The Middle East Channel

Iran’s forgotten ethnic minorities

The role and plight of ethnic minorities in Iranian society tends to receive little attention from Western analysts and policymakers. This may be largely due to the predominance of Tehran as the focal point of Iranian culture, politics, and foreign policy. Moreover, Iran's ethnic minorities have been heavily marginalized by Iran's Persian-dominated Shiite theocracy. The suppression of minority rights has resulted in ethnic insurgencies over the years, some of which continue to bedevil the Iranian regime.

Nevertheless, many Iranian officials, religious leaders, and intellectuals, particularly those associated with the reformist movement, have come to view Iran's ethnic minorities as an essential component of the national fabric. They have also come to realize that the Iranian regime's repression and discrimination against minorities has not only slowed Iran's advancement, but it could one day jeopardize the survival of the Islamic Republic -- and even Iran's territorial integrity. 

Non-Persian ethnic minorities make up roughly 40 to 50 percent of Iran's population. The main minority groups are Turkish-speaking Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs, Baluch, and smaller populations of Armenians, Turkmen, and Lors. Iranian Turkish speakers, most of whom are Shiites, tend to be closely integrated into Iranian society and politics, although they too suffer some cultural and political discrimination. Kurds and the Baluch are mostly Sunni and thus subjected to the highest level of discrimination by Iran's Shiite theocracy.

From the time of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941), the Iranian central government has attempted to mold ethnic minority groups into the state's vision of an ideal Iranian nation. Reza Shah used military might to suppress and subjugate minority groups, banned the writing of non-Persian languages, and made Persian the national language of Iran. The Persianization of Iran continued under Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979).

Whereas the Pahlavi dynasty attempted to reshape Iran into a more homogenous, Persian-centric, and Western-leaning society, the Islamic Republic has attempted to reconstruct a theocratic Shiite Persian-centric nation. For both regimes, unassimilated minorities represented a threat to the construction of a prescribed national identity. In addition, Iran's central government has persistently feared the exploitation of Iranian minorities by foreign powers, including Britain, the United States, Israel, and even Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic, like the Pahlavi monarchy, has engaged in the violent suppression of minority rights.

Nevertheless, the conservative and reformist wings of the Islamic Republic have varying perceptions of and policies toward ethnic minorities. The conservatives, largely made up of the traditional clergy, the Revolutionary Guards, and allied businessmen, prefer the status quo: a heavily Persianized Shiite theocracy that marginalizes non-Shiites and non-Persian ethnic minorities.

Reformists, on the other hand, have proposed policies to integrate Iran's minorities by expanding political power beyond the traditional elite. Mohammad Khatami's election as president in 1997 was made possible by his appeal to minority voters, especially women and ethnic groups. As president, he implemented village and city council elections, which gave ethnic minorities the right to vote for their local representatives. Khatami also strengthened civil society in ethnic regions. Toward the end of his presidency, his Management and Planning Organization proposed a policy to allocate more administrative posts at the regional and provincial levels, which would allow for more ethnic minority participation.

Despite the common Western perception that Iran's conservative base lies in its underdeveloped rural society, voting patterns since the establishment of the Islamic Republic show that ethnic minorities (who often live in the most undeveloped rural areas) turn out to vote en masse when a candidate supports their rights.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ultra-conservative presidency (2005-2013) has witnessed a more widespread campaign of intimidation against Arabs, the Kurds, and the Baluch, including mass arrests and summary execution of minority activists. Ahmadinejad, who has occasionally paid lip service to minority rights, has not seen non-Persians as an essential component of the political system or as a way to enhance his quest for greater political power. Rather, he has sought to silence those opposed to his political views, especially reformists.

The reformist candidates in the 2009 presidential election, including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, promoted Khatami's policies on minority rights. Mehdi Karroubi, for example, called for equal rights for all Iranians regardless of ethnicity. Mousavi, like Karroubi, espoused the rights of religious minorities and vowed, if elected, to ensure the rights guaranteed to ethnic minorities in Iran's constitution. Mousavi also supported minority-language education in Iranian schools.

The regime's violent crackdown on civil society activists after the 2009 presidential elections widened the gulf between ethnic minorities and the Iranian regime. But the reformist movement's failure to implement any meaningful changes or effectively confront the ruling regime may have also disappointed minority rights activists.

The extent to which the reformists will try to remobilize ethnic minorities in the lead-up to the June 2013 presidential election remains to be seen. Prominent reformists, such as Abdullah Nouri, former minister of interior under Khatami, have emphasized a need for reformists to devise a political plan that can address all the peoples of Iran, especially ethnic minorities. Former President Khatami has insisted that demand for ethno-religious minority rights accompany free and open elections.

However, the reformists may have to contend with a disenchanted ethnic constituency, especially given their lack of political nerve and organization after the 2009 election. Moreover, the reformists are unlikely to play an effective role within the regime because the ruling elite largely views them as "seditionists." Ethnic minorities and supporters from the Persian majority will not follow the reformists if they continue to avoid an aggressive challenge to the political system, including demands that Iran's constitution be revised to allow for a democratic system that encompasses minority rights.

It is unlikely that either the conservatives or the reformists can effectively appeal to and mobilize Iran's large ethnic minority population. Most non-Persians appear to desire greater rights within their country, rather than outright secession from Iran. But marginalized from society, Iranian ethnic minorities may choose a path of political apathy. On the other hand, Tehran's refusal to acknowledge minority rights may lead to future ethnic insurgencies and uprisings.

Iran's quickly declining economy and its increasing international isolation have led to general dissatisfaction among the Iranian public. As a result, ethnic minorities and their Persian brethren could join forces to pose a serious and perhaps unstoppable challenge to the Islamic Republic -- and to conservatives and reformists alike.

Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst and Robert Stewart is a research assistant at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


The Middle East Channel

Tensions flare with exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza

After four months of relative calm since a negotiated ceasefire in November 2012, tensions have flared with the exchange of fire between Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israeli Defense Forces. According to Israeli officials, three rockets launched from Gaza hit southern Israel near the town of Sderot on Tuesday, and two more on Wednesday. There were no casualties. The attacks Wednesday came after Israel launched air strikes into Gaza near the town of Beit Lahiya targeting "two extensive terror sites." These attacks did not cause damage or casualties. Magles Shoura al-Mujahadeen claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were responding to the death on Tuesday of a Palestinian prisoner, Maysara Abu Hamdeya, who was held in Israel. Abu Hamdeya died from cancer, but many Palestinians blame Israel for his death. Tuesday's strikes were the third incident of rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli territory since November's ceasefire, but Israel's air strikes were the first since the negotiated truce. More than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed over eight days of fighting in November.


A Syrian jet flew 12 miles into Lebanese airspace Wednesday and fired a missile into the outskirts of the Bekaa border town of Arsal, hitting a field. Additionally, a Syrian helicopter reportedly flew over the town and fired two missiles at a home, which was empty at the time. Lebanon has maintained a policy of "disassociation" with the Syrian conflict, but residents of Arsal have been outspoken critics of the Syrian regime and over 20,000 Syrian refugees have reportedly fled to the town. Early Wednesday, armed men ambushed a convoy of trucks traveling toward Syria in the Bab al-Tebbandeh district of Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli. Gunmen and protesters often attempt to prevent tankers from entering Syria so that they cannot deliver fuel to the Syrian government. Meanwhile, a King's College study has found that hundreds of Europeans have traveled to Syria and taken part in fighting since the conflict began in March 2011. According to the study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), European fighters comprise between 7 and eleven percent of the foreign element in the conflict, which the researchers estimated ranges between 2,000 and 5,500 people. The lead researcher, Professor Peter Neumann, spoke about the dramatic increase in international jihadists saying, "The mobilisation of this conflict is more significant than any of the recent conflict[s] we have know about."


  • Hundreds of students at Egypt's Al-Azhar University stormed the offices of top cleric Ahmed al-Tayeb after food poisoning left 500 students hospitalized, for which the Muslim Brotherhood has denied responsibility.
  • A team of IMF officials has arrived in Egypt for meetings on a $4.8 billion loan aimed at alleviating the country's economic crisis as the Egyptian government struggles with reform measures. 

Arguments and Analysis

Tunisia and Egypt need the Arab revolutions to spread (Seumas Milne, The Guardian)

"From the first eruption of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, it was clear that powerful forces would do everything possible to make sure they were brought to heel, or failed. Those included domestic interests which had lost out from the overthrow of the old regimes, Gulf states that feared the contagion would spread to their shores and western powers that had lost strategic clients - and didn't like the idea of losing any more.

So after Tunisia and Egypt had fallen in quick succession, later uprisings were hijacked, as in Libya, or crushed, as in Bahrain, while sectarian toxins were pumped throughout the region, escalating the bloodshed in Syria in particular, and cash was poured into destabilising or co-opting the post-revolutionary states.

It seemed only Tunisia was small and homogenous enough to be spared a full-scale counter-revolutionary onslaught, its newly elected Islamist leaders pluralist enough to lead a successful democratisation and offer a progressive model for the rest of the region."

The inner syntax of Palestinian stone-throwing (Amira Hass, Haaretz)

"Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance. Persecution of stone-throwers, including 8-year-old children, is an inseparable part - though it's not always spelled out - of the job requirements of the foreign ruler, no less than shooting, torture, land theft, restrictions on movement, and the unequal distribution of water sources.

The violence of 19-year-old soldiers, their 45-year-old commanders, and the bureaucrats, jurists and lawyers is dictated by reality. Their job is to protect the fruits of violence instilled in foreign occupation - resources, profits, power and privileges.

.... It would make sense for Palestinian schools to introduce basic classes in resistance: how to build multiple "tower and stockade" villages in Area C; how to behave when army troops enter your homes; comparing different struggles against colonialism in different countries; how to use a video camera to document the violence of the regime's representatives; methods to exhaust the military system and its representatives; a weekly day of work in the lands beyond the separation barrier; how to remember identifying details of soldiers who flung you handcuffed to the floor of the jeep, in order to submit a complaint; the rights of detainees and how to insist on them in real time; how to overcome fear of interrogators; and mass efforts to realize the right of movement. Come to think of it, Palestinian adults could also make use of these lessons, perhaps in place of their drills, training in dispersing protests, and practice in spying on Facebook posts."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

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