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Nation: Another Ayatullah Is Angry

6 minute read

“People will start to kill each other, “the rival warns

It is said of the Azerbaijanis, the rugged mountain people who flourish in the northwestern tip of Iran, that they are like a camel—hard to rouse and get up onto their feet, but once up, hard to stop. So it is that their opposition to the Ayatullah Khomeini began as a protest, turned into a demonstration, then a revolt, and now a challenge to the theocratic regime that Khomeini has just imposed on the nation.

Azerbaijan may seem a remote corner of the world, but this was once the land of the all-powerful Medes, the birthplace of Zoroaster, and from its capital of Tabriz the Mongol Khans ruled an empire that stretched from Egypt to Cathay. Though a disastrous series of earthquakes leveled every trace of Tabriz’s great palaces, the region’s ethnic Turks remain a driving force in Iran. Not only do they represent more than a third of the population (5 million in Azerbaijan, 8 million more in the rest of the country), but they are the nation’s middle class. They dominate the bazaars of Tehran. They dominate the army, providing about two-thirds of its officers. They provide many of the nation’s intellectuals, writers and teachers. That is why the revolt of Azerbaijan is not just a provincial squabble but a potential threat to the survival of Khomeini’s regime.

The only force restraining that revolt seems to be its leader, the mild and benevolent Ayatullah Kazem Sharietmadari, 81, once the mentor of Khomeini and widely regarded as his spiritual equal, if not superior.

Sharietmadari abhors violence and avoids confrontations, and he uttered only a soft-spoken complaint two weeks ago against the constitution that grants all power to Khomeini, but that was enough to inspire a threatening Khomeini mob to surround his house and kill one of his guards. So the battle began, and within a short time Khomeini’s officials had been driven from Tabriz. Khomeini has been uncertain how to fight back. At first, he tried words. In a rhetorical broadside, he castigated the rebels as “mere heathens, foreign-led agents whose dossiers are in our hands.” He tried to rally the Azerbaijanis to his anti-American crusade. Said he: “Now that we are at war with the great Satan, any gesture or utterance aimed at weakening the government is apostasy.”

When that failed to quell the uprising, Khomeini tried force. The government sent a planeload of revolutionary guards to reassert Tehran’s authority in Tabriz. Their first goal was to oust the rebels from the local radio and TV station, where a large portrait of Sharietmadari flapped from the antenna. Backed by crowds shouting pro-Khomeini slogans, the guards chased the rebels out of the bungalow-style building. The Sharietmadari supporters then tried to seize the station again, but the guards drove them off with automatic weapons, killing three and wounding more than 60.

Soon afterward, a three-member commission from Tehran, headed by Economic and Finance Minister Abol Hassan Banisadr, arrived in Tabriz to negotiate a truce with Sharietmadari’s supporters. But the emissaries were immediately discredited by Banisadr, who announced insultingly that he would deal only with individual Azerbaijanis, not with Sharietmadari’s political organization, the Muslim People’s Republic Party.

Banisadr did, however, manage to have talks with scores of prominent Azerbaijanis. In one session with 30 mullahs, he was presented with an eight-point resolution demanding that all government appointments in the region be vetted by Sharietmadari and that secular curbs be placed on the near dictatorial powers given Khomeini under Iran’s new constitution. A mullah then rose and recounted acts of brutality committed in Tabriz by the revolutionary guards. Whereupon all the other mullahs wept profusely.

Undaunted, Banisadr organized a pro-government rally at a soccer stadium. Carrying Khomeini posters, some 4,000 people—hardly a crowd by Iranian standards—gathered in the middle of the field. Suddenly, they were charged by some 2,000 Azerbaijanis waving Sharietmadari posters and chanting “Down with Bani-sadr!” Gradually, a phalanx of Khomeini supporters drove the Sharietmadari forces out of the stadium.

In the holy city of Qum, which is the home of most Shi’ite leaders, Sharietmadari met repeatedly with Khomeini and grew uncharacteristically angry. The normally meek ayatullah warned that unless the Tehran government granted more self-rule to the Azerbaijanis, “dis-turbances will continue, tensions will increase, people will start to kill each other, and civil war will take place.” He gave Khomeini an uncommonly aggressive lecture about insisting that the West was responsible for the uprising. Said Sharietmadari: “Everything that happens in this country should not be blamed on ‘international Zionism and imperialism.’ The legitimate demands of the people of Azerbaijan should not be dismissed.”

The tensions in Azerbaijan can only further stir Iran’s other jostling eth nic minorities—the Kurds in adjoining Kurdistan, the Arabs near the Persian Gulf, the Baluchis and the Turkomans to the east. Last week there even came a brief incursion by the Iraqis across their disputed frontier. The Kurds are most likely to cause trouble next. These flinty, well-armed peasants, isolated in their mountain hideaways, have in the past fought more fiercely for independence than Iran’s other dissident minorities, and a cease-fire agreement that they signed last month with the Khomeini government just expired.

During the month, the Kurds held autonomy talks with Tehran, demanding, among other things, an enlarged Kurdish province, a freely elected Kurdish assembly, and recognition of Kurdish as their region’s official language. The talks have not gone well, and though the ceasefire has been unofficially extended, it is the most fragile of truces. “With the first snowfall, we’ll attack,” growled one key Kurd rebel.

Conceivably, the neighboring Azerbaijanis could join forces with the Kurds in their common maneuvers for autonomy, but the Kurds think it unlikely. “There are many differences between the two movements,” says Abdul Rahman Qhassemlou, head of the Socialist Kurdish Democratic Party. “Ours is a national political movement, while the movement in Azerbaijan is religious. They are also very conservative: Azerbaijanis are more cautious than us Kurds.” But speaking from his headquarters in Mahabad, where Kurdish tribesmen in baggy trousers and gaily colored waistbands patrolled the streets with automatic weapons and rockets, Qhassemlou was not turning away any possible allies in his fight against Tehran. Said he: “We sent some scouts into Tabriz to see what was going on.” –

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