The Atlantic, December 2006. With a map by Ryan Morris.
Iran’s ethnic minorities are not at all happy with their Persian-dominated central government—not, at least, if you go by the number of riots incited, state buildings bombed, and Iranian soldiers slain over the past two years. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in 2005, Iranian Turks have rioted in the northwest, Baluchis have kidnapped and beheaded government officials in the southeast, Arabs have blown up oil pipelines in the southwest, and Kurdish guerrillas have sniped continually at Iranian soldiers in the mountains bordering Iraq and Turkey.
Persians make up only a slim majority of Iran’s population. The rest is composed of a handful of disparate minority groups, each of which has complained since the time of the shah about oppression by Tehran. Occasionally, individual groups have briefly taken up arms, only to calm down again for years or decades. But rarely have so many snapped back at the government so furiously over so short a time.
What’s behind this rash of outbursts? Members of Iran’s minority groups cite Ahmadinejad’s Shia Persian chauvinism as a primary provocation, along with the government’s abiding economic neglect. The leadership of the Islamic Republic, however, prefers to blame foreign powers, accusing the United States, Israel, Britain, and others of sowing discord to soften up Iran for a direct confrontation later. “They look at this as a first salvo in a war to end the regime and pressure Iran to give concessions in its nuclear negotiations with the West,” says Mohsen M. Milani, an Iran expert at the University of South Florida.
Iran has been fending off challenges to its territorial integrity for much of its modern history, and previous ethnic uprisings have been linked to foreign meddling. During the decades-long rivalry between Iran and Baathist Iraq, for instance, each nation sponsored insurgencies against the other. One group of insurgent Iranian Baluchis openly kept an office in Baghdad.
Today, many of Iran’s restive minorities continue to receive ideological and material support from their kin in neighboring states. Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, who are seeking autonomy in their own countries, cooperate closely with Iranian Kurdish insurgents. Pakistani and Saudi Salafis provide spiritual encouragement—at the very least—for Iran’s Baluchi Sunni insurgents, and scorn Iran’s Shia leadership. Tehran accuses irredentist Azeris from the neighboring Republic of Azerbaijan, an American ally that has frosty relations with Iran, of encouraging the riots that broke out in Iran’s Azerbaijani territories in May. In each case, Iran’s governing mullahs see the conspiring hands of local and distant powers.
Except for the Azeri Turks, who constitute about a quarter of Iran’s population, none of the restive groups is big enough to bring down the Islamic Republic. But Iran’s leaders are nonetheless treating the violence gravely. Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi, chief of the Iranian judiciary, recently announced the creation of special counterintelligence offices to deal with seditious minorities. Ahmadinejad, for his part, has undertaken a demanding travel schedule, visiting all parts of the country to try to win over the many groups unhappy with his presidency.
Tehran has produced no evidence that the United States (or, for that matter, Israel or Britain) actually supports Iranian ethnic insurgents, though a few groups, notably the Kurds and some Azeris, seek American backing. And the regime change desired by the White House is quite unlikely to come about as a result of minority unrest. But proxy wars can be useful for the more limited goals of warning, harassing, and distracting one’s enemies, and they appear to be in fashion in the Middle East today. Iran’s minorities will be worth watching as the nation’s nuclear standoff with the West continues.
This is the group Tehran most fears. In May, after an Iranian newspaper published a cartoon featuring an Azeri-speaking cockroach, deadly riots broke out in Azerbaijan province. In general, however, the Azeris, who are Shiites, have been happier with the Islamic Republic than they were with the shah’s government. Azeris are economically powerful and well represented—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is of Azeri heritage.
The most unruly of Iran’s minorities, the Kurds have fought against Tehran since the 1960s. Like the Baluchis, they are largely Sunni, but they tend to be better educated and less religious. Kurdish paramilitary groups have been ambushing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Kurdistan, killing dozens, then retreating to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they train and operate with near impunity.
Khuzestan province is Iran’s oil pump and the home of its Arab minority. Iran extracts the oil and leaves Arab areas economically unimproved. Seeking independence, several Arab groups have bombed government offices. Tehran frequently accuses the British military in nearby Basra of fomenting rebellion.
As Sunnis in the poorest Iranian province, Baluchis feel ignored, if not reviled. In December 2005, bandits in a Baluchi area ambushed President Ahmadinejad, and over the last two years, the radical group Jundullah (“Soldiers of God”) has kidnapped or murdered dozens of government officials in its quest for regional autonomy. Crime and drug smuggling define the local economy, and neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan provide convenient hiding places for rebels.