US: Stirring up minority discontent in Iran

There are indications that the US is attempting to stir up discontent among minority groups in Iran, Joshua Kucera writes for EurasiaNet.
By Joshua Kucera for EurasiaNet (18/03/08)

Representatives of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities told US elected officials that their people face various forms of discrimination, in what participants said was the first Congressional hearing focusing on internal minority issues in Iran.

The hearing, "Assessing the Human Rights Situation of Iran's Ethnic and Religious Groups," was held by the Congressional Iran Working Group on 13 March. During their testimony, representatives of Iran's Azeri, Baluchi, Kurdish, Arab and Baha'i populations generally agreed that the problems faced by their respective groups were similar, including lack of self-determination and lack of minority language use in schools.

"This policy toward the Baluch is in no way distinct or different from that pursued toward other non-Persian national groups including Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Turkmens. The differences, if any, are merely in degree not in kind," said M Hosseinbor, a lawyer in Washington who testified on Balochi issues.

Azeris, who comprise the largest non-Persian population in Iran, are forbidden from giving their children traditional Azeri names or celebrating Azeri national heroes, said Fakhteh Zamani, the director of the Canada-based Association for Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners.

She said that while there was state media broadcasting in the Azerbaijani language, it used what she termed "Fazeri," a form of Azerbaijani that uses Farsi words. "This tactic has accelerated the cultural and linguistic assimilation of Azerbaijanis and, according to the masterminds behind this, will eventually make Azerbaijani less relevant and lose a status of a language, being relegated into a 'dialect' of Persian," she testified.

Two members of Congress participated in the hearing, and both said they supported the rights of Iran's minorities.

"Every government can be judged by its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. And in a classroom, Iran would receive a failing grade," said Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Democrat from Texas. "You have many friends in the US Congress who are listening here. … We are not going to stop until not only the light of the world is on these issues but the ethnic and religious minorities can stand and be free in a democratic Iran."

The hearing indicated that any attempt to focus on Iran's minorities could create difficulties, as several Iranian-Americans in attendance angrily accused the witnesses of trying to foment separatism. The meeting ended in a shouting match between the invited witnesses and several attendees; US Capitol Police were summoned to restore order.

One man, who identified himself as an Iranian-American retired FBI employee and former colonel in the Iranian armed forces, said: "The Iranian people's problem is not Baluch or Kurd or Turk or Azeri or Arab. The Iranian people need freedom, need democracy."

He then accused the witnesses of exaggerating or, in the case of Hosseinbor, representing foreign oil interests that are reportedly seeking access to oil and natural gas under Iranian Balochistan. Hosseinbor denied the allegation.

"Iranians are one nation and we have been for thousands of years," another Iranian-American man said. "All of a sudden, a nation that has been together for thousands of years is breaking up in these minorities. It's not only the minorities that are under pressure from this regime. … The problem is the Islamic Republic of Iran, let's deal with that."

The hearing offered possible clues about a potential shift in Bush administration strategy toward the Islamic Republic. Some of the official participants alluded to the possibility that the US could try to use Iran's minorities to help promote regime change in Tehran. Another sign of a possible effort to activate minority groups in Iran is the fact that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is seeking funding for Azeri-language broadcasts that would be specifically targeted toward Iran's Azeri minority.

"The movement for national rights in Iran lacks international experience, or any support from outside, but still constitutes the strongest challenge to the Iranian regime. The US policy toward Iran is Tehran-centric, while the biggest challenge for the Iranian regime is in the provinces where ethnic minorities are concentrated," said Zamani, the Azeri community activist. "Iranian minorities are agents of change in a country that needs it badly. They are struggling for a positive transformation in Iran; and they need all the help they can get."

The hearing's moderator, Kathryn Cameron Porter, founder and president of the Leadership Council for Human Rights, also alluded to such ideas, when she attempted to talk down the angry Iranian-Americans. "If you want to have revolution in Iran, if you want to change the quality of life for the people, you will find ways to work together with everyone in this room," she said.

The participants in the hearing have little influence or backing either inside Iran or among Iranian expatriates, said Mohsen Milani, a political science professor and Iran expert at the University of South Florida. "I haven't heard of any of these people, and I talked to friends and they hadn't heard of them either," he said.

While it's true that Iran's minorities can’t study in their own languages, such circumstances also exist in many other countries, including the United States, Milani pointed out. And after reviewing the written testimony of the witnesses, he said many of their claims appear exaggerated.

For example, Zamani's assertion that Iran’s state-run media frequently belittle Azeris is not true, he said. "There are a lot of jokes about Azeris, but national television and newspapers making fun of them? No." The much-cited incident of a 2006 newspaper cartoon featuring an Azeri-speaking cockroach resulted in the arrests of the cartoonist and the newspaper's editor, Milani pointed out.

Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.