Analysis & Opinions - International Herald Tribune

Iran's Volatile Ethnic Mix

| June 2, 2006

Several northwestern cities in Iran have recently been rocked by demonstrations and riots by ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. They were protesting a cartoon published in an official government newspaper that depicted the Azerbaijani minority as a cockroach and instructed people to deny it food until it learns to speak Persian.

Last Sunday, thousands of Iranian Azerbaijanis gathered outside Parliament in Tehran to chant in their native Turkic language and demand the rights to operate schools in their own language. As his police forces heavy-handedly dispersed the demonstrators, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the loyalty of the Azerbaijani citizens and thanked them for "supporting the Islamic Revolution."

The massive Azerbaijani response to the cartoon is the latest in a string of ethnically based protests and violence that have occurred in Iran this year, highlighting the country's multiethnic nature, which is little appreciated in the West. Fully half of Iran's population is non-Persian.

Western policy makers need to take into account the fact that ethnic politics influences Iran's foreign policy choices and will be a factor in the current regime's future stability.

Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Baluch are concentrated on Iran's peripheries, sharing ties with people in neighboring Azerbaijan, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The presence of relatively large groups of ethnic minorities directly across the border from ethnic majorities in neighboring states significantly affects Tehran's bilateral relations with its neighbors.

Since ethnic Azerbaijanis make up a third of Iran's population, for example, Tehran is fearful that neighboring Azerbaijan could become a source of irredentism for its own Azerbaijani population. It has therefore supported Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh, even though Azerbaijan and Iran are among the few states with a Shiite Muslim majority.

Encouraged by the gains of their ethnic fellows in neighboring states, such as the Kurds and Turkmen who are playing a primary role in the new Iraqi government's political process, many of Iran's minorities have been demanding their rights recently.

In the last six months, at least 30 people have died and hundreds have been arrested in scores of violent confrontations between government forces and Kurds, who make up close to 10 percent of the population of Iran.

The Arab-populated provinces in Iran's southwest have experienced a large number of terrorist attacks in the last year, and in recent months the government has arrested and killed scores of people in the region. And for many years, the Baluch-populated regions bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan have been a danger zone for Iran's security forces, more than 20 of whom were killed there last month.

While Tehran likes to portray itself as the champion of the world's downtrodden Muslims, it denies its mostly Muslim ethnic minorities the most basic rights, such as the right to operate schools, and enforces extreme limitations on newspapers and other media that use languages other than Persian. The Special Representative of the UN Commission on Human Rights has stated that "there can be no doubt that the treatment of minorities in Iran does not meet the norms set out in the Declaration on Minorities or in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, cross-border ties between ethnic minorities in Iran and post-Soviet neighboring states have increased significantly. Much of this cooperation concerns trade, education and science and takes place directly between provinces in Iran and neighboring states, thus circumventing Tehran. Representatives of Iran's ethnic groups are also beginning to look toward the United States and other countries.

Tehran discredits these movements by labeling them secessionist. Many of Iran's reformists view implementation of full democracy in the state half-heartedly — they know that this will lead to demands to grant full cultural and language rights to ethnic minorities, which is a development that they prefer to avoid. But promotion of cultural and language rights does not necessarily lead to secession and can sometimes contribute to the stability of the state. In Iran, most ethnic groups seeking expansion of their cultural rights view themselves as Iranian citizens and seek to change Tehran's policies, not Iran's borders.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has blamed the United States for instigating the Azerbaijani demonstrations, even though Washington has not attempted to play the ethnic card to destabilize Iran. No external force can create a grassroots demand for rights unless people actually feel a sense of alienation and deprivation. External factors do, however, have a role to play: Many members of Iran's ethnic minorities feel empowered by what they view as Tehran's increasing isolation and vulnerability because of the international confrontation over the Iranian nuclear program.

Western policy makers should consider the response of ethnic minorities when assessing regime stability in Iran. Policy toward Iran should include strategies to deal with the political demands of Iranian ethnic groups — demands that are only likely to grow.

Brenda Shaffer, research director at the Caspian Studies Project at Harvard University, is the author of "Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity."

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Shaffer, Brenda.“Iran's Volatile Ethnic Mix.” International Herald Tribune, June 2, 2006.

The Author

Brenda Shaffer