What do Azerbaijanis in Iran want?

Azeri provinces2

Azerbaijani Provinces in Iran: West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardabil

On 9-12 November, ethnic Azerbaijanis, who comprise the majority of the population in Northern Iran, staged large street protests in response to an 8 November children’s TV program that aired derogatory content mocking he Azerbaijanis. The streak of protests was not an isolated reaction to that TV show, but was the cumulative effect of years of frustration of the Azerbaijanis in Iran, who make up the largest minority group in the world that does not have access to education in its own language. So, why are the central authorities in Tehran discriminating against the second largest ethnic group in the country?

The potential for self-determination movements in ethnic-minority groups has always been of major concern for the government of Iran. However, instead of representing the interests of all the groups in the country in order to create a more cohesive society, the government of Iran has chosen the way of selective discrimination. Today, there is not a single school in Iran for Azerbaijanis and all the activists bringing up the collective issues of Azerbaijani community are harassed, arrested or worse. During mother tongue day celebrations last year dozens of Azerbaijani civil activists were detained.

Iran could benefit from the experience of Quebec in Canada, where the government has offered the French-speaking population of Quebec all the freedoms and liberties they could ask for. In return, French Canadians have twice voted down the referendums on sovereignty. Residents of Quebec do not only have schools in French, but also all the government services (courts, healthcare, public signs) are offered both in English and French. Compare this to Iran, where any individual who brings up the collective issues of Azerbaijani community is viewed as the enemy of the state by the Khamenei regime.

As Iran continues to suppress the natural demands of Azerbaijanis, Tehran’s fears might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Khamanei regime deploys security specialists to deal with the needs and grievances of its ethnic minorities, while it should rely more on cultural and social workers. Today, the Special Assistant to the President of Iran on Ethnic and Religious Minorities Affairs is Ali Younesi, former Minister of National Intelligence. In 2010, the favorite sports team of Azerbaijanis Tractor Sazi Football Club’s ownership was transferred to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most feared security organization in Iran. Though, Azerbaijanis still perceive the matches of Traktor Sazi as a rallying place to express their identity, undermined by the state.

Iran Trakhtor Azeri

Azerbaijani fans at a game of the Trakhtor Sazi football club

A careful observation offers that Iran’s leadership is most fearful of collective political action by the Azerbaijanis, who make up the largest ethnic minority group in the country. Proximity to the mother country, historical precedence, relative deprivation, territorial concentration, relative and absolute size of the population group, distinct identity are all preconditions that create fertile grounds for self-determination movement of Azerbaijanis. Let’s explore these factors in more detail:

  1. Proximity to the mother country – Located on the territories occupied by the Russian Empire during the Russo-Persian Wars of the early 19th century, the Republic of Azerbaijan is separated from the Iranian Azerbaijan only by the Araz River. Today, many Azerbaijanis refer to the Iranian Azerbaijan as Southern Azerbaijan, since Iran is located south of the independent state of Azerbaijan. Through secular schools introduced by Russia, Azerbaijanis north of the Araz River were able to learn about the new political ideas and civil movements in Europe. The enlightenment process was invigorated during the Baku Oil boom of the early 19th century and culminated with the establishment of the independent Azerbaijan Republic that lived from May 1918 to April 1920, when the Soviet Red Army entered Baku. The political structure established during the two years of independence allowed Azerbaijan to enter the Soviet Union as a Soviet Socialist Republic and subsequently exit it as an independent state.
  2. Historical precedence – If northern Azerbaijanis were able to establish independence following the World War I, Azerbaijanis in Iran succeeded to establish an autonomous state in the aftermath of the World War II that lasted from November 1945 to November 1946. However, because the Soviet Union only supported the newly established “Azerbaijan People’s Government” (APG) in Iran in order to gain access to the Middle East, the British and American governments adamantly opposed the nascent establishment. Thus, following the UN Security Council Resolutions 2 and 3, the Soviet troops pulled out of Azerbaijan and the Iranian army crushed the movement for autonomy. The Western diplomats did not fully appreciate that the mutineers in Iran were homegrown, and that the Soviets only exploited the authentic aspirations of the Azerbaijanis in Iran (an instance well illustrated in a semi-fiction book of 1949 “The Diplomat” by an Australian writer James Aldridge).
  3. Relative deprivation – Following the demise of the APG,
    Iran Azeri document

    Official document that banned giving Azeri names to kids in Iran

    Azerbaijanis became subject to even harsher discrimination. The King of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, banned the Azerbaijani language at schools, theaters, media and any official office. There was even a ban on giving Azerbaijani names to kids. Aggravated Azerbaijanis played an important role in the overthrow of the king in 1979 and eagerly looked towards the new government. In the first years of its rule the Islamic Republic of Iran allowed certain advances in ethnic minority rights, but as soon as the Khamanei regime strengthened its grasp of the country, it started suppressing all the Azerbaijani media outlets. Twelve journals started publishing in Azerbaijani but were shut down between 1979 and 1981.[1] The chief editor of Radio Baku in Southern Azerbaijan read a letter in 1984 that was representative of the overall disappointment among Azerbaijanis: “It is a regrettable truth that the victorious people’s revolution has been unable to continue its advance due to the perfidy of the forces of the right which have taken over the government. Rights given to the people by the dictates of the revolution have been taken away step by step.”[2]

  4. Territorial concentration – A large majority of Azerbaijanis in Iran are concentrated in three provinces – East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Urmia. Previously there was only one autonomous Azerbaijan ayalat, which used to contribute more to the treasury of the Iranian government than any other province until the oil revolution in South-Western Iran.[3] In 1950, the Iranian government divided Azerbaijan into three jurisdictions, so the Azerbaijanis could not have cohesive leadership. Today, Azerbaijanis face another environmental challenge as the Lake Urmia, previously the largest salt-lake in the Middle East, has shrunk by 90%. Desiccation of the lake located between East and West Azerbaijan is not only leading to the economic collapse of the neighboring communities, but also creating public health hazards due to toxic dust generated by the exposed salt from the lakebed. By some estimates the damage to the ecosystem by the disappearing lake could affect the lives of 13 million people living in that area. Iranian authorities have not responded to public campaigns of Azerbaijanis to take measures against the desiccation of the lake, but have suggested relocating residents who live near the lake. Azerbaijanis have rejected the idea, as they are attached to their lands.
  5. Relative and absolute size of the population – According to various estimates there are between 14 and 25 million Azerbaijanis in Iran, which would account for 16 to 30 percent of the overall population. It’s difficult to name a specific number as the Iranian government has not registered the ethnic background of its citizens since the 1950s. However, in the early 1900’s every third citizen of Iran was Azerbaijani. Over time many Azerbaijanis gave up on their ethnic identity to rise in the social hierarchy of Iran, but it should also be considered that large majority of the Azerbaijanis live in the predominantly agricultural regions. Therefore in average Azerbaijanis have relatively bigger households than Persians. Taking into account both trends it would be reasonable to assume that close to 20 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran composing approximately 25% of the overall population.
  6. Distinct identity – Azerbaijanis are the descendants of the Turkic tribes that arrived in this region in the 11th century. Over time, these tribes have followed the Shia denomination of Islam, which has helped their amalgamation with other ethnic groups that were also Shias. Integration of the influential clerics from Azerbaijan into the power circles of Tehran has helped the central authorities to keep the Azerbaijanis under control. However, Azerbaijanis who rise in the social hierarchy of Iran are not able to represent the interests of the Azerbaijani community. For example, Armenians – who comprise less than 1% of Iran’s population and have far less representatives in the big politics and business of Iran – have at least 3 schools in Iran.[4] While Azerbaijanis not only have no schools in Iran, they also face harassment to teach the language at regular schools. Nevertheless, despite all the hardships Azerbaijanis have preserved their identity and language. Today, the main mode of communication in the Azerbaijani provinces of Iran is still the Azerbaijani language.

Today, the officials in Azerbaijan Republic are very careful with their comments about the plight of Iranian Azerbaijan, especially now that Iran’s strategic significance in the region is growing. Iran has gained a new moment in the geo-political dynamics of the region, following nuclear deal within the P5+1 format and coalition of Tehran with Moscow to support the Assad regime in Syria. However, there have been times when state representatives in Baku did not shy away from recalling the issues of Iranian Azerbaijan, as the relations between the two states were going through a low-point. Three years ago several parliamentarians in Azerbaijan proposed to change the country’s name to Northern Azerbaijan, in order to highlight the existence of Southern Azerbaijan.

Thus, Iran is concerned not only about the situation within the domestic Azerbaijani community, but also about the political mood in the independent Azerbaijan. Last week, in an attempt to quell the protesters chanting “no to racism” on the streets of Tabriz, Urmia, and Zanjan, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting apologized for the “unforgivable mistake”, ordered the program be halted and dismissed the official in charge, but the riot police also arrested 47 demonstrators. So long as Iran will not listen to its own people and continue to suppress their voices, the Islamic Republic will be sitting on a tinderbox that can spark a fire at any point.


[1] Hamid Mammadzade Adabiyyat va Injasanat, Azarbayjan, 5/1981, pp. 6-7

[2] Latif Huseynzade Adabiyyat va Injasanat, 24 August 1984, p. 3

[3] James D. Clark. “Provincial Concerns: A political History of the Iranian Province of Azerbaijan, 1848-1906.” Mazda Publishers 2006. P. 143

[4] 1. Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Marie Manoogian School in Tehran; 2. AGBU Nevart Gulbenkian School in Tehran; 3. Alishan School in Tehran

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