When most people think of Iran, they think “Death to America,” terrorists and turbans, evil-looking beards and missiles rising from bright, arid canyons. If they think further, some might recall the past glories of Persian empires, or the fabled Peacock Throne the former Shah aspired to occupy. But even among so-called Iran “experts,” few consider this simple and far-reaching fact: in today’s Iran, Persians are at best a feeble majority, possibly as small as 51 percent of the total population.
Real figures for Iran’s minority populations are hard to come by. The Shah conducted a regular census, but its primary aim, according to the Encylopaedia Iranica, was to “count the de jure sedentary population and the de facto mobile and tribal population.” Similarly, under the current regime, which seized power in 1979, the census has counted the urban versus the rural population, and gathered basic age and employment statistics. But never was the explosive issue of ethnic origin or identity asked.
A ground-breaking report published in 2008 by the Congressional Research Service found that Iran’s then 70.5 million people are “ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse. The central authority is dominated by Persians, who constitute 51 percent of Iran’s population.”
So who are these non-Persian minorities? They are Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Qashqai’is, Ahwazis, Arabs, Balouchis, Turkmens, Afsharis, Gilaki and Mazandaranis. They live predominantly on Iran’s periphery, where they control Iran’s access to the outside world. In the cases of the Azeris, Kurds, Ahwazis and Balouchis, families and clans sprawl across international borders and thrive on a cross-border economy, much of it based on smuggling.
The significance of this geography should be obvious, especially given the growing politicization of Iran’s minorities. Put simply, Iran’s minorities pose a geopolitical threat to the very existence of the Islamic regime, a threat the regime recognizes and attempts to mitigate through a mixture of co-option and force.
This is not because the regime is Persian or Iranian nationalist: it is not. On the contrary, the ruling Shiite Islamic clerics have banned traditional pre-Islamic names for children, and when they first seized power, sought to eliminate Now Rouz celebrations, a pre-Islamic rite of spring shared by most Iranians as well as some of their neighbors, notably Azerbaijanis. And while former leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) such as Mohsen Rezai and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf have tried unsuccessfully to appropriate Iranian nationalism for political gains, Iranians never forget the response Ayatollah Khomeini gave to a reporter in January 1979 when asked what he felt about returning to Tehran from exile. “Hichi,” Khomeini said. “Nothing.”
Some of Iran’s minorities are well integrated. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Moussavi, for example, are both Azeris, a Turkic people that populates huge swathes of territory all the way from Azerbaijan in the northwest to Mashad, on the border with Afghanistan. Azeris have been among the most fanatical Shiite supporters of the current regime.
Tribes such as the Bakhtiaris, Lurs, and Qashqais, in western and southern Iran, have produced prime ministers and generals. Linguist Don Stillo, writing in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, considers the Lur dialect to have derived directly from Old and Middle Persian, and the Lur people to be descendents of the aboriginal Iranian tribes, driven into the mountains by Arab invaders.
But other large minorities, especially the Kurds and the Balouchis – have been repressed by Tehran-centric governments for generations. In this, the Islamic Republic has not distinguished itself from its predecessor.
What’s new is the extent to which Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities have succeeded in organizing themselves politically, and in voicing their grievances to international bodies, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, who for several years has included sections on ethnic and religious minorities in his twice-yearly reports.
I can recall having dinner with Abdul Rahman Qassemlou in the mid-1980s in Paris, and quizzing him on the war the Islamic regime waged on his followers in the very early days of the revolution after he demanded autonomy for Iranian Kurdistan.
“We tried to call a council of minorities, to see if other ethnic groups would back our struggle,” he said. “Only two of us came, and both of us were Kurds.”
The other Kurd who attended that 1979 meeting was Rahman Haj Ahmadi, a Qassemlou ally who later helped create the Free Life Party of Iranian Kurdistan, PJAK. “Today if we called such a meeting, groups from all over Iran would come,” he told me.
Qassemlou and his Kurdish Democratic Party initially fought alone against the new Islamic regime. But within a year he was joined by dissidents of all political stripes and ethnic backgrounds, who sought refuge in Kurdistan from the regime or safe passage into exile.
Among the most prominent of these internal exiles was Darioush Forouhar, the leader of the nationalist Iran Nation’s Party (INP). After joining the first revolutionary government of Mehdi Bazargan as minister of labor, Forouhar fled Tehran to Kurdistan when Khomeini imposed absolute clerical rule. It was this hitherto unknown politico-religious doctrine, known as the velayat-e-faqih, which transformed the anti-Shah rebellion into a theocracy. Rejection of the velayat-e-faqih subsequently provided the glue for the anti-regime forces, including Iran’s ethnic minorities.
On February 19, 2005, leaders of major ethnic organizations convened in London to form a Congress of Iranian Nationalities for a Federal Iran. Seven organizations, representing Balouchis, Azeris, Kurds, Ahwazis, and Turkmens signed on. Today, twelve organizations belong to the Congress.
In its charter, the group staked out the grievances held in common by the non-Persian Iranian peoples. They denounced the “totalitarian, anti-democratic” nature of the regime, and demanded “the separation of religion and state.” They also demanded equal treatment under the law of all Iranian citizens, without regard to gender, ethnic, or religious identity.
As many as 70 percent of Iranian children grow up in households speaking a mother tongue other than Persian and do not successfully learn Persian after their first year in school, Education Minister Hamid Reza Haji Babai noted in a November 2009 seminar. Despite this, the regime until very recently forbade schools to teach minority languages – with the exception of Arabic, required for Islamic studies.
Poverty is widespread in minority provinces, as the government steers development funds and industrialization projects to more politically reliable areas. For example, 76 percent of the Balouch population in Sistan-va-Balouchistan province “live in extreme poverty,” according to Balouchi activist, Nasser Bolodai, a spokesman for the Congress of Nationalities. In Arab Khuzestan (bordering Iraq), Bolodai believes “the unemployment rate in the province’s Persian majority city of Dezful is 7 percent whereas in the Arab majority cities of Abadan and Mohammerah [Khorramshahr] the rates are 41 percent and 60 percent respectively.”
Low level insurgencies have been simmering in the Balouchi and Kurdish areas of Iran for decades, marked by regular skirmishes between IRGC troops and individuals or groups the regime labels “bandits,” “drug traffickers,” “smugglers” or “terrorists.”
In recent years, the non-violent political struggle in these outlying provinces has intensified as well. International human rights organizations as well as the United Nations Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran regularly report the execution of political activists. The U.S.-based Boroumand Foundation found that Iran topped the world for executions per capita in 2015 with 1084 instances of capital punishment, many of them imposed on human rights activists. On Feb. 24, 2016, Shahindokht Moalverdi, the regime’s vice president for Women and Family Affairs, acknowledged that regime agents had executed the entire male population of a village in Sistan-va-Balouchistan province, on allegations of drug trafficking.
In its response to the latest UN human rights report in October 2016, the regime rejected accusations it was arbitrarily arresting or abusing human rights activists. “Unfortunately, referring to them as human rights defenders is done carelessly and negligently, to the extent that in some cases terrorists are also being called defenders of human rights,” the unsigned reply stated.
The discrimination extends to religious minorities, in particular to former Muslims who have embraced Christianity, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims. (The overwhelming majority of Iran’s Jewish population, dating from the Babylonian captivity, fled Iran for Israel, Europe and the United States in the years immediately following the revolution, as have many Assyrian and Armenian Christians).
The Islamic Republic’s constitution imposes a religious test on candidates for government jobs known as “Gozinesh,” which requires them to declare their allegiance to the velayat-e faqih, a concept totally alien not just to Baha’is, Christians and Jews, but also to Sunni and Sufi Muslims. “The use of this practice effectively excludes the majority of Balouch, Turkmen and Kurds from employment within the government and, in some cases, within the private sector. Some applicants to universities are also subjected to Gozinesh,” Bolodai writes.
Baha’is and members of many other non-recognized religions are forbidden to enter colleges and from having their own private colleges or even home schooling their children. According to Ahmed Shaheed, the outgoing UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, persecution of Baha’is because of their faith goes beyond arbitrary arrests, detention, and prosecutions, to their very existence as citizens. Regime policies “restrict the types of businesses and jobs Baha’i citizens can have, support the closing of Baha’i-owned businesses, place pressure on business owners to dismiss Baha’i employees and call for seizure of their businesses and property,” Shaheed wrote in an October 2016 report.
In its 2005 charter, the Congress of Nationalities announced as its goal a “federal system of government on the basis of national ethnicity and geography in a united and integral Iran.”
The fundamentalist Shiite Muslim regime in Tehran has long feared ethnic strife. And while it consistently accuses groups such as PJAK, the KDPI, or the Congress of Nationalities of “separatism” – that is, seeking to break Iran into small, ethnic mini-states – its real fear is that the political demands of these groups could ignite nationwide protests that would spell the end of the clerical dictatorship.
Mustapha Hijri, the secretary general of the KDPI, came to Washington, DC in May 2011 to promote the agenda of the Congress of Nationalities, and met with me for several hours at my house. “We want ethnic federalism,” he said. “This is not separatism. We want federalism based on ethnicity and geography, not just the regions or provinces.”
Why was that distinction so important? “The current provincial lines in Iran were drawn by Tehran to prevent minorities from having a majority,” he argued. For example, Kurds are split among four provinces in northwestern Iran. He wanted to redraw the map to create “ethnically pure provinces.”
Hijri’s vision sounds like separatism to many Iranian nationalists. But it was also rejected by former KDPI member Rahman Haj Ahmadi, the secretary general of the rival Kurdish group, PJAK, who feared it could set off inter-ethnic wars between Kurds and Azeris
In an interview in Stockholm on Aug. 4, 2011, which is available on the iran.org website, Ahmadi rejected the idea of creating ethnic enclaves. “We want no internal borders inside a democratic Iran. We call our option, ‘democratic confederation.’ We believe Iran should be a bit like Europe, where different cultures live together in harmony within the European Union, while maintaining their cultural identities. We believe in a single, united, confederal Iran,” he told me.
He contrasted his idea to ethnic or geographic federalism, which implies exactly the type of split into ethnic mini-states that Iranian nationalists and the Islamic regime accuse the minorities of seeking.
“A confederation has no borders. We do not aim to destroy Iran, but to keep it as it is and transform it into a democratic system that respects the identity and the rights of every citizen. I am a Kurd, born of a Kurdish mother. But I live in Iran. Iran is a country of many ethnicities. We want all of them to feel they have equal rights as Iranians.”
Since these conciliatory remarks, much has happened to polarize Iran’s minorities and enflame those calling for outright separation from the Tehran-centric Islamic state.
Probably the most significant event was the January 2015 liberation of Kobane, a Kurdish city that straddles the Syrian border with Turkey, by Kurdish militias including PJAK and the PKK, which Turkey and the Obama administration consider to be terrorist groups.
The United States openly supported the pro-PKK militias during the prolonged battle, providing intelligence, weapons, and even air strikes against ISIS positions. The willingness of the Obama administration to disregard the hysterical demands from Ankara that the United States leave the Kurds to die emboldened Kurdish groups throughout the region.
Following the victory in Kobane, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Mustapha Barzani, announced plans in February 2016 to hold a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Under intense pressure from Ankara and Baghdad, Barzani agreed in October 2016 to suspend the referendum until after the liberation of Mosul.
The KDPI, which had abandoned the armed struggle in 1996 and reportedly cooperated with the Iranian regime against its political rival, PJAK, announced in March 2016 it was sending peshmerga fighters into Iran. Clashes between KDPI fighters and the IRGC began on April 19, 2016, when a KDPI peshmerga unit attacked government security forces in Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan. Since then, PJAK, too, has resumed armed attacks against the IRGC, which it had suspended in 2011. Also joining the fight were military units of the Kurdistan Freedom Party commanded by Hussein Yazdanpanah, a well-respected guerilla leader.
One theory currently being discussed by Kurdish observers in the region is that the KRG encouraged the Iranian Kurds to step up armed actions against the IRGC, to prevent the Iranians from invading northern Iraq in the event the KRG declares its independence.
Today’s Iran is a rich stew of ethnic minorities. Not only do the minorities control Iran’s borders with the outside world, they almost universally despise the Shiite Persian center. The Green Movement of 2009 failed because its predominantly Persian, Tehran-based leaders failed to reach out to minorities who are natural sympathizers of any pro-freedom movement. While many Azeris and Kurds were arrested during the anti-regime demonstrations, the Green Movement leaders failed to articulate a vision for a secular, democratic Iran that respected the cultural, linguistic and political rights of minorities.
The key to Iran’s future could well lie with these groups. If they remain isolated, weak, and cut off from each other and from the outside world, the clerical regime can survive. But if they join forces with each other and with Iranian nationalists around a vision of a secular, democratic Iran, they could burst the iron hoops of the Revolutionary Guards and the intelligence services with a quickness and force that would surprise not just the regime, but the world.
The question becomes whether these groups, and their Persian counterparts, can articulate an Iranian identity that is more powerful than the ethnic or religious identities that currently divide them.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is the President and CEO of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.