Khadija İsmayilova .10/20/06

Iranian officials are intent on keeping a lid on ethnic-minority discontent, as the country prepares for pivotal elections and continues to wrestle with the international community over its nuclear program.

Discontent is especially high among ethnic Azeris, who comprise roughly a quarter of Iran’s estimated 68 million population, and who live mostly in northern areas of the country. In late September, various Azeri organizations led protests to demand expanded cultural rights, in particular wider access to Azeri-language education. Some of the protests turne

d violent as Iranian security forces and plain-clothes officers attempted to disperse the crowds.

Prior to the protests, Iranian authorities detained at least 15 Azeri-rights activists, the human rights organization Amnesty International reported September 26. Fakhteh Zamani, an activist for the Canada-based Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners, said the number of pre-protest detainees could have been as high as 100. Verifying detentions is difficult, Zamani added. "Families are harassed and they are afraid to report about arrest of their members," Zamani said.

Among those taken into custody were three Evezpoor brothers ? Mustafa, Morteza and Mohammad Reza. Officials quietly released Morteza on October 9, and Mustafa and Mohammad Reza three days later. According to Mustafa, both he and Mohammad Reza were subjected to severe interrogations at a facility operated by the Ministry of Intelligence. Mohammad Reza, 15, was housed alongside hardened criminals while in detention in the northern city of Tabriz, Mustafa said.

After release from custody, Mohammad Reza attempted to attend classes, but no local school would register him. Mustafa added that he is having trouble finding employment. Despite the hardships, he indicted that the family was not considering emigration as an option, and would continue to support efforts to secure the Azeri community’s civil rights.
Underscoring the Iranian hard-line stance on the minority rights issue, an Iranian court on October 17 sentenced Reza Abbasi to one year in prison for supposedly conducting anti-state propaganda, the APA news agency of neighboring Azerbaijan reported. Abbasi was taken into custody in June after he supposedly did not comply with an official summons to answer questions about his recent activities

Iranian officials are increasingly preoccupied with December 15 elections for municipal legislative bodies and for the Assembly of Experts, as well as with the ongoing wrangling with the international community about Iran’s nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As the country goes through a critical period, officials in Tehran are unlikely to alter the existing stance on minority rights issues, local political analysts believe.

The impact of Iran’s tough stance is being felt in Azerbaijan, one of Iran’s northern neighbors. President Ilham Aliyev’s administration in Baku wants to maintain a cordial relationship with Tehran, and thus Azerbaijani officials have adopted a muted stance on the issue of Azeri cultural rights in Iran. Some nationalist groups, however, have attempted to stage protests outside the Iranian Embassy in Baku. In the most recent protest attempt, on October 13, Baku police prevented the would-be demonstrators from assembling.

The late September disturbances came after larger protests in May. The trigger for the earlier wave of demonstrations was the publication of a cartoon in a state-owned Iranian newspaper that depicted an Azeri as a cockroach.

Iranian leaders have accused foreign powers, in particular the United States of trying to foment unrest among minority groups in Iran. Iranian Azeri activists insist they have never sought assistance from the US government. "It is a shame to link the Azerbaijani movement in Iran with US policy. This movement is a century old. Different states have [hoped] to obtain benefits from our movement throughout history, but it does not mean that we are going to be a tool in their hands," said Saleh Ildirim, the chairman of Southern Azerbaijan Independence Party.

"Some articles in US media about Iranian [Azeris] playing a role in Washington’s plans in Iran inspire more repression toward Azerbaijanis," said Zamani, the human rights activist.

Recent comments by an influential Iranian cleric on the Azeri rights issue reflect Tehran’s sensitivity on the issue. Speaking on October 12, Ayatollah Moshen Mujtahed-Shabestari, the Iranian Supreme Leader’s personal envoy in East Azerbaijan Province, issued a strong caution to Azeri nationalists who would like to see Azeri-dominated areas of northern Iran unite with Azerbaijan proper. "If there is to be any union, they [Azerbaijan] should join Iran, and it would be better not to speak of southern and northern Azerbaijan, but of southern and northern Iran," the Fars news agency quoted the Iranian cleric as saying. "The identity of Iranians will never be undermined."

Posted October 20, 2006 © Eurasianet