Iran is a not just a political state, but a historic civilization that long has held up its ethnic diversity. However, the Persian majority dominates the country and discriminates socially and systematically against its minorities, particularly large segments such as Turks, Kurds, Baluch, and Arabs. The recent Iran protests have pushed these groups to their limits — and the breaking point may arrive soon.
Iran’s ethnic minorities are the victims of historic neglect and mistreatment. Although economic deprivation is widespread across Iran, many believe that ethnic regions have suffered from institutionalized neglect practiced by the regime. Indeed, the statistics reveal a startling reality.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate stands at 12.42%. Compare that to unemployment among Iranian Kurdish population at over 60% in 2017, close to 50% in certain areas of Arab populated Ahvaz, and 44% for the Baluch Iranians. One third of the Iranian population live below the poverty line where representatives of ethnic populations estimate a 50% rate for their respective groups.
Ethnic minorities are concentrated in regions distant from Tehran and its majoritarian culture. Most Western observers do not realize that Persians only represent about 60% of Iran’s population and are located mainly in the center of the country. Ethnic minorities claim that their numbers are significantly higher and even dispute the numbers published by the CIA World Book. Regardless of the numbers and politics behind their collection, the deep cultural and religious differences of these regional populations exacerbates the alienation.
Persian language literacy often is a threshold issue that restricts opportunities. Language education in local dialects is a frequent cause of conflict with authorities who regularly arrest local educators. President Rouhani may be fashioned as a reformer in some circles, but he applies an old-fashioned, authoritarian model of administration over these communities. During his tenure, new laws have been imposed to prohibit individuals with “heavy accents” from obtaining teaching positions despite the overwhelming need for new educators to cure the widespread illiteracy and disengagement are crippling the region.
Although Iran styles itself as an Islamic Republic, it is a strictly Shiite regime that strategically marginalizes adherents of Sunni Islam. Their mere religious beliefs disqualifies them from obtaining equal treatment before the law. Conversion to Sunni Islam, teaching of Sunni religious and construction of Sunni mosques are among religious rites that are prohibited and punishable in the court of law.
In these provinces where mere practice of one’s cultural identity is considered illegal behavior, rates of arrest, torture and execution are consequently disproportionately higher. Although most of Iran consistently is under surveillance, the monitoring is much more intense in ethnic regions. Arrests in these areas, generally, either target the poor and unemployed based on drug charges, or educators/leaders accused of moharebeh which loosely translates to “enmity against the state or against God.” The punishment for both categories is death. Mass executions are common.
This is not something that the government even attempts to obfuscate. In 2016, President Rouhani’s Deputy Minister for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi announced “we have a village in Sistan and Baluchistan in which all of the men have been executed.” These executions amount to an estimated 2300 over the course of two and a half years.
And there are many other examples. For example, the 25 Sunni Kurdish preachers who were entangled in a legally complex case involving forced confessions under torture and then summarily were executed. Or the dozens of Arab educators and cultural activists in the Ahvaz region who were arrested and tortured to confession who were confined and then secretly hanged. And then there were the 187 people from the Azerbaijani/Turkish populated provinces who were executed, mostly on drug-related charges. Many have lamented that Iran has achieved a number one ranking in the world as the leading proponent of the death penalty but the proportion of ethnic minorities who are executed contributes heavily to this dubious ranking.
Despite such institutionalized mistreatment, Iranian minorities still maintain a strong belief in the state and its integrity. Their commitment is not rooted to the Islamic Republic as a political entity but to the much larger idea of historic Iran, the country that birthed the concept of civil rights; the nation that long ago brought various peoples under one banner; a rich civilization that has endured for millennia. By and large, ethnic minorities have great pride in the homeland — but even their remarkable loyalty has its limits. And the brutality of the regime is testing those limits.
According to reports in social media, the Turks, the Arabs, the Baloch and the Kurds were the most active minority groups who have been protesting against the Iranian regime. In the period leading up to these protests, Arab Iranians already had been protesting against the Iranian regime for their fair share of nation’s resources. Similarly, the Turks have been lodging complaints against the Iranian regime for years, demanding recognition of their language and protection of the dying Lake Urumia. The recent protests across Iran added urgency to the continuing grievances.
In recent weeks, I have spoken to many of the leading members of various communities. They are scattered across the globe to escape the authoritarianism of the regime, but their hearts remain in Iran. Reza Hossein Borr, an expert in Iran and Baluchestan affairs who has published extensively on this matter, reminded me that the Baluch people never wanted to separate from Iran. During the Constitutional Revolution in 1921, ethnic factions had an opportunity to leave Iran but the Baluch people eagerly chose to remain as part of the country.
Rebin Rahmani, founder of Kurdistan Human Rights Network based in Paris, explained to me that “Kurdish people would like to have representation in the central government to improve the conditions of their people.” However, multiple factors such as endemic poverty, state-sponsored repression, and deliberate marginalization of Kurdish culture are pushing people to their limits. “The dagger has reached the bones,” he said, and a “revolution of the young and hungry” is underway.
The sense of exasperation is shared by Arab Iranians, particularly in the Ahwaz region. Rahim Hamid who writes extensively on the social, cultural and economic struggles of the community states simply that the primary demands of the people are “freedom, fairness and justice [as] guaranteed to all peoples under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” However Rahim believes that the central government’s cultural repression through “Persianization campaigns” along with their alleged racially-motivated policies have depressed the Arab-populated regions to “medieval levels of poverty.”
I heard a similar lament from Babek Chalabiyanli, an Iranian Turk who once served as a high-ranking lieutenant in the Islamic Republic’s army. He then was arrested and jailed by the government for his cultural activism. Today he serves as a spokesperson for the Azerbaijan National Resistance Organization and affirmed that Iran’s Turkish population that is treated like second-class citizens denied the right to speak/teach their mother language, celebrate their culture, and are heavily repressed by the regime.
Perhaps what’s most alarming about the state of ethnic minorities in Iran are the sentiments of individuals like Chalabiyanli who once defended the country as its soldiers. But now the level of alienation is so critical that Chalabiyanli believes “given a referendum, most Turks in Iran would probably vote for independence.” He notes that despite lack of media attention, during the recent protests, the Turks were chanting in Turkish and asking for an independent Azerbaijan.
The mere notion of partitioning the land of Iran in the same fashion as the former Soviet Republic is blasphemous for the deeply patriotic people of Iran, regardless of where they reside. But if the current regime or it opposition movements are serious about safeguarding the geographic integrity of Iran, they must act now to engage the alienated ethnic minorities before it is too late.
No group will withstand systemic discrimination and hostile policies for eternity. The economic alienation and cultural subjugation is bound to explode if the Iranian government or the opposition movement fails to address these issues.
Tehran may succeed in quieting down the Iran Protests this time around but it will have planted the seeds for long-term change that will not just bloom one day — they might burst forth and explode.