Friday, June 02, 2006

Ethnic Upheaval Boosts Calls to Oust Iranian Regime

Patrick Goodenough,
Ethnic unrest continues in parts of Iran, prompting some exiled members of Iranian minorities to step up calls for a concerted effort to topple the clerical regime. READ MORE

Largely eclipsed by the international attention on Tehran's nuclear program, the latest spate of protests -- and the violent state response -- was sparked by the publication last month of a newspaper cartoon deemed insulting by members of Iran's large Turkic Azeri minority.

The Persian (Farsi)-language Iran Daily, produced by the official Irna news agency, printed a sketch in a children's supplement depicting a boy speaking in Persian to an uncomprehending cockroach, which asks "What?" in the Azeri tongue.

The accompanying text discussed ways of dealing with cockroaches -- first attempt civilized discourse, but if the bugs don't understand, then cut off their "food source" of human excrement.

Azeris, who are prohibited from using their language in Iranian schools and view their ancient culture as being under threat, reportedly were incensed. (Azeris comprise between one-quarter and one-third of Iran's 68 million people, 51 percent of whom are Persian.)

Protests erupted in Azeri regions, prompting a harsh security force response. According to independent Iranian media, exiled groups and news outlets in neighboring Azerbaijan, many protestors have been injured and detained, and unconfirmed reports say up to 20 were killed.

The independent online news service Rooz said the focus on protests then shifted from the newspaper to official symbols, with demonstrators attacking government buildings and demanding the resignation of local officials and police officers.

In a bid to defuse the crisis, authorities apologized, suspended the newspaper and arrested the cartoonist and editor.

"Based on their response, Iranian officials fear domestic unrest could destabilize the ruling regime in Tehran," said Azeri political analyst Taleh Ziyadov, writing in the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor on Wednesday.

"Leaders were quick to play up ethnic harmony inside Iran and argue that only an outside force could disrupt that unity."

Senior officials have accused foreign elements of instigating the protests and linking them to Western pressure over Iran's nuclear activities.

"Those who have failed to block Iranians from achieving progress through pressure, conspiracies, and misuse of international organizations have now launched a strategy to foment discord and disillusion among Iranians in order to prevent them from realizing their goals," Irna quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying last week.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who is himself an Azeri, said in a televised speech Iran's "desperate" enemies were resorting to provoking ethnic unrest.

But observers say Azeris have long-held and legitimate grievances.

"When, despite their pride in their language, the Turkish-speaking Iranians are denied the right to officially learn their language and read their books ... it is only natural for a cartoon to be the catalyst and spark for deeply suppressed feelings and pain in the chest of every Azeri," wrote prominent reformist Ali Afshari in a Rooz column.

Azeris have played an important role in major events in Iran's history, including the 1979 revolution, but their influence has been curtailed under the Islamic Republic.

There are about three times more Azeris in Iran than in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan itself, and since the Soviet Union's collapse, Tehran has worried that the presence of an independent Azerbaijan on Iran's north-west border could inflame nationalism and secessionism among Iran's Azeris.

"Tehran believes that increased ethnic awareness among ethnic groups in Iran could weaken the religious and national (Iranian) identities -- two pillars of Iran's current establishment," said Ziyadov.

"It could also lead to domestic disorder and threaten Iran's territorial integrity," he said.

"But what scares Tehran the most is the fact that some U.S. observers view the Azeri community in Iran as a domestic force that could potentially bring about regime change in Iran."

Multiple challenges

In another internal headache for Ahmadinejad, student protests flared up again at Tehran University late last month, and Rooz reported Thursday that "a large number" of student activists have been detained.

Tehran also faces challenges from other ethnic minorities.

Anti-regime protests have been held this year by ethnic Kurds, who comprise nine percent of the population.

In Khuzestan, an oil-rich region bordering Iraq, bomb blasts and sabotage occurred in mid-2005 and again last October. Khuzestan is home to Iran's ethnic Arab minority (three percent of the total population.) Tehran blamed the West, but the region has experienced unrest linked to Arab fears the government would flood Khuzestan with non-Arab Iranians.

Yet another minority claiming discrimination, the Sunni Turkmen (two percent), is also restive.

The Azeri Press Agency this week published a statement from a Iranian Turkmen nationalist movement expressing support for the Azeris, and accusing "Farsi chauvinists" of trying to carry out a policy of assimilation against ethnic minorities.

The Turkmensahra Liberation Organization said current developments around Iran showed that ethnic minorities were ready to defend their identity and heritage.

"The accumulation of such reactions will soon destroy the dominant Farsi leadership."

In Washington this week, organizations representing Iranian minorities held a conference to discuss the "road to democracy" in Iran.

One of the participants, Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (IKDP) secretary-general Mustafa Hejri, called for the international community to "speak with one voice" on Iran.

"So far, the regime has gained the most from the differences in approach between Europe and America in dealing with Iran," the Turkish Daily News quoted him as saying.

"They must redirect their support to the democratic opposition forces both inside and outside Iran."

Hejri said the peaceful removal of the terrorist-sponsoring regime in Tehran would help stabilize the region, particularly Iraq.

Another group taking part, the Kurdish American Committee for Democracy in Iran, said in a statement that Iranian Persians as well as ethnic minorities had been deprived of their freedom.

"Ethnic opposition groups and sectarian political parties must unite to bring an end to this reign of terror in Iran," it said. "This responsibility is even greater now with the looming danger that this regime might develop nuclear weapons in the near future."