Minorities and the political stability in Iran


A state-forming entity or a minority?

It may sound rather contradictory; however, every ethnic entity, even if it is only one of the many and even not the largest in number, may in principle be regarded not only as a minority, but also as a state-forming entity. This statement totally applies for instance to the Atropateneans in Iran. For centuries Atropatene has been the foundation of the Iranian statehood. It was home to many ideological movements of Iranianness and Pan-Iranism. Majority of the Pan-Iranism elite comes from Atropatene. Moreover, many Iranian nationalists are from ethnic minorities.

The mosaic of Iranian identity

The foundation of Iranianness is being pro-Iran or pro-Iranian statehood. What is interesting is the fact that already a century ago there was a common identity in Iran, the identity of a Shiite. Ethnic identity has previously never really meant anything significant in Iran, for instance a "Tork" here means a Turkic-speaker and not one of Turkic people. At least three of the Northern provinces of Iran are mostly Turkic-speaking but not necessarily of Turkic origin. Turkic identity is essentially in an embryonic state in Iran. Moreover, Farsi or Persian does not refer to any ethnic identity but to the language which identifies Farsi-speakers, the major language group in the country. In the same way, there are Kurdish speakers and a number of other languages of both Iranian and non-Iranian groups. The Pan-Turkish orientation of the modern Republic of Azerbaijan is mostly the result of the purposeful and targeted ottomanization policy of the Russian Empire directed to the pro-Iranian Turkic-speaking people of the Northern Atropatene, an indigene Iranian territory under the Russian influence. It is not incidental that it was during the Russian influence that the essentially anti-Iranian and, for that matter anti-Armenian, term "Azeri" was introduced and used. It is only within the connotation of this term that the fake Turkic identity of the Iranian Atropatenean is opposed to their Iranian identity, which is being increasingly manipulated by certain milieus in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, the USA and Israel.

The major axis is religious and denominational

In the modern Republic of Iran Islam is a state religion and Shiism the dominant trend. Still, there are also Sunnis in Iran. Essentially, the axis of the minorities issue in Iran is mostly denominational, as the largest minority in the country comprises Sunnis. Though the Iran-Iraq War partially balanced the Shiite-Sunni conflicts in Iran, and the leader of the Iranian Revolution Khomeini at one time revived the Islamic ecumenical movement, the issue gradually worsened in the next years. During Ahmadinezhad's government Shiite became more intolerant. It is interesting that in the past denominational and especially ethnic minorities were never a subject of internal politics in Iran. It was basically Ahmadinezhad who turned the minorities into a subject of internal politics, taking an advantage of the dividing lines of the national identity conducive to his purposes and even increasing the existing gaps. Discrimination against Sunnis and Sunni Islam became deeper and more wide-spread. For instance, about 800 thousand Sunnis living in Tehran currently do not have any mosques and thus, conduct their religious services mostly in mosques adjacent to individual embassies of foreign Islamic countries. The administrative positions are almost exclusively assigned to Shiites, including in the provinces of Baluchestan and Khorasan which have a large number of Sunni population, whereas it was not long ago that the instances of Sunnis occupying high rank positions were quite frequent. Perhaps one of the reasons was the fact that the national security of Iran and its territorial integrity became anchored on Islam and first and foremost on Shiism, which naturally enlarged the gap and turned the denominational differences into discrimination. In the result, the concept of Iranianness suffered considerably and will most probably continue to suffer. It is worth noting also that in the past 4-5 years in the result of Shiite-Sunni conflicts in Iran more than 500 people were killed. Sunni madrassas are flourishing underground, being financed by the neighboring Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The wall of the neighbor's house

The developing and politically stable Iran is the reliable strategic partner of Armenia in the region. Armenia-Iran cooperation extends from energy security to common use of natural resources, development of communication means, commerce, tourism, culture, sciences, education, modern technologies, finances, health and a number of other sectors. Therefore, every challenge threatening the political stability of Iran, and especially its statehood, knocks at our door as well. Still, notwithstanding the existing and expected dividing lines, as well as the large-scale impact of information flow and propaganda from abroad, an ardent internal religious-national-liberation movement in present Iran is actually impossible. It seems that the Iranian statehood is able to stand against the current challenges. Perhaps in the result of the dividing lines drawn in the past decade, a layer of middle level civil servants with seemingly anti-Armenian attitudes has developed, which to some extent impedes the development of cooperation between Armenia and Iran. For instance, one or the other issue may be tackled on the political level, but often gets frozen, impeded or slowed down already on the technical one. Perhaps the motives for such non-systemic and non-state "sabotage" are quite different, though the results are equally painful. In any case, it is obvious that a Shiite Iran with a stable statehood is a better partner for Armenia than a secular, but unstable Iran subject to external influences. Actually, Armenia is most ardent advocate of Iran's and no matter how contradictory this may sound, also Turkey's territorial integrity and stable statehood. This is an objective phenomenon, the political fruits of which we will be able to taste only if we hurry. For now it is highly desirable that the public and political figures in Armenia, as well as the Armenian media avoid using terms such as "Southern Azerbaijan" and "Iranian Azeri". The term "Azeri", which actually means "Antropatenean", has to be used exclusively in the north of Iran to refer to the population of the Eastern and Western Atropatene, whereas to refer to the population of the neighboring Azerbaijan the term "Azerbaijani" should be used, not "Azeri".

This paper has been developed based on the opinions passed by the participants of a round table organized within the framework of the project "Iran: the Phenomenon of National Minorities and Generation Change". The event took place on July 6, 2009. The roundtable was attended by independent analysts, government officials, and representatives of the international organizations. Theround table was organized with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.



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