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 arrested.
"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," Baghi added.
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.