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Analysis: Tehran Confronts An Ethnically Diverse Population

  • Bill Samii --> A Kurdish woman and her child in Iran (file photo) (epa) Iranian state television reported that two explosions in western Iran on 8 May injured six people at the governorate and the local chamber of commerce in the city of Kermanshah. Many of the province's residents are ethnic Kurds, who have been targeted recently by the central government amid efforts to impose central authority on the country's volatile periphery. There has arguably been a familiar pattern to Tehran's attempt to counter disturbances in ethnically Arab, Kurdish, and Baluchi areas that involves repression and scapegoating, despite calls for economic and social guarantees to ease tensions.

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The southwestern Khuzestan Province has been the site of deadly bombings in the past year, in addition to demonstrations that have included antigovernment protests. Two men were executed over their alleged roles in bombings, in October, after their heavily edited confessions were televised along with those of their suspected cohorts.

Ahvaz Prosecutor-General Iraj Amirkhani announced on state radio on May 1 that 25 people have been arrested in connection with bombings that took place as recently as January. Several days later, on May 3, the official government newspaper reported the arrest of a "Wahhabi sheikh" for involvement in the unrest and bombings.

Arab Unrest

There are about 2 million ethnic Arabs in Iran, composing about 3 percent of the population. Many of them reside in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International recently expressed concern over the treatment of politically active ethnic Arabs, including suggesting that authorities are imprisoning family members in an effort to lure them out of hiding.

Authorities have also announced the establishment of a new base for the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Khuzestan Province. IRGC commander Major-General Yahya Rahim-Safavi said that the Abu al-Fadl base will help "maintain lasting security," according to a local television report on April 27.

Rahim-Safavi noted that "about 80 percent of Iranian oil resources" are situated in a region that includes Khuzestan and extends to the northern part of the Persian Gulf, "Etemad," reported on April 27.

Some of the discontent in Khuzestan can be attributed to a lack of public services. The supreme leader's representative in the area, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Musavi-Jazayeri, told provincial officials on May 3 that they must attend to public needs if they are to improve the situation. He encouraged the completion of unfinished development projects. Musavi-Jazayeri also called it "the year for creating a major change in the province and taking steps toward comprehensive progress."

The provincial governor-general, Amir Hayat-Moqaddam, told those same leaders that Khuzestan is among the country's top recipients of development funding.

Kurdish Clashes

Clashes have also extended to the community of ethnic Kurds, estimated at about 7 percent of the population and largely concentrated in western Iran.

Media reports suggest that violence between Iranian security forces and Kurdish groups has reignited along the Iran-Iraq border. Uthman Mahmud, the interior minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, said on May 1 that Iranian artillery shelled 10 villages in the border region, according to Al-Sharqiyah television. He claimed it was the second such attack in 10 days, adding that the shelling has resulted in casualties.

The attacks appear to be part of an effort to suppress the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, Iran, and the United States consider a terrorist organization. The PKK has threatened to retaliate for further attacks on its bases in Iraq. But the PKK's long-time rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has warned it against launching any attacks from Iraqi territory.

Iran's central government has appeared increasingly willing to confront Kurdish activists over the past year. The head of the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan, Mohammad Sadegh Kabudvand, told Radio Farda in April that two activists received jail sentences for membership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran. He claimed that other former members of the organization are awaiting trial.

Kurdish activists and parliamentarians from the Kurdish regions have long sought greater attention from the central government. They cite provincial underdevelopment, inadequate political representation and inattention to their cultural needs.

Baluchis In The Southeast

Officials have also witnessed many violent incidents in the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province. The province is home to many of the country's 1.4 million ethnic Baluchis.

A journalist speaks to a victim of cross-border violence in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan Province, on the border with Afghanistan, in March (AFP)

A Baluchi group known as Jundullah claimed responsibility for a March 16 attack on a motorcade in the province in which at least 20 people were killed. The same group released videotape in early April in which it claimed to have killed an officer in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. Weeks later, the group vowed to "smash the mouths of [any] Sunni religious scholars who say anything against them," according to "Iran" newspaper on April 25.

The central government routinely blames violence in Iran's southeast on criminal gangs and smugglers, and occasionally it attributes unrest to foreigners, mainly Israel and the United States.

But a former lawmaker from the province has pinned some of the blame on Tehran. Jundullah Baqer Kurd insisted that government officials must make a greater effort to help the local population in the southeast. Baqer Kurd used to represent Zahedan in the parliament (2000-04). He urged the central government to "create employment in the province, and allow native forces to be more involved in border control provided by the police and security forces," according to "Etemad-i Melli" on April 18. Baqer Kurd also called on the government to bring "local elders" into decision-making and allow for "greater participation by the region's elites and clerics in public, security, and social issues."

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