AEI PANEL LAMBASTS IRAN'S ETHNIC POLICIES
By Ehsan Tabesh
The National Iranian American Council
Washington DC, October 27, 2005 - The American Enterprise Institute and its resident scholar, Michael Ledeen, hosted a five-paneled discussion titled "The Unknown Iran: Another Case for Federalism?" The idea behind the conference, Ledeen explained in his opening statement, had come about through his realization that "only 51 percent of the population of Iran is 'Persian,' as they call it."
Prior to opening the conference, Ledeen dismissed allegations that AEI seeks to dismember Iran by pointing out that the think-thank hosted similar conferences on ethnic groups in Iraq prior to the US invasion of that country. Rather, "the panelists, who think of themselves as Iranian, seek to educate the American Public," he argued.
The conference and the ensuing chaos, which one audience member described as "Jerry Springeresk," demonstrated - in spite of Ledeen's assurances - major differences between the panelists on the central issue of Iran's identity and unity.
While Manda Zand Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women, emphasized Iran's national unity and attributed ethnic tensions in Iran "to the repression of the Iranian regime," others put equal blame on the previous Iranian regime. Rahim Shahbazi, vice president of the Azerbaijani Societies of North America, accused both Iran's Islamic and Monarchic regimes of having conducted "cultural genocide for the last 80 years on two-thirds of Iran's population."
Shahbazi went on to declare that Turks have inhabited "Tabriz for more than 7,000 years. Since 5,000 BC, Tabriz has been the capitol of Turkish dynasties, of which the Qajars was the last."
Chiming in later, Morteza Esfandiari, representative for the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, criticized the Iranian government's treatment of the Kurdish population. "Kurdish kids are forced to study Persian in the name of unity," explained Esfandiari. Successive Iranian governments have promoted the language and culture of Iran's Persian population at the expense of those of other ethnicities, he argued.
Contrary to panelists like Esfandiari, Amanollah Riggi, chief of a 300,000 man strong Baluchi tribe, emphasized Iranian unity by referencing his own national identity and pride. "People say 51 percent of Iran is Persian, they are wrong; 99 percent of Iran is Persian and I am proud to be Persian too," Riggi stated. "From Kurdistan, to Khuzistan, to Azerbaijan, Iran once upon a time was a united Persia," remarked Riggi as one audience member protested by yelling "Viva Kurdistan!"
Ali Al-Taie, professor of sociology at Shaw University, who was the last panelist to speak, began his statement with a verse from the Quran, and argued that the Arabs of Khuzestan were the region's indigenous population and not recent immigrants. Al-Taie, who maintained that Iranian Arabs are descendents of the Elamite civilization, told the audience that his Doctoral degree was not recognized by the Pahlavi regime due to his Arab ethnicity.
Shahbazi was particularly vocal in his criticism of Iranian opposition groups, which he referred to as the "Persian opposition." He identified the Iranian government and Persian opposition groups as the main obstacles to ethnic harmony. "When it comes to ethnic rights, Persian opposition groups are on the same side as the terrorist Islamic Republic. If this continues, we will see the Balkanization of Iran," warned Shahbazi.
He dismissed Azeris that occupy high-level government posts in Iran as "hired guns designated to implement the racist chauvinistic policies of Iran." These Azeris, which include Ali Khamenei, were in his view "Uncle Toms" to the Azeri cause.
The Azeri nationalist later stated that "the Azeris have become disillusioned by the religious propaganda from the government" and turn to Turkish state TV for inspiration.
Shabazi's statements were cheered by a small group of supporters in the audience and at one point, audience members from different groups had to be physically separated in order to avoid a brawl.
The tense environment that surrounded the panelists' statements escalated during the question and answer period.
The first question, which was quickly dismissed by Ledeen, focused on his involvement in the Iran-Contra affairs and his advocacy for "an American style Iranian liberation."
When asked if he would welcome Iraqi Kurds "speaking up on behalf of Kurds in Iran that are under siege," Esfandiari responded "I certainly would," adding that Iranian Kurds share a close relationship with Kurds in Iraq and Turkey.
Later, when asked if the Azeri community had elected him to speak on their behalf, Shahbazi remarked, "no one sent me to speak, because Azeris in Iran are in jail."
Shahbazi, who was the target of a barrage of questions, was asked if he had evidence to support his assertion that Iranian opposition groups were on the side of the Islamic government. Shahbazi said yes and cited Persian-language Television networks in California that failed to incorporate Turkish or Azeri culture.
When the panel was subsequently asked to define the word "Persian," several claimed not to know the definition. An audience member then angrily responded "How can these panelists not know what Persian means?"
The chaos spiraled out of control as an exchange between Manuchehr Ganji, an audience member, and Al-Taie quickly turned into a yelling match.
When order was eventually re-established, an audience member asked the panel to outline their view on what US policy towards Iran should be.
Ervin-Zand, who earlier had stated that "the regime has concocted the notion of separatism to justify its human rights violations," called on the Bush Administration to end its "appeasement of Iran."
"We hope to see a US policy that ends negotiations with Iran forever," she said, arguing that the regime in Iran would fall if the US refused to talk to it.
Shahbazi, on the other hand, criticized American support of Iranian opposition groups and argued that "the real investment should be in the ethnic problem. This will be the true nuclear bomb that will blow away the Iranian regime."
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