Minorities in Iran and the conflict between central and marginal forces

By: Yasser Assadi, an Ahwazi human rights activist.

The formation of objectively identifiable and self-identifying ethnic minorities is the result of a complex of interacting historical factors, including migration and conflict, but heritage, cultural roots embedded in history, is central to how ethnic minorities perceive themselves; and the struggle to maintain the group’s culture against encroachment, against its loss, becomes part of that same heritage.
How dominant ethnic groups are defined is also problematic, especially in the Middle East, which is ethnically, religiously and even linguistically diverse; but a key to understanding dominant groups, as distinct from numerically larger ethnic groups, within a region, is that cultural domination is achieved substantially through military, political and economic power.
No one would dispute the diversity of cultures in the Middle East, but there are historical, literary and cultural themes shared throughout the region, shared between today’s dominant and minority ethnic groups. These shared themes reveal how ethnic minorities and majorities have coexisted and complemented each other even as empires have clashed, conquered and receded in a region that is geographically the nexus of four continents and subcontinents.
The development of dominant cultures in the modern era is tied closely to the conflicts and respective influence of the great European powers in the Middle East, and these conflicts have taken their toll: arbitrary borders have broken and scattered human societies, contributing to the creation of ethnic minorities subjugated by the central powers of new states. This is the dynamic that is central to the contemporary history of the Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Azaris and Baluchis in Iran. The larger ethnic groups have a history and physical presence that predates modern borders, stretching across several neighboring countries; within Iran, they are ethnic minorities under a dominant Persian culture.
The social fabric of Iran is composed of different national and religious colors and ethnicities, but the most prominent distinction is ethnic diversity. The modern central authority and the state established the superiority of Persian ethnicity and language in the 20th century. Without the establishment of a dominant culture through centralized power, Persians would simply be another national minority, with the same status as Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Baluchis and other ethnic groups. Iran was not so long ago – in the time of the Safavid and Qajari- called the “the guarded kingdoms “, where the regions and areas fell under the clout of the central authority, without losing their local and administrative authority. These regions were subject to the political influence of the ruling power only; there was no attempt at cultural domination.
After the evident failure of the Islamic ideological project to achieve any of the objectives of the revolution, including freedom, justice, and progress, the popular legitimacy of the regime erodes more with each day. In order to stay in power, the regime sought to blend religious slogans with the Persian identity. This pursuit was adopted to allay the anger of the Persian street, which despises the religious identity and aspires to revive the Persian identity.
A new Persian elite at home has emerged from under the mantle of the regime. The elite in Iran does not differ in objectives and project from the Persian chauvinistic elite living abroad. Both emphasize adopting Persian as Iran’s identity; both glorify and feel nostalgia for the Persian imperial past. Public display of this nostalgia appeared on the scene during the presidency of Khatami, and it reappeared and was redoubled under Ahmadinejad. His special adviser, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, among the most prominent of the official figures played a key role in advancing the ideology of Persian identity. Among the most prominent supporters of this trend is Iran’s former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the current president, Hassan Rouhani, and the strong support of the security and intelligence apparatus are evident.

The current presidential adviser on minority affairs, Mr. Yonsei, does not hide his sense of pride in the Persian Empire, boasting of its power and domination, and even declaring that Iraq is part of the ancient Persian Empire. The leader who perhaps symbolically represents hopes for reform, the former president of Iran, Mr. Mohammad Khatami, the man who raised the call to build civil society, unequivocally focuses his speeches on the sovereignty of the Persian identity. He once said that Iran had accepted Islam, but it had not accepted the identity of being Arab; thus he presented Persian identity as being threatened and under attack by Arabs.

The persecution of minorities in Iran by the regime takes several forms, the most important of which are:
Persecution in terms of the distribution of power and resources, and the denial of the right to instruction in languages other than Persian (although the Constitution allows minorities the right to instruction in their language).
Persecution in employment. The highest rates of unemployment appear in cities inhabited by non-Persian people, such as the cities of Ahwaz, Kurdistan, and Baluchistan.
Persecution against human development and against the infrastructure of cities, health care, and water rights, and control over natural resources, and other resources in regions home to large populations of ethnic minorities. The predominantly Persian regions benefit from the lion’s share of public investments, which are concentrated in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Mashhad, along with the newly established cities, built to internally colonize regions historically not dominated by Persians.
The hostile and chauvinistic methods and practices against non-Persian nationalities in Iran has varied from the persecution of rights to the denial of the very existence of the minorities and has not stopped at attempts at physical annihilation. For example, the Ahwazi Arab people under Iranian occupation has been treated as if it were different from all other minorities in Iran in terms of its origin and entity. The regime has tried to dissolve Ahwaz, to erase it from existence by fabricating lies and falsifying the history of the region, (not directly referring to the Ahwaz Arabs, or only referring to them as “transients” and “nomads”). Last but not least, the regime has been attempting to physically eliminate them, to remove the historic population of the land of Ahwaz. The Ahwazi people have resisted, and recently have responded indignantly, taking to the streets in mass demonstrations, which continue to rock the regime.
The Iranian regime has responded to these mass demonstrations by claiming to serve the peoples’ needs in the region, even as it continues to suppress the demands of the people throughout Iran. It is clear to all that the regime is two-faced; its repressive practices discredit its claims that it serves the people.
Today, more than ever, Iran’s social fabric is frayed. Recognizing its loss of legitimacy, the central authority has tried to cover its weakness with the mantle of Persian identity, and while doing so, systematically pursuing policies to promote this identity internally and regionally–through force and repression. The regime, along with the Persian chauvinist elite, seeks to deny the existence of other non-Persian identities. If a solution to this dilemma is not found, without the use of repressive methods to suppress the vote, things may spiral out of control.
Change will require Iran’s peoples unite, on terms of respect for each other’s identity, and challenge the regime. The experience of the revolution that overthrew the Shah, the experience of a popular revolution, is a living memory, and it foretells the fate of the regime. The question to be decided will be if and how the people can live together within the same national boundaries

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