Arab separatism in Khuzestan

Map of Iran with Khuzestan highlighted
Date1922 – c. 2020[3]
(98 years)


  • Several uprisings suppressed
  • Political crackdown by the Iranian government against perceived civil disobedience

Sublime State of Persia (1922–1925)

Sheikhdom of Mohammerah
Iran Imperial State of Iran (1925–1979)


  • ALF
  • NFLA

Interim Government and Council of the Islamic Revolution (1979–1980)

Iran Islamic Republic of Iran (1980−2020)


Supported by:


Supported by:

Commanders and leaders

Iran Reza Shah
Iran Mohammad Reza Shah

Iran Ruhollah Khomeini
Iran Ali Khamenei

Khaz'al al-Ka'bi

Oan Ali Mohammed  

Habib Jabr al-Ka'bi Ahmad Mullah Nissi 

Salah Abusharif Al-Ahwazi

Arab separatism in Khuzestan[4] was a decades-long separatist Arab movement in the western part of the Khuzestan Province in Iran.

From the 1920s to the early 2020s, tensions have often resulted in violence and attempted separatism, including the insurgency in 1979, unrest in 2005, terrorist bombings in 2005–2006, protests in 2011, assassinations in 2017, and the 2018 Ahvaz military parade attack.

Iran officially denied any discrimination or the existence of conflict within the country.[4] It drew strong criticism from human rights organizations including accusations of ethnic discrimination and ethnic cleansing.[5]

Demographic background

Khuzestan is inhabited by many different ethnic groups including Iranian Arabs, Bakhtiari, Kurds, Qashqai people, Persians, and Armenians.[6] The majority of Arabs in Khuzestan are Shia Muslims. Both the urban and rural areas of Khuzestan are populated with Arabs, Persians, and Lurs, who often intermarry.[7]


Sheikh Khazal rebellion

Officially within Persian territory, the western region of Khuzestan functioned as an autonomous emirate known as Arabistan for two decades until 1924. From 1922 to 1924, tensions grew due to the rising power of Reza Khan, who later became the Shah of Iran (as Reza Shah), due to his increasingly negative attitude toward tribal autonomies in Iran, his attempts to extract higher taxes, and reduce the authority of Khazal Khan, the Sheikh of Mohammerah and the tribal leader of Arabistan. In response, Sheik Khazal initiated the short-lived Sheikh Khazal rebellion which peaked in November 1924 and was crushed by the newly installed Pahlavi dynasty. At least 115 casualties were sustained. Arabistan was dissolved by Reza Shah's government in 1925, along with other autonomous regions of Persia.[8][9]

1979 insurgency

The 1979 Khuzestan insurgency erupted in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, fed by demands of autonomy for Khuzestan. The uprising was quelled by Iranian security forces, resulting in more than a hundred combined casualties from both sides.[10] The Iranian crackdown in response to the uprising provoked the initiation of the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980 in London by an Arab separatist group called the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA). The terrorists initially demanded autonomy for Khuzestan and later demanded the release of 91 of their comrades held in Iranian jails.[11]

Civil unrest and insurgency (1999–2020)

ASMLA establishment

In 1999,[1] Habib Yabar, Habib Asewad Kaabi, and Ahmad Mola Nissi established the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) in Europe to advocate for an independent Arab state in Khuzestan and has committed acts of terrorism and assassinations in support of this goal. The group is financed and sponsored by Saudi Arabia.[12]

Civil unrest (2005–2015)

On 15 April 2005, civil unrest broke out in Ahvaz and surrounding towns, lasting for four days.[13][14] Initially, the Iranian Interior Ministry stated that only one person had been killed, but an official at an Ahvaz hospital alleged between 15 and 20 casualties.[13]

Subsequently, a series of bombings were carried out in Ahvaz and other cities in Iran in late 2005 and early 2006, which were blamed upon Sunni Arab separatist groups of Khuzestan.

The 2011 Khuzestan protests, known among protesters as the Ahvaz Day of Rage, erupted on 15 April 2011 in Iranian Khuzestan to mark the anniversary of the 2005 Ahvaz unrest, and as a response to the regional Arab Spring. The protests lasted for four days, resulted in 12 to 15 protesters killed, and many wounded and arrested; one security officer was killed and another wounded.[15] Crackdown on Arab political opposition in the area continued since with arrests and executions.[16] Four Ahwazi men were executed in Iran in June 2012 in relation to the 2011 unrest.[17] The crackdown on Arab Sunni opposition has been condemned by the Human Rights Watch,[18] Amnesty International,[17] and others.

In 2013, bombings were carried out in Ahvaz, alleged to have been committed by the ASMLA.[19]

On 23 March 2015, a football match dispute led to anti-government protests in Ahvaz.[19] Local football fans defiantly expressed support for the Saudi al-Hilal football team during the match and burnt pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late Iranian spiritual leader who led the 1979 Iranian revolution. The opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran said that fans further carried banners declaring that “We are all Younes,” a reference to a street vendor who immolated himself a few days before the match in the nearby city of Khorramshahr.[19] In parallel, Iran's state-run Press TV broadcast confessions of captured ASMLA members who said they had carried out scores of attacks. An Arab protester was killed by Iranian security forces during the events.[19]

On 2 April 2015, three Iranian officers were killed by unidentified gunmen in the city of Hamidiyeh, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of the city of Ahvaz.[20]


In early June 2016, a Sunni group known as Suqour al-Ahvaz (transl. Hawks of Ahvaz) blew up the Bou-Ali-Sina Petrochemical Complex in Bandar-E Mahshahr, Khuzestan.[21]

In July 2016, Ahwazi militants of the al-Farouq Brigade of the Ahwazi National Resistance blew up pipelines in the Johar as-Sabaa' district on two occasions.[22] Reportedly, members of the al-Farouq Brigade managed to escape after the operation despite the efforts of the security forces and Revolutionary Guards.[22] According to Algemeiner, the group responsible for the 11 and 17 July attacks was Suqour al-Ahvaz.[21]

In August 2016, Iran executed three men charged with committing an attack in April 2015 which led to the death of three Iranian policemen in Khuzestan province.[23]

In October 2016, a young girl was killed when Iranian security forces attempted to arrest her father.[24]


In early April 2017, an Ahwazi activist was killed by Basij militia in Ma’shour city.[25] In October 2017, Ahmad Mullah Nissi, head of the Arab Struggle Movement for Khuzestan, was assassinated in the Netherlands.[26]


Massive demonstrations erupted in Khuzestan in April 2018, spreading from Ahwaz to several large cities of the province. Ten people were reportedly killed in a fire during one of those demonstrations, which was blamed on Iranian intelligence services by the protesters.[27]

On September 22, 2018, a group of terrorists opened fire on an Iranian Revolutionary Guard parade, killing 25 soldiers and civilians in Ahvaz.[28] The Ahvaz National Resistance, an umbrella organization of all armed separatist movements, claimed responsibility for the terror attack.[29] The Ahvaz National Resistance and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also claimed responsibility for the attack. The Iranian government blamed ISIL for the attack and retaliated.


Total estimate: 342–501 killed (1922–2020):

Human rights issues

Minorities at Risk (MAR), a university-based research project has stated that Arabs in Khuzestan have experienced discrimination.[7]

Arab organizations

Arab organizations in Khuzestan were divided into two camps: those seek a separate state, and those who sought regional autonomy within a federal Iran. Critics of these parties claim that separatism has no support among Arabs, and point to the decision by many Iranian Arabs to defend Iran during the Iran–Iraq War. The support shown by Iranian Arabs may have been a result of the knowledge of Shia Muslims in Saddam's Iraq. Critics also contend that separatism has always been instigated by foreign governments – particularly the British – to weaken Iran to control the country's natural resources and extend external influence over the Middle East.[31]

Ahwaz Liberation Organisation

The Ahwaz Liberation Organisation (ALO), based in Maastricht in the Netherlands, was formed from the remnants of three Iraqi-backed groups – the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA), People's Front for Liberation of Arabistan (PFLA), and the Arab Front for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz (AFLA). The ALO is a secular pan-Arabist group seeking independence from Iran. The DRFLA was the most notorious of the precursor groups, having been sponsored by Saddam Hussein.[32]

The ALO was founded after the newly installed Islamic government fired on Arab demonstrators in Khorramshahr, killing many of them. The DRFLA was behind the May 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege in London, taking several hostages to draw attention to its demands for the self-determination of the Arab population of Khuzestan. The British Special Air Service (SAS) stormed the building and freed the hostages. Fowzi Badavi Nejad, the only survivor of that group, survived only because some of the embassy hostages had put themselves between him and the SAS soldiers. Some evidence indicated the Iraqi intelligence services had duped Nejad into taking part in the siege. Evidence showed that once he knew the true nature of the group's plans, he only continued because he feared for his family, who had fled from Iran to Iraq.[33]

The ALO's constituent groups operated as a mercenary force on behalf of Saddam's regime during the Iran–Iraq War, and carried out assassinations and attacked oil facilities. Bomb attacks on oil and power facilities have continued since the end of the Iraq War, although the ALO has not formally claimed responsibility. The ALO's leader, the self-styled "President of Al-Ahwaz" Faleh Abdallah Al-Mansouri, has been living in exile in the Netherlands since 1989, shortly after the end of the Iran–Iraq War, and has Dutch citizenship. He has declared himself to be the "President" of Al-Ahwaz, which he claimed extends beyond Khuzestan, and includes much of the coast of Iran. However, during a visit to Syria in May 2006, he was arrested along with Iranian Arabs who were registered as refugees by the UNHCR.[34]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Liberation of Ahwaz Movement Leader: The Deceive Storm restored faith to our hearts". Asharq Al-Awsat. Archived from the original on 30 March 2016. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
  2. ^ Weiss, Caleb (30 December 2017). "Iran-based jihadist group claims attack on oil pipeline". Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 31 December 2017. Ansar al Furqan states that "a major oil pipeline was blown up in Omidiyeh region of occupied Ahvaz, Iran." The group added that it had established a new unit, the Ahwaz Martyrs Brigade. The area of Ahvaz has historically had a large Arab population.
  3. ^ Schennovich, Valentina (2021). "Historical and Religious Heritage of Iran and Social Policy of the Country at the Present Stage". Muslim World.
  4. ^ a b "Terrorist Organization Profiles – START – National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism". Archived from the original on 14 January 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  5. ^ en, FIDH (2010). "The Hidden Side of Iran: Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities" (PDF). FIDH.
  6. ^ "Province of Khuzestan". Archived from the original on 11 August 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  7. ^ a b MAR | Data | Assessment for Arabs in Iran Archived 20 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Cronin, S. Tribal Politics in Iran: Rural Conflict and the New State, 1921–1941. pp52-5. [1]
  9. ^ Journal of Middle Eastern studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (August 1993), pp. 541-543
  10. ^ Ward, Steven R. (2009). Ward, p.231-4. Georgetown University Press. ISBN 978-1589015876. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  11. ^ See:
  12. ^ Hurtado, Luis Miquel (23 September 2018). "Al Ahvaziya: el independentismo árabe amenaza a Irán desde Europa". El Mundo (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 23 September 2018.
  13. ^ a b Dr. Babak Ganji. Civil-Military Relations, State Strategies & Presidential Elections in Iran. Conflict Studies Research Center, Middle East Series, June 2005: p.12.
  14. ^ Rasmus C. Elling. State of Mind, State of Order: Reactions to Ethnic Unrest in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Archived 6 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine Wiley publishing doi:10.1111/j.1754-9469.2008.00028.x. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism Volume 8, Issue 3, pages 481–501, December 2008. "...The first, which will be called the Ahvaz unrest, took place in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan, which borders Iraq, and in particular in the regional capital of Ahvaz..."
  15. ^ "European Parliament condemns Iran's violation of minorities' rights". 15 June 2012. Archived from the original on 29 October 2013. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  16. ^ Saeed Kamali Dehghan (13 June 2012). "Iran Arab prisoners at risk of execution, Amnesty warns". the Guardian. Archived from the original on 1 December 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  17. ^ a b "Iran: Four members of Ahwazi Arab minority executed after unfair trial". Amnesty Australia. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  18. ^ "Iran: Arrest Sweeps Target Arab Minority – Human Rights Watch". 7 February 2012. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
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  20. ^ "3 Iranian officers killed near Ahvaz , Khuzestan". Archived from the original on 15 September 2015. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  21. ^ a b Speyer, Lea (27 July 2016). "Mideast Analyst: Iran in Throes of Domestic Battle as Ethnic Groups Carry Out Attacks Against Regime Targets | Jewish & Israel News". Archived from the original on 23 November 2016. Retrieved 1 September 2017.
  22. ^ a b "Ahwazi Arab resistance blow up Iranian pipeline". Al Bawaba. 19 July 2016. Archived from the original on 22 November 2016. Retrieved 1 September 2017.
  23. ^ "Iran executes 3 men charged with terrorism". 18 August 2016. Archived from the original on 19 August 2016. Retrieved 1 September 2017.
  24. ^ "Iran security forces kill Ahwazi girl while arresting her father". 26 October 2016. Archived from the original on 5 March 2017. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
  25. ^ "Ahwazi activist killed by Basij militia in Ma'shour city". Ahwazi Center for Human Rights. 12 April 2017. Archived from the original on 11 October 2017. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  26. ^ "Murder in the Hague: Saudi-Iranian Proxy War Heats up". HuffPost. 10 November 2017. Archived from the original on 5 January 2018. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
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