March 27, 2015 | Policy Brief

A Fruit Vendor’s Self-Immolation and the Neglect of Arab-Iranians

Tragedy struck Iran’s Arab-majority province of Khuzestan on Sunday as a fruit vendor died after self-immolating outside the local municipality building. Like Mohamed Bouazizi – the Tunisian fruit seller whose death sparked the Arab Spring – Younes Asakereh’s suicide was an act of defiance in response to authorities who denied him his livelihood. In contrast to Tunisia, however, Asakereh’s suicide sparked no national revolution. Instead, his death will likely be yet another example of regime neglect over a strategic but forgotten province.

Tehran has long undervalued Khuzestan’s geopolitical, economic, and symbolic worth. Khuzestan is rich in oil, and occupies the strategic Persian Gulf location where Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait meet. On a symbolic level, Khurramshahr – the site of Asakereh’s suicide – was the city whose liberation turned the tide of the Iran-Iraq War. Today, any Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) member or war veteran worth his revolutionary salt knows the lyrics and tune to “Mamad Naboodi Bebini,” a ballad composed to commemorate that event.

Nonetheless, rather than cultivate this underdeveloped province, Iran’s leadership has consistently given higher priority to interests beyond the Islamic Republic’s borders. In 2013, for example, the Head of the Ammar Strategic-Base, a cleric named Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, said that in a hypothetical scenario wherein Iran was forced to decide between keeping control of Syria (Iran’s 35th province, in his words) and Khuzestan, it should opt for the former.

In recent weeks, government inaction over poor air quality led Khuzestanis to take to Twitter with images of dust storms and pollution, creating the hashtag “#KhuzestanCantBreathe.” And in some cases, neglect has given way to outright persecution. In 2011, as Khuzestan experienced its own “Arab Spring,” the regime responded by killing at least a dozen protesters. In February 2014, an Arab-Iranian poet from Khuzestan was charged with “waging war against God” and, after a televised confession, he was executed.

Mourners at Asakereh’s funeral on Monday chanted “Freedom, Freedom,” and “We Are All Younes!” Past and present experience, however, teaches Khuzestanis that change from Tehran will come slowly, if at all.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.