The diversity of ethnic groups and religions present in Iran belies its stereotype as a Shia Persian state. Philip Roehrs-Weist reports on some of the more significant minorities in Iran, and examines the potential problems they could pose for the state.
There is a strong public perception that Iran is a relatively homogeneous Shia Persian country. However, only an estimated 50-60% of Iran’s population actually conforms to this perception. At times when serious talks about regime change resurface in Washington, an understanding of Iran’s domestic stability is more important than ever. Alongside economic and political pressure, the rifts between ethnic and sectarian groups within Iran will be one of the key risks to the regime which Tehran’s foes could target. Given their potential importance to this regional power’s future stability, it is worth examining some of these groups and their potential fracture points with the Iranian government in detail.
Making up about one quarter of the total population, the Iranian Azeris constitute by far the largest minority in Iran. They also seem to be the best integrated. As Shiite Muslims, they fit into the national narrative of the Islamic Republic as a Shiite theocracy in a way that Sunni minorities cannot. Yet, the Turkic Azeris are still marginalized by the Persian elites in Tehran and Azeri nationalists have previously called for unification with Azerbaijan.
The unrest has often been fueled by geopolitical rivalries with Turkey and Azerbaijan, which use their influence on the Iranian Azeris as strategic leverage against Tehran. Nevertheless, the situation cooled down over the recent years as Azerbaijan’s government tempered its attitude towards Iran’s Azeris in order to establish cordial relations with its neighbor and build new economic ties. The same can be said about Ankara. Turkey is one of few Middle Eastern powers that has relatively stable relations with Iran, despite conflicts of interest in Syria. Officials of the Turkish government were also quick to condemn the decision of the White House to scrap the JCPOA and the Erdogan regime does not seem interested in any hypothetical US-led, anti-Iran alliance. Overall, it is unlikely that the Azeri minority will cause any severe problems for the Iranian regime on its own. However, if stability in Iran deteriorates in general, this large group might sense an opportunity to make new demands that reach beyond better political and cultural rights.
In addition to being already marginalized more than other minorities because of their majority Sunni belief, the geopolitical situation in regards to the Kurds is somehow reversed in comparison to the Azeris. While Iran historically had better ties to the Kurds than other countries with a significant Kurdish population, recent developments in the Middle East have hurt the relationship.
After ISIS’ seizure of much of central Iraq prevented Baghdad from projecting power across the country, the Iraqi Kurds were able to gain de-facto autonomy and many Iranian Kurds migrated to join them. Some joined the fight against ISIS out of solidarity while others were attracted to the cultural freedom and the lack of economic discrimination in northern Iraq.
At the same time, Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards deepened Iranian involvement in Iraq by leading and training a variety of Shia militias. As long the Iraqi Kurds and Shia militias were both focused on fighting ISIS, both sides were able to overlook their differences. However, Iran heavily used its proxies to support the Iraqi rollback of Kurdish groups after the 2017 independence referendum. This conflict has already spilled over into Iran to a degree, as witnessed by the growing ranks of protesters and the alleged increasing use of assassinations by the Iranian regime. Iran’s government also claims that Israel has tried to establish ties to its Kurdish population in particular as an attempt to foster separatism. Due to these difficult developments, the Iranian Kurds are the most acute challenge to Iran’s regime and could serve as a starting point for external powers to destabilize the country.
Ethnic and religious groups in Iran (source: Wikimedia, CIA World Factbook).
Balochis and Arabs
Both Balochis and Arabs are a far smaller minorities than either the Azeris or Kurds. Yet, they could play a role in a coming destabilization due to their precarious role within regional power competitions.
Even though they face strong discrimination due to their Sunni belief, Iranian Balochis caused less trouble over the years compared to their Pakistani brethren who are known for challenging Islamabad. Balochi separatism is a lingering problem for Tehran, but not one which poses an acute threat to Iran’s broader stability at the moment. This could rapidly change considering the Balochi’s role in the broader geopolitical picture. It is unclear in how far some neighboring countries will react to the scrapping of the Iran-nuclear-deal and fueling Balochi separatism could be an attractive option for Washington to prevent Pakistan from restarting its “peace-pipeline” project. The pipelinewas meant to transport Iranian gas to Pakistan through the Southwest but was put on hold in 2014 under the pressure of the international sanctions. There is an additional incentive for the Trump administration to support Balochi ambitions in Pakistan as part of a containment strategy against China’s “One-Road-One-Belt” economic integration plan, which could cause a spill-over effect into Iran.
The Iranian Arabs are predominantly Shia, and consequently less discriminated against. Still, it is highly likely that Saudi Arabia will target this group in particular to try and intensify ethnic conflicts within Iran. There are already reports about frustration with the regime and an increasing number of Saudi-encouraged conversions to Sunni Islam within this community. If this turns out to be true, the potential for a confrontation between this minority and the regime is going to grow and paranoia over sectarian threats within its own country could escalate regional tensions.
For now, Iran’s lingering issues with its minorities are not a problem for Tehran. However, it is likely that the situation will change as Iran’s foes seek to increase economic pressure and minority discontent within Iran. Given the regime’s past behavior, it is also likely that a worsening situation will have a negative impact on the whole region. If pressure increases, Tehran will likely turn to the Shia religion for what it perceives as a common legitimizing denominator for most groups in Iran. This would strengthen the existing sectarian split. Groups that do not fit into this narrative, namely the Kurds and Balochis, would likely have to be kept in check with strong force.