The portents foretelling the massive protests that swelled across Iran in response to the death last September of Mahsa Amini (Jina in Kurdish) at the hands of Iran’s morality police in Tehran appeared early on social media, notably after shocking images of Amini on her deathbed went viral, sparking a wave of youth-led rallies in Tehran, Kurdistan, and Azerbaijani provinces.
Despite the large number of Azerbaijani Turks and their significant demographic weight and influence on the political landscape, they did not participate extensively in the protests. The Kurds’ participation in the demonstrations happened because of Jina Amini’s belonging to the Kurdish ethnicity. In Iran, there was a cultural and social atmosphere hostile to the mandatory imposition of hijab and morality police who strangled all personal freedoms. Therefore, many across the country welcomed the protests to the extent that sportsmen, actors and celebrities publicly voiced their support.
In conjunction with the protests in Tehran and the Azerbaijani and Kurdish regions, the Balochis staged their own anti-regime protests in the southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan region. The initial trigger for these protests, however, was different, springing from public anger at the latest unpunished rape of a Balochi child at the hands of a police officer’; for the deeply conservative Balochi people, it was intolerable that such a crime – not the first of its kind – should go unpunished. Regardless of the Balochis’ very traditional culture and the fundamentalist tendencies of some in the region, this brutal crime against a child is clearly an affront to the human conscience.
Concurrently, there’s also been a near-total absence of Ahwazi Arab people’s participation in the demonstrations since the protests first broke out, which raised questions among observers and analysts of regional political affairs. Calls by Iranian opposition figures, monarchists, and even some Ahwazi activists failed to bring Ahwazis out to the streets despite the Ahwazi Arabs’ long history and bitter experience of participation in protests since as far back as the 1930s up to the present day. It appears that there are several reasons behind Ahwazis’ reluctance to participate in the latest anti-regime protests, which we shall explain here.
For Ahwazis, political and economic frustration with the regime had been building since the start of the 1979 revolution. Initially, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) prevented this frustration and brewing discontent from evolving into protests. Immediately after the war ended, however, protests began to emerge. While there have been periods of relative, if tense calm, there have been few years without at least some protests, however limited, ever since.
Here a question arises: Were these protests or demands on the same scale across Iran’s current political geographic area? The answer is definitely not. This is because every group of people has its own demands, concerns and priorities that aren’t necessarily similar to those of other peoples, particularly the Persians who dominate the Iranian state and have always wielded the upper hand ever since establishing the current Iranian nation-state at the hands of Reza Pahlavi with the blessings of Great Britain and with the aid of Persian elites which spawned out of the Qajari court. These ultranationalist elites ultimately wiped out the Qajari court and brought Reza Pahlavi to power, entrusting him with very literally implementing their nationalist and ethno-supremacist schemes.
Iran’s non-Persians – Ahwazis, Kurds, Azerbaijani Turks, Balochis, Gilanis and Turkmen – are peoples with an intense sense of unity and integration both within and between their peoples. All are bound closer together by experiencing and perceiving Persian-Iranians through the lens of a master-and-slave relationship, that of the conqueror and the conquered. Thus, obviously, we find that, despite the shared objective of freedom, the difference in perception makes the political demands and priorities of the Persian people and the non-Persian peoples starkly different.
This means that the Persian elites, including the dissidents, are making tremendous efforts to confine the protests to two discrete spheres: economic demands and personal freedoms, without recognising the rights or demands of the country’s non-Persian nations. These elites spare no effort to marginalise and repress any dissenting voice that dares to resist the conservative Persian ethno-supremacist worldview which is rigid to the point of flatly rejecting any dialogue touching on the conditions of those colonised nations. Rather, they commend the state’s founder Reza Shah, hailing him as the state’s founder while, in reality, his record is drenched in the blood of the victims of massacres and genocides he led against these persecuted non-Persian peoples.
Political groups and movements in Iran have never examined this profoundly supremacist political discourse, which denies the non-Persian peoples their language and political and cultural rights either. The greater the discontent with the current regime, the greater the tendency toward preserving that Persian triumphalist narrative in which the colonised nations are treated at best as backward beneficiaries of Persian’s ‘civilising influence’ and more usually simply as non-existent. This condescending, offensive attitude raises concerns among the persecuted non-Persian peoples, who fear that any change will be for the worse and that the chance to obtain their legitimate demands will be squandered despite the unending sacrifice and struggle. Supporters of this Persian ethnosupremacism, in which no other ethnic identity is tolerated, have the same concerns about the potential disintegration of the current political landscape.
The persecuted and colonised non-Persian peoples have endured over four decades of bitter experience since the victory of the so-called Islamic revolution. Before the ayatollahs seized control, the non-Persian peoples, particularly the Ahwazis, who played a major role in toppling the Shah, believed this would enable them to finally regain their most basic political, cultural and ethnic rights, which were denied for decades. However, these hopes very quickly evaporated. Instead, they have paid a huge, cruel and terrible price for their historical role in the revolution while reaping no benefits at all. Indeed, on the contrary, they’ve been subjected to even greater suffering than they endured under the Shah’s regime, with the so-called Islamic Republic retaining its racism and supremacism and adding theocracy to the toxic mix.
Persian centralisation and the colonised peoples
The present-day nation-state of Iran was established when Reza Khan ascended to power, with Britain’s help, in the mid-1920s; this followed the collapse of the Qajari dynasty, during which the state was divided into loose principalities. These local governments were either independent or quasi-independent, with the Qajaris wielding only nominal authority in several regions, including Ahwaz.
Since Iran first occupied the formerly independent Arab emirates of Ahwaz in 1920 to 1925 in a cynical deal with the British Empire following the discovery of large oil and gas reserves in the region, successive regimes have pursued a policy of persecuting and marginalising the predominantly Ahwazi population in an effort that veers between attempting to assimilate the people and attempting to deny their culture, history and existence. Since the current theocratic regime came to power in 1979, its leadership has accelerated its brutal efforts to drive Ahwazis out, using strategies including rerouting the region’s rivers to other areas of Iran in order to make Ahwaz uninhabitable for its native people.
As in much of the Middle East, the discovery of oil and gas was more of a curse than a blessing for the native people of Ahwaz. Despite Ahwazis’ heritage stretching back to at least 311 BC, over the past century, successive regimes, driven by the need to deny the Ahwazis any claim to ownership of the resources on their own land, have endeavoured to deny their culture in a policy of massive historical revisionism, essentially to depict them as interlopers in their own lands.
From 1925 onwards, successive regimes in Tehran, despite very different forms of government, have pursued similarly inhuman policies towards the Ahwazi people. As a result, despite the region housing over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources on which Iran’s economy depends, its people live in medieval poverty, denied any share in the vast wealth from their resources except for massive pollution from the oil and gas fields and vast refineries.
While Ahwazis are denied the most fundamental amenities, the regime squanders billions of dollars raised from their oil and gas on foreign wars, militias and terrorism, with rage growing in Ahwaz as across Iran over the abysmal conditions and relentless repression.
The Iranian regime’s view of the Ahwazi people primarily as a threat to its own control of the region’s resources means that it subjects them to relentless brutal repression, with extrajudicial killings, arrests and executions on the most transparently flimsy or wholly false pretexts on an everyday basis. Ahwazis are routinely sent to the gallows after ‘trials’ lasting only a few minutes based on ‘confessions’ extracted under torture. Baseless allegations of being ‘infiltrators’, ‘rioters’ and similar terms are used to demonise and vilify Ahwazi protesters, with Iran’s state media presenting Ahwazis in a relentlessly negative light as a way of justifying the regime’s repression. For the regime, Ahwazis’ unspeakable crime is to be Arab and reject Iranian colonisation and oppression.
From the first days of Reza Shah’s seizure of power and the formal establishment of modern-day Iran in the early 1930s, however, the project of cultural and political Persian supremacist centralisation and the associated marginalisation of non-Persian peoples began in earnest. An elite stratum of Persian political, cultural and academic authority figures was quickly assembled and grew rapidly, assuming control of all aspects of life, with the deliberate creation of a rift between the ‘pure’ Persian people and their ‘impure’ non-Persian compatriots ( Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Balochis, and Galiks) that widened steadily. Reza Khan justified this systematic marginalisation and impoverishment of the non-Persian peoples to his fellow Persians by glorifying Persian history and culture while depicting the non-Persians as troublemaking interlopers, despite their indigenous status.
The only way in which non-Persians could win ‘approval’ was (and still is) through assimilation and eradication of the traces of one’s non-Persian identity. Any protest rejecting these policies, which extended into every area of the ethnic minority people’s lives, would be met with swift and brutal retaliation. Reza Shah introduced education policies, for instance, which meant that any child from an ethnic minority heard speaking in his or her native tongue, even if they knew no other language, would be beaten mercilessly. Like Shah’s other policies, this one continues to this day. Similarly, non-Persian peoples were and still are forbidden from publicly wearing their traditional clothes or even giving the children names in their own languages; this can be seen with Mahsa Amini, whose parents wished to name her Jinna, a Kurdish name; instead, they had to choose from a selection of officially approved Persian names simply in order to be able to register her birth.
Similarly, in terms of employment, Reza Shah introduced legislation whereby all high-level and important jobs are reserved solely for Persians or ‘Persianised’ people. Even the most menial jobs were only ‘granted’ to young Ahwazis, Kurds and other ethnic groups.
At the level of job opportunities, all senior and important jobs are granted only to Persians or those Persianised. Even the most inferior jobs were only granted to young people belonging to the persecuted people after decades of restrictive domination. This comes at a time when the rift between Persians and non-Persitans that has become so wide that it’s difficult, not to say near-impossible for Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, and Balochis to compete on an even playing field with Persians who seize the greatest opportunities in these fields for themselves.
From its inception in the 1920s to Reza Khan’s dismissal in 1941 at the demand of Stalin and Churchill during the Tehran Conference, the peoples in Iran endured one of their darkest periods in history, marked by intense persecution, marginalisation, and atrocities unprecedented in their political history.
The majority of current historians are from the Persian ethnic or nationalist elites who believe in solely Persian nationalist doctrines, based wholly on a self-image constructed around a vision of Persian supremacy celebrating historical Persian imperialism, in which Farsi is the only language allowed for education, with history focusing solely on Persia’s historical glories and history taught through the prism of glorifying all things Persian, and embracing the fundamentalist Shiite ‘Twelver’ doctrine. Throughout the late 1930s, Shah Reza built strong ties with Nazi Germany, whose own supremacist doctrine informed much of his, his son’s and their successors’ worldviews. His rule during that period consisted essentially of playing the Soviet Union off against Great Britain, with the two powers competing for domination of the country; this policy failed when those two powers joined in 1941 to fight Nazi Germany. In order to supply the Soviet forces with war materials through Iran, the two allies jointly occupied the country in August of that year.
Reza Shah subsequently decided – or was more probably forced – to abdicate in favour of his less controversial son, Shah Mohammad Reza, who came to power in September 1941.
With the continuation of World War II, there was an opportunity for the creation of a cultural and political class, albeit a small one, from among the colonised nations, who were able to some degree to heal the rift between themselves and their Persian compatriots and seek freedom. During this time, the Soviet Union helped establish the Republic of Azerbaijan and the (Kurdish) Republic of Mahabad, although both of these entities lasted only a few months before being once again subsumed under Iranian control. There was also an attempt in Ahwaz to regain its independence or at least an autonomous rule, although this also failed due to poor coordination and leadership, as well as a lack of any solid political, cultural, and organisational foundations, particularly in the face of the Shah’s brutal iron fist policy that effectively turned the whole of Ahwaz into a military barracks.
Once WWII ended, the Iranian elites were soon able to resume absolute political control and have the last word. Persecution of all dissidents, more especially of any dissent from non-Persian peoples, was again the norm, inflicted by the Shah’s notorious SAVAK secret police with systematic preparations to forcibly assimilate the country’s non-Persian populations linguistically, culturally, and demographically continuing until the 1979 revolution ousted the monarchy.
Regime and opposition: A common interest in prosecuting oppressed non-Persian peoples
The colonised non-Persian peoples’ major demands are that Iran be recognised as a country of multiple self-ruled states rather than a homogenous monocultural, monolingual nation where only Persian culture and the Farsi (Persian) language are recognised.
After years of marginalisation and ethnic oppression, being treated as third-class citizens for their ethnicity and forbidden any expression of their culture or language, the non-Persian peoples want independence and a minimally federalised system, with each having their own state; non-Persian peoples demand that they should not be referred to as minorities since each ethnic group is the majority within their own region, with each of these devolved, autonomous states taking charge of their own educational, cultural and other affairs. Also, the Persian leadership uses this ‘minority’ label to further demean and humiliate the non-Persian peoples, treating their wholly separate languages as ‘dialects’ and referring to entire ethnic groups as ‘tribes’.
So long as non-Persians, who collectively account for the majority of Iran’s population, are denied these fundamental rights, there will not be the unity required to support the ousting of the current regime.
Despite the passage of 44 grim years and the advent of a new century since the 1979 revolution was derailed by the Khomeinists, the existing regime and the Persian opposition still share the same supremacist worldview. While the opposition wants to oust the current theocratic rulers and establish secular governance, it bases its plans for Iran on the same model of monocultural Persian supremacy, in which non-Persians are either wholly assimilated or brutally marginalised. This is justified by the pretext of ‘maintaining territorial integrity’ and ‘resisting disintegration’ – although nothing’s more likely to create resentment likely to fracture and destroy the perceived nation than once again ignoring the rights and freedoms of its ethnic minorities. Several aspects and various challenges lurk beneath these innocuous-sounding slogans.
For the country’s disillusioned colonised peoples, any change of rule that perpetuates the same unjust, grotesquely racist system is not an improvement, just a change of tyrants. For speaking out to demand real change and voicing frustration and anger at being brutally oppressed and denied the most fundamental rights under two successive regimes, these colonised peoples are vilified not just by the regime itself but by the Persian opposition as a ‘danger to national security’ and ‘threat to territorial integrity’. This means that these ethnic minority populations face similar efforts to silence or coerce their voices by both the regime and its Persian adversaries, leaving the colonised nations between a rock and a hard place without hope of real change, and largely disinclined to risk their lives to protest for no gain.
The impact of this brutal, cynical and inhuman politicking appears in the most tense and delicate political situations, both in previous waves of protests as well as in the more recent ones across Iran. These concerns over ‘territorial integrity ‘dominated most of the media coverage during the recent protests. Moreover, it’s very apparent that all the Persian opposition factions, particularly the monarchists, have tacitly conspired with the regime via their media outlets to advocate for solely a change of leadership rather than of the underlying, unjust and racist system.
As many Ahwazi, Kurdish, Turkish and Balochi activists have noted, any initiative launched by the long-suffering persecuted and colonised non-Persian peoples advocating any form of federalism or any shift from the status quo of Persian centralisation is simply ignored. Thus, the state’s repressive machine extends to thwart any attempt by those colonised people to declare their autonomy. At the same time, while the Persian opposition covers the violence against protesters, it turns a blind eye to the repression against non-Persians which is never mentioned in the media, with no effort to raise awareness among human rights organisations and inform the public about these abuses.
The deepest fears of both the regime and opposition are that the political, cultural and media discourse among and between the colonised non-Persian peoples will improve, which would enable these oppressed nations to unite, giving them a politically and numerically significant weight that would allow them to compete head-to-head with this Persian centralisation, and to confront and dismantle it, imposing their own demand through directly affecting regional and global public opinion, the persecuted non-Persian peoples and even the Persian people themselves.
So long as the best and brightest among the colonised peoples are constrained within the parameters of simply responding to the regime’s measures, this will lead to massive losses at the political and cultural levels. With no strong media voice or international media presence to challenge the well-funded, extremely slick media machine which promotes an image of a homogenous monocultural Iranian Persian state, the non-Persian peoples have no way to correct the misconceptions and slanderous misrepresentations perpetuated by both the regime and the Persian opposition. For example, the decades of sacrifice and suffering endured by the Ahwazi people have been very successfully covered by a complete media blackout, bolstered by the marginalisation of the Persian opposition which refuses to acknowledge or admit to the history of racism and supremacism against non-Persian peoples as adamantly as the current regime.
At best, the situation is occasionally conveyed in a distorted manner, to the point where any event in Ahwaz that does receive coverage is always taken out of its normal context, with no background information provided, and reshaped in a manner that bolsters the Persian supremacist worldview in which Tehran is a ‘stabilising’ influence.
All this means that, for the persecuted and colonised Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis, Azeribajanis and other ethnic minorities, there’s well-founded scepticism about the possible benefits of involvement in the current wave of national protests; with no voice or power within the Persian opposition, many ask why they should risk their lives to fight one oppressive, supremacist Persian regime in order to replace it with another under which they’ll remain effectively second-class citizens. It’s not the Persian opposition in exile who are expected to risk imprisonment, torture and death for the chance of ousting a dictatorship whose monstrous cruelty the peoples in Iran know all too well.
Having watched Syria for 12 years, the people of Iran are fully aware that they too would be left alone to face Iranian – and possibly Syrian, Russian and Chinese – militias, troops, tanks and planes sent to crush any uprising; for ethnic minorities especially, the idea of enduring such unimaginable horror for an unknown period of years only for a ‘best-case scenario’ of a change of despots is not one to send anyone rushing to revolt. In such a case, only Persian supremacism wins, as was the case with Iran’s non-Persian peoples in previous uprisings, which has led those persecuted and colonised peoples to turn their back on the current protests – not out of any support for the hated ayatollahs, but out of a feeling that such sacrifice for the sake of a new tyrant rather than freedom isn’t worth the effort. Ahwazi protests demanding freedom and human rights have been similarly misrepresented to benefit the monarchists in opposition, although, once again, there is no appetite among Ahwazis for a regression from the current tyranny to the previous one.
The efforts of Persian opposition media to encourage widespread Ahwazi participation in the current wave of protests have been met with scepticism or anger. The same media outlets even exploited the death of a young Ahwazi girl, Atifa Naami, in the protests as part of their strategy to push Ahwazis to take to the streets. While some have done so, the vast majority have rejected this pressure, assessing the political climate and seeing that their voices and demands will again be ignored.
In addition to attempts by Persian-language media outlets such as BBC Persia and Iran International to goad Ahwazis into taking to the streets for the current protests, the regime itself attempted to provoke Ahwazis to participate in them, through provocations such as torturing a number of prisoners, including Emad Heydari, to death, executing another political prisoner and sentencing several others to the death penalty in recent weeks.
This apparent effort to incite Ahwazis to protest raises an intriguing question: Why would the Iranian regime try to encourage Ahwazis to participate in the protests that Tehran is simultaneously attempting to suppress in Tehran and other provinces?
This can be answered with an observation born of experience: political experience has proven that in every uprising, the Iranian regime seeks a scapegoat to crush in order to intimidate other would-be protesters and force them back into silence. For the regime, such wholesale massacres cannot be perpetrated in Tehran or other predominantly Persian cities since Persian society is the backbone and mainstay of the Iranian state, and killing ethnic Persians in Persian cities would receive massive coverage from Persian opposition media and be internationally condemned. Realising that this would be a ‘bad optic’, the regime will instead choose its scapegoats from among the most vulnerable ethnic groups whose persecution receives little or no coverage from the opposition or other media.
The regime also realises that inflicting such large-scale atrocities on Turks or Kurds would be likely to result in unwanted regional tensions. For the regime, therefore, the solution and the most vulnerable group and ideal scapegoat is found in Ahwaz. If Ahwazis join the protests and are again brutally suppressed and massacred in large numbers, the regime in Tehran will be able to kill two birds with one stone – putting down the national revolt and wiping out dissidents and any revolutionary forces—whether political or otherwise—among the Ahwazi people during the chaos created by such protests. This would also:
1- Intimidate other peoples, particularly Persians, to deter them from continuing their protests.
2- Ensure the usual media silence from the Persian opposition and opposition media, who have no interest in covering atrocities against Ahwazis.
3- Use the coverage to foment more anti-Arab hatred, already a staple of Persian media.
The regime is also fully aware that there would, as always, be no Arab media coverage of any such slaughter or any genuine regional support for the Ahwazi people, more especially with the newfound détente between the Arab nations and the Iranian regime. One can contrast this with the sympathetic coverage from Turkish or Kurdish media in other regions for the suffering of the regime’s Azerbaijani and Kurdish victims. On the tragedies and injustices inflicted on Ahwaz, meanwhile, the Arab world has been silent for almost a century.
For the regime, such protests would offer another pretext for further repression, probably in the name of ‘protecting national integrity’ or defending the state against separatist insurgents, with slanderous accusations of ‘terrorism’ also a standard regime response to any Ahwazi uprising; the regime knows and caters solely to its own Persian constituency, whose overt racist antagonism towards Arabs has been the bane of Ahwazis’ lives for almost a century.
For all these reasons, therefore, Ahwazis will not be providing Iran’s regime with the scapegoat it demands. For the same reason, its people will not be lending any large-scale support to any uprising in which they are once again forgotten and betrayed.
If Iran’s opposition truly wants the support of Ahwazis and other non-Persians, it must be transformed into a real opposition for all Iran’s peoples including all the long-colonised and repressed ethnic groups and states; without any representative role for all its peoples and the recognition of their right to sovereignty and autonomy, no matter who’s in charge in Tehran, there will be no real change for the country’s long-suffering colonised states.
By Rahim Hamid and Ruth Riegler
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.
Ruth Riegler is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom. Ruth tweets under @Syrians4J