For decades, Iran has been at war against its own non-Persian minorities.

Tehran bans schools of teaching in the Azerbaijani language, executes Kurdish activists and destroys Sunni mosques. Moreover, minority regions face larger levels of poverty, over-policing, and poor access to government services. A 2021 U.N. report found that Iranian minorities are much more likely to be executed and disappeared by the state than their Persian counterparts.

Washington should help these abused minorities by offering political support and sponsoring anti-regime media broadcasting in their own language. U.S.-sponsored anti-regime broadcasting is currently heavily Persian-focused, even though Iranian minorities make up more than half of the country’s population of almost 90 million inhabitants.

Tehran is concerned about ethnic separatism almost to the point of paranoia. Last month, Iranian missile strikes killed Baluch militants in Pakistan and a Kurdish businessman accused of working with Israel in Iraq. Iranian crackdowns in minority regions have been particularly brutal, especially against the Baluch people, whose peaceful anti-government demonstrations are often suppressed with live fire.

The result has been resentment, protests and even low-intensity insurgencies among the Baluch, Kurdish, and Arab communities. After Mahsa Amini died last year in police custody for violating the regime’s strict dress code for women, anti-government protesters in minority regions demanded more regional autonomy.

But the ethnic group the regime fears the most is Iranian Azerbaijanis, who make up an estimated one-third of the population. Tehran is well aware that the past three major anti-government revolts in Iranian history started in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province.

The government’s damming of rivers and over-farming has largely caused the drying of Lake Urmia, the lifeline of the Azerbaijani inhabitants. The regime has also banned the teaching of the Azerbaijani language and barred parents from giving their children traditional names. Over the past year, Azerbaijanis have not only routinely protested environmental destruction and the release of political prisoners, but for independence from Tehran as well.

This is what the U.S. can do to help Iranian minority groups. During the Cold War, Washington created Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to broadcast anti-communist and pro-democratic messaging behind the Iron Curtain. Similarly, the U.S. established Radio Farda to promote democratic values and provide uncensored media to the Iranian people.

Despite attracting millions of Iranians, Radio Farda’s coverage is much less accessible in minority regions since it only broadcasts in Persian and English. It’s a major mistake to ignore half of Iran’s population in areas where the regime is most neglectful and abusive. According to Iranian government data, some 40 percent of its inhabitants are not fluent in Farsi. While Voice of America is available in Azerbaijani and Kurdish, its broadcasting does not specifically focus on Iran.

Broadcasting in minority languages could make a major difference. During the Soviet Union, RFE/RL became the most listened-to Western radio station beyond the Iron Curtain and its broadcasting helped foment revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Romania. The Romanian revolution started with mass protests in ethnic Hungarian regions. Iranian minorities could similarly become the vanguards of popular uprisings against the regime.

Additionally, the United States must be more vocal about Iran’s treatment of minorities much like it has done with the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group. Washington could offer political support by implementing sanctions related to the regime’s treatment of ethnic minorities, meet with minority leaders, and bring up their cause at the United Nations and other international forums. This will accomplish two things: spread awareness of Iran’s abuses and show these ethnic groups that their cause matters.

The aim of supporting Iran’s minorities is not necessarily to push these groups toward secession or regime change but to support their struggle against a brutal regime while pushing one of Tehran’s pressure points. Minority unrest could overwhelm a regime already burdened by economic issues, sanctions, a growing scarcity of water, domestic stress from a disgruntled populace and commitments to its proxy militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.

Some commentators have argued that supporting struggling minority groups to rebel could rally Iranians around the regime. However, a “rally ’round the flag effect” will only move the Persian population. And due to unpopular theocratic laws and bleak economic prospects, only a small number of Persians are likely to be swayed to support the regime.

By offering Iran’s minorities political support and access to information in their own languages, Washington could empower them to fight for their rights.

It would also send a clear message to China and other authoritarian states that repressing their own minorities could come back to haunt them.

Source » newsweek