Iranian Azerbaijanis protest the broadcast of a children’s cartoon depicting an Azerbaijani brushing his teeth with a toilet brush in November 2015. (Twitter)

By Marilyn Stern

July 2, 2021

Brenda Shaffer, Senior Advisor for Energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), spoke to a May 21 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about Iran’s multi-ethnic minorities.

According to Shaffer, the size of non-Persian ethnic minorities in Iran is larger than commonly estimated by Western sources, which have relied on “old versions of the CIA Fact Book,” which has been “debunked.” In fact, Iranian government data mined by Shaffer for her FDD monograph, Iran Is More than Persia, shows that these minorities, including Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchs, Lurs, and Ahwazi Arabs, comprise “over half of the population of Iran.” According to the Iranian government’s own internal polling data, some 40% of the population claims to be not fully fluent in the Persian language (Farsi).

Despite Iran’s majority multi-ethnic composition, the regime adheres to a “Persian-centric ideology” and heavily suppresses non-Persian minorities. Languages other than Persian are prohibited in schools and government offices, and parents are pressured to teach their children Persian before they enter the school system to avoid the latter being segregated into special education programs alongside those with learning and development disabilities. Shaffer said the regime’s enforcement of this policy is “a real invasion of the government into the home.”

Non-Persian ethnic minorities, “concentrated in Iran’s border provinces,” are poorer and suffer from government services neglect. The provinces in which these ethnic minorities reside are riddled with “life-threatening environmental challenges,” such as water shortages “especially affecting the Baluchs and the Kurds” and toxins expelled from the oil and gas industry in Khuzestan, where Ahwazi Arabs predominate. Iran’s ethnic minorities, particularly the Kurds, also have “the highest rates of incarceration [and] judicial execution.”

Although Persian nationalism first became entrenched as state policy under the Pahlavi Shahs during the twentieth century, the fact that most members of ethnic minorities are Shi’a Muslims gave many hope that the 1979 Islamic Revolution would allow for greater ethnic freedoms under the unifying banner of religion. But 40 years of Islamic Republic rule have shown this to be a mirage. “[T]hey know this isn’t an Islamic Republic. … [T]hey know Islam is just rhetoric for the regime,” said Shaffer.

Ethnic solidarities have been strengthening in recent years, particularly “among the younger generation,” which Shaffer attributes in part to its proficiency with modern technology, “higher education level” and greater exposure to outside influences, including foreign television broadcasts. Members of non-Persian minorities tend to have close “co-ethnic ties” to cross-border groups whose lives and cultural freedom are far better in comparison. “A Kurd can go from Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan and see a better situation, see his language can be used. An Azerbaijani can go … to Baku [the capital of Azerbaijan], go have a good time, see people living well and using their native language and enjoying their culture.”

The regime is adept at fomenting discord among ethnic minorities, “playing the groups against each other.” This is especially done with policing. “For instance in the Kurdish areas they generally use police that are ethnic Azerbaijanis so that the minorities think not of the ‘bad Persian cop’, but ‘the bad Azerbaijani cop’.” Similarly, governors in the Ahwazi areas are usually Lurs, not Persians, so “if you’re upset about what the regime is doing, you’re upset against the Lur and not the Persian.”Members of ethnic minorities “don’t watch Persian language television, whether it’s the regime’s television, or whether it’s opposition television, or even US-sponsored Voice of America television,” said Shaffer. “They’re watching television in their own languages.” Kurds watch television broadcasts from Europe and Iraqi Kurdistan, while Ahwazi Arabs watch foreign Arabic-language television. Azerbaijanis watch television stations broadcasting in their own language from neighboring Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the United States, where Gunaz TV in Chicago is popular. Large numbers of Iranians, at “huge personal risk,” call into interactive programs of Gunaz TV urging the Biden administration to leave sanctions in place in hopes of getting rid of the regime, said Shaffer. In one segment about Israel, dozens called, rejecting the “regime’s enmity towards Israel.”Shaffer noted a shift in the Azerbaijani community, which is the largest non-Persian ethnic minority in Iran, comprising a third of Iran’s population. Although “relatively integrated” compared to the other minorities, Azerbaijani disaffection increased greatly as a result of the Iranian regime’s support for Christian Armenia against Shi’a Azerbaijan during their war last fall. Iranian Azerbaijanis “would go to the border areas … [and] cheer the Azerbaijani soldiers, and talk to them, and throw candies to them.” Israel’s support for Azerbaijan, in contrast, “bought Israel a lot of respect [and] even friendship inside Iran from … ethnic Azerbaijanis.”

Since late 2017, anti-regime activities of non-Persian ethnic groups have become much more overt, and at times turned violent, with military attacks against the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Unrest among the ethnic minorities also emerged during 2019’s demonstrations and protests, accounting for many deaths perpetrated by the IRGC.

Because the regime and mainstream opposition are both Persian-centric, the U.S. government has paid too little attention to Iran’s non-Persian ethnic minorities. Shaffer expressed hope, embodied in the title of her FDD monograph – Iran Is More than Persia – that it “will start taking more of an interest in this issue.”Thus far, however, the regime’s opponents have not made common cause against it due to discord between ethnic minorities and the mainstream Iranian opposition, which “is not interested in granting minority rights to the ethnic minorities.” Unless they can develop a “model where everyone can have their rights fulfilled … the regime will not have a united front against it.”

The Middle East Forum

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.