Anxious to cultivate his populist image, Iran's new President Ahmadinejad has promised to hold the monthly sessions of his Cabinet in provincial capitals rather than Tehran.
Now, however, it seems as if, for reasons of security, he may not be able to take his road show to all of Iran's 30 provinces. A session scheduled to take place in the province of Kurdistan last month had to be rescheduled at the last minute, supposedly because the relevant documents were not ready in time. And last week the president was forced to cancel another session, due to take place in Ahvaz, capital of the Khuzistan province, ostensibly for bad weather.
In both cases, however, factors other than bureaucratic delay and bad weather may have been at work.
The province of Kurdistan has been a scene of sporadic anti-government demonstrations since last June. At least 40 people have reportedly died in clashes with the security forces while more than 700 have been arrested. The authorities have also closed down a number of Kurdish-language publications, in contrast with Ahmadinejad's promise not to organize a crackdown against the press.
Ahvaz, for its part, has witnessed a series of bomb attacks and terrorist operations during the past four months with several clandestine organizations calling on the province's ethnic Arabs to revolt against Ahmadinejad's "repressive policies."
It is not yet clear whether or not the current unrest in Kurdistan and Khuzistan might have a major ethnic ingredient.
Iranian Kurds number around six million, or some nine percent of the population, and are divided in four provinces plus important communities in far away Tehran and Khorassan. The last time that Iranian Kurds were seduced by on a large scale by ethnic policies was in the mid-1940s when, with help from the Soviet Union, they set up a "republic" of their own in the city of Mahabad.
The "republic" folded after one year and nine of its 12 leaders were hanged in public. But its memory has lived on and continues to inspire a small but determined number of Iranian Kurds who feel that they are getting a rough deal from the Khomeinist ruling elite in Tehran.
As for ethnic Arabs, they number some three million or over four percent of the total population. At least half live in Khuzistan with others scattered in four provinces stretched along the Gulf.
Unlike the Kurds, Iran's Arabs do not have any secessionist history. On the contrary they emerged as the most ardent defenders of Iran's unity in the 1940s when the Soviet Union was busy promoting secessionist "republics" in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan. Bound to the majority of Iranians by their Shiite faith and a long history of intermarriage, the Khuzistan Arabs also played a leading role in the oil nationalization movement in the 1950s and, later, in defending Iran against Saddam Hussein's invading armies in the 1980s.
During the Khomeinist revolution of 1978-79 both ethnic Kurds and Arabs stayed largely on the sidelines. The Kurds, a majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, were wary of a regime headed by Shiites. The Arabs, for their part, feared that a purely religious regime might try to restrict the wide measure of individual and social freedoms that Khuzistan, as one of Iran's most advanced provinces, had built over the decades.
After an initial series of local revolts, all crushed with exceptional brutality, the Kurds resigned themselves to life under the Khomeinist regime. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the regime managed to decapitate the Kurdish political leadership through a series of assassinations inside and outside Iran.
In the past two to three years, however, Iran's Kurdish-majority areas have witnessed an upsurge of political activity. One reason is the leading role that Iraqi Kurds have assumed in the new Iraqi system. Another is Ahmadinejad's avowed devotion to the cult of the "Hidden Imam" and his claim of legitimacy on that score. The Kurds, however, do not believe in the concept of the "Hidden Imam" which they regard as "un-Islamic" and fear that the new cult may provide a cover for attacks against their own religious beliefs and culture.
Ahmadinejad would be wrong to dismiss or minimize the threat of ethnic dissent in the Islamic Republic. Iran's ethnic minorities, including the Kurds, the Arabs, the Turkmen and the Baluch, account for at least 12 percent of the population.
Located along the country's long and porous borders these communities could be open to manipulation by anyone who wishes to weaken Iran or pay back in the same currency the Islamic Republic for its machinations in neighboring countries.
Political expediency, not to mention justice and human rights, demands that urgent attention be paid to the legitimate grievances of Iran's ethnic minorities. It took Turkey some 30 years of war to understand that it cannot force its Kurdish minority to abandon their identity and become ersatz Turks. It has taken Iraq almost 80 years of tragic experiments to recognize the Kurds as a distinct people deserving full cultural and national rights. In the long run Iran's unity could only be preserved in the context of pluralist diversity.
In the meantime a word of warning is called for to all those who might think that playing the ethnic and sectarian cards against Ahmadinejad's new militancy might help knock some sense into Tehran. Any attempt at encouraging secessionism in the Iranian periphery could only mobilize the mainstream nationalism of Iranians in support of a regime that, its feigned defiance notwithstanding, has lost much of its original support base.
Ahmadinejad's so-called "second revolution" may have little in the way of positive creativity to offer inside or outside Iran. But it still has large reserves of negative energy that could be deployed in the service of a destructive policy in the region as a whole.
Fanning the fires of ethnic and sectarian resentment against Tehran is not difficult — especially at a time that Ahmadinejad seems determined to lead the nation into an unnecessary conflict with the rest of the world. A Yugoslav-style scenario for Iran may help speed up the demise of the Islamic Republic. But it could unleash much darker forces of nationalism and religious zealotry that could plunge the entire region into years if not decades of bloody crises.
The current fever provoked in Iran by Ahmadinejad and his pseudo-messianic message is little more than an epiphenomenon which, given patience and wisdom, could be contained and neutralized. Here is a monster that feeds and grows on crisis and conflict. The answer is not to lead it to a banquet table but to starve it.