Ethnic Minorities in the Iranian Protests: Tehran’s No-Win Situation

The ongoing mass protests in Iran, which have steadily grown more violent over the past two months, risk escalating regional tensions with neighboring states. Although all major Iranian cities have experienced clashes between demonstrators and security forces, the level of violence demonstrated by the Iranian security forces in BaluchestanKhuzestan, and Kurdistan provinces appeared to be more significant than in other cities without large ethnic minority groups. The Iranian regime’s harsh stance toward Baluchis, Kurds, Arabs, and Azerbaijanis comes as part of a broader conflict between the Iranian government and ethnic minorities seeking better treatment or greater autonomy; Tehran has attempted to subdue its restive Kurdistan region in particular, both through direct military action and by attacking the neighboring Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Iran’s harsh treatment of ethnic minorities is not a new phenomenon, as violent raids against ethnic Azerbaijanis in northwest during the current mass riots in the country triggered anti-Iranian sentiments in Azerbaijan. As a result, numerous Azerbaijani state officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, have vocally criticized Tehran, vowing to do everything to protect their ethnic compatriots living outside their borders. Indeed, Aliyev’s speech came at a time when the Iranian military launched a barrage of threats against Azerbaijan to intimidate it, albeit unsuccessfully.

Cross-Border Violence

On October 18, Iranian security forces equipped with heavy armor locked down the streets of Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Iran’s Kurdistan region, and fired into the homes of terrified residents, who were living under a near-total communication blackout. Although the precise death toll from the crackdown in Kurdistan is difficult to determine, more than 450 Iranians are confirmed to have died across the country so far, with that number likely an underestimate of the total death toll.

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s violent campaign against ethnic Kurds in Iran has triggered militaristic sentiments among other Kurdish communities living outside of Iran, namely Iraqi Kurds. Tehran has blamed Iranian Kurdish opposition groups dislocated in Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region for fomenting unrest within Iran. As such, on November 14, Iran launched a rocket attack that hit the building used by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, an Iranian Kurdish party based in the Iraqi city of Koye near Erbil. Although Iran claimed that the attack had targeted “terrorist groups” near the Iran-Iraq border, it was widely framed abroad as an act of aggression against the country’s political opposition and as an attempt to rally support for the government by targeting an external foe.

However, Iran’s efforts to neutralize the Kurdish opposition within and in its immediate neighborhood have only been partly successful, due in part to Tehran’s reliance on military solution and uncompromising refusal to address the concerns of ethnic minorities. The theology of the Iranian government, articulated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, dismisses ethnic considerations as anathema to the country’s religious identity. Because of this, among other reasons, the Iranian central government has long viewed Kurdish separatism as an existential threat and has refused to consider local autonomy for the province. Iran’s extensive sponsorship of militias and political factions in Iraq is calibrated in part to defuse the threat from the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan; the recent rocket attack on Iraq came days after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Esmail Qaani visited Iraq to attend high-level meetings and push the official Baghdad to disarm the Kurdish militant groups. However, the recent attacks on Erbil suggest that the talks yielded poor results.

Rally ‘Round the Flag?

As its domestic conditions have deteriorated, Iran has attempted to gain concessions from neighboring states through coercion. Although the new Iraqi government condemned Iran’s attacks on its sovereign territory, it is possible that the Iran-leaning government in Baghdad will also push to disarm the local Kurdish groups to avoid further escalation. Without waiting for the results of this process, however, Iranian forces launched another missile attack on the Iraqi Kurdistan region on November 21, targeting the towns of Koya and Bahrka. At the same time, the IRGC deployed helicopters and rows of military vehicles and machine guns to the Iranian Kurdish cities of Boukan, Mehabad, and Javanroud to quell the protests. As in earlier cases, Iran claimed that the IRGC-led missile attacks on Iran’s immediate neighborhoods were aimed at destroying “Israeli intelligence centers” based in the region, although these claims have been dismissed as wholly unbelievable by many international observers. Moreover, the Iranian authorities harshly criticized other countries for fomenting protest. The United States has been the primary target of Iranian accusations—Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi alleged that U.S. President Joe Biden was guilty of “inciting chaos [and] terror” inside the country—but other Iranian officials have alternatively accused Britain, France, Norway, Saudi Arabia, and Israel of culpability in the protests.

In addition to its growing security crisis, Iran faces unprecedented economic challenges. Amid the mass riots, inflation in Iran increased by 1.1% in late November to reach an annual rate of 44%, imposing significant restrictions on Iranians’ purchasing power. Growing discontent at home also risks spreading a new wave of regional tensions between Iran and parties at the Iraqi parliament that could weaken Iran’s influence within Iraq, a development that would further strain Tehran’s limited resources. Therefore, in the wake of international pressure, Iranian officials held another round of diplomatic talks with Iraq to persuade Baghdad to keep “terrorist groups away from the Iranian border.” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian went even further, claiming that Iranian diplomats had documents proving the existence of a ‘conspiracy’ to disintegrate Iran through civil war and terrorist activity.

However it is resolved, the ongoing protest movement in Iran has broader consequences for the region. It is unlikely that the local authorities would seek to reach a consensus with protesters, particularly in provinces predominantly populated by ethnic minorities. In order to quell rising violence and find “perpetrators abroad,” Iran is likely to continue instigating regional rivalry with economically and politically unstable states like Iraq, hoping that doing so will lead Iranians at home to support the government—even though the use of this tactic against the Kurds has further antagonized, rather than helped to calm, the protesters.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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