Why Iran’s Azeris Are Iranian

The weakness of Azeri nationalism in Iran (discussed last week) seems surprising at first glance. Iranian Azeris form a large, distinctive, and relatively cohesive ethnic group that has been deprived of basic educational rights in its own language. Similar situations in neighboring countries have resulted in serious unrest if not prolonged insurgency – think of the Kurds of Turkey. One might assume that the unpopularity of Iran’s restrictive clerical regime and the fact that independent Azerbaijan offers the attractions of a relatively open and globally engaged society would incline the Iranian Azeris toward separatism. Yet with a few exceptions, the southern Azeris show few signs of seeking autonomy, much less independence or union with Azerbaijan.

Historical factors figure prominently in explaining this seeming paradox. Persian- and Turkic-speaking peoples have been intertwined throughout Iran and Western Central Asia for centuries; historian Robert Canfield thus delineates a large cultural-historical region that he calls “Turko-Persia.” The region’s socio-political foundations long rested on a combination of Turkic military might and political power and Persian economic and intellectual ascendency. The ruling dynasties of Persia (what is now Iran) from the end of the Mongol period through the first quarter of the twentieth century were of Turkic origin, and relied heavily on the military power of Turkish tribal groups scattered widely across the country.

Persia’s last major Turkic dynasty, the Qajars, held power, albeit in a decentralized manner, from 1794 to 1925. Originally of Turkmen stock, the Qajar rulers spoke a language similar to Azeri in their homes, while employing Persian for court proceedings and administration. In the early 1800s, the Qajars lost their northwestern territories in the Caucasus – modern Azerbaijan – to the expanding Russian empire. Continuing threats and interference by both Russia and Britain would compromise the sovereignty of the country until the mid twentieth century. Such foreign pressures, if anything, enhanced the linkage between the Persian and Turkic peoples of Iran.

Ethnic relations were transformed under the Pahlavi dynasty, which came to power in 1925. To modernize Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi sought to construct a nation-state based on Persian culture and language. This required a campaign of Persianization, and corresponding de-Turkification, in much of the country. Restrictions were placed on publication in Azeri and other Turkic languages, place names were changed, and pressure was even put on parents to give their children Persian-sounding names.

The Persio-centric policies of the two Pahlavi shahs antagonized Iran’s ethnic minorities, including not just Turkic-speakers but millions of Arabs, Kurds, and others. They also failed to resonate deeply with many Persians, who formed a bare majority of the country’s population. Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s head of state from 1941 to 1979, Iranian nationalism was officially based not merely on contemporary Persian culture but on 2,500 years of imperial history. By glorifying his country’s pre-Islamic past, the Shah deeply antagonized Iran’s religious leadership, contributing to the collapse of his regime in 1979.

The new Islamic Republic of Iran fixed its national foundations firmly on the religious ties of Shiite Islam. Although Persian remained the favored language, especially in education, many of the restrictive linguistic policies of the previous government were dropped. As Shiites, the Azeris could easily share in the country’s reformulated scheme of national identity. (The same cannot be said for Iran’s Sunni groups, most notably the Baluch and the Kurds.)

Developments in northern Azerbaijan, under Russian and then Soviet control from the early 1800s to 1991, also militated against the formation of a pan-Azeri national consciousness. Russian imperial rule was harsh, and did not encourage the emergence of Azeri political identity. Under Soviet rule, such identity was nurtured insofar as it remained subsumed within communist ideology. Soviet agents promoted communist ideas in Iran as well. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Iranian Communist Party gained strength in the north, and especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest. But the Soviets overplayed their hand. After having occupied much of northern Iran during World War II, the Soviet Union set up a quasi-independent communist state in Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945, appealing to Azeri ethnic identity. Most Iranian Azeris, however, rejected the Marxist ideology of the “Azerbaijan People’s Government,” which collapsed in 1946. As much as they may have distrusted the Pahlavi dynasty, most southern Azeris preferred it to the Soviet Union.

The independence of Azerbaijan in 1991 again changed the dynamics of Azeri identity, opening the doors for the first time to the emergence pan-Azeri nationalism. The effects of long-term historical development, however, are not so quickly erased. In terms of political identity, Iranian Azerbaijan remains far more Iranian than Azerbaijani.

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Iranian Azerbaijan and the Cartoon Cockroach Controversy

Iran is to Azerbaijan as Thailand is to Laos: just as Thailand has far more Lao-speakers than Laos, Iran has far more Azeri-speakers than Azerbaijan. Some 18 million Azeris live in Iran (where they comprise 20 to 25 percent of a large populace); that is more than double the number in Azerbaijan (whose 8 million Azeris account for 90 percent of a much smaller population). Although the discrepancy is not as large as that between Laos and Thailand in regard to the Lao, the Azeri case is in some respects more pronounced. In contrast to the concentration of Lao speakers in just one country outside Laos, for instance, large Azeri populations extend into several neighboring countries, with an estimated 800,000 in Turkey, 600,000 in Russia, and 280,000 in Georgia. And whereas Lao and Thai are closely related languages, Azeri—a Turkic language—is unrelated to Persian, an Indo-European tongue. Azerbaijan is clearly an “underfit” country, with the majority of the ethnic group upon which its national foundations are based residing outside its boundaries.

But beyond simple ethnic proportions, the Lao/Azeri analogy does not go very far. Isan is the poorest part of Thailand, and its Lao-speaking inhabitants tend to be politically and economically marginalized and culturally disparaged. Northwestern Iran, on the other hand, is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of the country, and its Azeri-speaking inhabitants are well integrated within the Iranian nation. The Azeri community in Tehran is also substantial and relatively prosperous. Iranian opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi is Azeri; so—according to some—is Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the country. (Khamenei’s father was Azeri, but not his mother; he evidently speaks Azeri less fluently than Persian [Farsi] and Arabic.)

Despite the prominence of Azeris in Iranian national life, ethnic tensions are not absent. State language policy dictates that official documents, governmental correspondence, and textbooks must be written in Persian. In early 2010, Azeri activists in Iran called for demonstrations against the suppression of Azeri-language schools, hoping to use the U.N.’s International Mother Language Day (February 21) to publicize their cause. The planned protests failed to materialize. According to the South Azerbaijan website, “Repression and fear seem to be the main factors in preventing this year’s International Mother Language Day demonstration.”

In 2006, neither fear nor repression prevented massive ethnic protests from engulfing the Azeri region of Iran. Unrest was sparked by the printing of a comic sketch in a national magazine that was deemed insulting to the Azeri people and their language: in the cartoon, aimed at children, a boy says several words meaning “cockroach” in Persian, and the cockroach sitting across the table responds by asking “what?” in Azeri (with all words spelled in Roman letters).

In the resulting Iran newspaper cockroach cartoon controversy, demonstrations turned to riots and Iranian security came down hard. According to official sources, 330 protestors were arrested and four were killed.

Despite the uproar, the cartoon itself did not appear to be designed to insult the Azeri people. The cartoonist, an Azeri himself, was apparently poking fun cleverly at the “dialogue between civilizations” campaign of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. The fact that a seemingly innocuous cartoon generated such fast fury led Iranian nationalists to deduce foreign incitement. Some suspected the involvement of “Pan-Turkists,” adherents of a mostly defunct movement seeking to politically unite all Turkic speaking people. Naturally, suspicion also fell on the United States, which is habitually seen as scheming to destabilize Iran, in part by maintaining intelligence connections with Iranian Azeri separatist intellectuals. Concerns over U.S. intentions were to mount with the subsequent publication of Ralph Peters’ map of a reimagined Middle East (see next Monday’s post).

The Iranian government shut down the magazine in which the cartoon was published, and arrested the artist, Mana Neyestani. He was subsequently charged with “publishing provocative materials and fomenting discord.

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