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 As Protests Escalate, Iran’s Ethnic Minorities Fight Multifaceted Oppression, Racism and Propaganda

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Ethnic Minorities are Facing Massacres in the Iran Protests

   As massive anti-regime demonstrations continue for a fourth week across Iran, with thousands nationwide defying the regime’s brutal attempts to crush the protests, the voices of Iran’s multiply-oppressed ethnic minorities are rising. Among the ethnic minority victims killed and wounded by Iranian regime forces to date, numbering over 200, at least 84 have been Balochis in Balochistan Province in the southeast of the country. According to human rights groups, all of these Balochi victims, including women and children, were killed in a single massacre by regime forces on 30 September, which received very limited coverage outside Amnesty International and Balochi activists.

 This latest and largest recent wave of nationwide protests first broke out in Iranian Kurdistan in mid-September, following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, who died in a Tehran hospital on 16 September of injuries sustained when she was brutally beaten by regime ‘morality police’ after being arrested in the capital the previous day for ‘improper veiling’, a crime under Iranian law punishable by flogging and imprisonment.

 The female-led protests quickly spread across Iran, with women and girls of all ages protesting nationwide, expressing their contempt for the regime’s ISIS-style dress proscriptions by going bare-headed, videoing themselves cutting their hair as a symbol of defiance, burning their hijabs, and dancing publicly – another ‘crime’ under Iranian law.

 As the protests across Iran have gained momentum, they’ve also got increasing international attention and support, with a female Swedish MP and a number of female celebrities, including Oscar-winning French actresses Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard, pictured cutting off their own hair to express solidarity with the protesters.

 There’s been little focus, however, on the regime’s even greater savagery towards protests by Iran’s ethnic minorities and on the vast difference in the rhetoric used by the regime to justify its response in both cases.

 While Khamenei feigned unconvincing grief at Mahsa Amini’s death in an effort to mollify the protesters in Iran’s predominantly Persian-Iranian central regions, Tehran’s brutal and increasingly desperate measures to crush the protests in Kurdistan, Balochistan, and other ethnic minority regions have been accompanied by the customary reframing of these, non-Persian protesters as ‘separatist extremists’, ‘troublemakers’ and ‘terrorists’.  

Anti- Minority Regime Propaganda Divides the Opposition

 Unfortunately, to the frustration, but not the surprise of many ethnic minority dissidents in exile, the regime’s self-serving propaganda and false accounts of events, depicting ethnic minority protesters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’ has been uncritically repeated by Persian-Iranian dissidents and by many Western media, even those which have been supportive of the protests in predominantly Persian central Iran. This variance in attitudes to anti-regime protests has been more especially obvious from those media better known for their sympathetic attitude towards Iran’s regime. For example, one such outlet, the Washington Post, which has been generally supportive of the women’s protests, ran an article regarding the massacre of Balochi protesters by regime forces under the lurid and totally false headline, ‘Separatists in Iran kill up to 19, including Guard commander’. Although the Washington Post article acknowledged that AP’s report cited Iranian regime state media not known for their credibility and desperate to discredit anti-regime protests, the regime’s claims were reported as fact, not allegations, with no non-regime sources consulted for verification.  

 While Amnesty International and Balochi activists refuted the regime’s claims, showing clearly that the regime had, in fact, very deliberately murdered at least 83 unarmed civilians, including children, there’s been no corresponding retraction or apology for promoting the regime’s false allegations without qualification or question from AP, the Washington Post. Amnesty’s damning report found, unsurprisingly, that the regime was, as always, inverting the truth depicting the victims as aggressors and vice versa. 

 Abdullah Aref, the director of the UK-based Baloch Activists Campaign (BAC), which advocates for Balochi people’s rights, told French news outlet France 24 that Balochi protesters held a demonstration outside a local police station on 30 September to protest over both Mahsa Amini’s death and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old Balochi schoolgirl by a notoriously corrupt and brutal local regime police chief. During the demonstration, a few of the protesters threw stones at the police station. The security forces responded to this immediately by opening fire indiscriminately with guns, while regime snipers positioned on surrounding rooftops in the area further terrorised protesters by randomly shooting at people in the busy area. Many of these bystanders who became targets were not even involved in the protests. Five of those killed in the regime’s attacks were children aged from two to five, while one was a woman. The protests then spread to other police stations in the area, where the regime is infamous for its racism and brutality towards the people. Local residents live in medieval poverty despite the region being rich in resources from which the regime profits greatly.  

 Interviewed about the carnage, Abdullah Aref, the director of the UK-based Baloch Activists Campaign (BAC), which advocates for Baluchi people’s rights, said starkly, “Killing Baluch does not cost much for the Iranian government.”

 On the regime’s typical propaganda and misrepresentation of the events of 30 September, Amnesty stated: “…Propaganda videos broadcast on state media after 30 September have shown detainees, whom authorities allege were involved in armed attacks against security forces in Zahedan, with sacks over their heads. One video shows a detainee being asked leading questions by a TV presenter and being forced to make self-incriminating statements without a lawyer present over his alleged involvement in shootings on 30 September. Given the Iranian authorities’ well-documented patterns of producing and broadcasting coerced statements from detainees to cover-up human rights violations, Amnesty International is concerned that such statements have been extracted under duress.”

 Rejecting the regime’s standard unsubstantiated slanders against its victims, Amnesty noted: “The authorities have claimed that protesters committed acts of looting and arson on public property. However, beyond a minority of protesters throwing stones towards the police station, Amnesty International has found no evidence that, more generally, protesters and bystanders engaged in acts of violence during the Mosalla incident on 30 September that would pose a threat to life or serious injury to security forces or others and would justify the use of lethal force used against them.” 

 Amnesty’s report further noted: “Evidence also reveals that many victims killed during the incident at the Mosalla were shot in the back of their heads or torso, indicating that they were facing away from the security forces and posed no imminent threat to life or serious injury.”

 Following this latest mass killings of Balochi protesters and other unarmed civilians by regime forces, Iranian regime interior minister, Ahmed Vahidi, said, “Mercenary separatists did not achieve their goal in Balochistan, and our forces restored peace there.”

 Vahidi was one of seven senior regime officials sanctioned by the US Treasury Department on Thursday (6 October), over accusations of his involvement in the suppression of the latest protests, with a Treasury statement calling him “the regime’s main tool in the crackdown.” 

 Chauvinism and Bigotry Make Persian Opposition Susceptible to anti-minority rhetoric from the Regime

 It’s arguable, though, that the regime’s shameful propaganda about ethnic minorities is predictable, part of the usual mixture of self-serving conspiracy theories, demonisation of dissidents, attempts to ‘divide and rule the population, and outright lies promoted by every totalitarian regime’s media arm. Less forgivable is the support for and repetition of these blatant, racist lies from many Persian -Iranian dissidents who’ve been strongly supportive of the recent protests. 

  Some Persian-Iranian opposition figures in Iran and in exile have promoted the same conspiracy theories as the regime, accusing ethnic minority protesters of “exploiting” the protests following Mahsa Amini’s death in pursuit of a ‘separatist agenda’. However, these figures prefer to ‘forget’ that Amini herself was a Kurd from one of the most oppressed minorities in Iran, whose parents were forbidden by regime authorities citing laws introduced under the Shah, from giving their daughter the Kurdish name they chose, ‘Zhina’. Instead, like all of Iran’s minorities, they were forced to pick an approved Persian language (Farsi) name, Mahsa. 

 Referring to the regime’s massacre of protesters in Balochistan, Shireen Hunter, now living in the USA where she’s a prominent supporter of restoring the Shah’s monarchy, told VOA Persia in a Farsi-language interview that “There are groups who want to exploit [the uprising following Amini’s death] and I clearly mean those separatists who seek to abuse the protests – they are rioters.” 

 Similarly, in the southwest region of Ahwaz, anti-regime protests are always referred to, by both the regime and the Persian-Iranian opposition as ‘riots’, ‘separatist uprisings’, ‘terrorist insurgencies’ and similar terms in order to delegitimise them and justify the regime’s murderous response. In the latest nationwide protests, the regime automatically deployed massive numbers of heavily armed additional troops and security forces, along with armoured vehicles and tanks, and began arresting prominent dissidents and activists ‘pre-emptively’ before protests could grow and spread.

Minority Activists are Not Only Oppressed by the Iran regime, but ignored in the Western media

 It was confirmed on Friday, 7 October that at least one of the Ahwazi activists detained in these raids, 31-year-old Emad Haidari, died under torture in the days since his arrest by personnel from the so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) infamous intelligence department on 27 September during protests over Mahsa Amini’s death. Haidari, an Ahwazi civil rights activist and children’s aid worker from the eponymous regional capital, Ahwaz city, had been targeted previously by the regime over his civil rights activism and aid work. After his latest arrest, he was charged with communicating with fellow civil rights activists abroad, connecting to the internet (which the regime had cut in an effort to stifle coverage of the protests), and distributing VPN details to young Ahwazis enabling them to circumvent the regime’s internet blackout in order to access social media and report the truth about the protests and events in the region.

 Following Emad’s death, regime authorities ordered Haidari’s grieving wife and parents to organise a private funeral without anyone but direct family members present, warning that if the family fails to do so and holds any of the traditional mourning events for others to pay their respects, the regime will not release his body for burial. This is standard policy for the regime’s victims, which is being even more tightly enforced during the current protests due to fears that large numbers of mourners angered at the regime’s crimes could incite further anti-regime protests. 

 Speaking about the Iranian regime’s multi-layered repression, Fariba Baloch, a Balochi women’s rights activist based in London, told DIRS, “Balochi women have no voice in Iran’s Persian-language media or any other media worldwide. We’ve never seen the world’s media or Iran’s Persian-language media convey the pain and suffering that Balochi women face, from both the government and society’s traditionalist, patriarchal atmosphere. The Islamic Republic is the primary cause of all these problems.”

 Baloch particularly criticised the Persian-Iranian opposition and human rights groups for their failure to show any solidarity with the regime’s Balochi or other ethnic minority victims: “The question is why such discrimination and violence against Baloch people is tolerated among Iranian human rights groups – they don’t take any action over it, compared with the basic abuses committed against Persian citizens. The most obvious reason is that Balochi people are always depicted as low, uncivilised people with a rough culture. Iranian regime cinema always portrayed Balochis as thugs and drug dealers. In reality, Iran targets us on the basis of religious sect as well as ethnicity since we are mostly Sunni as well as Balochi.” 

 The activist highlighted the importance to the regime of the racist propaganda used by state-controlled media to vilify and demonise ethnic and religious minorities: “The Islamic Republic’s always been obsessed with ‘minority separatism’, especially that of the Balochis, Ahwazi Arabs and Kurds. Due to that fear, it’s always attempted to deprive these peoples of essentials, such as the right to an education and proper health care. Even water, a fundamental right essential to sustain human life, is difficult to obtain.” 

 Baloch noted that the regime has always gone out of its way “to portray an inaccurate image of the Balochi people in the national media. The regime creates division between the Baloch and the rest of Iran by making films and documentaries that portray the Baloch as villains and terrorists. The regime wants to prepare the people in this way so that if there are protests, they’ll say, ‘We suppressed the Balochis for this reason.’”

 The activist appealed to media and human rights organisations worldwide for help in raising awareness of the regime’s brutal repression: 

“We ask Western organisations, particularly human rights organisations, to pay closer attention to human rights issues in Balochistan, Ahwaz and Kurdistan and other ethnic minority regions, particularly to women’s and children’s issues, and to assist us in establishing media platforms that convey the voice of Balochi people, particularly Balochi women. They should also work to raise people’s awareness in this region so that people don’t need to be afraid to exercise their human rights, especially in the face of repression.” 

 Another Balochi civil rights activist, Farzin Kadkhodaei, now based in Germany, also noted the central importance of propaganda in rationalising and normalising the regime’s murderous repression of Balochis and other minorities: “For 40 years, Persian-speaking media outlets have internalised the mindset that the Islamic Republic created for them – that Balochis, Kurds, and Ahwazi Arabs are terrorists, evildoers, smugglers and separatists.”

 Even among the Persian-Iranian human rights activists, he said, the deep-rooted prejudice inculcated by decades of such pervasive propaganda has led to a widespread chilling indifference to the suffering and systemic racist injustice inflicted on the country’s minorities on the basis of their ethnicity: “Despite their claims to be human rights defenders, this mindset has caused them to pay no attention, and even to believe it’s right to kill others. Everyone should know that we [Balochis], have no influence on the Persian-language media and that opposition groups also censor us.” 

Why is Ahwaz not playing a major part in the current protests?

 Speaking about the reasons why most Ahwazi Arabs have not taken to the streets during the current protests, Ahmad Daghagheleh, the director of the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies (DIRS), said, “As with any social phenomenon, there are several reasons explaining why the Ahwazi people aren’t present in Iran’s ongoing uprising or—in other words—delaying their uprising to a later date. We could mention the following facts in this context: First and foremost, Ahwazis in Iran clearly believe that their concerns are being ignored by Persian civic society in Iranian Persian cities. Unfortunately, this negligence also affects sections of the Persian people, including writers, intellectuals, and artists, as well as those at the forefront of these calls for change. The concerns of non-Persian peoples are also lost in the slogans and chants raised by Iranians. Four weeks after the protests began, not a single placard expressing non-Persian peoples’ demands was raised in Tehran or the central provinces. The Ahwazis are reminded that our demands are being ignored by the [Persian-Iranian opposition’s] insistence on ignoring them and not mentioning Ahwazi cities or using Arabic names. For example, when Iranians refer to Khafajia, they use the Persian name Susangerd instead. Among other things, they use the name Khuzestan instead of Ahwaz region. It is not surprising that the Ahwazis are not present at the protests because the Persian media and opposition groups are afraid to mention the real Arab names of the Ahwazi cities.”

 “Second, another of the main reasons for Ahwazi absence from the uprising is class segregation. There is no doubt that the Ahwazis are among Iran’s poor and persecuted. This reason, in particular, has created a significant divide between Ahwazis and Iran’s middle class, the majority of whom are Persians. There is no doubt that the class divide is reflected in all aspects of social life. Ahwazi demands primarily concern usurped identity, social issues such as poverty and unemployment. Additionally, they are most impacted by water pollution and land destruction caused by water scarcity caused by the diversion of the course of water from Ahwazi rivers to Persian provinces, which deprives the Ahwazi people of their last chance to live a decent life. However, the current demands of the ongoing uprising center on individual, rather than collective, liberties, such as the wearing of hijab. There is then a significant difference in priorities, resulting in palpable schisms between the various peoples within Iran’s geography. Third, there are severe crackdowns ongoing against Ahwazis and the regime’s usual racist treatment of protesters in various Ahwazi cities continues. This distinction, in particular, makes an uprising in Ahwaz more expensive in every way than protesting in other Iranian cities. Before taking to the streets, Ahwazis now weigh their losses and gains multiple times. Most of the time, they will wait and not take to the streets until further notice.” 

 Ammar Tassaei, an Ahwazi writer based in Norway, told DIRS that “Persian opposition groups are repeating the same accusations made by the Iranian regime against Ahwazis, such as being separatist, threatening national security, collaborating with outsiders, and being Wahhabis and Salafis. All of these accusations are not only false but intended to divert attention away from the genuine demands of Ahwazi Arabs. The Arabs of Ahwaz are fighting for their identity and culture and for their civil and social, and economic rights. As a result, preserving the Ahwaz region’s culture, identity, language, and natural environment is critical for the people of Ahwaz.”

 Tassaei added, “The relentless exploitation of Ahwazi natural resources by successive Iranian governments, as well as Iran’s denying the Ahwazi people any share of this wealth must end. Despite having the richest oil and gas resources in Iran, Ahwaz is home to the country’s poorest and most persecuted ethnic minority.”

 Tassaei went on, “Any attempt to change the demographic makeup of the region or erase the Arab identity of Ahwazi cities, towns, and villages endangers the survival of these people and their culture, which we regard as a millennia-old human heritage. I believe that unity in the fight to change the regime will emerge when Persian groups accept that Iran should be decentralised and a federalist system established that recognises ethnic people’s right to preserve their identity, culture, and language. I believe that the recognition of non-Persian peoples, including the Arab Ahwazis, is our most pressing demand. This acknowledgement ensures that these people will not be exterminated. The Iranian state’s approach in previous decades and up to the present has resembled genocide. A federal and democratic government is best suited to running a vast and diverse country like Iran. Sharing powers between the federal government and local governments could give non-Persian peoples a greater ability to preserve their identity, and enjoy some of their local resources, while also putting an end to domestic colonisation and marginalisation.”

Will federalism be possible in Iran after the fall of the Islamic Republic?

 On the prospects for the future, Nahid Farhad, an Iranian-Persian researcher now based in New York told DIRS that “real equality and a strong degree of autonomy for ethnic minorities are essential for building a genuinely democratic and peaceful state: “Ethnic minorities in their own regions within Iran are the best defenders of democracy in Iran’s future for two reasons: Firstly, they’ve experienced various forms of discrimination and oppression, so they’re well acquainted with the layers of discrimination and oppression. This invaluable historical knowledge, gained through the suffering and sacrifice of their freedom rights fighters in previous decades, allows them to ensure that these atrocities will not be repeated in Iran in the future.” 

 She continued, “Secondly, each ethnic group in Iran has experienced a period of autonomy or political freedom in their geographical area, which was, of course, suppressed by Reza Shah’s Persian central government and then by his son Mohammad Reza Shah’s government. However, this brief but valuable experience is preserved in their historical memory. It is impossible to enslave someone who has tasted even a smidgeon of freedom.” 

 Speaking with DIRS, Irina Tsukerman, the human rights lawyer and analyst based in New York about the possibility of implementing the federal system in Iran, said: “I think Iran is very far from any possibility of implementing a real decentralised or Federal model. The level of ethnic and religious strife and prejudice cemented in the educational system, social and political culture, and institutions of soft power by the Iranian nation-state establishment will not be easily overcome and currently makes any such model nearly impossible to implement. Before something like that becomes even a possibility worth discussing, the Persian opposition groups first have to start recognising equal rights for all citizens and actively changing their rhetoric regarding ethnic minorities.

Irina explained that “the ethnocentric mythologic discourse in Iran has been ingrained in the general culture of the Iranian Persian-dominated group for decades, or the Persian groups have to consider the dismantlement process of the current ruling centralised structure before the political process can follow in a successful implementation. Those who believe that if the current regime were to fall, Iran would instantly become a liberal republican democracy protective of rights for all are sorely mistaken. The political culture has been poisoned on the grassroots level, and the government elected from such ranks, will follow the same mindset and will be either monolithic and discriminating against the non-Persian ethnic minorities who make up the majority of the population, or it can be completely dysfunctional government.” 

 Irina added that “MENA/Gulf states are likely more supportive of the Federal model than the international community which in general would prefer it to separatism. However, in reality, the political discourse has been so completely hijacked by ethnocentrist chauvinist nationalist rhetoric from the Persian mainstream opposition groups that any mention of a realistic and inclusive transition in Iran defies their cognisance. In fact, in most Westerners’ mind, federalism in Iran is equated with separatism, and they cannot comprehend the difference. Part of it also may be due to the fact that they believe that the model of federalism being proposed by non-Persian peoples is ethnic-based rather than political, unlike the state system in the US. Unfortunately, the discussion of the political transition process in Iran has not been serious in the West; it has been more wishful thinking or fearmongering than a realistic strategy based on a full understanding of the reality on the ground, a balance of considered rights and interest, and any implementable action steps. Therefore, the West is not at all equipped to facilitate any political transition in Iran.”

 She continued, “Furthermore, the Western political echelons are ill-equipped to handle a political transition in Iran due to the fact that they are misinformed about the more complex reality on the ground by the same set of voices monopolising the information flaw – the ethnocentric Persian opposition groups. The voices of ethnic minorities calling for federalising Iran are banned from media platforms and do not have a seat at the table. They are excluded even from small media and social media discussions, and deliberately misrepresented as separatists despite the cultural oppression and prospective cultural genocide they are facing in Iran.”

 Dr Reza Parchizadeh, political theorist and security analyst, says, “As the popular revolution to topple the regime goes on in Iran, two competing trends are vying to replace the Islamist regime. On the one hand, there are those who want democracy and maximum participation of the people in the political process. On the other, there are those who want to monopolise power and restrict public participation in the political process. The two trends stand at odds, and they will continue their fight over the legacy of the falling regime to the bitter end. But in the end democracy shall prevail.”

Are the Mahsa Amini protests really the beginning of the end for the IRI?

The multifaceted nature of this uprising, which is increasingly being acknowledged as the first rumbling of a genuine revolution, has caught Western analysts unaware; used to presenting Iran as a monocultural, largely mono-ethnic entity whose only differences are political or religious, the West has ignored the regime’s murderous repression of ethnic minorities, dismissing their collective majority status as over 70 per cent of Iran’s population.

 For many among Iran’s ethnic minorities, however, under the Shah or his successors, Iran itself, at least in its current supremacist, totalitarian form, is seen as a hostile entity, a coloniser and oppressor as hated as any foreign army. Until the Persian-Iranian opposition abandons the supremacist mindset and racist propaganda of the past and offers genuine solidarity, support and real equality for Iran’s ethnic minorities, the unity essential to topple the brutal theocratic dictatorship and bring about real progress and freedom for any of Iran’s citizens, will remain a distant hope.

By Rahim Hamid and Ruth Riegler

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author and freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @samireza42.

Ruth Riegler is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom, democracy and human rights who previously lived in the Middle East. Riegler tweets under @Syrians4j.

 

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