When it comes to Iran, several important developments — such as the tanker crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran’s violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the nuclear deal, and the shooting down of a US drone by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — have recently taken the spotlight among national and international news outlets.
This means that less attention has been paid to the latest developments inside Iran, particularly how ethnic minorities are being treated during Hassan Rouhani’s second term as president.
Iran’s ethnic minorities include Arabs, about 3 million of whom live near the Iraqi border in southwest Iran; nearly 7 million Kurds, who live in the northwest in what is known as Iranian Kurdistan; the Azeris, Iran’s largest ethnic minority with a population of about 18 million, who reside in several provinces including Tehran, Hamadan and East Azerbaijan; and the Baluchis, with an approximate population of 1.5 million, mostly residing in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan near the border with Pakistan.
While the current sociopolitical and socioeconomic situations are difficult for the wider Iranian population, the nation’s ethnic minorities are suffering the worst social, economic and political deprivation. According to a report from last year, a third of Iran’s prisoners are ethnic minorities, who are sidelined from basic necessities such as education and health care.
This is despite the ethnic minorities living in provinces filled with natural resources. An example is Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan, which is one of Iran’s wealthiest provinces when it comes to oil and natural gas. Khuzestan reportedly produces 85 to 90 percent of Iran’s oil and is the main pillar of the country’s economy and the government’s revenues.
Although Khuzestan is rich in natural resources, most of its Arab population live in poverty and suffer from malnutrition. The rate of unemployment among Arabs is reportedly much higher than the national unemployment rate. In addition, despite the resources and wealth that Khuzestan has, the province still suffers from water shortages, electricity problems and sanitation issues. The Arabs are also plagued by high levels of water and air pollution, as the oil facilities surround and suffocate Ahvaz, releasing toxic materials and pollutants into the air.
In addition, while many Iranians are subjected to persecution for exercising their basic rights, such as freedom of expression, the persecution of ethnic minorities appears to be proportionally much greater. As Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, has said: “Iranian authorities show little tolerance of political dissent anywhere in the country, but they are particularly hostile to dissent in minority areas where there has been any history of separatist activities.”
The Iranian authorities falsely claim that they are protecting the nation’s national security. The reality is that the regime’s objective is to silence the journalists, newspapers, and political and human rights activists among the ethnic minorities who dare to criticize its policies.
An increasing number of Arabs are being arbitrarily arrested, tortured and found dead in prisons in suspicious circumstances. For example, a 28-year-old detainee from the Ahvazi Arab minority was found dead in a detention center in Ahvaz last month. In response, Amnesty International called for an impartial investigation, stating: “Given the systematic use of torture in Iranian detention facilities, the death of a young man, from a widely persecuted ethnic minority group and with no known health conditions, so soon after his arrest raises serious concerns that he was subjected to torture or other ill treatment and that this may have caused or contributed to his death.”
Hundreds of people from the Arab ethnic minority are also being held incommunicado without access to their family or lawyers, according to Amnesty International.
Meanwhile, at least 69 Kurdish citizens, including a minor child and women, were executed in prisons in Iran in 2018, mostly on charges based on political or religious activities.
The Iranian regime has routinely disregarded calls from international organizations and human rights groups to halt its executions of Kurds. For instance, when Iran’s judiciary system sentenced three young Kurds to death last year, UN special rapporteurs Agnes Callamard and Javaid Rehman urged “the government of Iran to immediately halt their executions and to annul the death sentences against them in compliance with its international obligations.” But the Iranian regime went ahead and executed all three.
Baluchis also face the same dire situation, as they are treated as second-class citizens, repressed and sidelined from basic needs such as education and health care.
Despite the president’s promises, ethnic minorities are among the most subjugated, dehumanized and repressed groups in Iran. It is incumbent on the UN to pressure Tehran and hold the Iranian leaders accountable for the ongoing and heightened suppression of these vulnerable groups.