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Are there any questions?
The Azeris of modern Iran

By Salman J. Borhani
August 4, 2003
The Iranian

As heir to the Persian Empire of antiquity, successive Iranian governments have always struggled to come to terms with the reality of the multi-ethnic Iranian society. Although from its inception the empire included various different ethnic groups, the Persians acted as the ruling class, granting concessions to the outlaying regions when it deemed necessary to do so. Intertwined with this concept is the primordial idea that the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau have a common Persian heritage that is unique and special among the vast swath of enemy invaders at all of the empire's borders.

The myth of a common Persian ancestry is betrayed by simple demographics. Of a population exceeding 67 million, only 51% of the population is officially known to be Persian. Kurds, Baluchi, Turkomans, and Arabs populate the frontiers of Iran. Yet, for centuries one group, the ethnic Azeris, have dominated the various minorities of Iran. Conservative estimates today pin them at between 20-45% of the supposed "Persian" state.

One question haunts and bedevils Tehran incessantly: Why have not Iranian Azeris, a conspicuous minority numbering in the millions, shown a willingness to assert their nationalist ambitions and join their newly independent kin north of the border? The stakes are enormous. Iranian Azerbaijan, densely populated and industrial, is intensely valuable to Tehran, while the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan holds huge amounts of oil and gas ready to be exploited by foreign energy companies. Iranian mistrust of Baku's intentions has marred relations since the early 1990's and military moves by either side could draw Western forces into the vital oil-rich region.

In the most simplistic breakdown, the dormancy of Azeri nationalism in Iran is the result of the historic bonds between Tehran and the Caucauses, the success of the Shah and the Islamic Republic in integrating Azeris into the political and economic elite of the country, the overarching sense of a unique Shia/Iranian nationalism developed by the Shah and the Islamic Republic, the unity created by Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1980, and the carrot and stick policy followed by the current reformist Khatami administration.

The Azeris differ from the majority Persians in that they do not speak Farsi. Rather they have adopted a dialect of Turkish, slightly Persianified, that is dubbed Azeri. In fact, the Azeris in Iran call themselves torks and their language torki. A Farsi speaker in Shiraz would find it extremely difficult to have a conversation with a Tabriz native who is not well versed in Farsi, while an Istanbuli can understand an Iranian tork, after sorting through certain Farsi influenced words. Yet, perhaps the most important aspects that create binding commonalities are the Shia Islamic traditions that most Iramians share, and which conspicuously do not extend far into Anatolia and the Caucuses.

The demographic power of the Iranian Azeris regularly grabs the attention of policymakers in Tehran, yet Iranian Azerbaijan represents more than a burgeoning quarter of the Iranian population. The three provinces that make up Iranian Azerbaijan have the largest concentration of industry and trade outside of Tehran province.

The area represents the Iranian land bridge to Europe through which major transportation routes transverse, the gateway to the oil wealth of the Caspian, and stands as the conduit for pipelines shipping valuable Iranian liquefied gas to the rest of the world. No monetary value can be put on Iranian Azerbaijan, yet the importance of the Azeris to the rest of Iran and its national psyche is even more visible when looking back at the region's controversial past.

While the British Empire was struggling to contain revolutionary fervor within her colonial borders, imperial Russia took the initiative on its southern flank in engaging a reeling Persian military. Beyond the mountains of Persia lay the elusive prize for centuries of Russian tsars: the warm water ports of the Persian Gulf. The temptation laid Russian intentions bare and, with the British turning a blind eye, what is today the Republic of Azerbaijan and its rival Armenia were finally wrested away from Tehran's control in 1828.

Thus began a traumatic division of the region known as Azerbaijan, splitting families and kin along a border straddling the tepid Araxes River. The vast majority of Azeris found themselves on the Iranian side of the border, peering at their "captive" brethren across the mountains to the north. The Iranians slowly resigned themselves to the loss of their northern frontier and the status quo remained for over a century until the fighting of the Second World War reached its peak.

Afraid of pro-German tendencies in Tehran and in desperate need of a land bridge between the Asian and European theaters, the Soviets and British invaded Iran and divided it into spheres of influence: a British south and a Soviet north. At the close of the war Russia still occupied several northern Iranian provinces. It was decided at the Yalta and Tehran conferences that all foreign forces would leave Iran at the end of the war. Yet, Stalin, eying a later Communist advance to the Gulf, hesitated. Only under severe pressure from the Truman Administration did Soviet forces evacuate Tabriz.

Immediately after the retreat, with the help of Tudeh apparatchiks, the independent Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was established at Tabriz in 1946. The retreating Soviets, in what can today be termed as a clear example of instrumentalism, used their military power to ignite Azeri nationalism, trying to set certain elements of the Azeri masses against Tehran and, as result, gain a foothold in northern Iran.

The Communist Party, both in Moscow and Tabriz, tried to wrap the mantle of Stalinism around nascent Azeri ethnic sentiment. The effect turned out to be quite the opposite. The Azeri masses, angry at being swallowed up by a hostile foreign power, resented their new colonial masters as Godless traitors. Iranian Azeris were painfully reminded of the Russians' last land grab that resulted in large swaths of Azeri territory coming under Moscow's control. Indeed, the idea of joining the feared atheist, Communist neighbor was disturbing to most Shia Azeris and hostility to the Soviets outweighed any sense of irredentism present in society.

Contemporary analysts point to the fact that even under this independent republic Iranian Azeris remained roundly hostile to the idea of an independent Azerbaijani nation, much less one that served as a puppet government for an irreligious foreign power.

Azerbaijani self-determination south of the Araxes was short lived, however, as the Pahlavi regime, with American support, quickly recovered and moved north to crush Azeri nationalism. Thus, the border between the two Azerbaijans was re-established and the perturbed Mohammad Reza Shah took on an increasingly determined campaign to re-imagine the Iranian nation along his Persian-centric view of the state.

When the Shah regained the northern provinces in 1948, his rule increasing began to center around the symbols of the Persian empire and, by extension, Persian ethnic nationalism. At the same time, however, Azeris began a massive but steady integration into Iranian society, dominating the bazari class and becoming a major force in business and trade. Yet the Shah, still fearing the massive Communist threat from the north, repeatedly denied the one concession Azeris constantly urged for: linguistic freedom.

The Shah's vision of Iran centered around the glorification of the Persian Empire and was heavily influenced by racial and ethnocentric outlooks that were meant to put Persians on a pedestal as the rightful heirs to the glory of Cyrus the Great. Its biases, however, were not new in Iranian history. Primordialist notions of Persian primacy and separation from outlying, less sophisticated groups are ripe throughout Iranian history.

Ancient maps give Fars province (the ancestral home of the Persians) an exalted stature and described it as the center of power for the "Kings of Iran". During Pahlavi rule, however, for the first time in 2,500 years, the advance of technology and infrastructure allowed for the Iranian government's power to reach the far reaches of the empire and the often paranoid Persian-dominated central government thus came into direct confrontation against "suspicious" ethnic groups.

The power of the state was often projected harshly, especially when dealing with language rights. The Pahlavi regime banned Azeri from schools, the workplace, and the media. No indigenous print capitalism, as Anderson would put it, was allowed to develop and the lack of opportunity in the provinces forced Azeris to make educational "pilgrimages" to Tehran instead of local provincial centers.

The Shah's insistence on promoting the primacy of Persian symbols, such as ancient capital of Persepolis in Fars province, the heavy handed suppression of the linguistic rights of minorities, and the general top-down centralized nature of his rule alienated many ethnic groups who could not fully accept the methods of nation building practiced by the Persian shah in far away Tehran. The Shah's famous branding of ethnic Azeris as torkhayeh khar, or "Turkish donkeys", ingloriously institutionalized the age-old Persian discrimination against thepeople of the northwes.

It should come as no surprise then that the Azeris were at the forefront of the broad anti-monarchial coalition that led to the 1979 Revolution. Holding the levers of the Iranian economy in their hands, Azeris organized massive strikes that crippled institutions both in the northwest and in Tehran. Yet, unlike the Kurds farther south, the Azeris did not use the revolutionary chaos that erupted after the fall of the Peacock Throne to ignite any sort of ethnic nationalism.

Contrary to calling for independence or even autonomy, Azeris mirrored the rest of Iranian society in demanding democracy, pluralism, and the expulsion of foreign interference, personified in the Shah himself. With a more open society, which was the original goal of the anti-Shah movement, the Azeris reasoned a new government would allow for linguistic freedom and the recognition of the role Azeris play in Iranian society.

The revolution resembled, in some ways, a rebellion of the ethnically diverse provinces against the perceived Persian bigotry of Tehran. Thus, the revolutionary sentiments of Azeris in 1979 portrayed more of a nationalist Iranian tone rather than ethnic nationalism, albeit tinged with a rejection of the Shah's Persian-tilted version of Iranian nationalism.

The revolutionary government initially feared the imagined specter of Azeri nationalism as much as the imperial government of the Shah, especially any sentiment created by a hostile Moscow that had just invaded Afghanistan. Tehran again rejected any idea of linguistic rights. Article 15 of the new Iranian constitution, granting linguistic rights to ethnic minorities, was (like many other aspects of the liberal document) conveniently ignored in the revolutionary fervor of the day.

Azeris soon found out that the establishment of the Islamic Republic did not exactly correspond to the dreams of respect and space from Tehran that they hoped would reach fruition. A sense of Persian-centered Iranian nationalism, instilled by thousands of years of tradition, still hovered around the centers of power in Tehran. Azeris shared in the despair of the whole country as the revolutionary government steadily became more repressive and eactionary while the economy plummeted, leaving millions jobless.

Two forces prevented Azeri nationalist tendencies from gaining ground in Iranian Azerbaijan after the victory of the revolution: the invasion of Iran by Arab Iraq and the promotion of Shiism as the preeminent force in rallying the Iranian populace in support of the resistance against Saddam Hussein. In fact, the Iranian Azeri city of Ardebil witnessed record numbers of volunteers ready to sacrifice their lives at the frontlines.

Soon Ardebil vaulted to second place after Isfahan in the number of casualties seen during the war, giving Azeris an even higher level of standing among both the ruling elite and the masses nationwide. The mindset of the Iranian Azeri volunteer is important to note; it is hard to imagine thousands of youths dying for a country they do not see as their own.

The imposition of a foreign invasion threatening the very existence of the Iranian state, coupled with the strong and pervasive influence of Shia Islam throughout Iran, brought together Azeris and Persians in defense of a common homeland. Azeris and Persians, along with a multitude of other ethnic groups, fought and died together on the frontlines battling an enemy every Iranian loathed: a virulent brand of aggressive Arab nationalism encapsulated by personage of Saddam Hussein.

The sudden fall of communism and the establishment of an independent Azeri state north of the Araxes River followed the end of the war. Its unexpected occurrence sent a shudder down official Tehran's spine. Yet, by the beginning of the 1990's, Iranian Azeris had woven themselves into every facet of Iranian life, dominating the business elite of the nation and even holding high positions of power. Former Prime Minister Mir-Mousavi and current Supreme Leader Khamenei are but a few examples of ethnic Azeris gaining positions of influence after the revolution.

As a result, the Azeri language began to witness a sort of official rehabilitation. Local television and mosques began to use Azeri in addition to the standard Farsi. The reformist administration of President Khatami went so far as to support Azeri language newspapers, many of which curiously withstood Khamenei's wholesale attack of the pro-democracy press in 2000.

Many politicians visiting the northwest even laced their speeches with Azeri, to the roaring approval of the masses. Of course, despite the economic doldrums and the Islamic regime's often capricious attitude toward the Iranian people as a whole, its treatment of the Azeris stood in stark contrast to the police tactics of the Pahlavi crown.

The Azeri position and stature in Iranian society was so secure by the 1990's that some Iranian Azeris actually called for the re-integration of the former Soviet Azeri Republic back into Iran, causing much consternation in Moscow and Baku. Abbas Maleki, deputy Foreign Minister during the Rafsanjani presidency and himself an ethnic Azeri, referred to independent Azerbaijan's claims for unification with Iranian Azerbaijan in a Reuters interview. "They have some claims for a united Azerbaijan," says Maleki. "Most of the Azeri territory and population is in Iran, so if they want, they can join Iran."

Yet, the Khatami Administration treads carefully. The only recent attempt at separatist activity came when Mahmud Ali Chereghani, an activist in Tabriz, called for the separation of Azeri provinces from Iran and unification with what he called "North Azerbaijan". His arrest was swift and Tehran's response draconian.

On the whole, the post-revolutionary government has adopted a constructivist approach, using the ideals of sacrifice during the war and the rallying cry of Shia Islam to create a powerful ethnic attachment that saw as its primary objective the defense of Iranian territory. This attachment is to a broader supra-structure above the traditional notion of splintered ethnic groups that coalesces around a Shia-dominated Iranian cultural identity.

The Azeris have a long list of historical grievances. These complaints, however, mirror the cries of the entire Iranian population: frustration with the constraints of religious government, corruption, social restrictions, unemployment, and inflation. Most observers on the ground deny claims by groups in Baku and the likes of Chereghani, who claim wholesale disenchantment with the idea of the Iranian nation-state.

The frustrations of Iranian Azeris, as in 1979, are concurrent with the mood of the Iranian people as a whole. In 1999, pro-democracy protests in Tabriz ranked second only to the ones in Tehran in size and focused on the granting of greater press freedoms throughout the country. The thousands that demonstrated at Tabriz University conspicuously did not include any references to Azeri nationalism in their agenda.

There is no doubt a historical bond between the Caucuses and Tehran. Indeed, what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan was part of Iran for most of history. Looking at at the issue of Azeri nationalism in this light causes us to realize that Azeri ethnic feeling is too intertwined with Iranian nationalism for a meaningful voluntary separation to occur.

This bond has, of course, seen strains throughout the past decades. A combination of state-sponsored suppression of Azeri sentiment (mainly during Pahlavi rule) and a massive integration movement toward the Iranian mainstream (primarily under the Islamic regime) has prevented the rise of ethnic nationalism in the northwest. The result has been the establishment of an over-arching sense of Iranian nationalism skillfully manipulated and interlaced with loyalty to the precepts of Shiism, which makes an almost universal devotion to Iranian national identity possible.

The war against the Iranian plateau's historic enemy, the Arabs from the western lowlands, cemented the feeling of Iranian nationalism that was able to eclipse ethnic nationalism across the new Islamic Republic. Non-Arab Iran united in the face of an Arab invasion, vowing not to repeat the catastrophic defeat of the Persian Empire by the Arabs centuries earlier.

The Azeri support of the war effort increased the group's level of acceptance among both the Iranian populace and the nation's elites.With the foundation of a shared identity created by years of war, recent Iranian governments have felt more confident granting linguistic rights to the Azeri people. Any hint of Azeri separatism, however, is not tolerated in Tehran, as Cheraghani's arrest attested to.

Today, the Azeris in Iran seem to have attained a minimum modicum of civil rights, with the ability to open up more space for themselves by influencing the teetering national reform movement. Yet, it is doubtful that Tehran will allow any move that would lead to the severance of the rest of the Azerbaijan from Iran. [See replies: Azeri nationalism is Iranian nationalism, We deserve better]]


Salman J. Borhani is a graduate student at the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy and International Relations in South Orange, New Jersey.

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