For over forty years, protests against the draconian rule of the Iranian regime have repeatedly risen and been quickly, brutally crushed. However, this time the protests are different. Women are in the forefront of the uprising, which began in the ethnically populated regions on the peripheries of the country, before spreading to central Iran – and the regime’s efforts to terrorise the people into silence aren’t working as they did previously.
Iran’s notorious morality police brutally murdered Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022, igniting widespread protests. These protests, which cut across Iran’s many social and ethnic divisions, have led many analysts to call it a women-led revolution and suggesting that the Iranian regime may have reached a breaking point.
However, many observers who focus on Iran are puzzling over why this protest movement is now waning. A simple but overlooked answer lies in the fact that prominent opposition groups, which include Persian nationalist and pro-monarchy groups, while wanting a change of regime, believe in maintaining the status quo and oppose radical change, so the regime is still far from the “point of no return.” The change desired by these groups primarily concerns taking control over the Iranian nation-state’s framework, which is based on Persian nationalism and the Shiite sect, while maintaining the longstanding denial of the national rights of the country’s colonised peoples. This movement appears to have failed because it was unable to overcome gender, ethnic, and religious divisions in Iran, despite early optimistic hopes, because the organised anti-regime opposition is still concerned with replacing the existing regime while maintaining its colonial policies, rather than prioritising freedom and justice for all.
In a bitterly ironic twist, Amini’s parents, like millions of other national minority members in Iran were forced at their daughter’s birth to give her a Farsi name – Mahsa -rather than their chosen Kurdish name of Jina, by discriminatory laws outlawing non-Persian names, garb and language-teaching, among other things, which date back to the era of the Shah’s rule. The repression of national minorities and discriminatory laws are representative of both the current and previous regimes, which share a foundation of Persian supremacism and systemic racism towards minorities, differing only on the form of absolute authoritarian rule – autocratic monarchy vs theocracy.
In the beginning of the current women-led uprising, non-Persian groups initially led the protest movement in Iran, including Kurds, Azerbaijani Turks, Balochis and Ahwazi Arabs. Yet now, while the non-sovereign nations (non-Persian national minorities) and other minorities have endured the lion’s share of the regime’s repressive crackdown, the Iranian regime and Persian opposition factions have effectively collaborated, however informally, to functionally maintain core reactionary and chauvinist pro-Persian doctrine. Persistent racial discrimination, among other things, undermines the protest movement at home, where Persian chauvinism promises to unify all peoples in Iran through absorbing all non-Persian peoples under the Reza Pahlavi group’s slogan ‘one language, one nation, one leader and one homeland.’ The objective of denying cultural rights and even the entire existence of non-Persian ethnic groups in the country is an objective the regime shares with several of its foes, which in turn promotes the emergence of fault lines within the opposition.
In an attempt to hijack and ignore the struggles of the colonised nations – Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, and Balochis – who are demanding their long-denied human rights, including their rights to self-determination – Persian monarchists in coordination with affiliated media channels, have launched a social media hashtag, ‘I vote for Reza Pahlavi’, supporting the appointment of the would-be Shah as the leader of a transition government in Iran once the current regime is overthrown. This campaign is widely viewed by Ahwazi, Kurds, Turks, and Balochis- who collectively make up the majority of the country’s population – as an apparent attempt to seize control of the protest movement which has been largely led by these colonised nations who’ve risked their lives to participate in the protests with many protesters using the Kurdish freedom motto ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’.
Both the regime and Persian opposition factions use the term ‘territorial integrity’ to marginalise all other nations and religious minorities and otherwise justify repressing them. Furthermore, this term is used to support the false impression that the non-Shiite, non-Persian groups are less loyal to Iran, thereby viewed as untrustworthy and as second and third-class citizens. If the revolution is to prevail, the Persian-dominated opposition groups need to reconsider their longstanding exclusivist tendencies and meaningfully insert other ethnic groups’ political institutions and marginalised groups into the collective struggle towards democracy.
With regard to religion, the Iranian constitution stipulates that only Shiite Muslims have the right to assume senior political, religious and administrative positions. Setting aside for the moment the illegality of this form of religious intolerance, it is the Sunni protests, including those led by Kurds and Balochis, which have repeatedly borne the brunt of brutal regime reprisals during the ongoing protests in Iran. In a single demonstration, nearly 100 Sunni Balochi protesters were killed. They never had ID cards or citizenship documents. They were considered improper and criminal citizens due to their “national” and religious affiliations, and all too many are simply disappeared by the regime – through murder or arbitrary imprisonment – as if they never existed.
Pro-monarchy Persians oppose the very concept of any leader emerging from non-Persian and non-Shiite groups, again citing the regime-promoted spectre of Iran being disintegrated and losing its territorial integrity. This is precisely the same tactic used by the regime to mobilise its popular bases, through blaming non-Persian protesters for having ‘separatist’ agendas and motives, rather than even passingly acknowledging their just grievances. The nationalist Persian opposition groups have played a polarising role through their campaigns to reinstate Iran’s exiled prince, suggesting a transition from clerical rule to a secular one as if it were some panacea rather than a mere substitution of one authoritarian regime for another. This demand deals a huge blow to the protest movement since it pits Iranians against each other. Persian nationalists claim that Reza Pahlavi is their representative. Meanwhile, Ahwazi Arab and other non-Persian colonised peoples have rejected the idea of reinstating the unlamented monarchy after the downfall of the Islamic republic’s regime.
Media blackout and relentless censorship
For the country’s minorities, this overt systemic racism was one of the drivers of the 1979 revolution to overthrow the Shah, which was hijacked by Ayatollah Khamenei and resulted in the current regime seizing power. Indeed, the similarities between the current and former regime seem far greater than the differences. The would-be restored Shah has even spoken about his ties to the current regime’s notorious and hated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), saying that he opposes dismantling this infamously brutal force and, while he’d prefer it to be more secular in nature, he would use it to ‘maintain security’ if he takes power. Rejecting the new campaign by the Shah’s supporters, activists among the country’s national minorities have launched a counter-hashtag, ‘Media Coup’, rejecting the effort to seize control of the uprising, and emphasising that they’re protesting for an end to all tyranny, not a change or return to another flavour of repression and bigotry. Across the country, they’ve been speaking out to reject all forms of despotism, with placards at protests carrying slogans like ‘No to the Shah, no to the Theocrats, Yes to Democracy and Freedom’.
The foremost concern, or better to say the priority for the recognised Persian opposition groups, is to show that the protests in Iran are mainly triggered by their calls from exile, suggesting that these opposition groups and leaders enjoy widespread popular acceptance among the masses of oppressed people in Iran. However, the actual facts on the ground tell a different story. In Persian majority provinces such as Isfahan and Shiraz and large parts of Tehran capital, the protests are primarily economic, calling for improving the deteriorating economy and putting an end to rampant government corruption.
Scattered slogans here and there are also raised in support of regime change and bringing the expatriated Reza Pahlavi, or his rival Maryam Rajavi, to power. We occasionally hear slogans such as ‘dear Shah, rest in Peace’ or ‘Salute to Maryam Rajavi’. This relatively minor aspect of the protests and these limited demands are covered and promoted extensively on Iranian Persian-speaking news channels such as the Manoto, BBC Farsi and Iran International.
But, the media blackout, censorship and misrepresentation of the voice of protesters come to the surface, especially when protests broke out in the Ahwazi areas. In those areas, people are plunged to their necks in systematic marginalisation, enforced poverty, denial of their “national identity”, rejection of their culture and naked anti-Arab racism. Moreover, their environment is severely polluted with regime-backed oil activities while they are excluded from even working in that industry, d and their best fertile lands are confiscated forcibly with zero or meagre compensation for establishing sugar cane companies.
Moreover, the Ahwazi people are facing additional economic and environmental issues specific to their regions: their rivers are dammed heavily, and watercourses diverted to Persian provinces, leaving the Ahwazi areas dried up, fish destroyed, and animals dying en masse as a result of droughts. Local farmers are forced to desert their villages due to lack of water, and move to live in ghetto areas crowded with Ahwazi’s impoverished population. Ahwazi rights activists were often arrested en masse for protesting these violations. The regime retaliates by throwing them in secret detention centres where they go through the worst tortures, facing kangaroo trials which last five to ten minutes without any access to legal representation in the courts. More often than not, they are ultimately convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences and the death penalty.
The charges imposed on Ahwazi activists include separatism and posing a grave threat to the country’s so-called national security just because this “national minority-majority” in their homeland endeavours to prevent their cultural identity from being erased, and demand to be allowed to exercise their own Arabic cultural traditions. They are viewed as national security threats for wanting their languages to be taught in school alongside Persian and for having their historical monuments recognised and protected. They face executions and accusations of terrorism for not wishing their history in the region to be erased by Persian ethnonationalism and are presented as separatists for fighting to end the government’s plans for changing the demographic makeup of Ahwazi Arab areas. These ethnic cleansing and displacement policies are executed through Persian population transfers to work in the oil and petrochemical sectors. These transferred workers are then provided with all the services denied to the local Ahwazi Arab population, as well as with housing and other school and recreational and medical amenities.
Ahwazi Arabs frustratingly complain that their voices are absent and oppressed inside and outside the country, as being Ahwazi itself is viewed as contempt, and both this government and Persian opposition groups refuse to support and recognise their plight. Ahwazis do not see any glimpse of hope as they continuously witness their news being heavily censored and the news of the extra-judicial killing of Ahwazi Arab protesters being ignored. Their protests are hijacked and misappropriated by Iranian Persian-speaking opposition groups who take advantage of the number of murdered Arab prisoners and killed protesters to get an international platform to advance their own activities, while silencing the voices of the Ahwazi Arab victims whose exceptionally brutal treatment (along with other ethnic groups) by the regime is not distinguished from other Iranian murdered protesters or Iranian executed prisoners.
Satellite channels affiliated with the US State Department, such as Voice of America in Persian, do not adhere to US State Department policy and media discourse, nor do they abide by the US government’s stated principles, which is to say principles based on democracy, liberalism, and freedom for all individuals who wish to voice their views, not simply a singular group. Unfortunately, during our lengthy, in-depth monitoring of Voice of America programs in Farsi, we have discovered that these programs do not adhere to the ostensible principles that underlie its existence, which mandate non-discrimination and impartiality in covering news and reports. They do not allow all parties to express their views, nor do they adhere to any reasonable definition of media professionalism. The personnel and staff of this channel, which is supported by American taxpayers, routinely insert their personal counterfactual ideologies into programming, most notably the false notion that Iran is mostly, if not entirely, made up of Persian ethnicity. Nor is there any diversity to be found; there are no non-Persian people involved in programming.
As a result, they do not provide any voice to Ahwazi, Turk, or Balochi activists. This makes us wonder if this is America’s voice or the narrow-minded biased Persian staff who seek to marginalise the non-Persian peoples who make up 70% of Iran’s population! I wonder how such media misinformation is allowed by a reputable institution like the Voice of America. There are journalists, media professionals, and opinion-makers from within the Ahwazi Arab people and the rest of the non-sovereign peoples, who exist across America and Europe, free to speak openly about the horrors of the regime and how it can be challenged. They can express their opinions regarding their national and political demands, and provide dearly needed perspective and analysis, yet they are not to be seen or heard. Instead, programming all too often includes doctored footage in which the sound from Ahwazi protests are muted because they are in Arabic rather than Persian.
In fact, this is precisely what happened to those Arab Ahwazis who were shot dead during the protests by Iranian government forces, especially in the November 2019 protests and in July 2020, which were primarily due to ethnic oppression and man-made water shortages aimed at enforcing Ahwazi Arabs to leave their oil-rich lands for expanding oil drilling operations. They were on record peacefully chanting in Arabic slogans “with we Ahwazi Arabs will protect our ‘Ahwaz homeland’, with our souls and lives we will save you O Ahwaz”, “We defend our rivers and its water,” “We are Arab origins. We aren’t foreigners, and here is our land”. “We feel proud when we say we are Ahwazis.” Such protests that demand individual and collective citizenship rights and larger autonomy contradicted the mood and favourite doctrine of the Iranian opposition groups, who are highly impacted by and share the Iranian government propaganda narratives. These opposition groups succumbed to the idea that providing support for and covering the Arab protests, and recognising their demands in their provinces is a prelude for secessionism. As a result, they failed to report the real reason for these protests.
The reason behind Iranian opposition groups and their media obfuscating the demands of the national minorities is that the national 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 national threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and a step towards a breakup of Iran. The national minorities are responding to the decades of oppressive 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 to aim to put an end to the oppression, but at the same time they treat the demands of the national ethnic minorities as betrayal and acts of belligerence. While Ahwazis, Kurds, Turks 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.
Activists are calling on Western political leaders, activists and media to listen to the voices of the long-oppressed minority populations and not to be fooled by or to legitimise the Shah’s and his supporters’ false claims to support democracy and freedom. In addition to the moral need to oppose racism and support real freedom and democracy for all the peoples in Iran, there’s also a practical factor that makes this essential; while any uprising to depose the current regime needs unity to succeed in the face of the regime’s brutal military might, the vast majority of Kurds, Ahwazis, Azerbaijani Turks, Balochis, Turkmen and other minority groups who remember the despotism of the Shah’s rule which led to the current despotic regime, will refuse to align with any movement to restore the equally repressive and racist monarchy.
For decades, Iranian -Persian rule, since the establishment of Iran’s nation-state, has been at the cost of non-Persian national minorities, 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, regime change could be meaningful if Persian opposition groups officially accept other national groups and take steps to discuss the formation of a federal republic.
For Iran’s national ethnic minorities, it is clear that the Iranian state relies on continued denial of the identity of colonised nations and peoples [Ahwazi, Kurds, Turks, Balochis, etc.], defined by the Iranian regime as ‘Others’. The term “Iranian identity” or “Iranian people” is not seen by minorities as including them, but as referring solely to the ethnically Persian 30 per cent of the population, who are given preferential treatment and automatic priority over all other ethnicities. According to this unipolar worldview, the world is divided into only two categories – the ‘self’ (Persian) and the ‘other’ (non-Persian), effectively delegitimising the culture, language and entire identity of the non-Persian majority. In this narrow worldview, there is no room for other cultural and linguistic identities; either citizens must accept the dominant Persian identity and abandon their own cultural and linguistic identity or be considered as traitors.
Worth noting is how many Westerners, supportive of Iran regime change, have gravitated to the most extreme ethnocentrists, allegedly out of fear for “Iranian territorial integrity” in the event non-Persians emerge as distinctive voices. The reasons for that are manifold: First, the non-Persians have not been effective in engaging government officials, major think tanks, mainstream media, and other activists. The factors contributing to this issue include language restrictions, relatively small communities in Western countries, denial of platforms by the Persian diaspora, and lack of know-how in effective lobbying, resulting in the exclusion of other relevant voices on the issue by many officials.
Second, the amount of disinformation promoting dire images of separatism, terrorism, and potential civil war by both the regime apparatchiks and Persian nationalist opposition is creating the optics of likely, and no serious official or political officeholder wishes to end up in that situation. It is far safer to go along with the flow.
Third, is the general failure of Western education on Iran, which on the primary level is nearly non-existent and on the university level in most Western states is dominated by Persian academics, who over decades have inculcated an Iranian nationalist and exclusive narrative that writes non-Persian influences, concerns, and perspectives out of the curriculum. Kurdish Studies are only starting to become a potential field of research in universities, and even there providing a fair and comprehensive survey of diverse perspectives is not an easy task. The representations of other national groups in the US education institutions are even further behind, partly due to a lack of demand and expertise in those areas.
Fourth is the funding and the support that goes into pro-regime lobbies, favoured by the leftists in the US, Canada, and Europe, whereas opposition groups are divided and underfunded, with no serious political backing, and that is even more the case for non-Persians. Political and intellectual influencers are likewise susceptible to groupthink, close-mindedness, conformism, and tunnel vision; ignorance of the issues is compounded by wishing to fit in with all the right people and not to be distracted from the main political message, which is toppling or pressuring the regime.
With this denial by Persian opposition groups in exile and with the regime in Iran continuing its repressive and racist rule, the potential outcome is worrisome. Histories of Civil war, such as that which ravaged the former Yugoslavia, serves as a terrible warning of what can befall such abusive, oppressive and unjust systems.
Speaking with Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies (DIRS) Sirwan Renas, a prominent Kurdish activist and a PhD student in political theory at the University of Pennsylvania, said: ‘The main reason that Iran’s current revolution has not been successful is the socio-historical structure of Iran as a multination state. Unlike the widely-held view among political analysts, Iran is not a nation. It is not even a normal state; instead, Iran is a multination semi-Empire, a surplus of a pre-modern Empire. To understand the current political dynamic between Persians, as the holders of sovereignty, and non-sovereign nations in Iran, one needs to understand the historical process through which modern Iran was created. The Persian nationalism narrative is founded on the idea of Iran as a nation that has come into existence through peaceful historical co-existence and the Persian language as the language of “Iranians”; both claims are wrong. Strictly speaking, the relationship of Persians with other nations within Iran has been shaped by conquest and domination, and the Persian language and culture were imposed on the other nations. Indeed, Iran is comprised of five nations: Persians, Azerbaijani Turks, Kurds, Balochis, and Ahwazi Arabs. The modern Iranian nationalist project actively implemented a colonial project to assimilate all nations into (the) Persian identity. Generally speaking, the project failed.’
Renas continued: ‘I believe the ongoing Jin, Jiyan, Azadî (woman, life, freedom) revolution will not lead to a genuine change within Iran. It is, of course, a crucial historical uprising for all peoples in Iran (which started among Kurds). However, it is failing because most Persians do not want it to happen as they are terrified of Iran’s breakup as a state. They do want regime change, provided their historically dominant position is guaranteed. They do not want to accommodate other nations in any form of power- and sovereignty-sharing. This is the main problem leading to the political failure of this revolution.’
He concludes:‘There are two competing political projects. First, Persian nationalism, which expresses itself around “territorial integrity”. The fact that the non-sovereign nations have a large portion of their nation-kin in neighbouring countries has always been the nightmare of Persian nationalism. The second is the self-determination movements, which frame their discourse around the idea of national self-determination. Therefore, I would predict a “civil war” in Iran in the aftermath of Iran’s breakup rather than a real positive change. Whether Persians would be able to suppress the other nations remains a challenging empirical question for which I do not have enough information. Nonetheless, the way the regime breaks up will affect the political outcomes.’
To avert such catastrophe – which would be on a far larger scale than Yugoslavia’s civil war given Iran’s greater size – Iran must abandon its antiquated supremacist mindset and acknowledge its non-Persian minorities, who collectively make up over two-thirds of the population, as equal stakeholders and partners who form a ‘power base’ in their own right; the creation of a federalised democratic system would defuse tensions and mean the possibility of a fair, genuinely progressive, modern state.
Even without its regressive theocratic foundation, the current supremacist system in Iran, based on domination by the Persian minority, is an inadequate and outdated relic reflecting a mindset based on 19th-century colonialism. In reality, the Iranian state is a patchwork of ethnicities, faiths and doctrines. As a result, Iran can choose between creating a fair, stable, democratic and progressive 21st-century state representing this vibrant and diverse multination melting pot in which each group can elect its representatives to share in an equal, fair and federalised system of rule – or risk collapsing into factionalism and civil war.
By Rahim Hamid and Aaron Eitan Meyer
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.
Aaron Eitan Meyer is 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.