Tehran Deals With a Restive Arab Minority

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Sep 22 16:46:03 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, September 22, 2006
Memo From Iran

At Home, Tehran Deals With a Restive Arab Minority

TEHRAN Help my young child please help me, cried Yabrra Banitamim, 65, in
a conference room in the north of this city crowded with a dozen relatives
of two men found guilty of participating in a string of deadly bombings in
Iran. The men, Malek Banitamim, 30, and Ghasem Sallamat, 42, are from
Khuzestan Province, in the countrys southwest. They are Arabs in a country
that is predominantly Persian and that is accused by segments of its Arab
population of treating them like second-class citizens, thereby creating a
separatist backlash. Iran wants to be a leader in the Islamic world,
spreading its reach and influence among Arabs and Indonesians, Sunnis and
Shiites. And with its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its defiance of
the West, it has made some progress.

But at home, Iran has often had to labor to unify its own people under one
national identity, restricting the expression of ethnic variations like
languages that it views as undermining that unity. The problem is often
most apparent with its Arabs. There is a contradiction in Irans behavior
toward Arab countries and toward the Arabs in the south of Iran, said
Mustafa el-Labbad, an expert in Iranian affairs who is based in Cairo.
Iran is a multiethnic nation. More than half of its 70 million people are
Persian, and about 3 percent are Arabs. Other groups include the Azeris,
Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis and Lurs. Iran has recently faced strong protests
from some ethnic groups, like the Azeris, with several demanding greater
autonomy and cultural freedom. In the Arab region, the authorities say,
separatist groups became violent last year, setting off a string of
terrorist bombs that killed or wounded many people. Mr. Banitamim and Mr.
Sallamat were convicted and ordered hanged for their involvement in those

But to relatives of these men it is impossible to talk only about the
crimes they were charged with. Their families see the acts of terrorism as
intimately linked with the frustration and lack of hope that stems from
the poverty that they say is forced on them by a majority that
discriminates. This is a reality that the Iranian authorities have tried,
but not succeeded, in reconciling. The Islamic Republic is dealing with
its own terrorism problem the same way the U.S. is dealing with Al Qaeda,
said Emad Baghi, a former cleric who now heads the Tehran-based
Organization for the Defense of Prisoners Rights. What he meant, he said,
was that both governments were using force rather than understanding. Mr.
Banitamim and Mr. Sallamat were arrested on March 11, along with 15 other
men and two women. Six of that group remain under investigation, while the
rest have been convicted and sentenced to death, the relatives said.

Fearful and frustrated, more than 150 family members and friends of the
convicted came to Tehran to urge the authorities to lift the death
sentences. Their first stop was to visit Mr. Baghi. The prisoners are
sentenced to death because of their confessions, said Mr. Banitamims older
brother Yaghoub, as he opened the conversation with Mr. Baghi. Their
confessions were made under torture. They didnt do anything. Mr. Baghi,
who spends his days listening to the sorrows of prisoners families, gently
asked if, indeed, the men were part of the organization that had been
connected to bombings in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan. We dont know,
the brother said, his gaze cast down. Then, perhaps aware that Mr. Baghi
already knew the answer, that the men were members of the group, he said:
They can sentence him to life in prison. We just want to stop the

Iranian officials insist that there is no discrimination against Arabs or,
for that matter, any of Irans ethnic minorities. They note, for example,
that classical Arabic is taught in schools. They point out that the
countrys supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is of Azeri descent. And
they accuse Western governments of financing and helping to incite groups
responsible for the violence in Ahvaz. That charge may sound self-serving,
but a European diplomat in Tehran said intelligence reports from the
diplomats home capital confirmed that there was Western support for at
least one of the separatist groups. But that has not diminished what many
Iranians say is the broader need to address the social, political and
cultural concerns of many ethnic groups, including Arabs. I believe, Mr.
Baghi said, that instead of labeling people terrorists, we should also try
to understand the reason why.

Khuzestan is a place that illustrates the contradictions that can breed
anger. The region sits atop most of the countrys oil wealth, yet its Arab
residents are mostly poor. At the same time, many Arabs complain that they
see their countrys wealth helping to rebuild Lebanon. The London-based
pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat recently reported that in Khuzestan,
residents launched slogans condemning Hezbollah and the government and
asked for the rebuilding of their own destroyed homes instead of
interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon.

Similar grievances could be heard from the relatives of the condemned men.
We suffered a lot because of the war with Iraq, said Mr. Sallamats wife,
Samira, referring to Khuzestans proximity to the border with Iraq. This is
not fair. We have done nothing wrong. God knows weve done nothing wrong.
Mr. Baghi could do no more than advise her on a strategy. But he
represented an authority figure, a bridge from the deprivation of Ahvaz to
the power of Tehran. Her anger exploded. Our problems are not only
economic, they are cultural, she complained. They even find fault with the
way we dress. The they she was referring to were her Persian neighbors.
The complaints, the crying, the charges of discrimination went on around
the room. A childs eyes filled with tears every time someone mentioned
that his father was to be hanged, or that his relatives could not find
work because, the charge went, they were Arab.

When the relatives left, Mr. Baghi cautioned against sympathy. He said
that the terrorists had taken a video of the explosions and that it had
fallen into the hands of the authorities. But it is also often much easier
to make friends with strangers than to settle differences with people
living under the same roof. Mr. Labbad of Egypt said that was exactly the
case with Iran. When Iran addresses Arabs outside its borders, he said, it
can focus on common enemies in the United States and Israel. It has no
obligation beyond giving voice to feelings that already exist. But when it
comes to its own Arab population, its first responsibility is to provide
life's essentials:  food, work and shelter. And that is what the families
of the two condemned men tried to say, why the grievance over the sentence
had become a catalyst for venting their frustrations.

"I have nine brothers and sisters, and out of all of us one brother  the
brother who was arrested  was working, said Yaghoub Banitamim. What is the
reason? Only because we are Arabs."



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