It’s time for Tehran to start listening to ethnic minority groups

Iran’s minority groups, and their struggle for equal rights, should not be remembered only during elections.

A banner of the presidential election is seen in Valiasr square in Tehran, Iran June 16, 2021. [Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters]

On June 18, the Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its 13th presidential election. This election will be one of the most critical in the country’s recent history for multiple reasons. The widening gap between the needs and desires of the Iranian people and those of the country’s rulers is profoundly undermining the regime’s legitimacy and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s power. Thus, the regime is in desperate need of a credible election that would give it renewed legitimacy. Nevertheless, due to the country’s ongoing political and economic crisis, and the Guardian Council’s decision to ban several prominent candidates from participating in the presidential race, the voter turnout on Friday is expected to be low, raising questions about the credibility of the election.

The seven candidates who have been approved by the Council to participate in the election are all focusing on different socio-economic and political issues in their campaigns and making promises to handle future challenges better than the current government to convince Iranians to come to the polls and vote for them.

One of the issues nearly all candidates touched upon during their campaigns was ethnic rights. In an effort to attract Iran’s ethnic minority groups – who together make up 40 to 50 percent of the population – to the polls, the candidates repeatedly expressed sympathy for their concerns. Two candidates, Mohsen Mehralizadeh and Abdolnasser Hemmati, even addressed the members of the Azeri minority in their mother tongue to garner their support. Nevertheless, despite cynically pandering to ethnic minorities to reach their electoral goals, none of the candidates made credible promises to these groups, or explicitly criticised the regime’s ethnic policies.

The issue of ethnic rights have long been part of electoral discussions and campaigns in Iran. During the 1997 presidential election, Muhammad Khatami promised to make wide reaching socio-economical reforms to ensure equality between all Iranians regardless of their ethno-sectarian backgrounds. Khatami’s ethnic promises successfully mobilised a large segment of ethnic minorities – especially Kurds and Baluchis – to vote in the election and carried him to the presidency. As a result, since Khatami’s election, presidential candidates – and especially reformists who are in a better position to garner the support of minorities seeking reforms and rights – have been courting Iran’s ethnic minority groups to realise their electoral ambitions.

The votes of ethnic minorities are also important for the state itself. Ethnic minorities not only make up a significant percentage of the general population, but they are also located all across the country. Thus, the regime needs them to participate in elections to enhance its legitimacy and national cohesiveness.

Khatami and other reformists that came after him, however, have routinely failed to keep the promises they made to ethnic minorities during their election campaigns after assuming power. And this trend continues to this day. Not only reformists, but also conservatives, moderates and hardliners routinely talk about ethnic rights during local and national elections to mobilise people to vote, but never even try to fulfil their promises when they assume power.

For instance, Hassan Rouhani, the current president of Iran, promised to allow ethnic and religious minorities to be involved in “in all political and administrative levels of government, including membership in the cabinet” during his presidential election campaign in 2013. He also pledged to allow the mother tongues of ethnic minority groups, such as Azeri, Kurdish and Arabic, to be taught in Iranian schools in compliance with the Article 15 of the Iranian constitution which states while the “Official language and writing script (of Iran)… is Persian … the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.”

However, after winning the election, with the help of ethnic minorities, he failed to fulfil these promises. Recently he even stated that he does not understand the need for teaching the mother tongues of ethnic minorities in schools, claiming that such a move could even “pose a threat to the Persian language and marginalise it”.

The candidates’ tendency to pander to ethnic minority concerns during election cycles but ignore them completely once they assume power is widening the long existing trust gap between these groups and Iran’s political classes. This effect was most clearly seen during the Green Movement of 2009. While thousands in mostly Persian inhabited cities in Iran, such as Isfahan and Shiraz, rushed to the streets to protest in support of the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, none of the provinces populated by ethnic minority groups joined the demonstrations.

Ethnic minority groups in Iran actively participated in the 1979 revolution, but have been completely sidelined from the political scene after it. The Islamic Republic’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, promised ethnic groups greater rights while the revolution was underway, but in the following years responded to their demands for equality by executing their leaders, destroying their homes and villages, and exposing them to other forms of state-sanctioned violence and discrimination. Since then, Iranian politicians across the political spectrum have been remembering ethnic minority groups during election seasons, making promises to them to secure their votes, but consequently turning a blind eye to their plight.

Today, this vicious cycle is still not broken, but it needs to be for the wellbeing of not only the Iranian people but also the state. If candidates who expressed their sympathy for these groups during their election campaigns once again ignore them after the June 18 election, the disenchantment between ethnic groups and Tehran will grow further. If those in power in Tehran continue with their oppressive ethnic policies, persistent Shia centric discourses and empty promises of equality, the Iranian people will remain divided, and the regime cannot make a renewed claim to legitimacy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.