“In this context, the word ‘minorities’ refers not to these ethnic groups’ numbers within the total population, but to the regime’s marginalisation and subjugation of these groups in favour of Persians in every aspect of life, whether political, cultural, economic or any other, even in the ethnic minorities’ own regional homelands where the minorities comprise the majority of the population.”
The human rights situation in Iran is so catastrophic that the regime has abandoned any pretence of observing human rights norms and is openly using every available means of repression to suppress voices and crush protests. Restrictions that follow the constitution and law of the Islamic Republic, and the extrajudicial acts carried out by government agencies such as torture, rape, amputation of fingers, hands and feet, stoning on charges of adultery, and murder of protesters, dissidents and political prisoners are some of the main crimes for which the regime is subject to criticism.
The Iranian regime’s violations against its opponents are not limited to the confines of Iran’s geographical borders, but extend regionally and globally. Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian regime has carried out terrorist attacks and assassinations in more than 20 countries worldwide against opponents. For example, in July 2018, the German authorities thwarted the regime’s terrorist plot against Iranian dissidents living in Paris. In 2019, regime henchmen kidnapped and executed a journalist in Iraq.
The Iranian regime also killed the prominent Ahwazi dissident Ahmad Mola in November 2017 in the Netherlands, as well as kidnapping another leading Ahwazi dissident in exile, Habib Chaab, in Turkey in October 2020. In total, the Iranian regime has killed more than 540 dissidents in foreign countries, also including Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of Iran before the 1979 revolution, and Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou, the Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.
This brutality is not a recent development, but an integral part of the regime’s identity. Since seizing power in 1979, Iran’s regime has consistently used persecution, terror and the abuse of human rights as key tools in its arsenal to preserve and strengthen its own continuity and help its allies and agents in the region.
These relentless abuses and violations have, unsurprisingly, caused psychological, physical, financial, and moral damage to people. The regime is accused of violating human rights in many ways, in Iran and across the region. In some cases, this persecution and repression have a sectarian or religious character, as seen in the suppression of Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Baha’is and other religious minorities in Iran, and in the regime’s support for militias used to terrorise, dispossess, and kill Sunnis across the region. In other cases, it has a political and racial character, as in the suppression, arrest, and execution of domestic opponents, particularly non-Persians. All this means that many politicians in the Iranian regime have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, as clearly demonstrated in numerous reports by international organisations. In addition, some other officials are wanted by international judicial authorities, such as the International Police (Interpol), on terrorist charges, as with Mohsen Rezaei, wanted in connection with the bombing of a Jewish centre in Argentina in 1994.
It should be emphasised that Iran is a multi-ethnic country, with Persians making up only about a third of its total population. Of the other ethnicities in Iran, Turks account for around 40% of the population, Arabs for over 10%, and Kurds for about 10%. Despite this, non-Persian minorities are still subject to systemic racism.
In this context, the word ‘minorities’ refers not to these ethnic groups’ numbers within the total population, but to the regime’s marginalisation and subjugation of these groups in favour of Persians in every aspect of life, whether political, cultural, economic or any other, even in the ethnic minorities’ own regional homelands where the minorities comprise the majority of the population. Despite collectively accounting for over two-thirds of the population in Iran, ethnic minorities are marginalised, persecuted and discriminated against – that is to say ‘minoritised’ – as policy in favour of the dominant Persian group.
The ethnic minorities are by far the most common victims of Iran’s human rights violations, with the type of violation against these groups being related to their ethnicity and the political situation in each region in Iran. For example, the types of violations perpetrated against the ethnically Arab indigenous people of Ahwaz are very different from those committed against the locals in Isfahan or Tehran. This is ignored by the international community, however, leaving a glaring void in the reports by international organisations and Western state institutions, such as those in the United States, Britain, and the European Union nations, about the humanitarian situation in minority areas; the reports from these organisations and agencies focus solely on recording the number of violations, while ignoring the Iranian regime’s political agenda and the context and objective of those violations that aim to destroy the identity of non-Persian peoples. Some activists believe that while many international organisations and institutions have sufficient information about minorities’ marginalisation and poor conditions, the Persian supremacist lobby does its best to obscure and confuse the facts.
Human Rights situation
In Iran, bigotry and abuses against non-Persians have been linked to the ideology of both the current and former regime ever since 1925 since they share the Persian supremacist conspiracist worldview, with both viewing the demands of minorities as a threat to the Persianization of the Iranian state. Reza Pahlavi used the most severe racist policies to suppress Ahwazis, with his son later committing a massacre in Mahabad and Tabriz. While differing with the previous regime over the ruling doctrine, the current regime continued with the same supremacist worldview, using extremist Shiite ideology against religious minorities and non-Persians rather than royalist despotism. In addition, the current regime, since 1979, has deprived Iran’s ethnic minorities of all their fundamental rights, such as education, cultural organisations, and development. These policies contradict international laws protecting human rights, such as heritage, culture, and language rights.
This article does not deny the existence of flagrant and severe violations against the Persian community in Iran; since the first days of the revolution in 1979, the regime has perpetrated heinous crimes against humanity, against all peoples in Iran, including the Persians. For example, there is no social, cultural, political, or economic freedom, political parties and civil society organisations, or religious freedom for any of Iran’s citizens. Moreover, at the start of the revolution from 1979 to 1980, the regime committed horrific crimes against Iranian activists in Tehran and other major cities, carrying out mass executions following grotesquely unjust trials on various charges, especially through the Iranian Revolution Court founded by Ruhollah Khomeini.
While these were going on, the new regime launched frenzied military assaults against widespread protests in Muhammarah in Ahwaz and against the peoples of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and the Turkmen population in Iran. Since the regime refuses to gather or provide any statistics on its own crimes, there are no accurate statistics on the victims, but the estimated figures are chilling enough, with approximately 800 Ahwazi protesters killed or ‘disappeared’ in these demonstrations, along with 5,000 to 7,000 Kurdish protesters in Kurdistan, 60 people in Turkmen areas, and 250 in Baluchistan. In addition, after the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian regime executed all political prisoners in Iran between 1988-1989. The opposition groups claim that these executions numbered 5,000, with most of those killed being members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), also known as Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), although the PMOI has put the number of victims at over 20,000.
The Iranian regime’s murderous reaction to any dissent or protest, particularly by minorities, has not changed in the subsequent decades, with massacres of protesters being standard policy rather than an anomaly. Regime forces have consistently used the most heinous methods to kill demonstrators demanding their fundamental civil, economic, and cultural rights. Two examples of this from many were the regime’s brutal crushing of the Ahwazi Arab uprising in 2005 and the murderous violence used to suppress protests by Azerbaijani Turks in 2006. The regime also launched a brutal crackdown in 2009, deploying forces from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to terrorise demonstrators in that year’s Green Revolution after protests broke out in major cities across Iran over the rigged elections.
Regime forces also killed many demonstrators in the December 2017 and January 2018 protests, alleging that the demonstrators’ goal was to overthrow the regime, although the primary purpose of the protests across Iran was to express anger at economic hardship. The suppression of the November 2019 protests is considered one of the regime’s most heinous collective crimes against citizens, with more than 1,500 people killed across Iran for participating in demonstrations. Furthermore, the murder by regime forces of 150 Ahwazi Arab citizens in the Ahwazi city of Ma’shour that year was a war crime perpetrated by the regime to suppress any protest. In addition, the Iranian regime also killed more than 15 Ahwazi protesters in the July 2021 protests in Ahwaz over the water crisis.
Since mid-September 2022, the whole of Iran has witnessed successive waves of continuous protests following the killing of a young Kurdish woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, in the capital, Tehran, by the regime’s infamous morality police. Protests over her death spread to various Iranian provinces, including Tehran, Kurdistan, and Baluchistan, with the regime reacting with its customary murderous violence in an effort to crush the protests.
The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HARANA) has reported that more than 500 protesters, including 60 minors, have been confirmed killed by Iranian security forces to date. HARANA also noted that the number of wounded documented to date exceeds 10,000, adding that more than 18,000 people, including 549 students, have been arrested, with 13 of these detainees sentenced to death. This large number of victims indicates that the Iranian regime is continuing its aggressive approach to citizens’ civil, economic, and political rights across Iran.
Ethnic Minorities’ Human Rights
In addition to its customary daily violations against all citizens, Iran’s regime also enforces racist policies against minorities through deliberately maintaining poverty and low levels of government services and infrastructure in minority regions to impose a fait accompli policy to displace minorities from their historical lands. Thus, minorities face more severe challenges than Persians in Iran. Iran’s ethnic minorities live in extreme poverty, even though most of Iran’s economy is tied to the geopolitics of non-Persian regions. The regime has also sought for years to harm the environment and water in the ethnic minorities’ regions. For example, the regime drained the Ahwazi marshlands and Lake Urmia in Azerbaijan and deserted the Ahwazi agricultural lands by building dams to divert water courses from the main Ahwazi rivers towards the Persian cities. This policy caused economic and social growth in the Persian provinces, but caused pollution, poverty, and diseases in non-Persian regions, specifically Ahwaz.
Tehran makes every effort to suppress ethnic minorities’ participation in any political and cultural activities, routinely persecuting, imprisoning and assassinating ethnic minority activists (who account for over 70% of the political prisoners and execution victims in Iran) and banning the use of minority languages in official settings, such as schools and courts. In addition, the regime imprisons citizens who join ethnic political organisations on various charges related to Iranian national security due to its belief that non-Persian citizens’ involvement in political activities poses an existential threat to the Iranian state. In November 2008, Gen. Gholam-Ali Rashid, then the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Combined Iranian Armed Forces, stated that “Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and Ahwaz are hotbeds of opposition, so Tehran must confront them.” All these points confirm that the regime’s violations against non-Persian citizens are systematic in nature rather than random and are linked to the regime’s political and security policy of targeting the ethnic and cultural identity of these peoples in order to forcibly assimilate them as Persians and in some cases to make them regime agents.
The regime routinely accuses ethnic minority activists of vague national security charges such as defamation of the state, ‘waging war against God’, and ‘propaganda against the regime’. Therefore, the dissident death rate, such as killings in protests or by executions, is far higher in the areas populated by minorities than in Persian regions. The regime has dealt particularly harshly with Ahwazi Arabs during demonstrations, as with the 2019 protests, which resulted in many Ahwazi deaths. The regime has also dealt extremely brutally with the Kurdish and Baluch demonstrations since September 2022, with more than 70-80% of deaths in Iran during this period being among these ethnic groups.
The regime’s assault on the natural environment in ethnic minority regions is another of its harshest tools for violating human rights since this environmental devastation destroys local economies such as agriculture, livestock, handicrafts, and fisheries, leading to mass displacement and the creation of impoverished ghettoes around the cities in these regions, particularly Ahwaz, the seat of the country’s oil and gas resources, as well as spreading and proliferating diseases. The lack of potable drinking water and water required for domestic use, agriculture and other purposes in Ahwaz’s water-rich region directly threaten the safety, health, and very existence of Ahwazi Arabs. The fundamental goal of this policy is ethnic cleansing and seizing the agricultural lands in this region to force the indigenous people to migrate or to accept medieval poverty and subjugation. The regime’s policies have also led to the destruction of ancient historical monuments in Ahwaz, Baluchistan, and other non-Persian regions.
In conclusion, whilst we must acknowledge the existence and the intolerable nature of the Iranian regime’s heinous violations against Persian activists, these human rights violations are not related to these activists’ ethnic identity but to individuals’ support for human rights such as freedom of expression and economic, political, and social freedoms.
By contrast, the regime’s violations and murderous brutality against non-Persians are not simply about denying the aforementioned fundamental rights, but also about denying these peoples’ right to their ethnic, cultural or religious identity, seeking to forcibly assimilate Ahwazis, Kurds, Azerbaijani Turks, Turkmen, Balochis and all other non-Persian minorities into a hegemonic and supremacist ‘greater Persian’ whole in which no other identity but Persian, no other religion or sect but the regime’s hardline Twelver Shiism, is tolerated or allowed.
The regime also steals the ethnic minorities’ resource wealth, including water, oil and gas, and transfers it to Persian regions in an effort to bolster their prosperity while deliberately maintaining the indigenous minorities in plundered regions in poverty and squalor.
In all Iranian media, Persian history is airbrushed, rewritten, and constantly and bombastically celebrated along with Persian language and culture, often with support from forged documents, while the regime’s official channels are very deliberately mocking and maligning the culture, language, and history of Iran’s ethnic minorities, especially the Ahwazi Arabs, with the regime nurturing and promoting a virulently racist anti-Arab mindset. These hostile policies and this promotion of bigotry and race hate are considered violations of international human rights law and are, in fact, deliberately promoting ethnocide and genocide against these ethnic minorities. Thus, the violations against Ahwazis and other non-Persian minorities, such as the Azerbaijani Turks, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmens and other minorities, are not individual violations, but rather deliberate violations targeting and inciting murderous violence against whole ethnic groups within the society. This is incitement to and participation in genocide.
By Kamil Alboshoka and Rahim Hamid
Kamil Alboshoka, an Ahwazi researcher and International law specialist based in London. Alboshoka tweets under @KAlboshoka.
Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate based in Washington, D.C. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.