Iran's ethnic minorities key issue in elections

Candidates play the "non-Persian card" to garner support


Despite the nuclear issue and its troubles with Israel, the issue of ethnic minorities is of key importance in Iran presidential elections, which will see three candidates from ethnic minorities challenge incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12.

Iran has an array of ethnic minorities, and although Persians make up around 45 percent of Iran's population, observers believe that ethnic minorities are a time bomb, which if not handled properly could lead to the disintegration of Iran and the fall of its regime.

The groups that make up the Islamic Republic's ethnicities include Persians, Turkmen, Kurds, Baluchis and Arabs. Other tribes, like Bakhtiaris, Lurs, Gilanian, and Mazanderanians, also consider themselves separate ethnic groups.

Ethnic minorities: Equal rights or security threat?

This year presidential candidates are paying special attention to minorities, some have expressed support and have said minorities should have equal rights while others have branded minorities a threat to national security that can be used as an "agent" by the West.

Frequent clashes in the Ahwaz region, or Arabistan, where the Arab minority calls for equal rights, have brought the issue to light and highlighted the need to address the country's unheard voices.

Mehdi Karoubi, former parliament speaker and reformist presidential candidate, is from the Luri minority and made unprecedented moves to meet with activists from ethnic minorities.

Karoubi vowed if he was elected he would apply all the articles in the constitution that grant minorities equal rights.

The former MP also promised to establish a special committee for non-Persian minorities to lead his presidential campaign and called for an amendment to the constitution to choose governors of provinces with direct poll, giving them more authority, establishing provincial councils.

Naturally his statements pleased minorities, namely Arabs, who have thrown their support behind him and called on people to elect him.

Playing the "non-Persian minorities card"

Mohsen Rezai, former chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and conservative presidential candidate, is from the Bakhtiari minority and has tried to shed some light on the problems non-Persians face, especially following the 2005 unrest in Ahwaz.

Rezai has been currying favor with ethnic minorities by visiting Ahwaz civil organizations and provinces with a Turkmen and Azeri majority.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the Guardian Council, the body in charge of approving presidential candidates, warned candidates against "playing the non-Persian minorities' card" and accused them of emotionally manipulating minorities in order to secure more votes.

"There are many ethnic groups in this country. They all coexist peacefully and they know that they have to be one entity in order for the country to survive. We cannot live without unity and we cannot fight a civil war," he said.

Jannati said any action that tampers with the Islamic Republic's national unity would be considered an act of treason that could not be forgiven.

There are many ethnic groups in this country. They all coexist peacefully and they know that they have to be one entity in order for the country to survive. We cannot live without unity and we cannot fight a civil war

Ayatollah Jannati

Opposition groups

Iranian minorities have long dreamed of forming an opposition front, but dissent has, so far, been contained by articles in the constitution that grant minorities equal rights and consequently many of them have been appointed to official posts.

Even when they have tried to form opposition groups, differences between each group's political and military strategies have stifled their growth.

Following the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, ethnic minorities gathered in Tehran, just days after the fall of the Shah's regime, and came up with an 11-article constitution, the first of which stated that Iran was a multi-ethnic country made up of Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Ahwazis, Baluchis and Turkmen.

The coalition's constitution also called for the establishment of a federal government consisting of autonomous regions that have equal rights, for the demarcation of autonomous regions based on common language, culture and economic conditions and the election of provincial councils in autonomous regions and the duties of such councils.

The constitution also called upon the government to equalize the conditions of ethnic minorities that had been neglected under the Shah.

But the emerging Islamic government rejected the coalition's demands, which were considered contradictory to Islamic principles and were said to be based on suspicious motives of the minorities that issued the document.

Islamic government emerges

The Islamic government attributed the unrest in many ethnic provinces that followed to external interference by the United States and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's government.

The Iranian authorities rejected the entire concept of federalism and charged its supporters with treason.

But minorities were not to stay silent as their cause gained momentum following a reformist campaign launched by former Iranian president, Mohamed Khatami, after he won the election in 2007.

Minorities established parties and organizations and assumed official posts and enjoyed extensive representation in the parliament but were still unable to get approval to run in legislative elections.

Several reformists at the interior ministry attempted to work on allowing more freedom for non-Persian parties and based their demand on the fact that separatist movements amongst non-Persian minorities have remarkably decreased during Khatami's presidency.

One language, one culture

The Association of Combatant Clerics, to which Khatami is affiliated, has argued that separatist movements in non-Persian regions would diminish if articles 15 and 19 of the constitution, which allow minorities to establish national parties, were applied.

But, nationalist reformists, supporters of the late Mohammed Mosaddaq who have gained influence in Iran in recent years, have a rejected such moves and insisted Iran must be one language and one culture.

The nationalists' extremist ideologies are represented by parties like the National Front of Iran, Pan-Iranist Party and the Party of the Iranian Nation.

Leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, once declared members of the National Front apostates for their opposition to the capital punishment. Most leaders of the prohibited Freedom Movement of Iran are also ultra-nationalists. The party owns publishing houses and newspapers issued in Iran with fake licenses.

Generally, reformists do not sympathize with ethnic minorities despite the flexibility shown in their political discourse. The only exception is the Islamist reformist trend represented by Khatami.

If conservatives are influenced by Islamic teachings and principles, reformists are a mix between Islam and Persian nationalism, which makes them less sympathetic towards ethnic minorities.

(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)