Contemporary Iran, like medieval Iran, is not a country but a heterogeneous, multinational, and multilingual empire. In Iran, Persians make up half of the country’s population, while the other half comprises minorities, which maintain a strong ethnic identity that distinguishes them from Persians.
It is worth noting that some 75 languages (e.g. Turkic, Kurdish, Balochi, Arabic and Caspian languages) are spoken in Iran. As noted by the Iranian scholar Eliz Sanasarian, “If language is utilized as the main distinguishing feature of ethnicity, Persian, despite being the official language, is the mother tongue of barely half of the population of Iran.” Yet many of these languages are becoming extinct due to the discriminatory policies implemented by the Islamic Republic of Iran – and before that, by the Pahlavi dynasty.
The modern history of the country has been characterized by brutal attacks on Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmen, and Arab communities, which have been prevented by a succession of rulers from enjoying political and cultural rights. Since the foundation of the modern Iranian nation-state in 1925 by Reza Shah, who institutionalized “Persian supremacism,” the ethnic stratification of Iran, comprising a dominant Persian core and a marginalized periphery comprising minorities, has become increasingly evident.
Many Persians, both inside and outside Iran, are hesitant to acknowledge or even talk about the reality of the ethnonational diversity of Iran, due to prejudice, chauvinism, and fear of indirectly promoting secession. For these reasons, a relationship of mutual mistrust between Persian and non-Persian society has been shaping Iran’s modern history of citizenship.
National diversity and the rise of ethnonationalism have been perceived by the successive regimes in Tehran as a serious threat to the Iranian state’s territorial integrity and national security. However, days before he left the country, the last Shah of Iran predicted that Iran would be divided into different countries. As Iran has been undergoing anti-regime unrest for more than a month, sparked first in Kurdistan, the ethnicity question is becoming crucial in shaping a strategy for “regime change.”
Minorities Want ‘Regime Change’ And Independent Ethno-States
Iran’s authoritarian rule and ethnic discrimination, coupled with the country’s ailing economy, poverty, and the ultraconservatives’ rise to power following the 2021 elections, are putting the survival of the Islamic Republic’s establishment at risk. This was already predicted in a leaked February 2022 IRGC document, which warned that Iranian society is in “a state of explosion,” since “social discontent has risen by 300% in the past year.”
With the start of the unrest in the country, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, acknowledged that while demonstrations of the past had been aimed at reforms, the current protests have as the sole goal the toppling of the Islamic Republic. However, it is important to understand that two distinct revolutions are taking place in Iran right now. One is inherently Persian-centrist, which seeks only “regime change” while retaining the current Persian-centrist cultural and political hegemony. The other is ethno-nationalistic in nature, and seeks not just “regime change” but the establishment of independent ethno-states.
The ethno-nationalist revolution and its demands are largely left out of the debates on the subject in the international media, where the Persian-centrist movement is presented as the sole representative of the will of the Iranian peoples.
The revolutionary atmosphere following the outbreak of the current nationwide protests and the possibility of regime change has led to intensification of political activity among Iran’s marginalized ethnonational and religious communities. They view the ongoing revolution as a golden opportunity to claim their rights to sociopolitical and cultural self-determination. For the first time since the 1921 Persian coup d’état, ethnonationalist movements believe that with the mass mobilization of their societies, there is hope to put forward their demands for autonomy and recognition of sociopolitical, national, and cultural rights in post-Ayatollahs Iran.
This is why Iranian authorities, who are unwilling to address the grievances and legitimate demands of the ethnic groups, are disproportionately targeting ethnic minorities in border regions, as opposed to in central Iran. In fact, since the anti-regime protests began, on September 17, the worst massacres by the regime have been taking place in border regions, particularly in the Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Baluchistan, and Caspian regions.
It is also worth noting that in the past, Iranian regime policy has been to divide the Kurds and Azeris in the northwest of the country. Azeris, who are Turkic speakers, are mainly Shi’ite Muslims, while Kurds have their own distinct language and are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Together, they form 30-35% of Iran’s population, posing a serious threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. The Islamic Republic’s effort at promoting ethnic disunity in peripheral Iran have had until now two main objectives: first, to weaken Iran’s non-Persian ethnic groups by dividing them into warring and antagonistic parties, and second, to promote ethnic violence among different groups in order to justify the government’s intervention and strengthen state rule.
A Unified Front Against The Mullahs
The 2022 Iranian revolution, in its early stage, started as protests condemning the murder of the 22-year old Kurdish-Iranian woman Jina Amini (known in the media by her forced Persian name Mahsa), who was tortured and killed by the “religious morality police” of Iran’s Islamic Republic. These protests soon evolved into a loose rebellion aimed at the overthrow of the regime. Iran has now turned from a “state of explosion” into a “state of collapse.” This phase marks a critical and decisive moment in whether the anti-regime “revolution” will enter its final stage: The regime could collapse, or the country could descend further into violence, as the Iranian regime, which is desperately determined to survive, will use increasingly aggressive means to suppress the rebellion.
Unlike the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the 2009 Green Movement, the current protests are highly decentralized and unorganized. History shows that without leadership and organization, prospects for success are dim. Hence, the Iranian protests need a strong leadership, organization, and a political agenda, to be able to transform the current protests into an organized collective movement against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There is a need for an organization outside Iran designed to unite the Iranian opposition around a common platform. It is important that the entire society, Persians and non-Persians alike, is uniting to pursue the common goal of regime change. Hence, a steering committee, which would be the official voice of the Iranian opposition – similar to the united Iraqi opposition front against the Iraqi Ba’ath regime in London in 2002, despite the radical disagreements among the wrangling Iraqi political groups – should be established. As Iranian political analyst Borzou Daragahi argued, “Uprisings against longtime autocrats in Libya in 2011 and Sudan in 2019 succeeded after protesters’ political allies visited foreign capitals and convinced regional powers that the opposition could responsibly lead their nations.”
It is worth stressing that the political agenda of this anti-regime organization should seek to endorse a democratic confederalist future for Iran, with minorities given the prospect of pursuing their right to self-determination.
Inside Iran, as the government intensifies military attacks against the protesters, there is a need to form self-defense units, along with the political unification of the opposition. Without political unification and an armed struggle with outside assistance, the protests will not succeed in the face of the brutality of the Iranian regime.
A transition to a new political order in Iran will only be possible if revolutionaries and their supporters find avenues for political cooperation with each other.
The ideology of “Iranianness (Iraniyyat),” in which Persians rule over the others, that was championed by the Pahlavis and the by the subsequent regime of the Ayatollahs, is doomed to collapse, since it has never evolved into a social contract between the regime and the many different ethnic and religious groups in the country. Iran’s ethnic minorities have become more inward-oriented, focusing more on their historical roots and their crossborder cultural ties with their co-ethnics in other countries.
As Persians glorify a unified Iran, the Kurdish, Baluchi, Azeri, and Ahwazi Arab protestors inside and outside Iran continue to advocate for their ethno-nationalist rights, raising their national flags and chanting ethno-nationalist slogans such as “Free Kurdistan,” “Kurdistan is not part of Iran,” “Free Balochistan,” and “Free Khuzistan,” rather than pan-Iranian nationalist slogans. Yet, part of the Persian diaspora, primarily the Pahlavi supporters, seems to stand against the minorities’ demands for their rights. In fact, many videos show Persian pro-Pahlavi nationalists harassing non-Persian groups waving their ethnic-national flags. Hence, pro-Pahlavi nationalists are serving the Islamic Republic’s goal of suppressing the revolt led by ethnic minorities, even though they share the same aim of overthrowing the regime of the Ayatollahs.
The Persian diaspora should make an effort to find a middle ground with the ethnic minorities and support the idea of democratic confederalism for the future of Iran. This concept was first theorized by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The Kurdish feminist slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi,” (Woman, Life, Freedom – in Persian, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi“), which has become the rallying cry of Iranians, is a tenet of this political concept that could likewise be adopted as the political agenda by all Iranian opposition groups, for the new political order emerging after the downfall of the Ayatollahs.
Democratic confederalism can be characterized as a bottom-up system for self-administration and self-determination, aimed at transcending the idea of a hierarchical and centralized state through the creation of confederations that accept ethnic, religious and political realities. Thus, it could be a unifying framework for the different ethnic and religious organizations that represent the different segments of Iran.
“Pan-Iranism,” along with “Shi’ism,” are failed ideologies that have failed to form a social contract among Iranians since the establishment of modern Iran in 1921. Therefore, an alternative political and social contract based on Democratic Confederalism needs to be forged among all the ethnicities of Iran, recognizing their right to autonomy and self-determination – thus abandoning the old statist and centralizing Iranian nationalist project for a democratic-confederal one that no longer aims to build an inherently imperial and oppressive Iranian nation-state. The goal should instead be the establishment of a decentralized entity, based on democratic confederalism, that sets the stage for a new era in Iranian history and politics with new ethno-states, emerging after the ethnic minorities are granted the right to make decisions about their lives and determine their own economic, cultural and social affairs.
The peoples of Iran are united against the current regime. However, in post-Ayatollah Iran, the Persians are seeking to maintain their hegemony, while the ethnic-minorities are seeking to form ethno-states. A middle ground can be found in the idea of the democratic confederation of the country.
Persians need to understand that ethnic groups in Iran now want real change, and will not accept another regime that does not recognize their rights. The Islamic Republic represents a continuation of the Pahlavi policies against minorities in the country, and there is no guarantee that a future Persian-centrist regime will not continue along the same line as its predecessors.
Regime change is not enough. But democratic confederalism could serve as a radical model for political emancipation in Iran. It could work as a temporary, transitional, intergovernmental project in post-Ayatollah Iran until the establishment of new ethno-states in the Balochistan, Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and and Caspian regions, based on mutual respect and common interests.
* Himdad Mustafa is a Kurdish scholar and expert on Kurdish affairs.
 Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
 Allan Hassaniyan. Kurdish Politics in Iran. Cambridge University Press, 2021, pp.80-82.
 Alam Saleh. Ethnic Identity and the State in Iran. Springer, 2013.
 Rferl.org/a/iran-irgc-leaked-document-discontent/31683642.html, February 2, 2022.
 Voanews.com/a/iran-parliament-speaker-says-protests-could-weaken-society-/6772502.html, October 02, 2022.
 Atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/how-to-turn-irans-moment-into-a-movement/, September 27, 2022.