On June 15, two days of clashes broke out after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired upon a platoon of Kurdish fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). At least six on both sides were killed. The incident was the first in a spate of home-grown attacks by Kurds and other restive minority factions against Iranian officials and infrastructure. Tehran has responded with repression to enforce unity on a nation split along ethnic and sectarian lines. The increasing violence signals growing discontent among Iran’s non-Persian denizens, who regularly face human rights abuses as well as political and economic discrimination from Tehran.
Iran’s Shia Persian Islamist regime views ethnic—and to a lesser extent religious—diversity as a weakness. So, Tehran is trying to undermine and diminish pluralism through the imposition of a revolutionary religious ideology and narrow concept of ethnic nationalism on a variegated nation in order to maintain control.
Iran has deep ethnic divisions. Just under half of all Iranians are ethnic Persians. Azeris are the largest minority, comprising 24 percent of the population, but the violent civil unrest in recent years has come predominantly from the Kurdish (7%), Arab (3%) and Baloch (2%) sectors, the ethnic minorities least integrated into the centralizing Persian/Shia system.
The Kurdish and Baloch minorities are further alienated from the system by religion; the vast majority of Iran’s roughly 10% Sunni Muslim population are from these two ethnic groups.
Iran’s Kurds are spearheading the current violence against the state, which is a response to Tehran’s longstanding repression of minority populations. The KDPI—although largely nonviolent—has still engaged in sporadic guerrilla warfare against oppressive regimes in Tehran (both secular and Islamic) since the group’s creation in 1945. Headquartered in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1996, the KDPI changed its strategy last year when it dispatched fighters to western Iran’s Kurdish provinces. In addition to the June clashes, there have since been reports of at least five other skirmishes and dozens of peshmerga (Kurdish military forces) and IRGC casualties.
The violence continues to escalate: Iran has shelled KDPI strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kurdish militants were most likely responsible for an assassination attempt against an Iranian parliamentarian on July 10. On August 2, Iran executed 20 Kurds for allegedly mounting a string of terrorist attacks between 2009 and 2011. The United Nations’ (U.N.) top human rights official denounced the executions as a “grave injustice” lacking in due process. KDPI Secretary-General Mustafa Hijri justified his party’s return to violence by claiming “[Iran] has stepped up pressure on the Kurds and has not left space for meaningful civic or political work [inside the country].”
A May 2015 U.N. report confirms that Iran has not fulfilled President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to "extend protection to all religious groups and to amend legislation that discriminates against minority groups…Individuals seeking greater recognition for their cultural and linguistic rights risk facing harsh penalties, including capital punishment." Iran bars Sunni (mostly Kurdish) Muslims from high government offices, and the Kurdish region—despite being resource-rich—is one of the most economically underdeveloped in the country. Benefits from the 2015 nuclear deal have not yet materialized despite Rouhani’s public pledge to devote $2 billion to development projects in Iranian Kurdistan. He has also failed to deliver on promises to allow school instruction in languages other than Farsi (Persian). Many Kurds and other minorities speak poor Farsi, which hobbles their scholastic performance and contributes to higher rates of illiteracy, unemployment and economic hardship.
The regime’s offensive against the Kurds has impelled other minority groups to challenge Tehran as well. Iran views these groups’ demands for equality as a threat to national security, and has subjected them to waves of marginalization. As with the Kurds, Iran’s Arab and Baloch provinces lag behind economically, are largely administered by outsiders, and are subject to systemic repression and disproportionate executions. Representatives of the Iranian Arab community in Khuzestan province have supplied internal Iranian government records to the U.N. Human Rights Council. These documents reveal an Iranian ethnic cleansing campaign centered on expelling Arabs from their homes to create a Persian demographic majority in the primarily Arab Khuzestan province.
Iranian Arab guerrilla groups, taking a cue from Iranian Kurds, have begun to target Iran’s oil infrastructure in Khuzestan. A Sunni group claimed responsibility for a June attack on a petrochemical complex, stating that the “explosion was a reaction to Iran’s repressive policy against the Arab minority in Ahvaz (the Arab term for Khuzestan), including ongoing arrests, trials, executions, and expulsions of young people in the area.” The group said it wanted to weaken Iran’s economy, which it asserted thrives on petrochemical resources located in Iran’s Arab-populated areas while leaving the inhabitants there impoverished.
Iranian Balochis, a Sunni-majority ethnic group near the Pakistani border, also have undertaken spectacular attacks in recent months. In June, a Baloch jihadist group claimed to have killed dozens of Iranian soldiers in a suicide bombing. Balochis also killed five Iranian border police in early July.
In sum, Iran faces subversive activity borne of ethnic grievances on its western, southern, and eastern borders. These low-intensity insurgencies do not jeopardize the Islamic regime’s stability today. Rather than dealing with these tensions constructively, Tehran will likely reject calls for autonomy or federalism and will push forward with repression. But Iran’s repressive response to ethnic disaffection will likely engender more opposition that can evolve into a more serious threat over time.
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