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Real Freedom in Iran Requires Acknowledgement of Non-Persian Ethnic Minorities’ Rights

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“Non-Persian peoples do not only want the bare minimum of collective freedom and civil rights but also decentralised rule , like a confederate or federalist rule to end the current brutal repression and domestic colonisation and as a way to protecting their existence and cultural identity.”

As anti-regime protests continue to grow across Iran, the regime is targeting its brutal retaliation against some areas – those where the country’s ethnic minorities are concentrated – far worse than others. In Iranian Balochistan, the portion of an ancient land presently located in Iran’s southeast, at least 92 people, including at least one woman and six small children aged between two and five, have been killed by regime forces since 16 September. These regime forces have been using artillery, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns as a means of terrorizing the people into abandoning their protests.
Across Iran at least 230 protesters have been killed by regime forces so far, with roughly 90 per cent of them from the country’s ethnic minority populations. Thousands more have been arrested and imprisoned.

In Iranian Kurdistan in northwest Iran, the regime launched swift and savage retaliation against Kurdish protesters, the first to rise up following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa (Zhina) Amini on 16 September. Amini died in a Tehran hospital on 16 September of severe injuries sustained when she was beaten by ‘morality police’ who had arrested her in the city the day before for ‘improper veiling’. The regime’s attacks on Kurds have also once again extended to Iraqi Kurdistan, where Iran’s infamous so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have intensified the bombing of Kurdish villages in the border region in recent days using drones and missiles.

As with the regime’s shelling of protesters in Balochi areas and attacks on other ethnic minority regions, the indiscriminate shelling of Kurdish villages is justified in the name of “opposing separatism” and “fighting terror”.These are the standard charges used by the regime and, more shamefully, frequently even by many of its Persian-Iranian opponents, to justify brutally crushing any protests that break out in Kurdish, Ahwazi Arab, Balochi,  Azerbaijani or other regions.

In the predominantly Arab Ahwaz region in southwest Iran, the regime instituted a major crackdown almost as soon as the latest protests began in Kurdistan, deploying large numbers of troops in the region out of fear of mass protests ignited not only by Mahsa Amini’s death but by the increasing rage at the regime’s worsening abuses and the intensifying crises there.

To quell protests, the regime has deployed large numbers of troops, security forces, and armoured vehicles. Regime personnel quickly commenced carrying out mass arrests of activists, intellectuals, poets, writers, and others whom the regime fears might “incite insurrection”. One of those arrested is 23-year-old Zahra Sawarian, a poet and civil rights activist, who has been transferred to the women’s wing of the infamous Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz, infamously best known for its brutal torture. Sawarian is one of a number of female Ahwazi activists arrested. Another young woman, Afaf Abadi, a student activist, was physically dragged from her home. When her husband, Hamid Khalilawi, returned home and learnt what had happened, he went to the security and intelligence headquarters to try to find out where his wife had been taken; he was then arrested himself. Also, in the last few days, Iranian intelligence agents affiliated with the regime’s so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained the well-known Ahwazi activist Saeed Helechi, who’s also a poet and writer.

Despite the regime’s customary brutality, however, girls and women of all ages have continued to risk flogging and imprisonment, the usual sentences for the ‘crime’ of publicly removing their hijabs, to protest at Amini’s killing and at the ISIS-style proscriptions of the ruling regime. Indeed, the regime’s murderous brutality has largely backfired in much of the country, with hundreds of thousands of mostly young Iranians of both sexes continuing to take to the streets to say ‘No more’.

The significant role of ethnicity in the case of the protest victims and in the disparate severity of the regime’s response has received little attention in international coverage. Although Amini herself and the other victims killed or arrested in the regime’s escalating efforts to crush the protests so far have come overwhelmingly from minority backgrounds, the focus of international media’ coverage has been on the female-led nature of the latest uprising against the theocratic regime rather than on any of the other intersecting factors.

While it’s undeniable that all the protesters across Iran are heroically risking arrest, torture and imprisonment to protest for the same fundamental freedoms and human rights, the stifling oppression and the severity of the penalties they face for dissent are not equivalent. For Iran’s ethnic minorities in the annexed or colonised areas in Iran’s border areas – predominantly Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Balochis, Turkmen and Azeris – who collectively account for over 70% of the country’s population, the regime’s standard repressive fundamentalism and misogyny are overlaid with an additional layer of persecution for their ‘inferior’ non-Persian ethnicities which redoubles the ferocity of the regime’s attacks.

This disproportionate number of ethnic minority victims is explained by the variation in the severity of the regime’s response to the protests; whilst in Tehran the regime unleashes its brutal plainclothes Basiji thugs to beat, club and terrorise protesters, in Kurdistan, Balochistan and Ahwaz the regime has deployed heavy machine guns, armoured vehicles, tanks and heavy artillery, with helicopter gunships overhead. While the regime’s Basiji, like its ‘morality police’, are notoriously brutal, their boots, clubs and electric cattle prods are far less lethal than the heavy military firepower reserved for use against Balochis, Kurds, Azerbaijani Turks, Ahwazi Arabs and other ethnic minorities.

While it remains the exception to the rule, the Iranian regime’s oppression and disproportionately massive brutality towards ethnic minorities in outlying regions have been noted by some international observers.

Speaking with the Iran International opposition TV channel earlier this week, Mrs Raha Bahreini, Amnesty international’s Iran researcher and a human rights lawyer based in London, said, “It seems that just because these provinces are already oppressed and marginalized and are considered sensitive regions, dozens of lives can easily be taken there in this brutal way. It seems that there is no cost to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime to kill these historically oppressed and discriminated groups in this heinous manner; in fact, this state-sponsored oppression has a legacy going back decades, with the number of executions always being the highest among Iran’s ethnic minorities. The statistics for deaths during detention are very high, which is, in fact, the result of decades of oppression and two-fold discrimination instituted against non-Persian ethnic minorities in Iran.”

This supremacist racism towards ethnic minorities dates back to the colonial era of Shah Reza Pahlavi, who heavily promoted and romanticized Persia’s history of imperial conquest and the related supposed innate superiority to the ‘lesser’, non-Persian minorities who were expected to accept the annexation of their own areas and the eradication of their own cultures, history and languages in return for assimilation; those demanding freedom, decentralised rule, and the right to retain their own languages and culture, were, then as now, depicted as backwards, extremist troublemakers and separatists.

There is, of course, a terrible irony in the nominally leftist Khomeinists’ enthusiastic adoption of the same profoundly supremacist and imperialist worldview they supposedly rose up to overthrow in 1979, even adopting the same rhetoric. In reality, the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is merely imperialist to its core, with its constitution enshrining the ‘duty’ to export its ‘Islamic revolution’ regionwide and ultimately globally; as the region has now discovered, in practice this means an expansionist theocracy.

Younger Persian-Iranians, tired of the Khomeinists’ repressive mindset, are increasingly questioning the regime’s racism and its brutal quashing of ethnic minorities’ rights and culture, yet many older generations, particularly those fantasising of a return to the Shah’s autocratic monarchy rather than a pluralist democratic system of governance, have yet to abandon this archaic worldview. Even as they oppose the regime’s theocratic rule, many seem to favour a return to monarchy, which the country’s ethnic minority groups overwhelmingly view as a regressive step, merely changing the flavour of the absolutist rule rather than making any real progress towards freedom and the establishment of a modern, pluralistic, decentralised, democratic system.

As a result, the monarchists’ support for a return to Pahlavi rule is flatly rejected by most among Iran’s ethnic minorities as a regressive, undesirable prospect. Having made massive sacrifices in the 1979 revolution to overthrow the Shah’s own unjust and oppressive regime, only for the Khomeinists to inflict more oppression and turn the clock back a millennium, a new generation is demanding long-denied progress, freedom, human rights, and a fair system for all, wishing to look forward to the 21st century rather than once again going backwards to previous ones.

As a result of these factors, and the disproportionate brutality unleashed by the regime in response to protests in ethnic minority areas, a significant number of women and men who would otherwise join the demonstrations are, thus far at least, reluctant to participate and to face the disproportionately brutal retaliation. However, it must be stressed that the regime’s brutality is only one of the factors deterring increasing large-scale participation.
Speaking about the wariness among many Ahwazis about the current protests, Younis Kaabi, an Ahwazi activist based in Washington DC said, “We, Ahwazi Arab people always stand in solidarity with protesters in Kurdish, Turkish, Balochi areas since they face the same suffering as we do.”

He went on, “Ahwazis have been stung several times and have given hundreds of lives in hope of seeing a change in our situation but all the promises made to us turned out to be deceptive, like the promises of Khomeini in early days of the 1979 revolution to grant Ahwazis freedom – then he issued a fatwa ordering the massacre of over 500 Ahwazi Arab who were demanding their national, economic, and cultural rights.”

Referring to the Ahwaz region’s status as an energy hub, containing over 90 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, Kaabi said, “we want Persian opposition groups to recognise our full rights officially; we live on the land where the energy resources are, and if we protest, the regime will massacre our people because Ahwaz is the ‘land of oil and gas’. Ahwazis crippled the flow of energy from Ahwaz before and toppled the Shah – and in return, Khomeini broke his promises of freedom and killed and displaced our people; we don’t want this fate to be repeated again – unity comes when we see real change in Persian opposition discourse and recognising us and not issuing mere populist and romantic mottos.”
Hamed Kenani, a London-based writer at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies, echoed Kaabi’s words, offering a further explanation of why many Ahwazis are wary of large-scale participation in the current demonstrations: “It’s almost certain that Iranian security services have massive numbers of security dossiers on most of the young Ahwazi men and women who are leading the protests in the streets of Ahwaz. They may have also imposed financial guarantees and written promises on the majority of Ahwazi Arab activists not to participate in any future protests – those who do so will face a brutal crackdown prison and death penalty. In the last five years, Ahwaz has seen several uprisings, each of which has been followed by a wave of arbitrary arrests. On 28 March, 2018, an uprising erupted and spread throughout six Ahwazi Arab-majority cities, the majority of whose residents face discrimination in terms of finding work and obtaining it. As the protests grew, the Iranian government committed a heinous crime, setting fire to Al-Nawaris internet café, a hangout for young Arab guys from Ahwaz, killing 12 and critically injuring 14.”
Kenani continued, “Massive protests erupted in Iran in mid-November 2019 after the government announced unexpected increases in gasoline prices. Protests were held in over 100 cities, including Arab Ahwazi port city of Ma’shour where the regime carried out a masscare, killing over 140 Arab Ahwazi young men. After a four-day siege of survivors who hid out in wetlands, the unarmed young men were killed. They were shot cold-bloodedly by snipers. Following each Ahwazi uprising, the Iranian authorities conduct a wave of arbitrary arrests targeting only Arab Ahwazi residents. They transport the young men to secret detention facilities after raiding their homes, confiscating their electronic devices and ransacking their homes in search of any evidence that could assist the authorities in locking those young men up for as long as possible. If the authorities discover evidence that the young men are communicating with the opposition in other countries, a dossier is created, coercive confessions are obtained, and they are imprisoned for long periods of time after sham trials. If there is no evidence to convict the detainee, the authorities conditionally release him after he pays large bail and makes written promises. As a result,  Ahwazi Arab activists are muzzled and unable to follow any protests in Iran.”

He went on, “A second reason [for Ahwazis’ wariness of participating in protests] is that Ahwazis see no significant gains and support from the international community and media and human rights groups or from the Persian opposition, who deny the rights of Ahwazis and even fall silent when Iran kills massive numbers of Ahwazis. In addition to a siege-like security climate environment and crackdown Ahwazis also didn’t take part in the protests to send a clear message to the Persian opposition that they will not again give their blood for freedom while Ahwazi victims are brutalized, censored and dehumanized and while they [the Persian-Iranian opposition] don’t recognise the Ahwazis’ national ethnic, economic and cultural rights, sovereignty and demands for genuinely democratic federalist rule.”

Kenani underlined the need for coordination between the Persian-Iranian opposition in Iran and ethnic minorities to achieve real unity to form a genuine cohesive opposition representing all Iran’s people: “Unity can’t be a vague romantic idea,” he emphasised. “It needs real serious work, and Persian opposition groups should do their job in this regard and stop trying to evade the question of Ahwazi people’s national struggle or that of Kurds,Balochis ,Turks ,Turkmen, Gilaks, etcetera, who don’t only want the bare minimum of collective freedom and civil rights but also decentralised rule , like a confederate or federalist rule to end the current brutal repression and domestic colonisation and as a way to protecting their existence and cultural identity.”

This point – the need for genuine unity between all Iran’s peoples in confronting the regime in order to have any realistic hope of ending its rule in the near term and bringing about real change – was emphasised repeatedly by interviewees from all Iranian groups.

Like many other dissidents from all groups, Mehdi Jalali Tehrani, a young Persian-Iranian writer and activist now living in exile in the US, expressed optimism for the future but voiced caution, echoing Kenani’s call for greater coordination: “What we are sure of is that the revolution has started and that we’ve reached the point of no return – but when will this revolution succeed?” he wondered.

“And also whenever (and it is when, not if) will this regime is overthrown and dumped at the roadside, what then? It’s still not possible to talk about it with confidence because there is no genuine unity and collective strategy for all the peoples of Iran. Clashing with and confronting the Security forces is not a sign of unity – that is, similarity of action is not a sign of unity between the actors. People in different parts of Iran, especially in the outlying regions, where the non-Persian ethnic groups are located, have different demands, and these demands are also not reflected in Persian media, and those who are heroes of non-Persian nations are marginalised. But Persian media only covers those protesters in Tehran, and central Persian cities and the demands of students in these central cities are reflected by the media as the central, sole and representative demands of all people in Iran, as though they’d coordinated with them [minorities] on this, which is untrue and misleading. The non-Persians see that the media coverage of their struggles still faces discrimination, and therefore they want to change their destiny from the very beginning [after the revolution] and become independent – of course, there are reasons for this.”

Tehrani also cautioned: “Even coordination and similarity in practice can be fragile, and some parts of Iran generally are not taking to the streets in the struggle because they do not see themselves as facing the same fate as others – including the Turks of [Iranian] Azerbaijan who we envisage as having a vast capacity for protests and for engaging in the fight, but we have not seen that potential yet emerging in their areas.”

The young men and women of Iran’s many minority ethnic groups do not fear the regime’s brutality, but they have learned the harsh lessons of the previous generations and will not throw their lives away simply to see a new face of oppression rise. The spark of revolution remains lit, but without unity on the part of the regime’s many disparate opponents, it can once more be quenched in blood. The regime will not believe that it is in real existential danger until it sees real coordination and alliance between the many groups that oppose it. It will not take much more to fan the sparks of revolution into a raging conflagration that shakes the regime to its misbegotten core, and there is nothing that will truly frighten it as much as seeing its opposition coalesce around mutual recognition and understanding, all demanding true freedom and equality in one voice. And the time for that earth-shaking call is now.

Coauthored by Rahim Hamid and Aaron Eitan Meyer

 Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.

Aaron Eitan Meyer, an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law.  Meyer tweets under @aaronemeyer. 

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