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Iran’s protests fuel ethnic tensions


When Masoud Barzani, a former president of Iraq’s Kurdistan province, offered his sympathy to the family of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman who died in custody after her alleged failure to observe the Islamic dress code, it sparked alarm at the heart of the Islamic republic.

Amini’s death in September triggered some of the biggest and longest-lasting anti-regime demonstrations yet in Iran. Some of the most intense protests have been in the Kurdish region from which Amini hailed and which has seen widespread strikes.

Iran’s hardline politicians fear lengthy unrest makes the country vulnerable to threats from ethnic separatists and Islamist insurgents.

“After Barzani’s phone call [to Amini’s family], the issue of protests [in Iran’s Kurdistan] literally turned into a separatist movement,” an unnamed senior intelligence official told the state-run Iran newspaper in October.

The Kurds are one of the world’s largest stateless populations and are concentrated in an area straddling Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They have long complained of marginalisation and have a history of rebelling against central governments in pursuit of greater autonomy or secession. Iran’s Kurds rose up against the newly fledged Islamic republic in 1979, demanding political autonomy, although they were suppressed.

In a sign of their concern, Iran’s military in September fired ballistic missiles and armed drones at the bases of Iranian Kurdish dissidents in northern Iraq to foil what was seen as a fresh separatist threat. At least 13 people were killed in an attack that Washington condemned as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

In a statement last month that made clear their concern about separatist movements, Iran’s intelligence services said US intelligence was fuelling ethnic and religious divides and collaborating with exiled Kurdish groups. “Such [exiled] groups are enemies of Iran’s beloved, valiant ethnicity and are separatists who carry out missions given to them by the US and its abettors,” the statement said, referring to the banned Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.

The arrest of Kurdish politicians in Iran and the attack on Iraqi Kurdistan had “helped Iran’s Kurdistan calm down”, the unnamed senior intelligence official said.

The official anxiety speaks to concerns in Tehran about separatist tensions. Persians account for about half of Iran’s population, analysts estimate, with Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchi among the rest. Kurds and Baluchis are largely Sunni Muslims — a religious minority who believe they are discriminated against by Shia Muslim leaders in Iran.

In addition to the protests about Amini’s death, demonstrations in the border province of Sistan-Baluchestan over the alleged rape of a teenage girl by a police officer have also shaken the regime. There was an “unprecedented” crackdown on Sunni Baluchis in the province’s capital Zahedan in late September, according to the city’s Friday prayer leader Molavi Abdul-Hamid. At least 82 people were killed in the “Bloody Friday” crackdown, Amnesty said.

Abdul-Hamid on Friday called for an “imminent referendum” on the constitution as the solution to resolve the current crisis rather than “imprisoning”, “killing” and “beating up” people. Under Iran’s constitution, the country is governed by a Shia leader.

“This nation has been in the field [protesting] for about 50 days now. You cannot push them back because they have seen blood and their dear ones have been killed,” he told Sunni Muslim worshipers at Friday prayer. “Those who drafted this Constitution…were another generation. Today, there is a new generation…it’s a different world.” Abdul-Hamid has previously called for religious “freedom” and an end to “ethnic discrimination” in the country.

Brigadier General Ahmad Shafaei, a Revolutionary Guards commander based in the province, said Iran’s enemies had targeted Zahedan as the first city to “fall” but that the elite force had foiled their efforts.

The guards have long boasted that they have maintained security in Iran despite turbulence elsewhere in the region. But adding to the sense of insecurity, a Sunni man affiliated to terror group Isis attacked a holy Shia site in the southern city of Shiraz last week, killing 13 pilgrims, according to domestic media.

Kurdish activists say their demands are no different from those of other protesters who have called for the regime in Tehran to be replaced by a secular, modern government.

It was Kurds, they say, who introduced the “Woman, Life, Freedom” slogan at Amini’s funeral. It has since become a manifesto for protesters in Iran and gained global attention. Protesters have shown solidarity with minorities, chanting slogans such as “From Kurdistan to Tehran, my life for Iran”.

Ethnic minority areas are among the poorest in the country and have some of the highest jobless rates. Unemployment is 11.4 per cent in Sistan-Baluchestan and 10.2 per cent in Kurdistan, compared with an average of 8.9 per cent across Iran’s 31 provinces.

While many families in Sistan-Baluchestan survive by smuggling fuel into Afghanistan, tens of thousands of young men in Kurdistan work as low-paid cross-border labourers, called kolbars. They cross rugged mountains carrying goods on their backs, including large items such as refrigerators, from the Iraqi border into Iran. Some have died at the hands of Iranian border guards, stirring anger among Kurds.

“The issue of kolbars keeps Kurds’ demands alive on a daily basis,” said the Kurdish activist.

By focusing on the separatist threat, say protesters, the regime is ignoring its own failures. “Kurdistan is not into separatist movements. Officials should be asked what they have done for Kurdistan,” the activist said. “Kurdish youth are highly educated . . . but see no bright future and have no way into senior jobs in government. Such people . . . don’t want to live in exile or in the mountains.

“Iran’s Kurdistan is not strong enough to determine the future of the protests,” the activist added. “But it was the first to start and perhaps will be the last to end them.”


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