Part I- Persian Nationalism & the Coming Revolution in Iran
The chain of revolutions that have erupted in the Middle East since 2011 will not come to a head without first encompassing Iran – just as the unification of European countries in the late 1990s could not have occurred without a culmination of discontent in Yugoslavia.
By comparing the current situation in the Middle East to popular revolutions which occurred in Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1990, we can see a variety of illuminating parallels. The fall of oppressive regimes in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania all resolved within two years after each country’s respective uprising, whereas the chaos in Yugoslavia lasted for nearly 10 years and was marked with significant bloodshed.
When we compare Yugoslavia to other Eastern European countries of the time, we see that Yugoslavia had the lowest levels of national unity. Across Eastern European countries in that era, the primary focus of revolution was to overthrow respective oppressive ruling systems and replace them with something more unifying. However, the uprising in Yugoslavia not only sought to dismantle the ruling system, but also aimed to eliminate institutionalized Serbian discrimination towards minority nationalities existing within the country.
Iran, much like Yugoslavia, is a large country composed of many disparate nations. For this reason, it is expected that the culminating discontent in Iran may result in a potentially lengthier and complex reconstruction process when compared to connected revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and perhaps even Syria.
As evidence, Sadegh Zibakalam, an Iranian academic, author and pundit described as reformist and neo-liberal stated (on a state channel) said:
“I do not know if we could discuss these issues or not. When the Islamic revolution of Iran happened on February 11, 1979, there was only one group that had a conflict with the Islamic republic and this group was the Kurdish minority that was opposed to the revolution.
“Today it is not only about the Kurds (who are opposed to revolution), today it is about the Kurds, Turkish Azerbaijanis, Sunni people, Baluchis, Ahwazi Arab people. What do you want to do with these peoples?
“That’s why I say we must hold firm to the Islamic Republic because if this Islamic Republic regime is toppled then it is not obvious that a country of Iran with the name as we know it will remain. Wrong methods we adopted led to all of (these people) to get away from us.”
The Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolutions overthrew their respective regimes within months, whereas revolutions in Yemen and Syria have developed into huge wars with large-scale losses of life, devastation to country infrastructure and globally reverberating humanitarian crises.
One common feature between pre-war Syria and Yemen is that both countries were multi-ethnic with dormant religious divisions which generated low levels of national internal solidarity. Iraq could also be noted as another similar case, as one of the aims beyond ousting the repressive system was abolishing ethnic oppression inflicted on Kurdish minority and other groups.
In the aforementioned circumstances, national and religious minorities are fighting to ensure their rights as groups represented in future of political structures.
Unlike in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Iran, Yugoslavia had, before their uprising, a political system which officially recognized multiple national identities and granted them political autonomy in different parts of the country.
However, despite more than seven decades of coexistence of these nations in a common framework, everything disintegrated during 10 years of revolution.
Some groups claim Western conspiracy was designed to break up Yugoslavia, whereas others blame the mismanagement of the political elite lead to this transition from a communist regime to a democratic system. But it should be noted that 70 years ago, Yugoslavia’s leaders had a historic opportunity to create a stable country by strengthening the unity between the various nationalities of the country.
Instead, the ruling Serbs of this period sought only to intensify Serbian industrial and economic superiority in order to monopolize political and military power.
During these years, the Serbian intellectuals and government at large avidly promoted Serbian superiority – fueling the prevalence of national chauvinism and hatred towards Bosnian Muslims, Albanians and Croats in the country.
The result was widespread dislike and distrust from other nationalities of Yugoslavia towards the Serbian ruling class. This eventually led to a civil war that resulted in the falling of the “East Block.”
At this time, the Serbian leaders were reluctant to meet any demands from dissenting nationalities, and instead, moved to restore order via bloody crackdowns on those ethnic nations. Even large parts of the Serbian political elite that opposed the ruling Socialist Party stood by the side of the regime at this time.
Much like the struggle for representation of other nationalities within Serbian-ruled Yugoslavia at this time, we can draw a close comparison to the current situation in Iran. Ethnic minorities in Iran have continuously demanded the Persian-dominated regime meet their demands, but the regime merely espouses support during election years and abandons those promises thereafter.
This has led to a rising wave of discontent and opposition that is spreading through the country with increasing ferocity. It will most probably be the leading factor pushing Iran’s revolution forward.
Part II- Iran’s Ethnic Minorities: What Role in a Revolution?
Historical records indicate that national minorities in Iran began openly pursuing the acquisition of their national rights when the central government destabilized in 1979.
Similar to situations in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, Ahwazi events are of this kind. After nearly 40 years of rising dissatisfaction, it is safe to assume that any future uprising of ethnic nations such as Ahwazi Arabs, Baluchis, Turks, Kurds and Turkmen against the Iranian clerical regime will more impassioned than ever before to achieve their long-denied national rights.
The systematic oppression of the non-Persian ethnic minorities (that make up 50% of Iran’s total population) remains a time bomb which threatens to fragment Iran’s centralist state.
When ethnic minorities raise their voices in pursuit of equal identity representation and basic human rights, the Iranian regime confronts their demands with an iron fist. Dissent is silenced and opposition is dismantled. But it is not only the government which systematically violated minorities’ rights. The Persian elite and Intellectuals themselves have adopted oppressive social practices which seek to undermine the autonomy, representation and humanity of any ethnic minorities who desire equality within Iran.
For these reasons, minorities in Iran feel they have no option but to fight in order to preserve their heritage, culture and survival within Iran’s profoundly racist leadership. The Iranian regime not only seeks to deprive minorities of basic human rights and freedoms, but it also desires to subsume and assimilate ethnic minorities in order to create an all-encompassing Persian identity.
This pursuit stems from a sinister desire to eradicate the collective history of these minorities and denying them any agency, autonomy, independence or hope of self-government.
The topic of nationality variety within Iran is one of the most problematic features not only for the regime to address but also the Persian oppositions in exile such as MEK and monarchists.
The current regime fears that acknowledging the rights of these ethnic minorities might challenge Persian-dominance and, consequently, lead to the collapse of the regime itself. Neither the previous monarchy nor the current theocratic regime have been able to peacefully and successfully resolve this problem.
Both the old and new governments espoused their own supremacy, which sought to utilize systematic suppression of minorities in order to maintain control of a fractured nation. This increasingly transparent racism has been at the core of the country’s policies towards non-Persian peoples throughout the past century – with the ruling party using their power to undermine minority rights and quash dissent.
Very commonly, when addressing Ahwazi Arabs — who are one of the most oppressed and impoverished people inhabiting the oil rich regions of Iran’s southwest – the Persian community will express racist sentiments such as “You are not real Arabs! You are Arabized due to proximity with Arab countries, but you are really only Arab speakers. If you wish to express your Arabism or defend what you dub an ‘Arab identity’, please get out of here. This is Iran, so go to Saudi Arabia!”
These types of sentiments deny the whole existence and history of Ahwazi Arabs in their homeland of Iran. How are these oppressed people supposed to look forward to a life when they face such blatant racism in their homeland? Do they have the right to fight back against rising anti-Arab attitudes?
Self-determination is the minimum right they should be allowed to reclaim in the face of rampant racial prejudice. There is no place in Iran that remains free from this kind of systematic bigotry. Anti-Arabism is ingrained into the workplace, printed in newspapers, espoused on the television, spoken about unabashedly by regime officials, and it’s touted by intellectuals. Everyone in Iran has learned that being anti-Arab is a prestigious trait which is essential to maintaining the facade of Iran/Persian nationalism.
The Iranian myth of one unified Persian identity directly results from over 100 years of ultra-nationalist supremacist ideology that maintained staunch resistance to any sort of critical analysis. No historical example of a fair coexistence and respect for the rights of national minorities in Iran can be found. As such, there is nothing currently embedded within Iran’s history that supports the idea that one unified Iran – with all its ethnic minority nations – is even possible.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi Arab freelance journalist and human rights advocate.