In Iran, Pluralism Begins to Take Root

The recent protests have seen unprecedented solidarity between the country's diverse Persian and non-Persian communities

In Iran, Pluralism Begins to Take Root
People gather in protest against the death of Zhina (aka Mahsa) Amini along the streets on Sept. 19, 2022, in Tehran, Iran. (Getty Images)

There are few places in Iran further from Saqqez, in Iranian Kurdistan, where Zhina (aka Mahsa) Amini was born in 1999 and buried on Sept. 17, than Zahedan, 1,200 miles away in Sistan and Balochistan province. Yet, despite living at opposite ends of the country, Iran’s Kurdish and Baloch communities face similar challenges as non-Persian Sunni Muslims in the Shiite-centric Islamic Republic. Even so, they have never before made common cause in combating their shared marginalization.

This is a point of critical importance for the Iranian state, which has spent the past century controlling Iran’s mosaic of ethnic groups by keeping the Kurdish, Baloch and other non-Persian peoples of Iran economically weak, politically disenfranchised and socially isolated. After the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979, non-Shiite groups were added to the list. With the exception of the revolution that year, this approach has largely proven robust in limiting the scope of any opposition from these groups.

Or, at least, it had, until the news of Zhina Amini’s death at the hands of Tehran’s morality police and the rape of a young Baloch teenager by a police colonel in Chabahar broke almost simultaneously in September. Since then, Kurdistan and Balochistan have emerged as twin pillars of a protest movement that has swept across all 31 of Iran’s provinces, forcing the Islamic Republic to contend with a grassroots uprising now operating on mutually-reinforcing levels in pursuit of one overarching objective: overthrowing it.

In conjunction with acts of civil disobedience carried out by women across Iran, daily demonstrations on university and high school campuses and a growing wave of industrial action, majority-minority cities like Zahedan and Saqqez are staging sustained protests in the face of violent crackdowns by state security forces. In doing so, they are both sustaining the movement’s momentum and preventing the state from focusing its repressive apparatus on any one region, helping explain why the breadth and longevity of this uprising have surpassed any other round of protests seen in Iran since 1979.

As documented by Iranian citizen journalists, this movement has already given rise to countless scenes of Iranian men — as well as conservatively-veiled Iranian women — supporting women and girls who are taking off their state-mandated hijabs and bucking rules of gender segregation long imposed by the Islamic Republic. It has also seen frontier regions vocally express support for one another as the protests take root in new locations, all while Iran’s ethnically-Persian “center” demonstrates unprecedented solidarity with non-Persian compatriots through the slogans, art and music of the past several weeks.

As the Iranian Kurdish journalist Kaveh Ghoreishi described it, “we have people in [ethnically Azeri Turkish] Tabriz chanting slogans in support of Kurdistan and vice versa. People in Balochistan hear Kurdistan’s voices, and people in Rasht [referring to the Gilak community of northern Iran] hear Balochistan.” It is a stark change from just two years ago, when demonstrators in Tabriz described “Persians, Kurds and Armenians” as their “enemies” against the backdrop of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and tensions between Iranian Azeris and their Kurdish neighbors.

It is also, as a former student activist and participant in the 2009 Green Movement told New Lines, a rebuke to official narratives about Iran’s non-Persian ethnic groups and their supposed threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. “For 43 years, this system has told us the Kurds, Arabs and Baloch are all separatists … but now that everyone from every ethnic group is out demonstrating together, separatism is the only thing you don’t see.”

Watching this unfold, outside journalists and opposition voices — up to and including Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s former crown prince and heir to a political tradition built on Persian nationalism — are rapidly revisiting not just how they discuss Iranian gender relations but also distinctions of ethnicity, religion and even sexuality. At a rally in Berlin on Oct. 22, at which an estimated 100,000 people gathered in the largest diaspora protest in Iranian history, pride of place was given not just to Kurdish and Baloch organizations but also to members of the Iranian queer community — a poignant point of contrast with President Ebrahim Raisi’s televised diatribe against homosexuality and the death sentences handed down to queer activists Zahra Sedighi-Hamadani and Elham Choubdar in September.

Just as the mandatory hijab is now a magnet for civil disobedience and an Achilles’ heel for the Islamic Republic’s ability to impose its vision of morality, the government’s policies of disenfranchising ethnic and religious communities outside its core Persian Shiite constituency — a category that includes not just Iran’s Azeris, Kurds, Baloch, Ahwazi Arabs, Gilaks and Lors, but also religious groups like the heavily-persecuted Baha’i — have given these groups ample reason to protest decades’ worth of grievances.

As the Ahwazi human rights activist Shima Silavi, whose father Yousef has been disappeared by the security services since 2009, explained to New Lines: “Since the Pahlavis took over the country 97 years ago … we as minorities have fallen into the category of the enemy.” Nonetheless, Mohim Sarkhosh of the Balochistan Solidarity Party stressed that the situation facing his community became “10 times worse” under the Islamic Republic, which he described as “a fanatical Shia state that does not acknowledge anyone outside of its ideological framework.”

As indicated by the sustained nature of the protests among several of these communities, Iran’s non-Persian ethnic groups share what Silavi described as “similar experiences of being Iranian … of exclusion and marginalization.” For decades, cross-border smugglers known as kolbars in Kurdistan and sookhtbars in Balochistan have faced extrajudicial execution for engaging in one of their only options for making a living. While the Iranian government’s own figures show poverty rates as high as 90% in many localities in Sistan and Balochistan, Baloch Iranians accounted for a quarter of the prisoners executed by Iran’s legal system in the first half of this year — despite representing just 5% of the population.

Meanwhile, for Ahwazi Arabs in southwestern Khuzestan, that inequality is even harder to stomach, as their region accounts for over 80% of Iran’s crude oil reserves and 15% of its GDP. Silavi framed the economic imbalance in geographic terms, decrying the state’s concentration of resources and investments in central Iran, whereas “there is no planning, no consideration, no budget dedicated to minority regions.” These grievances came to the fore when people across Khuzestan rose up after a gas price hike three years ago and again during an acute water crisis last year. Both times, security forces responded brutally, including by killing up to 100 people in the marshes outside the city of Mahshahr in November 2019.

In retrospect, the events leading up to Mahshahr, which were part of a broader crackdown that saw a reported 1,500 killed across Iran, seem like a harbinger of the current movement. The November 2019 protests were a rare example of an uprising bringing together multiple regions and ethnic groups — notably Ahwazi Arabs in Khuzestan but also Kurds and Persians in cities like Tehran and Shiraz — while articulating demands for full-on regime change. Prior events, such as the 1999 university demonstrations and the 2009 Green Movement, despite their more limited aspirations, never caught on in more than a few cities before succumbing to the combined effects of arrests, imprisonment and violence by the security forces.

To explain what changed between 2009 and today, the former Green Movement activist I spoke to stressed the importance of digital spaces in breaking down preconceived notions held by the Persian mainstream of Iranian society towards other ethnic and religious groups. As she put it, “We had much more limited internet access. People weren’t in contact with each other the way they are now through social networks like Twitter.” She admitted that “we in Tehran didn’t know much about what was happening in Kurdistan or Tabriz,” blaming that gap for the failure of her generation’s movement to establish a lasting presence outside Tehran.

If, in 2009, “non-Persian people had reason to look at the Green Movement and say that we Persians had never understood or responded to their grievances or concerns,” she credits expanded online contacts for the fact Iranians from different groups are now turning out at the same time. “The spread of the internet and social networks has made it possible for a narrative of solidarity to take shape. People have a better idea of what the issues facing each part of the country are, and this revolution has made people feel much closer to each other.”

Seemingly oblivious to this fundamental change, pro-regime media channels have responded to the protests by doubling down on rhetoric which depicts all challenges from non-Persian ethnic groups as separatism designed to break up Iran — holding up as evidence, among other examples, the participation of minority groups at the Berlin rally. It is an approach that is all too familiar to activists like Silavi, who said that “even when we are calling for basic rights like water, we [minorities] have to insist we are not separatists and that we are protesting peacefully.”

Rather than countenance conciliatory gestures toward the protesters, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards have deployed a repressive apparatus that, for all the tools and loyal foot soldiers it has at its disposal, is simply not built to put down protests happening simultaneously in every part of the country. In an attempt to prevent the movement from getting to that point, the Guards reverted to a long-running strategy of using Iran’s frontier regions as places where the regime, in Kaveh Ghoreishi’s words, “tests its tools of repression and makes an example out of using them.” As he put it, “Whenever there is a movement taking shape across Iran, the regime seeks to crush protests in Kurdistan in the most vicious and deadly way possible, to show others what the future holds if they continue to resist.”

On Sept. 30, which Iranians now refer to as “Bloody Friday,” the security forces killed dozens of people in Zahedan and other Baloch communities — over 90, according to the latest estimate from Iran Human Rights. Mohim Sarkhosh described the events of that day to New Lines as follows: “In some places, the security forces use birdshot and tear gas … in Balochistan, they fire on protesters with automatic weapons and machine guns from rooftops and from helicopters.”

Following the crackdown, Iranian state media claimed the Baloch separatist group Jaish al-Adl had been responsible for the violence, with the government even offering financial compensation for the “martyrs.”

The Guards likely expected their show of force on Sept. 30 would be the end of the disturbances in Balochistan. Instead, just two Fridays later, thousands of protesters returned to the streets of Zahedan.

Every Friday since, they’ve done it again.

The events of Bloody Friday, and the city’s response, have earned the Baloch residents of Zahedan pride of place in the chants of protesters in other parts of Iran. Sarkhosh described this as “a stark change from before, with a level of solidarity that has an impact on the Baloch population.”

The regime’s attempt to deploy the same strategy in Iranian Kurdistan has met with similar results. In conjunction with a crackdown in which Kurdish human rights groups reported nearly 30 deaths and roughly 1,000 arrests over the first few weeks of protests, the Revolutionary Guards carried out missile strikes targeting Iranian Kurdish opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan — apparently seeking to underscore their allegations these parties are responsible for stoking unrest across the border. According to Human Rights Watch, the attacks killed at least 16 people and displaced hundreds more.

Yet, far from being subdued, regions like Iranian Kurdistan have responded to state violence with the most consistent protests and citywide strikes seen anywhere in Iran, highlighting their role as the engine of the uprising. Explaining what motivates residents to take these risks, Kaveh Ghoreishi shared with New Lines what a protestor in Sanandaj told him: “History has taught the people of Kurdistan that no meaningful change happens in Iran until we take our place at the vanguard.”

Still, Ghoreishi warns the regime will continue to deploy its tools of repression in the region. “The regime is throwing everything it has at Kurdistan to bring this uprising to its knees, and thus far they’ve failed … [but] if the regime succeeds in crushing Kurdistan, they will have crushed the whole revolution.”

While the possibility of an overtly feminist and inclusive democracy movement toppling a theocratic dictatorship has captivated many inside and outside Iran, it is important to note the societal changes coming to the fore are still in their early stages, leaving much to be desired from the perspective of marginalized Iranians.

Shima Silavi points to the enduring effect of prejudice against her Ahwazi Arab community on the part of mainstream Iranian society, which for decades has fundamentally misunderstood its demands for clean water, clean air, respect for their local culture and the right to be governed by people from their own region. Ghoreishi, for his part, noted the fact that Zhina Amini is still not referred to by her Kurdish name — banned by the state — but instead by the Persian name she was forced to adopt. “That she was killed as Zhina but is mourned as Mahsa shows Kurds are not only not allowed to live with our own names but that we cannot even die with them,” he said.

All the same, the growing prevalence of rhetoric centered on inclusive solidarity, both inside Iran and at events like the Berlin protest, speaks to the profound shift underway. By this point, Iran’s protest movement has made abundantly clear the future it wants is one of respect for human rights but also broader equality and recognition for Iran’s diverse tapestry of languages, cultures, faiths and orientations. Based on their slogans, it is a future Iranian demonstrators do not think is possible so long as the Islamic Republic remains in place.

For their part, Khamenei and other senior officials in the system have made clear they have no intention of backing down, which sets the stage for an inevitable confrontation in which the regime’s supporters may find themselves to be Iran’s most isolated minority of all.

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