Iranians find tenuous refuge in Syria

Political refugees worry about their fate as ties strengthen between Damascus and Tehran.

The young Iranian reaches for his Turkish coffee, nervously eyeing patrons in the smoky Damascus cafe.

He's all too aware of his increasingly precarious status in Syria.

When Abu Sana (not his real name) came here a year ago, he thought he would find a safe haven among his fellow Sunni Arabs. He's a young political leader who belongs to the small Ahwaz ethnic minority in Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan Province, where local activists contend that for decades they have been forcibly uprooted by Iran's Shiite government.

But, now, as a result of the strengthening alliance between Iran and Syria, he's worried that he and about 250 Ahwazi refugees will become the little noticed casualties of the anti-Western axis forming in the Middle East.

His concerns are not unfounded. Five of his political activist friends were nabbed by Syrian security services in early March. Like Abu Sana, most were students, and all were registered with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) office in Damascus as political asylum-seekers.

Abu Sana, a member of the opposition Ahwazi Liberation Organization, worries that if he's picked up by Syrian police he'll miss his opportunity to be resettled by UNHCR in the US later this year. And if he's sent back to Iran, he says, he could be killed. He received the death penalty in absentia after fleeing Iran in December 2005. The exact charges have not been made public.

"I feel like a caged bird that is going to be slaughtered and knows it," he says in hushed tones in a noisy cafe. "I beg the world to protect this bird."

Anti-Western alliance strengthens

Syria and Iran have been odd, but enduring, bedfellows for the past 27 years, united in an anti-Western alliance that transcends founding ideologies: Syria is an authoritarian, secular regime that outlaws political Islam, while Iran is a Shiite theocracy.

The two countries have recently strengthened their defensive ties, inking two agreements on military cooperation, one in 2006 and another in March.

Iran's defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, highlighted the importance of the military pacts following a meeting with Syria's president in Damascus in March.

"We consider the capacity of the Syrian defensive forces as our own and believe that expansion of defensive ties would ... help deal with threats of the enemies," he said.

The five Ahwazis seized on March 5 this year (who were later released in Syria) were the second batch to be detained by Syrian authorities in the past year. According to Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, five others were arrested in May 2006 and handed over to Iranian authorities. Among them was Faleh Abdullah Mansouri, a Dutch citizen in his 60s who heads the Dutch-based Ahwazi Liberation Organization. He is reportedly being held in Tehran's Evin prison and has been sentenced to death.

"That should never have happened," says Laurens Jolles, UNHCR representative in Damascus. "It was clear they were refugees sent back to an uncertain fate."

The Syrian government denies handing "prisoners of conscience" over to Iran, but says it has security agreements with Tehran to exchange prisoners.

Arab Sunnis in Shiite Iran

Forbidden from speaking Arabic, the Ahwazi population of Khuzestan Province is one of the most economically and socially deprived in Iran, according to Amnesty International.

Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, highlighted the living conditions in Khuzestan following his visit to Iran in July 2005.

"There are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity, and gas connections," he said. "In deprived neighborhoods, you can actually see the towers of the oil refineries and the flares and all that money, which is a lot, and it's going out of the province."

"People feel like the central government hasn't tended to them like it should," says Karim Sadjadpour, a Washington-based analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There's a sense among some Ahwazis that the reason they're neglected is not because of geography, but perhaps because they're Arab and Sunni, rather than Shiite and Persian."

Unrest in Iran's oil-rich region

Tensions exploded in April 2005 when militants launched attacks against oil installations.

Several different Ahwazi opposition groups claimed responsibility for the attacks.

"The Iranian security apparatus has clamped down in the region and detained hundreds of people," Hadi Ghaemi, a New York-based Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch said. "They have handed down execution sentences for dozens of people allegedly connected to bombings. Those trials have been very unfair."

Iran says its security measures are a necessary to prevent deadly attacks and thwart efforts by separatists to Balkanize the country.

Back in Syria, Abu Sana moves from house to house hoping to avoid being nabbed by authorities and sent to Iran. "The West cares about animal rights, but we are humans with no rights," he says. "Can't they protect us?"

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