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

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.
By Robert Tait
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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by: Anonymous from: Iran
September 05, 2011 15:20
Of course, the USA hope to stir ethnic tensions in iran. But that will fail, the same way that Jundullah, PJAK and salafi terrorists failed before... :)

by: Araz from: Tabriz
September 05, 2011 15:35
Thank you very much for covering the events in South Azerbaijan in Iran. Unfortunately a little can be find in the foreign media about such an important event. It is the beginning of the Azerbaijani Spring in Iran.
In Response

by: Yashar from: London
September 05, 2011 20:15
Araz, where did "South Azerbaijan" come from ? Since when Azerbaijan (Irania Azerbaijan) became SOUTH AZERBAIJAN ? Do not blame Iranians when they call people like you separatists. Covering problems/issues in Azerbaijan is good but connecting everything to ethnic issues is scandelous as this article is trying to do.
In Response

by: Koorosh from: world
September 05, 2011 21:37
With what is going on in Iran who wouldn't want to separate. The so called Islamic B.S. destroyed Iran but you are too blind to see it.
In Response

by: Emir from: Qoshachay, Azerbaijan
September 06, 2011 01:53

We have right to call our land whatever we like and someone from London cannot order us to do what or not to do. We want our basic human rights. We want our language to be taught in schools and universities. We want government act to save Lake Urmia. You won't be able to boycott Azerbaijanis voice in Iran. It is too late to assimilate Azerbaijani Turks in Iran. South Azerbaijani Student Movement is demanding these basic human rights. If you are angry about it I am so sorry for you.
In Response

by: Yashar from: London
September 06, 2011 17:42
Emir from Qoshachay or Prague ! you have got the wrong end of the stick ! I am not angry that you are demanding your rights. As an Iranian, I am asking you why are you calling Azerbaijan, South Azerbaijan ? I have nothing to say to you if you do not consider yourself and Iranian/ Iranian Azeri. Calling Azerbaijan South Azerbaijan gives the wrong signal, unless you are a separatist and cannot spell it out at the momemt.
And you Koroosh, smart ass ! If the Islamic regime has ruined Iran, then as Iranians we should not give up and amke it even worse.

by: Bill from: Florida
September 05, 2011 15:57
After four hair-raising paragraphs, the author notes, "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."

The Radios can do better than this. Why describe events that may not have taken place at all? What happened to the editors on this piece?
In Response

by: Jeremy from: London
September 05, 2011 20:38
This is a new method of reporting. Say everything you want to report and then at question tthe authenticity ! A new course in journalism would improve his ability to right with veracity.
In Response

by: QLineOrientalist from: Brooklyn, NY
September 06, 2011 00:52
Bill and Jeremy: How easy it is to take potshots at resistance to a brutal police state from Florida and London.
There are undeniable reports of demonstrations over the Lake Urmia issue in Urmia and now in Tabriz. Indeed, the issue has even reached the Azerbaijani representatives to the ordinarily tame Majlis. And now we are getting videos which conform to this story. But (news flash!) your friends in the Islamic Republic do not allow independent journalists to report on these issues. So we must resort to second best, thirty-second cell phone snippets. RFERL is being responsible in saying that these snippets cannot be confirmed. There is a history which has been exposed of recycling videos of old riots. But these videos do not appear to have been previously broadcast, and so we can say with sufficient certainty that they are likely true. RFERL is making it clear that this material cannot be completely confirmed.
I guess the alternative is to just sit on these reports. I guess that would make you happy.
In Response

by: Jeremy from: London
September 06, 2011 14:18
QLine from Brooklyn, do not try to hoplessly defend RFE and it crap method of reporting. Please keep your non-existent journalism experience to yourself.

by: An Iranian
September 05, 2011 19:10
The South Azerbaijan student group is a separatist group that cannot be trusted. Please get your sources right. And why on earth do you use videos that cannot be verified?
In Response

by: Touraj from: Prague
September 05, 2011 20:51
If you are an Iranian, then why do you call Azerbaijan/Iran Azerbaijan SOUTH AZERBAIJAN ? Where is North Azerbaijan? Unless you mean Arran which is erroneously called the Republic of Azerbaijan. It would do you good to read a couple of history books in order to use correct names . Fight the dictotarial regime of Tehran, fight for your rights, fight for freedom and liberty for Iran, but please do not link everything that goes on in Azerbaijan Provinces to ethnic issues as though Azeris are opporessed by Farsi-speaking Iranians ! If you need to tell this kind of stories, then tell Americans beacuse they love it ! the reason: they know s... about Iran and in fact the entire Middle East !

by: Kurdo from: Kurdistan
September 05, 2011 21:27
I think Iran is ripe for a spring. America and Isreal won't have to get involved in toppling Iran. All they have to do is arm ther Iranian oppositions.

by: Iranism from: Tabriz
September 05, 2011 22:10
Common Iran, lets go to war against the zionist forces in Baku, we have waited to long.
Free the talysh and lezgi people, and the opressed azeri shias of zionist aliov regime.

by: Emir Qoshachay from: Qoshachay, Azerbaijan
September 06, 2011 01:40
Unfortunately, in the country so called Iran, 60% of non Persians are living which have discriminated in both the Pahlavi and Islamic regimes. 40% of the population are Azerbaijani Turks which have not had even basic human rights including school in their language. The west Azerbaijan (where Urmia is the province capital) is the last on unemployment rate in Iran. It is one of the poor parts of Iran. The government is trying to dry up the saltiest lake in the Middle east and 3rd saltiest in the world.

Iranian government tries to dry it and causes the relocation of Azerbaijanis and accelerating the assimilation of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran.
For more info on the conditions of the Lake Urmia and the protests please refer to the Help Save Lake Urmia page and website below. Those opposition groups outside of Iran are unanimous with Iranian regime on boycotting the ethnic news in Iran as seen in the comments for this article. They have always denied the existence of 30 million Azerbaijanis Turks and other ethnics and their human rights. This has caused the Iranian non-Persians to withstand against the assimilation policy and fight for human right and now environmental rights.
And one more point, in a democratic society one group has the right to be separated from a country or not. It is Azerbaijanis in Iran should vote for the alternative local government not Pan-Iranist.

by: Emir from: Qoshachay, Azerbaijan
September 06, 2011 01:56
More info and vidoe on the Azerbaijanis riot in Iran:

http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/saveurmia/

http://saveurmia.com/main/

by: Ayiq Eller from: Los Angeles
September 06, 2011 07:50
I thank Radio liberty for reoprting the uprising of Azeri people. I would like to add:
-This is not just an environmental protest but continuation of the Azeri national movement to end Persian racism,colonialism and stablishing South Azerbajan state.
-Azeris make up 25% to 43% of Iran ’s population (according to CIA and UN estimates). They are concentrated in their historic region of South Azerbaijan (northwestern Iran ). Politically they resisted Pahlavis since 1920 and Ayatollahs since 1980. They formed a strong Azeri movement and rallied for democracy and their ethnic rights. For decades, ethnic and cultural discrimination is the official policy of the Shah and mullah regime in Iran , where Azeris are treated as second class citizens by virtue of limitations and even complete lack and absence of education in native language; and constant harassment and discrimination from central authorities designed to culturally and linguistically assimilate the ethnic Azeris.

-Today, Azeri people are Iran ’s largest ethnic minority and their resistance movement is the most powerful opposition group to the theocratic, authoritarian and terrorist regime of Persian mullahs. To achieve any changes in Iran , ethnic Azeris’ role is most crucial, and cannot be ignored, as the Azeri movement has the best shot to tackle the Iranian regime from within. This can happen with the help of the freedom loving people of the West and world.
In Response

by: Pirouz from: Tehran
September 06, 2011 15:06
Ayiq, "Azeris are treated as second class citizens" - that is nonsense. Half of Tehranis are Azeris and according to your statistics some 45 per cent of Iran's populations are Azeris and yet they are oppressed ! Struggling to get your rights according to Article 15 of the Constitution is one thing, but falsyfying the facts is another. Struggling to topple the regime is one thing but flying false colors is another. Khamenei and hundreds of other prominent backward mullahs are Azeris !

by: QLineOrientalist from: Brookyn, NY, USA
September 06, 2011 13:15
It would be a huge shame if the campaign to save Lake Urmia was hijacked by separatists. It is true that the Persian-based opposition movement has neglected ethnic dissatisfaction. But this is turning around, and the opposition groups are all championing the campaign to save Lake Urmia.
It is no secret that the US and Israel have been trying to manipulate the ethnic movements in Iran, particularly the Azerbaijani movement. This can only cause tension between the legitimate movement for the promotion and development of the Turkish language in Iran and non-Turkist Iranians. To the separatists, I would add, Whom to you want to unite with? The Aliev regime? It is corrupt and rotten to the core. Its prisons are teaming with torture victims.
Finally, the Azerbaijani people are very patriotic and nationalistic Iranians in their vast majority. It was the Ashura Brigade which fought the hardest in the war imposed on Iran by Saddam. Their biggest complaints are economic; their province is mired in grinding poverty which is forcing the people to flee it for the Persian heartland.
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