No country for minorities: The agony of Iran’s ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Balochis and Azeris

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Balochis have faced particularly harsh crackdowns by regime security forces. (AFP)
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Balochis have faced particularly harsh crackdowns by regime security forces. (AFP)
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Updated 09 March 2021

No country for minorities: The agony of Iran’s ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Balochis and Azeris

No country for minorities: The agony of Iran’s ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Balochis and Azeris
  • Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Sunnis in remote provinces have repeatedly faced harsh crackdowns
  • Recent unrest in Sistan and Balochistan highlighted the extreme marginalization of non-Persian ethnic groups

WASHINGTON D.C.: Iran’s persecution of political dissidents has been well documented. But the popular conception of the “Iranian people” tends to privilege the grievances of Shiite Muslims and Persian speakers over those of ethnic minorities. Prominence is invariably given to events in Tehran and other urban areas at the expense of happenings in remote provinces.

Overall, non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran make up around 50 percent of the population, yet they are overwhelmingly marginalized.

In recent years, the regime in Tehran and its enablers in the West have assiduously pushed the narrative that the US is the oppressor and the “Iranian people” are the victim. But frequently the propaganda gets punctured when protests by Iran’s oppressed ethnic minorities spin out of control, such as the violent clashes that recently rocked the country’s impoverished southeast.

Several rights groups reported in a joint statement that authorities shut down the mobile data network in Sistan and Balochistan province, calling the disruptions an apparent “tool to conceal” the government’s harsh crackdown on protests convulsing the area.

Outraged over the shootings of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran from Pakistan, local people had attacked the district governor’s office and stormed two police stations in the city of Saravan.

An ongoing low-level insurgency in Sistan and Balochistan involves several militant groups, including those demanding more autonomy for the region. The relationship between its predominantly Sunni Baloch residents and Iran’s Shiite theocracy has long been tense.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Balochis have faced particularly harsh crackdowns by regime security forces. Consequently, more than 40 years on, provinces such as Khuzestan, Kurdistan and Sistan and Balochistan remain some of the most unstable and least developed parts of Iran.




Provinces such as Khuzestan, Kurdistan and Sistan and Balochistan remain some of the most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. (AFP)

Authorities typically claim they are fighting “terrorism” and “extremism” when justifying executions, arbitrary detentions and the use of live ammunition against protesting minorities. Even the most benign of dissident activities — like running a social media page critical of the regime — can carry the death penalty.

“It is a well-known fact that discrimination in Iran is institutionalized through the constitution,” Abdul Sattar Doshouki, director of the London-based Center for Balochistan Studies, said in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council Forum on Minority Issues.

“The Iranian regime’s policy in Sistan and Balochistan, and for that matter in other provinces too, is based on racial discrimination, assimilation, linguistic discrimination, religious prejudice and inequality, brutal oppression, deprivation and exclusion of the people who are the majority in their own respective provinces and regions.”

Baloch activists have repeatedly called on the international community and regional powers to press the Iranian government to end its systemic policy of harassment and imprisonment of their local leaders.




The 2018 attack on a military parade in Ahvaz highlighted  growing resentment among minority groups at Tehran’s repressive tactics. (AFP)

Ahwazi Arabs, the largest Arab community in Iran, face similar repression. Natives of Khuzestan, they live in extreme poverty, despite the region holding almost 80 percent of Iran’s hydrocarbon resources.

The province has never had an Arab governor and the majority of its top officials are Persians with close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The official language is Persian; Arabic is not taught in schools.

On Tuesday, the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization reported the execution of four additional political prisoners in the infamous Sepidar prison. Among the few who avoided such a fate is Saleh Hamid, an Ahwazi Arab cultural and political activist who was detained by Iranian authorities in the early 2000s for allegedly distributing anti-regime propaganda.

According to the account he gave to the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), Hamid traveled to Syria to enroll at the University of Damascus, where he joined the university’s Ahwazi Arab Students’ Association.

Hamid said the student group primarily promoted Ahwazi Arab culture, but he believes he was identified as a subversive by Syrian intelligence because he was detained at Imam Khomeini airport upon his return from vacation.

He was released after four days but rearrested by plainclothes officers at his father’s home in Ahvaz. Hamid spent two months in the IRGC’s detention center in Chaharshir before being released on bail. He fled the country before his trial date.

Hamid believes Tehran’s policy of persecution is designed to wipe out any ethnic identities that cannot be subsumed under the Islamic Republic’s hegemonic ideology. He says the international community, particularly European powers keen to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, should make the protection of minorities a precondition of any trade agreements with the regime.

“Human rights in Iran are a victim of negotiations on the nuclear file and trade between the EU and Iran,” Hamid told Arab News. “When they negotiate, they forget human rights, about the suppression and crackdown. We want human rights cases to be one of the main negotiating points with the regime. There is discrimination in all fields. If you ask an Arab citizen in Iran if he’s benefited from the oil, they’ll tell you ‘nothing but smoke’.”

Iranian Azerbaijanis, who make up at least 16 percent of the country’s population, are another minority group with a long list of grievances. Although Shiites, many Azeris are viewed by the IRGC with suspicion because of their cultural and linguistic affinities with Turks, in addition to the sense of ethnic kinship they feel with the people of neighboring Azerbaijan.

Proof of the political alienation of Iranian Azerbaijanis came most recently in the form of protests in the northern city of Tabriz during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that ended in November. They were angry at Tehran for reportedly sending weapons through its overland border to Armenia for use against Azerbaijan.

Iranian Azeris who speak of their home region as “Guney Azerbaijan,” or south Azerbaijan, are also not allowed to use their mother tongue in educational institutions. Many of them have come to view “reunification” of their historical region with Azerbaijan as the only solution.

The IRGC recently detained and savagely beat an Iranian Azerbaijani activist, Yashar Piri, for writing graffiti demanding greater language rights. The courage shown by Piri was remarkable given that detention, torture or arbitrary execution is the fate that awaits minority-rights activists.

“Persecution of religious minorities is one of the main pillars of this regime,” Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist, told Arab News.




Overseas Ahwazis have lobbied governments to take action. (AP)

“For the past 42 years now, the regime has not refrained from resorting to arresting, persecuting, executing and confiscating the properties of these minorities. These minorities have been barred from realizing their full potential and have had limited employment opportunities.

“Sunni Muslim minorities like the Kurds and the Balochis have not fared any better. The regions inhabited by these minorities are some of the poorest and most under-invested by the regime, and these minorities are overrepresented in the execution statistics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These regions are so poor that many people have to resort to cross-border smuggling of goods in order to eke out a living and feed their families.”

This is certainly the case for Iran’s northwestern Kurds, who make up around 10 percent of the overall population. Concentrated predominantly in the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Kurdistan and Ilam, many young Kurdish men make a living carrying goods on their backs across the perilous mountain passes of the Zagros into Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.

Known as kolbars, those who survive the bitter cold and sheer drops must also navigate vast minefields and trigger-happy IRGC border guards.

Like other minorities in Iran, Kurds are not permitted to learn their native tongue on the national curriculum. Suspected membership of one of the many Kurdish opposition groups operating along the border also carries the death penalty.

Activists say the terror of executions and the threat of demographic displacement that Iran’s minorities face should be recognized for what they are: crimes against humanity.

They note with dismay that the economic, social and political exclusion of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities never figures in the diplomatic discourse surrounding the nuclear issue and the IRGC’s regional meddling.

In the final analysis, the activists point out, the defiance of Iran’s minority communities, who are determined to hold on to their identity and traditions, constitutes a much needed check on the absolutism of the Shiite theocracy.

Twitter: @OS26


Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
Updated 23 April 2021

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
  • Envoy Tor Wennesland said the road will not be easy, and called on all sides to protect voting rights
  • Central Elections Commission praised for “professionalism and integrity” and its efforts to ensure safe voting during pandemic.

NEW YORK: The successful staging of credible Palestinian elections on May 22 is a crucial step toward unity and guaranteeing the legitimacy of national institutions, the UN Security Council heard on Thursday.
Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told council members that the elections, along with Israeli efforts to form a coalition government, will have a “significant implication for the prospects for advancing peace in the months ahead,” and called on the international community to provide support.
“Expectations for the holding of elections in Palestine are high and come after a long wait of almost 15 years … a growing number of young people are expected to participate in shaping their political future, and have the opportunity to vote for the first time,” Wennesland said.
“These elections should also pave the way to uniting Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate national authority, which would be an important step toward reconciliation and could advance Middle East peace.”
He praised the Palestinian Central Elections Commission for its “professionalism and integrity, enhancing trust in the electoral process,” singling out in particular the committee’s efforts to create a safe voting environment during the pandemic.
He also underscored the importance of the role of election observers in ensuring that the results of “credible and transparent” elections are respected.
“All sides must work toward protecting the right of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, to participate in credible and inclusive Palestinian elections, as well as to stand for election free from intimidation,” said Wennesland.
He urged all those involved in the process “to refrain from any arrest, detention or interrogation based on freedom of opinion, expression or association.”
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose “a formidable threat” throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, further exacerbating an already dire social and economic situation, Wennesland said as he called for vaccination efforts to be stepped up and for more vaccine doses to be made available.
The Biden administration this month announced its plans for resuming US funding for the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which was halted in August 2018 by President Donald Trump. Wennesland welcomed the move by Washington and called on all UN members to recommit to supporting the agency, whose “services are not only a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees but are also critical for stability throughout the region.”
The envoy repeated his call for Israel to halt the demolition and seizure of Palestinian properties and to allow the Palestinian people “to develop their communities.”
Denouncing the “daily violence” that has resulted in more arrests, injuries and deaths, Wennesland called on all sides “to de-escalate tensions and maintain calm.”
He added: “I underscore that all perpetrators of violence must be held accountable and swiftly brought to justice. I reiterate that Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint and may use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
“Particular care should be taken to protect children from any form of violence. In addition, the indiscriminate launching of rockets toward Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately.”


Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport
Updated 23 April 2021

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

BAGHDAD: At least three rockets hit near Baghdad international airport late Thursday, the Iraqi military said.
A total of eight missiles were fired and three landed near the airport complex, the statement said. It did not detail whether the attack caused casualties.
The rockets struck areas known to contain Iraqi security forces. One hit close to a central prison, the second near an academy of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, and a third near the headquarters of the Rapid Response regiment.
No one claimed responsibility for the attacks. US officials have previously blamed Iran-backed militia groups.
It is the latest in a string of rocket attacks that have primarily targeted American installations in Iraq in recent weeks. On Sunday, multiple rockets hit an Iraqi air base just north of Baghdad, wounding two Iraqi security personnel.
Last month, a base in western Iraq housing US-led coalition troops and contractors was hit by 10 rockets. One contractor was killed.
Calls from mainly Shiite leaders have grown to oust US troops from Iraq after a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad in January 2020.
Strategic talks between the US and Iraq have focused on the future of US troop presence in the country.


Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
Updated 23 April 2021

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
  • Israeli media also described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel
  • Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM: A senior US general said on Thursday that he believed a Syrian missile exploding in Israel was not intentional, but rather showed a lack of Syrian air defense capability.

“I think it reflects actually incompetence in Syrian air defense ... I do not believe it was an intentional attack,” Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing

Earlier in the day, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile landed in southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens near the country’s top secret nuclear reactor. In response, it attacked the missile launcher and air-defense systems in neighboring Syria.

Israeli media later described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel.

In recent years, Israel has repeatedly launched air strikes at Syria, including at military targets linked to foes Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, both allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Such strikes routinely draw Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Thursday’s exchange was unusual because the Syrian projectile landed deep inside Israel.

A road sign shows the way to Dimona nuclear power plant in Israel's Negev desert. (AFP / Ahmad Gharabali)

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the exchange began with an Israeli air strike on Dumeir, a suburb of the capital of Damascus. Dumeir is believed to house Syrian army installations and batteries as well as bases and weapons depots belonging to Iran-backed militias. SANA said four soldiers were wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group based in Britain that tracks Syria’s civil war, said the Israeli strikes hit an air defense base belonging to the Syrian military and destroyed air defense batteries in the area. It said the Syrian military fired surface-to-air missiles in response.

The Israeli military described the projectile that landed near the nuclear site as a surface-to-air missile, which is usually used for air defense against warplanes or other missiles.

Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus, a long range for an errantly fired surface-to-air missile.

 

 


Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement

Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement
Updated 23 April 2021

Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement

Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement
  • Lawyer says Houthi prosecutor questioned Al-Hammadi inside Yemen central prison after refusing to transfer her for a court trial
  • Yemeni model, 20, and two colleagues were abducted from Sanaa street on Feb. 20

AL MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis have thrown abducted Yemeni model and actress Entesar Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement as punishment for her protest against the initial incarceration and prison conditions, the model’s lawyer said on Thursday.

Khaled Mohammed Al-Kamal told Arab News that a prosecutor from the rebel-controlled West Sanaa court on Wednesday questioned the model inside the central prison after officials refused to transfer her for a court trial over the past few weeks.

When the investigation ended, the 20-year-old Al-Hammadi verbally clashed with a captor and shouted out about the abduction and miserable prison conditions she had experienced.

Prison officials responded to the outburst by holding Al-Hammadi in solitary confinement, the lawyer said.

“She was separated from her colleagues,” Al-Kamal said. “She is going through bad psychological conditions inside the prison.”

Al-Hammadi and two of her friends were abducted from a Sanaa street on Feb. 20. Yemeni officials said the three actresses were traveling to shoot a TV drama series when the rebels stopped their vehicle on Sanaa’s Hadda Street and took them to an unknown location.

The abduction is the latest in a string of attacks by the Houthis on dissidents and liberal women in areas under the group’s control.

Local and international groups along with government officials have strongly condemned the abduction and called upon the rebels to release them. The Houthis have ignored demands and pledged to put them on trial but to no avail.

Al-Kamal said there were no clear accusations against the model, but he suspected that the Houthis might accuse her of committing “an immoral act,” for not covering her hair or walking without a male guardian in the street.

“I was very optimistic that my client would be released since the prosecutor did not find clear accusations against her,” he said.

Al-Hammadi had participated in two TV drama series and spoken publicly about her ambition of becoming an international supermodel. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Al-Hammadi used social media to promote traditional Yemeni dresses and beauty products.

The detainment of the actresses has sparked outrage inside and outside Yemen as human rights activists and government officials compared Houthi suppression of women to similar activities by terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.

In other developments around Sanaa, the Yemen Journalist Union said armed Houthis confiscated a media center after accusing them of collaborating with the internationally recognized Yemen government and the Arab coalition.

Taha Al-Ma’ameri, director of Yemen Digital Media, alerted the union that armed Houthis stormed the center and expelled workers and guards while replacing them with others.

The union accused the Houthis of fabricating accusations against independent media outlets in order to seize them. It also urged Arab and international journalist unions to support Yemen Digital Media by pressuring the Houthis into ending their crackdown on independent journalists.


Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes
Updated 23 April 2021

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes

GAZA: The sick and dying are rapidly pushing Gaza’s hospitals close to capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the impoverished Palestinian territory, health officials said.
Palestinians fear a combination of poverty, medical shortages, vaccine skepticism, poor COVID-19 data and mass gatherings during Ramadan could accelerate the increase, which began before the start of the holy month on April 13.
Gaza health officials said around 70 percent of intensive care unit beds were occupied, up from 37 percent at the end of March. There were 86 deaths over the past six days, an increase of 43 percent over the week before.
“The hospitals are almost at full capacity. They’re not quite there yet, but severe and critical cases have increased significantly in the last three weeks, which is a concern,” said Dr. Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Team in the Palestinian Territories.
Gaza’s daily positivity rate reached as high as 43 percent this week, although Saparbekov said that number could be inflated because a shortage of tests meant they were mostly given to people already showing symptoms.
Saparbekov also said Gaza does not have the capacity to identify highly infectious COVID-19 variants when testing, meaning there is little data on them.
Graveyards are also feeling the strain. In Gaza City, gravedigger Mohammed Al-Haresh said he had been burying up to 10 COVID-19 victims per day, up from one or two a month ago.
“Wartime was difficult, but the coronavirus has been much harder for us,” said Haresh, who dug graves throughout the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.
“In war, we would dig graves or bury the dead during a truce or ceasefire. With the coronavirus, there is no truce.”
Densely populated and home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt.
Both countries cite security concerns over Hamas, saying they want to stop money and weapons entering.
Palestinians say the blockade amounts to collective punishment and that it has crippled Gaza’s economy and medical infrastructure, with shortages of critical supplies and equipment hampering their ability to tackle the pandemic.
The situation in Gaza is a stark contrast to Israel, where a world-beating vaccination rollout has led to more than 53 percent of Israelis being fully vaccinated.
Amid growing concern, Hamas was set to begin a week of nightly curfews, shutting down mosques that host hundreds of worshippers for Ramadan evening prayers.
But with around 49 percent of Gazans unemployed and parliamentary elections slated for May 22, Hamas has held back from more drastic measures that could further damage the economy.
“We may impose additional measures, but we do not expect at this phase to go into a full lockdown,” Hamas spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom said.
Health officials say the factors that led to the current spike include the flouting of guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing and the opening in February of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which may have allowed in new variants.
Suspicion of vaccines also runs deep. A majority of Gazans — 54.2 percent — said they would not take the vaccine, against 30.5 percent who said they would and 15.3 percent who were undecided, according to an April 21 survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.
Just 34,287 people have been vaccinated, even though the enclave has received 109,600 doses since February donated by Russia, the UAE and the global COVAX program.
“(The) reluctance of many, including medical staff, to be vaccinated remains a key concern,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an April 12 report.
One Palestinian eligible for Gaza’s initial round of vaccines, Qasem Abdul Ghafoor, said he decided to get the jab to protect himself and his family.
“The situation here is horrific. We took it lightly before, but I assure you, it should not be taken lightly,” he said.