The controversy over Iran's ongoing nuclear program has overshadowed other problems in the country in recent years. Human rights advocates warn about Iranian regime's increasing repression of its minority populations.
The Iranian city of Tabriz may be best known to the world for its top-quality oriental rugs. It is the capital and major trade center of Azerbaijan province in northwestern Iran. More than 17 million of Azeri people who live there share the Turkic language and culture with their northern neighbors in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Iran's official language is Persian, also known as Farsi. But its constitution protects the rights of minorities - Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Jews and others -- to educate their children, conduct business, broadcast and publish in their respective native tongues.
However, Maziar Behrooz, assistant professor of history at San Francisco State University says the regime often denies these rights.
"Iran is a multi-ethnic country where Persians are about 50 percent plus, maybe 51 percent plus. But Persian is the national language. It is the language of administration and education and culture in Iran. The teaching of other languages should not be a problem in this context and it's agreed upon in the constitution. But it is not iplemented," says Behrooz.
Azeris have often called for school boycotts to protest the absence of Azeri-language education. Many of the organizers have ended up in jail. The human rights group, Amnesty International, reports that at least 15 people were arrested in recent weeks for supporting the latest school boycott in Iran's Azerbaijan province.
Nicole Choueiry, spokeswoman for the group's London office, says they were accused of stirring anti-government unrest. "When these people are arrested, most of them are denied their basic rights to either see their families or to see a lawyer. And they are not charged with anything, so many of them are just held in prison without access to the outside world. And there are also reports of them being tortured when in prison," says Choueiry.
Turkic speakers in neighboring Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq and some parts of central Asia are concerned about Iran's crackdown on the country's largest minority. But Ali Koknar, the owner of AMK Risk Management, a security consultancy with offices in Washington D.C. and Turkey, says so far, they have refrained from interfering for fear of antagonizing the Iranian government.
"Azerbaijan's government pursues a policy of peaceful neighborly relations with Iran and they have so far preferred to stay outside this argument. The ethnic Azeri movement in Iran understands that and they appreciate that. And they are doing their best not to put their brothers to the north in Azerbaijan in any kind of difficulty when it comes to government-to-government relations," says Koknar. "Turkey has also gone through ups and downs in its relationship with the Iranian government. The Turkish-Iranian relationship has improved lately and the ethnic Azeri Turkish movement in Iran also understands that. And they are trying not to bring the Turkish government into this quarrel."
Koknar says Iranian Azeris, who are largely Shia Muslims, have been loyal to the country's Shiite government. Their protests generally have been peaceful. But Kurds, who make up about seven percent of Iranian population and are mostly Sunni Muslims, have demanded autonomy and have engaged in armed insurgencies against Iranian rulers throughout the 20th century. Ilan Berman, Director of Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, says the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stepped up repression of Iran's huge Azeri minority for fear it may follow the Kurdish example.
For a long time the regime has tried in many, many ways to keep this segment of its population from seeking self-determination and there is a good reason for doing this because there are more Azeris in northern Iran, what they call southern Azerbaijan, than there are in the entire Republic of Azerbaijan. Azeris make up a large percentage of the Iranian population and if they were to seriously seek independence, it would be in the direction of the Republic of Azerbaijan," says Berman. "It would essentially suggest that they would be interested in breaking territory off from the Islamic Republic to join up with Azerbaijan. So this is obviously something that Iranians want very much to avoid."
But instead of embracing its largest minority, the Iranian government has done much to antagonize it in recent months. Last May, a state-run Iranian newspaper published a cartoon depicting an Azeri-speaking cockroach, triggering several days of street demonstrations in the capital of Tehran and several northwestern cities. The government suspended publication of the newspaper and arrested both the editor-in-chief and the cartoonist. But it also cracked down on protesters. In the ensuing clashes, police and security forces killed four and wounded more than 40, and arrested nearly 200 demonstrators.
The United States has strongly condemned these actions. Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, recently criticized Tehran for harassing groups that are willing to demonstrate for their rights.
"We are deeply concerned by the regime's continuing repression of Iran's minority, ethnic and religious groups, including the Azeris, the Kurds, the Bahai, ethnic Arabs and others. The regime's oppression affects religious minorities, students, women, labor unions, journalists and academics," said Cooper. "We consistently have called on the Iranian government to respect the rights of all Iranian people and to release those arrested and imprisoned for insisting on their universal rights to freedom of expression and association."
Most analysts agree that the Western world, preoccupied with Iran's nuclear program, may not take any further action on behalf of its minorities. But some warn their kin in neighboring Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iraq may interfere if the situation worsens.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.