- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer’s name is withheld because his visit to the northeastern region of Iran was not authorized by the Tehran government.


ORUMIEH, Iran — At Orumieh’s graveyard, serried ranks of graves containing the bodies of those killed during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war cover an entire hillside over- looking the town.

In the section for new arrivals, the family of a Revolutionary Guard soldier killed three days earlier during fighting with Kurdish smugglers coming from Iraq sob over his freshly dug grave.

But there is no immediate evidence of the bodies of those reportedly killed during recent anti-regime rioting in this city famed for the adjoining medicinal mineral lake.

“I want us to become joined with Azerbaijan even though I feel that Iranian-Azeri culture is superior to Azerbaijani one,” said Ali, a taxi driver taking a rest in the graveyard. “This regime does not respect us.”

Ali, like most other locals interviewed for this article, declined to reveal his full name.

More than a month after widespread riots rocked this mixed Kurdish-Azeri city, Iran’s ethnic Azeri and Kurdish minorities remain angry at perceived government neglect with some demanding secession from Iran.

Meanwhile, Tehran had flooded the already tense town — a major drug- and arms-smuggling center — with members of the security services and the Revolutionary Guard ahead of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first visit there last week.

Offensive cartoon

The heightened tensions that have been racking the adjacent Kurdish-majority Kordestan province for the past two years spilled over into usually peaceful Eastern Azerbaijan province in May after a government-controlled newspaper printed an offensive cartoon portraying Iran’s large ethnic Azeri minority as a cockroach.

Several days of anti-government protests led to an official toll of four deaths, arson on government buildings or affiliated entities, and hundreds of arrests.

But ethnic Azeri-Iranians interviewed in Orumieh last week put the death toll far higher, accused the government of a cover-up, and openly stated that they desired union with Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbor.

“We’re sick of being the butt of jokes of the [Persians],” said Mr. Mostafa, a driver for a private enterprise in Orumieh. “The Turk is always the clown, the idiot, the fool in every TV serial or anecdote. Enough.”

People involved in the protests — all insisting on anonymity for fear of government reprisals — said at least 15 persons were killed. Some put the death toll closer to 100.

The local offices of the newspaper Iran that printed the offensive cartoon were burned, as was the Orumieh branch of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, state-owned television. More than a month after the protests, the building remains empty and charred.

“The secret services have traditionally been very strong here because this area borders three sensitive countries for Iran: Turkey, Iraq and Azerbaijan,” said Farrokh, an Azeri director of a factory in Orumieh who insisted that a reporter stay the night with him instead of going to one of the city’s hotels that are monitored by the local security services.

“They’re just looking for an excuse to find a foreigner and blame him for the recent troubles,” Farrokh said.

As many as 330 persons have been arrested so far, said Najaf Aghazadeh, the head of the judiciary in East Azerbaijan. He said among those arrested were members of the repressed Baha’i ethnic minority group, the communist Tudeh Party and two detainees with ties to Israel.

‘Enemies’ blamed

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Iran’s “enemies” — a term usually employed in reference to the United States, Israel and Britain.

“Provoking ethnic differences is the last resort by the enemies against the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic,” he said in a meeting with Iranian lawmakers. “There is no doubt that this plot will be defeated.”

Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raeesi, the deputy head of the judiciary, also said that “insulting the Azeris was an unwise mercenary move to provoke unrest.”

“Today the enemies are seeking to break the unity in the country,” he said. “On one side they want to create a conflict between Arabs and Iranians, and on the other side they resort to Shi’ite-Sunni differences.”

Eager to reassure the rebellious East Azerbaijan province — one of the few he had yet to visit — Mr. Ahmadinejad took members of his Cabinet there last week, a marathon 19-city tour aimed at redressing the perceived neglect it has suffered in recent years.

Stressing that his government will take measures to develop the province, Mr. Ahmadinejad said Azerbaijan is an “endless treasure” of the Iranian nation and that “development of Azerbaijan province is tantamount to development of the country,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Azeri influence

Azeris are well-incorporated into Iran’s power structure, occupying high-level positions in central and provincial government, financial institutions and the army. For this reason, Tehran is taking last month’s riots more seriously than ethnic trouble in the other sensitive border areas of Khuzestan, Kordestan, Sistan and Balochestan.

Such is Tehran’s concern that Ayatollah Khamenei, himself an Azeri, paid public tribute to the role played by his ethnic group in the 1979 revolution that brought Islamic clerics to power and deposed the shah. Iran’s Azeri region was “the axis of the revolution,” and trying to provoke unrest there showed “the folly of the enemies,” the ayatollah said, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency.

Given the growing suspicion of covert U.S.-funded operations in Iran over the past year, mostly targeting the country’s ethnic Arab and Kurdish minorities on the Iraq border, Iranian security officials have seized upon reports that the Kurds and the Azeris formed a common front in the ethnic riots in Eastern Azerbaijan.

Relations between the two groups traditionally have been laced with tension. It is common for Azeri soldiers to be dispatched to restive Kordestan province to fight Kurdish guerrillas and smugglers. Kurdish supplies of firearms to the protesters would mark a new escalation.

Gen. Hassan Karami, commander of security forces in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, confirmed the Kurdish-Azeri collusion when he told the Iranian Student News Agency that “two armed members of the [Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK] were spotted in the crowd during the protests in the town of Naqadeh and are being hunted.”

The PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish government for the creation of a Kurdish state, has been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States.

As long as a decade ago, former CIA field operative Reuel Marc Gerecht, under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, wrote in his book “Know Thine Enemy: A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran” that “Iranian Azerbaijan was rich in possibilities.”

“Accessible through Turkey and ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, eyed already by nationalists in [the Azerbaijani capital] Baku, more Westward-looking than most Iran, and economically going nowhere, Iran’s richest agricultural province was an ideal covert operations theater,” Mr. Gerecht wrote.

“Those who have studied a little history know that Azerbaijan has always been a significant center of revolutionary activity,” said William O. Beeman, an Iran specialist and professor of anthropology at Brown University. “But Azeris are everywhere and have positions of power throughout the government, so the idea that they would act against their own interests is doubtful.”

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