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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Arabs in Iran

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Iran Facts
Area:    1,648,000 sq. km.
Capital:    Tehran
Total Population:    68,960,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Arabs in Iran have three risk factors for rebellion, including persistent protest, territorial concentration and government repression. Furthermore, there are no factors present that typically inhibit rebellion, such as a democratic regime or transnational support for negotiation and accommodation of Arab grievances. With such a closed society, projecting the actual condition of Iranian Arabs is difficult. Nevertheless, as the presidency changed hands from the moderate President Khatami (1997-2005) to the hard-lined Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-present), the condition of Iranian Arabs has also worsened. As the Iranian government’s centralization policies remain stronger than ever, it appears unlikely that the Iranian Arab desire for a measure of autonomy will be recognized anytime soon. Hopes of moderate elements in Iran to hold off its sizable conservative challengers have faded, exacerbating risks to Iran’s Arabs.


Analytic Summary

Arabs have been present in Iran dating back 12 centuries. The main factor that differentiates them from Iran's Persian speaking majority is their racial distinction, and that they speak one of several dialects of Arabic (LANG = 1). They live in the southern regions of Iran with the majority living in the province of Khuzestan while others live along the coast of the Persian Gulf; Iranian Arabs with close to 70% living in urban areas (GC119 = 4; GROUPCON = 2). Most of the Arabs living in Khuzestan are Shi'i Muslims, and most of those living along the coast of the Persian Gulf are Sunni Muslims (RELIGS1 = 6), with more Shi’a than Sunni overall.

Both the urban and rural Arabs of Khuzestan are intermingled with the Persians, Turks and Lurs who also live in the province and often intermarry with them. Despite this, Iranian Arabs are regarded by themselves and by Iran's other ethnic groups as separate and distinct from non-Arabs. The government of Iraq, both before and after Iran's 1979 revolution, has accused Iran of discrimination against its Arab population. (Despite this, the Arab population of Khuzestan sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war). Outside of Khuzestan there is little ethnic solidarity among Iran's Arabs. The division between Shi'i and Sunni Muslims also hampers ethnic solidarity.

While Sunnis are accorded "full respect" in the Iranian constitution, in practice and through social exclusion, Iranian Sunnis suffer discrimination. The Iranian government has barred the construction of a Sunni mosque in Tehran, and has moderately restricted public displays of the Sunni religion and culture (CULPO104-06= 2). Arabs, Shi’a and Sunni, face restrictions on use of and instruction in Arabic language (CULPO204-06 = 2). While the moderate regime of Khatami had put into place some remedial policies for the Arab population (POLDIS01-05 = 1), these were removed under Ahmadinejad. Following mass protests in 2005 and 2006, Arabs have faced generally repressive policies placed on the entire population (POLDIS05-06 = 4), including confiscation of land (ECDIS05-06 = 4). Arab grievances include a desire for independence among some Shi’a Arabs in Khuzestan (POLGR04-06 = 4). Additionally, as Khuzestan is the most oil-rich province of Iran, Arabs desire greater control over and benefits from these resources (ECGR04-06 = 2). Finally, Arabs desire the end of language and religious discrimination (CULGR04-06 = 1).

The Arab Political Cultural Organization (APCO) was formed in 1979. It requested some concessions in April 1979 and was given the green light to form a provincial council with limited autonomy. Unrest occurred afterwards due to the presence of Revolutionary Guards, especially in the Khuzestani city of Khorramshahr. The unrest continued and escalated when the Arabs started bombing oil refineries and pipelines on "Black Wednesday" June 14, 1979. On April 30, 1980, they seized the Iranian embassy in London in order to free 91 Arabs imprisoned in Iran.

The Arabs continued both their nonviolent and violent behavior in the beginning of the 21st century. On April 15, 2005, after a letter was released from a former Khatami advisor, more than 1,000 Arabs demonstrated in Khuzestan (PROT05 = 3). This peaceful protest turned violent as security forces killed scores of Iranian-Arabs, injured hundreds and detained hundreds more. It is estimated that around 500 Arabs were detained from April to December 2005, including journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers, many of whom were tortured, raped, or faced death sentences. This government repression continued in 2006 when the Arab cultural event of Eid al-Adha was also disrupted by security officials resulting in arrests of Arabs, including children and the death of at least three men (REPNVIOL05 = 5; REPNVIOL06 = 3; REPVIOL05-06 = 5).

Faced with this repression, some Arabs fought back with violent rebellion. In April 2005, an Arab group claimed responsibility for an explosion along an oil pipeline from Khuzestan to Tehran. Although no one was killed or injured, the government sentenced the alleged perpetrators to death by public hanging. However, this did not seem to deter the Arabs, as in later that year on June 12, three Arab groups claimed credit for setting four bombs in Khuzestan targeting government facilities and officials, killing ten and injuring around one hundred (REB05 = 1).



Amnesty International. 5/17/2006. “Iran: Defending Minority Rights: The Ahwazi Arabs.” AI index MDE 13/056/2006.

Amnesty International, 12/22/2006. Iran: Further information on Fear of imminent execution, PUBLIC AI Index: MDE 13/142/2006,

LexisNexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Metz, Helen Chapin Iran: a Country Study (4th ed.), Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1987.

U.S. State Department. Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Iran. 1999-2006. Available from


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Information current as of December 31, 2006