Days of widespread anti-government protests and violence in Iran have renewed debate over the status of minorities in the country, with some experts warning that Iranian authorities are blaming minority groups for the unrest in a bid to justify further clamping down on them.
The nationwide protests in Iran erupted late last week because of frustration over an abrupt increase in gas prices by the government.
Watchdog group Amnesty International reported Tuesday that at least 100 protesters had been killed by security forces and more than 1,000 people had been arrested.
The Iranian government has claimed victory over the protests, with some officials calling it an enemy plot led by the United States with the help of opposition groups belonging to minority groups, such as the Kurds in the northwest and Ahwazi Arabs in the southwest.
Kamran Matin, a Britain-based Iran researcher and scholar at Sussex University, told VOA that Iranian officials are publicly accusing elements among the Kurdish opposition with working as agents for the U.S. and Israel. The campaign, he said, is an effort to mobilize Iranian nationalists and those loyal to the regime.
“In the current conjuncture, it is likely that Iranian regime unleashes its most brutal suppression against the Kurdish people as a means to intimidate the rest of Iran into acquiescence,” Matin said, adding the government previously has continued to blame the minority in an effort to delegitimize popular movements.
On Friday, state-run media outlets reported thousands of pro-government demonstrators were on the streets of major Iranian cities, including Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Karaj, Kerman and Zahedan. The pro-government demonstrators, the state media said, chanted slogans against “the rioters and enemies who masterminded the unrest.”
Tehran’s interim Friday Prayers leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, told the demonstrators that “subversive elements” backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were to blame for the unrest.
According to London-based counter-insurgency analyst Raman Ghavami, by portraying the protesters as foreign agents, Iranian authorities are trying to create a narrative to deflect the nation’s attention away from more pressing issues related to bad economic management and the spread of poverty.
“According to Amnesty’s report, more than half of the casualties have been reported in Kurdish regions. This demonstrates the regime’s fear of the Kurds and their potential of leading the protests,” Ghavami told VOA.
He said the officials in Tehran are concerned that Kurdish opposition militants, who operate on the Iran-Iraq border, could be emboldened by the protests to increase their presence in the predominately Kurdish regions.
“Regardless of the current situation in Iran, Tehran knows the Kurds would not stop [striving for] their goals of achieving their political, social, cultural and financial rights. Therefore, Iran sees the Kurdish regions as a greater threat to its existence. In essence, as we have seen in the past 40 years, the treatment of the Kurds by the Tehran has only gone worse,” Ghavami added.
WATCH: A Look at Iranian Protests Nationwide
Millions of minorities
With a population of more than 80 million, Iran is predominately ethnic Persian, and the state’s religion is Shiite Islam. The country is home to millions of ethno-religious minorities, such as Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Azeris and Baluchis.
Babak Taghvaei, a Malta-based Iran analyst, charged that in addition to the Kurds, the Iranian officials also are placing blame on elements of Ahwazi Arabs in the resource-rich southwest province of Khuzestan. Iranian officials in the past have accused Saudi Arabia and Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State of attempting to establish a footprint in the region.
He said the government often tries to depict the region as a hotbed for terrorism in state media, where “Ahvazi youth appear on TV and are introduced as agents of a notorious armed extremist organization being trained, funded and ordered by enemies of Iran to foment unrest.”
Female activists targeted
According to Shahed Alavi, a Washington-based reporter and expert who closely follows developments in Iran, the government’s campaign to end protests this month also targeted female activists who have been leading female movements in the conservative state.
“It seems that the authorities are adding women to the new list of ‘enemies of state’ by naming them as subversive elements and mentioning the role of female leaders in recent uprising,” said Alavi, who reported that dozens of female activists have been arrested by authorities in recent days.
Iranian state media Thursday and Friday aired a report profiling female activists who were leading the protesters.
The reports follow another televised program earlier this week showing a Kurdish woman identified as Fatemeh Davand allegedly “confessing” to being hired by banned Kurdish opposition groups to lead protesters into violence.
“The propaganda reports on national TV seems to be preparing the ground for authorities to justify their future harsh actions against women-ensued activities,” Alavi added.