1/2: "Iran is more than Persia." @ProfBShaffer @FDD
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1/2: "Iran is more than Persia." @ProfBShaffer @FDD
Introduction: Why Ethnicity in Iran Is Important
Several times in recent decades, policymakers have had to play catch-up when central governments have weakened and ethnic and other communal cleavages took center stage. This was true amid the Soviet breakup, the Yugoslav Wars, and the Syrian civil war. There may be a similar blind spot regarding Iran’s multiethnic composition and regime stability.
Iran is a multiethnic country; Persians comprise less than half of Iran’s population. Overwhelming majorities of non-Persian groups inhabit most of Iran’s border provinces, in contrast to Iran’s Persian-dominated center. Moreover, over 40 percent of the population of Iran lacks fluency in the Persian language.
Ethnic cleavages and dissatisfaction pose growing challenges to the rule of the regime in Iran. When they overlap with poverty and lower levels of government services and infrastructure, these challenges become more severe. Iran’s ethnic minorities inhabit the state’s poorest provinces. The country’s growing environmental challenges, including widening water shortages, hit the ethnic minority provinces harder than the Persian center.
The growing importance of the border provinces in anti-regime activity was evident during the last major round of anti-regime protests in Iran, which began in December 2017 and surged again in late 2019. The demonstrations started in the country’s provincial cities and were more intense in the minority-heavy provinces than in the Persian heartland.
Technological changes, including widespread access to foreign television and social media in minority languages, have strengthened identity trends in Iran. Large percentages of Iran’s ethnic minorities regularly watch foreign television broadcasts in their native languages instead of regime television, which often depicts ethnic minorities with derogatory stereotypes.
Ethnic groups in Iran are also exposed via social media to the wave of identity politics in the United States and Europe. This, too, may contribute to increased opposition to the regime, particularly among Iran’s youth. Previous generations in Iran had, by and large, submitted to the notion that ethnic minorities are inferior to the great Persian nation. But Iran’s minorities increasingly reject this idea, while Persian nationalism appears to be growing among Persians dissatisfied with the religious calling of the Islamic Republic.
Since late 2017, the anti-regime activity of several ethnic groups entered a new stage, featuring increased armed attacks on army, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and government installations. Among Iran’s minorities, the Kurds, Ahwaz, and Baluch have active paramilitary groups. Most of the violent anti-regime activity in Iran takes place in their home regions: Sistan-Baluchistan, Khuzestan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and West Azerbaijan. Iran’s border areas populated by Kurds and the Baluch endure regular threats to the regime’s forces. Ahwazi groups periodically conduct anti-regime attacks in Khuzestan but do not run a constant insurgency like the Kurds and Baluch do.
A critical variable in assessing the potential ethnic threat to the regime is the attitude of Iran’s Azerbaijanis, because of their large numbers, wealth, and perceived status as a mainstay of the regime. A major turning point for this group took place last autumn in response to Iran’s support for Yerevan during Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan. Iranian Azerbaijanis observed Iranian trucks moving Russian arms and supplies to Armenia. The Iranian government arrested dozens of Azerbaijanis for protesting Tehran’s support for Armenia. Amidst rising Azerbaijani opposition, the regime’s policy of backing Armenia may no longer be sustainable.
But the Azerbaijani challenge is not the only one. Ethnic minorities form a majority in several strategic locations in Iran. For instance, Khuzestan province, which is the center of Iran’s oil production and home to several important ports and a major road juncture, has a majority-Ahwaz population. Khuzestan is an unstable province, and sustained anti-regime activity there could affect Iran’s ability to produce, export, and transit oil and natural gas. In addition, Iran’s strategic Chabahar Port is located in Sistan-Baluchistan, a perennially unstable province populated almost entirely by Baluch. India invested heavily in Chabahar Port, which represents New Delhi’s attempt to counter China’s infrastructure projects in neighboring Pakistan.
The shared non-Persian ethnic groups that straddle much of Iran’s borders, especially Baluch, Kurds, and Azerbaijanis, strongly impact Iran’s foreign policy with most neighboring states. These ethnic groups are a major challenge in the volatile security situation on Iran’s borders with Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan. In recent years, Iran’s ethnic minorities have shown organizational ability on the ground. In an all-out regime crisis, revolts in several minority provinces in Iran could mount a significant challenge to the central government.