Iran's Ethnic Mosaic

Article Summary
Iran's ethnic diversity and the havoc it could wreak might be the Iranian regime's weakest link. Yet, it is also its underlying strength, writes Guy Bechor. 

The indiscriminate, mass executions of ethnic minorities in Iran – Kurds, Azeris and Sunni Arabs – generally, on false charges of espionage, blogging, online porno posting or just picture uploading, testify to the extreme pressure under which the religious-military regime in Tehran is currently operating. For quite some time now, Iranian TV has been regularly broadcasting so-called "confessions" of the victims sentenced to death, alleged "declarations of guilt" by fictitious spies and fabricated repentance speeches – displayed to the music of cinematic thrillers. Apart from Syria, where a civil war is raging at present, there is no other country in the Middle East whose regime is persecuting its own citizens, putting to death political activists so avidly and flagrantly.

The Iranian regime fears a resurgence of the wave of anti-governmental protests and demonstrations of millions that swept Iran in 2009, and it reacts fiercely, as a measure of deterrence – a lesson for all to see. "Facebook is really the Zionists' espionage apparatus." This is the message delivered by the renowned cyber expert, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to his people.

The Iranian regime is well aware that Iran is an ethnically diverse country consisting of different minorities, none of which is in the majority. The Persians, who traditionally formed the greater part of the Iranian population, have declined in number to under the 50 percent threshold. As to all other ethnic minorities, they would rather be annexed to neighboring countries than go on living under an oppressive regime.

The second largest minority group in Iran is that of the Azeris – numbering some 20 million, about a quarter of the Iranian population. Iran's spiritual leader [officially, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the highest ranking political and religious authority in Iran] Ali Khamenei is an Azeri and so is Iranian opposition leader [and former prime minister] Mir Hussein Moussavi. Many of the Azeris wish to be annexed to neighboring Azerbaijan, their cultural motherland. The Republic of Azerbaijan for its part considers the Azeri territories under Iranian rule an inseparable part of Azerbaijan – historically and ethnically, at least, if not politically. Thus, for instance, in the Eurovision song contest of 2009, the PR video clip presented by Azerbaijan featured some of its prominent heritage sites, including – to the amazement of the Iranians – the Maqbaratoshoara, a poet mausoleum in the vicinity of the Iranian city of Tabriz. Tehran accuses the Azeris of assisting the Intelligence agencies of the United States and Israel in their endeavors to sabotage Iranian regime targets.

Another large ethnic minority in Iran is that of the Kurds, who are constantly facing off with Iran's Revolutionary Guards in violent daily clashes. They dream of leaving Iran and uniting in the great Kurdish homeland, once it is established. Other ethnic minorities are the Tajiks, who seek to join Pakistan, and the Sunni Arabs, whose aspiration is to establish a Sunni State within Iran – the State of Ahwaz.

The regime in Tehran realizes that Iran's ethnic diversity is its Achilles heel and that, in the event of a military confrontation, Iran would be in very real danger of disintegration and total collapse, as each of the minority groups would most probably act to advance its own national interests, at the expense of the Persians.

At the same time, tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in Iran are escalating – 33 percent of the Iranians are Sunnis, including the Arabs and Kurds in the country – and the tension is spilling over to the neighboring countries. A case in point illustrating the inter-ethnic hostility is the call recently made by a certain Iranian newspaper for the annexation to Iran of the Kingdom of Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni royal family – provoking the fury of Sunni Internet surfers and the indignant Bahraini regime.

Iran's ethnic diversity and the entailed threat of its dissolution may in fact be the Iranian regime's weakest link. Yet, it is also its underlying strength. The minority groups in Iran are well aware that once the Khomeinist regime falls, the outcome will inevitably be utter chaos or even an all-out civil war – an exact replay of the terrible conflict that tore Lebanon apart between 1975 and 1989 or of that currently unfolding in Syria. The Iranians are watching the goings-on in Syria and see their reflection there. That's why in spite of the oppression weighing on them and the intense abhorrence they feel for the regime, they keep supporting it, realizing that it is their last defense, shielding them from total anarchy and an ethnic bloodbath.

This is where the ever harsher economic sanctions against this beaten and battered country enter the picture and further unravel the delicate web of inter-ethnic relations. And it is here that the paradox lies: As the rifts deepen and the discord heightens, the parties concerned are bound to come to the conclusion that, whether they like it or not, they cannot do without the present regime and that if it falls, Iran itself will fall with it, and where will they then turn? After all, they have nowhere else to go.

Ironically, the major weakness of the regime in Tehran is thus also its very source of strength.

Found in: azeris, sunni, minorities, kurds, iran

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