The recent surge of regional violence may signal a new phase in Iran's revolution, one based on regionalism rather than the Islamic militance that toppled the shah and replaced him with a government led by Shiite clergy, in the view of diplomatic observers here.
Without a strong military to counter these local outbreaks, diplomatic analysts say, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini will be forced to give in to at least some demands for regional autonomy or face a continuation of antigovernment protests that could erode his influence and open the door for opposition leaders.
Regional peace also is necessary if Khomeini hopes to rebuild Iran's badly sagging economy. Much of the nation's grain comes from Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan and oil is produced in the ethnic Arab stronghold of Khuzestan province -- both areas of regional unrest.
Khomeini, whose blend of Islamic nationalism united the diverse Iranian nation less than a year ago, is beset by increasing regional dissension that raises the threat of civil war and poses a major challenge to his rule.
Recent antigovernment attacks by ethnic and religious minorities throughout Iran resulted in the worst bloodletting since last year's revolution, placing Khomeini supporters in the ironic position of defending the same ground the hated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's forces fought for just months ago.
More deaths and injuries were reported yesterday in the northwestern city of Tabriz, than during the riots there in February 1978, which touched off a year of nationwide demonstrations and fighting that eventually led to the overthrow of the shah.
General strikes were in effect in two provincial capitals today -- Tabriz in Azerbaijan, and Sanasdaj, in the Kurdish region.
Since the latest series of uprisings began, the 79-year-old spiritual leader and ruler is believed to have spent mostof his time huddling with regional troubleshooters and issuing appeals for calm -- paying little attention to other national problems such as the American hostages who have been held by Islamic militants in the U.S. Embassy here for nine weeks.
Khomeini met today in the Moslem holy city Qom with a delegation of militants from the embassy, in what was believed to be his first such meeting since the embassy was seized. But no details of the talks were made public.
Khomeini's political problems boil down to simple demographics.
Iran's national minorities, who are seking some form of autonomy, make up more than half the country's population. They derive their ethnic origins from such neighboring states as Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan.
Although the minorities speak their own languages, possess distinct customs and often practice a different sect of Islam, they have long been ruled in Iran by native Persians who speak Persian and follow Shiite Islam -- the background as Khomeini's inner circle today.
Dominance by Persian rulers caused decades of bitterness among the minorities, but the shah's repressive rule checked most of this resentment. For example, in the northwest provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, Turkish-speaking residents -- who form the largest ethnic group in Iran -- have seethed in anger because only Persian could be taught and used in local schools.
The festering sense of discrimination made Iran's minorities willing participants in the fight to overthrow the shah and his Persian-dominated government. Baluchi tribesmen in southeast Iran, who speak their own dialect and follow Sunni Islam, were among the first guerrillas to attack central government officials in their mountainous province.
Submerging their local partisanship for the cause of the revolution, the disparate ethnic groups banded together behind Khomeini and the Shiite clergy, who promised to form an equitable Islamic republic after deposing the shah.
Although the Kurds of western Iran asked for autonomy shortly after the revolution, most other minorities did not until Khomeini proposed a constitutional referendum last fall that included a provision making him supreme ruler under a strong central government. Shiite Islam was designated as the official religion of Iran.
The referendum provided Khomeini a good measure of his own popularity and the strength of regional dissent. Although the constitutional was overwhelmingly approved, large numbers of minorities -- especially the Kurds, Baluchis and Azerbaijanis -- boycotted the vote at the urging of local leaders.
The referendum campaign also provided a platform for Azerbaijani's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, whose national prominence and local opposition to supreme powers for the clergy have made him Iran's main opposition leader -- a position he has been reluctant to assume.
Sharatmadari, a native of East Azerbaijan, who lives in Qom, along with the nation's top religious figures derives much of his influence from the group he represents.
Azerbaijan contains an estimated 10 million people -- the best educated, wealthiest, most organized and politicized of Iran's ethnic minorities. At least 2 million more Iranians trace their origins to Azerbaijan, giving rise to estimates that Turkish-speaking people make up about a third of the nation's 35 million population.
Since the backbone of Iran's military officer corps traditionally hails from Azerbaijan, Khomeini may not feel confident in counting on his armed forces.
Although the constitutional referendum offered a rallying point for ethnic dissent, the more visible person ality of local government under Khomeini sparks the greatest outcry from ethnic and religious minorities.
Top provincial officials -- those who directly influence people's lives, such as the governor general, head of the Islamic court and Friday prayer leader -- are all Khomeini loyalists.
Sistan-Baluchistan, a poor desert province straddling the Pakistan and Afghanistan border has a governor general from a region hundreds of miles away. Because he is a Shiite Moslem in the predominantly Sunni province, he repeatedly is accused of showing favoritism toward the Shiite minorities.
Last month the Army was called into the provincial capital of Zahedan to restore order after two days of fighting that began when the Baluchi tribesmen, about 500,000 Sunnis, accused the governor general of giving arms to the much smaller group of Sistani Shiites.
Perhaps the most frequent source of regional complaints centers on the Revolutionary Guards, a Shiite para-military force organized by Khomeini after the revolution to protect government buildings and augment local police. Well-armed with explosives and automatic weapons, the militiamen often come from other provinces and do not always observe local customers.
For example, the Baluchis accused the Revolutionary Guards of entering their homes without search warrants and ransacking to check for weapons. The Baluchis said their wives and daughters often were body frisked.
The Kurds, seminomadic tribesmen with a warring background who engaged in bloody clashes with government troops after demanding autonomy last spring, have attempted in recent weeks to forcibly evict the revolutionary militiamen from the Kurdish city of Sanandaj.
The 4 million Kurds in Iran believe they belong to a Kurdish nation including fellow tribesmen in the mountains of Turkey and Iraq and the plains of Syria. Followers of the Sunni sect of Islam, they present Khomeini with the strongest threat of open revolt.
Associated Press reported the following:
Iran's government radio said that th e leader of a shadowy assassination band called "The Koran" and 15 of his comrades have been captured after a shootout with militiamen Tuesday in Tehran. The band had claimed responsibility for a series of political killings, including the slaying of a Khomeini associate last month that many Iranians denounced as the work of the American CIA.