Just before imposing new sanctions on Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the country’s “cabinet is in disarray, and the Iranian people are raising their voices even louder against a corrupt and hypocritical regime.” While this is clearly true, it’s also true that sanctions alone are unlikely to topple the government or force democratic reforms. For that to happen, foreign governments and domestic opposition leaders must take another critical step – to finally acknowledge the importance of the country’s ethnic minorities and develop policies to address their demands.
As Pompeo noted, Iran’s leaders have been facing significant pressure from within. A major driving force of the anti-government activity has been ethnic minority groups, in particular the Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Ahvaz Arabs, and Baluch. Each has long engaged in protests, over issues ranging from the right to use native languages in schools and courts, to local health and environmental concerns, to broader calls for the end of the regime.
And yet, neither the country’s current main opposition leaders nor international governments have meaningfully engaged with these groups – foregoing a potentially potent force for democratic change.
To understand why this matters, consider that approximately 50 percent of Iranian citizens are non-Persian minorities. Most are concentrated in Iran’s border provinces and share ties with communities in neighboring countries of Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And while the recent wave of uprisings has encompassed a variety of sectors and segments of society, ethnic minorities have been among the most vocal and forceful. The protests and recent mass arrests centered in Khuzestan are especially important since this region is the major source of Iran’s oil. Iran’s minorities are not allowed to educate their children in schools in their native language nor use their languages in government institutions, such as courts.
While tactically similar to previous protests, this year’s actions are different for one key reason: they are not simply about language rights or grievances over specific policies, but are directed against the regime itself. And this opposition is likely to become more intense as the new sanctions increase economic strain on citizens. While foreign-imposed sanctions can sometimes mobilize people around their home government, this is unlikely to be the case in Iran, where anti-regime sentiment already runs deep.
Ethnic minorities’ activity has at times been violent. Last summer, a group of Iranian Kurds carried out an audacious attack on the Iranian parliament and Khomeini Mausoleum. Baluch and Arab groups frequently strike Iranian military forces stationed at the country’s borders, often in conjunction with co-ethnics in neighboring countries. Most recently, a Baluch group abducted 12 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and security personnel in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, which borders Pakistan.
In an attempt to subdue the minority groups, Iranian leaders have aggressively attacked their members, both within and outside the country’s borders. In September, Tehran launched a missile attack against the Kurdish PDKI organization in neighboring Iraq. In parallel, it has intensified the oppression of its own Kurdish citizens – most notably, the September hanging execution of three young Kurds, which was widely condemned outside of the country.
Tehran’s oppression of ethnic minorities has even reached citizens who serve the regime. This includes policemen in the Iranian Kurdish provinces, who openly stated they would not act against protesting shopkeepers.
Foreign sanctions, intensifying ethnic protests and ongoing activity by a wide spectrum of opposition groups would seem to be a potent combination to force change in Tehran. However, the main political leaders historically have largely dismissed ethnic minority grievances; many share the regime’s Persian-centric nationalism. This gives ethnic minorities little incentive to join with these groups, as helping them gain power is unlikely to advance minority interests. In addition, the ethnic groups are uneasy about the rising Iranian-nationalist sentiment of the current leading opposition forces, which is Persian-centric and does not accommodate minorities. Their expressions of Iranian nationalism are contributing to skepticism among many minority groups that a new regime could bring meaningful change for them.
Any associations in Iran that promote the language or culture of the ethnic minorities are illegal and violently suppressed. Membership alone in an ethnic-based political group could lead to execution in Iran. The current uprising in Iran does not have any formal leadership or hierarchy. The leaders of the main opposition forces, which is comprised of a wide coalition of interest groups – including factory workers, farmers seeking additional water supplies, bazaar shopkeepers and promoters of freedom for women – reject recognition of minority rights, which they believe can splinter the opposition movement. However, this splintered opposition weakens the threat against Iran’s rulers, who will do everything possible to foster continued discord between opposition groups, something they’ve traditionally done with great success.
The United States and other foreign governments must strategize about the potentially potent role of Iran’s ethnic minorities. Meaningful action by these countries could include giving the ethnic groups a platform in U.S. government-sponsored media outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Farda, that reach into Iran. This might also encourage use of political means for change, and not violent tools.
Those seeking regime change within Iran can’t expect a post-Islamic Republic liberal democracy to work if half the population is, for example, restricted in the use of their own language. While Persian could remain the state language, the ethnic minorities would feel more glued to the state and a civic identity could be formed if they could educate their children in their own languages, alongside Persian, and use their own languages in interaction with critical government institutions like courts and police. Those seeking democracy and change in the regime in Iran must reconsider their existing policies that dismiss ethnic minority demands – failure to do so risks alienating an enormous reservoir of support.
Brenda Shaffer is a visiting researcher and professor in Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. She was previously the research director at Harvard University's Caspian Studies Program. @ProfBShaffer
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.