Unrest among ethnic Arabs in this remote capital of oil-rich Khuzestan province bordering southern Iraq presents Iran with its most serious domestic security threat since the 1979 Islamic revolution, just as discussion in Washington about Iran’s myriad internal ethnic and religious divisions reaches fever pitch.
Two men found guilty of bombing a bank here in January, killing six persons, were publicly hanged from a crane this month. Both were ethnic Arabs, who are a slim majority in the province and have close ties to Iraqi Arabs across the border. A day earlier, three other Iranian Arabs reportedly were executed in a local prison. Three more face imminent death, opposition groups say.
About 50 Arabs have been identified as being behind bombings that killed 21 persons after anti-government riots in April last year, officials say. The rioters were furious at the leak of a letter attributed to former Vice President Muhammad Ali Abtahi, which he denounced as a forgery, that disclosed “official plans” to expel Arabs from the province, and replace them with ethnic Persians.
At least 20 persons were reported killed and hundreds were injured in the riots. Amnesty International said security forces summarily executed many of those arrested, but Tehran dismissed the charge as false.
The scale of the riots probably would have escaped attention outside Iran if Arabic Al Jazeera television had not managed to get a video crew into Khuzestan. It subsequently was barred from reporting from the province.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has since canceled three trips to Ahvaz at the last minute. The official reason each time was “bad weather,” but it was more likely security threats. One of the worst bombings took place just hours before the president was to address a rally.
Repression ‘wrong policy’
“Geographically, the unrest in Khuzestan has turned into a very great threat,” said Ibrahim Yazdi, a former Iranian foreign minister who now heads the opposition Freedom Movement in Iran.
“It is true that some of the ethnic Arabs there are in favor of independence for Khuzestan, and in the  Persian Gulf War many of them went into the street in support of Saddam,” he added. “But the way the Iranian government is handling the current crisis, with further repression, is the wrong policy to adopt.”
The vast, arid plains in Khuzestan are punctuated by the flaring of gas fires at dozens of oil drilling rigs, which provide Tehran with about 80 percent of its revenue from crude oil production.
Before the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the province was among Iran’s most developed. When Iraq invaded in 1980, hoping to take advantage of the chaos after the 1979 revolution and seize the oil fields, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein portrayed himself as the “liberator” of the Khuzistan Arabs.
Although many Iranian Arabs in border towns openly backed Iraq, the majority elsewhere did not, perhaps because they were mostly Shi’ite Muslims, persecuted under Saddam’s rule.
Saddam’s rhetoric ultimately backfired. Rather than divide Iran, he helped unify it.