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Iran: World's leading supporter of separatism

By Nasser Bani Assad

Iran jealously guards its territorial integrity to the extent that members of non-Persian ethnic groups are imprisoned for merely expressing their ethnic rights under the constitution.

The Iranian regime and most Persian-led opposition parties like to peddle the myth that Iran is a country of ethnic harmony, that uniquely in this world Iran is devoid of ethnic prejudices. The reality is quite different and non-Persian ethnic groups have been economically and politically marginalised and subjected to forced Persianisation under both the Pahlavi and Islamic regimes. Expressions of dissent by ethnic groups are routinely derided as the dirty tricks of nefarious foreign powers intent on Balkanising Iran.

Nevertheless, Iran has played a significant role in advancing secessionist discourse in global debate as a means to undermine its perceived enemies and their allies. The regime supports an array of secessionist causes, more so than any other government. It has sought to create religious divisions among Arabs and further afield has aided separatist groups or given vocal support to secessionist movements.
  • Lebanon - The Iranian regime funds and arms the Lebanese Hezbollah, a Shi'ite fundamentalist group whose existence has prevented the country from seeking reconciliation under a unified secular state.
  • Palestine - Support for Hamas has destabilised the unity of the Palestinian territories and undermined Palestinians' negotiating strength, just so Iran can create a bridgehead into the Mediterranean through the creation of a feudal Gazan satrapy. Ultimately, this has delayed and perhaps destroyed the prospect of a sovereign and peaceful Palestinian Arab state.
  • Iraq - The Iranian regime has actively supported a quasi-federal system in post-Baathist Iraq, gerrymandering sectarian divisions in order to empower its Shia political allies and secure their hegemony over other groups. Tehran also has formal relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
  • Saudi Arabia - Iran has exploited the grievances of Shi'ites to weaken the Saudi state, which it regards as an existential enemy, by supporting Shia insurrection
  • Yemen - Iran is supporting the Shia separatist Houthi group in Yemen as part of its proxy war with Saudi Arabia.
  • Senegal - Iran supplies weapons to Casamance rebels fighting for independence in the ethnic Jola region that lies south of The Gambia, whose ruling dictatorship Tehran has successfully wooed in recent years.
  • Morocco - Iran formally recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as the legitimate government of the territory of Western Sahara in retaliation for Morocco giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah.
  • Canada - Iran has sought to utilise the debate over First Nations, notably separatists led by Terrance Nelson - a former chief of the Roseau River Ojibwe nation - who has supported the use of arms to secure a separate state with its own foreign policy and the removal of non-indigenous people. This is in retaliation for Canadian criticism of Iran's poor treatment of minority groups.
  • Georgia - While the Iranian regime has not formally recognised  the break-away states of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, it has welcomed the forging of relations with the governments of both states.
  • India - Ayatollah Khamenei has stated that he supports Kashmiri secession from India, although he remains quiet about the persecution of Shi'ites in Pakistan.
  • Indonesia - Iran has supplied arms to the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
  • Burma - Iran has given vocal support to ethnic Rohingya, who are seeking secession from Burma.
  • United Kingdom and Spain - Iran's propaganda outlets, notably Press TV, have reveled in the prospect of independence for Scotland and Catalonia.
Throughout the Middle East and in Europe, the Americas and Asia, Iran has actively exploited often genuine local concerns and national ambitions as part of its drive to extend its sphere of influence and control. Iran is turning Shia against Sunni and it is exploiting often legitimate grievances of ethnic minorities seeking representation and recognition. It often stands in the way of peaceful ethno-national conflict resolution.

In circumstances such as Scotland, Catalonia and the First Nations of Canada, it has regarded calls for independence as a weakening and fracturing of Western democratic powers that oppose it. However, it refuses to recognise that independence movements are seeking to advance their aims through the ballot box or via lobbying. Unlike in Iran, they can argue their positions without fear or violent intimidation.

In the case of the Middle East and Africa, Iran's position has been more malign, with an active campaign of destabilisation and secession aimed at turning Arab against Arab and non-Arabs against Arabs. Often this has involved supplying weapons in direct violation of international law and UN resolutions.

Yet, simple calls for respect for the rights of Ahwazi Arabs are met with accusations that even the discussion of ethnic rights is akin to military intervention. Talking about Ahwazi identity can lead to accusations of Saudi-backed Wahhabism, even though most Ahwazi Arabs remain nominally Shia and in reality indifferent to the religious schism.

Ahwazi human rights activists seeking peaceful means to express their criticism of Iran's institutional discrimination and policy of persecution either by activism in the NGO sector or attempting to contest elections have been imprisoned and hanged for "enmity with God" and "acting against national security". Often the regime is cheered on by Persian-led so-called opposition groups, whether Monarchist, Green Movement, Republican or Constitutionalist, leaving ethno-national groups only one option: secession.

Iran can no longer play the separatist card all over the world without feeling the backlash at home. Either ethno-national groups, including those who comprise the majority of Iran's population, are allowed their right to self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Charter, or they do not. If Iran violently crushes that right at home while repeatedly supporting armed insurgent movements seeking secession, it will soon feel the whirlwind of separatism. And those it has made enemies of through its military adventurism will be the first to give formal recognition to the aspirations of these ethno-national groups.

Countries where Iran has supported separatist movements,either with vocal support or with direct assistance to armed movements