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Former Iranian Defence Chief Criticises Regime's Treatment of Ahwazis

Former Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani has launched a stinging rebuke of the Ahmadinejad's policies towards ethnic minorities, particularly Ahwazi Arabs, according to a report by Iran's Aftab News Agency.

An ethnic Arab, Shamkhani served in the cabinet of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and had led the ground forces in the Iran-Iraq War. In the interview with Aftab, Shamkhani warns that Iran will face a rise in ethnic tensions in the near future and will become a major challenge to the regime.

Shamkhani does not share President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's view that ethnic unrest is being encouraged and organised by the British government. Instead, he says that 27 years after the Iranian Revolution, the regime is failing to address the widening gap between people's expectations and its ability to fulfill them. According to Shamkhani, ethnic unrest is a result of the regime's failure to provide any solutions for minority demands and unless the government provides a democratic framework for these demands to be met, Iran should expect large-scale unrest.

Shamkhani pointed to the difference in the way the government has addressed recent unrest among Azeris, who form 25 per cent of the Iranian population, and disturbances by smaller ethnic groups in Khuzestan, Balochistan and Kurdistan. Unrest among Azeris was sparked by a racist cartoon in a conservative newspaper, which compared Azeris to cockroaches. The government stopped the newspaper's publication and arrested the cartoonist and editor, following confrontational demonstrations in Azeri-populated cities such as Tabriz. While the regime put down the demonstrations by force, it also took action against those responsible for the offensive cartoon. In contrast, Ahwazi Arab unrest has been met with state violence, the kidnapping and imprisonment of the wives and children of dissidents, regular public executions of opposition activists and a string of other human rights violations. Shamkhani appeared to condemn the difference in the treatment of ethnic groups and called on the government to stop regarding ethnic Arabs as a fifth column.

Shamkhani is currently runs the Institute of Iran Studies and the Defence Research Centre. He has been involved in dialogue between Ahwazi Arabs and the government in an attempt to bring an end to the intifada in Khuzestan, the homeland of the Ahwazi Arabs. In April, the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) received a video of one meeting between angry Ahwazi leaders and Shamkhani (click here to download the video, in 3gp format - playable in RealPlayer).

Despite being Iran's most successful Arab figure in post-revolution Iran, Shamkhani did little to advance the Ahwazi cause while in office. The massacre of around 160 Ahwazis in the April 2005 uprising occurred while Shamkhani was still defence minister in Khatami's government.

The Ahwazis' chief demands include: respect for Arab culture and customs, poverty alleviation, an end to racial discrimination and land confiscations, the redistribution of oil revenues generated by the oil industry in Ahwaz and respect for human rights and freedom of speech. Peaceful demonstrations by Ahwazis have been met with brutal violence by the security forces, including the Bassij paramilitaries, who have killed a large number of protestors and activists over the past year.

Shamkhani is not the only establishment figure to criticise the government's policies towards ethnic minorities. In January, the Islamic Majlis Centre for Research - a think tank attached to the Majlis (parliament) - warned that Iran could face ethnic conflict and unrest unless the government addresses the needs of Iran's ethnic minorities (click here for more information).

Links
Aftab News Agency article
Iran pays for counter-demonstrations in Ahwaz
Parliamentary Think Tank Warns of Ethnic Unrest