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," Ghaemi said.
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, said Ghaemi.
"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.