Last month, human rights organizations and many national legislatures commemorated the anniversary of the November 2019 protests in Iran and the crackdown that followed. The regime’s response included the murder of more than 130 Ahwazi Arabs.

Iran’s ethnic minorities endure double discrimination — from the ruling regime and from the Iranian human rights community. While the regime and human rights organizations both at home and abroad disagree on many issues, they share a disdain for Iran’s ethnic minorities, unwilling to see them gain national rights. Thus, the government and its mainstream opposition share a common cause that strengthens the regime’s ability to stay in power and prevent democracy from taking root in Iran.


Repression Is No Longer Enough to Stem the Anger of Iran’s Minorities

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Iran’s ethnic minorities undergo extreme discrimination beyond the restrictions imposed on all Iranians. They are not allowed to operate schools in their native language, are forced to use Persian in all formal settings, and are regularly subjected to mockery and ridicule in the official media and school textbooks. Ahwazi Arabs face state-sponsored suppression of any expression of their ethnic identity and culture as well as open anti-Arab racism.

Ahwazi Arabs, who number around 8 million, suffer from water shortages, environmental degradation, discrimination in employment, and high rates of poverty despite being the majority population in the oil and gas-rich Khuzestan province. The Persian ruling class reaps the profits from these abundant natural resources while the local Ahwazi people suffer the health implications and pollution from their production.

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Shared Prejudice

Despite being formally committed to advancing democracy, Iranian human rights organizations share the regime’s prejudices and racism. These organizations rarely report on the distinct discrimination against Iran’s ethnic minorities, the specific goals of Ahwazi Arab protests or the political prisoners who have campaigned for the rights of ethnic minorities.

For instance, when listing the names of activists who have been abducted from their Western exiles by Iranian operatives, they neglect to mention Habib Chaab, an Ahwazi activist and Swedish citizen kidnapped by the regime in Istanbul. Chaab is being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and is in imminent danger of execution.

I personally have experienced this double discrimination. As an Ahwazi Arab human rights activist, I was jailed and tortured almost to death for supporting the right of Ahwazi children in Iran to learn their native language, Arabic. I was lucky to escape and settle in the US in 2015. My fellow activists Hashem Shabani and Hadi Rashedi were not so lucky — they were executed in 2014. The physical scars from that torture, which run from my sternum to my groin, will never leave me. Even after multiple operations, I will be on medication for the rest of my life.

Yet despite all the available evidence, I was shocked to discover that the Persian-dominated human rights organizations in the US opposed recognizing the rights of the Ahwazis and other minorities, co-opted our struggles and blocked reporting on our plight.

Social Media Wars

With Iran’s regime imposing a total media blackout on the Ahwazi issue, social media remains the only option for activists to raise awareness. But even here activists face constant abuse and threats not only from the regime, which deploys trolls and bots to mass-report activists’ accounts in an effort to shut them down, but also from Farsi-speaking Iranian dissidents. At one point, I had three Twitter bans in under 20 days. 

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Due to this media war, most people in the West are not aware of Iran’s ethnic diversity, where Turkish, Ahwazi Arabs, Balochi, Kurdish and Caspian minorities account for nearly 40% of Iran’s population. Most Iranian human rights organizations in exile focus on abuses against Persian dissidents while barely giving any coverage to the systemic racism against the ethnic minorities.

When our young men die for their rights in the streets of Ahwaz, the Persian-dominated groups report on these protests as anti-regime activity, intentionally disregarding the ethnic factor. This was the case in the widespread November 2019 protests and the recent wave of demonstrations this July, which were led by Ahwazi youth. Such co-opting of our activism adds insult to the injury of the brave sacrifices made by our young people.

Refused Recognition

The country’s Persian opposition is reluctant to recognize that Iran is a fundamentally diverse country and that its people have both a national identity and local sovereign claims. These Persian opposition groups have succumbed to the idea that providing support to the Ahwazi cause and recognizing its ethnic demands is a prelude to secessionism. Instead, they continue to turn a blind eye to the demands of ethnic minorities in their own regions in order to promote one nation, one centralized rule, one culture and one language — all Persian.

With this denial by Persian oppositions groups both at home and in exile, and with the regime continuing its brutally repressive, restrictive and racist rule, the outcome of subjugating the country’s ethnic minorities and disregarding their rights is predictable. The civil war that ravaged former Yugoslavia serves as a terrible warning of how states can fracture along ethnic lines. 

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To avert such a catastrophe, Iran must abandon its antiquated supremacist mindset and acknowledge its non-Persian minorities as equal stakeholders and partners who form a power base in their own right. The creation of a federalized democratic system would defuse tensions and mean the possibility of a fair, genuinely progressive, modern state.

Even without its regressive theocratic foundation, the current supremacist system in Iran is an inadequate and outdated relic reflecting a mindset based on 19th-century colonialism. In reality, the Iranian state is a patchwork of ethnicities, faiths and doctrines. As a result, Iran can choose between creating a fair, stable, democratic and progressive 21st-century state — which reflects this vibrant and diverse melting pot where each group can elect its representatives to share in an equal, fair and federalized system — and collapsing into factionalism and civil war.

This double oppression to which Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities are subjected and the refusal of the Persian Iranian opposition in exile to even acknowledge both the regime’s or its own deep-seated antagonism toward Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities ultimately only benefits the regime, which can easily thwart a splintered opposition. In the end, we can only dismantle oppression in Iran — and globally — through unity and mutual respect.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.