Independent Access to Khuzestan Urged in Wake
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
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 Teheran Apr. 25 during a press conference
to call attention to government abuses in Khuzestan by the independent
Center for the Defense of Human Rights.
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."
violence, which was centered in the provincial capital, Ahwaz, but
spread to other towns in the region, began Apr. 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.
protests were sparked by the circulation of a seven-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.
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.
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 US occupying forces
in Iraq is ambiguous.
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 Teheran and Washington
over issues ranging from alleged Iranian influence in Iraq to its
nuclear program make the government's charges at least superficially
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
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 Teheran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons,
an eventuality that Bush himself has declared "unacceptable"
in the past.
about the EU-3 negotiations and the possibility that it could get
enforceable sanctions against Iran approved by the U.N. Security
Council, the administration has considered carrying out military
strikes against specific nuclear-related targets in Iran.
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 US from its allies.
the preferred option at this point, even if it is not officially
endorsed, is regime change.
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 US foreign
ministry, began soliciting bids from eligible groups.
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.
include Turkmen in the northeast, Tajiks along the border with Afghanistan,
Baluchis 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 Baluchistan, as well as in Khuzestan,
in recent months.
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 Shiite, is surrounded
by a periphery that either not Persian or not Shiite," said
Juan Cole, a regional specialist at the University of Michigan.
most recent incidents in Khuzestan certainly fits 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 US policy
and about that, we can only speculate."
chief Iran researcher, Hadi Ghaemi, said the situation faced by
the Arabs was enough to trigger unrest.
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.
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.
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.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service