Tehran has killed dozens of members of Iran’s ethnic minorities in recent weeks, especially among Iran’s Baluch and Ahwazi population. Ethnic minorities are increasingly conducting anti-regime activity, and the wave of demonstrations over the last three years has been centred in provinces where minorities are numerous.
Iran is an ethnically diverse country, with over 50 per cent of its population composed of non-Persians. The latest wave of ethnic protests first erupted in the Sistan-Baluchistan province on 22 February after Iranian forces fired on dozens of Baluch smugglers on the Pakistani border, killing several and injuring dozens.
After the incident, violent demonstrations broke out in the province, including an attack on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base and a crowd storming the governor’s office in the city of Saravan. In response, Tehran has shut down the internet in the province.
To the west, the regime recently executed four Ahwazi youths. Among them was Jasem Heydari, who had returned to Iran from Austria after failing to receive asylum. Tehran convicted the four for the crime of “waging war against God.” In addition to the killings of Baluch and the execution of Ahwazis, Tehran has arrested several ethnic Azerbaijani activists. One was arrested for writing on a wall on International Mother Tongue Day calling for Tehran to allow the use of other languages in addition to Persian.
Ironically, Iran’s secretary of the High Council of Human Rights, Ali Baqeri Kani, said this week that Iran’s ethnic minorities face no discrimination and are very proud Iranians.
The clerical regime is well-aware that ethnic troubles overlap with greater degrees of poverty and lower levels of government services and infrastructure. Iran’s ethnic minorities inhabit the state’s poorest provinces and have lower levels of education and health than Iran’s Persian heartland.
For example, Sistan-Baluchistan is Iran’s poorest province and has the worst unemployment and literacy rates. The country’s growing environmental challenges, including extreme water shortages, affect the minority provinces more acutely than the Persian centre.
Most of Iran’s border provinces are populated by ethnic minorities who also live in the neighbouring states. Ethnic troubles, including insurgencies, can cross the borders. For example, Baluch in Pakistan have given assistance and refuge to Iranian Baluch. Iranian border guards have been abducted and held in Pakistan. Iranian forces have crossed into Pakistan in attempts to subdue, kill, and capture Iranian Baluch militants.
Ahwazis and Baluch also inhabit several strategically important locations in Iran. Ahwazis are the majority in Khuzestan province [ the Persianised name of northern Ahwaz region], which is the centre of Iran’s oil production, with major ports and pipeline junctions. The strategic Chabahar port is located in Sistan-Baluchistan province.
Tehran’s recent actions are likely to spur a new wave of anti-regime activity in Sistan-Baluchistan and Ahwaz and may potentially ignite new anti-regime activity in the Kurdish border regions with Iraq and Turkey. However, the wave is unlikely to spread to the main Persian cities, including Tehran, since Iran’s main opposition groups have shown little sympathy for the struggles of Iran’s minorities and tend to support the regime’s efforts to rein the groups in.
Still, the regime is not likely to succeed in fully suppressing the anti-regime activity of its ethnic minorities. The Kurds and Baluch have long-running insurgencies, and Ahwazis, despite increasing crackdowns, are carrying out frequent attacks against Iranian military and IRGC units.
By Bredna Shaffer
Brenda Shaffer is a senior advisor for energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program. She is also a faculty member at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. For more analysis from Brenda and the Iran Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Brenda on Twitter @ProfBShaffer. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
The article first published on FDD.