Amid rising tension between Iran and the United
States, a major U.S. human rights group said Tuesday that at least 50 people
were killed during week-long protests in southwestern Khuzestan province last
month and urged Iran to permit independent journalists and rights monitors to
go to the strife-torn region across the border from Iraq.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for the immediate release
of Yusuf Azizi Banitaraf, an Iranian journalist of Arab descent who was arrested
in Tehran April 25 during a press conference to call attention to government
abuses in Khuzestan by the independent Center for the Defense of Human Rights.
"The Iranian authorities have again displayed their readiness to silence
those who denounce human rights violations," said Joe Stork, Washington
director of HRW's Middle East division. "We have serious allegations the
government used excessive lethal force, arbitrary arrests, and torture in Khuzestan."
The violence, which was centered in the provincial capital, Ahwaz, but spread
to other towns in the region, began April 15 and continued for the better part
of the following week. Because the province was closed to foreign media, rights
groups and others have had to depend on accounts by the government, residents,
and other sources with firsthand knowledge of what took place.
The protests were sparked by the circulation of a 7-year-old letter that was
attributed to then-Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi and called for displacing
Arab residents in the oil- and gas-rich region, replacing them with ethnic Persians.
Both the government and Abtahi said the letter was a forgery.
According to reports, demonstrators, nearly 400 of whom were arrested, looted
government buildings and police stations. Opposition Web sites said as many
as 160 people were killed; the government has said that only five people died.
As many as 1,200 people were arrested, said local sources in contact with HRW.
Tehran blamed the unrest on "foreigners" and "hypocrites,"
an apparent reference to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a rebel group sustained
by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein until his ouster two years ago whose
current relationship with the U.S. occupying forces in Iraq is ambiguous.
While regional specialists say ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan have long-standing
reasons to be angry with the central government, the province's proximity to
Iraq and rising tensions between Tehran and Washington over issues ranging
from alleged Iranian influence in Iraq to its nuclear program make the government's
charges at least superficially plausible.
The speed with which the Bush administration denounced the government's repression
has helped bolster that impression. "In our view, this unrest and these
arrests involve the denial of rights of minority groups in Iran," State
Department spokesman Adam Ereli said at the time. "Suppression of minority
rights is obviously to be denounced."
The administration, which has not yet formally adopted "regime change"
as its Iran policy, has become increasingly convinced, despite the negotiating
efforts of the so-called EU-3 (France, Britain, and Germany), that Tehran is
determined to acquire nuclear weapons, an eventuality that Bush himself has
declared "unacceptable" in the past.
Pessimistic about the EU-3 negotiations and the possibility that it could get
enforceable sanctions against Iran approved by the UN Security Council, the
administration has considered carrying out military strikes against specific
nuclear-related targets in Iran.
As recently noted by Richard Perle, an influential neoconservative hawk close
to Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, military strikes
would be a high-risk option that could prove counterproductive both by bolstering
support for the Islamic regime and further isolating the U.S. from its allies.
Thus, the preferred option at this point, even if it is not officially endorsed,
is regime change.
Under one plan released last year by the mainly neoconservative Committee on
the Present Danger (CPD), Washington hopes to help mobilize a pro-democracy
movement similar to Solidarity in Poland and to last year's Orange Revolution
in Ukraine that would challenge the government in the streets. Congress has
already cleared several million dollars for this purpose and last week the State
Department, or U.S. foreign ministry, began soliciting bids from eligible groups.
A second option, backed by harder-line forces, calls for covert action designed
to bring down the regime through more active backing for the MEK and/or fomenting
unrest, especially among minority groups such as the Khuzestan Arabs that together
make up about half of Iran's 70 million people.
These include Turkmen in the northeast, Tajiks along the border with Afghanistan,
Balochis near Pakistan, Azeris and Kurds in the northwest, and Awazi Arabs,
who altogether number about two million, or roughly three percent of Iran's
population. Disturbances have been reported in both Iranian Kurdistan and Balochistan,
as well as in Khuzestan, in recent months.
"It's certainly the case that there are long-standing ethnic and regional
disputes in Iran that come about in part because the Iranian plateau, whose
inhabitants are Persian-speaking and Shi'ite, is surrounded by a periphery that
is either not Persian or not Shi'ite," said Juan Cole, a regional specialist
at the University of Michigan.
"The most recent incidents in Khuzestan certainly fit into a general pattern
of uneasy relations between the center and periphery," Cole told IPS. "The
question on everyone's mind is whether it is connected in any way to the situation
in Iraq or U.S. policy, and about that, we can only speculate."
HRW's chief Iran researcher, Hadi Ghaemi, said the situation faced by the Arabs
was enough to trigger unrest.
"What we do know for sure is that there are very serious local grievances
that the government needs to address, including agricultural land was taken
from the residents during the Iran-Iraq war, has not been returned since, and
is now being used for agribusiness development by people outside the region,"
Khuzestan's Arabs, who, because of the influx of Persians, now make up only
about half of the province's population, suffer economic hardship, disproportionate
levels of unemployment, and discrimination. Many remain displaced from the war,
"I believe there are foreign interests that would like to exploit these
kinds of events, but this particular incident has many local roots based on
legitimate grievances," he told IPS.