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Political Analysis

The Challenges and Advances of Iranian Sunnis

While Sunnis account for roughly 85 percent of the Muslim population around the Islamic world, they constitute a minority in Iran where Shias make up the absolute majority of the country’s population. No official statistics on Iran’s religious demography are available but the Sunni population is often estimated at around 10 percent.[i] Iranian Sunnis make up the majority in two provinces of Kurdistan and Sistan & Baluchistan, and a significant minority in three provinces of West Azerbaijan, Golestan, and Hormozgan. How do these Sunnis live under a Shia-dominated government? What challenges do they face and how does the government address them?

There is significant variation and diversity within Iran's Sunni community.


Iran’s Sunni population is not a monolithic community. There is significant variation and diversity within the community in terms of ethno-linguistic background, religious interpretations, and political allegiances. Sunnis mostly come from Baluchi, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab ethnic groups, although they are to be found among Shia-majority groups such as Persian-speaking as well as Azeri populations. More importantly, there is a wide range of political and religious views within the Sunni community. Some of the Iranian Sunnis adhere to spiritual Sufi orders, mainly Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi[ii], that tend to deemphasize the Sharia and oppose literalist interpretations of Islam. Salafist ideas have also gained a foothold among Iranian Sunnis, especially in the last two decades.[iii] Like their counterparts in other countries, Salafists in Iran tend to advocate an ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam. Nevertheless, many Iranian Sunnis follow a moderate understanding of religion. Moderate Sunni Islamists formed the Iranian Call and Reform Organization in the late 1970s[iv], which is usually viewed as an Iranian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, it is important to note that not all Iranian citizens with a Sunni background are Islamist or religious. Secular parties and organizations with different ideological orientations (e.g. ethnic nationalist parties like Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan or various Marxist groups such as Self-Sacrificers of the People) have had a visible presence especially among Sunni Kurds in the contemporary history of Iran.

Despite the many socio-cultural differences, the majority of Iranian Sunnis face two major challenges: living in economically underdeveloped areas and underrepresentation in key political offices.

The Challenge of Development and Representation

The livelihoods of thousands of Sunnis rely on organized goods, fuel, and drugs smuggling networks.


Iranian Sunnis mostly live in economically underdeveloped areas of the country. Sistan & Baluchistan and Kurdistan, located on the country’s outer edges, have often been recorded as among the least developed provinces.
[v] Their economies are characterized by little infrastructure investment, low levels of development, and high poverty rates. The livelihoods of thousands of Sunnis rely on organized goods, fuel, and drugs smuggling networks operating in these border regions.

Some analysts[vi] argue that this is a deliberate and systematic politics of Iran’s Shia government in order to keep Iran’s Sunni citizens in a disadvantageous position. Yet, there is little evidence to suggest that the government systematically seeks to impoverish the Sunni population through a deliberate policy of economic neglect. County-level data in provinces with a mixed Shia-Sunni population does not demonstrate a meaningful difference between Shia- and Sunni-majority counties in human development indicators. For instance, a comparison of the literacy rate between Shia- and Sunni-majority counties in Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan, two provinces with mixed populations, shows no significant difference.[vii] Also, while it is true that Sunni-majority provinces suffer from the lack of development, it is also true that many Shia-majority provinces in peripheral areas struggle with similar problems. So the problem of development seems to be more related to geography rather than sectarian politics.

The lack of drinking water is a general problem in Sistan & Baluchistan province, southeast Iran.


The government has made some efforts to address the economic challenges in the last few years. It has sought to develop the Chabahar port, located in Sistan & Baluchistan, through Indian investment as a regional trading hub that can effectively connect India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The development of the port could potentially make a significant contribution to the economy of the Sunni-majority province, although the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal and the subsequent sanctions have effectively slowed the progress of the port project.[viii] Iran’s Revolutionary Guard also started an initiative called the Razzaq (Provider) Plan according to which families who live nearby the border receive certain amounts of fuel. They could legally cross the border and sell them in Pakistan where the fuel price is more expensive.[ix] Moreover, the government has also tried to develop border markets at Iranian borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan to boost the economy of Sistan & Baluchistan. Despite all the efforts, however, Sunni-majority areas still remain among the poorest in the country.

No Sunni has served as a government minister or governor since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979.


While underdevelopment is more of a geographical marginality problem, Sunni underrepresentation in the bureaucracy and broader political system is directly related to their religious identity. No Sunni has served as a government minister or governor since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Constitution recognizes Twelver Shia school as the official religion but it does not ban Sunnis from serving in ministerial positions. It, however, does effectively prevent Sunnis and other religious minorities from running for president as Article 115 specifies “convinced belief in… the official religion of the country” as one of the qualifications of the President. While there is no law banning Sunnis from serving as minister or governor, it is reported that ultra-conservative Shia clerics oppose the appointment of Sunnis to key political positions.[x]

The number of Sunni county and district governors, however, increased in the last decade under the Rouhani administration.


In spite of restrictions over Sunnis’ participation in political power, the government has taken significant steps in the last few years to maximize their presence in the administration of the Iranian state. For instance, the number of Sunni county and district governors (Farmandar and Bakhshadar respectively) increased in the last decade under the Rouhani administration. Thirty Sunni county governors were appointed to serve in provinces where Sunnis make up the majority or a significant minority during Rouhani’s first term in office.[xi] According to Ehsan Houshmand, an expert on Iran’s ethno-religious groups, almost all mid-level officials in Sunni areas come from the Sunni community. Also, a significant number of high-level provincial officials in Sunni-majority areas are appointed from the Sunni population.[xii] In 2013, Emad Hosseini, a Sunni technocrat, was appointed as the Deputy Oil Minister. Under Rouhani, Iran also appointed two Sunni ambassadors – for the first time since the 1979 revolution – to head the Iranian diplomatic missions in Vietnam and Brunei. These achievements are largely due to the electoral coalition between Iran’s reformist movement and influential Sunni leaders. Sunnis have increasingly acted as a solid and unified pro-reformist voting bloc in the last twenty years in exchange for more rights. Vigorous Sunni support for Rouhani’s electoral campaigns in 2013 and 2017 was key to his victory in both presidential elections.

A significant development on Iranian Sunnis’ rights took place in 2017 when Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, publicly responded to a critical letter by Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, Iran’s prominent Sunni cleric, on discrimination against Iranian Sunnis. In his public response, the Supreme Leader specified[xiii] that “all elements of the Islamic Republic are duty bound, in accordance with the religious teachings and the Constitution, to refrain from allowing any discrimination and inequality among the Iranians from any ethnicity, race or faith.” Later, in 2021, the Supreme Leader appointed Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, who is believed to be a Sunni Kurd, as the new chief of the Iranian Navy. He is the first Sunni military member to reach the position in the Iranian armed forces. The appointment received positive feedback from Iran’s Sunni parliamentary bloc. While appreciating the Leader’s decision, they expressed their hope that it would be a green light for using Sunnis in high-ranking positions.[xiv]

Molavi AbdolHamid Ismaeelzahi (left) a Sunni theologian and a spiritual leader of the Sunni community in Iran (IRNA).

In general, Iranian Sunnis have witnessed relative improvement in terms of participation in political power. Despite the efforts to alleviate discriminatory practices, the grievances are still present among Sunni activists and political figures. The Sunni parliamentary bloc tried to impeach Rouhani’s interior minister in 2018 because of his poor performance in improving the participation of Sunnis in political and administrative affairs.[xv] Also, in April 2021, a group of Sunni activists and citizens sued President Rouhani in the Supreme Court for failing to deliver on his election promises to protect the rights of religious minorities, although the court rejected the case.[xvi] Moreover, disappointed with the reformists’ failure, influential Sunni leaders refused to support reformist candidates in the 1400 presidential election. Instead, they decided to try their luck with conservatives this time. They supported Ebrahem Raisi, one of the conservative candidates, who ultimately won the election.

Exclusion Breeds Radicalism

Both militant Islamist and secular ethno-nationalist organizations have managed to recruit a large number of Iranian Sunnis.


Limited economic opportunities and exclusion from political power raise concerns about the rights of Sunnis as a religious minority. However, equally important for Iran, discriminatory policies threaten national cohesion and security as well. The rise of militant groups in Sunni areas has been one of Iran’s key national security challenges since the early 2000s. Both militant Islamist and secular ethno-nationalist organizations have managed to recruit a large number of Iranian Sunnis. Several militant Sunni organizations have conducted numerous attacks against military and civilian targets in Sistan & Baluchistan since 2003 in the name of fighting for the rights of Sunnis. The most prominent militant organization was Jundallah, established in 2003, that engaged in a variety of violent activities including suicide bombing and bomb blasts resulting in mass civilian causalities. One of their most notorious attacks took place on March 16, 2006, when Jundullah members established a roadblock in Tasuki (located in the north of the province where Shias make up the majority), stopped passing cars, and killed 22 people. The group also carried out two deadly suicide bombings – one in a Shia mosque and the other at a meeting of Sunni tribal leaders with Iranian military personnel – in 2009 that resulted in the death of 66 people and injured more than 270 citizens. While Iranian intelligence managed to arrest Jundallah’s leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, in 2010, other Sunni extremist militant groups, such as Jaish ul-Adl and Ansar Al-Furqan, have continued their violent campaign in southeast Iran.

Violent activities have also been on the rise among Iran’s Sunni Kurds since the early 2000s. The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), the Iranian branch of the PKK (a militant organization active in Turkish Kurdistan), has engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Iranian government since 2004. Unlike violent groups in southeast Iran whose ideology is dominated by religious extremism, PJAK is a secular ethno-nationalist organization group that claims to fight for Kurdish autonomy. While PJAK has been successful in recruiting from Sunni Kurds, it has largely failed to trigger violent nationalist mobilization among Shia Kurdish citizens. Recent research demonstrates that the majority of Iranian Kurds who joined nationalist Kurdish rebel groups such as PJAK, PKK, and PYD (the Syrian branch of PKK) come from Sunni Kurdish counties in Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces.[xvii] The coincidence of ethnic and religious differences among Sunni Kurds creates a reinforcing cleavage and increases the perception of marginalization. In other words, while the exclusionary policies are implemented on the basis of religion, the response is not necessarily religious. The double sense of marginalization increases the appeal of ethnic nationalism among Sunni Kurds.

While the PKK emerged as a dominant political force among Sunni Kurds in the early 2000s, Iran has also witnessed a growing number of Jihadi-Salafi groups and sympathizers among its Sunni Kurdish population. In 2009, a newly emerged Salafi group, called Tawhid and Jihad (or the Abu-Bakr group) engaged in a series of violent activities including killing police officers and assassinating two key Sunni Kurdish clerics close to the government.[xviii] A number of Iranian Sunnis have also joined and fought for the Islamic State (IS).[xix] At least four out of five assailants in IS twin attacks on the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum in 2017 were Sunnis from the Kurdish town of Paveh who had joined the IS.[xx]

Conclusion

Shi’ism has been a defining feature of the Iranian administration since the rise of the Safavids to power who established Twelver Shia Islam as the official religion of the Iranian state in the sixteenth century. Shi’ism has become even more central to the Iranian state after the 1979 revolution and subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic where the Shia clergy plays a central role in the policy-making processes. Despite institutional barriers and ultra-conservative Shia clerics resistance to a more inclusive and pluralistic political system, the government has taken tangible, albeit slow, steps to improve Sunni representation. While grievances are still very much around, recent improvements are promising for future developments. It is yet to be seen whether the government has the political will to continue the inclusive approach and whether the pace of the reforms will accelerate.

[i] . Peyman Asadzade, Sunnis in Iran: An Alternate View, Atlantic Council. April 24, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/sunnis-in-iran-an-alternate-view/
[ii] . Ehsan Houshman, Ahl-e Sonnat-e Irān [Iranian Sunnis], September 3, 2017:
https://fa.shafaqna.com/news/442090/
[iii] . Scheherezade Faramarzi, Iran’s Salafi Jihadis, Atlantic Council.  May 17, 2018,
https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-s-salafi-jihadis/
[iv] . Omid Qaderzade and Behruz Moahammadi. Koneshgariye Siyasiye Eslām-garāyān dar Kordestan: Motāleʿe-ye Keyfiye Jamāʿate Daʿvat va Eslāh [The Political Activism of Islamists in Kurdistan: A Qualitative Study of the Call and Reform Organization]. Iranian Journal of Sociology. 18:3, 2017. Available at:
http://ensani.ir/file/download/article/1559366793-9792-96-3-6.pdf
[v]. For instance, see the Human Development Index of Iranian provinces here:
https://globaldatalab.org/shdi/shdi/IRN/?levels=1%2B4&interpolation=1&extrapolation=0&nearest_real=0&years=2019
[vi] .  For instance, see
https://www.bbc.com/persian/blog-viewpoints-46775683
[vii]. Peyman Asadzade, Sunnis in Iran: An Alternate View, Atlantic Council. April 24, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/sunnis-in-iran-an-alternate-view/
[viii] .  The Chabahar project was exempted from the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. However, Western companies have been reluctant to sell port equipment for the project. Moreover, India has not been able to find private firms to operate and maintain the port inside Iran.
[ix] .  For more information, see
https://tinyurl.com/mr2kufyd
[x] . https://www.radiofarda.com/a/iranian-sunni-governers-forbidden/28786496.html
[xi] . https://tinyurl.com/2s49bzya
[xii] . Interview with Ehsan Houshmand, 22 January, 2022.
[xiii] . More information on the Leader’s response:
https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2017/09/06/1512301/leader-reiterates-prohibition-of-ethnic-racial-discrimination-in-iran
[xiv] . https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2021/08/20/664818/Sunni-bloc-thanks-Leader-Sunni-Kurd-Navy-chief
[xv] . https://tinyurl.com/yc7jfz86
[xvi] . https://tinyurl.com/m9jba785
[xvii] . Güneş Murat Tezcür and Peyman Asadzade. Ethnic Nationalism versus Religious Loyalty: The Case of Kurds in Iran, Nations and Nationalism, 25:2, 2019.
[xviii] . Scheherezade Faramarzi, Iran’s Salafi Jihadis, Atlantic Council.  May 17, 2018,
https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-s-salafi-jihadis/
[xix] . Fazel Hawramy, Journey to jihad: Iran’s Sunni Kurds fighting a holy war in Idlib, Rudaw. June 23, 2020,
https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/23062020
[xx] . Fazel Hawramy, Iran wakes up to Salafi recruitment in Kurdish regions. Al-Monitor. June 9, 2017,
https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2017/06/iran-tehran-isis-attacks-kurdistan-salafist-recruitment.html