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Fears Of Ethnic Tensions Rise In Iran Amid Azeri Clashes, Kurd Offensive

  • Robert Tait

Riot police take up positions during a protest in the northwestern city of Orumieh on August 27.

Riot police take up positions during a protest in the northwestern city of Orumieh on August 27.

Iran has launched a fierce security clampdown in the country's Azeri and Kurdish regions amid fears of rising ethnic tensions on its northern borders.

Reports from inside Iran say security forces clashed with demonstrators in the northwestern cities of Orumieh (aka Urmia) and Tabriz on September 3, with at least one account alleging that troops used live ammunition. Officials say 60 people were arrested in the latest protest.

A live blog posted by the South Azerbaijan Student Movement reported that 13 people were taken to Orumieh's University Hospital suffering from bullet wounds. Four were said to be in critical condition

Videos posted on YouTube and purporting to have been shot in both cities showed the heavy presence of riot police and vast numbers of protesters chanting slogans. In one video, a member of the security forces is seen aiming what appears to be a gun at demonstrators. Other footage shows demonstrators running in panic against a backdrop of possible gunfire.

It's impossible to verify the authenticity of the videos, most of which appeared to have been shot on mobile phones, or to establish where they were taken.

However, the demonstrations followed displays of anger over a perceived lack of government action to save Lake Orumieh, Iran's largest lake, which has shrunk to less than half its previous surface area due to extensive dam-building and drought. Earlier rallies over the salt lake's plight reportedly occurred in Orumieh on August 27.

Campaigners say the lake could disappear in a few years, leaving behind 10 billion tons of salt and displacing up to 14 million people.

Locals fear Lake Orumieh (Urmia) will soon disappear completely at the rate it's drying up today.

Ethnic Azeri Tensions

But the government fears anger over the lake could spread to embrace wider ethnic discontents in provinces such as East and West Azerbaijan, home to many of Iran's Azeri-speakers, who make up more than a quarter of the country's population.

Mohammad-Javad Mohammadi-Zadeh, Iran's vice president for environmental affairs and head of its Environmental Protection Organization, gave voice to that concern when he accused some of trying to "politicize" the Lake Orumieh controversy.

"The issue of Lake Orumieh is an environmental challenge [but] some want to exploit the situation, politicize it, and mount a social campaign," he told Iranian reporters on September 4.

Iran's Islamic regime has long been sensitive to tensions in the country's Azeri regions, believing it could be used by the United States and Israel to stir up separatist sentiment. Tehran has been particularly suspicious of the close links forged by neighboring Azerbaijan -- which shares the same language as Iran's Azeris -- with the United States and Israel since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Attack On Kurdish Fighters

The latest clashes in Orumieh and Tabriz came the same day that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed it had killed 30 Kurdish guerrillas and wounded 40 more in a renewed offensive against the militant Party for a Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK).

Colonel Hamid Ahmadi, a commander of the IRGC, said the operation against PJAK -- regarded by Iran as a terrorist group -- had been launched after a "month of grace" during Ramadan. The IRGC says the operation is aimed at rooting out "counterrevolutionary" elements from Iran's border regions.

Kurds in Iraq protest against Iranian shelling of the border area in July.

On September 5, Iran rejected as "meaningless" an announcement posted by PJAK on its website that it was declaring a cease-fire. "We want them to leave our borders," Ahmadi was quoted as telling the Fars news agency. "Otherwise announcing a cease-fire by the terrorist PJAK group is meaningless."

PJAK is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a bitter conflict with Turkey for Kurdish autonomy since 1984, leading to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 people. Turkey recently launched a series of air raids against PKK positions in northern Iraq, in which it claimed to have killed more than 160 guerillas. Turkey and Iran are believed to have cooperated on fighting the PKK in recent years.

There are around 5 million Kurds in Iran, according to a 2006 census.

Kurds and Azeris are distinct ethnic groups whose discontents with the Tehran authorities are separate from each other. While the two groups are not thought to be in alliance, they are linked by shared geography. Both are largely concentrated in Iran's northwestern regions, in regions bordering Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iraq. Many Kurds live in West Azerbaijan Province -- where Lake Orumieh lies and part of what has been unofficially labeled Iranian Kurdistan.

At the same time, the Azerbaijan region -- particularly Tabriz -- has long been a source of protest for Iranian governments dating back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. It was one of the sites of the mass unrest that toppled the regime of the former shah and ushered in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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