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Iran: Ethnic Politics Out Of Bounds

Iranian President Khatami (file photo) Iran's population of some 69 million people is ethnically and religiously diverse. But successive Iranian governments, whether theocratic or monarchic, have stressed the Persian nature of the state and tried to eliminate minority interests by emphasizing linguistic, religious, and cultural unity. It is noteworthy, therefore, that candidates campaigning before the 17 June presidential election are pandering to minority groups.

Conservative frontrunner Ali Larijani said during a 29 March gathering of Sunni Muslims in Aq Qala, Gulistan Province, that all of the country's ethnic groups are important and praised the country's Turkmen minority, Fars News Agency reported.

Mohsen Rezai, another conservative candidate, met with tribal leaders in Abadan on 24 March and said, "When I talk about justice I mean that there should be no difference between the provinces or tribes and we should not have first and second class citizens," Fars News Agency reported. "In order to realize this...we must treat all ethnic groups equally. In fact a change in our view towards ethnic groups is extremely important and the next government must courageously pursue this issue."
"We, [the Kurds,] will only take part in the elections and vote if we are guaranteed to have a share in the power."

Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi visited Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province, in early March. He noted the economic importance of the oil-producing province and said it has been protected by brave young people, "particularly Arab, Lur, and the tribes of Khuzestan," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 13 March. Susangerd parliamentarian Jasem Jadari told Karrubi there is propaganda suggesting "various ethnic groups living in Khuzestan have excessive and unreasonable expectations." But local people only want their constitutionally guaranteed rights, he said.

The majority of Iranians are Persians who practice Shi'a Islam, but the country also includes Shi'a-practicing Azeris and Arabs, as well as Baluchi, Kurdish, and Turkmen minorities that practice Sunni Islam. Christian Armenians and Assyrians also live in Iran, as do practitioners of the Baha'i, Jewish, and Zoroastrian faiths. The Iranian Constitution states that Shi'ism is the state religion but other schools of Islam will be respected fully, and in regions where the minorities predominate, local regulations will respect their faith. Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian practices will be respected, too, according to the constitution. All Iranians, regardless of their ethnic group or tribe, are supposed to enjoy equal rights. Baha'is, however, are not recognized and face intense repression.

The Iranian government stresses national unity, and Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi frequently claims that foreign elements are trying to stir up sectarian differences (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 December 2004). He most often makes this claim about the southeast, where many Baluchis live.

Furthermore, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati cautioned presidential candidates not to promote ethnic issues in his last two Friday prayer sermons in Tehran. On 23 February Jannati said Iran's survival depends on the unity of all ethnic and religious groups, state radio reported. He advised candidates not to discuss issues "in certain areas" because "ethnic sensitivities will be provoked and this will result in discord."

The next month Jannati warned that the United States is determined to exploit rifts, and in Lebanon and Iraq it has "fanned the flames" of ethnic and religious differences, state radio reported on 18 March. "The same plots are hatched against Iran," he said. "Some of the prospective candidates are raising such problems in order to win votes."

As secretary of the Guardians Council, Jannati plays a major role in vetting prospective candidates for elected office. His warning to the candidates -- "The likelihood of them being qualified for such a post is very low indeed" -- and his advice to the judiciary to deal with these individuals could have an impact.

But it is likely that Jannati's comments are meant for the reformists, not the conservatives.

Executive-branch spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, a Kurd who previously served as governor of Kurdistan Province, made some very controversial statements at a 3 March reformist conference on Kurdish issues in the western city of Kermanshah, Fars News Agency reported the next day. "We, [the Kurds] will only take part in the elections and vote if we are guaranteed to have a share in the power."

Conservatives criticized Ramezanzadeh, pointing out that Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian, and other prominent officials are Kurds. As a result of this outcry, President Mohammad Khatami reportedly barred Ramezanzadeh from participating in any more election meetings, Fars News Agency reported on 7 March.

Yet one conservative legislator, Alaedin Borujerdi, swam against the tide. He said the Kurds are supporters of the Islamic Republic, Fars News Agency reported on 4 March. But he also noted that "Kurdistan, like several other provinces, needs greater attention, the honorable government must pay greater heed to that province."

It is not immediately clear why the candidates are focusing on minorities right now. Khatami traveled the country to gather support and encourage voters during his 1997 campaign, and he included minority group members like Ramezanzadeh in his cabinet. The candidates' appeal to provincial groups is not without precedent, therefore. It is also possible that because candidates do not present very specific platforms during their campaigns, they must appeal to voters in other ways.