North Africa, West Asia

No country for minorities: the inequality of state repression in Iran

To build a solidarity movement with the Iranian people, one must listen to the voice of Iran’s oppressed minorities.

Asha Sawhney Sabrîna Azad
1 June 2020, 12.01am
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers his speech during the inauguration ceremony of the 11th term of the Islamic Consultative Assembly
Picture by Iranian Presidency/dpa/PA Images. All rights reserved

The visibility of Iran’s geopolitical rivalry with the United States through the Trump administration’s continuation of economic warfare against the Islamic Republic, has upheld Iran’s state-propagated narrative that the US is the oppressor and the regime is the oppressed. The brutality of economic sanctions and the destruction this policy incurs upon the Iranian people cannot be denied. The effects are compounded as the regime consolidates economic resources for the elite. However, the narrative in which the regime embodies the oppressed group erases the reality of those oppressed just as much by Iranian state structures, if not more, than external sanctions. By structural design, the Iranian state privileges Shi’a Muslims and Persian speakers. Consequently, the conceptualization of the “Iranian people” exported abroad is one that gives visibility to Tehran and other urban areas of the Persian “center,” sidelining those who live on the periphery. Any perceived threat to the center thus becomes the justification for state violence.

In order to build a solidarity movement with the Iranian people, one must look beyond the Iranian government to define the population’s struggles. The majority of Iranians (~60%) are Persian, yet the most extreme forms of state violence are inflicted upon minorities who are disproportionately represented in Iran’s prison system and comprise the majority of those sentenced to death or killed extrajudicially. The 1% of the population belonging to recognized non-Muslim religious minorities are second-class citizens, and non-recognized religious minorities are afforded no constitutional rights. The 10% of the Iranian population that is Sunni Muslim rather than Shi’a is largely non-Persian. The intersectional suppression of ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs, in addition to non-Shi’a and non-Muslim religious minorities, points to glaring gaps in international solidarity.

Source - iranprimer usip org.jpg

Center vs periphery

The concentrated location of ethnic minorities, particularly Kurds, Lurs, Arabs, and Baluchis near the western and southeastern borders, provides a geographic lens into how the Iranian regime takes out its dissatisfaction with the economic and political performance of the center on the mostly non-Persian periphery. In light of this persecution, the strategic erasure of religious and ethnic minority voices in both western and Iranian media becomes a boon to the Islamic Republic, bolstered by the historic and growing importance of proving one’s religious ideology and nationalist ideology to the Persian, Shi’a state. Any question of these ideologies is considered a license for the state to increase the already considerable and, in some cases, apartheid-level repression of minorities.

Populations associated with border regions are all at risk of extreme violence. Iran, which executes more people than any country in the world after China, reportedly executed more than 50 Baluchis in 2006 alone. Just recently, the New York Times published an article citing local news media and witnesses who say that around 50 Afghan migrants were murdered and their bodies thrown into a river. Structural racism against non-Persians in Iran also means that Kurds saw the highest number of executions following the 2009 Green protests, even though the movement itself was Persian-led and Tehran-centered. According to Abbas Vali, professor of modern social and political theory at the department of sociology, Bogaziçi University, Istanbul, Iranian Kurdistan is treated as a security zone where “the logic of military rule” continues to this day. “It’s something engraved in the mindset of government officials,” continues Vali, “when they smell trouble, they first turn to the Kurds.” This violent racism has also led the government to systematically murder working-class Kurdish kolbers, or laborers who carry heavy goods on their back, many of whom are impoverished children from border town villages. Just in 2016, 42 kolber workers were directly shot dead, 30 were injured, and 22 drowned/died of hypothermia or other related causes.

When was the last time an Iranian Lur or Ahwazi was given a global platform to voice their opinion on Iran’s regime or western foreign policy towards Iran?

Indeed, the state violence faced by the Persian center during the suppression of sporadic uprisings is an everyday reality for ethnic and religious minorities throughout Iran. As Iranian lawyer Gissou Nia has pointed out, many commentators based in the West, especially diaspora Persians, tend to severely misjudge anti-government protests in Iran because they fail to amplify or even listen to the voices of minorities that make up the backbone of current revolutionary movements. The projection of the urbanized Persian center as being representative of Iran is only solidified by media outlets who assume interviewing Persian-Americans alone is enough of a perspective on envisioning Iran and how to engage with the Iranian state. After all, when was the last time an Iranian Lur or Ahwazi was given a global platform to voice their opinion on Iran’s regime or western foreign policy towards Iran? How can non-recognized religious minorities such as Bahai’s or Sikhs speak globally from within a state that affords them no protections?

Torture and repression

There is a unique set of consequences for minorities who speak out their grievances with the state, for anything said can be treated with the gravity of a “national security threat.” As the Iranian economy fails to provide for the non-elite and non-central populations, more revolutionary movements are sparked and quashed through targeted efforts to disenfranchise minorities. Any form of supposed connection to a “militant” group in Iran becomes grounds for execution. According to reports gathered by Iran Human Rights (IHR) between 2010 and 2018, among the 118 people who have been executed for affiliation with banned political and militant groups, there were 65 Kurds (55%), 29 Baluchis (25%) and 15 Arabs (13%), most of whom were Sunni Muslims in addition to being ethnic minorities.

The torture of imprisoned minorities in Iran is especially gruesome and sobering. Labor activist Sepideh Gholian, arrested for a notable strike in the southern province of Khuzestan, spoke out upon her temporary release on the torture of hundreds of Ahwazi women forced to “confess” that their husbands were members of Da’esh (ISIS). The escalation of violence against Ahwazis in Khuzestan has gone hand in hand with increased interest in development projects in the resource-rich province, often displacing Ahwazis for projects that divert natural resources back to Tehran and other urban areas of the Persian-speaking center. In Iran’s November uprisings, at least 100 Ahwazi demonstrators were killed and 2,500 imprisoned. Ahwazis are regularly imprisoned under fabricated ties to international terror, often without any public acknowledgement. Baluchis also face torture and forced confession of association with militant groups such as Jundallah. This April, Baluchi prisoner Abdulvaset Dahani was executed in Zahedan’s Central Prison after writing to the world on experiences of torture and forced confession:

“They tied my hands and suspended me from the ceiling. They subjected me to ‘grilled chicken’ torture. They hit on the soles of my feet with a cable burned it with atomic lighters.”

In March of 2020, when the Iranian government responded to hunger strikes and prison rebellions by selectively releasing prisoners during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners in Tehran were prioritized, and therefore ethnic minorities were far less likely to see freedom. No prisoner with “national security threat” listed on their charge sheet was eligible for release, a restriction which severely narrows the number of prisoners in Iran from lenient treatment and effectively bars ethnic minorities from release. While international praise for this selective release of prisoners ran high, the state nonetheless executed prisoners at an even higher rate than usual. Within ten days of April, 25 executions were recorded.

Second-class citizenship

Religious minorities are likewise at risk of being accused of having “dual loyalties.” Jewish and Baha’i Iranians are denigrated by propaganda that associates them with Zionism and the State of Israel. This accusation naturally leads to an atmosphere of fear, as Iranian Jews have family ties in Israel and the headquarters of the Baha’i faith are in Haifa. Likewise, only a subset of the small Sikh minority in Iran have been able to receive Iranian passports despite living in the country for generations. Cremation is illegal in Iran, and the Sikh minority faces dangerous backlash for their practice. For years, the only place Sikhs have been able to legally engage in their funeral rites is at a cremation site hidden within the Indian embassy grounds in Tehran, a 24 hour train ride from the historic Sikh population center of Zahedan. Armenians also struggle with the image of being perpetual foreigners despite being present in the region for over a thousand years. Churches are monitored by the police, as any utterance or distribution of materials on Christianity in the Persian language is grounds for arrest.

Tests of ideology hinder opportunities for religious minorities beyond the realm of their religious practice. Exams legally implemented by the Islamic Republic to prove one’s loyalty to the state religion prevent people from exercising complete citizenship rights. One cannot work in the public sector in Iran, for example, without passing examinations that prove loyalty to the state-sanctioned, Khomeinist version of Shi’a Islam. Theoretically recognized religious minorities (Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians) may work in lower-rank positions should they pass an examination, but the segregation of the education system bars candidates from having the requisite familiarity with Islam to realistically pass. Furthermore, there has been a massive push by the regime to allocate and prioritize more positions for members of the Basij, Iran’s voluntary paramilitary organization, which staunchly adheres to Khomeinism.

In the realm of higher education, recognized religious minorities are consistently at odds with the efforts to Islamize any aspect of the university. Moreover, non-recognized religious minorities such as Baha’is are officially forbidden from higher education. The underground universities run by the Baha’i community face the constant threat of raids, arrests, and even execution for their work. Perhaps the most telling example of Iran’s stance towards the human value of non-recognized religious minorities can be seen through the qisas system or “retaliation in kind.” Retaliation of violence is allowed by a victim’s family, unless the victim’s family forgives the perpetrator or accepts a deal through “blood money.” However, if a Muslim kills a member of an non-recognized religious minority, there is no qisas requirement. In fact, no punishment is specified, giving judges the right to pursue no consequences for the murder of a non-recognized religious minority, even if the perpetrator is found guilty of a willful crime. The murder of Baha’is is effectively permissible in Iran.

Denying refugees’ right to exist

Afghan refugees are another vulnerable group that can legally be treated as subhuman. Iran’s population is estimated to be 82 million and there are up to 4 million Afghan refugees living in the country, yet 27 out of 31 provinces have partial or complete bans on the residence of Afghans. This cruel legislation is ironically most enforced in border regions across the country. Some provinces such as Sistan-Baluchistan which sits at the tri-border between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, allow Afghans to reside in urban areas, such as the capital of Zahedan, but not in the rest of the province. This prevents Afghans from moving freely and seeking opportunities for livelihoods. Each year the Iranian government chips away at opportunities to seek asylum or refugee status, and provides no legal recourse to those sentenced to deportation. Afghan children are often channeled into modern-day slavery and families are forced to pay exorbitant sums to be transported between locations or to live in unsanitary camps. Human Rights Watch has released several reports on Afghan child soldiers being sent to Syria by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC) as well.

The Iranian regime and its apologists are repeating the exact “war on terror” logic with regards to Syria

Military expansionism

In addition to domestic repression, the Iranian regime’s violence extends beyond its borders and into the rest of western Asia. This fact tends to remain hidden from popular narratives, given that both U.S. war hawks and much of the so-called “anti-war” left analyze Iranian foreign policy from a deeply U.S.-centric perspective. For the latter, this viewpoint results in a flawed analysis where almost all of Iran’s actions are bizarrely seen as defending itself — or Palestine — from western imperialism. This perception used to be understandable, given the West’s treacherous history of meddling in modern Iranian affairs (support for the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadeq, backing of the Shah dictatorship, support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, etc).

However, in reality, the main external target of the Revolutionary Guards for almost a decade has not been American or Israeli soldiers, as Iran’s “resistance” narrative would have outsiders believe, but Syrian civilians. While Russia intervened to save the throne of the Assad dynasty in 2015, Iran and its proxies, most notably Lebanese Hezbollah, have been a main source of Bashar al-Assad’s ground troops since the early days of the Syrian revolution. This reality on the ground is the reason why many Syrians who supported Iran against the hypocritical U.S.-Israeli stance on its nuclear program later questioned the timing of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal, which was signed at the height of the Iranian-backed genocide in Syria.


The irony of Iran’s role in the Syrian war, of course, is that the state has justified its military intervention with the same arguments used by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Saudi Arabia to justify the killing of civilians in Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen: that they are only fighting “terrorists” and protecting “national security.” In doing so, the Iranian regime and its apologists are repeating the exact “war on terror” logic with regards to Syria that they once used at home to justify the slaughter of thousands of Kurds during the 1979 Iranian Kurdish uprising.

Unfortunately, Iran’s state propaganda line on the Syrian war has been bought by far too many western activists and journalists across the political spectrum; as a result, few, if any, of the articles on sanctions (whether in favor of or against them) have not even bothered mentioning how Iranian and Iranian-backed occupation forces continue to prop up the Assad regime, responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in Syria. With or without the U.S.-led sanctions, Iran’s mobilization of a transnational Shi’a army in support of Assad has remained one of the few constants throughout the Syrian war and a key driver of the very Sunni extremism that Iran claims to combat in the Levant.

Toward a new transnational movement

Since the reinstatement of economic sanctions by the Trump administration, the Iranian regime has propped up a victimhood narrative that exploits the suffering of the general population and the doubly marginalized within the nation. Examples of mass suffering, human rights violations, and discrimination have been blamed on the regime’s economic hardships. To the extent that when international movements against economic sanctions make mention of Iran’s mistreatment of its people, these are deemed mere “mismanagement” by the government. The conditions experienced by the marginalized populations of Iran have been severely exacerbated in recent years, but the state structures which prioritize Persian-speaking Shi’a Muslims precede the sanctions era. Furthermore, in the years of relative economic stability and opening of freedoms in the center and among the dominant population of Iran, there was little relief for minorities.

The erasure of minority voices from international solidarity movements actively benefits hawkish right-wing organizations, who have proven to be much more willing to make space for critical voices of the Iranian regime. The fight to end unjust sanctions and the fight to instill revolutionary equality in Iran are only mutually exclusive as long as international observers and activists continue to view the Iranian regime as the primary victim. But the fact of the matter is that the ruling elite remain well-fed, resource-rich, and better equipped to fight COVID-19, while the minorities that comprise the core of the working-class movement face their darkest days.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData