In the 20th century, there was no country called Iran nor an identity known as Iranian. Instead, the country was known as Persia, and its governance was under the rule of the Qajar dynasty. However, when the Gajari government collapsed in 1925, and Reza Shah came to power, he aimed to expand Persia’s territories by annexing the previously semi-independent and independent kingdoms of Arabistan(Ahwaz), Balochistan, and Kurdistan. Through military occupation, the governing rules of these regions were destroyed and were forcibly occupied, annexed and colonised, and Reza Shah ordered the country to be renamed Iran in 1936.
This significant colonisation and occupation took place during the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in the early 20th century. According to British Naval Intelligence records, Reza Khan Pahlavi implemented a centralised system, replacing the decentralised Qajar regime. As part of this process, the newly colonised regions of Gilan, Kurdistan, Luristan, Arabistan (Ahwaz), and Balochistan were subjugated to the centralised power of the Pahlavi state. These attempts to consolidate and monopolise power resulted in violence, bloodshed, and mass atrocities in these colonised non-Persian regions. During this consolidation of power, it is essential to note that it was not solely a matter of expanding Persian governance but an intentional process that aimed to abolish, outlaw, and eradicate the distinct identities, cultures, histories, and languages of the colonised and annexed regions.
The concept of Iranianness or Irāniyat was first introduced by Mirza Fath’Ali Akhundzadeh and Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, prominent ethno-nationalist figures of the late Qajar era in Iran. They drew inspiration from Eurocentric nationalism and the European nation-state model. This concept was later expanded upon by a group of Persian nationalist intellectuals based in Berlin during the early 20th century.
Drawing inspiration from Eurocentric nationalism and the European nation-state model, a group of Persian nationalist intellectuals based in Berlin during the early 20th century expanded upon this concept. They formulated an ideology that embraced the perception of Persian ethnicity as an Aryan race, encompassing Persian linguistic and political elements with the goal of building a nation-state.
The Pahlavi regime in Iran embraced, adopted and disseminated this ideology, consolidating its control over the nation. Under the leadership of Reza Shah, the Persian government actively pursued the suppression and assimilation of the distinct identities and cultural practices of the recently annexed regions. This aggressive approach included imposing the Persian language, customs, and traditions, eradicating the autonomy and self-governance of these regions while disregarding their national rights and rich cultural heritage.
Consequently, the centralisation of power entailed not only political dominance but also the systematic eradication and oppression of the diverse identities that once thrived in these non-Persian regions. As a result, these nations lost their sovereignty and became subjugated, stateless nations in their own lands.
Ever since, the Ahwazis, Turks, Kurds, and Balochis have been struggling to bring international attention to their plight, advocating for recognition as colonised nations and asserting their right to self-determination.
Persian Iranians sought to erode the national rights of the colonised nations by categorising them as mere ethnic groups or minorities who resisted assimilation into what they perceived as a civilised Persian identity. This nationalistic outlook fostered a belief in cultural and ethnic superiority, deeming non-Persian ethnic minorities inferior and necessitating their forced assimilation to create a homogeneous Persian entity. The colonised and minoritised ethnic groups were subjected to the Persianisation assimilation process, which was reinforced through the violent imposition of the Persian language as the sole language of education. The languages of these colonised nations were considered mere dialects, and individuals were required to give up their languages and assimilate into Persian culture if they wanted to obtain jobs, respect, and progress. Any resistance to this assimilation process resulted in being labelled as anti-Iran, an enemy, or a separatist.
Under the Iranian nation-state system, Persian people hold a privileged position, and all aspects of their language, culture, history and identity are promoted to their advantage. This has resulted in the majority of government jobs being reserved for them, enabling them to easily align themselves with the ruling regimes from the Shah to Khomeini. Both Persian society and the ruling regime have developed a consensus that Ahwazis, Turks, Kurds, and Balochis are inferior and uncivilised, and, in order to be considered valuable citizens, they must assimilate into the nationalist Iranian identity. Consequently, these marginalised peoples are subjected to racial discrimination and exclusion. This ethno- nationalist mentality has escalated to the point where even basic demands from these subjugated groups are deemed dangerous and hostile, often leading to severe punishments. Hundreds of Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, and Balochis have been executed under the pretence that they are separatists and pose a threat to Iran’s national security. The privileged Persian society, either through explicit support or complicit silence, perpetuates this oppressive system.
In Iran today, there is no single dominant ethnic group based on a numerical majority. Instead, the country is made up of distinct nations, each with its own language, culture, environment, and geography. The peoples of each of these nations constitute a majority in their respective regions or kingdoms, as described ninety years ago. Currently, Iran can be defined as a country including various distinctive ethnic minorities or, more accurately, a country of many nations, as recognised historically in political literature since Iran’s constitutional revolution in 1909.
In Britain, both in academic circles and in the media, the term ‘country’ is used to refer to the United Kingdom, the entity comprising England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland collectively, while the term’ nation’ is used to describe each of those constituent states, whose peoples each have their own distinctive English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalities. Canada has different nations, such as the English nation, the Quebec sub-nation, and the First Nations. Iraq recognises the Arab and Kurdish nations, while India has adopted a State-Nations model rather than the Nation-State approach.
When it comes to Iran, however, the discourse of the ruling Persian Islamic regime, as well as of the anti-regime opposition groups, flatly denies the existence of any other nations but Persian, let alone multiple nations within the country. Instead, they use Persian terms like “ethnicity” (or “qoom”) or tribal (“Tireh”) affiliations in order to marginalise peoples such as the Ahwazis, Turks, Kurds, and Balochis. This approach aims to deprive these groups of their historical rights and of any claim to sovereignty or control over their own regions.
In this discourse, despite rejecting the rights or language of any peoples but Persians, the Iranian state is careful to avoid defining itself as Persian, identifying itself instead as the Iranian nation which is made up of Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Arabs. This claim of unity is quickly exposed, however, with only Persian language, identity, culture, and history being allowed or promoted in the past 90+ years by successive regimes which have simultaneously marginalised, erased and undermined the identities and rights of the excluded and ostracised Ahwazis, Kurds, Turks, and Balochis. These peoples’ status as non-Persian nationals is disregarded, and their millennia-old histories, identities, cultures and distinctive, separate languages are belittled and downplayed, explained as little more than minor regional variations and different dialects. The general attitude in Iran is that while these trivial differences may be interesting to study, these peoples’ demands for recognition aren’t worthy of being taken seriously.
Despite Iran’s tireless effort to dismiss the struggle of brutally oppressed minorities for recognition and statehood, generations of Kurdish, Ahwazi, Balochi, and Turkmen dissidents and activists have continued to risk or suffer arrest, imprisonment and often execution simply to demand fundamental rights. In Iranian media, these activists are often sneered at as naïve stooges brainwashed by Iran’s enemies to undermine national security. This baseless accusation has lethal severe consequences, resulting in the imprisonment and death of thousands of Ahwazi, Kurdish, and Balochi individuals. This repression and successive regimes’ efforts at enforced assimilation have not dimmed these groups’ determination; indeed, it’s made them more determined than ever and more assertive in defining themselves distinctively as non-Persian peoples and their areas as non-Persian nations, raising awareness of their struggles with the outside world, demanding recognition for their identities and nationhood, and clarifying their absolute rejection of the imposed label of Iranian and Iran on them, more especially since this is used as a tool to eradicate their true national identities.
The use of terms such as “non-Persian people” or “non-Persian nations” in relation to Iran contains several important messages that require further explanation, especially for Western readers who may not be well-informed about Iran and its diverse population. Firstly, it asserts that people such as Ahwazis, Kurds, Turks, and Balochis are distinct from Persians, each possessing unique identities, histories and national aspirations. Secondly, it underlines these nations’ shamefully unrecognised experience and history of being subjected to brutal colonisation, oppression, and forced assimilation. This ongoing process of ethnic oppression has driven these oppressed and colonised nations to resist and struggle for their own rights.
The current state of Iran is a result of its being formed from the remnants of an empire that once conquered, occupied and encompassed various peoples and territories. In the subsequent centuries, some of these territories geographically closer to Persia separated from it while others remained a part of it. The current social movements in Iran, such as those led by women, young people and different social groups, should not be solely attributed to the Islamic Republic regime’s failure to meet its citizens’ aspirations. Instead, it is a far deeper-rooted failure of the Persian national state, also known as the Iranian nation-state, which was established by the former Pahlavi regime and further reinforced by the Islamic Republic following the dissolution of the political and administrative system known as the ‘protected kingdoms’ system that preceded Pahlavi.
The ‘protected kingdoms’ system had been in place in Iran and the immediately surrounding regions for over four centuries, starting from the Safavid era in the sixteenth century. During this time, the system included four kingdoms: Arabistan, Georgia, Lorestan, and Kurdistan. The system continued throughout the Afsharid, Zandi, and Qajar states, with the number of kingdoms increasing to six when Georgia left in the early nineteenth century. These six kingdoms were then Arabistan, Luristan, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Gilan, and Khorasan, each including a different ethnicity.
The Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1909 recognised the protected kingdoms system in its constitution, referring to it as the united kingdoms system in Iran. These six kingdoms, with their diverse populations, enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, especially Arabistan (Al-Ahwaz), which enjoyed semi-independence until 1925. However, it’s important to note that Arabistan wasn’t always a part of the protected kingdoms system throughout history, as it had periods of independence and alliances with ruling families. It should also be noted that Balochistan was not part of the protected kingdoms system and, except for brief periods of occupation, had remained independent up until 1928.
If Shah Reza Pahlavi had not suppressed the democratic movement that arose from the constitutional revolution and if the constitution had been fully implemented, the fate of peoples in Iran would have been similar to that of Canada and Britain. In these countries, where marginalised peoples struggled for their rights within a democratic framework.
In his book “Iran: Modern History,” Iranian historian Abbas Amanat refers to these kingdoms as “Guarded Domains.” However, Lawrence Lockhart’s description of the Georgian kingdom of Kakheti and Kartli, located in eastern Georgia, separating from the Qajar State, offers a more accurate perspective.
Prior to the constitutional revolution, the country witnessed a long historical period of rich federations and quasi-confederations, comparable to the experiences of cantons in Switzerland. These governing structures were decentralised but ruled over by despotic families effectively as unofficial monarchies.
After the constitutional revolution, national components transformed into nations, and kingdoms transformed into countries. The toppling of Sheikh Khazal’s autonomous rule in 1925 following Iran’s British-backed invasion of Ahwaz was followed by the experiences of autonomy in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan from 1945 to 1946, which was a non-Persian constitutional response to the monolingual nation-state established by Shah Reza Pahlavi. While the issue of non-Persian peoples gained unprecedented attention after the 1979 revolution, the nascent theocratic regime retained and maintained the nation-state structure inherited from the Pahlavis’ dynastic rule.
Tellingly, while the current heir to the Pahlavi family, which was overthrown in the 1979 revolution, is now eager to depose the Islamic theocratic political system, he does not want to compromise or in any way alter the nation-state status quo.
Amid recent events in Iran, many observers have highlighted a social, cultural, and intellectual revolution among women and young people, fueled by the globalisation of ideas and the information revolution. This new revolution rejects theocracy, advocates for secularism, and embraces non-traditional forms of marriage. It’s also vital to note that this revolution is not confined to Persians alone, but also extends to non-Persian peoples who take pride in their own languages, cultures, identities, and symbols. This pride has heightened their struggle for linguistic, cultural, and political rights, leading both Iranian and foreign human rights organisations to acknowledge their increasingly influential role in fighting for these rights. Statistics reveal that Kurds, Balochis, Ahwazi Arabs, and Azeri Turks made up the majority of detainees in Iran’s prisons (approximately 78% in 2018) and were also demographically overrepresented in executions. Despite the regime’s repressive measures, this blossoming of pride in non-Persian identities has led to a great flowering in the too many artistic, cultural, and literary works produced in non-Persian languages over the past two decades.
What we see in the scene of the struggle of women and non-Persian nations – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – is a sign of parturition, the fruit of which will be more profound than a political revolution, which we can describe as a renaissance, through which women will be liberated in an unprecedented liberation in Iran’s history, and the oppressed nations will be liberated after transforming the aforementioned nation-state into the state-nations model, and here we must rely legally on what was the status of these nations before the 1921 coup, and politically on the establishment of a federal, pluralistic, democratic state, according to the experience of several centuries of the decentralised system of the protected kingdoms, taking into account the modern experiences of federal states. This road, of course, is not a steady, prepared and paved one but one being forged as we walk along it. We will doubtlessly encounter resistance not only from the traditional religious forces, but also from the Iranian nationalist forces that deny the national pluralism in Iran and are absolutely opposed to the nations achieving their rights.
These colonised nations will become a force to be reckoned with, however, if they are able to coordinate firstly within themselves, secondly between themselves, and thirdly, with others with whom they share common cause. Since we do not know precisely what the next change will be in Iran, with so many confronting us, we must be vigilant about the monopolistic control of the political forces that deny our existence and our rights over the military, security and bureaucratic apparatus in the country, and from this point, we must be ever-wary of the possibility of disaster due to the multiplicity of forces wishing to thwart our progress; however hard they try, however, we must go on.
This modern revolution did not start on September 16, 2022. If there was one identifiable ignition point for this uprising, it came in December 2017, when the masses chanted against reformists and conservatives alike, cutting off the hope of any reform in the current poisonous Iranian regime. However, in the more recent revolutionary uprising, which has been described as the Jena-Mahsa-Amini revolution, the Ahwazis did not enter the fray of the revolution with all the weight of their long struggle for freedom, and with their oil and labour, as they had in the 2017 and 2019 uprisings, not to mention their pioneering in the uprisings of Ahwaz, Kurdistan and Azerbaijan in 2005 and 2006. Their participation in this uprising has been less than in the previous ones, because they smelled the strong ethnonationalist tendencies and a strong undercurrent of clear racism and anti-Arab prejudice that had previously been absent.
Early on, SouthAzerbaijani people participated in this uprising, but it withdrew some time ago for the same reasons of narrow ethnic prejudice. While the revolutionary momentum in Kurdistan was initially stronger and the Kurdish people, of whom Mahsa Amini was one, made many sacrifices for the revolution’s sake, they’ve recently followed the same steps as Ahwazi Arabs and Azerbaijani Turks because they felt that the aforementioned Persian ethnocentrism was creeping into and trying to take over the revolution, once again subsuming and marginalising the rights of Kurdish and other non-Persian peoples.
The only people who still take to the streets after Friday prayers now and chant bravely against the regime and for their rights, are the Baloch people in the country’s south-east who affirm their rejection of both the theocratic and monarchic systems of rule. We do not know how long they can continue doing so on their own against the might of the Iranian state.
The number of Balochis and Kurds killed for protesting has reached about fifty per cent of the total death toll for all the protesters in Iran, although these two peoples constitute only about twenty per cent of Iran’s population. Ahwazis and Azerbaijanis are also among the dead. The recent revolutionary uprising, which also started from the periphery – compared to the centre – emphasised the intersection between the aspirations of women for liberation from the shackles of sexual apartheid and the aspirations of the different constituent nations’ peoples’ for liberation from nationalist, racial and ethnic oppression, and clearly demonstrated the essential role of all the peoples, primarily those forced always to the periphery, in this revolution and in Iran’s future, which will shape its features and enable it to flower and blossom if this revolution is victorious.
Unlike the constitutional revolution and 1979 revolution, non-Persian peoples will play a vital role in the aftermath of any regime change and in building a fair multiethnic society reflecting Iran’s composition, to a far greater extent than their role in the 1979 revolution. This is because these colonised peoples carry the experience of long decades of ethnic oppression, have high internalised awareness of their demands, and reject ever again accepting the same subservient role of oppression, enforced assimilation and ‘Persianisation’, in which systemic injustice is the norm along with denial of their fundamental rights and imprisonment and execution for even minor infractions.
Let’s not forget that the revolutionaries involved in major revolutions, especially in multiethnic countries, were united by an ideology, or one might say an internationalist view, that enabled them to come together in the struggle to overthrow the despotic regimes oppressing them. We have the examples of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Iranian Revolution in 1979, regardless of how those revolutions were subsequently hijacked by malign, oppressive elements. In all successful revolutions, the revolutionaries share a comprehensive and egalitarian worldview that sets out to satisfy the aspirations of the peoples of all ethnicities involved and shuns racism and bigotry; this could also be seen in the April 2018 revolution against the Omar al-Bashir regime in Sudan.
Despite the weakness of the current political system in Iran, the absence of a pioneering perspective that emphasises the interests of all nations and peoples in Iran and distances itself from the chauvinistic and narrow nationalist discourse which denies the rights of non-Persian peoples will continue to delay the victory of the revolution and to open the door to various possibilities, including the adherence of each nation to its own discourse; such fragmentation will not help achieve freedom, but will help Iranian regime and its supporters who wish to divide and undermine the revolution.
The forthcoming revolution in Iran demands recognition as a multifaceted and intricate movement. In addition to seeking personal freedoms and liberties, it embodies the profound aspirations of Ahwazis, Kurds, Turks, and Balochis, who ardently strive to decolonise their territories and restore their national rights. Among their objectives is the autonomy to govern their respective regions and exercise their civic, cultural, national, and economic rights, all of which are duly acknowledged and protected by international law.
By Yousef Azizi Benitorof and Rahim Hamid
Yousef Azizi Benitorof is an Ahwazi freelance journalist and secretary of the Center for Combating Racism and Discrimination Against Ahwazi Arab People in Iran.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi freelance journalist at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.