Iran's human rights record is miserable: pursuit of nuclear weapons, terrorism, jailing and execution of dissidents are some of the country's better-known violations. One long lasting abuse, that today remains largely uncovered, is the ongoing cultural apartheid against the country's non-Persian ethnic minorities, which account for two thirds of Iran's population.
Besides Persians, Arabs, Balochis, Kurds, Turkmans and Turks are some of the country's other dominant ethnic groups. But ongoing discrimination has sidelined these minorities, who, like Persians, would like to foster change in a nation dilapidated by crisis brought on by a succession of monarchical and clerical dictatorships.
Engaged in forced assimilation and systematic ethnic cleansing, at the forefront of this discrimination are the more than 4 million Ahwazi Arabs who live in Iran's southwestern Khuzestan province.
This winter in an open letter to Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi and Dr. Javier Solana, Secretary of the EU General Council, Ahwazi Arabs protested about the recent signing of a $2.8 billion oil exploration and drilling agreement between Japan's Inpex Corp., and the Iranian Government. The oil contract, the letter said, would not only strengthen the Iranian Government but also force native Ahwazi out of their ancestral land.
In a preceding letter, the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization (AHRO) urged the EU's Human Rights Commission to dispatch observers to Khuzestan's Karoon prison, where over 6,000 indigenous Ahwazi Arab political prisoners are believed to have been locked up, some for more than twenty years.
Iranian policy deliberately attempts to eliminate the national identity of Ahwazi Arabs. In a memorandum, obtained from inside the government, General Gholamali Rasheed , head of intelligence and operations with the Central Command of the Iranian Armed Forces, urged Dr. Kalantari, Minister for Agriculture, for a change in the composition of the Arab population of Khuzestan by implementing forced relocations. It also encouraged the permanent relocation of Persian communities from the northern and northeastern parts of the Province, "to facilitate taking the land of Ahwazi Arabs."
Ahwazi Arabs have been fighting for self-determination and an end to their oppression since their annexation by Reza Shah in 1925. Stripped of their most fundamental basic human rights, opponents are routinely jailed or executed for peacefully voicing their opinions. Relegated as second-class citizens Ahwazis live in abject poverty, never benefiting from the proceeds of Iran's large oil and gas resources.
Despite this bleak assessment, the plight of Ahwazi Arabs is not totally forgotten. Last January Denmark's parliament organized a symposium on the rights of ethnic nationalities in Iran. In March, in a letter to President Khatemi six Swedish members of the European Parliament reminded him about the dismal plight of ethnic minorities in his country. That the EU does not do enough to support human rights in the region was also highlighted recently in Geneva during the 60th session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
EU foreign policy makers must understand that a progressive and secular Iran depends on a strong federal system, with an elected legislative and executive branch and an independent judiciary. Only a federal system will allow Iranians to develop and protect their respective culture and history, whatever their origins, gender or religion. The EU must insist on the right of self-determination, not only because it is a fundamental human right but also because it is the best way to resolve any conflicts, wherever they may be.