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Iran: Policies On Nationalities, Ethnic Minorities Called 'Unjust'

Persians make up less than half of Iran's population. Even so, the country has not taken steps to soften its restrictive policies on other nationalities and ethnic minorities. According to one Caspian Studies scholar, it is a situation that could put the future of Iran as a single state at risk.

London, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The current Iranian regime's policies on nationalities and ethnic minorities are unjust and cannot be sustained for much longer, says Brenda Shaffer of the Caspian Studies program at Harvard University. Shaffer was speaking on 21 March at the London School of Economics. "If, let us say, the mainstream Iranian specialists are correct, and actually there is this Iranian identity that supersedes all the ethnic minorities in Iran, then this is a fantastic case, because very few states have succeeded in creating a sort of real state identity that supersedes all the different ethnic minorities that are indigenous to the place," Shaffer said.

But Shaffer said that if this is not the case, if these ethnic minorities "still retain their ethnic identities, regional identities, then it is also a fascinating case, because here we have a very big important country which is multiethnic, suppressing most of those ethnic groups. And this, of course, will have impact on the regime's stability, its foreign policy."

Shaffer is the author of "Borders and Brethren," a study of ethnic identity among Azerbaijanis in both Iran and the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. There are some 16 million Azerbaijanis living in Iran, but, despite their numbers, they, like other minorities, have not been officially recognized.

Shaffer said Iran's Azerbaijanis maintain ties with their extended families in Azerbaijan and have a strong sense of national identity. But preserving their culture and traditions is an uphill battle in Iran, where no Azerbaijani-language primary schools have been permitted despite the fact that minorities have constitutionally guaranteed rights to education.

It is a situation, Shaffer said, that could ultimately have an impact on Iran's territorial integrity. She called it "a contradiction in Iranian policy. They are so-called champions of the rights of so many Muslims outside Iran, yet they suppress the rights of all their ethnic minorities. You know, [50 percent of the population] does not have rights to schools in their own language, to full cultural rights. And [the Iranian regime] talks about the independence of other peoples, yet they suppress their own Muslims [and] different ethnic groups.

Shaffer continued, saying she was "trying to understand the contradictions of Iranian foreign policy." She said here is a "so-called Islamic Republic, yet it does not support Chechens in their struggle, defers to Russia, supports Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Only when I looked at the ethnic situation, I understood that basically they are trying to make sure that Azerbaijan was suppressed and not a source of attraction to their own Azerbaijanis."

Shaffer's lecture prompted a heated discussion on how best to promote a policy change in Iran to better reflect the country's ethnic diversity. As the evening drew to a close, Sharokh Mazhari of the World Azerbaijani Congress welcomed Shaffer's remarks and research, saying: "Nobody is talking about us.... We are talking, but nobody wants to hear, because we are not loud enough. But Brenda has heard us and that is quite remarkable."