Friday, September 22, 2006

At Home, Tehran Deals With a Restive Arab Minority

Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
Help my young child — please help me,” cried Yabrra Banitamim, 65, in a conference room in the north of this city crowded with a dozen relatives of two men found guilty of participating in a string of deadly bombings in Iran.

The men, Malek Banitamim, 30, and Ghasem Sallamat, 42, are from Khuzestan Province, in the country’s southwest. They are Arabs in a country that is predominantly Persian and that is accused by segments of its Arab population of treating them like second-class citizens, thereby creating a separatist backlash.

Iran wants to be a leader in the Islamic world, spreading its reach and influence among Arabs and Indonesians, Sunnis and Shiites. And with its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its defiance of the West, it has made some progress.

But at home, Iran has often had to labor to unify its own people under one national identity, restricting the expression of ethnic variations — like languages — that it views as undermining that unity. The problem is often most apparent with its Arabs. READ MORE

There is a contradiction in Iran’s behavior toward Arab countries and toward the Arabs in the south of Iran,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, an expert in Iranian affairs who is based in Cairo.

Iran is a multiethnic nation. More than half of its 70 million people are Persian, and about 3 percent are Arabs. Other groups include the Azeris, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis and Lurs. Iran has recently faced strong protests from some ethnic groups, like the Azeris, with several demanding greater autonomy and cultural freedom.

In the Arab region, the authorities say, separatist groups became violent last year, setting off a string of terrorist bombs that killed or wounded many people. Mr. Banitamim and Mr. Sallamat were convicted and ordered hanged for their involvement in those attacks.

But to relatives of these men it is impossible to talk only about the crimes they were charged with. Their families see the acts of terrorism as intimately linked with the frustration and lack of hope that stems from the poverty that they say is forced on them by a majority that discriminates. This is a reality that the Iranian authorities have tried, but not succeeded, in reconciling.

The Islamic Republic is dealing with its own terrorism problem the same way the U.S. is dealing with Al Qaeda,” said Emad Baghi, a former cleric who now heads the Tehran-based Organization for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights.

What he meant, he said, was that both governments were using force rather than understanding.

Mr. Banitamim and Mr. Sallamat were arrested on March 11, along with 15 other men and two women. Six of that group remain under investigation, while the rest have been convicted and sentenced to death, the relatives said.

Fearful and frustrated, more than 150 family members and friends of the convicted came to Tehran to urge the authorities to lift the death sentences. Their first stop was to visit Mr. Baghi.

The prisoners are sentenced to death because of their confessions,” said Mr. Banitamim’s older brother Yaghoub, as he opened the conversation with Mr. Baghi.Their confessions were made under torture. They didn’t do anything.”

Mr. Baghi, who spends his days listening to the sorrows of prisoners’ families, gently asked if, indeed, the men were part of the organization that had been connected to bombings in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan. “We don’t know,” the brother said, his gaze cast down.

Then, perhaps aware that Mr. Baghi already knew the answer, that the men were members of the group, he said:They can sentence him to life in prison. We just want to stop the execution.”

Iranian officials insist that there is no discrimination against Arabs or, for that matter, any of Iran’s ethnic minorities. They note, for example, that classical Arabic is taught in schools. They point out that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is of Azeri descent.

And they accuse Western governments of financing and helping to incite groups responsible for the violence in Ahvaz. That charge may sound self-serving, but a European diplomat in Tehran said intelligence reports from the diplomat’s home capital confirmed that there was Western support for at least one of the separatist groups.

But that has not diminished what many Iranians say is the broader need to address the social, political and cultural concerns of many ethnic groups, including Arabs. “I believe,” Mr. Baghi said, “that instead of labeling people terrorists, we should also try to understand the reason why.”

Khuzestan is a place that illustrates the contradictions that can breed anger. The region sits atop most of the country’s oil wealth, yet its Arab residents are mostly poor. At the same time, many Arabs complain that they see their country’s wealth helping to rebuild Lebanon.

The London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat recently reported that in Khuzestan, “residents launched slogans condemning Hezbollah and the government and asked for the rebuilding of their own destroyed homes instead of interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon.”

Similar grievances could be heard from the relatives of the condemned men. “We suffered a lot because of the war with Iraq,” said Mr. Sallamat’s wife, Samira, referring to Khuzestan’s proximity to the border with Iraq. “This is not fair. We have done nothing wrong. God knows we’ve done nothing wrong.”

Mr. Baghi could do no more than advise her on a strategy. But he represented an authority figure, a bridge from the deprivation of Ahvaz to the power of Tehran. Her anger exploded. Our problems are not only economic, they are cultural,” she complained. “They even find fault with the way we dress.” The “they” she was referring to were her Persian neighbors.

The complaints, the crying, the charges of discrimination went on around the room. A child’s eyes filled with tears every time someone mentioned that his father was to be hanged, or that his relatives could not find work because, the charge went, they were Arab.

When the relatives left, Mr. Baghi cautioned against sympathy. He said that the terrorists had taken a video of the explosions and that it had fallen into the hands of the authorities.

But it is also often much easier to make friends with strangers than to settle differences with people living under the same roof. Mr. Labbad of Egypt said that was exactly the case with Iran. When Iran addresses Arabs outside its borders, he said, it can focus on common enemies in the United States and Israel. It has no obligation beyond giving voice to feelings that already exist.

But when it comes to its own Arab population, its first responsibility is to provide life’s essentials — food, work and shelter. And that is what the families of the two condemned men tried to say, why the grievance over the sentence had become a catalyst for venting their frustrations.

“I have nine brothers and sisters, and out of all of us one brother — the brother who was arrested — was working,” said Yaghoub Banitamim. “What is the reason? Only because we are Arabs.”