Monday, June 17, 2013

President-elect Hassan Rouhani created high expectations among Ahwazi Arabs and other ethnic groups after he promised to end discrimination and enforce linguistic rights during his election campaign.

Official results show that Rouhani came second in the Ahwaz region with 34% of the vote, compared to Mohsen Rezaee on 46%, although these results are now in doubt due to evidence of electoral fraud by the regime.

The election contest offered the clearest sign yet that the Iranian regime is aware of Ahwazi Arab grievances. Presidential candidates spoke on issues that the Ahwazi movement has been raising for over a decade, but has faced persecution and accusations of separatism and foreign-inspired terrorism. Linguistic rights, poverty, discrimination in the workplace and environmental destruction were the top themes of the election debate in Arab districts as candidates tried to woo local support.

Raising hopes among some Ahwazis not already disillusioned with the political system could foment conditions for unrest in the future. The failure of the “reformist” administration of President Khatami to address grievances and instead sustain a program of ethnic cleansing against Ahwazi Arabs led to civil unrest in April 2005, a period known as the Ahwazi intifada. Many Ahwazis who had supported Khatami’s administration and formed cultural associations seeking to boost Arab rights became disillusioned and were subsequently imprisoned with some sentenced to death.

Rouhani’s 10-point plan for non-Persian ethnic groups

Rouhani attempted to win over several Arab sheikhs who were invited to meet him in Tehran and voice their concerns. At the meeting, he appeared to accede to their demands for a 10 per cent share of cabinet seats for members of the Arab minority. Already, his cabinet appointments appear to have fallen well short of this target.

Hailing from the north of Iran, the ‘pragmatic conservative’ sought to attract non-Persian vote with a list of 10 pledges to address ethnic discrimination, in accordance with neglected constitutional provisions. These included the right to learn in the native tongue, as stated in Article 15, and promoting a meritocratic economy based not on ethnicity or religion but personal strengths in order to leverage the best local human resources. Rouhani has also promised to promote local people into managerial positions.

The president-elect has failed to address some of the more urgent development issues that concern ordinary Ahwazi Arabs who feel increasingly estranged from their co-opted tribal leaders, namely the region’s man-made environmental crisis and political issues. Rouhani’s failure to engage with ordinary Arab workers and farmers indicates that his administration will continue to seek to use political and financial patronage to win the allegiance of tribal elites with little attempt to engage with the masses.

Candidates note problems, offer no solutions

Other presidential candidates appeared to have a greater understanding of the problems facing Ahwazi Arabs, although provided few policy solutions. In his rhetoric, Rezaee had made a notable ideological transition from a hardline principalist stance to a platform that stressed the economic and social marginalization of non-Persian ethnic groups. He also attacked those who referred to the indigenous population as “Arab-speakers”, a term regarded as offensive by Arabs for playing down their ethnic identity. Chief among his vocal concerns was the destruction of the local ecology, particularly the province’s controversial dam and river diversion program that has caused hardship and displacement for hundreds of thousands of local Arabs.

On a visit to Mohammareh/Khorramshahr, Mohammad Ghalibaf said that “Years after freeing the city, I feel ashamed of the failure… Khuzestan suffers from basic problems relation to water, the environment, employment and industry.”

In a side-swipe against institutional racism, he said “considering ethnic groups as a threat is an unforgivable sin… When management and decision-making is centralized, there is a lack of appreciation of local capacities” and as a result it is a threat to national prosperity and security. However, Ghalibaf was short on answers.

Source: Ahwaz News Agency.