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By Kaveh-Cyrus Sanandaji
Middle East Center, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford

As the Iranian presidential election rapidly approaches, the frontrunners – incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezai, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – are tirelessly campaigning across the country. Reformists Mousavi and Karroubi, in particular, are competing intensely for support among Iran’s large, but often neglected, ethnic and religious minority voting blocs. Although Karroubi initially received the endorsement of several minority groups, the tide has turned in favor of Mousavi in recent weeks as his extensive campaigning appears to have demonstrated a sincere empathy for the welfare of these groups.

Iran is an ethnically and religiously diverse country, but its diversity has been subverted repeatedly by the state as a means both to present and preserve national unity. Iran’s leaders, both during the Pahlavi dynasty and later following the Islamic revolution, have long feared that minorities, predominantly located in the peripheral provinces, pose a threat to national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Past attempts to reassert ethno-linguistic identity through local dress or language have been opposed as explicit efforts to undermine the state. Although these groups—including, among others, Arabs, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmen, Azeris and Lurs—comprise roughly half of Iran’s population, their local needs have been overlooked by successive governments, entrenching political, socio-cultural and economic grievances.

Mohammad Khatami’s landslide presidential victory in 1997 and the corresponding rise of the reform movement offered peripheral ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious minorities the promise of greater regional autonomy and more equitable rights, such as the freedoms of expression and association. Though the establishment of local councils was included in Article 7 of the 1989 constitution, it was only during Khatami’s presidency that this measure was enforced. In 1999, newly-formed elected provincial, city, district and village councils were charged with addressing the day-to-day welfare needs of their respective constituencies, effectively affording peripheral minorities more control over their local and regional affairs.

Not until the 2005 presidential election, however, did candidates begin to address openly the needs of ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious minorities in national arenas. In particular, Mostafa Moin and Karroubi repeatedly made statements promising to respect equal rights, incorporate more ethnic minorities in government positions and increase the quality of non-Persian television and radio broadcasts. Although reformists Moin, Mohsen Mehralizadeh and Karroubi received a combined majority of votes in Western and Eastern Azerbaijan, Golestan, Hormozgan, Ilam, Kermanshah, Kurdestan, Lurestan and Sistan/Baluchestan, none was able individually to secure enough votes to proceed to the second round of elections, which Ahmadinejad ultimately won.

Since becoming president in 2005, Ahmadinejad’s emphasis on renewing early revolutionary ideology has led to the subversion of regional identities in favor of a unified revolutionary, Islamic identity. Tehran’s reluctance to continue granting regional autonomy, while attributable to several factors, is most likely a result of the state’s framing of the minority question in security terms. Despite Ahmadinejad’s much publicized provincial tours, he has prioritized efforts to repress “domestic terrorists” over addressing regional needs. Heightened Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) activity in the peripheral areas, particularly in the South-Eastern region dominated by Baluchis, has dove-tailed with the abrogation of local council authorities, provoking a backlash against the state – including a rising number of mass protests and violent attacks against IRGC installations and oil pipelines – which threatens regime stability.

The resurgence in minority grievances has recently brought ethnic politics to the fore with an unprecedented sense of urgency, and the regime has taken steps to assuage perceptions of disenfranchisement or repression shared by ethnic minorities. For example, in a recent trip to Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province, Mehr News published photos of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei inspecting troops at an IRGC base – striking only because several units donned traditional Kurdish garb. During this same trip, Khamenei met with local leaders to hear their grievances and called for renewed investments to develop Kurdistan’s limited infrastructure. Though anecdotal, these actions indicate a shift in the regime’s approach toward ethnic minority rights and the improvement of their conditions.

The discourse on ethnic politics has also drastically expanded during the 2009 presidential campaigns. Mousavi in particular has been campaigning in the minority-dominated provinces of Azerbaijan, Khuzestan, Kermanshah, Mazandaran and Golestan, among others. Beyond the standard assurances of greater minority incorporation in government and promises to respect minority rights, which are echoed by Karroubi and Rezai, Mousavi has proposed unprecedented, detailed policies to address minority grievances.

At numerous campaign rallies and in discussions with ethnic and religious minority leaders, Mousavi has criticized Ahmadinejad’s administration. Stating that Iran’s diversity should be embraced, Mousavi declared that, “throughout history, Iran’s minorities have lived in peaceful coexistence, so we should not deal with them as a security problem.” Moreover, citing Article 19 of the constitution – which emphasizes the equal value of human beings regardless of religion or ethnicity – Mousavi has stated he does not believe there should be any special limitations on minorities in the Islamic Republic.

In addition to campaign rhetoric, public demonstrations of respect for and dedication to minority groups have distinguished Mousavi from his rivals. Aftab News reported that during a trip to Kermanshah, Mousavi, who is a devout Shi’a, not only prayed in a Sunni mosque but also followed a Sunni Imam to demonstrate his respect for Sunnis. In a conversation with Molavi Abdol-Hamid – one of the spiritual leaders of the Sunni community in Iran – Mousavi also promised to prepare a national plan to address and resolve the Sunni community’s numerous grievances, including constructing the first Sunni mosque in Tehran.

Mousavi has also reached out to ethno-linguistic minorities. At a recent rally in Azerbaijan, he stated that in return for committing to the revolution many years ago, the government must show more sensitivity to the local needs of ethnic Azeris. Moreover, Mousavi, who is an ethnic Azeri himself, declared “I am the son of Azerbaijan” to cheering crowds at a campaign rally in which he reportedly delivered his entire speech in Azeri Turkish. In a state whose official language is Persian, it is almost unheard of for a national politician to speak in another language in a public forum.

Past studies of voting behavior in Iran suggest the peripheral minorities are most likely to vote for one of the reformist candidates – Karroubi or Mousavi. These voters respond not only to ethnic ties, but also to active campaigning. So although Karroubi, an ethnic Lur, will likely carry Lorestan and Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, will likely carry East and West Azerbaijan, the remaining 13 minority-dominated provinces are up for grabs. Karroubi won many of these provinces in the 2005 election, but Mousavi’s extensive campaigning seems to be successfully drawing the endorsements of notable minority groups. Mousavi has received significant help from former president Khatami, who is actively campaigning on his behalf in the provinces, effectively enabling Mousavi to cover twice as much ground as Karroubi.

To remain competitive in the provinces, Karroubi must intensify his campaign efforts and focus on specific policies to address their regional needs. But even if he increases his visits and develops clear proposals, Karroubi still must overcome perceptions that he may be a political opportunist and that his promises are just designed to capture the prevailing wind.

Minorities do not expect that either reformist will have the political capital to implement the full range of their promises. However, based upon the experience of the last four years, they do believe their overall condition is likely to be far better under a reformist president than not. As realist voters, minority groups are therefore more likely to support the reformist candidate they believe has the best chance of winning. With Mousavi increasingly being touted as the frontrunner, Karroubi’s chance of retaining minority support is steadily decreasing.

Pictured above: A group of Azeris, who are among the many ethnic minorities living in Iran.

Published on May 21, 2009