In recent weeks, mass demonstrations have taken place in three peripheral provinces of Iran with large non-Persian populations. Most prominent is the southern province of Khuzestan, located on the banks of the Persian Gulf, though mass demonstrations have also been held in the Kurdish and Azeri regions in the north of the country.
Iran’s economic crisis has resulted in a lack of investment in, among other things, water infrastructure. The Persian region of Iran has suffered severe drought for years. To address that problem, the Islamic regime diverted streams from the province of Khuzestan, where most of Iran’s Arab population is concentrated, to the country’s Persian regions. This resulted in thousands of cows, sheep, and goats in Khuzestan dying of thirst. Because those animals are the source of many of their livelihoods, the people of Khuzestan consider the water diversion a theft.
This was hardly the first indignity the people of Khuzestan have been expected to tolerate; the water issue was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Khuzestan residents have been suffering from toxic pollution for years as a result of deadly emissions from oil and gas wells and refineries located in the area. All Iran’s oil and gas fields are situated in the province, as are many oil ports, which are major environmental pollutants.
The toxic substances emitted by the Iranian oil and gas industry penetrate the soil in Khuzestan, tainting the local produce. The toxins seep into the drinking water and the waters of the Gulf, affecting fish consumed by the local population. As a result of this exposure to poisonous substances, a very large proportion of children in Khuzestan are born deformed and with severe birth defects.
As if that were not enough, the regime set up the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Khuzestan. The local population claims that their province was deliberately chosen so that if an ecological disaster occurred as a result of a nuclear leak, as took place in Chernobyl, it would be the Arab minority—not Persians—who would be harmed.
The Ahwazi Arabs of Khuzestan have staged demonstrations in the past against the Iranian regime, and the response has always been harsh: extensive arrests and executions—including people being hung from cranes in the streets. The latest wave of demonstrations began as a protest against water shortage, but quickly developed into a broad public demand for the release of Khuzestan from the “Iranian occupation.”
Unsurprisingly, the regime’s response has been harsh. About 25 are dead so far, with about 370 wounded and about 3,400 detainees. These numbers would likely have been much higher had the regime not feared that a massacre of civilians might increase pressure on the Biden administration to maintain U.S. sanctions on Iran and avoid returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.
In response to the Ahwazis’ demand for independence, the regime cut off Internet access in the province. People from the area now have to film what’s happening there, then travel to other areas to get the images out to the world.
Concurrently with the outbreak of demonstrations in Khuzestan, demonstrations broke out in support of the Kurdish and Azeri regions in northern Iran, as well as in Tehran, where slogans like “Death to the dictator” and “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, the money for Iranians” were chanted.
It is important to note that despite widespread opposition to the Islamist regime among Iranians of Persian descent, they oppose the demand of ethnic minorities for disengagement from Iran. Indeed, when I raised in meetings with Persian-Iranian exiles the possibility that Iran would be partitioned into ethnic/national states (Persians, Arabs, Baluchs, Kurds, Turkmen, etc.) as happened in the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, their response was always completely negative. They aspire to remove the ayatollahs from power, and some even speak of the return of the Shah’s son and the renewal of the monarchy, but they unequivocally support Iran’s continued existence in its current form, which perpetuates Persian control of the country’s many ethnic minorities.
However, the disintegration of Iran into ethnic states is not only quite feasible, but is steadily becoming more likely due to expanding public demand for independence among the non-Persian minorities that make up about half the country’s population. Recently, greater cooperation has been observed among various opposition organizations—the sense that the end of the regime is on the horizon and even the disintegration of the state.
Both these goals are achievable.
Iran’s disintegration would probably not be peaceful. It would likely more resemble the Yugoslav than the Soviet model, if only because of the Persian majority’s unwillingness to lose the oil, gas, water and other natural resources found in the territories of non-Persian minorities. Persian national dignity also plays an important role in the controlling of non-Persian peoples.
And yet, the collapse of the ayatollahs’ regime and the disintegration of Iran would be a blessing—and not only for the tens of millions of Iranians who would be free from the yoke of one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Such a development would also bring an end to Iranian subversion throughout the Middle East, and the attendant civil wars and internal instability it has caused. It could eliminate the international wave of terrorism Iran has spread over the past four decades, as well as the counterfeiting, money-laundering and drug-smuggling in which it engages. The collapse of the regime could go far toward ensuring the safety and security of the Middle East and the wider international community.
The international community must therefore vigorously support the struggle of the ethnic/national minorities in Iran against the Islamist regime (as well as the struggle of the Persian majority against this regime) and their efforts to dismantle the Iranian state. U.S. President Joe Biden should immediately abandon any intention of returning to the nuclear deal or to lift sanctions on the regime, and instead invest significant resources—overt and covert, civilian and military—to helping the Iranian minorities free themselves from Persian suffocation.
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served for 25 years in IDF military intelligence, specializing in Syria, Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups, and Israeli Arabs, and is an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.