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Mar 27, 2024

Don’t Play the Ethnic Card in Iran

By Michael Rubin

“After the collapse of the Iranian conglomerate and the emergence of five to six ethnic states from its ruins – just like happened in the former Soviet Union, when Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia separated into individual, peaceful ethnic countries – the world will be a better and safer place.” So opined Mordechai Kedar, a prominent Israeli academic, in a Jerusalem Post essay arguing that regime change proponents in Iran should support ethnic separatism.

Kedar’s analysis always demands respect, but his rose-colored approach to history here is curious. If wars among former Soviet states and the ethnic cleansing surrounding Yugoslavia’s collapse were peaceful, then should historians praise Genghis Khan’s massacres as an effective strategy to reduce prison overcrowding?

Still, Kedar is right to note Iran’s ethnic (and sectarian) diversity. Across the Middle East, mother tongue largely defines ethnicity. Many Iran analysts cite decades-old statistics to argue half of Iran’s population is Persian, with Arabs, Azeris, Baluch, Gilakis, Kurds, Lors, Talysh, and others comprising the remainder.

Azerbaijan specialist Brenda Shaffer argues such figures are no longer accurate; instead, she suggests the Iranian government exaggerates the Persian population and downplays the true size of the minorities. Frankly, she may be right in terms of ethnic censuses, though it is impossible to know for sure: as with other autocratic regimes, reliable statistics are hard to attain.

In many ways, though, arguing about these statistics is tilting at windmills because ethnicity is not the primary driver of identity. Whereas countries formed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often organized around ethno-nationalism, Persian or, after 1935, Iranian statehood predates that era by millennia.

In 1501, Ismail Shah Safavi officially converted Persia to Shi’ism. His goal was as much political as it was religious: Because there was no difference between the populations on the Ottoman and Persian sides of the frontier, Ismail Shah hoped to construct an identity based on religious practice rather than ethnicity.

It worked and, with time, the new identity imprinted itself upon the existing pre-Islamic identity that shaped many on the Persian plateau. Put another way, Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of Achaemenid Empire (559-330 BC), today represents the heritage of not only ethnic Persians but also Azeris. Many Kurds read the Shahnameh, the tenth century Persian poet Firdawsi’s epic of kingship.

In 1980, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran with the aim to annex oil-rich Khuzestan—or Arabistan as Saddam called it—in the belief that Iranian Arabs would welcome their “liberation.” They did not, though. Whatever their ethnicity, Iranians (with the exception of the Mujahedin al-Khalq) fought against the invaders, just as Iraqi Shi’ites fought against Iran. Many Arabs rose to top Islamic Republic positions, for example Ali Shamkhani, the chairman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 2013 until 2023.

To exaggerate Azerbaijani separatism in Iran is also a rookie mistake. Prior to Persian’s 1828 loss of the South Caucasus in Treaty of Turkmenchay, Azerbaijan was not some peripheral territory but rather the seat of the crown prince. When, more than a century later Soviet forces sought to carve out a proxy state in Iranian Azerbaijan as a step toward its annexation, Iranians rallied in outrage across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum.

Today, Iranian Azerbaijanis are disproportionately powerful in the Islamic Republic. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is Azeri. So too was former Iranian Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the late Sadegh Khalkhali, chief justice during the first decade of the Islamic Republic who condemned hundreds to death. Iranian Kurds say Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units comprised of ethnic Azeris are more brutal than those units staffed by Persians.

Whenever unrest erupts in Iranian Kurdistan, Tehran delegates the Azeris to crush it in much the same way that Vladimir Putin relies on loyal Chechens to do his dirty work.

This does not mean that all Azeris are pro-regime. As with others, Azeri Iranians’ enthusiasm for theocracy faded with time. Divining loyalty by ethnicity, however, is simplistic.

Kedar also notes that, “After Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish girl, was brutally murdered for protesting against Iran’s repressive hijab laws, Iran’s ethnic groups have been united in seeking more autonomy and freedom from the central government in Tehran.”

That Iranians of every ethnicity—and especially Persians—made the same demands against the clerical regime, however, suggests ethnicity is not the operative variable. Quite the contrary, the willingness of ethnic Persians to rally around a Kurdish woman suggests ideology and a quest for political freedom trumps racial bias.

The same is true with the environment. Poor stewardship of Lake Urmia may chafe local Iranian Azeris and Kurds, but the motive was corruption, not ethnic warfare. Iranians also took to the streets when Isfahan’s famous Zayanderud ran dry to protest the Revolutionary Guards whose building of unnecessary dams caused ecological disaster.

If the symptoms are misdiagnosed, the proposed cure can backfire. The “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement exposed the Islamic Republic’s lack of legitimacy. All Iranians, regardless of their ethnicity, deserve freedom. The United States, moderate Arab states, and Israel should want a liberal, prosperous Iran at peace with itself and its neighbors. The day the ayatollahs’ regime falls, Iran should once again be an ally and partner. The point steadily nears.

To signal to Iranians, however, that the goal of the West is dismantlement of their country is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Few Iranians—again, except for Maryam Rajavi and the Mujahedin al-Khalq—will betray their country. When Saddam invaded in 1980, Iranians rallied around the flag regardless of how they viewed Ayatollah Khomeini.

This does not mean discounting ethnicity in the future. Many Iranian regional groups want some degree of federalism in order to protect language and cultural heritage after 45 years of Islamic Republic repression. That, however, is a decision only for Iranians—not Americans or Israelis—to make in a future constitutional convention.

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