Five years after George W. Bush’s election, his administration still lacks a clear policy toward Iran—this despite the fact that the Department of State labels Iran the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism. Of late, the discussion of Iran has focused almost entirely on that country’s nuclear program, with some analysis of the meaning of its recent presidential elections. Many basic political questions, including those that any future Iranian government will face, are rarely addressed.
Of particular importance is the fact that although Iran is made up of various ethnic and religious groups, few realize that Persians likely constitute a minority of the Iranian population. The majority is composed of Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmen, and the Arabs of Khuzistan / al-ahwaz. In the event the current regime falls, these groups will undoubtedly play an important role in their country’s future.
This AEI discussion will present representatives of these largely unknown elements of the Iranian population, all of whom are experiencing unprecedented levels of repression at the hands of the Islamic Republic. They will discuss their plight and hopes for a democratic future for Iran. Please join us in an AEI panel discussion with Dr. Ali Al-Taie , professor of sociology at Shaw University; Mrs. Manda Zand Ervin, founder and president of the Alliance of Iranian Women, Dr. Morteza Esfandiari, North American representative of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan; Mr. Amanollah Khan Riggi, adviser to the Alliance for Democracy in Iran; and Mr. Rahim M. Shahbazi, from the Azerbaijani Societies of North America. AEI resident scholar Michael A. Ledeen will moderate.
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Ali Al-Taie, Shaw University
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Manda Zand Ervin, Alliance of Iranian Women
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Morteza Esfandiari, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan
Amanollah Khan Riggi, Alliance for Democracy in Iran
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Rahim M. Shahbazi, Azerbaijani Societies of North America
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Michael A. Ledeen, AEI
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The Unknown Iran: Another Case for Federalism?
Five years after George W. Bush’s election, his administration still lacks a clear policy toward Iran--this despite the fact that the Department of State labels Iran the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism. Of late, the discussion of Iran has focused almost entirely on that country’s nuclear program, with some analysis of the meaning of its recent presidential elections. Many basic political questions, including those that any future Iranian government will face, are rarely addressed.
Of particular importance is the fact that although Iran is made up of various ethnic and religious groups, few realize that Persians likely constitute a minority of the Iranian population. The majority is composed of Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmen, and the Arabs of Khuzistan/al-Ahwaz. In the event the current regime falls, these groups will undoubtedly play an important role in their country’s future. Participants at an October 26 AEI panel included representatives of these largely unknown elements of the Iranian population, all of whom are experiencing unprecedented levels of repression at the hands of the Islamic Republic.
Michael A. Ledeen
According to the CIA World Factbook, the Iranian population has an incredibly diverse make-up of 51 percent Persians and 49 percent various ethnic groups. The purpose of this conference is to inform Americans that: 1) the Iranian people are diverse, and are not a monolithic or homogeneous population; and 2) in most countries, minority ethnic and religious groups are often singled out for malicious treatment. The regime, fearing the wrath of the Iranian people, constantly tries to divide them by stressing ethnic differences.
The five panelists today represent some of these important ethnic groups that compose the Iranian people. It should be noted that these individuals all consider themselves Iranians, and they are all working for a free Iran. If the diversity of the population is to be addressed politically, these issues will be addressed by all Iranians once there is a regime change.
Some critics of this conference have assumed that AEI, vis à vis the government, has embarked upon a policy advocating separatism inside Iran and that AEI is trying to break up the unity and nationality of Iranians. This is wholly untrue; the only people who are trying to break up the unity of the Iranian people are the mullahs who fear the collective strength and resilience of Iranians as they strive for freedom inside Iran.
Manda Zand Ervin
Alliance of Iranian Women
The Iranian population consists of multiethnicities; however, they have been an integrated society for 2,500 years. The Lores is just one ethnic group that has been victimized by the current regime. A few years ago the Iranian government held a United Islamic Students Association seminar in Khoramabad, Lorestan, during which students protested against the association’s principles. These young protestors faced severe brutalization by the paramilitary forces, and some students were killed. This did not mitigate the self-determination of oppositionists from continuing to voice their hope for a free Iran. Today, however, Khoramabad is under the government’s strict supervision.
Despite increase oil revenues, Iran’s unemployment rate continues to escalate. Poverty is at its highest rate ever, and workers go months without being paid. Moreover, investors have looked increasingly to foreign markets, which have only exacerbated the economy.
Confronted with a starving population and infuriated human rights advocates, the regime has concocted a diversion by alarming Iranians to the threat of “separatists.” The mullahs have created paranoia among Iranians that their country is being threatened by outsiders as well as their own people by dividing its territory and people. In reality, no such separatists exist because the Iranian people, despite their ethnic differences, stand as one.
Although Iranians come from different tribes, they all share the same kinship of the Indo-Europeans. Historically, Khuzestanis are a mix of Arabs and Persians, but they all consider themselves Iranians and want a separation of Islam from the Iranian government, which is why they fought for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Azeris have a strong Turkish background, but they are ultimately Iranians and have no intention of separating from their country. The Kurds, who are cousins of the Lores, are descendents of the Indo-European tribes. They persevered through the British imperialism of the early 1900s and consider Iran their true home because they are Indo-Europeans.
Ultimately, all ethnicities in Iran are Iranian because throughout the past 2,500 years they have endured and overcome occupations, depressions, poverty, revolutions, and oppression; they hold dearly their patriotism and unity and will continue to live as one collective national identity. Nothing, including politics, will divide these people.
Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan
The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPIK) aims to achieve peace through non-violent means. The founding principle of the DPIK, which rests in accordance with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, asserts the inalienable rights of self-determination. These rights include the separation of religion and state, the elimination of gender inequality, freedom of speech and assembly, the formation of social and political organizations, the peaceful resolution of international and regional conflicts, and the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Moreover, the DPIK desires a federal system of government with national ethnic/geographical states under a united Iran.
Iran has a diverse population with a conglomeration of traditions and cultures; yet the Iranian regime has neglected to recognize these differences. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini labeled the Iranian Kurds “little Satan” and called for a jihad on them. A series of discriminatory policies toward Iranian Kurds followed this decree and has remained in place ever since. Consequently, Iranian Kurds have experienced forced migration, poverty attributed to growing unemployment rates, and economic stagnation as a result of the lack of investment in farming technology.
Furthermore, human rights violations are overwhelming. Kurdish children, forced to use the Persian language, do not have the right to speak their mother tongue at school; this forced education has left Kurdish children at a disadvantage. The Iranian regime has done nothing to assuage the unprecedented rates of drug abuse among the youth.
Amanollah Khan Riggi
Alliance for Democracy in Iran
The Alliance for Democracy in Iran has two goals which define its mission for Iran: 1) a secular country which separates religion and government; and 2) a united Iran that includes all the different people that constitute Iranians, such as Baluchis, Azeris, Lores, Kurds, Qashqais, and Khuzestanis.
Despite the Islamic regimes attempt to fabricate the paranoia of separatism in Iran, the majority of Iranians do not tolerate or support such a policy because they consider themselves Iranians first and foremost. The Baluchistan tribe dates back to 2,500 years ago, at which point all Baluchis were united with the rest of Persia/Iran; today Baluchis are still just as proud and devoted to Iran and fully embrace the unity of all peoples. Of particular importance is the fact that the Baluchi language is a pure form of Persian; there is no disparity.
Throughout history the Baluchistan tribe has always been a cohesive unit with its other compatriots, and the same is evident with the Khuzestanis. Even if Arabic is the predominant language in this area, the Arabs of Khuzestan resisted Saddam Hussein’s forces as they sought to take over Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Conclusively, it is only as one unified people that the Iranians will topple this regime and see a greater Iran once again.
Rahim M. Shahbazi
Azerbaijani Societies of North America
For the past eighty years Iranian ethnic minorities have been subject to the systematic assimilation to Persian culture. Young Azerbaijani Turks in Iran are forced to speak Persian in the classroom or else they are punished and beaten for their disobedience. For the past twenty years, the Islamic regime has embarked upon a campaign of ethnic cleansing, despite former President Khatami’s declaration to the United Nations for “A Dialogue among Civilizations.”
Azerbaijani Turks in Tabriz coexist peacefully with various Iranian ethnic and religious groups. These minorities include Kurds, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Jews. Azerbaijani Turks have become disillusioned with the Islamic regime’s propaganda against such minorities. Instead, they turn to Turkish satellite broadcasts and observe the progressive and modernized state of Turkey. However, there remains a lack of communication between the outside opposition and internal ethnic groups who strive for a free Iran. Ironically, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei is an Azerbaijani Turk.
Despite the imposition of Persian culture and language, Azerbaijani Turks are not against Persians, as is the case among other ethnic groups in Iran. Rather, Iranian Azerbaijani Turks oppose the chauvinistic policies implemented by the different governments for the past eighty years.
A federal system of government is the only way to which all groups in Iran will be given equal stature. Two obstacles remain which have prevented the fruition of federalism in Iran: current centralized government and the external Iranian opposition groups who have ignored voicing the human atrocities against ethnic minorities in Iran. Iran’s neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, have proven that federalism allows equal opportunities and freedom to all people, despite their ethnic or religious differences.
Individual ethnic and human rights have not been recognized by the Iranian regime which has resulted in a lack of nationhood. This is a sociological problem, not necessarily a territorial problem. The unity and territorial integrity of Iran stands uncontested; however, the nation-state of Iran that is dominated by one single ethnic group--Persians--does not. The society or country of Iran has always been ruled as an empire. The 1925 imposed nation-state organization on the Iranian society has changed the political organizational pattern but certainly not the historical diversity of its many nations and peoples. The eruption of the Islamic Revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran resulted in multiethnic discrimination and violations of human rights.
The Arabs of Khuzistan/al-Ahwaz have been in the area before the Persians arrived. Ethnic Arabs maintained this presence as the allies under the Persian Achaemenis Empire (539-333 BC). Despite the various political changes, Arabs have remained subject to systematic “Persianization” and have been deprived of their collective ethnic rights.
Despite the long history of persecution, the Arabs of Khuzestan/al-Ahwaz are Iranian. There will never be, nor should there be, disintegration or separatism in Iran. Rather, all Iranian people, regardless of their ethnic background, should live under a pluralistic, tolerant, and federal society.
AEI staff assistant Golnar Oveyssi prepared this summary.