On the morning of 12 June, four explosions occurred within 20 minutes of each other in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's southwestern Khuzestan Province. This is only the most recent violent incident in a region inhabited by ethnic Arabs who are angry about discrimination (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 and 25 April 2005).
Iran's population of some 69 million people is ethnically and religiously diverse, and the country's minorities have many legitimate grievances. Politicians have glossed over these issues in the past, but in a new development, candidates for the 17 June presidential election are appealing to minorities. This could reflect a quest for votes, but it could also reflect fallout from democratic developments in Iraq.
All the 12 June explosions in Ahvaz targeted government facilities or officials. Interior Ministry official Mohammad Hussein Motahar said, "Two bombs were hidden in toilets within the building of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and at the Office of Construction and Civil Engineering. The third bomb exploded in front of the house of the governor of Khuzestan Province. All three of these explosions were in the city center of Ahvaz. Another bomb was hidden in the doorway of the house of a [state] radio and television official in Ahvaz. The bomb went off when the door was opened," Radio Farda reported, citing state television.
State television reported that the bombings killed at least eight people and injured another 70. No one has taken responsibility for the 12 June bombings. The Interior Ministry's Motahar connected the bombings with the unrest that occurred in Khuzestan in mid-April.
In what might be a related incident, two bombs exploded in Tehran near the Imam Hussein Square on the evening of 12 June. At least two people died in this incident, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
A History of Ethnic Grievances
Incidents of ethnic unrest in the outlying provinces are not without precedent. Kurds and Azeris in the northwest, Turkmens in the north, and Baluchis in the southeast, as well as the Arabs in the southwest, occasionally demonstrate over perceived injustices. Their complaints cover economic issues -- insufficient jobs and underdevelopment that lead to migration to urban centers, and discrimination in getting government jobs. The minorities also note inadequate educational facilities for young people, few publications in their languages, and low-quality local programming by state radio and television. They allude to historical grievances and refer to poor governmental representation.
The state response to these incidents varies depending on their scale. Sometimes it resorts to repression -- some 360 people were arrested after the April unrest in Ahvaz. In other cases, security forces contain the demonstrations and let people vent their frustration. And occasionally, the central government will dispatch officials to the region to show interest and attempt to mollify the locals.
But until this most recent race, ethnicity has not been a major factor in presidential campaigns. In fact, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in Friday prayer sermons in February and again in March that candidates should not promote ethnic issues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 April 2004).
The candidates, particularly the reformist Mustafa Moin, have disregarded this advice. As he toured Ilam, Kermanshah, Khuzestan, and Kurdistan provinces, Moin said that the Kurdish people deserve to be treated better by the central government, "Eqbal" reported on 8 June. While in Sanandaj he said, "All religious and ethnic groups are entitled to participate at the level of vice president, minister, governor-general, or ambassador." Moin pledged that his cabinet will include individuals from all the provinces and all the ethnic minorities, including Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens, "Iran" reported on 7 June. He said minorities' rights have been ignored so far and he will repair this situation.
Religion an Issue
Religious diversity has become a factor in the presidential race, too. In Iran, most Persians, Azeris, and Arabs practice Shi'a Islam, while Baluchis, Turkmens, and some Kurds practice Sunni Islam. The Iranian Constitution states that Shi'ism is the state religion but other schools of Islam will be respected fully, and in regions where the minorities predominate, local regulations will respect their faith.
Some 9 percent of Iranians are Sunnis, and they have expectations of the next president. Sunni activist and former legislator Jalal Jalalizadeh wrote in the 10 January "Sharq" that Sunnis have been "actively participating" while not having "a share in getting elected or gaining concessions." There are 10 million Sunnis, Jalalizadeh wrote, and candidates ignore them at their peril. Even though they do not have the constitutional right to become president, he continued, they do have the right to serve in other positions. Will the next president implement the slogan "Iran for Iranians," he asked.
Sunni leaders met in Tehran in late May to discuss their role in the elections. They decided that they would support anybody who can solve their problems, "Sharq" reported on 30 May.
A statement from Sunni residents of Tehran informed presidential candidates that they demand the right to publish freely and to build Sunni mosques, "Eqbal" reported on 6 June. They also called for involvement in state broadcasting and the opportunity to broadcast their own programs.
Some Sunni leaders announced their support for Moin, "Eqbal" reported on 11 June.
More than 20 Sunnis who served in previous parliaments, on the other hand, declared their support for center-left candidate Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 11 June. Although their previous demands were ignored, they said, they will participate in the election in the hope that this will lead to a democratic society based on "Islamic justice and equal rights for citizens of all ethnic and religious groups." They urged Karrubi and other candidates to keep their word, "not to forget their 'pact with the people and especially with Sunnis,' nor promises made at various electoral gatherings 'attended by Sunni elites, clerics and representatives.'"
Christian Armenians and Assyrians also live in Iran, as do practitioners of the Baha'i, Jewish, and Zoroastrian faiths. Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian practices are to be respected as well, according to the constitution. Baha'is, however, are not recognized and face intense repression.
Members of the Zoroastrian community in Yazd Province are backing Karrubi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 7 June. The head of the Zoroastrians' pro-Karrubi headquarters, Dariush Kamusi, said Karrubi personifies the Zoroastrian tenets of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Kamusi noted that Karrubi backed legislation that made the blood money for killing a member of a religious minority the same as the blood money for killing a Shi'a Muslim.
The Iraq Effect?
Candidates' attention to ethnic and religious minorities could reflect the traditional quest for votes in what increasingly appears to be a hard-fought race for the presidency. The candidates may be coming to recognize, furthermore, the fallout from the traditional emphasis on the Persian nature of the state and efforts to eliminate minority interests by emphasizing linguistic, religious, and cultural unity. Minorities are more likely to identify with the state if the state pays attention to them.
Postwar developments in Iraq are probably having a more profound effect. The government in Baghdad includes members of all Iraqi ethnic and religious minorities -- Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, and others. A Kurd is president, his deputies are Sunni and Shi'a Arabs, and a Shi'ite Arab is prime minister. Kurds in the north enjoy a degree of autonomy unimaginable in Iran. The minorities in Iran may not want to appear to support the U.S. role in overthrowing former President Saddam Hussein and bringing democracy to Iraq, but they are certainly aware that minorities to their west have a greater role in government.
Some observers have expressed concern that if the Shi'a majority in Iraq enjoys political power commensurate with its share of the population (about 65 percent), then Iraq could become another Shi'a theocracy. In fact, the political current appears to be flowing in the other direction, and as the 12 June bombings show, the Iranian government ignores this at its own risk.
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