millisphere: A discrete region inhabited by roughly one-thousandth of the total world population.


IN SEPTEMBER 2018, the millisphere of Khuzestan appeared briefly in the news when five Arab gunmen, disguised in Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard uniforms, opened fire on a parade in Ahvaz commemorating the day the Iran-Iraq war started.

The Shi'a Revolutionary Guard blamed Arab Sunni militants from Syria for the shooting in Ahvaz (population 1.5 million), one of Iran's most oil-rich cities and, in 2015, rated by the World Health Organisation as "the most polluted city in the world".

The Iran-Iraq war started in 1980 when, with United States help, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Iran's southwest province of Khuzestan (population 4.7 million) and occupied its oil fields.

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During that war, despite an American arms embargo, Israel covertly supplied Iran with arms in exchange for oil.

Iran (population 82 million) has the world's fourth largest oil reserves, and Iranian crude is second only in quality to Saudi Arabian, with Khuzestan producing 85 per cent of all Iran's oil.

Khuzestan has the Iranian portion of the once extensive Mesopotamian marshes, the original eco-system of the Euphrates and Tigris river deltas, and it is the home to Iran's Arab minority. Khuzestan, sometimes referred to as Arabistan, was virtually autonomous from 1880 to 1920 and, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the marsh Arabs unsuccessfully sought autonomy for their province again.

The occupation of Iran's London embassy in 1980 was by Arab separatists from Khuzestan.

American relations with Iran deteriorated after November 1979, when fundamentalist Iranian students occupied the US embassy in Tehran, detaining the diplomatic staff there for 444 days.

The American CIA had failed to recognise the discontent that would sweep away the Shah in 1979, and also not appreciated the deep distrust in Iran of the US and Britain.

Iranians remembered the 1953 coup when "Operation Ajax", organised by the CIA and MI5, deposed the Mossadeq government, which had offended western oil companies in 1951 by nationalising the oil industry.

The geopolitics of oil and its attendant wars have embroiled Khuzestan regularly during the 20th century.

In 1941, Britain occupied Ahvaz to cut oil supplies to Nazi Germany and in 1988, the US shelled two Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf.

When Saddam Hussein's forces pulled out in 1988 they left Iran's largest refinery in flames, palm groves annihilated, cities destroyed and historic sites demolished.

When Saddam Hussein's army torched the oil fields in neighbouring Kuwait in 1991, the soot fell on Khuzestan.

In the marshes, a combination of water, soil and heat once sustained a rich, diverse eco-system. Wild wheat and pulses were easily domesticated and agricultural civilisations blossomed here.

In the Mesopotamian historic imagination this was "The Garden of Eden".

Iran refers to the city of Ahvaz, dated at about 3000 BC, as the "birthplace of the nation".

Ahvaz sits on the Karun River which was once navigable to the Persian Gulf, but its flow has been reduced to less than a half of what it was in 1970 and dams divert water to neighbouring provinces.

The marshes have been drained for agribusiness, mainly sugar cane, which also uses a lot of water.

The palms that once produced the best dates in the Middle East are dying from "saline penetration" and polluted rivers.

Khuzestan has turned from a wetland into a wasteland, and now has drought, dust storms, unemployment, drug addiction and air pollution.

"Khuzestan has dried up," said one farmer.

In 2006-07, the US, the European Union and, finally, the United Nations applied sanctions, demanding that Iran halt its development of nuclear arms.

But the Chinese continued doing business with Iran, providing inferior oil refining technology.

Iran refers to the US and Israel (who both have nuclear weapons) as "big Satan and little Satan", and in May 2018, President Donald Trump — at the behest of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu — cancelled the Iran nuclear deal.

Before leaving office, President Barack Obama had lifted sanctions on Iran, seemingly assured that Iran had given up its nuclear ambitions.

In November 2018, the US reinstated sanctions on Iran, citing Iran's nuclear ambitions and its support for forces opposed to Israel ... but, ultimately, it is all about the control of Khuzestan oil.

Fred Frederikse is a self-directed student of human geography — Mapping the Millisphere, 'a new millennium travel story', can be found at millisphere.blogtown.co.nz