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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Iran

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Iran, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a7eaee78.html [accessed 31 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Ethnic and religious minorities make up nearly half of the Iranian population. Discontent among various minority groups has risen sharply over the past two years. Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in August 2005, the government has more forcefully promoted the country's majority Persian and Shia Muslim identity. In contravention of formal guarantees in the Iranian Constitution and international commitments, in 2007 the government continued a crackdown on ethnic and religious minorities through methods including police repression, discrimination in education, and state media campaigns. There was significant overlap between minority rights abuses on ethnic and religious grounds in Iran, as nearly all ethnic Baluchis and Turkomans, most Kurds, and some Arabs practise Sunni Islam disfavoured by the regime.

Rising tension among Western governments over Iran's nuclear programme and alleged backing for Shia militias fighting American-led forces in Iraq have contributed to a poisoned environment for some minority groups within Iran. The government is wary of the large US and UK military presence in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, especially given the steady flow of reports from Washington over the course of 2007 that senior members of the Bush administration are advocating military attacks on Iran. The government has accused disgruntled minority groups including Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis and Kurds of accepting covert support from the US, the UK and Israel. Reports of such assistance are murky, and it remains unclear to what extent, if any, they are true, or merely serve Tehran as a pretext to discredit and clamp down on regime opponents from minority communities.

Around 7 per cent of the Iranian population is Kurdish and concentrated in the north-west, along the borders with northern Iraq and south-west Turkey; another sizeable community of Kurds lives in the north-east, along the border with Turkmenistan. The Iranian regime has watched with alarm as Kurds have consolidated their autonomy within Iraq, and fears the establishment of a Kurdish state that would make claims on Iranian territory. An Iranian Kurdish militant group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey, operates in Iran from bases in the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran accuses the US and Israel of supporting PJAK, and over the course of 2007 shelled northern Iraq indiscriminately in response. The regime has extended accusations of complicity with foreign enemies to other Kurds protesting, or even talking about Kurdish issues. In February 2007, Amnesty International reported that police allegedly killed three Kurds and injured dozens more during a demonstration for Kurdish rights in the town of Mahabad. Reporters without Borders announced in July that two Kurdish journalists had been sentenced to death in the town of Marivan. Both of the journalists had written on Kurdish issues for a magazine banned in August 2005, and the prosecution cited interviews one of them conducted with Voice of America as evidence of 'activities subverting national security' and 'spying'.

Ethnic Baluchis, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, live on both sides of the Iranian-Pakistani border and comprise around 2 per cent of the Iranian population. Baluchistan is the country's poorest region and in recent years has been plagued by severe drought. Baluchis complained of government discrimination and neglect following severe storms in June 2007 that cost over 20 lives, and claimed that the government response was inadequate. Since 2005 a Baluchi militia called Jondallah has claimed credit for attacks on government targets; Tehran also accuses it of attacks on civilian populations. Amnesty International reported that by August 2007, in the wake of a February bomb attack on a bus full of Iranian army troops claimed by Jondallah, around 50 Baluchis had been executed in the intervening months.

The ongoing war in Iraq has stirred unrest in the neighbouring Iranian province of Khuzestan, which in Arabic is called al-Ahwazi. High poverty rates among Ahwazi Arabs, despite their province's production of 90 per cent of Iran's oil revenue, have fuelled resentment, as has discrimination on cultural-linguistic grounds. Some Arabs are Sunni and not allowed to practise their faith publicly, or construct a single Sunni mosque. In January and February 2007 the Iranian government executed eight Ahwazi Arabs for alleged participation in 2005 sabotage of oil infrastructure in Khuzestan by the intentionally excruciating method of slow strangulation. Three UN rapporteurs deemed the one-day trial deeply flawed. The accused had not been allowed access to their lawyers and, when the Ahwazi lawyers complained, they were arrested. In September the government conducted three more such executions, sparking public protests on which police opened fire. In November 2007, eight additional executions appeared imminent, but an international advocacy campaign subsequently succeeded in removing two Ahwazi men from death row.

Azeris, who are Turkic-speaking Shias, make up nearly one-quarter of the population and are concentrated in north-western Iran, along the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia. Of all of Iran's ethnic minorities, Azeris receive perhaps the greatest acceptance among Persian Iraqis; indeed, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is ethnic Azeri. Nevertheless, Azeris continue to face discrimination and are denied education in their mother tongue. In February 2007 Iranian security forces arrested dozens of Azeris peacefully protesting for Azeri-language education in towns across the north-west. According to Amnesty International, some of those detained allegedly were mistreated in custody. In May, Azeris again demonstrating for language rights were arrested in their hundreds; these protests were timed for the one-year anniversary of a cartoon in a government newspaper that depicted a cockroach speaking Azeri.

Iran's largest religious minority, the Baha'i, also faces some of the worst government abuse. The estimated 300,000 Baha'i adherents are persecuted for their belief that other prophets followed Muhammad and, as followers of an unrecognized religion, are barred from public worship or contact with co-believers in other countries. Baha'i rights organizations reported an increase in government harassment in 2007. This included police raids on Baha'i homes and businesses in Tehran in February, criminal prosecution of group members for promotion of an 'un-Islamic' organization, and government orders to 25 industries in April to deny business licences to Baha'i. A 2006 government edict led to the expulsion of more than half of all Baha'i university students during the 2006–7 academic year, solely on the basis of their religion.

In November 2007 the UN General Assembly's Human Rights Committee narrowly approved a draft resolution expressing 'deep concern' at human rights violations in Iran. Among other provisions, the draft called on Iran 'to eliminate, in law and practice, all forms of discrimination and other human rights violations against persons belonging to religious, ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities'.

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