though some Ahwazis say live rounds were used—killing five and arresting more than 300.
Pro-establishment forces marched through Ahwaz on April 22nd. Aware that the precise identity of the agents provocateurs may never be established, they contented themselves with excoriating “all domestic and foreign enemies, especially Israel and the United States”. Missing from their statement was any acknowledgement that the riots could serve as a warning that Iran, for all the stability of its ethnic Persian heartland, remains vulnerable to dissatisfied minorities on the periphery.
Their dissatisfaction is less virulent than it was in 1980, when many Iranian Arabs and Kurds cheered—and, in the case of the Kurds, joined—Saddam Hussein's bid to invade Iran. Since Muhammad Khatami became president in 1997, Iran has managed its minority relations with more sensitivity. Thanks to him, Arabs and Kurds are better represented in local bureaucracies (they always had seats in parliament); each lot has a high-profile cabinet member. Learning Arabic, albeit for reasons of religion rather than communal harmony, is compulsory in schools across Iran. (Of the country's 70m, nearly 5m are Kurds and over 2m are Arabs.)
So why does Ahwaz erupt periodically? Its last serious riot was less than three years ago. The answer is that the Arabs there feel deprived of their rightful share of profits from Khuzestan's hugely profitable oil and gas. Although the country's economy relies on Khuzestan's hydrocarbons, the revenues go elsewhere, and the province has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
Arabs now form an underclass in the suburbs of Ahwaz. They find it hard to get jobs in the oil industry. Ethnic Persians tend to avoid hiring them. One Persian professional in Ahwaz declared that the riots were caused by “unemployed drug addicts”. Sadly, that may not be far from the truth. Thanks in part to unemployment, some 4m Iranians are said to be drug users, and the problem is especially acute in Khuzestan.