Iran Bans Al Jazeera

jazeera, al, network
Iran suspended nationwide operations of Arab TV broadcaster Al Jazeera on Monday, accusing it of inflaming violent protests by Iran's Arab minority in southwestern Iran, state-run TV reported.

Also Monday, the government said two more protesters died in the unrest, bringing the three-day toll to three dead and at least eight injured in Khuzistan province on Iran's the border with Iraq.

"The situation is under control in Khuzistan province right now," said Interior Ministry Jahanbakhsh Khanjani. "The province is calm in general but unfortunately two people were killed during last night's violence in Mahshahr."

Mahshahr is 50 miles southeast of Ahvaz, an oil-rich city where violent demonstrations erupted Friday and Saturday after rumors spread of an alleged government plan to move non-Arabs into the city.

Al Jazeera, which is popular among Iran's Arab-speaking minority, is believed to have been the first news outlet to broadcast news of the unrest. The station's commentators discussed the clashes on talk shows as well.

Tehran on Monday ordered the station to cease operations until the network explains the motives behind its coverage, which Tehran believes inflamed the violence.

"If it is proved that Al Jazeera committed a crime, it will be prosecuted," Mohammad Hossein Khoshvaght, an official at Iran's Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, told state-run TV on Monday.

"We suspended its activity in Iran to investigate the network's role in unrest in Ahvaz," Khoshvaght said. "We expect the network to respect Iran's national integrity and security."

Jihad Ballout, an Al Jazeera spokesman in Doha, Qatar, said he had heard media reports of the ban but the station had not yet received official notification. A call to the Al Jazeera bureau in Tehran was not immediately returned.

The station, owned by the Qatari government since its start in 1996, is believed to have the Arab world's biggest market share, estimated at 35 million people. Few people in Farsi-speaking Iran watch Al Jazeera.

Increasing the pressure on the Arab broadcaster, a group of Iranian legislators and journalists asked Iran's media watchdog on Monday to review Al Jazeera's role in inflaming ethnic disputes, state-run radio reported.

Ahvaz erupted in two days of violent demonstrations, with protesters torching banks and police stations on Friday and Saturday after rumors spread of an alleged government plan to move non-Arabs into the city. The unrest spread to Mahshahr on Sunday.

Iran's intelligence chief accused unspecified government opponents on Monday of provoking the unrest, saying authorities have detained the instigators, the official Islamic News Agency reported.

IRNA quoted Ali Yunesi as saying 200 opposition-linked leaders of the violent demonstrations in Ahvaz were rounded up.

The violence was triggered after a copy of a letter allegedly signed by former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi was circulated in Ahvaz and other Arab minority cities outlining a plan to decrease the percentage of Arabs in the region by moving in non-Arabs.

Abtahi has denied writing any such letter.

Al-Jazeera has occasionally run into problems with authorities in Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and Iraq.

Unlike state-run media, the station often airs views of local opposition figures and their criticisms of their countries' rulers.

U.S. officials also have frequently criticized the station for its coverage of the war in Iraq.

Arabs make up just 3 percent of Iran's population; Persians account for 51 percent of the population of 69 million.

Nasser Karimi