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Slogans are Not Enough: Iran’s Ethnic Minorities Need More than Empty Words

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 While the anti-regime protests across Iran have won global support, with the slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ heard at demonstrations worldwide, it’s Iran’s non-Persian ethnic minorities who are disproportionately paying the price in terms of the numbers arrested, imprisoned, injured or killed by regime forces in their efforts to crush the nascent revolution. 

Western media have largely overlooked the fact that for Iran’s ethnic and sectarian minorities, the theocratic regime’s brutal misogyny is only one of the gross injustices fuelling the anger behind the latest round of protests. From the perspective of many in the Kurdish, Azerbaijani, Ahwazi, Balochi and other ethnic minorities, who collectively make up over 70 per cent of Iran’s population, 1979 simply replaced one deeply racist system of marginalisation and oppression with another, changing the Shah’s secular veneer over brutal autocracy for the incoming regime’s theocratic one. Indeed, successive Iranian rulers have relied for almost a century on the political disenfranchisement, economic disempowerment, and social isolation of the country’s ethnic minority populations, adding its sectarian minorities, particularly non-Shiites, to the ranks of the excluded following the Khomeinist takeover.   

Thus, in the current uprising, the regime has restricted its mass killing of protesters to minorities – reframed, inevitably, as ‘separatists’ or ‘sectarian insurgents’ – viewing Persian-Iranians, members of its favoured ‘constituency’, so to speak, as being a ‘red line’ without whose support or even grudging acquiescence the regime would lack the solid foundation from which to implement the divide-and-rule policy inherited from its predecessors against the country’s minorities. While there’s no question that Persian-Iranian anti-regime protesters are also brutalised, beaten, arrested and too often killed by the regime’s plainclothes Basiji, the use of tanks, machine guns and armed drones as a means of murderously quelling protests en masse is restricted to the Balochi, Ahwazi, Kurdish, Azerbaijani and other minorities.

Unfortunately, most in the Persian-Iranian opposition, particularly among the older generations of dissidents in exile, are as wilfully blind as the regime officials in their refusal to acknowledge these historic and contemporary injustices towards the country’s minorities, using the same hoary slanders of “separatist” and “troublemaking insurgent” to dismiss minority activism, even while proclaiming their solidarity with ethnic minority anti-regime protests. For Persian-Iranian dissidents, particularly monarchists, as for the regime itself, ethno-supremacism playing a key implicit role in their vision of national self-image, with the glorification of Persian history and culture (and the associated refusal to acknowledge any role for Iranian minorities’ “inferior” history and culture) viewed as central to maintaining power.   

At this stage, however, it is extremely clear that the so-called ‘Islamic Republic regime will never leave power voluntarily, and will pour all its efforts, money and arms into maintaining its vice-like grip on control; its major deals and increasingly close relations in recent years with the equally repressive regimes in Russia and China suggest that this would still leave the regime with an unfortunately significant level of international support, meaning other powers would prefer to avoid intervention, with sanctions likely to be their strongest expression of support for the regime’s opponents. 

This state of affairs further underlines the need for unity between the regime’s opponents domestically and in the diaspora; only through adopting a unified strategy and approach and working with the country’s ethnic minorities as equals, can the Persian-Iranian opposition have any hope of gaining the collective numbers required to successfully oust the utterly merciless regime, which will happily exploit any divisions or points of weakness to serve its own interests; the regime has learnt from its own intervention to save Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria that a divided opposition can be crushed far more easily than a united one. 

While working together for such unity would seem to be the only just and extremely obvious way to build a strong opposition capable of bringing the regime’s military-theocratic dictatorship down, however, for many Persian-Iranian oppositionists, particularly among the supporters of the Shah, any collaboration with ethnic minority groups, let alone any consideration of proportionate rule or federalism, is still considered beyond the pale; as indicated earlier, the monarchists don’t want a new system to replace the current regime, but the restoration of the old system whose supremacist flaws the Khomeinists replicated.  

Indeed, many among Iran’s minorities suspect that much of the Persian-Iranian opposition doesn’t really want to overthrow the current regime as much as to modify it, ensuring greater freedom for women and more attention to human rights – for Persian-Iranians. It’s been noted that while Kurdish, Balochi, Azerbaijani, Ahwazi and other minority activists have regularly protested for their rights, and been brutally punished for doing so, the Persian-Iranian opposition groups have encouraged their own people to obey the authorities and do nothing that might provoke regime forces to anger. 

There’s also some well-founded scepticism among ethnic minorities in Iran and among the diaspora internationally about the sincerity and objectivity of coverage by Persian-Iranian ‘dissident’ journalists like BBC Persia’s Rana Rahimpour. In March of this year, the BBC filed a complaint to the United Nations on Ms Rahimpour’s behalf about the harassment of women journalists as she revealed the abuse she faces while trying to do her job. 

Last week, meanwhile, Iranian state media gleefully released secretly recorded audio footage of a conversation between Ms Rahimpour and her mother, in which her primary concern, rather than the wellbeing of Iranian women, was the interview policies of the [Saudi-backed] Iran International media outlet and how these favoured the heads of ethnic minority anti-regime parties – this is, predictably, also a primary concern of the regime. In the recording, which Ms Rahimpour has verified, she said: 

“Iran International, a Persian language news television channel headquartered in London, UK, instructed its employees to only conduct television interviews with leaders of anti-regime parties in Iran. […] The disturbing news that I heard yesterday is that the directors of Iran International directed their employees to only conduct television interviews with the leaders of the anti-regime parties in Iran; I mean the leaders of the Kurdish, Lur, Arab and other parties…this is very worrying.”

While Ms Rahimpour has since castigated the regime for recording and publishing details of a private phone conversation with her mother, she’s made no move to retract her statement which seems to suggest that minorities in Iran should be regarded unfavourably due to their opposition to the regime.

While there’s no suggestion that Ms Rahimpour is a regime official, it’s not unusual for Iran’s regime to plant its own intelligence agents undercover abroad in jobs including journalists. This was, unusually, even acknowledged by a former Iranian intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, best known as one of the regime henchmen responsible for the AMIA bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 18 July 1984, which killed 85 people, for which his ministerial appointment was widely viewed as a reward. 

Speaking about the regime’s use of intelligence agents in the 2017 interview, Fallahian said:  “The ministry needs cover for its works to collect information both inside the country and outside. It is obvious that we don’t send an agent to Germany or America and for example say, okay, I am an agent of the information ministry, and I am here to collect information – please give that to me. Obviously, he would work under the cover of business or other jobs including reporters. You know many of our reporters are actually ministry agents.”

It’s also been noted that Persian-Iranian activists in Iran and in exile have reduced the cause of freedom from the regime’s theocratic stranglehold to the issue of women’s headscarves; while this is understandable to some degree, with the slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ gaining universal support, it’s also another way of redefining the long civil rights struggle against the regime and airbrushing the historic injustices against ethnic and sectarian minorities out of the equation, removing an awkward problem for the monarchists in particular.  

What the Persian-Iranian monarchists haven’t considered, however, is that the Western leaders and celebrities queuing to express support and pose for pics aren’t the ones confronting the regime on the ground, and being arrested, imprisoned, beaten, shot and targeted day in and day out. 

Again, those putting their lives on the line to struggle for freedom and human rights are, disproportionately, members of the country’s ethnic minorities. While Kurds, Balochis, Ahwazis, Azerbaijani and others will continue to protest, there’s little chance of any real, impactful unified revolutionary movement in solidarity with Persian-Iranians who view them with the same hostility as the regime itself. And the Persian-Iranian opposition can’t rely on its own numbers, when it represents only around 30 per cent of Iran’s total population. So, without the support of those minorities whose rights they’d rather continue to ignore, the Persian-Iranian protesters’ demonstrations will peter out, and the regime will simply wait out the latest round of protests and take bloody revenge once the easily distracted world grows bored, using them as a pretext to clamp down further on dissent.  

In short, Iran’s ethnic minorities, who’ve taken to the streets in vast numbers demanding freedom and justice, are wary not only of the so-called Islamic Republic regime, but of the Persian-Iranian opposition whose sole talking point regarding the latest protests is women’s headgear; while there’s no argument that the regime’s dress policies and regressive views on women and society in general belong to the Dark Ages and should be left there, Iran’s ethnic and sectarian minorities will not be cannon fodder in a revolution which promises only a change of tyrants, however progressive their views on feminism.

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

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