On January 10-11, 2013, Cairo hosted a conference that was the first of its kind in the Arab world. Titled "Support for the Ahwaz People," the conference was the first to express public Arab support for the Arab-Sunni minority living in Iran's Ahwaz region and to condemn Shi'ite Iran's oppression of this Sunni minority.
Ahwaz is the Arabic name of Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran. The region is of great geopolitical importance, due to its location on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf and along the Iraqi border, and also due to its abundant energy resources, from which are derived a significant portion of Iran's energy exports.
Alongside other ethnic minorities in the country, the Ahwazi organizations in Iran, which are sponsored by Saudi Arabia, are waging a war against the central regime in Tehran with the aim of seceding from Iran. Tehran, in response, has been working to settle Persian Shi'ites in Ahwaz and to expunge any trace of the region's Arab-Sunni identity.
It should be emphasized that Arab, and especially Saudi, spokesmen frequently accuse Iran of undermining Sunni-Arab regimes by supporting Shi'ite minorities in their countries. Accordingly, some have called to repay it in kind by means of Arab support for Iran's minorities, especially the Arab-Sunni minority in Ahwaz.
The National Organization for the Liberation of Ahwaz – an umbrella group for a number of popular movements dedicated to Ahwazi independence -- founded in January 2010 and has been staging demonstrations and protest rallies outside the Iranian Interests Office in Cairo, some of which devolved into violent clashes with the office staffers. In August 2012, organization activists announced the "Ahwazi Arab Revolution" in Cairo's Al-Tahrir Square, calling on the youth of the Egyptian revolution to join their struggle.
The January 2013 conference in Cairo was held on the initiative and with the noteworthy participation of Salafi and Islamist elements in Egypt, including politicians, clerics and other public figures. Among the most prominent were Egyptian presidential advisor and former head of the Salafi Al-Watan party 'Imad 'Abd Al-Ghafour, and a number of Islamist MPs. Saudi preacher Muhammad Al-'Arifi was also present. It should be noted, however, that neither the Sheikh of Al-Azhar nor any members of the Muslim Brotherhood took part in the conference, though it was initially reported that they would.
The speakers at the conference, which coincided with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi's first official visit to Egypt, attacked Tehran, condemning it for its oppressive policy toward the Arab-Sunni inhabitants of Ahwaz, manifest in uprooting the latter and replacing them with Persians; suppressing their Sunni faith and culture; banning them from speaking or learning Arabic, and plundering Ahwaz's natural resources. Some speakers called upon the participants to identify with all the Sunni minorities in Iran and spoke of the "Iranian occupation" of Ahwaz. The conference's closing statement called to put the issue of Ahwaz on the agenda in the Arab countries and worldwide, and to demand the restoration of the usurped rights of the Ahwazi people. It was also resolved to hold an annual conference on the issue and to establish a body to monitor the implementation of the conference's resolutions.
While the Iranian Foreign Ministry attempted to downplay the conference's importance, many other Iranians condemned it, claiming that countries like Saudi Arabia were behind it, aiming to harm Iranian-Egyptian relations.
The following are excerpts from the conference's closing statement and from speeches delivered by its participants, and from prominent reactions to the conference in the Saudi and Iranian media.
Conference Closing Statement: Put The Ahwazi Cause On The Arab Agenda
The conference's closing statement says: "The Iranian danger and its expansionist and sectarian inclinations must be heeded. The Ahwazi cause must be upheld and the Ahwazi people supported in restoring its usurped rights. The Ahwazi Arabs have been subjected to historic discrimination by the Persian state, both during the Pahlavi era [1925-1979] and under the current [Islamic] Republic [regime]. They are also discriminated against by the Arab and international community in terms of media [attention] and [awareness of their] human rights [plight], to the point where [their cause] has become one of the most forgotten by the Arab and international media... The time has come for the Ahwazi cause to top the agenda of every Arab and global human rights organization and political organization... All Ahwazi forces must work to unify [their] message, unite their ranks, and finalize their efforts to advance the cause of the Ahwazi Arab people in international and regional institutions and in public opinion."
Participants at the Cairo conference
'Imad 'Abd Al-Ghafour: Let Us Stand With Our Sunni Brethren In Iran – The Arabs, Baluchis And Kurds
As noted, among the prominent speakers at the conference was presidential advisor 'Imad 'Abd Al-Ghafour, who called on the Arab states to take resolute steps in defense of the rights of all of Iran's oppressed Sunnis: "We do not cry out only in the name of the Arabs. We also cry out in the name of the Sunni Baluchis and Kurds, and in the name of the Ahwazi Arabs, who have long been oppressed... There are countries that speak of helping the oppressed, but we have no interest in [mere] slogans, but rather in facts on the ground... [The Ahwazis] have the right to practice their religion, adhere to their [Arab] identity, and learn their own language... The oppression and neglect [they face] are evident in everything [that goes on] in the Ahwaz region, which is equal in size to four Arab states [put together]: historic Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan..."
'Imad 'Abd Al-Ghafour speaking at conference; to his right, the Ahwazi flag
Member Of Egyptian Shura Council: Ahwaz "Must Be Liberated From The Occupation... Manifest In Ethnic Cleansing"
Tal'at Ramih, a member of Egypt's Shura Council, spoke out against Iran's "occupation" of Ahwaz: "Ahwaz is one of the occupied [regions], and must be liberated... The occupation of Ahwaz is manifest in ethnic cleansing and the erasure of [the Ahwazis'] identity. [The Iranians] have begun settling groups of Persians [there] and [building Persian] settlements... The Arab revolutions will bring about a change in the Arab stance on the Ahwazi cause, especially once the Islamic movement becomes involved in the conflict."
Saudi Preacher Muhammad Al-'Arifi: "Iran Is Using Ahwaz's Oil And Gas To Fight The Muslims"
Among the noteworthy speeches was that of popular Saudi preacher Muhammad Al-'Arifi, known for his provocative statements, including against the Iranian regime and against Shi'ites. At the conference, he accused the Iranian Shi'ite "occupier" and "enemy" of plundering the Ahwazis' resources and using the profits to "fight the Muslims": "For about a century, our brethren in Ahwaz have been under a Safavid [derogatory Arabic term for Persians/Shi'ites] regime... [which] exploits what belongs to them for its own benefit... More than 90% of Iran's gas, of which it boasts and which it exports to the world, comes from Ahwaz, and it exploits the resultant profits toward exporting its revolution to the world. More than 87% of the oil Iran produces [also] comes from Ahwaz, and these profits too are used to export its Safavid revolution, with the aspiration of taking over the world... Iran uses Ahwaz's oil and gas to fight the [Sunni] Muslims... Therefore, in speaking of Ahwaz, we must do more than [hold] a two-day conference... Everyone must do everything in his power to help them."
Al-'Arifi called on the Arabs and Muslims "to unite against our enemy" and use their economic clout against Iran in order to help the Ahwazis. He claimed that the Prophet Muhammad's detailed descriptions of the Apocalypse make no mention of any significant Safavid-Iranian force or of any war with the latter, which, he said, indicated that no great war was necessary to overcome Iran.
Sheikh Of Al-Azhar: I Raised The Ahwazi Issue In My Meeting With Iranian FM Salehi
Although Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb declined to attend the conference, he raised the Ahwazi issue during his meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, to whom he said: "I have received and still constantly receive requests for help from many Iranian Sunnis. All of these [requests] emphasize their lack of fundamental rights as Iranian citizens, [though] it is their right to implement their special culture and heritage, and their unique [Sunni] religious law."
Responses In Saudi Media To Ahwaz Conference In Cairo
Though the conference took place in Egypt, it received attention mainly in the Saudi media, which discussed it and the plight of the Sunnis in Ahwaz. It should be mentioned that the Salafi stream in Egypt – many members of which attended the conference – receives Saudi support.
Saudi Columnist: Arab Aid Will Enable The People Of Ahwaz To Regain Their Rights
In an article in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, columnist Jamil Al-Ziabi praised Egypt for hosting the conference. He said that the conference had counterbalanced the visit to Egypt by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, especially thanks to the presence of a participant as prominent as the president's advisor, and also considering the firmness of its closing statement. Al-Ziabi added: "In previous articles I stressed the need for the Gulf states, and Arab countries at large, to take up the matter of Ahwaz, which is essentially an Arab emirate with a Shi'ite and Sunni Arab population... These pure Arabs have never submitted to Iranian regimes. Once the people of Ahwaz receive support and aid from the Gulf and the Arabs, based on a clear plan of action and political vision, they will be able to regain their rights and influence Iran's foreign policy. Moreover, Tehran will get a taste of the medicine that it imposes on the Arab and Gulf states by interfering in their internal affairs in order to expand at their expense."
Saudi Daily: Arabs Should Expose The "Explosive" Truth About Iran's Treatment Of Minorities
Responding to statements made at the conference, the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh published an editorial urging the Gulf states to incite the ethnic minorities in Iran by means of media and propaganda in their own languages, and thus destabilize Iran from within: "The war in Iran is national and sectarian, and in the future will be armed as well. [Iran] has a racist reaction to anything Arab, even to Shi'ite Arabs, whom they consider to be of lesser lineage compared to their own Aryan lineage. However, even more severe is the media war, in which almost 40 satellite channels funded by the Iranian intelligence address Arabs in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and several of the Gulf states... There is also written media, as well as websites and social networks. Iran uses all these means to deceive and create the false impression that its conflict is with the U.S. and Israel...
"Internally, Iran is a collection of peoples, nationalities and sects, [and as such] it is easy to infiltrate with combative, organized media, [namely] by opening dozens of channels in Azeri, Baluchi, Kurdish, Pashtun, Syrian, and other languages to support [local] opposition forces, and by formulating a plan that also uses news agencies, newspapers, and websites that work around the clock.
"[Thus far,] the crisis of our brethren in Ahwaz has not received the active support it deserves, and this possibly caused Iran [to think it can] expel and imprison them, and deny them education or even the ability to speak their native tongue. This is probably true, since we do not utilize the public media, which has become one of the most important tools of war and in pressuring populations – [at least, we do not utilize it] to the extent that Iran and its proxy states do.
"[Iran] carries out pro-Iran propaganda in Africa, Asia, and even South America, and tries to convert many Sunnis in poor Muslim countries to the Shi'ite faith... But the real target on which it focuses its power is the Arab region... It is unfortunate that the Arab Gulf states, which are at the center of this propaganda war, do not have a media campaign, when all they need to do is make a coordinated [effort] to expose the reality in Iran as it is: the way [Iran] severs peoples from their heritage, destroys their environment, excludes them from politics and economics, bans them from the military and the media and destroys their culture. This is explosive, and can turn Iran from a country on the offensive to one on the defensive..."
Responses In Tehran To Ahwaz Conference
The Iranian reactions to the conference were divided: The government, including representatives of the Iranian foreign ministry, tried to downplay its importance as much as possible so as not to harm the possible warming of relations with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government in Egypt. However, extra-governmental circles condemned Cairo and the MB and demanded that Tehran officially protest the holding of the conference and cancel or shorten President Ahmadinejad's February 2013 visit to Cairo, while reiterating the claim that Salafi elements have banded together with Sunni Arab countries against Shi'ite Iran.
The Position Of Iran's Foreign Ministry: The Egyptian Government Does Not Collaborate With Iran's Opponents
Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi remarked that "a meeting of a few separatists in a Cairo hotel evoked harsh criticism in the Egyptian press." He also claimed that Al-Azhar and the Egyptian government had issued a communiqué denying any collaboration with the conference, and added: "The Egyptian government does not collaborate in any way with Iran's opponents."
Similarly, the head of the Iranian Interests Office in Cairo, Mojtaba Amani, said: "Egypt's warm welcome of Iran increases with every visit. Consequently, certain countries [hinting at Saudi Arabia] fear for their own interests, and try to harm relations between Iran and Egypt, which was the purpose of the anti-Iran conference. They chose this timing [on the assumption that] holding [the conference] during Salehi's visit would advance their goals.
"It is wrong to say that Al-Azhar had a hand in organizing the conference, and, in fact, they promptly denied it. But Western and Arab media, and unfortunately Iranian media as well, repeated this mistake while ignoring Al-Azhar's denial. This is ridiculous. Some of the organizers of this conference, who are clearly Shi'ites, judging by their names, deceived the supporters of [the Ahwazi cause] by claiming that the conference was meant to support Sunnis in Iran, and some of the Salafis who attended it spoke about Sunni oppression there. This, while the people of Khuzestan, due to their proximity to Iraq, are all Shi'ites."
According to Amani, the presence of Sheikh Al-'Arifi from Saudi Arabia at the conference leaves no doubt as to the identity of its funders. He added: "After the purpose of the conference became known, even 'Abbud Al-Zumar, head of the [Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya's] Building and Development Party, who was supposed to speak at the conference on behalf of his party, cancelled his participation. Several Salafi personalities [likewise] expressed their objection to the presence of 'Imad 'Abd Al-Ghafour at the conference and demanded that he resign as advisor to the president."
Asked whether, in his opinion, 'Abd Al-Ghafour's presence at the conference reflected the approval of President Mursi, he responded that Iran had "made a formal protest to the Egyptian foreign ministry, but, considering the political conditions in Egypt, we see this [conference] as part of activity taking place against the will of Egyptian officials. The Egyptian political system includes [elements with] different inclinations, some of which aggressively oppose relations with Iran. We must consider the political climate in Egypt and avoid steps that would play into the hands of those who wish to harm the relations between the countries." He also said that, according to information he received from an Egyptian official, the conference was funded by several Arab Gulf states.
Condemnations Of Cairo In Tehran
Majlis National Security Council Chairman: A Warning To Egypt And President Mursi
Majlis National Security Council Chairman Alaeddin Boroujerdi said that the conference was meant to prevent the deepening of relations between Iran and Egypt and was initiated by extremist Salafi elements backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He called on Cairo to condemn the conference and prevent similar conferences that harm bilateral relations. In a January 15, 2013 article on Fardanews.com, Boroujerdi warned Mursi against joining the Wahhabis in their confrontation with Iran. According to him, the relations with Iran are a test for him, which will indicate whether he has managed to gain independence and break free of American-Saudi influence.
Boroujerdi claimed that the Ahwaz Liberation Front is British in origin, and that the Arab residents of Khuzestan are loyal to Iran: "The anti-Iran conference in Cairo, which convened under the banner of the Arabs of Ahwaz, is worth examining for several reasons. First, it was no accident that it was convened concurrently with the visit of [Foreign Minister] Salehi in Cairo. Egyptian vice president [sic] 'Abd Al-Ghafour – an extremist Salafi – spoke at the conference, and it was organized by extremist Salafi elements sent by Saudi Arabia to sabotage the achievements of Salehi's visit to Cairo. This stems from Saudi Arabia's belief that the deepening of relations between Tehran and Cairo harms the Saudi interests in the region. The U.S. also strongly objects to official relations between Iran and Egypt due to the increase of Iranian influence.
"Second, the organization called 'The Ahwaz Liberation Front' is a British organization based in London, whose members are British mercenaries. But the Arabs in Iran, or, more accurately, the Arabic-speaking Iranians, are among the most faithful citizens of the Iranian homeland and the most loyal to the regime.
"Third, courtesy requires the Egyptian government to prohibit holding such conferences in its territory, especially during a visit by the Iranian foreign minister. Mursi should know that submitting to the forces of arrogance and relying on the infidels contradicts God's orders and will not benefit Cairo. Pakistan has had a bitter experience with [this]… Mursi should learn a lesson from it. Fourth, renewing formal relations with Iran is a test for the Egyptian revolutionaries, which will indicate how capable they are of making decisions for Egypt's national interests and of withstanding external pressure, both overt and covert."
Iranian Website Tabnak: Tehran Should Officially Protest The Deliberate Egyptian Move
The Iranian website Tabnak claimed that the "dangerous conference" had been held with Mursi's knowledge, as indicated by the presence of Mursi's advisor at it, and that its timing had been deliberate. The website called on President Ahmadinejad to demand an official apology during his upcoming visit to Cairo: "The participation of ['Abd Al-Ghafour], one of Mursi's deputies [sic] and associates, [in the conference] indicates that Mursi probably knew of it, and that Cairo had intentionally held it during Salehi's visit. At the conference, 'Abd Al-Ghafour called to liberate Ahwaz from the Persian occupier... The participation of known Wahhabi figures, including Muhammad Al-'Arifi from Saudi Arabia, who delivered an inciting speech at the conference, indicate that its timing was deliberate. We must not forget this conduct by Mursi and his associates. [President] Ahmadinejad should demand an official apology from the Egyptian government during his upcoming visit, and shorten his visit to only a few hours."
Columnist Hassan Hanizadeh: Tehran Must Curb Its Excitement To Renew Relations With Cairo
Hassan Hanizadeh, a columnist at the Mehr news agency who is close to regime circles, criticized Foreign Minister Salehi for visiting Cairo while the conference on Ahwaz was being held there. He advised Tehran to tone down its excitement to renew its relations with Egypt, since this excitement was not mutual:
"Thanks to Egypt's economic dependence on American, Saudi and Qatari aid, these countries have influence on the shaping of Egyptian foreign policy. Saudi Arabia and Qatar strongly object to an improvement in Egyptian-Iranian relations, and therefore every time Egypt takes a step towards Iran, they threaten to cut off their financial and economic aid...
"The recent visit by Foreign Minister Salehi to Cairo was another chance for both countries to resolve their differences. But unfortunately Egypt squandered the opportunity... [by letting] an anti-Iran conference be held in Cairo, where an aide of the Egyptian president delivered a speech and Egyptian politicians set unfair conditions to Iran – which overshadowed [Salehi's] visit. The presence in Cairo of Saudi Wahhabi Salafis led by Sheikh Muhammad Al-'Arifi – a known Saudi Wahhabi cleric – at the same time as the Iranian foreign minister cannot be perceived as a friendly message to the Iranian nation. Unfortunately, political figures in Iran were slow to respond to the participation of high-ranking Egyptian officials at the anti-Iran conference in Cairo. This indicates that Iran is overeager to renew relations with Egypt, while a similar attitude was never observed among Egyptian officials... [Cairo's] policy towards Iran is vague, and therefore we mustn't pay too high a price for our friendship with it...
"One point of contention [between Iran and Egypt] is the unreasonable approach of Egyptian officials to the [issue of] Syria... The recent statements by the Egyptian president regarding the security of the Persian Gulf and the regarding three Iranian islands are perceived as a totally undiplomatic position... Mapping the course of the political relations between Iran and Egypt requires a series of preliminary steps based on long-term considerations and [mutual] friendship; otherwise the relations will not serve Iran's national interest...
"Unfortunately, Iran has a powerful lobby that pushes for relations with Egypt. This lobby wants relations at any cost, even if it entails ignoring Iran's national dignity. One would have expected Foreign Minister [Salehi] to cancel his visit to Cairo in protest of the anti-Iran conference. [In any case,] the event can inform Iran's future moves. If the Islamist government in Egypt wishes to speak to Iran honestly, and renew diplomatic relations with it, it must change its diplomatic conduct... The Egyptian nation has always been several steps ahead of its diplomats regarding friendship with the Iranian nation...
So long as the Mursi government does not amend its diplomatic conduct and does not promote respectful conduct vis-à-vis the great Iranian nation, there is no reason to renew relations with it. The Egyptian government must know that the great Iranian nation will not relinquish its honor, independence and prestige for any price..."
Iranian Website Asr-e Emrooz: The Conference Was Meant To Spark Riots In Khuzestan And Divide Iran
In a January 18, 2013 article titled "What Happened At The Treacherous Anti-Iran Conference In Egypt," the moderate-conservative Iranian website Asr-e Emrooz claimed that the conference was meant to "spark riots [in Khuzestan] and divide Iran." The website presented the statements of conference participants, including Saudi journalist Ahmad bin Rashid bin Sa'id. According to the article, he said during the conference that high-ranking officials in Cairo had told him that canceling the Ahwaz conference was one of the four conditions presented by Iran for normalizing relations between the countries, and that Mursi had rejected the request.
*A. Savyon is director the Iranian media project; R. Green and Y. Mansharof are research fellows at MEMRI.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.2579, Ahwazi Organization: Iran is Planning to Attack the Gulf Countries; Iran is Producing Chemical Weapons and Burying the Waste in Ahwaz, October 6, 2009, on the Ahwazi organization's claims against Tehran.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 562, Saudi-Iranian Tension Increases Following Clashes Between Houthi Rebels, Saudi Military, November 24, 2009.
 Alarabiya.net, March 26, 2011; Arabistan.org, January 15, 2010.
 Arabi.ahram.org.eg, January 11, 2013.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 11, 2013.
 Image: YouTube.com, January 10, 2013.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 11, 2013.
 Ikhwanonline.com, January 10, 2013.
 Al-Hayat (London), January 14, 2013.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 18, 2013. Also see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2613, Saudi Dailies: Iran Encourages Terrorism, Sectarian Strife in Arab Countries, October 23, 2009.
 Thus, for example, when Majlis National Security Committee Chairman Mansour Haqiqat-Pour called on President Mursi to apologize to Iran for the fact that his deputy had attended the conference, Majlis Chairman Ali Larijani responded: "An investigation has revealed that the man who attended the conference was not Mursi's deputy but rather his aide [Al-Ghafour], who has no real importance." Mehr (Iran), January 20, 2013.
 Al-Azhar indeed issued such a communiqué, but we have no knowledge of any statement to this effect by the Egyptian government.
 Nasimonline.ir, January 23, 2013.
 Mehr (Iran), January 14, 2013.
 Fars (Iran), January 14, 2013.
 Fardanews.com (Iran), January 15, 2013.
 Tabnak (Iran), January 11, 2013.
 Mehr (Iran), January 15, 2013.
 Asr-e Emrooz (Iran), January 18, 2013.