The pervasiveness of Orientalist misrepresentation has for many decades prevented an objective image of Iran from reaching the western imagery. The gross misrepresentation has included Iran’s history, its diverse communities, its rich multilingual, multicultural and multinational character. Perhaps only a few sincere scholars of the Middle East would openly acknowledge that up until the mid-1920s what is now known as Iran had the official name of “the Protected Countries” (Memalek-e Mahrous-e) of whatever dynasty that happened to run them—e.g., the Protected Countries of Qajar, etc. These protected autonomous and semi-autonomous “countries” included such distinct regions as Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Arabistan (al-Ahvaz/Khuzistan), Turkmen-Sahra, Luristan, Farsistan and others. In order to manage these diverse communities of difference, successive Iranian governments had run the country based on a kind of traditional confederative and/or federative system, a loose political administrative order that had continued until the rule of the Pahlavis in 1925. In this piece I like to pay homage to the two short-lived (1945-6) autonomous republics of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, on the occasion of their 66th anniversary. In so doing, I also aim to highlight the importance of Federalism and/or a confederative administrative system for a multinational country like Iran- a system that was interrupted by the coming of the Pahlavis to power in 1925.
It is an undisputable fact of Iranian politics that, whenever there has been a weakening in the authority of the central government, various regional and ethnic movements have erupted throughout the country. This was the case immediately before the takeover of Reza Pahlavi, when the Qajar dynasty was at its weakest. It was the case during the First World War, and most certainly, during the Second World War. Similar to previous cases, the breakout of World War II brought about the conditions for various national, ethnic and anti-racist sentiments to explode. On August 25, 1941, the Red Army invaded northern parts of Iran, pushing the Pahlavi regime’s military out of Azerbaijani territory. Following these changes, an ethnic organization called The Azerbaijan Society was formed and started publishing a journal titled Azerbaijan. The journal was written in Azeri-Turkic and Farsi and aimed to expose the racist and ethnocentric nature of the Pahlavi dictatorship.
In October 1943, Mir Ja’far Pishevari, a seasoned journalist and political activist, was nominated from Azerbaijan to the 14th Majlis of Iran. He was a 50-year-old native of Azerbaijan who had spent most of his life in Baku and had returned to Iran after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Due to his anti-government activities, he had been imprisoned by Reza Shah’s regime for 12 years. After Reza Shah’s fall, Pishevari, along with other political prisoners, had been set free. Upon his freedom, he had come to Tehran and started publishing a newspaper called Azhir (the Siren). In the course of parliamentary elections to the 14th Majlis, the people of Tabriz (Capital city of South Azerbaijan) had voted for him unanimously. Despite his victory in Azerbaijan, the Iranian Majlis had rejected his candidacy on the grounds that he was a communist, a traitor and disloyal to Iran’s territorial integrity. Khoyi, another Azerbaijani deputy from the city of Tabriz, had met the same fate as Pishevari.
The people of Azerbaijan viewed the parliament’s rejection of their elected candidates as a direct insult to their integrity and their national pride (JAMI, 1978). Following his rejection by the parliament, Pishevari entrusted the editorship of Azhir to friends and returned to Azerbaijan in August 1945 to form the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP). On November 23, the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party issued a proclamation defining its aim as the obtainment of complete autonomy for Azerbaijan. The party made it clear that autonomy for Azerbaijan did not mean secession from Iran. The people of Tabriz warmly welcomed the formation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party. Following the ADP’s proclamation, a regional Congress of Azerbaijan that was composed of party supporters, designated a 39-membered commission to organize elections to a national assembly.
On December 12 the provincial National Assembly was formally inaugurated in Tabriz. The assembly was composed of 101 deputies, all democrats, socialists and Azeri nationalists from various backgrounds such as workers, peasants, merchants, clergymen and so forth. As its first important task on the day of inauguration, the National Assembly proclaimed the autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan and designated a government under the premiership of Mir Ja’far Pishevari, the founder of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party. The newly formed government of Azerbaijan announced that the autonomous state would be run on ‘democratic principles’. It issued a program that granted women the right to vote; it announced that private property would be respected but that the government would distribute to landless farmers state-owned lands as well as the lands of reactionary landlords who had run away from Azerbaijan, as a result of the ongoing movement. Further, the government assured the Azerbaijani people that ‘traitors and reactionaries’ would be purged from the gendarmerie; that a ‘people’s army’ would be formed from local militia groups; and that Azeri-Turkic would be the official language of the Republic.
Simultaneously with the Azerbaijani movement, a Kurdish movement took place in the province of Kurdistan, west of Azerbaijan. On December 15, 1945, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan proclaimed a Kurdish People’s Republic. On January 21, 1946, Qazi Mohammad was elected to the presidency of the Republic. The Kurdish Republic set out to follow the democratic reforms and events taking place in the neighboring Azerbaijan. While sending observers to the Azerbaijani parliament, the Kurds maintained their distinct identity and insisted on the independence of the Kurdish Republic. Following the negotiations between the two republics, a treaty was signed on April 23, 1946, between the Kurdistan and Azerbaijan governments. While emphasizing the mutual respect, cooperation and brotherhood between the two oppressed nations, the treaty provided for military alliance, exchange of diplomatic missions, fair treatment of minorities and common diplomatic action towards the Pahlavi regime in Tehran (see also Roosevelt, 1947).
The Azerbaijan Democratic Government quickly proceeded to carry out its plans. As a major step in eliminating feudal oppression, it started a land distribution program all over the Republic. On 16 February 1946, the National Assembly of Azerbaijan passed two important bills regarding the land reform. Based on these bills, lands belonging to reactionary landlords who had opposed the national government, or who had left Azerbaijan due to the democratic movement, were to be distributed among landless farmers. Considering the fact that the majority of Azerbaijani feudal lords had already run away from Azerbaijan in the process of the democratic movement, this distribution amounted to a significant portion of agrarian land (see also Mehrban, 1982; Atabaki, 1993). Moreover, the bills asked for the redistribution of all state-owned lands, along with the water rights, rivers, springs and ganats, among the peasants who lived on those lands and who cultivated them. The reform resulted in the distribution of over 380,000 hectares of land amongst more than one million landless peasants (Atabaki, 1993).
Following the two above-mentioned bills, another bill was passed that dealt with the system of ‘sharecropping.’ Traditionally there was no viable agreement between the peasant and the landlord regarding the peasant’s share of the crop. Normally it was left to the benevolence of the landlord to decide what to give to each peasant in exchange for his cultivation of the land. The new bill guaranteed to each farmer a minimum share of the crop which he produced on a landlord’s land. Now the farmer’s share rose from about 20 per cent in the old system to more than 43 per cent (see also Atabaki, 1993, p. 150). Considering the fact that about 75 per cent of the people in Azerbaijan were farmers at the time (Kazemi, 1980, p. 14), the land reform testified to the profoundly popular nature of the Azerbaijani Democratic Movement.
In the course of less than one year, the Democratic Government was able to lay the foundation of a modern educational system in Azerbaijan. In terms of education and pedagogy, the National Government completely revolutionized the Azerbaijani society. The first provincial university in Iran was built in Tabriz. Thousands of schools were built in small towns and villages all over Azerbaijan, accompanied by the introduction of compulsory primary education for all kids beginning at the age of six. For the first time, Azeri-Turkic became the official language in Azerbaijan and was taught in Tabriz University (the only university in Azerbaijan), schools, and adult education centers, replacing the dominant Persian language.
For the first time in the history of the Middle East, universal suffrage was introduced. Women gained the right to elect as well as be elected. The ADP encouraged women to take active parts in the socio-political life of the republic. As a result, women participated in various positions from administration to teaching to working in hospitals and even serving in the national army of Azerbaijan (JAMI, 1978, pp. 289-95). Important measures were taken to secure the rights of the workers and emphasize the obligations of the employers, landlords, and owners/operators of small workshops. A labor code was introduced that limited the work to eight hours a day; introduced minimum wages; forbade child labor; acknowledged trade unions; recognized 1st of May as a national holiday; and established the right of the workers to social benefits (ADP, 1946).
Under the democratic government, a big texture company named Zefer was established in Tabriz. An orphanage was created to take care of needy children. The National Theatre Center was opened in Tabriz. A radio station was established. Numerous publishing houses were opened and countless newspapers, journals, magazines and books were published in Azeri-Turkic (Berengian, 1988, pp. 186-210). Promotion of Azerbaijan’s culture, history, language and music was greatly emphasized. All the banks in Tabriz were nationalized, holding more than 3,000,000 tomans at the time (Lenczowski, 1949, p. 289). Furthermore, a commission formed from representatives of Ministries of Trade, Economics, and Finance was called upon to establish trade connections with foreign governments. William Douglas, an American Jurist who was traveling in Azerbaijan shortly after the democratic movement, notes: “I learned from my travels in Azerbaijan in 1950 that Pishevari was an astute politician who forged a program for Azerbaijan that is still enormously popular” (1951, p. 43).
“Pishevari’s program was so popular—especially land reform, severe punishment of public officials who took bribes, and price control–that if there had been a free election in Azerbaijan during the summer of 1950, Pishevari would have been restored to power by the vote of 90 per cent of the people. And yet, not a thousand people in Azerbaijan out of three million are communists.” (Douglas, 1951, p. 50)
And finally, in the words of Swietochowski (1995), under the democratic government, “Azerbaijan had achieved more in one year than it had during the twenty years of the Pahlavi regime” (p. 149). Although the rate and pace of changes were faster in Azerbaijan than they were in the neighboring Kurdish Republic, Kurdistan was embracing many cultural, political, and socioeconomic transformations hitherto unknown in the region. Similar to the Azerbaijani situation, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, led by Qazi Mohammed, was at the forefront of these transformations. On November 8th, 1945, the party publicly announced its program and long-term policies:
1. The Kurds to be free and independent in the management of their local affairs and to receive Kurdish independence within the borders of Iran.
2. Be allowed to study Kurdish and to administer their affairs in the Kurdish language.
3. Government officials definitely be appointed from among the local population.
4. Members of the Kurdish Provincial Council to be elected immediately in accordance with the Constitutional laws, to supervise all public and Government works.
5. By the passing of a general law, the grievances existing between the farmer and the landowner to be amended and their future positions defined.
6. The Democratic Party of Kurdistan will make special efforts to create complete unity and brotherhood between the Azerbaijan nation and the people who live in Azerbaijan (Assyrian, Armenians, and so on).
7. The Democratic Party of Kurdistan will fight to take advantage of the boundless natural wealth of Kurdistan and to improve the agriculture, commerce, education and health of Kurdistan, in order to secure economic and moral welfare for the Kurds.
8. We wish the nations who live in Iran to be able to work for their freedom and for the welfare and progress of their country. (DPK, 1945; see also Koohi-Kamali, 2003, p. 106).
In addition to various economic, political, and cultural developments, the Kurdish Republic signed an important agreement of Friendship and Cooperation with its Azerbaijani counterpart. This agreement further highlighted the common goal of the struggle of two oppressed peoples and their common desire for autonomy and self-determination. Based on this mutually signed treaty:
1. Representatives will be exchanged between the two National Governments in such places as may be considered necessary.
2. In specified parts of Azerbaijan which are inhabited by Kurds, Kurds will take part in the administrative work of government and in specified parts of Kurdistan which are inhabited by Azerbaijanis, Azerbaijanis will take part in the administrative work of government.
3. In order to solve the common economic problems of the two nations a mixed Economic Commission will be formed and the heads of the two National Governments will endeavor to put into practice the decisions of this Commission.
4. Cooperation between the military forces of the Azerbaijan National Government will be organized and in time of need the military forces of each government will mutually render each other all necessary assistance.
5. If any negotiating with the Tehran Government becomes necessary it shall be undertaken after agreement between the views of both the Azerbaijan and Kurdistan National Governments.
6. The Azerbaijan National Government will as far as possible create the necessary condition for the development of the national language and culture of the Kurds living in Azerbaijan and the National Government of Kurdistan will likewise as far as possible create the necessary conditions for the development of the national language and culture of Azerbaijanis living in Kurdistan.
7. The two contracting parties will take joint steps to punish any person who attempts to destroy or smirch the historic friendship and national, democratic brotherhood of the Azerbaijan and Kurdish peoples.
(cited in Koohi-Kamali, 2003, pp. 114-115)
This joint treaty of friendship and cooperation was a major blow to the dominant Aryanist/racist ideology which considered the Kurds an Aryan people and looked upon the Azeris as a non-Aryan, non-Indo-European, Turkic people. This experience once again showed that, being subjected to a common oppression is capable of creating a common zone of resistance against racism and colonialism. It also showed that divisions such as Aryan and non-Aryan were artificial constructs created to secure the privileged position of the dominant group particularly by dividing the oppressed communities and turning them against each other. When it came to destroying the marginalized communities’ autonomous nationhood, civic rights and democratic freedom, the Indo-European speaking Kurdish community was as much a target as the Turkic speaking Azerbaijani community. It was-and is- only through cooperation, sharing, and the common struggle of these oppressed communities that the racist and colonialist system in Iran can be defeated.
The elections for the 15th Majlis of Iran were to begin on December 7, 1946. At this time, Soviet forces had already left Azerbaijan and the Soviet consulate in Tabriz was pushing the ADP for negotiation and peaceful settlement of the issues with the Iranian government. Qavam-us-Saltaneh, the Iranian prime minister, after promising a major oil concession to the USSR, had returned to Tehran from his Moscow trip. The oil concession had been granted to the Soviets on the condition that it be ratified by the future Majlis.
The oil concession did not only mean establishing of a strong economic relationship between the two countries, more importantly, it meant the security of Soviet borders in Iranian northern zone, particularly in the rivalry with the British and the newly arrived Americans. The Soviets were very concerned about the security of their borders with Iran and a beneficial oil concession meant that their active presence in northern and north- western parts of Iran would be guaranteed. After extorting the oil concession, now the Russians needed its ratification. And this called for a speedy election processes to the new Majlis. Qavam had made it clear that the elections would not be held unless the government was in a position to supervise them all over the country, including Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. The existence of autonomous Azeri and Kurdish republics had thus become an obstacle for the ratification of the Russian oil concession. Without considering any ethical, ideological, or political consequences of their actions, the Russians decided to side with the Pahlavi regime, pressing the republics to surrender.
In a famous letter written to Pishevari on May 8, 1946, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin threatened the Azerbaijani leader over the latter’s diversion from what Stalin called “the Lenin’s path.” He advised the Azeri leader that the advantage of Azerbaijan’s working class, as well as the working peoples of Iran and the whole world, would only be maintained through ADP’s cooperation with Prime Minister Qavam-us-Saltaneh (Stalin, 1946). In the meantime, the British, now working hand in hand with Qavam, had engineered another scenario in the south. In September 1946, a puppet Qashqayi chief in the south led his Qashqayi tribes to capture a number of towns and villages. They then issued a list of demands asking for autonomy similar to that of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. They made it clear that if the government did not destroy the autonomous republics, the Qashqayis would capture more towns and would constitute their own autonomous republic. The ADP considered the Qashqayi rebellion a scenario orchestrated by the central government in order to crush the autonomous republics (JAMI, 1978, pp. 374-97).
Through the Qashqayi rebellion, the British manifested their strength to the Iranian ruling elite and, thereby, further emboldened Qavam-us-Saltaneh in his determination to destroy the autonomous republics (see also Lenczowski, 1949, p. 307). Around mid-October, Qavam formed a new cabinet and reached an agreement with Qashqayi chiefs in the south, promising them that he would use all his power to protect Iran’s territorial integrity, and to return Azerbaijan and Kurdistan back to the mother-land. Meanwhile, George V. Allen, the newly appointed American Ambassador to Iran, made it clear that his government was supportive of Prime Minister Qavam’s ‘democratic decisions’ and would do whatever it could to implement them (Lenczowski, 1949, p. 308).
On the pretext of supervising parliamentary elections, on November 24, 1946, Qavam ordered the troops to march into Azerbaijan. On December 3, Pishevari assured the Azerbaijnis that the national army of Azerbaijan was ready to defend the republic. He made it clear that there would be “death but no return” to colonial conditions (Pishevari, Dec. 3, 1946). On December 10, Qavam’s army reached Azerbaijani territory. The first confrontation took place in the outskirts of the town of Mianeh. The Azerbaijani army pushed the invading forces back and advanced towards Zanjan (JAMI, 1978, p. 415). Nevertheless, two days later, the ADP, under heavy pressures from the Soviets, decided to give up resistance and let the Iranian army enter into Azerbaijan.
The premier of Azerbaijan, Ja’far Pishevari, rejected the Soviet demand to surrender and argued in favor of resistance (JAMI, 1978, pp. 416-17). The other Central Committee members of ADP followed the Soviet line. Pishevari resigned from the government and left for Baku. On December 12, 1946, the remaining ADP leaders called on all Azerbaijanis to abandon resistance and allow the Iranian army a peaceful entry into Tabriz. The army, on the other hand, was anything but peaceful. Conscious and assured of non-resistance on the part of Azerbaijanis, the army, accompanied by gangs and thugs hired and armed by local landlords, entered Azerbaijan and savagely massacred its unarmed people.
“When the Persian Army returned to Azerbaijan, it came with a roar. Soldiers ran riot, looting and plundering, taking what they wanted. The Russian Army had been on its best behavior. The Persian Army–the army of emancipation–was a savage army of occupation. It left a brutal mark on the people. The beards of peasants were burned, their wives and daughters raped. Houses were plundered; livestock was stolen. The Army was out of control. Its mission had been liberation, but it preyed on the civilians, leaving death and destruction behind.” (Douglas, 1951, p. 45)
After the invasion of Azerbaijan, the Shah’s army marched into the neighboring Republic of Kurdistan. The leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Qazi Mohammad, was hanged in Mahabad, along with his supporters. Mass executions of participants, sympathizers, and those suspected of supporting the national movements were performed in public, followed by the burning of books, magazines and pamphlets published in ethnic languages. Shortly after the fall of national governments, the “Book-Burning” ceremonies became a source of celebration and entertainment for the members of the dominant group and their invading army. The racist ruling elite made it clear that the “Book-Burning” rituals were conducted for the purpose of sealing the destiny of Azeri-Turkic as an official language in Iran once for all (see also Heyat 1983, 1990; Berengian, 1988; Haqqi, 1993; Farzaneh, 1999).
The world renowned north Azerbaijani poet, Semed Vurghun, recited a poem at the 1952 World Peace Congress held in Paris, by way of protesting the massacre of Azerbaijani people. The poem was titled “Books that Burnt” (Yandirilan Kitablar), and was addressed to the Shah of Iran who was referred to as “the butcher.” Below I have rendered parts of Vurghun’s poem into English:
Don’t you know
The pile upon pile of books you’re burning
Are symbols of a thousand creativities?
Desires of a thousand hearts?
They’re in my language
Those proverbs, those poems
In each of them
Hearts of a thousand mothers are beating
In each of them
Laughters of a thousand children
Tell me butcher
Do you understand this?
What are those gallows?
Who are those upon them?
It’s no game, Butcher!
The blood that you’re drinking like a wolf
Is my people’s blood
Those hanging from your gallows
Are my flesh and blood, my people
Do you understand this, Butcher?
The invading army remained in Azeri and Kurdish areas and continued the persecution of supporters of the national movements. After a few years, the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) declared a national amnesty and the military rule was lifted. The Persian chauvinistic propaganda, along with a relentless campaign against the democratic movements, continued. The 12th of December, the day of occupation, was commemorated as a national holiday and was celebrated in all government offices, schools and streets. The young Mohammad Reza Shah was praised as the mighty hero of “Azerbaijan Crisis” and “the Bringer of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan to the Bosom of the Mother Land.” Eyewitnesses and unofficial Azerbaijani sources have estimated the number of people killed in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan during the occupation to be over 50,000 (see also Hassanpour, 1994). Although the movements were brutally suppressed, they made a lasting impact in the history of the struggle of Azerbaijani and Kurdish people for self-determination. The Democratic Parties that led the two movements are active today and pursue the aims and goals of the fallen republics. The experience gained from the two republics has been an exceptional knowledge in self-governance and nation-building. In the words of Professor Amir Hassanpour,
“The two nationalist movements were powerful engines of social change in the multinational country of Iran. They were an inseparable link in the successive struggles for democracy, freedom, and independence—the Babi movement (1848-53); the tobacco movement (1890-92); the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11); the revolutionary struggles of Azerbaijan, Gilan, and Khurasan (1918-21); the oil nationalization movement of 1951-53; the 1967-68 uprising of Kurdistan; the 1978-79 revolution; and the autonomy movement of Kurdistan (since 1979). The two movements were distinguished from their predecessors by their distinctively nationalist character.” (Hassanpour, 1994, p. 98)
ADF (Azerbaycan Demokrat Firqesi). (1946). Shahrivarin 12si. [the 12th of Shahrivar/December]. Tabriz: ADF Publications.
Atabaki, T. (1993). Azerbaijan: ethnicity and autonomy in twentieth-century Iran. London: British Academic Press.
Berengian, S. (1992). Azeri and Persian literary works in twentieth century Azerbaijan. New York: New York University Press.
Cottam, R. W. (1964). Nationalism in Iran. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Douglas, W.O. (1951). Strange lands and friendly People. New York: Harper & Brothers.
DPK (Democratic Party of Kurdistan). (November 8, 1945). FO/371/45436.
Hassanpour, A. (1994). The nationalist movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, 1941- 46. In J. Foran. (Ed.), A century of revolution: Social movements in Iran. (pp. 78-104). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Heyat, J. (1983). Regression of Azeri language and literature under the oppressive period of Pahlavi. Paper prepared in advance for participants of The First International Conference on Turkic Studies. Indiana University: May 19-22, 1983.
Heyat, J. (1990). Azerbaycan edebiyyat tarixine bir baxish. [A look at the history of Azerbaijani literature]. Tehran: Sazman-e Chap-e Khajeh.
JAMI (Jebhe-ye azadi-ye mardum-e Iran). (1979/1983). Gozashteh cheragh rah-e ayandeh ast. [The past is the light on the path to future]. Tehran: Agah.
Kazemi, F. (1980). Poverty and revolution in Iran: the migrant Poor, urban marginality, and politics. New York: New York University Press.
Koohi-Kamali, F. (2003). The political development of the Kurds in Iran: pastoral nationalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lenczowski, G. (1949). Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-48. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lenczowski, G. (Ed.). (1978). Iran under the Pahlavis. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
Pisheveri, J. (1945) Ruznamemizin dili [the language of our newspaper]. Azerbaycan 1, 1–2.
Pishevari, J. (Dec. 3, 1946). Azerbaijan. p. 1. Tabriz: ADF Publications.
Roosevelt, K. (1979). Countercoup: the struggle for the control of Iran. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Stalin, J. (May 8, 1946). Letter to Pishevari. Reprinted in Araz. 1996, p.3.
Swietochowski, T. (1995). Russia and Azerbaijan: a borderland in transition. New York: Columbia University Press.
Swietochowski, T. and B. Collins. (1999). Historical dictionary of Azerbaijan. Lanham, MD.: Scarecrow Press.
Vurgun, S. (1952). Yandirilan Kityablar. [the books that burned]. In Heyat, J. (1990), Azerbaycan edebiyyat tarixine bir baxish. [A look at the history ofAzerbaijani literature]. (pp. 133-135). Tehran: Sazman-e Chap-e Khajeh.