Iran’s Elections: An Empty Charade for Ethnic Minorities


With the Iranian presidential election scheduled to take place on Friday, May 19, the six candidates are competing for every vote, with all vying to win the essential backing of the country’s ethnic minority regions, whose peoples collectively comprise over 50 percent of the Iranian population.   All six candidates – Hassan Rouhani, Ibrahim Raisi, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, IssaqJahangiri, Mustapha Hashmi Taba, and Mustapha Muslim – are using campaign slogans and promises designed to appeal to these groups, vowing to decrease inflation, create jobs and combat the endemic corruption in these regions.  All six are also promising the activation of the long-suspended Articles 15 and 19of the Iranian constitution, which would finally allow the country’s oppressed ethnic minorities access to education in their mother languages and permit them to establish their own cultural and civil centers.

Despite collectively making up more than half the country’s population, Iran’s marginalized and persecuted ethnic minorities, including Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Turkmen,  Ahwazi Arabs and Baluchis,  are used to being remembered and courted by the regime only at election time.

All the minorities are subjected to brutal oppression and a policy of deliberate marginalization instituted by the Iranian central government which has always denied even the idea of according these minorities the political, cultural and economic rights.    The subject is effectively a taboo, with the regime’s supremacist mindset and phobic terror of the separatist uprisings which have taken place periodically amongst all these groups resulting in constant crackdowns ad relentless subjugation;   the regime also disregards the fact that the basic human rights which it withholds from the country’s minorities are supposedly guaranteed by the current Iranian constitution.

Most of Iran’s ethnic minority groups are located in the country’s peripheral regions, with these peoples sharing close bonds with their counterparts in neighboring states of Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Iranian leadership’s strategy towards the country’s minorities has always been effectively to treat them as a ‘national security threat’, viewing all dissent or political rights activism as dangerous radical insurgency and thus automatically outlawed.   Despite the Islamic Republic’s official stance, which states that Islam and thus the regime does not differentiate between Muslims by ethnicity or race,   in reality, the regime systematically discriminates against minorities in all ways, including outlawing their languages and cultures.

Surprisingly for the supposedly Islamic ‘resistance’ regime which claims to be devoted to attaining freedom for the Palestinian Arab people,   this opposition also includes   Arabs and the Arabic language of the Ahwazi Arab people in the south and south-west of the country.  Formally, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran grants language rights to ethnic minorities for education and to publish and broadcast media. In reality, the regime forbids ethnic minorities from teaching or studying in their own languages in schools, with non-Farsi media extremely limited.  The regime’s policies are profoundly racist, as well as deeply sectarian in nature, forbidding Ahwazis the freedom to observe any faith but the state’s fundamentalist branch of Shiism.

Many experts have warned that the country in its current form could ultimately disintegrate if these minorities are not granted their basic rights and are disseminating this information worldwide, garnering more and more support and awareness.

The Islamic Republic’s regime still, however, continues to follow its racist doctrine which is heightening fundamentalist Shiite theocracy with Persian nationalism. Thus, the ruling junta, which believed in a “national-religious” ideology, continues to rule Iran and to deprive the country’s religious and ethnic minorities of the most basic rights, with diversity being forcibly denied by the regime as it attempts to impose enforced homogeneity, while denying the people their identity or the most basic of rights.

The ethnic groups know the candidates’ record of human rights violations, mostly by Hassan Rouhani, Ibrahim Raisi and Mustafa al-Mursalim who, according to electoral surveys, have a high chance of being the first three in the electoral race.  This causes members of Iran’s minorities to think twice before voting.  Ibrahim Raisi, for instance, has an atrocious human rights record, with his role in the 1988 mass executions of thousands of dissidents recorded in infamy; despite the passage of 29 years, most of the victims’ relatives still don’t know where their loved ones are buried. The mass executions followed kangaroo trials, based on the decree of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.

Mustafa al-Mursalim, meanwhile, is known as “the executioner of the book and the media”; he was a minister during the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1993 to 1997.

The human rights record of the incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, is no better; he has had thousands of dissidents, including journalists and civilian activists, particularly Ahwazis Arabs, Kurds, and Baluchis, imprisoned and tortured, extracting false confessions to be used infarcical trials whose results are predetermined; many were condemned to death or long-term imprisonment plus banishment. The Iranian Human Rights Organization announced in its recent annual report that, according to the latest statistics, the regime has executed around 530 people in the last year, including 44 Ahwazi and Kurdish activists executed on charges of “enmity to God” and “spreading corruption on earth”.  The organization indicated that the vague charge of “enmity to God,” used routinely by the “revolutionary” courts to justify the execution of political activists, has no clear and specific definition.  According to the report, the authorities use this charge against anyone associated with parties and organizations opposed to the Iranian regime, even in peaceful civil activism.  According to Iran’s ‘Islamic Penal Code, anyone found guilty of the equally vague charge of “corruption on earth” automatically receives the death penalty.

The report referred to the execution of three Ahwazi Arab political  activists – 20-year-old Ahmad Obeidawi, his brother Sajad, aged 26, and their cousin Qais Obeidawi, aged 25 –  on August 17, 2016,  on charges of “enmity to God”, “corruption on earth” and “threatening national security” .

Another mass execution documented in the report was that of Sunni preacher Shahram Ahmadi, and 25 Kurdish political prisoners, executed together on charges of belonging to Kurdish opposition organizations in August of 2016.  According to the organization, these prisoners were interrogated under severe torture and sentenced to death in a speedy trial, without defense lawyers, before being hanged without allowing their families to visit them beforehand.

Political prisoner Mohammed Abdullahi was also executed on charges of belonging to a Kurdish opposition party on August 9, 2016. According to the report, he did not commit any armed or violent action, but the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to death on charges of “enmity to God” for his support of an exiled Kurdish opposition party.

Iran’s minorities have suffered the highest rate of arrests and executions under the presidencies of Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani, while receiving almost none of the wealth, jobs or local government posts promised to them by the former and the current President. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, almost 2,300 were executions carried out by the Iranian authorities, mainly against political dissidents, Sunnis and other minority sects.  In the first term of the “reformist” Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, there have been nearly 2,400 executions, both in public and behind closed doors.

Six of the exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties have urged their people to boycott the election, while Baluchi parties and Turkish and Ahwazi parties in exile issued a similar call to boycott the election.

It is clear to all that this system is irreparable and based on dictatorship, confirming the mandate of the ‘Absolute Jurist, who legitimizes the despotism by placing the jurisprudential guardianship above the law giving himself total power over all state organs and control of the General Command of the armed forces and thus turning his own position into the first and last authority in Iran. The regime forbids any party or organization that rejects the doctrine of ‘Wilayat-e Faqih’ [Rule of the Jurist] and denies them legitimacy to participate in the political process. On this basis the regime excludes ethnic minorities, including Ahwazi Arab, from establishing any real party or working through any independent political organization, extending the same proscriptions to non-Shiite religious groups such as Sunnis and Bahia.  In the past years, since the emergence of the ‘reform’ movement, which itself emerged from the womb of the regime,  earlier tentative moves towards according national rights to Iran’s minority groups, which had begun to gain traction under former  President Khatami, abruptly ceased.  Under Khatami, minority groups had the chance to participate in significant cultural and political activism in their own regions, including Ahwaz, where the reform-oriented Wefagh party, established by prominent Ahwazi political and Intellectual figures, was launched, within the framework of the current constitution, to seek the implementation of the aforementioned Articles 15 and 19 of Iran’s to guarantee basic equal rights for various minority groups, including Ahwazis.

The party also sought to work for political and economic and cultural prosperity and to ensure that critical positions in the regional political and economic sectors should go to Ahwazis rather than to Iranian settlers as is currently the case, to allow the people to at least partially run their own region affairs.  This did not last long, however, with a leaked confidential memo causing uproar   in 2005; the memo from Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi to government ministries concerned accelerating the regime’s program of enforced demographic changes throughout Al-Ahwaz region and advised government ministries to invite ethnic Iranians to settle in the region as a means of gradually eradicating Ahwazi Arabs’ identity and culture and effectively ‘Persian-izing’ the region.

Anger among Ahwazis over the leaked memo provoked a mass uprising or intifada among Ahwazis, with many of the protesters who took to the streets killed by heavily-armed Iranian riot police in the resulting brutal crackdown.

A number of young protesters, who had nothing but participate in demonstrations, were killed under torture in regime detention, with their bound and mutilated bodies, still wrapped in plastic, and subsequently discovered in the Karoon River.

This led to widespread alarm and a suffocating climate of oppression across the region, followed by another nightmare round of executions of intellectuals and civil and political activists. Dozens of  Ahwazi students, academics and activists were arrested in 2006 and 2007 and subjected to grotesque kangaroo trial on the usual ludicrous charges  – ‘enmity to God, ‘corruption on Earth’, ‘blasphemy’, etc.  – and either executed or sentenced to life imprisonment. When   Ahmadinejad came to power, the Wefagh party’s civil and cultural activities were immediately banned in Ahwaz and most of its members and its founders were imprisoned, executed or banished to different parts of the country.

Prior to the executions, the party leaders’ very clearly forced confessions extracted by torture were aired on the state-owned Press TV, so that the regime could, surreally, depict itself as the victim, further defaming the Ahwazi struggle.

Other anti- Arab measures adopted by Ahmadinejad’s government included halting the activities of about 60 Arab civil and cultural institutes and other economic and scientific organizations, which were declared illegal.

The Ahmadinejad government’s radical policy shift converted the political climate of Ahwaz to effectively resistance against a military occupation.  Despite the regime’s relentless persecution, Ahwazi activists have continued to risk their lives to hold peaceful demonstrations against the injustices inflicted on them, with the regime retaliating with its customary brutality, imprisoning and executing many.

After 2005, the Ahwazi armed group named the Arab Struggle movement for the liberation of Ahwaz emerged in response to the regime’s brutality against the people, targeting oil and gas sector installations with bomb attacks.

The oppressed people of Ahwaz have, for decades, sought every peaceful, lawful way to attain the basic human rights withheld from them, which are their birthright according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Unfortunately, as their tragic history demonstrates they have gained nothing in return, whether from supposed reformists such as Rouhani and Khatami or from hardliners such as Ahmadinejad.  All the candidates make lovely speeches before the elections, promising the earth, but for Ahwazis and Iran’s other minorities, the promises, like the elections, themselves, are meaningless.

Rahim Hamid, a freelance journalist and human rights advocate and co-founder of Ahwaz Monitor website who writes about the plight of his community – the Ahwazi Arabs – and other ethnic groups in Iran. You can follow him on twitter:

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