It's time we consider Iran's ethnic minorities


The ethnic diversity of Iran and the government's handling of its minorities may prove to be a hotbed for conflict and separatism. A short overview on the major ethnic groups of the Islamic Republic

by Farzin Farzad 
In recent years, we have rarely gone a day without hearing about the different methods that have been prescribed to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. To be sure, UN sanctions coupled with unilateral US and EU sanctions and embargos have taken their toll. Tighter US sanctions, along with the military option, continue to be discussed in Congress as Iran and the US are negotiating over Iran’s nuclear programme in Kazakhstan.

But like prior engagements with real or potential enemies in the Middle East, states in the western world have failed to grasp the full scope of the internal dynamics of the country in question before crafting policy. One such overlooked dimension is that of the role of Iran’s ethnic minorities, who constitute roughly half of Iran’s total population of 75 million. Media outlets have, at snails pace, picked up stories about Iran’s various ethnicities, but significant reporting is scarce even though many westerners would be surprised to know that a large number of ethnic factions want better relations with the west. The time is now ripe to have a serious conversation about these ethnic groups and not only finally recognize their existence as non-Persians, but expose their qualms with the Islamic Republic, and their aspirations for self-governance.

Within the past ten years, the ethnic minorities of Iran have increasingly become more vocal in expressing their disillusionment with the state. This is due to a rapidly developing sense of ethno-nationalism as a means of both creating a barrier against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s influence and as a way to revive their eroding identities. Many scholars of Iran argue that economic factors such as a rise in youth unemployment, sudden inflation, and the proliferation of access to information via social media are prompting these ethnic groups to regress to clinging to their national identities. They are, however, just the latest developments that stem from a sociological problem that has existed since the dawn of the modern Iranian state in 1925 - the creation of a singular Persian identity. As one can imagine, this policy of “Persianization” is proving to be unsustainable and could possibly lead Iran to be the next country devastatingly torn apart by ethnic conflict.

The single greatest threat to the regime

Policy-makers in the Islamic Republic recognize that Iran’s ethnicities are the single greatest threat to both internal cohesion and the perpetuation of the regime (there have been many historical precedents in which these various ethnic groups have sought independence or autonomy from and within Iran). The IRI’s paranoia extends so far as to claim that ethnic unrest is caused by foreign elements hell-bent on dividing Iran. This theory explains the government’s lack of economic investment in ethnic minority regions, its highly-centralized nature, its refusal to discuss the ethnic question, the overwhelming number of death row inmates belonging to ethnic minority groups, and the forced migration of those belonging to different ethnic groups to different regions of Iran to increase diversity.  
The following is a description of the active ethnic minority groups in Iran ordered by population size.

Azerbaijanis: the largest minority

The Azerbaijanis are the largest ethnic minority in Iran, numbering somewhere between 20-30 million and are ethnically the same as the Azerbaijanis of the Republic of Azerbaijan. They make up a significant portion of the military and Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps and are heavily represented in government and business. Given that well over 95% of the Azerbaijanis in Iran are Shia Muslims, they have been easily able to incorporate into Islamic Republic’s Shia-oriented system. They primarily live in northwestern Iran near Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan, where they are the majority, but are also scattered throughout Iran. Iran’s capital, Tehran, also has a significant Azerbaijani population. It is said that there are more Azerbaijanis in Tehran, than any other city in the world.
The Azerbaijani question in Iran is convoluted since a general consensus does not exist as to the desires and hopes of the Azerbaijanis. While some scholars tout Azerbaijani loyalty to the state, citing the vigilance of Azerbaijani fighters against the Iraqi army in the Iran-Iraq War, others claim that since the inception of the modern state of Iran, Azerbaijanis have sought either independence or autonomy giving the autonomous movements of 1918, 1946, and 1979 as examples of Azerbaijani restiveness. They were also active in mass protests in 2006 after the printing of an alleged racist cartoon in a state-controlled newspaper. Currently, groups are rapidly forming both inside Iran and in diaspora communities all of which are prescribing different political futures for the Azerbaijanis: some are vehemently pro-Iranian, some committed to the implementation of self-determination, some advocate for a federal Iran divided along ethnic lines, some advocate separation from Iran, and others call for unification with the Republic of Azerbaijan. One thing certain is that the overwhelming majority of the Azerbaijanis in Iran support broader cultural and linguistic rights, despite their political views.

The Kurdish question

For centuries, the Kurds have been used by regional powers for their own personal gains without any ultimate hope of a homeland of their own. Regarded as the largest stateless nation in the world, the Kurds are divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and number roughly 4-8 million in Iran alone.
Like the Azerbaijanis, Kurdish groups created a short-lived autonomous entity in their respective region after WWII with assistance from the Soviet Union. It was crushed the following year, but the Kurds endured. Since a significant number of Kurds in Iran are Sunni Muslims, as well as an ethnic minority, they continued their struggle against the Shia Islamic Republic, which has brutally punished them since. To this day, the Kurds continue protests against the regime for its repression of the Kurdish identity. Recently, they have become emboldened by the KRG in northern Iraq and increasing calls for Kurdish nationalism in Syria. It is perhaps only a matter of time until the Kurds of Iran begin a broad rebellion in their respective state, marking the beginning of what might be called a “Kurdish Spring”.

The recent riots of Ahwazi Arabs

The Ahwazis are an Arabic-speaking people that reside along the border with Iraq near the Straight of Hormuz and are predominantly Shia Muslims. The 3-6 million strong Ahwazis claim that despite occupying an area that holds roughly 90% of Iran’s oil resources, they have consistently been overlooked and live in some of the worst economic conditions in Iran. Not only are economic opportunities scarce, but the Ahwazis have also complained of the diversion of freshwater sources to central Iran, leaving their region in drought.
The Ahwazis have been particularly active since 2005, when an alleged government document emerged that called for the dispersion of Arabs throughout Iran. This prompted massive protests in the region, which are perpetuated on a yearly basis on the anniversary of the initial protests. A recent spike in Ahwazi Arabs on death row has caused diaspora groups to plead for action. Their trials in the revolutionary courts have been speedy and unfair and include charges of murder, terrorism, and enmity toward God. In 2011, the Ahwazi Arabs staged their own protests in solidarity with the Arab Spring. Needless to say, they were brutally crushed.
Baluchi uprisings
Like the Kurds, the Baluchis are yet another predominantly Sunni stateless nation, divided between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They number shy of 2 million in Iran. Their qualms with the IRI go beyond that of minority and religious rights. Being in the poorest region of Iran, many Baluchis have engaged in the illicit drug trafficking as a source of income to buffer the droughts and extreme weather conditions that make farming difficult. The Iranian government’s response has been to build a concrete barrier to divide the ethnic group. The Baluchis of Iran and Pakistan have complained that cross-border trade among their brethren has been a means of livelihood and the wall has driven them even further into poverty.
Since 2005, an armed Baluchi organization led by members of the Rigi clan known as the Jondollah has struck IRI government targets. Jondollah, however, was substantially weakened in 2010 after the arrest and subsequent execution of their founder and leader. They’ve remained relatively quiet since. Renewed attention to the Baluch issue has emerged as this group has become more vocal in Pakistan. The situation should be monitored closely as the Baluch quest for autonomy in Pakistan can have spillover effects into Iran
About the author
Farzin Farzad is an Iranian-born analyst who holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from American University and serves as the current Executive Director of the Network of Azerbaijani-Americans from Iran (NAAI).