In a newly-published assessment, Iran’s military, intelligence and security agencies have stated that demographic changes in some provinces of Iran pose a threat to the security of the Islamic Republic.
In the Autumn 2020 issue of Quarterly Journal of Strategic Defense Studies, which is tied to the Supreme National Defense University, a study was published entitled Human Geopolitics of the Northeastern Region Affecting the Development of Defense Strategies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This study posited that the increase in Sunni populations in the northern and northwestern provinces was among the factors that could threaten national security in the future.
Where Does Iran’s Anti-Sunni Anxiety Come From?
The Sunni Muslim population in Iran is thought to number between seven and eight million, less than ten percent of Iran’s total population. Most of them are concentrated in the provinces of Kurdestan, Golestan, Khorasan Razavi, North Khorasan, South Khorasan and Sistan and Baluchestan.
Government officials insist that members of this unrecognized religious minority enjoy sufficient rights and freedoms in the Islamic Republic. But since 1979, an intolerance toward the historical differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims has characterized the regime’s treatment of Sunnis. Despite being afforded “full equality” by Iran’s constitution, Sunnis are not a recognized religious minority in the country. They face legal restrictions on their ability to hold office or operate schools, have been subject to demonization in the press, and experience a disproportionate amount of state-sponsored harassment and detention. Sunnis in Iran also suffer from high levels of poverty and discrimination.
For this reason, both Islamic Republic officials and senior Shiite clerics are acutely sensitive to the growth in either number or influence of Sunnis in Iran. On several occasions Iranian state-controlled media outlets have accused Sunni Muslims of being Wahhabists – that is, believers in the distinct strand of hardline Islamism endorsed in Saudi Arabia – to stir up enmity against them among the wider Iranian population.
In addition, several Shia clerics have publicly endorsed a conspiracy theory that these “Wahhabists” are engaged in a plot backed by the United States and Britain to increase the fertility rate among Sunnis in Iran, thereby reducing the Shia population. In 2016, a Shiite source of emulation in Qom, Nasser Makarem Shirazi, warned: “Around Mashhad, the Sunnis are buying land and houses from Shiites to increase their weight in the population. I told the officials that if they do not find a solution to these problems today, it may reach a point where no action can be taken."
What Did the Study Say?
The study, published in the Autumn edition of the Quarterly Journal of Strategic Defense Studies has served to amplify this narrative. It states that the northeastern provinces of Iran, where there is a sizeable Sunni population, are among the most sensitive geopolitical regions in the country.
The article goes on to typify sources of “insecurity” in the region, which it states are as follows: “weaknesses” in the central government of Afghanistan, the spread of foreign ideologies and the formation of Takfiri and Salafist groups including ISIS in Afghanistan, Israeli activities in Turkmenistan, widespread smuggling and border disputes.
The study also says that internal strife in Iran's northeastern provinces, an ongoing water crisis, the spread of social discontent, widespread unemployment, rising addiction rates, marginalization and deficiencies in political, economic and civil infrastructure all pose potential threats to security.
Some 60 different security, military, and intelligence officials in the Islamic Republic were interviewed in an attempt to assess the severity of each of these factors and solicit their views. Across all of their responses, the three factors that were deemed most serious in terms of their impact on forming a defensive strategy in the region were “widespread unemployment in Afghanistan", "the invasion of legal and illegal Afghan refugees in the northeastern region of Iran", and "change in the population makeup from Shiites to Sunnis in some cities on the northeastern border of Iran with Afghanistan.”
Officials in the Islamic Republic have always, at least in their public proclamations, termed the Iranian Sunni religious minority a serious threat to Shiites. Just two years ago, a police investigation was launched into Saudi Arabia’s “plans” to indoctrinate the local Sunni population and the increasing conversion of border guards in Razavi Khorasan province to “Wahhabism”.
This study has echoed the same concerns, stating: "Saudi Arabia's organized financial and propaganda support from the Sunnis provided the grounds for the spread of Salafi ideology among the province's residents."
Over the decades, Iran’s national security imperative has come at a huge cost to Sunni Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities. Countless ethnic and religious minorities are even now behind bars on “national security”-related charges.
These charges in turn are based on long-standing definitions of crime in Iran, according to which any activities that might strengthen belief in a minority religion or ideology – that is to say, any that could erode the support base for the Islamic Republic, which derives its legitimacy from Twelver Shiite Islam – can be considered a threat to national security. For as long as this conflation between national and regime security continues, Iranian Sunni Muslims will face continued harassment and stigmatization.