As the crisis over Iran's nuclear research program intensifies, US officials appear to be paying greater attention to the demands and concerns of the country's ethnic Azeris, its largest minority group.
On July 31, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution mandating that Tehran suspend uranium enrichment by August 31, or face sanctions. Iranian officials claim the country's nuclear program is designed to meet civilian energy needs. US and European leaders, meanwhile, insist that Iran is striving to develop nuclear weapons. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Iranian diplomats immediately rejected the Security Council resolution.
While the United States has long pressed for UN Security Council action to thwart Iran's suspected atomic ambitions, in recent months American policymakers have looked for other means to slow, if not halt Iran's nuclear research. Accordingly, mounting interethnic tension in Iran has intrigued some in Washington.
Unrest among Iranian Azeris began in late May, when protests over an official newspaper's caricature of Azerbaijan as a cockroach led to the deaths of 24 people and the arrests of hundreds of activists demanding an expansion of Azeri cultural rights.
On June 30, an attempt to hold rally at Bazz (Babek) Castle in northwestern Iran to commemorate the birthday of the Azeri national hero, Babek, who organized resistance against Arab invaders in the 9th century, prompted a new wave of arrests in a number of Iranian cities.
On the eve of the march, Amnesty International issued a special report which urged the Iranian government to allow the rally participants to assemble freely, and demanded the release of event organizers who had been arrested earlier. The same was demanded by 19 European parliament members on July 22 who urged the Iranian government to disclose where the prisoners are being held, and to allow them unrestricted access to their families, attorneys of their choice, interpreters and medical treatment.
Saleh Kamrani, a lawyer and human rights activist, is one of the hundreds of ethnic Azeris arrested after the May protests. Kamrani was charged with actions against the Iranian state. Kamrani's wife, Mina, states that her husband has not been allowed to meet with his lawyer since his arrest, and reports that bond for Kamrani has been set at $50,000, an amount Mina Kamrani described as 10 times the usual rate.
Mohtaram Mohammadi, the wife of another prisoner -- Hasan Rashidi, director of the Azerbaijan House in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz, who was arrested the day after the Bazz rally -- told EurasiaNet that her husband has been charged with working for foreign intelligence. "He was just demanding his rights," she said. Iranian Azeris, who comprise roughly 25 percent of Iran's population of almost 69 million people.
Reflecting the increased US interest in interethnic issues inside Iran, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns and Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams met July 21 with US-based representatives of Iranian minority ethnic groups. The ways in which Iran's different ethnic groups view Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad