The official Iranian reaction to the 15-18 April unrest in the city of Ahvaz in southwestern Khuzestan Province is following a pattern seen previously in the government's reaction to July 1999 student riots and its reaction to October 2000 ethnic violence in Sistan va Baluchistan.
In these and other cases Tehran has resorted to mass arrests, overwhelming force, blaming foreigners, superficial official interest in local problems, and false displays of national unity. This pattern suggests a predictable outcome which could include show trials and televised confessions, followed by imprisonments.
The riots in Ahvaz and several nearby habitations apparently were triggered by a letter signed by former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi that called for forcibly relocating the local Arab population and replacing it with Persians. Abtahi described the letter as a forgery. Unconfirmed reports cited on 19 April by Radio Farda cited 20 dead and hundreds injured. The authorities arrested more than 360 people, news agencies reported on 18 and 19 April.
The first official step called for repression and scapegoating.
On 18 April, Amnesty International identified seven men who had been arrested and said at least 130 others were detained in the Ahvaz environs from 15-18 April. Amnesty International went on to cite "unconfirmed reports" that 29 people were killed and the authorities have cut off water, power, and telephones in parts of Ahvaz. Amnesty International also referred to extra judicial killings.
Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said at a gathering of district governors in Tehran on 18 April that unspecified enemies and domestic opponents are using many methods, in vain, to undermine the Iranian state, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 19 April. He accused "some people" of turning ethnic dissatisfaction into "political demands, as has happened in Khuzestan." Unnamed opponents are making false allegations about the government, and "presenting political problems as intractable." Certain "people try and get arrested in order to become famous. The Intelligence Ministry...is aware of [their] motives...and will not be trapped." "We have separatist and suspect moves under observation, and can confidently say, do not worry. The enemy has no power to provoke a crisis in collaboration with domestic opponents."
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said on 20 April that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security has identified the parties mainly responsible for the previous week's unrest, state television reported. He blamed counter-revolutionaries in other countries and irredentist websites. He said a "large number" of people were arrested. Anonymous sources told Mehr News Agency on 20 April that 10 people will be tried as the ringleaders, and 200 out of 340 detainees were released. Ahvaz prosecutor Iraj Amirkhani said on 21 April that most of the detainees are less than 20 years old, IRNA reported on the same day.
The government temporarily banned broadcasts by the Arabic-language satellite-television station Al-Jazeera, which is popular among local Arabs, accusing it of fanning the unrest, AP reported on 18 April.
Thousands of people were arrested in July 1999, and a 17 July 1999 Intelligence Ministry statement blamed "grouplets" and "counter-revolutionaries." After a bombing in Sistan va Baluchistan on 17 October 2000, local security officials blamed "subservient elements of arrogance" and added that the purpose of the bomb was to distract locals from events in Israel and undermine regional unity.
Then came the sudden display of interest in local concerns.
Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, who is an ethnic Arab, was dispatched to the Ahvaz area to look into the reasons behind the unrest. He met with local leaders, and he stressed that ethnic Arabs are an integral part of the country but acknowledged that Khuzestan Province suffers from "underdevelopment and war destruction problems," IRNA reported on 21 April.
This is what happened after the October 2000 explosions in Sistan va Baluchistan. President Khatami gave local representatives the cold shoulder in a 16 October meeting. The bombing occurred on 17 October, and within four days Khatami sent a delegation to investigate locals' complaints about underdevelopment and drought damage.
The next step is the regime's show of strength and enforced unity.
This occurred on Friday, 22 April, when the regime organized a massive march in Ahvaz. The march is to commemorate Solidarity Week, ISNA reported. Although "Unity Week" is commemorated annually around this time of the year, it is supposed to mark unity between different schools of Islam, and furthermore, the parade is a new feature. It is probably not a coincidence that the visiting Shamkhani said locals have decided to organize a "grand solidarity gathering," according to IRNA. On 22 March IRNA reported that "hundreds of thousands" participated in the solidarity march.
On Friday, 16 July 1999, there were massive pro-regime rallies in Tehran, Tabriz, and other cities.
It is only a matter of time before some of the detainees appear on television to confess that they are working on behalf of foreigners. Iranian state television broadcast the "confession" of student leader Manuchehr Mohammadi on 19 July 1999. He admitted being in touch with Iranian expatriates, and according to the announcer he admitted receiving financial aid from "spies and fugitive Zionist elements" in various American cities.
Mohammadi, as well as other students arrested in July 1999, is still in prison. Young people from Ahvaz may join them soon.