The Iranian nightmare is not limited to what the Great Satan, America, or the Little Satan, Israel, might do to the country in order to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons. It is also an internal nightmare: what might become of the country if any one, or two, or three, of its four discontented minorities – the Azeris, the Kurds, the Balochis, the Arabs – were to successfully throw off the Persian yoke? Writes Hugh Fitzgerald.
We think so frequently of Iran’s worrisome threats to many of its neighbors, whether to Israel through its nuclear program or to Sunni Arab states through its relentless push to create a Shi’a crescent from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, using a network of proxies and allies, including the Houthis in Yemen, the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in Iraq, the Alawite-controlled army of Bashar Assad in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, that we sometimes forget how threatened the Iranian state is from within.
Part of the threat to Iran’s regime comes from a population increasingly disaffected because of the mismanagement and corruption of the government. Protesters raging against the money sent to support adventures abroad chant “Death to Palestine,” “Help us, not Gaza,” and “Leave Syria alone and deal with Iran.” Money sent abroad to support foreign allies now enrages Iranians, ever more so as the sanctions reimposed by the Trump Administration have sent the economy into free fall, with the revenues from oil sales down by 96%, and the rial having lost more than 90% of its value in just two years. Sixty million Iranians, out of a total population of 83 million, are now living below the poverty line. The unhinged cruelty of the regime, desperate to assert itself against any sign of dissidence, was recently demonstrated by the execution of two of its wrestling champions on trumped-up charges.
But along with all this economic misery leading to political disaffection, there is another internal weakness that must worry the rulers in Tehran. It threatens not only the regime, but the very existence of the country. It is the result of the ethnic divisions within Iran that constantly challenge the rule of the majority Persians. For fewer than half of the Iranian population consists of Persians; there are also Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, and Arabs, all of whom harbor separatist hopes. This was brought home recently by the hanging of a Baluch separatist. The report on his execution is here: “Iran hangs Baloch militant for killing of two Revolutionary Guards,” Reuters, January 30, 2021:
Iran executed on Saturday an ethnic Baloch militant convicted of killing Revolutionary Guards members, the judiciary’s official website reported, a day after the United Nations urged Iranian authorities to spare his life.
The Mizan site said Javid Dehghan, who it said was a leader of the Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl, or the Army of Justice, was hanged for shooting dead two Guards five years ago in the southeastern Sistan-Balochistan province….
Jaish al-Adl, which says it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for ethnic minority Balochis, has claimed responsibility for several attacks in recent years on Iranian security forces in the province.
There is a Baloch separatist movement in both Iran and Pakistan, fighting to create an independent Balochistan, carved out of both countries. While Jaish al-Adl says it merely wants to improve living conditions and greater rights for the Baloch people, this is in order, for now, to deliberately downplay its ultimate aim, which is an independent Balochistan. The authorities in Tehran know this perfectly well.
For the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic’s existence lies within its borders, and not from foreign enemies. Only 50% of Iran’s population consists of Persians.
There are four main ethnic groups, in addition to the Persians in Iran: the Azeris, the Kurds, the Arabs, and the Balochis. Each is a threat to Iran’s continuance as a state within its present borders.
After World War I, the Kurds were promised by the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) a large degree of autonomy, with the promise of future independence. But Ataturk managed to undo that promise in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) and the Kurds — who number about 45 million people — were instead split among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
There are about ten million Kurds in Iran, more than 10% of the population. Iran must worry that any success by Kurds in Syria, Iraq, or Turkey to achieve greater autonomy will only encourage Kurdish separatists in Iran. A few years ago it seemed that the Kurds in Iraq, having enjoyed autonomy under American protection during the last years of Saddam Hussein’s reign (when American air cover prevented Saddam’s air force from bombing the Kurds), and during the first years after his overthrow, might be moving toward independence, but the regime in Baghdad has so far managed to keep the Kurds from leaving the state. And right now Erdogan’s military has been suppressing Kurds with military force both in Syria and in northern Iraq; this has discouraged the Kurdish separatists in Iran. But their failure to obtain greater autonomy in Iran, much less independence, has not reconciled the Iranian Kurds to their situation. They are waiting for a more opportune time. Their threat to the Iranian state remains. And the rulers in Tehran remember with dread the last violent uprisings by Iranian Kurds, in 1979, which were ferociously crushed, with at least 30,000 Kurds killed. Iran has to keep troops in the Kurdish areas, and must continually worry about the condition of Kurds elsewhere, and the possible threat of peshmerga volunteers from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, who might make their way to help their Kurdish brothers in Iran.
There are 20 million Azeris in Iran, or about 23% of the population. There are, in fact, twice as many Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself. They, too, would like independence from their Persian masters, so that they might join an enlarged state of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s recent military victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh has been a source of encouragement for the Azeris in Iran wishing to join Azerbaijan. If they rose in rebellion, they would be hard to suppress, given their numbers, especially if they could call on Azerbaijan, just next store, to supply them with weapons and fighters.
The Azeris in Iran have not been well treated. The Iranian government has banned the teaching of the Azeri language and literature in Iranian schools. When, in 2015, the Iranians broadcast programs that mocked the Azeri accent and language, this alone led Azeris, already on the edge, to demonstrate in many cities, shouting such slogans as “stop racism against Azeri Turks,” “long live Azerbaijan,” and “end the Persian racism,” in Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil, and Zanjan, and even Tehran itself. Civil unrest among the Azeris is a given. And independent, newly victorious Azerbaijan, full of Azeri fighters, is just on the other side of the porous border with Iran.
The Baluch people in the east of Iran, bordering the Province of Baluchistan in Pakistan, are Sunni, and have suffered terrible discrimination in Shi’a-ruled Iran. Only 2,000 of the 3.3 million college students currently in Iran, for example, are Baluchis. On the other hand, Baluchis make up 55% of those who have been executed in recent years by the Islamic Republic. The Iranian regime has forbidden the exclusive use of the Baluchi language in writing — that means any Baluchi text must always include a Farsi translation. It’s a way to keep track of what the Baluchis are saying to one another, a part of intelligence gathering. In 2002 Baluchis founded the Jundullah, a religious and political organisation that has claimed rights for the Baluchis in eastern Iran. It has carried out both attacks on the Iranian military, and suicide bombings of Shi’a mosques. It is also suspected of kidnapping an Iranian nuclear scientist. Like the Kurds and the Azeris, the nearly two million Baluchis can count on aid, including men, money, and materiel, coming from the other side of a porous Iranian border, offered by the 9 million Baluchis in Pakistan, who are keenly aware of the mistreatment of their fellow Baluchis by the Shi’a government in Iran.
The final minority that has been mistreated by the Persians are the Arabs in Khuzestan, the oil-producing southern province on the Gulf that was devastated in the Iran-Iraq war, with much of the area left in ruins. The Iranians claim there are only two million of them; the Arabs claim there are five million Arabs in Khuzestan. Whatever their number, the Khuzestanian Arabs have long complained of discrimination by the Persians. In 2005, there were mass riots and mass arrests of 25,000 people in Khuzestan, and many Arabs were summarily executed. Arrests, torture, and executions have continued to imperfectly keep the peace. There were more riots in 2007, followed by more repression; in 2015, there were a wave of arrests made so as to head off any tenth-anniversary revolt; the rage remains. But if those Khuzestanian Arabs were supplied directly with arms, and with the money to buy additional arms and to pay Arab fighters from outside, they could cause a great deal of destruction to the oilfields and thus to the Iranian economy. Given that Iran has sent arms to the Houthis in order to establish an Iran-backed Yemen that would serve as a base for anti-Saudi activities (including whipping up the Shi’a in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province), why should not the Saudis, and other Arabs, do likewise, and supply the Khuzestanian Arabs with weapons and “volunteers” to fight their Persian masters?
Were Iran to lose control of Khuzestan, it would also be losing the region from which 85% of its oil, and 60% of its gas, is produced. In other words, the loss of Khuzestan would likely destroy the Iranian economy. And even if the territory were not lost to separatists, if the Arabs of Khuzestan rose in revolt, armed with weapons bought or supplied by Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Gulf Arab states, the destruction unavoidably wrought on the oilfields and pipelines, either by the Arabs in revolt, or by the Iranians fighting those Arabs, could put much of Iran’s oil production out of commission for years. The prospect of this is no doubt causing nightmares in Tehran. From the viewpoint of the Arab members of OPEC, there’s an added bonus to a heavily-armed insurrection in Khuzestan, which is that even when the American sanctions are lifted– which kept sales of Iranian oil low — Iranian oil production will still stay way down as a result both of deliberate sabotage by Arab separatists to the oilfields and pipelines, and from interruptions in the flow that would be the result of armed conflict between Iran’s army and the Khuzestanian separatists. So even if American sanctions are lifted, and Iran can again export oil, its possession and production of that oil remains under a constant threat from the Arabs of Khuzestan.
The Iranian nightmare is not limited to what the Great Satan, America, or the Little Satan, Israel, might do to the country in order to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons. It is also an internal nightmare: what might become of the country if any one, or two, or three, of its four discontented minorities – the Azeris, the Kurds, the Balochis, the Arabs – were to successfully throw off the Persian yoke? Still more nightmarish is the prospect of all four groups rising in separatist rebellion at the same time. Could they possibly coordinate their uprisings? Wouldn’t it make perfect sense for them to do so, so that the Iranian arm would be spread thin? With the Azeris likely to receive aid from Azerbaijan’s fighters next door, with the Kurds receiving weapons and peshmerga volunteers from Iraq and Syria, with the Balochis getting armed fighters from the nine million Balochis just across Iran’s border with Pakistan, with the Arabs of Khuzestan receiving weapons and volunteers from Sunni Arabs in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, how long could the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to exist as a single state? Iran has had trouble with its conventional centrifuges before. We all remember Stuxnet. How well could Iran withstand these ethnic centrifugal forces, spinning out of its control?