Faced with increasing numbers of protests and open revolt by the peoples it has long oppressed, Iran’s regime is once again turning to conspiracy theories and slanders in an attempt to delegitimise the people’s demands and justify further repression.
The regime’s favoured accusations and conspiracy theories, promoted by its leaders and media, are familiar to any dissident: protesters are automatically labelled as agents of regional powers, usually Israel and nowadays Saudi Arabia, or international powers, predominantly the USA and England, engaged in some nefarious plot to undermine the leadership in Tehran.
Use of these slanders and conspiracy theories, no matter how far-fetched, has been standard policy for the hardline theocratic leadership since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979; any protest, whether it’s industrial action over pay, a student sit-in, a small local demonstration for council services, or an openly anti-regime uprising, is viewed as a potential threat to the absolute power and authority of the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei. In the annexed minority regions of Iran, such as Ahwaz, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and South Azerbaijan, whose populations face racist persecution, as well as the usual oppression, the regime also fears any move towards separatism or secession, with efforts to enforce assimilation undermined by the regime’s own supremacism and overt racism towards these minorities.
All these factors mean that any protests in Iran, more particularly large ones that might gain attention or sympathy abroad, are greeted with the same accusations, smears and brutal repression; protesters are routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured into making forced confessions of non-existent collusion with foreign entities, with some of these patently false coerced confessions being broadcast on state television. Long prison sentences and executions are a standard punishment for ‘traitors’ participating in demonstrations, who are tried in kangaroo trials on charges ranging from ‘enmity to God’ to treason. These trials are simply a formality for the sake of appearance, with the accused having no representation and the verdict being decided beforehand. The total number executed runs into the thousands, with Iran second only to China in annual per capita executions, according to UN figures.
Through using these methods and inculcating a strong ultra-nationalist supremacist mindset which views Ahwazis and other ethnic and sectarian minorities as inferior to the ‘pure’ Iranian people, a supremacist worldview encouraged in casually racist Farsi-language media and in literature and the arts, as well as in wider society, Iran’s regime has normalised the domestic oppression and subjugation of these minority communities and made Persian Iranians often unconsciously complicit. This everyday racism ironically follows the same template as that of the previous regime which the Islamic Republic to this day harshly condemns for its corruption and injustice. Sights such as doctors’ signs or home rentals stating ‘No Arabs allowed’ are the norm rather than the exception, with Arabs routinely depicted as mentally defective barefoot barbarians in art, literature, TV shows and even video games.
Despite the regime’s rhetoric of resistance and constant criticism of Israeli policies, its own virulent anti-Arab racism, which begins at school where Ahwazis and other ethnic groups are punished for speaking in their own native languages and forbidden from wearing their traditional garb, is no less shocking and oppressive.
This normalisation of a supremacist racist worldview means that this racism is often merely not even noticed by Persian Iranians for whom this is simply an aspect of everyday culture which privileges them, automatically reserving the better jobs, homes and opportunities for the ‘superior’ Persian-Iranians whilst punishing the ‘lesser’ minorities by denying them the same opportunities and taking their resources. This, in turn, leaves minorities trapped in a cycle of poverty and desperation which the regime uses to argue that they are innately incapable of attaining the same level as their Persian-Iranian compatriots.
Such ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics are, of course, nothing new for totalitarian regimes, helping to ensure loyalty from the ‘in-group’, in this case, Persian-Iranians, by depicting them as ‘real’ Iranians and others as hostile interlopers; encouraging this mindset helps to blind Persian-Iranians to the injustices perpetrated against minorities in Iran and indeed to support this oppression in the name of “protecting the nation state”. Thus, when protests rise up in Ahwaz – the most impoverished area of Iran despite being the location of the oil and gas resources – there is little or no solidarity for the demonstrators from Persian-Iranians, even regime dissidents, who view the Ahwazi people as troublemakers and separatist extremists thanks to years of regime indoctrination. This even applies to regime opponents in exile such as monarchist groups, leftist and socialist parties and pan-Iranian parties, many of whom routinely dismiss Ahwazi movements and the Ahwazi people’s long struggle for freedom and human rights as hostile to Iranian interests, often echoing the regime’s rhetoric by labelling Ahwazis as “puppets” and “stooges” of the Saudis or Israel.
Even when there is some recognition or coverage of the regime’s persecution of Ahwazis and other peoples or of the legitimacy of their demands by media affiliated with the anti-regime Persian-Iranian opposition, this is not offered in a spirit of solidarity or recognition of common suffering under the regime or in any way to recognise the historic injustices against Ahwazis and other non-Persian peoples, or their long withheld freedoms and rights, and their current plight; instead these reports are used by these media and groups to gain support for their own cause. For instance, when Ahwazi protesters are arrested and executed on false pretexts, often being subjected to mass executions, the language in reports from Persian-Iranian websites and indeed in Western media rarely reflects the racist subtext or persecution. Instead it uses vague terms describing the Ahwazis targeted as “Iranian residents of Khuzestan” – a term loathed by the Ahwazis due to its being the term selected by the former Shah in the 1920s in renaming the newly-annexed region’s towns cities, landmarks and even geographic features with Farsi names in an effort to eradicate Ahwazi culture; whilst this attempt at eradication hasn’t succeeded in doing so this is due to Ahwazis’ own tenacious determination to cling to their heritage and stand for their rights despite everything, not through Iranian leaders’ lack of trying.
The Tehran regime’s denial of the most fundamental rights to Ahwazis and its constant and brutal repression of media continue up to the present day. This, in turn, has led to growing protests, with the long-suffering Ahwazis are now protesting in greater numbers than previously, despite knowing what they face for doing so in the face of the regime’s absolute and merciless inhumanity. Whilst most Western media and human rights activists have followed the lead of their Iranian and Russian peers in remaining silent on the victimisation of Ahwazis and other oppressed peoples in Iran, with what coverage is available left to Ahwazi activists in exile and some principled prominent Western activists like Peter Tatchell raising their voices in support of the Ahwazis, despite facing vilification for doing so. Needless to say, Western activists who support the rights of Ahwazis and other groups are the subject of the regime’s customary slanderous smears, being accused of being agents of English, Israeli or American plots to undermine the regime.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate who mainly writes about the plight of his people in Iran.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.