Tackling Iran's ethnic divide
By Guy Dinmore in Urumiyeh
The Financial Times
September 18 2000
Leaving a political crisis brewing in Tehran, President Mohammad Khatami
is in the border province of West Azerbaijan this week, where ethnic tensions
and economic deprivation are adding to the strains on Iran's faction-ridden
Mr Khatami carried the same message of the "Dialogue of Civilisations"
that he took to the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York this month
but this time addressing it to the Turkish-speaking Muslims of northern
For the first time since taking office three years ago, the reformist
president, a Shia Muslim cleric, visited a Christian church, where he asked
a delighted congregation to pray for him.
An unusually outspoken letter to the president, published in a pro-reform
weekly and signed by academics and members of parliament, condemned "racist
pan-Persians" and their oppression of the Turkish-speaking minority.
"How come that in times of war and defending the country that all
peoples, above all the Azerbaijanis, fought the enemy on the front, but
in times of peace and security there is dust covering our civil rights?"
the signatories asked. They listed eight demands, including a national
television channel and the right to education in Turkish, economic development
and that senior officials be Azeris.
Iran has deep ethnic divisions. Roughly half its 64m people are of Persian
origin, speaking Farsi, the official language, while Turkish-speakers,
most of whom share the Shia faith, make up more than 25 per cent.
The open letter also warned, without elaborating, that some "racists"
wanted to stir up inside Iran another Nagorno-Karabakh, a reference to
the region that was plunged into civil war after Azerbaijan gained independence
from the Soviet Union.
While a few Azeris say they dream of a Greater Azerbaijan that would
embrace Azerbaijan to the north, Iran's ethnic divisions do not present
a serious separatist threat to the central government. But as the economy
struggles to keep pace with a rapidly expanding population, such differences
are a source of political and social tension.
Serious unrest in the western town of Khorramabad last month was triggered
by rivalry between reformist supporters of Mr Khatami and his hardline
opponents. But the demonstrations grew violent as the local Lurs, an ethnic
group close to the Kurds, joined in.
That unrest fuelled the political crisis in Tehran, where the conservative-controlled
judiciary has sought to pin the blame on Mostafa Tajzadeh, the deputy interior
minister and a close ally of the president. Mr Tajzadeh played a key role
in running parliamentary elections last February and the establishment
wants him out of the way before presidential polls next May.
Speaking to a crowd of about 20,000 people packed in a stadium in Urumiyeh,
the provincial capital of West Azerbaijan, Mr Khatami warned that Iran's
new experience with democracy "faces great threats from inside and
outside". Unity was important, he added, calling for an "Iran
for all Iranians", the slogan that propelled the main reformist party
to election victory.
He drew a roar of approval from the crowd by speaking a few words in
Turkish and promised cultural and economic development.
There was no doubting Mr Khatami's popularity in Urumiyeh, among Azeris
as well as the Christian Assyrians at whose church of St Mary he spoke.
Mehran Tabrizi, the editor of the Navid Azerbaijan newspaper that published
the open letter, said Mr Khatami was the great hope for the province: "When
he comes the time is ripe to make our demands heard, so the voice of the
oppressed people of Azerbaijan may be heard."