Iran Primer's Blog
Iran is set to play a major role in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout of U.S. combat troops, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. On August 5, 2013 — President Hassan Rouhani’s first day in office —Tehran signed strategic cooperation agreement with Kabul on economic, security and intelligence issues. So Afghanistan is now committed to cooperate with both Iran and the United States on security issues. But Tehran and Washington actually have common interests on Afghanistan. Neither country “wants to a recurrence of civil war—both prefer the emergence of a security landscape that promotes state building in Afghanistan’s nascent democracy,” argues the report. The following are excerpts with a link to the full text.
This agreement includes cooperation in military training and measures to counter insurgency and organized crime, assistance with military operations, intelligence sharing on counter-insurgency matters, the expansion of trade and commerce, and the facilitation of tourism. It also states that the national security offices of both signatories will engage via trilateral mechanisms with the national security offices of India and Russia.
The strategic cooperation agreement is significant insofar as Afghanistan has now agreed to cooperate with Iran as well as with the USA and other ISAF members on several security matters, including the conduct of joint military exercises.
This signals to the USA that the Iranian Government wants to be recognized as a major regional actor in Afghanistan after 2014 and is prepared to help with the training of the ANSF after transition, albeit perhaps symbolically as it well understands that the bulk of training will require support from Western countries. The agreement to cooperate on security matters with India and Russia but not with Pakistan indicates the signatories’ perception of Pakistan as a threat to regional security.
Hence, Iran will continue to view any US efforts with suspicion and will advocate for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops and the closure of any US military bases, while tacitly acknowledging that the ongoing training and development of the ANSF into an effective force will be necessary to effectively oppose armed insurgents and stabilize the country. At the same time, any continuing US presence in Afghanistan could provide more hard-line Iranian officials with an opportunity to maintain a dual strategy aimed at bogging down US forces. Likewise, if Iran were to be attacked militarily, it could retaliate relatively easily by targeting US bases across its eastern border.
The new Afghan–Iranian strategic cooperation agreement hints that the Iranian Government would prefer the post-2014 ANSF security training to be performed by security experts from the immediate region, possibly including Iran but not from countries with which it has animosities such as the UK and the USA. Future cooperation between Iran and the USA may draw on old relationships. It is plausible that Rouhani, in his previous capacity as National Security Advisor and secretary of the SNSC under Khatami, was well aware and supportive of Iran’s more open Afghanistan policy. In the wake of September 2001, Javad Zarif, Iran’s new foreign minister, is believed to have provided US troops in Afghanistan with Iranian intelligence.
The appointment in May 2013 of James Dobbins, who like Zarif was a key participant at the 2001 Bonn Conference, as US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is also timely and will help to foster bilateral Iranian–US talks on Afghanistan. Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, Iran’s former ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan, seems to perceive Dobbins’ appointment as a positive signal, describing him as someone who ‘has lots of experience with regard to . . . Afghanistan and Pakistan . . . and has been able to manage issues well’.
Yet, with existing conservative political coalitions in the Iranian leadership polarized and highly factionalized, it is not clear how much support Rouhani will achieve for a more cooperative approach to engagement with the USA. While the Supreme Leader stated in July 2013 that he was ‘not optimistic about negotiation with the US’ as he continues to consider them ‘unreliable and dishonest’, it is important to remember that he has previously condoned cooperation with the
Iran has been a constant subtext of the Obama administration’s campaign to justify a military strike on Syria. Both proponents and opponents of a strike have have referred to Iran’s controversial nuclear program as a factor in deliberations. Proponents have argued that an attack could deter Iran from using weapons of mass destruction. But opponents have warned that a strike could escalate the Syrian conflict into a wider proxy war pitting the United States against Iran or risk blowback on the United States by Iran-backed groups. The following are remarks by top officials and members of congress.
If we choose not to act, we will be sending a message to Iran of American ambivalence, American weakness. It will raise the question – I’ve heard this question. As Secretary of State as I meet with people and they ask us about sort of our long-term interests and the future with respect to Iran, they’ve asked me many times, “Do you really mean what you say? Are you really going to do something?” They ask whether or not the United States is committed, and they ask us also if the President cuts a deal will the Congress back it up? Can he deliver?”
Sept. 10, 2013 in remarks to the House Armed Services Committee
On September 4, President Hassan Rouhani used Twitter to wish a happy new year to the world’s Jews. Iran is home to some 25,000 Jews—the second largest population in the Middle East outside of Israel. His tweet contrasted starkly with the tone of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly challenged Israel’s right to exist between 2005 and 2013. “We say that this fake regime [Israel] cannot logically continue to live,” he said at the 2005 World Without Zionism conference in Tehran. “Open the doors (of Europe) and let the Jews go back to their own countries.”
Persians are Iran’s largest ethnic group, but nearly a dozen other ethnicities represent well over a third of the 79 million population. The largest ethnic groups, which are major factors in Iranian politics, are Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and Lors. Others include Turkomen, Qashqai, Mazandarani, Talysh and Gilaki. They hold dozens of seats in the current parliament. Some of the revolution’s biggest names have come from ethnic minorities:
Mir-Hossein Mousavi (far left)—a former Prime Minister in the 1980s and a reformist presidential candidate in 2009—is an Azeri. He has been under house arrest since shortly after Green Movement protests erupted to dispute results of an election that his followers believed he had won. He comes from East Azerbaijan province.
Mehdi Karroubi—(left) a former speaker of parliament and another reformist presidential candidate in 2009— is a Lor. He was born in Aligoudarz in western Lorestan.
Mohsen Rezai—former head of the Revolutionary Guards and a 2013 presidential candidate—was born in the Lor region of Khuzestan.
Ali Khamenei— current supreme leader is reportedly half Azeri, although his official bio does not mention any Azeri heritage and says he was born in Mashhad.
Sadeq Mahsouli—former minister of interior from 2008-2009 and minister of social security from 2009 to 2011—is also Azeri. He was born in the Azeri city of Urmia.
Rahim Safavi—former commander of the Revolutionary Guards from 1997 to 2007, is an ethnic Azeri.
cities and provinces,
But Azeris have faced political and cultural discrimination. The U.S. State Department reported that the government prohibited Azeris from speaking their language in schools, harassed Azeri activists, and changed Azeri town names.
Azeris share the same ethnic background with the majority population in neighboring Azerbaijan. These groups were divided in 1828 by the Treaty of Turkmanchai, which gave the northern portion of Azerbaijan to Russia and southern portion to Iran. Azeri involvement in Iran’s government was greatly reduced by the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. The Islamic Republic continued to suppress the Azeri population, notably during a brutal 1981 crackdown against an Azeri uprising in Tabriz.
Yet Azeris have played a larger role in the Iranian military and politics than other ethnic minorities. Yahya Rahim Safavi (left) was commander of the Revolutionary Guards—one of the most important military positions in Iran—from 1997 to 2007. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister in the 1980s and a reformist presidential candidate in 2009, is Azeri. Sadeq Mahsouli, former minister of interior from 2008 to 2009 and minister of social security from 2009 to 2011, is also an Azeri.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is also believed to be an ethnic Azeri. His grandfather was born in the Azeri village of Khamane, but was raised in Najaf, Iraq. Khamenei’s official website makes no mention of an Azeri heritage.
Azeri nationalism has grown over the last two decades, although most Iranian Azeris are not openly in favor of separation from Iran. Nationalist publications aimed at Iranian Azeris have been on the rise. Many also have access to Turkish satellite television, so their knowledge of Turkey and Azerbaijan has increased. In 1996, Mahmudali Chohraganli—an Azeri nationalist leader—was elected to represent Tabriz in the Iranian parliament. The government did not allow him to take his seat in the parliament and detained him.
In May 2006, large-scale protests erupted in Tehran and northwestern Iran after a state-run newspaper published a cartoon depicting an Azeri as a cockroach. The newspaper was shut down, and the cartoonist and editor were jailed. The Supreme Leader blamed the protests on the West. “Azeris have always bravely defended the Islamic revolution and the sovereignty of this country,” he said.
Azeris mostly live in northwestern Iran, notably in the provinces of East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan. About one-third of Tehran’s population is also reportedly Azeri. Smaller numbers reside in Hamadan, Qazvin and Karaj.
After the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Kurds launched a failed separatist movement to break away from the Islamic Republic. They shifted in recent years to non-violent tactics, although occasional clashes with Iranian security forces continue. Persecution of Kurds who protest government policies has increased since 2000, particularly under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
Iranian Kurds also have mixed opinions about the new president. In the 2013 election, Hassan Rouhani promised to improve the status of minority groups, which made him popular among some Kurdish voters and activists. The president of United Kurds in Iran, a political group, urged Kurds to vote in the June 2013 presidential election. Kurdish Member of Parliament Salar Muradi also said, “This election is an opportunity to get Kurdish rights and, if any candidate has solution to Kurdish issues, we will support them.”
But other Kurdish leaders remained unsure about Rouhani’s proposed reforms, and some Kurdish groups boycotted the election. Following the election, Khalid Azizi, secretary general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, a political group, said the election would not change things for Iranians. “These elections aren’t about human rights or the rights of the Iranian people,” he said. “It is a way for the Iranian regime to come out of its own crisis. People participate only to find a solution for the economic crisis the regime has got them into.”
Most Iranian Kurds reside in the mountainous areas bordering Turkey and Iraq, mainly in the provinces of Kurdistan and Kermanshah. West Azerbaijan, Hamadan, Ilam, Northern Khorasan, and Lorestan also have Kurdish communities. The majority practice Sunni Islam, although some are Shiites, Sufi, or Jewish.
Jundallah (Soldiers of God)—a Baluchi militant group—was established in 2003 to fight for Sunni Baluchi rights. Jundallah has reportedly organized suicide bombings and small scale attacks. In March 2006, Jundallah ambushed a government convoy, kidnapped eight soldiers, and executed a Revolutionary Guard. It also allegedly kidnapped an Iranian nuclear scientist in September 2010. Jundallah is part of a larger separatist conflict playing out in Baluchi inhabited areas of neighboring Pakistan.
The Iranian government has also cracked down on Baluchi journalists, and human rights activists have faced arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and unfair trials, according to the U.S. State Department. Three political prisoners were tortured and forced to make confessions on television before being executed in 2012.
Baluchistan is significant to the Iranian government since the region borders Pakistan and is rife with drug smuggling, although the government has struggled to control the area. The Baluchis live in Iran’s arid southeast, which is a poorly developed area with limited access to education, employment, health care, and housing, according to the United Nations. Around ten percent of Baluchis are nomadic or semi-nomadic. The rest live in towns or on farms.
The member of parliament from Abadan, Mohammad Saeed Ansari, has repeatedly complained about high unemployment in the province of Khuzestan, despite the region’s significant oil reserves and its agricultural, ship-building, manufacturing, and petrochemical industries. Only half of those employed by these companies are local Arabs, he said, and less than five percent of the workers in Abadan are actually from the province. Ansari claims that racism towards Arabs has also denied them opportunities to work in local government.
Arabs reside mainly along the border with Iraq in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. Most are Shiite Muslims. A minority are Sunni, and smaller numbers are Christian and Arabic-speaking Jews. Iranian Arabs fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq war.
Lors have been less vocal than other ethnic minorities about their plight. But in August 2013, a Lor member of parliament, Mohammad Bozorgvari, reportedly said that unless President Hassan Rouhani’s ministerial nominees paid special attention to his region, he would beat them up with sticks. A representative of Lorestan’s writers union, Ali Sarmian, called Bozorgvari’s remark “irresponsible.” More than a dozen Lors reportedly protested the comment outside parliament.
Iran may be the world’s only modern theocracy, but the Islamic Republic’s constitution actually mandates a political role for three religious minorities. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians all have seats in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to their populations:
The Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority, numbering up to 350,000. They are not recognized by the constitution, are not protected under the law, and are hindered from practicing their faith.
Baha’is—an independent world religion—are viewed as apostates by the Iranian government due to the Islamic belief that Mohammed was the final prophet. Bahai’s follow Bahá’u’lláh, who founded the faith in the 19th century. In July 2013, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a new fatwa against the Baha’is. He warned Iranians to “avoid any kind of association with this misguided and misleading sect,” according to the news website Tasnim.
Seats in parliament also do not guarantee equal rights for any of the religious minorities. In practice, they face many obstacles in employment, education, and property ownership, according to the U.S. State Department. They are also largely excluded from senior government or military positions.
For parliament, candidates from religious minorities must meet certain requirements: They have to be Iranian citizens, not have a “notorious reputation,” be in good health between the age of 30 and 75, and support the Islamic republic, the constitution, and the Supreme Leader. The following is a summary of Iran’s recognized religious minorities.
Armenians are the largest Christian group. Their current population has significantly declined—from 300,000 in 1979 to between 40,000 and 80,000 today. They hold two seats in the Majles but also have observer status in the powerful Guardian Council and Expediency Councils, the two oversight bodies.
The Assyrian population, which has one seat in parliament, reportedly numbers around 20,000. Most Assyrians live in Tehran, with smaller numbers around Orumiyeh in the north. Their current representative, Younatan Betkolia, has been in office since 2000. He also became head of the International Union of Assyrians in 2008, when he moved the headquarters from Chicago to Tehran.
Iran’s Jewish population now numbers about 25,000, down from around 80,000 in 1979. Yet it is the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. Their representative in parliament is Dr. Ciamak Moresadegh. Most Jews live in Tehran, which has active synagogues, a Jewish school and kosher butchers. Smaller numbers live in Esfahan, Shiraz, Hamadan and a few other towns.
Iranian Jews are allowed to practice their religion, but they have faced periodic prosecution and harassment. In April 2000, 13 Iranian Jews were tried for spying for Israel. Those tried included one rabbi, community members, and a teenager. Their sentences were eventually reduced. They were all released by April 2003. Jews have periodically been accused of supporting Zionism.
Jewish members of parliament have occasionally expressed grievances. In 2005, Motamed challenged President Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust. He also complained about the portrayal of Jews in the media. Ironically, Ahmadinejad donated money to Tehran’s Jewish hospital, a sign that the Jewish community has some relevance in Iranian politics. Dr. Moresadegh, the current Jewish member of parliament, heads the hospital and has stated that Iranian Jews were not threatened by Ahmadinejad’s policies.
Moresadegh has attempted to distance Iranian Jews from Israel. “We are Iranian Jews and are proud of our nationality. No amount of money can encourage us to give up Iran. Our nationality is not up for sale,” he said after 40 Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel in December 2007. “There are no specific problems for Jews in this country,” Morsadegh said in a May 2008 interview with Reuters. He has also spoken out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
About 20,000 Zoroastrians live in Iran, down from around 300,000 in the 1970s. The current Zoroastrian member of parliament is Esfandiyar Ekhtiyari, who is serving his second term. Most Zoroastrians live in Tehran, with other communities in Yazd and Kerman.
Zoroastrians are the oldest religious community in Iran. The faith was established sometime between 1800 and 1000 B.C. in Iran. It was the dominant faith during the Persian Empire and later became the state religion. It waned after the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century.
Some of the basic Zoroastrian tenants include concepts of heaven and hell, resurrection, a supreme and universal God, divine creation, the spiritual nature of the world and humans, belief in the afterlife and the basic goodness of humanity. The Iranian new year Nowruz—originally a Zoroastrian tradition—is a state holiday in the Islamic Republic celebrated by all Iranians.
Iran’s Zoroastrian population faces decline due to emigration, conversion to Islam, harassment and discrimination. The Iranian media has portrayed Zoroastrians as devil worshipers and polytheists. Some Zoroastrians do not identify their religious background, fearing persecution.
In November 2005, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, chairman of Guardian Council, referred to Iran’s religious minorities as, “sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.” Kourosh Niknam—the Zoroastrian member of parliament at the time—protested Jannati’s comments. Niknam faced a revolutionary court and was threatened with execution. He was released with a warning. Niknam was succeeded by Esfandiyar Ekhtiyari in the 2008 Majles elections.
In recent years, some Iranians have adopted Zoroastrian symbols and traditions to celebrate Iranian culture that pre-dates Islam. In January 2013, some 2,000 people – reportedly including Muslims -- attended a Zoroastrian winter festival called Sadeh. One Muslim who attended the festival explained that it should not be seen only as a religious festival. “Sadeh is an ancient celebration that symbolizes Iran's rich cultural heritage. There is no reason why Iranian Muslims shouldn't observe the event,” he reportedly said.