Our Analytics 17 november — 09:45

Iran fears uprising in Tabriz (Our afterword)



A question that should be on people’s minds as they focus on the current chaos across the Middle East and Europe is what is happening to Azerbaijani ethnic minority in Iran. A recent incident in Iran’s Azerbaijani provinces is sparking interest in the plight of Iranian Azerbaijanis in the Islamic Republic, and what the prospects are for future uprisings against Tehran.

It is important to remember that the Azerbaijani nation is larger than just in independent Azerbaijan itself. In Iran, three provinces – West and East Azerbaijan, and Ardebil – have a majority Azerbaijani population numbering up to 12 million, or even more, according to some estimates, compared to just over 8 million Azerbaijanis found in the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani plight in Iran maybe a tinderbox.

On 6 November, a popular children’s program ‘Fitilehha’ depicted an Azerbaijani brushing his teeth with a toilet brush. The comedic transmission intended for children, showed a man and his son, speaking in Farsi with Azerbaijani accent, expressing their unhappiness with the hotel they were staying in, deeming it ‘smelly.’ The punch line was that they had mistakenly used a toilet brush to clean their teeth. After that, the child's father apologised to the owner of the hotel and said that the cause of bad breath was his child.

Seen as a slur against ethnic Azerbaijanis on an Iranian children’s television program (broadcast on the state IRIB TV-2) sparked large street protests in the north-western cities of Tabriz, Urmiyye and Zanjan. Protesters shouted, ‘The people of Azerbaijan cannot tolerate more of this oppression,’ ‘Schools in Azeri Turkic’ and the like... Iranian security forces killed one person and arrested dozens more. In Baku, the capital of independent Azerbaijan, thousands protested against the racist statement by Iranian television too.

Mohammad Sarafraz, the head of the state owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), apologised for the episode, which he said was ‘insulting’ to ethnic Azerbaijanis. He said the producers of the program would be severely punished.  ‘The [IRIB] apologises for the slip-up, and it will redouble its efforts to strengthen national unity among Iranian ethnic groups,’ Fars news agency quoted Sarafraz as saying on 8 November.  Davud Nemati-Anarki, the head of IRIB's public relations department, also apologised for the ‘unintentional offence’ caused by the TV program.

Despite the apologies, Iranian officials have had troubles with Iranian Azerbaijanis because of Tehran’s ethnic minority’s policy.  In 2006, Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani landed in jail after publishing a cartoon that showed a cockroach speaking Azerbaijani. The cartoon, which ran in the children's section of a state newspaper, showed a cockroach asking, ‘What?’ in Azerbaijani. It was deemed insulting by many members of Iran's Azerbaijani minority, who took to the streets to show their anger. The government responded with force to the subsequent unrest. Nineteen people reportedly died in street clashes and many others were arrested. In response, The Supreme Leader blamed the protests on the West: ‘Azerbaijanis have always bravely defended the Islamic revolution and the sovereignty of this country.’

The Iranian fear of an uprising in Tabriz has been a constant problem for the authorities.  A certain amount of Iranian Azeris have always dreamed of independence and linking up with their northern brethren especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This fact is a constant driver for Iranian Azerbaijani identity.

Troubles with Iranian Azerbaijanis are not new.  In 1996, Mahmudali Chohraganli, an Iranian Azerbaijani nationalist leader, was elected to represent Tabriz in the Iranian parliament. The government did not allow him to take his seat in the parliament and detained him.  At the time, the Islamic Republic was fearful of the ethnic minorities factor to include not only Azerbaijanis, but also Khuzestan and Sistan-Baluchistan. This apprehension remains today.

From Tehran’s point of view, the Republic of Azerbaijan does not help when the region’s history is discussed. Iran’s complaints to Azerbaijan about presenting 12th century poet from Ganja, Azerbaijan's second largest city, Nizami Ganjavi and 18th century ruler Nader Shah as Azerbaijani is a sore point in relations between the two countries. According to Tehran, Azerbaijan also appropriates Iranian cultural values, such as the musical instrument tar, sport polo, the festival Shab-e Yalda (Night of Yalda) and the Caspian horse. Moreover, the Museum of History of Azerbaijan has took up the attempt to display as a sample of Azeri historical heritage the historic flag, which Abbas Mirza, the crown prince of Qajar Dynasty, gifted to Khan of Nakhchivan during the battle of Aslanduz in 1812 as a sign of appreciation.

Azerbaijani nationalism has grown over the last two decades and a half: although most Iranian Azerbaijanis are not openly in favour of separation from Iran, there are small numbers who are seeking greater rights. Nationalist publications aimed at Iranian Azerbaijanis have been on the rise. Many also have access to Turkish satellite television, so their knowledge of Turkey and Azerbaijan has increased.  Now social media is spreading new information, thought and knowledge.

The Islamic Republic’s current Iranian Azerbaijani dilemma has three major implications.

First, are border issues between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan. There are six border checkpoints on the Iranian-Azerbaijani border, including Julfa, Shakhtakhti, Astara, Bilasuvar and Imishli. Iran and Azerbaijan are discussing ways of resolving problems related to the Bilasuvar border checkpoint at the Azerbaijan-Iran border. Moreover, Iran and Azerbaijan plan to build a bridge at the Aslanduz-Horadiz checkpoint, in a bid to develop trade relations between the two countries and to improve customs activities that will heighten links from Iran to Ganja (Azerbaijan’s second largest city), as well as to the neighbouring Georgia. Iran wants to make sure that new connectivity with Azerbaijan goes smoothly as sanctions are lifted. Trying to keep a lid on Iranian Azerbaijani sentiment will be paramount to these efforts.

Second, is Iran’s perception of other minorities as wars rage in the Levant and terrorist attacks hit Europe. The Arab and Baluch minorities are known for their violent aspirations with riots and terrorist activity, led by unnamed – as of yet – Sunni extremists and Jundallah (including Jaishul-Adl and Harakat Ansar Iran) respectively. Their complaints are notable: lack of government spending on development in provinces with large ethnic minorities; revenues from oil and natural resources in their regions being spent on other cities and provinces; greater regional autonomy, and limits on use of their traditional languages. Over time, the casualties among Iranian government officials and civilians was estimated to be in the hundreds. As sanctions lift in the coming years, these minorities will want to see economic benefit for themselves. If not, there may be trouble as the Iranian ‘political universe’ reaps any profits for itself.

It is important to note that Iranian entrepreneurs who discuss new business relations with foreign companies are arguing that ‘Iran is stable; do you see any terrorism or ‘Islamic State’?’  That assertion may be true now, but no one can predict what happens in a few years, especially in restive corners of the Islamic Republic and especially in the north-west of Iran...

Third, and most important, is the Islamic Republic’s idea that American-led ‘colour revolutions,’ to use the Russian argument, may eat away at Tehran’s authority. With the nuclear deal, more conservative members of the Iranian elite see the JCPOA as a trick designed to destroy Iran from within. For them, the US is attempting to exploit Azerbaijani national aspirations for its own purposes regarding future energy transit. The tensions between Iranian leaders is becoming more visible with Rouhani complaining in public about conservative tensions regarding the Islamic Revolution Guardians Corps.

Overall, Iranian Azerbaijanis find themselves in the same position they did before: under Tehran’s thumb with insults hurled at them. There will be a point in the near term where the Islamic Republic will have to work more closely with this community, as the country opens its borders to enhanced trade northward.

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