Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Iran’s fragile domestic dimensions: Why Iran’s ethnic minorities matter

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The Iranian regime’s regional expansionist policies are driven by several factors. Survival is the most important of them. The creation of regional satellite organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq is part of a broad strategy of defence through deterrence. So these groups are an indispensable part of Iran’s deterrence policy until it acquires a nuclear weapon. Iranian officials understand that they would not be able financially to sustain these groups in the Middle East in the face of global sanctions. Iran is facing serious internal economic challenges, having squandered billions on these IRGC linked groups which depend to a greater or lesser extent on Iranian financial support.

The Islamic Republic’s establishment acknowledges that domestic dissatisfaction might turn into a nationwide movement against the regime. Iran is facing demonstrations from students, truck drivers, factory workers, teachers and others on an almost daily basis. The country’s infrastructure is in a bad shape and inflation has soared as a consequence of its militaristic, ideological adventurism in the region. The toughest sanctions imposed by the Trump administration including on the Iranian oil industry are a clear sign of a growing global response to Iran’s regional interference. In a way, it is a perfect example of the security dilemma theory, according to which one country’s actions raise another’s security anxiety. After Iran signed the JCPOA nuclear deal optimists thought that the Islamic Republic would be willing to change its behaviour and conduct itself as a nation state rather than an ideological cause, but this turned out to be a false hope.

Against this background it is important to note that only 51% of Iran’s population are Persian and Iran’s longstanding policy towards the basic rights of the non-Persian population, coupled with its economic hardships, might lead Iran’s marginalized ethnic minorities to play a vital role inside the country.


The non-Persian ethnic minorities have always been considered the Iranian regime’s Achilles heel. According to various international estimates, around 50% of Iran’s population are non-Persian speaking ethnic groups, including Azerbaijani Turks, Arabs, Kurds and Balochi. Because of the state ideology Iran’s Sunni population – the Kurds, Ahwaz Arabs and Balochi – face systematic rights violations by the Tehran government. For example, the Iranian authorities do not allow a Sunni mosque to be built in Tehran.

The latest attacks on IRGC forces in Sistan-Balochistan province are evidence that marginalized ethnic groups are angry at their situation. Last year, the IRGC was attacked in Ahwaz and several troops were killed. Officials blamed Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Gulf states for the attack. An unsuccessful assassination plot against the leader of the Ahwazi Arabs in Denmark contributed to a diplomatic scandal between Iran and the European Union. The fact that the Iranian regime always blames Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and Pakistan for these types of attack shows that the authorities are not going to acknowledge their contribution.

Oppression is encouraging the idea of secession from Iran among the ethnic minorities. These ethnic minorities live mostly in the border regions, such as the north, north-west, south-west and south east.

Azerbaijani Turks are the largest ethnic minority in Iran, around 20 million or more according to various estimates. Azerbaijanis have frequently played a crucial role in Iran’s political and cultural history. Azerbaijani dynasties ruled the country from the 15th century until 1925. With the emergence of the Pahlavi dynasty, efforts to assimilate these ethnic groups into a homogenous Persianized nation started the process of marginalization of these ethnic populations. In today’s Iran, Persian-Shia identity is considered the main pillar of the state. Although Azerbaijanis are Shias and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 promised them schools and education centres in their mother tongue, the promises were not kept. Parents are not allowed to give their children traditional Azerbaijani-Turkic names. Despite being the largest ethnic minority group Azerbaijanis do not have schools in the Azerbaijani language unlike the Armenians who constitute around 200,000 people.

The Islamic Republic’s gross violations of minority rights continue routinely and no one from the establishment dares to fix it. One of Tehran’s biggest fears is the emergence of a strong Iranian Azerbaijani popular movement, which could reach the capital because of the significant numbers of Azerbaijanis in Tehran, and ultimately instigate political change in Iran. Marginalization is leading to a growing sense of national identity among the Iranian Azerbaijanis.

Because of the regime’s mismanagement Iran is facing water shortages and shrinking water resources. The biggest lake in the Middle East, Urmia, is shrinking and drying. Azerbaijanis who consider the lake part of their ethnic identity have condemned the Iranian regime for mismanagement. A prominent Azerbaijani activist Abbas Lisani was accused of giving a speech against the system at a funeral and was arrested and sentenced to ten months’ detention in January. Mr Lisani has already been subjected to persecution and jail terms due to his political stance and demands for more democratic rights. His arrests draw a wide range of condemnation in Iranian Azerbaijan and the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Taking into consideration that Iran poses the biggest security challenge in the Middle East, the role of ethnic minorities and opposition groups should be carefully analysed by the international community. No political upheaval can happen without the participation of Iran’s significant minorities. Thus, the US government and its regional allies should support ethnic minority opposition groups. Moreover, Iranian opposition leaders in exile should embrace minority rights if they are sincere in their desire to create a truly democratic society.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East. City, University of London graduate.
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