TEHRAN - As a Shia majority country with several large ethnic groups like the
Kurds, Arabs, and Baluchis that follow the Sunni faith, Iran has for years been
vulnerable to unrest, riots, and terrorist attacks that officials routinely
attribute to foreign powers.
"Iranian intelligence services have acquired information that show the
United States, Britain, and Israel have been behind the unrest in various parts
of Iran, including Khuzestan, Kurdistan, and West Azerbaijan in the past few
years," Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, Iran's intelligence minister, was quoted
as saying by the Aftab News Agency.
A car bomb attack last month by the separatist Jundallah (also called the Popular
Iranian Resistance Movement) in the southeastern city of Zahedan that killed
13 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) triggered clashes
between security forces and guerrillas of the PJAK, a separatist Kurdish party,
around the city of Khoy in northwestern Iran.
"In the past one and a half years and following air raids on PJAK bases
in northern Iraq, clashes with the Iranian military have increased. The clashes
used to occur at border points mostly, but the recent encounter was more intense
and occurred inside Iranian soil," the Aftab News Agency quoted Abed Fattahi,
representative of Oroumiyeh in parliament, as saying.
An IRGC helicopter crashed on Friday, 10 mi. inside the Iranian border, killing
its two high-ranking commanders and seven other military staff. The guerrilla
group that claimed responsibility has connections with the Kurdistan Workers'
Party (PKK), which has bases in Turkey and northern Iraq. The same group had
blown up the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline last September.
IRGC statements said technical problems forced the helicopter to make an emergency
landing after which it exploded, but, in a statement released after the crash,
PJAK claimed to have downed the helicopter using SAM-7 missiles. Both sides
also claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on the other.
"Enemies, particularly the U.S., Britain, and the Zionist regime, seek
to create insecurity along Iran's southeastern and northwestern borders through
their mercenaries," Brig. Gen. Rahim Safavi, chief commander of IRGC, was
quoted by Fars news agency as saying. "But the Iranian armed forces are
fully prepared to suppress any move by the anti-revolutionaries and alien-affiliated
bandits and gangs with maximum power," Safavi said.
In spite of the public hanging of a Jundallah terrorist responsible for the
Zahedan bombing only a few days after the incident, calm has not returned to
the southeastern region. An attack on law enforcement forces in Sistan and Baluchistan
on Tuesday by "armed bandits" left one dead and another wounded, a
military commander told Mehr news agency on Wednesday. Four others were transferred
back over the border to Pakistan, he said.
Ethnic conflict in Kurdistan and in the Kurdish-populated cities of West Azerbaijan
province in northwestern Iran date back to the days following the Islamic Revolution
of 1978. In July 2005 pictures of the tortured body of a young Kurdish activist
shot dead by government agents in Mahabad in northwestern Iran set off riots,
which quickly spread to other Kurdish cities in Kurdistan and Oroumiyeh provinces.
But these were quickly suppressed and more than a hundred Kurdish activists
"Kurds, many of them Sunnis, have been fighting for many years for their
civil rights. Their ways are now becoming more civil-oriented rather than being
a continuation of armed encounter with the central government like in the past.
PJAK and Komele, both rather small leftist parties, still carry on with armed
struggle, something that many other Kurdish rights activists now find irrelevant
and useless," a Kurdish journalist in Tehran told IPS, asking not to be
quoted by name.
"Freedom of expression and freedom to use our mother language in education
are among the demands of the Kurdish people. There are several million Kurds
in this country, but there is not one high ranking Kurdish government official.
It is next to impossible for a Kurd, especially a Sunni Kurd, to rise in rank
to high positions. And elections are never free. There is a screening procedure,
not only for Kurds or other minorities but for all citizens, that serves as
a powerful tool to bar the opposition from entering elected bodies like the
parliament or city and village councils," he said.
Shi'ite Azeris, Iran's largest ethnic minority, have their own issues too.
In May 2006, a cartoon allegedly insulting to Azeri speakers that appeared in
the official government gazette sparked demonstrations and riots in Tabriz that
quickly spread to other cities and towns and left several dead.
Khuzestan in southwestern Iran is another problem zone. Home to 2 million ethnic
Arabs, the province has a huge share of Iran's oil fields. Badly stricken by
the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), the province is one of the less developed
regions of the country, and there have been several incidents of popular riots
as well as terrorist bombings by Arab separatist groups in the past two years.
The attacks, on oil pipelines and in urban areas, have brought about death and
destruction, particularly in Ahwaz, the province capital.
"A total of 40 people were jailed in connection with bombings and 22 were
sentenced to death. Some of these men had no role in any of the actual bombing
operations but had possessed bombs. One was a minor at the time of his arrest
and another man had been in jail two months before the alleged bombing took
place," Emadeddin Baghi, founder of Iran's first death penalty abolition
society and chairman of the Society for Defending Prisoners' Rights, told IPS.
Of the 22 Arabs sentenced to death for involvement in the Khuzestan bombings,
12 have been hanged, three of them on the day of the bombing in Zahedan.
"Even according to Iranian laws those who possessed bombs but never used
them couldn't be executed. The men had no access to legal counseling, so we
found volunteer lawyers to represent them. The lawyers themselves were then
charged with acting against national security and prosecuted. They were acquitted
later, but the atmosphere of trepidation took its toll and the lawyers lost
their initial impetus. Our lobbying failed, too. We couldn't stop the executions,"
On one of his famous nationwide tours, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disclosed
a secret highly guarded till then. There existed a Supreme National Security
Council decree in effect for many years, Ahmadinejad told his audience, not
to make any major government investments in western and southwestern Khuzestan.
The decree had now been annulled, he said.
Arab separatists, accused of being fostered by foreign powers, the British
in particular, have long been claiming that the government was intentionally
neglecting development of their native province. The Ahmadinejad disclosure
was considered a proof of their allegations.
"Extremist Wahhabis and groups like al-Qaeda definitely play a role in
unrest and terrorist attacks in Sunni-populated provinces. In spite of lack
of solid evidence, it is quite possible that countries like the U.S. are also
keen on flaming unrest in these areas to weaken the central government. Historic
ethnic, religious, and economic discrimination against the people of these regions
also provides the fuel for the foreign flint stone," a political analyst
in Tehran told IPS, asking not to be quoted by name.
(Inter Press Service)