International Affairs

Ethnic, environmental protests may merge in Iranian election year

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On May 19, Iran will elect its next president. While the president is not the country’s real power holder, these elections are especially important in light of the failing health of Iran’s supreme leader — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the true center of power.

It opens up the possibility of a double leadership transition in Iran in the upcoming year, making any political movements that much more impactful. Thus, it is important to turn attention to Iran’s border regions. Many observers of politics in Iran tend to focus on leadership struggles in the capital — moderates versus hard liners, reformers versus status quo supporters.

{mosads}However, political activity in Iran’s periphery regions is growing. Iran is a multi-ethnic country — over 50 percent of the population is comprised of non-Persian ethnic minorities, including Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Baluch. 



Most ethnic minority communities are concentrated in the periphery of the country and most share ties to co-ethnics in the neighboring states of Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Ethnic-based political activity in Iran’s border regions takes place frequently, but is rarely reported by Western press outlets.

One of the most potent centers of opposition to Tehran is the Arab-populated region of Ahvaz. In February, Ahvaz saw extensive demonstrations against air pollution and other regional environmental damage, such as contamination of water supplies.

In political systems where ethnic-based politics are severely limited, or even prohibited, populist activity around environmental causes is often tolerated by ruling regimes. They are likely to view it as a social movement and not necessarily anti-regime. Recognizing this, ethnic nationalist movements have found that there are many advantages in revolving their efforts around environmental political campaigns.

This certainly seems to be the case in Iran, where the airing of ethnic demands is effectively prohibited. Despite its official Islamic ideology that, in theory, does not differentiate Muslims along ethnic lines, Iran systematically discriminates against minority languages and culture. Surprisingly, this includes Arabs and the Arabic language.

Formally, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran grants language rights to ethnic minorities for education and to print and broadcast media. In reality, the country has not allowed ethnic minorities to teach or study in their own languages in schools, and non-Persian language press and publications have been very limited.

As noted by Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, the U.N. has expressed concern about “severe restrictions on education and publishing in mother tongue languages of ethnic minorities.”

Given the broad limitations placed on Iranian ethnic minorities, it’s not surprising that they would use environmental issues as a relatively safe way to pursue ethnic-based protests and to politically mobilize. There is certainly precedent for this — in recent history, a number of major nationalist movements evolved from environmental protests.

Prior to the Soviet breakup, for instance, ethnic movements in the republics often began through championing environmental causes. This included anti-nuclear protests in Armenia, Ukraine and Lithuania and protests against the establishment of an aluminum factory in Azerbaijan.

Environmental issues have proven effective at mobilizing ethnic minorities. Moreover, by fostering patriotism for the native homeland, they can unite people from various parts of the nationalism spectrum.

Yet, in covering the recent Ahvaz protests, most Western media reports did not attribute any significance to the fact that the region is populated by Iran’s ethnic Arab minority, often using the words “Persian” and “Iranian” interchangeably. But it’s clear that these demonstrations had an ethnic-based agenda.

For several decades, the Ahvaz region has been a center of ethnic grievances, and it is the scene of frequent terrorist attacks against government buildings and motorcades. Ahvaz is also Iran’s main oil producing region, and the recent protests were so intense that they reportedly led to a significant drop in Iran’s oil production.

In addition to the Ahvaz Arabs, other ethnic groups in Iran have waged ethno-environmental campaigns. Since 2010, a struggle has taken place between Iran’s government and its ethnic Azerbaijani citizens over policies related to the management of Lake Urmia.

Located in northwest Iran, the lake region is mainly inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis who are citizens of Iran but often retain close family ties in the bordering Republic of Azerbaijan. They number close to twenty-five million — approximately one-third of Iran’s total population.

Lake Urmia is the third largest salt lake in the world; however it contracted to one-third of its size between 1995-2011, resulting in salt storms that have turned nearby farms and orchards into desert, rendering areas largely uninhabitable.

In a series of violent confrontations with Iranian security forces, dozens of activists have been arrested and jailed since 2011. While the formal demands of the protests are ecological in nature, the intensity of the struggle, along with the regime’s fierce reaction, indicate that the campaign also embodies an ethnic agenda.

In addition to the ethno-environmental protests, the regime’s rule is challenged in many of Iran’s periphery regions. In the border areas populated with ethnic Baluch, Iranian security forces and officials frequently come under fire.

Hundreds of Kurds facing politically-related charges fill Iran’s jails, and a disproportionate number of Kurds are executed in Iran each month on drug-related charges — likely a cover for efforts to squash political activists.

As Iran heads toward presidential elections in May, ethnic-based political activity — even if it masquerades as an environmental movement — should be closely watched. In his current campaign, President Hassan Rouhani has appealed to Iran’s ethnic minorities by promising to uphold their constitutional right to use native languages in schools and courts.

This promise is not new — it was made by Rouhani during the last election cycle and left unfulfilled. It’s also worth noting that, rather than accepting the legitimacy of ethnic protests, the Iranian government generally responds by blaming outsiders. Until recently, the culprits were the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel. In the last two years, the blame has been placed on Saudi Arabia.

Iranian elections, for both parliament and the presidency, typically generate increased political activity, including among Iran’s ethnic minorities. In light of the renewed protests and violence in the Ahvaz and Lake Urmiya regions and among Kurds, this activity could turn out to be greater than usual with demands for greater rights and  political participation for Iran’s ethnic minorities potentially challenging Tehran’s hold in border regions.    


Brenda Shaffer is a specialist on energy and foreign policy. She is a visiting researcher and professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. She is the author of  several books, including “Partners in Need: the Strategic Relationship  of Russia and Iran” and “Energy Politics”. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Ahvaz Ali Khamenei Azerbaijanis Brenda Shaffer Environmental Issue Ethnic groups in Iran Iran Kurds

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