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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 central government.

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 Iran.

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."


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