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For Iran’s tyranny to end, there must be freedom for all


Iran is ethnically and culturally diverse, with the population consisting of several ethnicities, including Azerbaijanis, Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis, and Gilaks, in addition to Persians. Despite this diversity, however, Persian ethnicity, culture and identity are promoted as being the dominant and ‘superior’ variety, to which all other ethnic groups should be subordinate, with minorities treated as inferior in comparison to Persian and other minority groups, despite these minorities collectively making up around 70 % of the population.

The world cannot ignore the massive protests sweeping across Iran, yet the pivotal role ethnically non-Persian political and social actors are playing in driving this potential revolution has not been widely acknowledged or addressed. And this is a crucial element of the protests, one which shakes the Iranian regime more than it can admit. Since the 1979 revolution that brought Khomeini and his ilk to power, in which the Ahwazi, Kurds, Azerbaijanis and Balochis took to the streets in search of a better future that was so viciously denied them, the ethnic minorities who collectively comprise the majority of Iranian citizens have generally not joined in larger protests. None of these groups participated in the Green Movement, which is very much the inverse of how the 2017 Ahwazi Dignity Uprising and 2019 Thirst Uprising failed to spread to other regions.

The murder of a young Kurdish woman, Zhina(Mahsa) Amini, has lit a spark in all women subjected to the misogynistic rule of the mullahs and more. Yet it has not yet resulted in the full mobilisation of all ethnic minority groups across Iran, such as the Ahwazis and Azerbaijanis. Instead, with the notable exception of brave Balochi who rose up in protest and were mowed down by regime artillery, these protests have galvanised the ethnically Persian population; they identify with the murdered Zhina Amini, not as a Kurd but as a woman. This empathic connection is truly remarkable, and in it lies the seed for freedom for all of those who remain under the regime’s brutal and bloody rule.

And yet, the road to freedom for all people in Iran must begin with a dream – a dream of equality, of mutual recognition and appreciation that is not rooted merely in visceral hatred for a vicious regime that callously permits the suppression and murder of women, but which can form the core of a unified opposition the likes of which the regime fears like none other.

Still, the dream feels as if it should already be in the grasp of all who are rising up. There is a strategic alliance, and even a coalition being built, but it has not reached any viable critical mass.

Why, when the dream of freedom from the regime is so close?

The answer, sadly, remains that first and foremost, the minority coalition members do not have faith that the Persian opposition groups trust them, and that lack of trust impedes any further solidification of the alliance against the regime. And in turn, second, there remains the justified concern shared by the minority groups that the coalition will not endure, that the Persian members will revert to a historical/cultural narrative that minimises and even erases the ancient histories of these ethnic minorities to recreate an ethnically Persian historiography that – while stripped of the fundamentalist and totalitarian Khomeneist ideology – will revolve around Persian identity to the exclusion of all others.

This is no irrational fear, but the bitter knowledge of decades of experience. The solution, meanwhile, is as straightforward as it is difficult for the Persian opposition and elites to acknowledge – to reconceptualise Iranian identity so that it encompasses and embraces all of those within its borders. Other peoples were crushed under the guillotine of Iran’s Persian cultural sphere, which entailed tragedies and epics that have been suppressed for too long. Here, however, is the chance for rapprochement at a nexus point in the country’s history.

Moving down this path is the only way which could turn a fragile strategic alliance into a sustainable foundation for the future. This will mean killing two birds with one stone: Getting rid of the dictatorial rule and second reclaiming some rights of the oppressed ethnic minorities who have been downtrodden throughout the history of Persian/Iranian rule and its mono-ethnic state. 

The current crisis is less about a particular bad policy or even the entirety of the evil Iranian regime than the country’s nine-decades-old ruling structure. The dominant group prefers to turn a blind eye to this dysfunctional legacy, but it is undeniable that the Iranian nation-state was built on the basis of rejecting non-Persian minority ethnicities, which together now make up a majority (70%) of the total population.

    There is an unbroken continuity between the Pahlavi regime’s essence, structure, and treatment of minorities and those of the Ayatollah regime that replaced it. And just as the Pahlavi regime was toppled at the hands of the dispossessed and marginalised ethnic minorities in Iran, the current ruling regime is facing the most severe protests in four decades from the same groups.

There is an unbroken continuity between the Pahlavi regime’s essence, structure, and treatment of minorities and those of the Ayatollah regime that replaced it. And just as the Pahlavi regime was toppled at the hands of the dispossessed and marginalised ethnic minorities in Iran, the current ruling regime is facing the most severe protests in four decades from the same groups.

For ninety years, the Iranian state has centralised and monopolised political and economic power in the Persian minority rather than representing the country’s ethnic and religious diversity. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leader, promised the non-Persian minorities that on coming to power, the new regime would uphold their rights, pledging to give them their full rights in running their own territories. The burst of happiness at these promises was short-lived; one of Khomeini’s first actions after ascending to power was to crack down even harder on minorities than the Pahlavi monarchy.

In the first year following the Iranian revolution, Khomeini’s forces carried out a horrific massacre of peaceful protesters in Ahwaz that came to be known as ‘Black Wednesday’. According to witnesses’ interviews and subsequently published reports documenting the events of that day, including one published contemporaneously on 30 May 1979, the regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated militias launched a brutal and indiscriminate military operation using heavy weapons and carrying out assassinations of dissidents as well as mass arrests of thousands of ordinary Ahwazis. The army fired live bullets at the Ahwazi Arab citizens, stormed protesters’ homes, and killed or ‘disappeared’ the leaders of civil society groups in Muhammarah city, known as Khoramshahr in Farsi. The operation was a bloodbath; within one week, around 800 children, women, and men had been killed indiscriminately or by execution. 

The current regime’s replacement must take into account the country’s diversity and create a new structure capable of both representing everyone (Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis, Azerbaijanis, and others) and ensuring that ethnic oppression and massacres do not happen again.

The reason behind Iranian opposition groups and their media obfuscating the demands of the ethnic minorities is that the ethnic minorities are working to decentralise Iran’s future governance model. The Persian ethnonationalist groups such as the regime itself view the national and cultural demands of minorities as a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and a step towards a breakup. The ethnic minorities are responding to the decades of authoritarian Persian rule in Tehran which marginalised them culturally, economically, and politically.

This security view by Persian opposition groups can be seen in their political plans for Iran’s future. Most known Persian opposition groups claim to promote democracy in the country and put an end to the oppression, but at the same time, they treat the demands of ethnic minorities as betrayal and acts of belligerence. While Ahwazis, Kurds, Azerbaijanis and Balochis are calling for the Federalisation of Iran so they can run their own region’s affairs and practice their national culture freely, ethnonationalist groups view any hint of autonomy as a threat to the mythological narrative of the unified Persian culture.

For decades, Iranian -Persian rule since the establishment of Iran’s nation-state at the cost of non-Persian ethnic minorities and suppressing their basic demands under the excuse of territorial integrity. That is why the “regime change” slogan is meaningless for ethnic groups who do not wish to see their oppressor changed from the current clerical rule to a new secular ethnonationalist oppressor. However, the regime change can be meaningful when Persian groups officially accept ethnic groups and take steps to discuss the formation of a federal republic.

Is such a thing within the realm of possibility? To the cynical members of these minorities who have suffered for decades, the answer remains sarcastic, who knows? The privileges and power blur the vision of the dominant Persians who enjoy them, compelling them to remain silent. Those elites are like fish which cannot understand the world outside the sea. In response, consider the aphorism of a friend who said: “having a dream and then writing of it is the beginning of the road to freedom.” Here then is the dream, and it is possible to glimpse the freedom blazing behind the dark clouds of the regime’s bloody reprisals.

To conclude, the ethnically Persian opposition to the current regime must make a critical – and difficult – decision. First, they must decide that the core identity they seek for a new Iran is more than their own ethnicity. It must be something greater than what they had before, or they will never be free of the spectre of a new totalitarian regime emerging yet again. Second, and more to the point, this regime will not and cannot be toppled by Iran’s ethnic Persian plurality. Regime change will only be clawed by the united and sustained action of all peoples living under the brutal yoke of Khomeinist rule. And for that to happen, these same minority groups must become an integral part of the revolt, in whatever form it takes, which again will not happen as long as they are suppressed and erased even by Persian opposition elements.

The short answer is that this regime is not going to be overthrown without sustained and united support from the majority of Iran’s population, and that means its ethnic minorities – without the Ahwazis, the Balochis, the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis, and more, the critical mass for real change, for real freedom, cannot be reached. And so the choice may well come down to whether the Persian opposition truly wants to be free more than merely ascendant.

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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