The protests sparked by a severe water crisis in southwestern Khuzestan province once again drew attention to the discrimination against ethnic minorities in Iran. During the demonstrations, in which security forces killed at least eight, protesters highlighting water shortages and deteriorating economic conditions shouted slogans against the regime and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This is not the first time the environmental crisis has provoked protests in oil-rich Khuzestan, whose residents have been suffering from economic hardship and severe environmental problems for years. In early 2017, a large wave of protests erupted in the province following severe dust storms that were accompanied by heavy rains and floods, which caused prolonged power and water outages in the region.
Ethnic Arabs—mostly Shia—make up about a third of the province’s 4.7 million population. The rest consists of Bakhtiaris, Lors, and Persians. For several nights starting on July 15, protests had mostly been in Arab majority areas, but soon people from Izeh, a Bakhtiari majority city, also joined in. Ethnic divides do not seem to be central to the protests and, in some cases, there were calls for solidarity and unity between ethnic Arabs and Bakhtiaris. Solidarity protests soon erupted in several cities across Iran, including the capital Tehran, Tabriz, Esfahan, and Karaj. This did not prevent, however, some western commentators from characterizing the protests in Khuzestan as “ethno-national” and presenting them as another indication of ethnic sectarianism in Iran.
To be sure, the ethnic issue in Iran has certainly been present and evident for a long time. Ethnic minorities—including Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Balochis, and others—who live mainly in peripheral areas, make up close to half of Iran’s population and pose a significant challenge to the Islamic Republic. These minorities continue to claim deliberate discrimination by the central government. Iran’s centralized development strategy has created wide socio-economic gaps between the center and periphery and an unbalanced distribution of state resources. Authorities are also accused of preventing the study of local culture and languages in schools in provinces populated mainly by minorities. For years, there has been an ongoing public debate in Iran over the teaching of local languages, demanding the implementation of Article 15 of the country’s constitution, which recognizes the right of minorities to study their native language in school.
Discrimination against ethnic minorities has provoked several protests and even violent clashes in the areas where they live. In May 2006, for example, riots broke out in Tabriz and other cities in the Azeri-populated provinces after a state newspaper published a cartoon depicting a Turkish-Azeri speaker as a cockroach. In February 2014, ethnic tensions resurfaced following the broadcasting of a television series that was perceived as insulting to the Bakhtiari people living in southwestern Iran. In early October 2020, protests erupted among ethnic Azeris in the northwestern city of Tabriz in support of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Occasionally, violent clashes erupt in Khuzestan, Sistan and Balochistan, and Iranian Kurdistan between security forces and separatist organizations fed by continued discrimination and economic grievances.
There have been separatist movements among the ethnic groups in Iran’s history, some of which have resulted in the establishment of independent states—even if only for a short period—such as the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad and Azerbaijan People’s Government, set up by the Soviets at the end of World War II. Violent outbreaks also erupted in minority areas after the 1979 Revolution, especially in the first two years of the Islamic Republic. However, most of the claims raised by ethnic minorities represent their demands to remove discrimination and address their economic and social problems rather than an aspiration to disengage from Iran.
Moreover, there is a significant sensitivity in Iran—even among critics of the Iranian regime—over separatist tendencies, especially any external attempt to encourage ethnic segregation, which could undermine Iran’s territorial cohesion and lead to its disintegration. A conference held in Cairo, Egypt in January 2012 titled, “Support for the Ahwaz People,” provoked criticism and outrage in the Iranian media and online. The conference was attended by representatives of the separatist movement for the liberation of Ahvaz—which advocates the secession of Khuzestan from Iran and the establishment of an Arab state—Muslim clerics, and several representatives of Egyptian political movements, including Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s advisor. The news angered many Iranians who strongly criticized the Egyptian authorities and demanded an official response from Cairo for challenging Iran’s territorial integrity.
Despite the profound differences between the various ethnic groups, Iran has existed as a separate political and cultural entity with a unique national identity for centuries, unlike most Arab nation-states, whose borders were shaped by Western powers after World War I. The differences between the historical development of the ethnic minorities, their religious affiliation (Sunnis and Shia), and the degree of their integration within Iranian society also significantly reduces the threat posed by minorities to Iran’s national cohesion.
For example, the Arabs living in Iran are predominantly Shia, which strengthens their attachment to the Iranian nation-state and has greatly foiled the efforts of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to mobilize their support during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Members of ethnic minorities have also held several senior positions over the years, including Supreme Leader Khamenei (half-Azeri on his father’s side), former reformist leader and Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Azeri), former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi (Lori), and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani (Arab). Moreover, the cultural ties and collective memories shared by Iranians of different nationalities, such as the war against Iraq, cannot be denied. In addition, as academics Ramus Elling and Kevan Harris have shown in their study based on an extensive social survey conducted in Iran in 2016, many Iranians do not always unequivocally define their ethnic-cultural identity and sometimes see themselves as belonging to more than one ethnic group.
Despite growing protests in recent years, many Iranians, including opponents and critics of the Islamic Republic, still seem concerned about the possibility that the alternative to the current regime could be even worse and that a revolutionary change could lead to political chaos and might be exploited by Iran’s enemies to disintegrate their motherland. This concern has grown even stronger considering the experience of the Arab Spring in the last decade. Not only does the chance of exploiting ethnic divisions to incite minorities to revolt against Tehran seem slim, it may turn out to be counterproductive and encourage many Iranians to “rally around the flag” to preserve their country’s territorial integrity.