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26 Apr 2007

Iran: Stifling the Azeri minority

Trouble is brewing in Iran's 'Southern Azerbaijan' as the government targets Azeri human rights activists and cracks down on what some view as the Azeri ethnic minority's struggle for more democracy and human rights, and what others call separatism.

By Karl Rahder

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have been both tempestuous and guardedly cordial at least as far back as the Soviet period, when Moscow refused to withdraw its troops from Iran after World War II, one of the first incidents that defined the emerging Cold War. The Kremlin ultimately pulled out, abandoning its hope of exploiting Azeri-Persian tensions and enlarging the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic to encompass much of northern Iran.

Like much of the post-colonial world, the demographics in both Iran and Azerbaijan make little sense. The Araz River marks the border that was delimited after an 1828 treaty between Iran and imperial Russia, and separates Azerbaijan's eight million Azeris (along with small ethnic minorities of Russians, Lezgins and others) and the much larger Azeri population in Iran.

Despite at least some Iranian success in recruiting agents in Azerbaijan, a trip across the Araz River into northern Iran leads one to a region of simmering discontent - a place where hundreds of thousands of Azeri demonstrators have clashed with riot police in what began as a series of protests against Persian institutional racism but lately may have morphed into something much broader and more dangerous.

The cockroach conundrum

The catalyst for the riots that spread across northern Iran last year was the publication in late May of a children's cartoon in a newspaper controlled by the Iranian government. The cartoon, in color and taking up an entire page, depicts the travails of a child who attempts to communicate with a cockroach - a thinly veiled surrogate for an Azeri. The child queries the cockroach in a variety of languages, but the uncomprehending insect merely replies with the Azeri word for "pardon me?"

The parallels between an illiterate cockroach and Azeris were not lost on Iran's Azeri population, who responded with a wave of protests in Tabriz, Orumiyeh and other cities. Initial reports from Azeri sources indicated that at least four people were killed by Iranian riot police, but subsequent estimates have put the number of dead at up to 100.

As a result of the unrest, during which cars were torched and a bank set ablaze in Tabriz, the authorities took the opportunity to round up Azeri human rights activists such as Abbas Lisani, who was arrested in June of 2006 after the demonstration in Ardebil. Lisani was convicted for "spreading anti-government propaganda," and sentenced to a year and a half in prison and 50 lashes.

As of late January, Lisani had ended a month-long hunger strike and was reported to be weakened and in ill-health.

Lisani has been targeted frequently by Iranian prosecutors over the past several years. In 2004, he was reportedly severely beaten by Iranian police during an arrest in a mosque in Ardebil. According to recent press reports, Lisani's next trial date will be on 17 May in Tabriz.

Other Iranian Azeris, such as liberal cleric Hojjatoleslam Ezimi Qedimi, had been convicted of similar crimes prior to last year's cartoon controversy. Qedimi was released last August, but is forbidden to speak publicly on Azeri rights issues and to wear the clothes of a religious scholar.

After demonstrations in February this year, as many as 60 Azeris were arrested in the city of Orumiye, including journalist Esmail Javadi, who was jailed in an Intelligence Ministry facility and "severely beaten," according to Amnesty International.

Some 20 people were arrested in the city of Ardebil in late February, including human rights activist Ramin Sadeghi who reportedly was being held in Ardebil prison. Like Lisani, Sadeghi had gone on a hunger strike and "is believed to be in poor health and in urgent need of medical care," said Amnesty International in early March. Journalist Said Metinpour was arrested in Zenjan, and was said "to have blood on his lips" during his arrest. As of press time, all three men had been released on bail and were awaiting trial.

"Greater Azerbaijan"

One former political prisoner now lives in the US and leads the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement (SANAM), an organization that focuses on Azeri rights in Iran.

Mahmudali Chehregani, a former literature professor, enjoys considerable prestige among Azeri Iranians and has been consulted by officials in the Pentagon, the State Department and even the White House in recent years - talks that have fueled speculation that the US administration hopes to take advantage of ethnic unrest in Iran.

Cherhraganli is often referred to as a separatist, although in a recent interview with ISN Security Watch in Washington, DC, he was careful to distance himself from the concept of an independent southern Azerbaijani state or unification with the Azerbaijani Republic.

"We want only democracy and human rights. And we want a change in the Iranian regime to a democratic and secular government. We favor a federal Iran, the same as federalism in the US or Germany. We want self-determination. We want Tabriz to be the capital of south Azerbaijan, and we want a parliament and a government. But we are a part of Iran. We are not separatists," he said.

Even if a separatist uprising is remote, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a lot to be nervous about, some say.

"If you're an Iranian politician, you have a major problem with the Azeri minority," said Stephen Blank, "and you have a constant fear that that minority can be used by outside forces to stir up trouble within Iran […] Iranians today are very conscious of this fact. It's a big problem for them domestically."

Most western analysts and even many Azeris believe that the prospects for a "Greater Azerbaijan" are slim.

Etibar Mammadov is one of the skeptics. He points out that even if an opportunity for southern Azerbaijan to merge with the Azerbaijani Republic were to present itself, the cultural differences between secular Azerbaijan and the Azeri region of Iran would be too wide to resolve in a unified state, even though both groups share a common Shi'ite religious faith.

Iran's Azeris, more conservative and far more numerous than their kin north of the river, would be reluctant to accept rule from Baku, he says. "The Iranian Azeris would ask, 'We are 25 million and they are only eight million. Why should we follow Baku's rules? Why shouldn't they follow our rules?'"

Obali is convinced that the movement is undergoing a shift in emphasis from a protest against Persian racism to a wider anti-regime struggle, and once that happens, he says, "the whole character of the movement changes. And now the Iranian government has to take notice, so the problems for them have been multiplied in the past year or so."

For Obali, who sees Iran as an artificial state that is held together only by coercion from Tehran, the underlying issue is the centrifugal ethnic forces that could tear the country apart at the seams. An increasingly active Azeri rights movement, along with similar underground organizations in Baluchi, Kurdish and Arab regions of Iran, threaten the country's raison d'etre: a unified, multi-ethnic theocracy.

"The movement is so deep. And it's a popular, grass-roots movement. The government brought in close to 200,000 extra troops to handle it, and they couldn't do anything until it was too late […] We are the single most devastating news for the Iranian government!"

More trouble brewing

Further clashes between the clerical regime and Iran's ethnic minorities are very likely, given the history of ethnic grievances in northern Iran and elsewhere and rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, where a US naval task force was reinforced in late March.

Despite visits to northern Iran by President Ahmadinejad in recent months, ostensibly to rebuild support and reach out to the community, trouble with the Republic of Azerbaijan may also be brewing. An unknown number of Iranian military helicopters violated Azerbaijani airspace on 22 February, just a day after the demonstrations in northern Iran, causing widespread speculation in Azerbaijan that the incursion was an intentional message - although the Iranian government subsequently apologized and claimed the helicopters had strayed into Azerbaijan accidentally.

As of early April, Azerbaijan's Turan news agency reported that Iran had closed the border between the two countries, a report that the Iranian government denied.

Iran, then, is deeply concerned about the potential for instability inside its borders, and may be signaling neighboring Azerbaijan and its US ally that Tehran is firmly in control of its territory.

"The real question," Stephen Blank says, "is what is stronger - nationalism or Islamism? It's an open question and nobody has the answer."


Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.

Editor's note:

This is Part II of a two-part series on Iran's Azerbaijani minority. Part I was published on 19 April 2007.

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