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Iran: Kurdish Grievances Remain A Thorny Issue

  • Bill Samii --> Kurdish leaders say Tehran has not paid sufficient attention to the economic sitution of Kurds Iran's ministers of the interior, of intelligence and security, and of defense will come to the legislature on 17 August to describe steps they have taken to reestablish order and security in the country's predominantly Kurdish northwestern provinces, according to Fars News Agency on 13 August. Legislators are likely to be disappointed.

Tehran's response to the recent unrest is following a fairly typical pattern -- initial denials followed by accusations of foreign involvement. Yet the problems are sufficiently worrying that both the executive branch and the legislature have conducted inquiries.

Violence And Disturbances

The most recent problems in the northwest can be traced to the early July shooting in Mahabad, West Azerbaijan Province, of a Kurdish activist known as Shavaneh Qaderi. Police reportedly shot him on 11 July when he resisted arrest. This led to demonstrations, shop closures and strikes, damage to buildings, and dozens of arrests. At least one person, a police officer, lost his life.

Expatriate Kurdish sources claimed that after the initial incident in Mahabad, the unrest spread to other predominantly Kurdish towns, including Baneh, Bukan, Divandareh, Oshnavieh, Piranshahr, Sanandaj, Saqqez, and Sardasht. Websites posted photographs purporting to show Qaderi's mutilated body, and they made claims of dozens of civilian deaths at the hands of security forces.

Official sources confirmed the extent of the problems. Abbas Khorshidi, the deputy governor-general in West Azerbaijan Province, said four police officers were killed during 26 July demonstrations in Oshnavieh, "Mardom Salari" reported on 28 July. A civilian died as well, Khorshidi said, but the family refused to permit an autopsy, and no further information is available. Alireza Jamshidi, the deputy governor-general for security affairs in Kurdistan Province, described a 3 August demonstration in Saqqez in which security forces intervened, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 7 August. Two police officers and six civilians were killed, and 142 people were arrested.

Coinciding with these events, which reportedly continued into the second week of August, were violent and fatal clashes between Iranian security forces and members of the Kurdistan Independent Life Party (PJAK) -- which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- along Iran's border with Iraq and Turkey. Deputy Governor-General Khorshidi confirmed on 8 August that four police officers were killed in clashes near Urumiyeh the previous day, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported.

In mid-June, security forces in Mahabad clashed with Kurds who were celebrating the election of Mas'ud Barzani as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, and early June celebrations of the selection of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani as Iraq's president led to clashes in which up to 15 police were injured.

The Official Reaction

Tehran has not been very forthcoming on developments on the periphery that might shed an adverse light on its assertions of national unity. Nevertheless, the extent of the unrest and media inquiries has prompted officials to react.

Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, chief of the national police force, dismissed the unrest during a trip to the northwest in the second week of August. He said locals were not involved in what he referred to as isolated incidents. The interference of outside elements, the police chief said, exacerbated the situation. As for Qaderi, Ahmadi-Moghaddam described him as a criminal rather than a political activist, according to Iranian media reports on 11 and 12 August.

Fars News Agency reported on 13 August that Iranian security forces recently arrested two individuals connected with Al-Qaeda -- reportedly Arabs from an unspecified country bordering Iraq -- who infiltrated Iran from an area in Iraq controlled by the United Kingdom The two reportedly were present during the unrest in Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces.

Some Iranian sources blamed the United States for the clashes involving the PJAK. Parliamentarian Mahmud Nabirudaki said on 9 August that "one of the main reasons for the unrest" was a purported meeting between PJAK members and U.S. military personnel in Iraq's Salah Al-Din, IRNA reported. After this meeting, he continued, leaflets calling for shop closures and for protests against the killings of Kurds were distributed in Mahabad, Oshnavieh, and Sanandaj. Nabirudaki said the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee has asked the president to put the Kurdish issue on the agenda of the Supreme National Security Council.

A Demand For Answers

The majority of the Iranian population of approximately 68 million is ethnically Persian, and about 89 percent of the population practices Shi'te Islam. The constitution asserts that the state religion is Shi'ite Islam and the official language is Persian. Kurds comprise 7 percent of the total population, some 4.8 million people, and are mostly Sunni Muslims.

The constitution grants equal rights to all ethnic minorities and to practitioners of other schools of Islam. It says laws in parts of the country where these minorities predominate may reflect specific, non-Shi'ite schools of Islam. The constitution says minority languages may be used in the media and schools. Nevertheless, Kurds and other minorities frequently complain of inattention to their economic, social, and cultural needs, as well as of discrimination and inadequate representation in the government.

The legislature has been proactive on the Kurdish issue. Its National Security and Foreign Policy Committee met on 5 August with the governors-general and parliamentarians from West Azerbaijan and Kurdistan provinces, as well as high-ranking representatives of the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the police.

The committee's rapporteur, Kazem Jalali, told ISNA afterward that one of the factors contributing to the unrest is the comparatively high level of economic development in Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey. Jalali referred to poverty, unemployment, and smuggling. "Growing demands and sentiments and the comparison of social, ethnic, and religious status of the border area [with other regions] have prepared the ground for disunity and encouraged the residents to search for solutions outside [the country]," he said.
Parliamentarian Mahmud Nabirudaki said on 9 August that "one of the main reasons for the unrest" was a purported meeting between PJAK members and American military personnel in Iraq's Salah Al-Din.

The extent of the unrest in the northwest was such that a government inquiry took place, but its findings were not made public. Mahabad's parliamentary representative, Jafar Ainparast, regretted this lack of openness and warned that such problems will occur again, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 7 August. "How come the foreign media criticized this event fully and completely and we were not even able to give people the necessary information?" Ainparast asked.

The parliamentary representative of Saqqez and Baneh, Fakhredin Haidari, called on President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to look into the factors that contribute to unrest in the Kurdish areas, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 7 August. He called for fair and speedy hearings for arrested individuals, sympathy for the families of the deceased, and the improvement of "security conditions in the Kurdish regions of Iran."

Sanandaj's Hushang Hamidi said on 9 August that government officials have been informed of the shortcomings in the Kurdish areas, ISNA reported. "We have no problem raising the issue, but, although our demands are legal, we have problems coming up with solutions and removing the shortcomings," he added. "We have civil demands. We want citizenship rights. We want welfare and the observation of legal rights and equality in various aspects including management, and meritocracy in the Kurdish regions. These are the areas in which Article 48 of the constitution has not been observed." Hamidi went on to say that his request for a meeting with the president has gone unanswered, and he warned that a failure to address such issues could lead to further unrest.

"The real root and origin of these disturbances was the promises that the officials have given when they have come face to face with the demands of the Kurds, but up to now, these promises have remained unfulfilled," Sanandaj representative Amin Shabani said, according to "Mardom Salari" on 13 August. He said the superficial reason for the unrest was the distribution of doctored photographs of Qaderi's corpse, but he added that the police used excessive force. Shabani also criticized state radio and television for not providing accurate information and thereby contributing to the unrest.

Shabani added that young jobless people in the Kurdish provinces are angry, too. "Unemployment is in fact one of the factors which made it possible for certain elements to incite the young people of the province," he added. Another grievance, he said, is the absence of Sunni cabinet members.

Few Iranian minority group members advocate separatism, and they mostly endorse the country's territorial integrity. What they are calling for is greater attention to their economic needs and their political rights. Most of the country's officials, at least in their public comments, appear to recognize this, even if they are unwilling to act on it.

An extreme exception is Hojatoleslam Gholam Reza Hassani, the supreme leader's representative in West Azerbaijan. ILNA reported on 10 August that Hassani, known for his colorful turns of phrase, said: "I warn the relevant authorities to put the bandits in their place as soon as possible. They must put down the provocation of the counterrevolutionaries, for if they fail to do so, I shall wear my own death shroud to command the volunteering public in the war against bandits and counterrevolutionaries. I deem it necessary to pick up my weapon and tear open the chests of the counterrevolutionaries."