Can Iran’s Minorities Be Used against the Regime?

As the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution is overshadowed by protest waves in Iran, most expert analysis have focused on the economic factors that drive mass grievances. If understanding Iran’s periphery—the poor and marginal communities—is key for explaining the recent protests, however, a specific focus on Iranian minorities is essential. Last year, Iran’s intelligence ministry stated that the regime destroyed 100 “terrorist groups” operating in border provinces in the southern, southeastern, and western parts of the country, which are inhabited predominantly by Iranian minorities. President Hassan Rouhani has promised economic and social reforms, including native language rights in the provinces of Kurdistan and Baluchistan, and has gained strong support from minorities in winning the presidency—73 percent in the Sistan-Baluchistan region and 70 percent in Kurdistan in the 2013 elections. However, he has failed to deliver, thus causing even further frustration among minorities.

Iran’s ethnic minorities inhabit border areas: Azeris live in northwestern provinces next to Azerbaijan, Kurds and Arabs adjacent to Iraq, and Baluchis next to Pakistan in the east. While there are no available official statistics on the demographics of ethnic groups, tallying up figures from 2013 indicates that out of a population of 82 million, minorities in Iran constitute some 35-45 percent of the population. Azeris are between 12 and 20 million, Kurds 8 million, Lors 4.8 million, Arabs 1.5 million, and Baluchis 1.5-2 million. Despite ethnic variation, 90-95 percent of Iran’s population is Shia. Nonetheless, the sectarian dimension is significant because ethnic tensions vis-à-vis the dominant Persian identity are more visible among predominantly Sunni Muslim groups—Kurds, Arabs, and Baluchis.

Azeri Identity in Iran

Since the independence of Azerbaijan in 1991, Azeri nationalism has spilled over into Iran with sporadic demonstrations in Urmia, Ardabil, and Tabriz demanding official recognition of the Azerbaijani-Turkish identity and language. In 2006, the protesters were met with a violent crackdown by the Iranian Army. Mahmudali Chehregani, a professor of linguistics and the leader of the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement (SANAM), has initiated campaigns to reach out not only to Azeri citizens of Iran but also to Turkish and American officials, explaining his movement’s vision for a federalist Iran in which schooling in native languages and other cultural rights of minorities are recognized. Citing Article 15 of the Iranian constitution, which allows use of regional languages in the media and in schools, Chehregani’s campaign has demanded that Azerbaijani Turkish be the primary teaching language in schools in northwestern Iran. In addition to such awareness campaigns, increasing numbers of Iranian Azeris have enjoyed tourism to Azerbaijan in the past decade, getting exposure to ethnic consciousness and cultural distinction.

Despite the large population of Azeris in Iran, however, Chehregani’s SANAM has faced a number of challenges. First, the formation of the modern nation-state of Iran with Reza Shah Pahlavi has deep roots in Persian identity, which was in tension with the previous Qajar dynasty’s (1785-1925) Turkish identity. Second, most Azeris today identify as Iranians rather than in ethnic terms. Third, the Azeris’ occupation of top positions in the Islamic Republic of Iran is an important factor that serves to curb ethno-nationalist feelings. Former Prime Ministers Mehdi Bazargan and Mir Hussain Mousavi as well as Ayatollahs Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardabili, Abu al-Qasim Khoie, and Sadegh Khalkhali are prominent examples; in fact, the highest and most critical position, that of Supreme Leader, has been occupied by an Azeri Turk, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Fourth, the fact that Azeris are predominantly Shia—unlike their Turkish brethren in Turkey—enables them to blend in Iranian culture. And finally, the Iranian regime has benefited from the ethnic competition and tensions between Azeri Turks and Kurds, especially in West Azerbaijan province, which both groups cohabit. SANAM leader Chehregani’s statement best indicates the difficulty of reconciling such tensions: “There are 500,000 Kurdish immigrants in southern Azerbaijan. If they behave normally, there won’t be any problems; otherwise, they will have to leave the same way as they arrived.”1

From the Iranian regime’s point of view, and compared to other minorities, Azeri citizens of Iran do not pose a threat to the state as they have no armed groups. The ethnic minorities with revolutionary organizations that have been on the radar of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution are Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. In 2005, a variety of Kurdish, Baluch, and Arab groups came together under the umbrella of a loose structure, “The Congress of Iranian Nationalities for a Federal Iran.”

Iranian Kurdish Mobilization

Kurds are the largest minority following Azeris in Iran. They have had tumultuous relations with the state for many generations. Several Kurdish parties have recently declared an armed uprising against Tehran and increased their attacks on security forces. The militant activism among Iranian Kurds, however, is a double-edged sword as it also unites the ruling elite and Iranian opposition around Persian nationalist sentiments. Tehran often points to the danger of ethnic separatist violence to placate its Persian majority, claiming that protesters are fifth columns of foreign powers. Aware of this perception, Iranian Kurdish parties have kept a low profile during the recent protests that spread all over Iran. Mohammad Saleh Ghaderi, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan’s (PDKI) representative to Irbil, explained their strategy in the most eloquent way: “…we are observing until the uprising will be more extensive and more profound in Tehran and Isfahan. Then the Kurds and other minorities will rise up, as they are ready to stand against the regime. For Kurds, other than the regime change, we have other issues such as national recognition. Therefore, the Iranian Kurdish parties have not called for uprising yet….”

Despite such strategic thinking, the eruption of the protests in Kurdish cities was swift during the December protests. With the unemployment rate reaching almost 30 percent, Iranian Kurdistan is a hotbed for frustrated youth with a growing Kurdish nationalist consciousness. For many Kurds, Rouhani’s presidency did not bring any positive economic prospects and his limited language reforms did not address the root causes of the relative injustice they face. In Rouhani’s first term, for example, 328 Kurds were executed for allegedly major offenses. Such a disproportionate frequency of executions can be visible only among other minorities such as the Baluchis in Iran, indicating the regime’s overreaction to oppositional activism.

These conditions are exploited by the increasing number of militant groups in recent years. In March 2015, the PDKI started to dispatch its guerilla units to Iranian Kurdistan from the Iraqi border, clashing with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In 2016, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) attacked government forces in Sanandaj—a major Kurdish populated city—during Iran’s annual army parade, thus announcing their return to arms. Most recently, in May 2017, the Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan (Komala) declared that the group would resume its armed resistance.

The Baluchistan Challenge

Dispersed in three different states—namely Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran—the Baluch people have long struggled for their national self-determination. Although Baluch nationalist insurgencies in Pakistan go far back to 1948, Iranian Baluchistan remained relatively immune until the formation of an armed revolutionary organization, Jundullah (Army of God), in 2003. It is important to understand the differences between Pakistani and Iranian Baluchistan. Baluch nationalism in Pakistan has been secular and Marxist in discourse, in reaction to Pakistan’s emphasis on a unified Islamic identity. On the other hand, Jundullah and its offshoots have recruited from Sunni religious communities and regarded the Baluch people’s Sunni Muslim identity as a key explanation for the underdevelopment in Iran’s Baluchistan region. Iran often accuses Pakistan of providing sanctuary to Jundullah’s fighters.

Both Pakistani and Iranian Baluch groups exploit dire economic conditions. As a vast and mountainous area with no significant industry, Iranian Baluchistan is cut off from the rest of the country with some estimating the poverty rate as reaching 70 percent. The region’s per capita income is lowest in Iran and two thirds of the population has no access to drinking water. For the past three decades, the province of Sistan-Baluchistan has ranked last in development among Iran’s 31 provinces. Chronic unemployment, coupled with water and environmental problems, have led to mass migration from the province. The remaining Iranian Baluchis have developed more affinity to their ethnic counterparts in Pakistan and Afghanistan who experience similar underdevelopment—despite the fact that Pakistan’s Baluchistan is extremely rich in natural gas, oil, uranium, and copper. Such economic conditions have invited drug trafficking, illegal cross-border migration, and securitization. In fact, Iran has lost an unknown number of security personnel in the past four decades.

In 2005, Jundullah ambushed the motorcade of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a few months later, killed 21 civilians in a separate attack. The group proved to be extremely dangerous: in 2007, 18 members of the IRGC were killed in a car bomb; in 2009, a suicide attack killed 43, including an IRGC general and a few other military commanders; and in 2010, a twin suicide attack caused the loss of 27 civilians. Tehran launched a major hunting operation against the leaders of Jundullah and captured and hanged the group leader, Abdulmalek Rigi, in 2010. Nonetheless, the fugitive members established a new group, Jaysh al-Adl (Army of Justice), in 2011, declaring the continuation of “jihad” for Baluch religious and national rights. Jaysh al-Adl continued to attack state officials; their murder of an Iranian prosecutor in 2013 led to Iranian military aircraft operations in Baluchistan as well as military incursions into Baluch villages in Pakistani territory. Tehran also increased its cyberattacks on websites affiliated with militant Baluch groups, including “watering hole attacks” that could reveal identities of violent separatists.

Another group formed by former members of Jundullah was Harakat al-Ansar. In December 2013, it merged with Hizb al-Furqan and established Ansar al-Furqan—a radical Salafist organization. Ansar al-Furqan targets regime forces not only in Baluchistan but also in Ahwaz and other Arab populated cities in southwestern Iran, as the group is able to recruit small numbers of Sunni Arabs as well. It recently announced establishment of its Ahwaz Martyrs Brigade.

The Arab Minority in Iran

The Arab citizens of Iran are mostly Shia, bilingual—speaking Arabic as their mother tongue and Persian in schools—and predominantly located in Khuzestan province adjacent to Iraq and the Gulf. Although Arab-Persian ethnic tensions have deep historical roots, mass protests and riots are relatively new in Khuzestan. The most memorable episode was the 2005 Ahwaz riots when the unrest continued for several days and people were killed in clashes with the police. Following the riots, several bombings were carried out in Ahwaz and the Iranian government resorted to harsh measures to punish those involved in the bombings.

Given that some segment of the Arab population is Sunni, Iran’s role in the Syrian civil war and increasing sectarian tensions in the Middle East have negative effects in Khuzestan. Moreover, dire economic conditions and the perception that the government employs discriminatory practices have been fueling mass dissent. In February 2017, President Rouhani visited Ahwaz after large street protests there that accused the government of mismanaging water-supply shortages, dust pollution, and power cuts. In fact, before the major protests erupted in late December 2017 in Iran, street protests had been ongoing for several weeks due to the government’s confiscation of Ahwazi land and water. Qassem al-Saeedi, an Iranian parliamentarian, slammed the government for its “anti-Arab” policies, comparing them to those practiced by Israel.

Given that Khuzestan province is an oil-rich region, Ansar al-Furqan and other militant groups have initiated attacks to destroy oil pipelines. For example, in recent years the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA)—an Arab nationalist separatist group founded in 1999—claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against energy infrastructure in Khuzestan.

Iran has long accused Saudi Arabia of supporting Salafist groups and separatist “terrorist” organizations such as ASMLA. The leader of ASMLA, Habib Jaber, organized a press conference in December 2016 to send a message to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting, at which he urged GCC members to view the Ahwaz issue as a key matter to counter Iran and stand up against Iranian seizure of rich Ahwazi oil fields.

Stirring Up Ethnic Tensions May Be Self-defeating

The Trump Administration’s instinctive antipathy toward Iran invites hasty presumptions that present minorities as the Islamic Republic’s weak spot. While the separatist movements surely pose a threat to the Iranian regime, stirring up ethnic tensions may well backfire and further unite Iranians around the regime with their Persian nationalist sentiments.

In this regard, Washington’s recent cooperation with Riyadh contains risks because of the belligerent approach taken by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Last year, a Riyadh-based think-tank published a blueprint for heightening tensions in Baluchistan, where Saudis are believed to have been funneling funds to support religious schools and militants over the past 18 months. The heightened tension and antagonistic discourse between Saudi Arabia and Iran help Tehran legitimize its security policies in the country and to “alert” its citizens about external enemies’ plots to employ minorities to foment discord against the state. It is one thing to oppose the regime in Tehran, but it is another to counter Persian nationalism. As long as Washington does not grasp the nuance, the anti-Iran strategy will likely favor militarization, and thus, it will not achieve its desired goals.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Turkish.