September 26, 2006

With a Restive Arab Minority

Sept 22, 2006- The New York Times: At Home,
Tehran Deals
With a Restive Arab Minority

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN

TEHRAN — “Help my young child — please help me,” cried
Yabrra Banitamim, 65, in a conference room in the north of
this city crowded with a dozen relatives of two men found
guilty of participating in a string of deadly bombings in
Iran .

The men, Malek Banitamim, 30, and Ghasem Sallamat, 42, are
from
Khuzestan Province , in the country’s southwest. They
are Arabs in a country that is predominantly Persian and
that is accused by segments of its Arab population of
treating them like second-class citizens, thereby creating a
separatist backlash.

Iran wants to be a leader in the Islamic world, spreading
its reach and influence among Arabs and Indonesians, Sunnis
and Shiites. And with its support for Hezbollah in
Lebanon and its defiance of the West, it has made some progress.

But at home, Iran has often had to labor to unify its own
people under one national identity, restricting the
_expression of ethnic variations — like languages — that it
views as undermining that unity. The problem is often most
apparent with its Arabs.

“There is a contradiction in Iran ’s behavior toward Arab
countries and toward the Arabs in the south of
Iran ,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, an expert in Iranian affairs who is based in Cairo .

Iran is a multiethnic nation. More than half of its 70
million people are Persian, and about 3 percent are Arabs.
Other groups include the Azeris, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis
and Lurs.
Iran has recently faced strong protests from some
ethnic groups, like the Azeris, with several demanding
greater autonomy and cultural freedom.

In the Arab region, the authorities say, separatist groups
became violent last year, setting off a string of terrorist
bombs that killed or wounded many people. Mr. Banitamim and
Mr. Sallamat were convicted and ordered hanged for their
involvement in those attacks.

But to relatives of these men it is impossible to talk only
about the crimes they were charged with. Their families see
the acts of terrorism as intimately linked with the
frustration and lack of hope that stems from the poverty
that they say is forced on them by a majority that
discriminates. This is a reality that the Iranian
authorities have tried, but not succeeded, in reconciling.

“The Islamic Republic is dealing with its own terrorism
problem the same way the
U.S. is dealing with Al Qaeda,”
said Emad Baghi, a former cleric who now heads the
Tehran-based Organization for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights.

What he meant, he said, was that both governments were using
force rather than understanding.

Mr. Banitamim and Mr. Sallamat were arrested on March 11,
along with 15 other men and two women. Six of that group
remain under investigation, while the rest have been
convicted and sentenced to death, the relatives said.

Fearful and frustrated, more than 150 family members and
friends of the convicted came to
Tehran to urge the
authorities to lift the death sentences. Their first stop
was to visit Mr. Baghi.

“The prisoners are sentenced to death because of their
confessions,” said Mr. Banitamim’s older brother Yaghoub, as
he opened the conversation with Mr. Baghi. “Their
confessions were made under torture. They didn’t do anything.”

Mr. Baghi, who spends his days listening to the sorrows of
prisoners’ families, gently asked if, indeed, the men were
part of the organization that had been connected to bombings
in Ahvaz , the capital of Khuzestan. “We don’t know,” the
brother said, his gaze cast down.

Then, perhaps aware that Mr. Baghi already knew the answer,
that the men were members of the group, he said: “They can
sentence him to life in prison. We just want to stop the
execution.”

Iranian officials insist that there is no discrimination
against Arabs or, for that matter, any of
Iran ’s ethnic minorities. They note, for example, that classical Arabic is taught in schools. They point out that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is of Azeri descent.

And they accuse Western governments of financing and helping
to incite groups responsible for the violence in
Ahvaz . That charge may sound self-serving, but a European diplomat in Tehran said intelligence reports from the diplomat’s home
capital confirmed that there was Western support for at
least one of the separatist groups.

But that has not diminished what many Iranians say is the
broader need to address the social, political and cultural
concerns of many ethnic groups, including Arabs. “I
believe,” Mr. Baghi said, “that instead of labeling people
terrorists, we should also try to understand the reason why.”

Khuzestan is a place that illustrates the contradictions
that can breed anger. The region sits atop most of the
country’s oil wealth, yet its Arab residents are mostly
poor. At the same time, many Arabs complain that they see
their country’s wealth helping to rebuild Lebanon .

The London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat
recently reported that in Khuzestan, “residents launched
slogans condemning Hezbollah and the government and asked
for the rebuilding of their own destroyed homes instead of
interference in the internal affairs of
Lebanon .”

Similar grievances could be heard from the relatives of the
condemned men. “We suffered a lot because of the war with
Iraq ,” said Mr. Sallamat’s wife, Samira, referring to
Khuzestan’s proximity to the border with
Iraq . “This is not fair. We have done nothing wrong. God knows we’ve done nothing wrong.”

Mr. Baghi could do no more than advise her on a strategy.
But he represented an authority figure, a bridge from the
deprivation of Ahvaz to the power of
Tehran . Her anger exploded. “Our problems are not only economic, they are cultural,” she complained. “They even find fault with the
way we dress.” The “they” she was referring to were her
Persian neighbors.

The complaints, the crying, the charges of discrimination
went on around the room. A child’s eyes filled with tears
every time someone mentioned that his father was to be
hanged, or that his relatives could not find work because,
the charge went, they were Arab.

When the relatives left, Mr. Baghi cautioned against
sympathy. He said that the terrorists had taken a video of
the explosions and that it had fallen into the hands of the
authorities.

But it is also often much easier to make friends with
strangers than to settle differences with people living
under the same roof. Mr. Labbad of Egypt said that was
exactly the case with Iran . When Iran addresses Arabs
outside its borders, he said, it can focus on common enemies
in the United States and Israel . It has no obligation beyond
giving voice to feelings that already exist.

But when it comes to its own Arab population, its first
responsibility is to provide life’s essentials — food, work
and shelter. And that is what the families of the two
condemned men tried to say, why the grievance over the
sentence had become a catalyst for venting their frustrations.

“I have nine brothers and sisters, and out of all of us one
brother — the brother who was arrested — was working,” said
Yaghoub Banitamim. “What is the reason? Only because we are
Arabs.”



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