Iran’s cynical pandering to its ethnic minorities will do it no good

Iran’s parliamentary election has yielded a victory for the so-called reformists, an apparent vote of confidence in Hasan Rouhani’s relatively moderate government after the deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme. But the campaign was also marked by promises to finally start meeting the demands and hopes of Iran’s ethnic minorities – and now the election’s over, that won’t be forgotten.

Ethnic minorities make up about 40-50% of Iran’s population. The largest five major ethnic groups, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and Turkmen, are large, territorially located, and transnational. They all have long histories of political struggle for their ethnic rights.

While Iran is a majority Shia country, 10% of the Iranian population practices Sunni Islam, and the majority of the Kurds, Baluchis, and Turkmen are Sunni. That means the central government needs ethnic votes not only to shore up its legitimacy, but also to strengthen its national security and territorial integrity.

In the absence of ethnic political parties, ethnic activists, elites, and candidates use sharper rhetoric to stir up ethnic grievances and mobilise minority communities during local and national elections.

This was particularly apparent in the 1997 presidential election, when the reformist movement played the ethnic card, promising civil rights for all Iranians and distributing election leaflets in Arabic, Azeri, and Kurdish. President Muhammad Khatami duly gained the largest share of the vote in the ethnic provinces. But even though ethnic groups enjoyed freedom of a sort under Khatami, his failure to keep his reformist promises only added to minorities’ dissatisfaction.

Despite the consequences, this pattern has been followed ever since. Embracing ethnic issues during election campaigns certainly helps raise ethnic minority people’s profile and amplify their demands. But unfulfilled promises only widen the gap between these groups’ expectations and their chances of getting what they want and need – and the wider that gap, the more Iran will struggle with serious ethnic tensions.

Democracy undermined

None of this is good for Iran’s democracy. Whereas many states use elections to unify citizens and to solidify a sense of togetherness among people of different socio-cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the ethnicisation of Iran’s local and national elections achieves precisely the opposite. It also drives divisions between the country’s main political factions, namely reformists and conservatives, who end up advancing diametrically opposed ethnic policies as a way of marking out their differences.

Kurdish women in Badreh, western Iran. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Given that Iran is increasingly entangled in the Middle East’s growing ethno-sectarian strife, it sees its own diversity as a potential threat to its national security. Iran’s ethno-sectarian groups straddle the borders of neighbouring states, meaning Tehran regards them as potential Trojan horses for foreign interference.

This is particularly important given Iran’s highly sectarian rivalry with predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, which domestic politicians discuss in belligerent nationalist tones. That hardly sits well with Iran’s own Sunni minority, who find themselves implicitly labelled as a risk to the state they call home.

Many of the demands Iran’s ethnic groups make of their country are justified, perfectly legal and recognised by the constitution. But just like other major national security-related decisions, ethnic policies aren’t made by the government or by members of parliament but by the Supreme National Security Council, which is appointed rather than elected. Any electoral promises made by electoral candidates are hollow and opportunistic.

This isn’t to say that Iran’s political elites should stay away from ethnic issues, or avoid acknowledging minority concerns. But pandering to ethnic demands during elections only to leave promises unfulfilled will only widen the gap between minority groups and the state.

If this habit doesn’t change, the consequences might be severe. The long-term damage already done by this electoral opportunism might be irreversible – and the earlier Tehran actually starts to grapple with ethnic disenchantment, the better.