'Borders and Brethren' Reveals the Dilemmas of Ethnic Politics in Iran

An interview with Brenda Shaffer conducted by: Konul Khalilova

Brenda Shaffer examines trends in Azerbaijani collective identity from the period of the Islamic Revolution in Iran through the Soviet breakup and the beginnigs of the Republic of Azerbaijan (1979-2000). She analyzes how Azerbaijanis have maintained their identity and how that identity has assumed different forms in the former Soviet Union and Iran. In addition to contributing to the study of ethnic identity, the book reveals the dilemmas of ethnic politics in Iran.

BRENDA SHAFFER, research director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University, examines trends in Azerbaijani collective identity from the period of the Islamic Revolution in Iran through the Soviet breakup and the beginnigs of the Republic of Azerbaijan (1979-2000).

An interview with Brenda Shaffer conducted by: Konul Khalilova

The Azerbaijani people have been divided between Iran and Russia for more than 150 years. But as Brenda S. Shaffer, Ph.D. Research Director of the Caspian Studies Program in Harvard University shows in her new Borders and Brethren book, they have yet retained their ethnic identity. In her book Brenda Shaffer examines trends in Azerbaijani collective identity from the period of the Islamic Revolution in Iran through the Soviet breakup and the beginnigs of the Republic of Azerbaijan (1979-2000). She analyzes how Azerbaijanis have maintained their identity and how that identity has assumed different forms in the former Soviet Union and Iran. In addition to contributing to the study of ethnic identity, the book reveals the dilemmas of ethnic politics in Iran.

BSS: Borders and Brethren is based on my doctoral dissertation work. I had noticed many years before I began my doctoral work that the ethnic borders and the political borders between the Caucasus and Central Asia and the Middle East are not the same. This may be trivial sounding to someone living in Azerbaijan, but many westerners assume that states are mostly nation-states and that the Kazakhs live in Kazakhstan, the Tajiks in Tajikistan and that, for instance, since there is an Afghanistan state, certainly there is an Afghani ethnic group. Little do they know that there are many ethnic groups, for instance, in Afghanistan, except for Afghanis! Most Americans, for instance, have no idea that Iran is a multi-ethnic state and that close to half the residents of Tehran speak a language other than Persian at home. I was fascinated by the question of how the existence of a political border between divided peoples affects their separate political and cultural development and if they retain a common identity despite the political separation. This question became especially interesting to me after the establishment of an independent Republic of Azerbaijan. I postulated that this event impacted the self-identity of the Azerbaijanis in neighboring states, and I set out to test that through the dissertation and in the subsequent book. During the period of researching the book, I began my first visits to Azerbaijan and really became interested in the culture and state. Many scholars in Baku helped me in this initial period of research, especially Prof. Nasib Nasibli from Khazar University, and I am grateful for this help and support.

I was also very interested in examining Iran as a multi-ethnic state. Most researchers when examining questions of ethnicity, identity, nationalism, etc ignore the Iranian case. Most accept the view that the regime tries to project that all the ethnic groups feel primarily Iranian. I have a different view. I feel that identity is always a fluid situation. A group can in a certain period strongly identity in one way, such as with a certain state, but that this is subject to change. Also, I believe that most people possess multiple identities and that they are often compatible. For instance, one may possess family identity, regional identity, ethnic identity, religious identity, state identity, ideological identity and more. To most of us, it is not clear which one is primary and it often depends on the situation we are in. For instance, when a citizen of Azerbaijan is at home, he/she may feel "Ganjavi" or "Yevlakhi" or even Lezgin or Jewish. But, he goes abroad and suddenly feels strongly Azerbaijani. It often depends on the situation.


BSS: This book is being published by a series of Harvard University which publishes at MIT Press. This will give wide exposure to issues connected to Azerbaijani culture and history and the question of ethnic politics in Iran. Many of the Azerbaijanis in the US are of South Azerbaijani or Iranian Azerbaijani background, thus this book will give opportunity for their children, many who were born in the US, to learn about the modern history of the Azerbaijanis in Iran.


BSS: In the book, I discuss the various collective identities that the Azerbaijanis have explored both in Soviet Azerbaijan (and the Republic of Azerbaijan) and in Iran since the late 1970s through 2000. Among the identities explored: Islam, Turkluk, regional identities, Soviet identity, Iranian identity. It discusses the relationship between the state (both Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan) and the ethnic identities of the Azerbaijanis on both sides. The book also explores the question of mutual relations between the Azerbaijanis on both sides of the border and how they have developed, as well as how the mutual ties between the Azerbaijanis affects politics in Iran.

I believe that the establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan challenged the identity of co-ethnics beyond the borders of the new state and fostered identification among many Azerbaijanis in Iran with the Azerbaijani ethnic group, though not necessarily with the new state itself. Since the early 1990s, political expressions of Azerbaijani ethnic identity in Iran have increased. This rising Azerbaijani identity has generated few calls for the three Azerbaijani provinces to secede from Iran and join the new republic, but rather has focused on attaining cultural rights within Iran. I think this point is often misunderstood both in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran-many Azerbaijanis in Iran identify ethnically as Azerbaijanis, but that does not mean that they want to break-away from Iran.

One of the most momentous developments was the establishment of formal, direct cooperation and interchange between the local government of the Azerbaijani provinces in Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan, circumventing Tehran. These ties are boosting the strength of the Azerbaijani provinces within Iran and thus affecting center-periphery relations in the state. Having conducted many of the cooperative endeavors directly with Baku, circumventing Tehran, representatives of the Iranian Azerbaijani provinces express increased interest in additional unimpeded ties with foreign states and provinces, mainly of Turkic background, and especially Turkey.

For instance, representatives of the Iranian Azerbaijani provinces and the republic signed protocols and agreements for direct bilateral technical and economic cooperation. In 1992, cooperation and regular exchanges were inaugurated between Tabriz University and the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences and two of Baku's leading universities --Khazar University and Baku State University.

Throughout 1992-1993, convoys of supplies and other aid were sent directly from the Azerbaijani provinces to the needy and to refugees in the republic; initially Azerbaijani representatives from the Iranian provinces had coordinated these convoys. For instance, in June 1992 a delegation from Urmiya set up a refugee center in Nakhichevan, and the East Azerbaijan Province opened a refugee camp within the territory of the republic in September 1993.

These direct interchanges and cooperation efforts seem to have contributed to an increased desire for more local control over affairs in the Azerbaijani provinces, especially in East Azerbaijan province. One of the most significant challenges to central authority was the request by Majlis Deputy Saraf for more independent authority for officials in East Azerbaijan province to organize assistance to the Republic of Azerbaijan without the interference of Iranian customs authorities. The governors and security officials of the Azerbaijani provinces and adjoining Azerbaijani-populated cities met in Tabriz in March 2001, and called for more local authority in security matters.

Among the north Azerbaijanis, there was an extensive outpouring in the 1980s and early 1990s of desire for ties with their co-ethnics in Iran, which served as a major focal point for expressing their own sense of Azerbaijani national identity and pride in their culture. This drive for expanded contact both in the cultural and political realms, increased as restrictions were lifted in the USSR and as Moscow's control eroded. Western researchers have tended to portray the "longings" (hasret) during the Soviet period for ties with the Azerbaijanis in Iran purely as part of Moscow's "campaigns" for gaining influence in Iran. While Moscow was unquestionably aware of Baku's activity in this regard, and often purposely encouraged that policy when it served its interests, the augmentation of this desire after the disintegration of Soviet power, demonstrates that the yearning for ties was also based in local and deeply rooted sentiments that existed in the north.


BSS: Tehran has shown that it is sensitive to assertions of Azerbaijani ethnic identity and that it fears Baku as a potential source of attraction for the Azerbaijanis in Iran. The emergence in the early 1990s of coordinated Azerbaijani political activity in Iran rang alarm bells for Tehran and this greatly affected its policies toward the Caucasus.

Iran's fear that the establishment of a strong and attractive Republic of Azerbaijan could lead to a rise in identity of its own Azerbaijani minority has led Iran to adopt a policy of de facto support of Armenia in the conflict with Azerbaijan for Karabagh. Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, Mahmud Va'ezi, pointed to internal considerations as one of Iran's major factors in its policy toward the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. Despite its rhetoric of neutrality in the conflict -- in itself inconsistent with the official ideology of a state that portrays itself as the protector and champion of the Shi'i -- throughout most of the period, Iran co-operated with Armenia. Evidently, it preferred that the Republic of Azerbaijan remained involved in a conflict, making it less attractive to Iran's Azerbaijanis and unable to allocate resources to stir-up ''South Azerbaijan.'' Perhaps the best indication of Iran's tilting towards Armenia was the fact that Yerevan and the Nagorno-Karabagh Armenians repeatedly praised Iran's role in the negotiation process and expressed their preference for Tehran over many other foreign mediators. In the spring of 1992, during the at one of the heights in the battles between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Tehran signed a number of economic agreements with Yerevan. At times Iran served as Armenia's main route for supplies and energy and provided an outlet for its trade. In April 1992, at one of the most crucial points in the escalation of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Iran agreed to supply natural gas and fuel to and improved transportation links with Armenia. Moreover, fuel from Russia was often delivered to Armenia by way of Iran. Without this vent from the Azerbaijani blockade and Turkish embargo, Armenia's war effort could have hardly been sustained, not to say escalated. Armenian Prime Minister and Vice President Gagik Arutyunyan pointed at Tehran's role in helping Armenia to circumvent Baku: At a ceremony commemorating the opening of a bridge over the Araz River linking Armenia and Iran, he stated that the bridge would contribute to stabilizing the economic situation in the republic created by the blockage.

On 9 May 1992 Armenian combatants captured Shusha, which was one of the turning points in the military confrontation, while Tehran was hosting a so-called peace summit between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Indeed, following major Armenian successes in the battlefield, Tehran negotiated a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan that went into affect on 21 March 1992. The cease-fire institutionalised a situation that was unfavourable to Azerbaijan.

Perhaps the best indication of Iran's tilting towards Armenia was the fact that Yerevan and the Nagorno-Karabagh Armenians repeatedly praised Iran's role in the negotiation process and expressed their preference for Tehran over many other foreign mediators. They also called for the deployment of Iranian observers at the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia and in the Nakhchivan area. According to Armenia's President Levon Ter-Petrossian, ''the Iranians have proved their complete impartiality in this issue, respecting the rights of both sides and striving for a just solution, and therefore the sides trust Iran.''

In contrast, on the grassroots level, many Azerbaijanis in Iran expressed their solidarity with the Republic of Azerbaijan in its struggle with Armenia over the control of Nagorno-Karabagh, and criticized Iran's cooperation with Armenia during this conflict. On May 25, 1992, 200 students demonstrating at Tabriz University chanted "Death to Armenia." They pointed a finger at Tehran when they condemned the "silence of the Muslims" in the face of the Armenian activities as "treason to the Koran." On April 13, 1993, Tehran University students held a demonstration in front of the Armenian Embassy to show their support for the Republic of Azerbaijan in its struggle with Armenia. Azerbaijani language publications in Iran showed a special interest in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and carried many articles that expressed solidarity with the plight of the Azerbaijanis there.

Initially, Iran welcomed the interchange between its Azerbaijani citizens and their co-ethnics in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and saw it as an opportunity to spread Iran's influence in the new Muslim republics and build economic and other types of cooperation with them. However, toward the end of 1992, Tehran saw that influence could flow two ways, and that the interaction could contribute to a rise in Azerbaijani identity in Iran. Iran tried to regain control over the connections and put them under central control, and toward the end of 1992 began to create obstacles to direct contacts between the Azerbaijanis. Evidently fearing a permanent Azerbaijani presence in the center of Iranian Azerbaijan, Tehran has not allowed the Republic of Azerbaijan to open a consulate in Tabriz, despite the fact that the two countries signed an agreement in August 1992 permitting each of them to open one, and notwithstanding that Tehran had already established its own consulate in Nakhchevan. Iran prevented high-level officials from the Republic of Azerbaijan from making official visits to Tabriz and other cities in the Azerbaijani provinces.

The policies of the various regimes in Iran themselves are often self-defeating. Tehran considers any articulation of ethnic identity as something threatening. However, most Azerbaijanis in Iran want more ethnic and language rights while at the same time they wan to remain a part of Iran and identify also as Iranian citizens. The desire for more cultural rights as Azerbaijanis is not viewed by most as contradicting their identity as Iranians and most view Iranian identity as supra-ethnic that can accommodate different ethnic identities as well. However, Tehran finds it difficult to accept this premise. It generally views most attempts at asserting ethnic identity and language and related demands such as the rejection of the forced use of Persian as disloyalty to Iran. Thus, it is the government policies in Iran, like those of the Pahlavi regime before it, that often forces the ethnic minorities to choose between their ethnic identity and their Iranian identity and can lead to the escalation of demands. Khatami is aware of the rise in ethnic-base identity and has attempted to politically profit from it: he has distributed election materials in Azerbaijani and Kurdish and promised to the voters that the Iranian constitution will be respected and they will have the right to conduct schools in the ethnic languages. However, Khatami made these promises but took no steps to implement them.


BSS: The establishment of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991 challenged the identity of the Azerbaijanis in Iran, and caused many of them to redefine it, either reaffirming their identity as Iranians, or augmenting their self-perception as Azerbaijanis. Azerbaijanis in Iran maintain a variety of collective identities as Iranians, Muslims, Azerbaijanis, regional identity, in addition to a number of other forms of identification. The expressions of Azerbaijani identity that surfaced in the 1990s illustrates that this identity has remained a potent force among Azerbaijanis in Iran. This assertion that an Azerbaijani distinctive identity exists on a meaningful level in Iran challenges the view propounded by the mainstream of contemporary Iranian studies, which contends that Azerbaijanis in Iran are a "well-integrated minority," harbor little "sense of separate identity," and have assimilated into the Iranian identity. Evidence of growing Azerbaijani identity in Iran indicates that the Azerbaijani ethnic factor must be a part of studies on Iranian society. Considering the fact that Azerbaijanis comprise about a third of the population in Iran, no assessment of regime stability there is complete without looking at the Azerbaijani ethnic factor.

Many of the calls for extension of cultural and linguistic rights in Iran came from establishment Azerbaijanis who held important positions in the regime. Students and others who do not have a stake in the preservation of the existing regime frequently make calls for political and social change. However, in the Azerbaijani case, individuals who are identified with the regime establishment also expressed desire for Azerbaijani language and cultural rights, endowing them with added consequence. The weight of establishment Azerbaijanis was particularly present in the debate over the boundaries and names of the Iranian Azerbaijani provinces in the first half of the 1990s.

The Iranian Majlis was also an important venue for establishment Azerbaijanis to act to advance Azerbaijani based rights. One of the most important political developments was the formation in 1993 of a faction in the Majlis— The Assembly of Azerbaijan Majlis Deputies— composed of delegates from the Azerbaijani provinces; it focused on issues concerning the Azerbaijani provinces and the fostering of relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan. In addition, Azerbaijani members of the Majlis openly aired their opinions about problems affecting all Azerbaijanis, and not just those living in their provinces. For instance, in July 1993, one representative, Ibrahim Saraf, openly criticized Tehran for appointing many non-Azerbaijani officials to the Azerbaijani provincial government bodies, and for central government discrimination against Azerbaijanis. Iranian Majlis deputies from the Azerbaijani provinces were especially active in facilitating Iran's relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Members of the Assembly of Azerbaijani Deputies caucus conducted visits and initiated cooperation projects with members of parliament from the Republic of Azerbaijan. Assembly members issued protests against Armenia, and deputies from the Azerbaijani provinces led campaigns pressuring Tehran to minimize its relations with Armenia. In the Majlis, they openly called for Tehran's assistance to Azerbaijan, and participated in demonstrations against Armenia. On April 13, 1993, Kamel Abedinzadeh, Azerbaijani deputy from Khoi, even spoke in Azerbaijani in the Majlis when he condemned Armenian actions against Azerbaijan. In addition, he issued press releases for publication in Hamshahri and other journals on this issue.1 On April 6, 1993, Mohammed 'Ali Nejad-Sarkhani, a deputy from Tabriz, read a resolution in the name of the Assembly of Azerbaijan Majlis Deputies condemning Armenia's attacks on Azerbaijan and calling for Iranian support for the Republic of Azerbaijan. In this statement to the Majlis, which showed his knowledge of the history of the Azerbaijanis in the north, the deputy drew a parallel between the "Russian-assisted Armenian attack on Azerbaijan" and the "crimes committed in 1920 by the Ninth Regiment of the Red Army in Azerbaijan

The independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan paved the way to renewed intensive interaction between the Azerbaijanis on both sides of the Araz River. For most people the interaction seems to have had a sobering effect; after an initial "honeymoon" period following the establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan, in renewal of ties, Azerbaijanis from both sides of the border seemed to have felt a sense of mutual disappointment, having discovered many differences in the prevailing attitudes and cultural norms on the opposite side. Many northerners commented that the Azerbaijanis in Iran were too religious and conservative, while many southerners viewed the Azerbaijanis in the republic as very "Russified," and as having lost Azerbaijani culture. In the interviews, many of the Azerbaijanis expressed a sense of "superiority" over their co-ethnics from other side, with the northerners tending to view themselves as more cosmopolitan than the southerners, whereas the southerners tended to view themselves as culturally richer and more "civilized" than their co-ethnics from the north. A sense of rivalry was detected, with each side seeing their own as the center and the other group as the periphery. Many people interviewed from both the Republic of Azerbaijan and from Iran used the metaphor of East and West Germany, paralleling the differences between the two sides that were caused by the separation. Yet, even those who perceived vast differences declared that they view all the Azerbaijanis as part of one people.

Since the early 1990s, many Azerbaijanis in Iran challenged public and media sources that ridiculed their accents and portrayed the "Turk" as uncultured, often referred to as the "Turki-khar" (Turk essek). Azerbaijani activists frequently put this treatment, which they perceived as "humiliating," on the same plane as demands for expanded tangible rights. This seems to have been due to a heightened ethnic pride and assertiveness that emerged in this period. The establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan-a state based on their ethnic culture— plus the introduction of the Turkish television broadcasts seem to have contributed to their enhanced ethnic self-esteem. Many Azerbaijanis responded to the gap they perceived between their high structural status and their low social status in Iran. By the early 1990s, Azerbaijanis comprised a large proportion of the governing elite in the country and dominated important business sectors. For example, the spiritual leader Khamane'i is Azerbaijani. Nonetheless, Azerbaijanis continued to be ridiculed in Iranian society, and many felt they had to assimilate and Persianisize in order to advance and succeed. The first half of 1990s was marked by many expressions of indignation over a low social status that contrasted with their extensive political and economic success.

Magazine or Newspaper Article, 525ci

February 28, 2002

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