One of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election promises was that he and his ministerial team would visit all of Iran’s 30 provinces within their first year in office. The idea was to settle long standing local problems in a single sitting of the Cabinet. However, as Ahmadinejad prepares to mark the first anniversary of his presidency it looks increasingly unlikely that he could keep that promise.
So far Ahmadinejad has a record of visiting nearly half of the provinces and is determined to do some more soon. Nevertheless, quite a few provinces have become no-go areas for the president. The reason is increasing ethnic and sectarian tensions in parts of the country.
The latest province to be affected is East Azerbaijan, which Iranians refer to as “Iran’s head”.
Last week Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan, was the scene of anti-government demonstrations that, despite claims by some exile groups, were largely spontaneous. The trigger for the protests was a cartoon published in a government-owned newspaper depicting Azeris, Iran’s largest ethnic and linguistic minority, as “dumb cockroaches.”
No one knows how many Iranians have Azeri roots. However, official statistics indicate that Azeris form a majority in four provinces: East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardebil and Zanjan. Taking into account Azeris living in other provinces, at times for generations, the community may be 15 million strong.
For centuries, Azeris have played a leadership role and served as the vanguard of such historic events as the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Their Shiite faith and passionate attachment to Iranian nationhood have made them the backbone of the modern Iranian nation-state.
Azeris also played a crucial role in sweeping the late Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979. Immediately after the revolution, however, Khomeini moved to stop the rise of Azeri influence in his newly created Islamic republic.
One such move was to defrock Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, an eminent Azeri theologian and one of the most respected Shiite leaders of the last century. Most Azeris saw the move as a direct attack on themselves. They were also outraged by the fact that Khomeini had forgotten that he owed his own title of ayatollah to a decree signed by Shariatmadari in 1963.
What was perceived as the Islamic republic’s anti-Azeri stance came into sharper focus in 1989 when the then President Hashemi Rafsanjani flew to Baku, capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, to call on the population not to seek independence from the USSR.
Rafsanjani’s visit came at a time when Baku was still trying to recover from a crackdown launched by Soviet troops, including naval units, on Mikhail Gorbachev’s orders. Iranian Azeris had expected Tehran to support their fellow-Shiites in Soviet Azerbaijan rather than invite them to remain under Soviet colonial yoke.
In the years that followed matters worsened, as far as Azeris were concerned. In the war over the enclave of High Qarabagh, the Islamic republic supported Christian Armenia against Shiite Azerbaijan. Tehran also incited the Sunni minority in the Talesh area of the former Soviet Azerbaijan against the Shiite government in Baku.
There is also tension in the province of Kurdistan, on the border with Iraq, and the Kurdish-majority districts of West Azerbaijan.
Some Kurdish opposition groups, including an outfit known as Pejak and an older Communist group known as Komaleh have already embarked on a guerrilla campaign against the Islamic regime. Both groups maintain bases inside the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and are believed to have ties with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a guerrilla movement fighting Turkey.
However, what worries Tehran most is the rising tide of protest by unarmed populations in some Kurdish cities.
During the past six months at least 30 people have been killed by the security forces during anti-regime demonstrations in various Kurdish cities. According to Kurdish opposition sources, hundreds of people have been arrested, often without charge. The government has also closed many Kurdish language publications.
In most cases, the protests appear to have been spontaneous or locally organized. Nevertheless, they have been deemed promising enough for some Kurdish parties to try to assume their leadership. One such is the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran whose leader Ghani Bolourian has just left Europe for Iraq and is busy setting up a coordination committee to lead what he believes is a burgeoning popular revolt.
President Ahmadinejad is unable to visit any of the three provinces where ethnic Kurds form either a majority or a substantial segment of the population. (Overall, ethnic Kurds account for nine percent of Iran’s population of almost 70 million.)
Another province that faces increasing unrest is Khuzestan that produces almost 80 percent of Iran’s oil. The province is home to most of Iran’s estimated 3.2 million ethnic Arabs. Although ethnic Arabs account for fewer than 40 percent of the province’s population, there are districts, such as Dasht Mishan and Susangerd, where they represent up to 80 percent.
Here, too, ethnic and linguistic grievances, combined with dissatisfaction with Tehran’s economic and social policies, have created an explosive situation, which the authorities have tried to control by force. Over the past six months at least 18 people have been killed by security forces and hundreds injured. Khuzestani opposition groups claim that over 400 people have been abducted by government forces and taken to unknown destinations.
Numerous groups are active in the Khuzestani movement, including the Front for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz (FLA) and the Ahwaz Human Rights Association and the Khuzestan Prosperity Party. However, it is not clear whether such groups are able to provide overall leadership for what is a largely spontaneous local revolt against oppressive policies and economic hardship.
The real no-go area for Ahmadinejad, however, is the southeastern province of Sistan and Balochistan, a vast region of mountains and deserts bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Tehran they call it “the wild frontier” if only because it has been the scene of frequent battles between security forces and armed insurgents. Last month alone 20 Iranian security men were killed by what Tehran has called “bandits”, said to be operating from Pakistan.
Some of the violence in Sistan and Balochistan may be the work of armed drug smugglers and contraband networks backed by local tribes. Nevertheless, at least two political groups, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), a leftist outfit, and the Baloch Protection Council claim to be active in the province. Both had headquarters in Baghdad before 2003 and may now have transferred to Pakistan.
Two other regions may become flash points.
One is the arc of steppes on Iran’s northeast frontier with the Republic of Turkmenistan. There, ethnic Turkmen, representing two percent of Iran’s population, form a majority and, being Sunni Muslims, have never warmed up to the government set up by Shiite mullahs. Iran’s Turkmen were the first to rise against the Islamic republic in 1979 when, with the help of a Marxist-Maoist guerrilla group known as People’s Fedayeen, they set up a short-lived people’s republic of their own. The “people’s republic” was crushed by Khomeini at the cost of hundreds of Turkmen lives. The other possible flash point is the Iranian Talesh on the Caspian Sea.
There Sunni Muslims, speaking non-Persian dialects, form a majority of the 1.5 million population. They never warmed up to the regime of Shiite mullahs, and have staged periodical revolts that often provoked a harsh response from Tehran.
Taken together Iran’s ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities account for some 40 percent of the population. Most are strategically located along Iran’s long borders, and thus vulnerable to outside manipulation.
While in Indonesia this month, President Ahmadinejad spoke of his ambition to unite and lead the Muslim world in a “clash of civilizations” against the “infidel”. Many in Iran believe that he should first address the grievances that have made it impossible for him to visit so many provinces, and before it is too late.