Confused about Iran?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 5 13:49:06 UTC 2007

Confused about Iran? Curious about internal Iranian policitcs? Read This!

 Nayereh Tohidi

Nayereh Tohidi is Professor and Chair of the Women's Studies Department at
California State University, Northridge and a Research Associate at the
Center for Near East Studies.

The Tehran government's failure to deliver economic improvement is
fuelling discontent among Iran's non-Persian minorities, says Nayereh
Tohidi. Iran has always been a multi-ethnic and multicultural country.
Persian (Farsi) may be the official language, but it is only in recent
years that speakers of the language have become a majority of the
population. There are many other language-groups, including Turkic (spoken
by Azeris, Turkmen, Qashqais, and Shahsevans), Kurdish, Arabic, Baluchi,
Armenian, and Assyrian.  Most Iranians who speak these languages perceive
their ethnic identity as a complement to their national identity. Indeed,
it has long been understood and widely accepted that this diversity is an
asset to one of the world's oldest continuous civilisations. Yet recent
events and trends reveal that the settlement between the Persian majority
and the ethnic minorities is under pressure, in ways that are putting the
country's political future into question.  The Azeri protests The latest
spate of ethnic-related unrest in Iran was the massive demonstrations of
Azeris in Iran's northwestern province of Azerbaijan from 22-28 May 2006.
These have highlighted the growing role that ethnic issues play in Iran's
domestic politics and international relations; at the same time, their
significance has largely been eclipsed by the international attention
devoted to the crisis over Iran's nuclear researches.  The trigger of the
protests was a cartoon published in the 19 May issue of Iran, a
state-owned newspaper based in Tehran, which depicted Azeris and their
language in insulting terms (including the use of cockroach imagery). Many
Azeris - a group that comprises a quarter of Iran's 68 million people -
were outraged when they saw or heard about the cartoon. A protest was
initiated by Azeri students in Tabriz, the regional capital, and the
smaller cities of Ardabil, Urumiyeh, and Zanjan. These soon spread
further, and were followed by the closure of shops and bazaars, and the
gathering of tens of thousands of people on the streets.  It is striking
that the focus of the protests soon shifted from the controversial cartoon
to broader socio-political issues. The demonstrators started to attack
some government buildings and to demand the resignation of local officials
and police authorities who had ordered repressive measures against the
overwhelmingly peaceful protests. Several people, including journalists
working for Turkic-language newspapers or websites, were arrested; other
citizens were severely beaten by police.

The cartoon seemed to serve as a catalyst for the expression of long-held
grievances and suppressed feelings of humiliation and resentment by many
Azeri people. The slogans of the demonstrators - among them "down with
chauvinism", "long live Azerbaijan", and "Azerbaijan is awake and will
protect its language" - reflected both ethnic-related grievances and
anti-establishment sentiments.  In order to defuse the crisis and divert
people's anger, the state authorities shut down the Iran newspaper and
jailed the cartoonist and editors, who issued an apology to the Azeris.
This did not appease the outraged Azeris; they had sought an apology from
the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, and from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
himself. The minister belatedly apologised, but President Ahmadinejad did
not: indeed, he blamed the turmoil on foreign elements and linked it to
western pressures over the nuclear issue.  Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah
Khamenei reinforced this view days later with talk of a "foreign plot" by
Iran's "desperate enemies" who are trying to disrupt national unity by
instigating ethnic unrest in Iran. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani cities remained
under a semi-curfew, and filled with special anti-riot guards and
plainclothes security men reportedly deployed from Iran's southern
provinces.  Azeri activists concluded their wave of demonstrations on 28
May in front of the majlis in Tehran. The gathering was immediately
disrupted by the police, but the Azeris activists managed to issue a
carefully crafted resolution. This outlined a brief historical narrative
of the unjust and discriminatory distribution of national resources,
political power and socio-cultural status among ethnic and religious
minorities in Iran since 1925; it then went on to list eleven Azeri-Turkic

This ambitious list included recognition of Azeri-Turkic as an official
language and its use as a medium of education in schools; the right to a
free press and media in Azeri-Turkic; and the right to hold cultural
events and to organise NGOs, political parties, and trade unions.  The
events of 22-28 May proved themselves to be a catalyst in Iran. In
subsequent weeks, hundreds of prominent intellectuals and political
activists of various orientations have issued statements calling for
urgent reforms of the state's policies and behaviour in relation to ethnic
and religious minorities in Iran.  Ahmad Zeidabadi, a prominent political
analyst, says: "Among the many problems that have griped Iran, the ethnic
issue is the most complicated, most difficult, and most sensitive one, so
much so that one cannot even easily talk about it."  The Azeri protests,
then, may herald an era when discussion of Iran's ethnic diversity and
problems - hitherto confined to ethnic-activist circles - enters the
public arena and helps to shape the debate about Iran's political future.

The politics of a wound

This would represent a radical departure from modern Iranian history, in
particular from the ideology of the "homogenous" character of the "Aryan
race" that developed in the 20th century. Since the central government in
Tehran crushed the autonomous governments of Mahabad (Kurdistan) and
Tabriz (Azerbaijan) in 1945-46, it has seen any ethnic-related demands as
a security issue threatening Iran's territorial integrity. Against this,
the overwhelming majority of ethnic-rights activists in Iran declare
themselves to be against secessionism.  Both the Pahlavi monarchy and the
Islamist Republic labelled ethnic activists as "secessionist" and/or
"agents of foreign manipulation". While under the Shah's regime the main
foreign culprit provoking ethnic tension was assumed to be the Soviet
Union and occasionally pan-Turkism promoted by Turkey, the Islamist regime
has typically blamed the United States.  A specific factor the Tehran
authorities highlight is the "South Azerbaijan Television" (Gunaz TV),
based in Chicago, the first twenty-four-hour TV station in the
Azeri-Turkic language. Gunaz TV proclaims its struggle against "Farsi
chauvinism" and aims for the revival of "Azeri national identity." The
station is broadcast via the Turkish satellite TurkSat 2A, leading Iranian
officials to request Turkey to suspend its licence. Gunaz TV claims to be
independent, but the government in Tehran perceives it to be part of the
US state department's $75 million programme to help promote regime change
in Iran.  In any case, the wave of protest in Azerbaijan can hardly be
attributed to the influence of an amateur, poorly-operated TV station that
is only few months old. The "blame the foreigners" game of the Islamist
government may find an echo among some pan-Farsi nationalists who see
pan-Turkists in Turkey and post-Soviet Azerbaijan as the real culprits in
this case. But neither state-run nor any major independent media in the US
or Turkey has expressed support for the Azeris protests. A pan-Turkist
website led by Mahmoud Chehregani, the Iranian-Azeri self-styled leader of
the "National Movement of Southern Azerbaijanis" who has ties to the US
and Baku, expressed disappointment with Turkey's "indifference toward the
heroic uprising of Azeri Turks against the bloody suppression in Iran."

In Baku too, no official sources expressed support for what opposition
papers such as Azadlik called the "uprising in southern Azerbaijan".
Moreover, Ilham Aliev's government in Baku attempted to persecute two
independent weekly papers for publishing "divisive and offensive" cartoons
against Iran's leader and president. A few days later, Chehregani was
deported from Baku. These events seem to indicate the influence of Iran's
Islamist government in Baku rather than Baku's influence on Iran's
identity politics.  Thus, the Iranian authorities cannot explain away the
recent ethnic-related clashes by blaming outsiders. The Azeri incidents
are not alone: there has also been unrest in other border provinces with
large minority populations - Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Baluchistan, and to a
lesser extent Turkmenistan. If any external provocation and manipulation
is being attempted, it could only have an effect if there already existed
a widespread sense of discrimination, deprivation and resentment toward
the central government inside Iran.

The dynamics of tension

In addition to contingent factors like the Iran cartoon, three further
processes are tending to reinforce ethnic and regional tensions in Iran.
First, minority politics in Iran - whether related to gender, religion or
ethnicity - are in an age of increasing globalisation influenced by a
global-local interplay. The geopolitical changes in the greater middle
east since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the US invasion of
Afghanistan and Iraq have created new regional dynamics. The newly
independent republics of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and the de facto
independent Kurdistan of Iraq - all with cross-border ethnic kin in Iran -
are bound to affect identity politics in these countries.  Second, an
uneven and over-centralised (mostly Tehran-centered) strategy of
development in Iran has resulted in a wide socio-economic gap between the
centre and the peripheries. A great part of the grievances of ethnic
minorities in the provinces is due to the uneven distribution of power,
socio-economic resources, and socio-cultural status.  The US has usually
supported the territorial integrity of Iran, including the homogenising
and assimilationist policies upheld by the Pahlavi dynasty. But some
analysts argue that during the past fifteen years, a new shift in US
policy has occurred whereby some Washington neo-conservatives openly
support the political demands of major minorities in Iran such as Arabs,
Baluch and Kurds. Many Iranians worry that Washington (or Tel Aviv)  want
not just regime change in Iran, but a transformation in Iran's
geopolitical map. Iran, it might be said, is too big for them.  Third,
Iran's constitution enshrines the right to the use of local languages in
schools and media alongside Farsi, as well as provincial autonomy. Yet
none of these guaranteed rights have been implemented. The presidency of
Ahmadinejad has even reversed what flexibility has been shown by
appointing local officials close to the Revolutionary Guards who show no
sensitivity to centre-periphery or ethnic dynamics.  But in opposition to
these trends, other forces are at work. A growing discussion over possible
strategies to resolve ethnic issues is underway.  The perils of both
secular, national-chauvinist homogenisation under the Pahlavi dynasty and
of religious, Shi'a-Islamist segmentation under the Islamic Republic have
become apparent to an increasing number of Iranians of all ethnic
backgrounds. Iran's intellectuals and reformers are discussing whether a
federal system within a democratic polity might be the answer. Many argue
that it is only within the context of a democratic constitution and an
even-handed, decentralised socio-economic development strategy that Iran
can develop a much-needed civic rather than an ethnocentrist national

The way forward

Some among the secular nationalist elites as well as Islamists in Iran
have been wary about ethnic rights, especially language diversity. They
worry that teaching in ethnic languages may threaten Iran's territorial
integrity and national unity. Yet Iran's history offers little basis for
this apprehension. Azeris, for example, have played major roles in every
turning-point of Iran's modern history.  This was true even during the
constitutional revolution (1905-1911) when the overwhelming majority of
Azeris could not even speak Farsi. Another example is the popular
satirical paper Mulla Nasr al-Din (edited by an Azeri-Turk, Mohammad Jalil
Qulizadah) that was crucial in enlightening people in Iran and across the
Caucasus at the turn of the 20th century;  its sharply anti-clerical and
anti-despotic cartoons were originally published in Azeri-Turkic as well
as Farsi.  Ethnic differences intersect with religious and gender
differences in Iran. The theocratic nature of Iran's polity based on the
supremacy of Shi'a Islam relegates religious minorities such as
Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, and Baha'i to an inferior position. The
Sunni Muslims who compose 9% of Iran's population mostly belong to ethnic
minorities. A revealing example is the fact that Tehran is one of the rare
capitals around the world where no Sunni mosque can be found.  In this
light, the implementation of the constitutionally-protected rights of
ethnic minorities in Iran may only resolve part of the problem. The
subordinate status of religious minorities in Iran - and of women, a
distinct but closely-related issue - is sanctified by the constitution.
The struggles for democracy and for minority rights are intimately linked
in Iran: only an egalitarian reform of the constitution can guarantee that
all Iranians regardless of their gender, religion and ethnic backgrounds
will in future equally share ownership of their own country.


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