The “Cartoon Crisis” in Iranian Azerbaijan: Is Azeri Nationalism Underestimated?

Emil Souleimanov

Blood spilled in violence is not forgotten, and the thoughts that have awakened the Azeri masses from their lethargy will not disappear overnight. Since the days of Sattar Khan’s Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), in which he led the masses primarily in southern Azerbaijan against the Shah, the current events represent a significant experience of common resistance and mutual suffering.


The matter of this unfortunate caricature is not an isolated affair. Indeed, it cannot be viewed simply in the context of Persian national folklore, in which the image of an Azerbaijani is depicted as the embodiment of rural stupidity, headstrongness and craftiness, as feeling lost in an urban environment and as speaking with a comical accent. The roots of the current crisis run much deeper.

Beginning in the 11th century, Iran a term that once had a much broader semantic content than it has today was conquered and ruled by Turkic dynasties and clans, although these were subsequent subjected to strong Persian cultural influence.

This was not reversed until 1925, when Reza Pahlavi seized power in Tehran and founded the first purely Persian dynasty in almost a millennium covering all of Iran. The careful cultivation of Persian nationalism followed. This was to become the leading ideology in a multiethnic state that had always been distinguished by a high degree of ethnic and religious tolerance. Discrimination of ethnic minorities became a matter of state policy. This involved to no small degree the Turkic Azerbaijanis, who made up the largest ethnic community after the Persians, and had close cultural and linguistic ties to Soviet Azerbaijan and Turkey. The independent ethnic and linguistic identity of the Azerbaijani Turks was rejected. Official ideology continues to regard them as turkified Persians, Aryans in origin.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution somewhat reduced overt Persian nationalism, giving way to Shiite Islam, which is common to all of the countrys nationalities apart from the great majority of Kurds. Yet the character of Iran as a state mainly of Persians remained unshaken. To this day, teaching in Azeri is prohibited in schools.

Tehran’s concerns increased with the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the pan-Turkic nature of former President Abulfaz Elchibey, calling the reunification of Azerbaijan a question of five years at the most. Iran even supported Christian Armenia against mainly Shi’ite Azerbaijan in the war. In the early 1990s, Tehran took preventive measures: it broke up the Iranian province of Azerbaijan into several provinces, and continued to almost exclusively put Persians into office as leaders there. The government is also settling Kurds in areas bordering the Republic of Azerbaijan, seeking to create a sort of cordon sanitaire. To further Tehran’s strategy, conflict is being stirred up between Kurds and Azerbaijanis. As a result, talk about Persian fascists has mostly been heard from among Azeri intellectual emigrants, promoting from exile in Europe and America the idea of a national revival, freedom and Turkic unity.

Meanwhile, for ordinary, well-integrated Azerbaijanis holding leading economic, political and military posts in the Islamic Republic, the role of a common enemy is played rather by Kurdish bandits.


The fifteen years of existence of an independent Republic of Azerbaijan, increased communication with both Azerbaijan and Turkey, and satellite broadcasts from both countries have spurred to a new level the national consciousness of Azerbaijanis, who are identifying themselves much more clearly with their Turkic brethren to the north and west.

The cases of ethnically motivated unrest in Iranian Azerbaijan have gradually multiplied. These occasionally resulted in clashes with police, though the successive liberalization of Iranian society under former President Khatami allowed the use of Azeri in local media, although limited in scope and frequency. The conservative come-back under President Ahmadinejad brought renewed restrictions in these recently gained benefits, which inevitably led to mounting protests among frustrated minorities. Consequently, the cartoon crisis was a triggering factor, whereas the demonstrations revealed the increasing strength of Azerbaijani nationalism.

Current events are the best indicator of this development. The temporary shutdown of the newspaper, the arrest of the author of the column and caricature, and the public compliments of certain highly-placed Iranians calling Azerbaijanis a heroic people, and similar actions, did not reduce the size of the protests - in spite of the brutal attacks of the Iranian police and the threat of torture in prison. The demonstrations lasted for over two weeks without respite, until the deployment of tens of thousands of elite army and police troops in the northwestern provinces. At the demonstrations, which are not unprecedented but way larger than any previous ones, calls were voiced for ethnic autonomy and the de facto legalization of the Azeri language in public sphere.

Many observers both inside and outside Iran wondered who was behind the demonstrators, and whether the publication of the caricature was a coincidence. Three possibilities have been advanced. A first claimed that the events were planned long in advance, organized by the illegal organizations seeking the independence of southern Azerbaijan. Coincidentally or not, Prof. Mahmudali Chehragani, leader of the banned Southern Azerbaijan National Revival Movement, has been received since 2003 in Washington at a very high level. Western forces favoring the collapse of the Iranian regime, the story goes, would take advantage of serious unrest in Iranian Azerbaijan and its brutal repression to organize another humanitarian intervention, for which the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey could be used as a bridgehead.

A second version, conversely, sees the events as a provocation on the part of Tehran, which is trying in this manner to pre-empt any pre-planned events. Thus the protests broke out before they were supposed to, so the regime had the chance to effectively disrupt the rebels underground before a massively organized action could begin. Iranians traditionally see the origins of the unrest in the influence of the ubiquitous Americans, British and Jews, and are calling for national unity.

Whatever the merits of these theories, none is particularly credible. This was in all likelihood a spontaneous protest event. The public sphere in Iran is under strict control by the secret services, and in this situation, no color revolution would be feasible, nor could such large protest have been planned without being disrupted. It is also highly unlikely that the small Republic of Azerbaijan or Turkey would risk a serious armed conflict with powerful Iran, which almost certainly would occur in case their territory is used for attacks against Iran. This view is lent credence by the fact that the Turkish and Western establishments have taken little interest in events in Iranian Azerbaijan. The demonstrations went virtually unnoticed in Western media.


Blood spilled in violence is not forgotten, and the thoughts that have awakened the Azeri masses from their lethargy will not disappear overnight. Since the days of Sattar Khan’s Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), in which he led the masses primarily in southern Azerbaijan against the Shah, the current events represent a significant experience of common resistance and mutual suffering. This experience could act as a catalyst for the activity of various separatist or irredentist groups within Iran itself.

As experience around the world has shown, indiscriminate state repression creates and expands the circle of potential avengers among the population, increasing the importance of insurgents appeals. An appropriate ideological base begins to profile itself, and the resistance movement is indoctrinated into it. The activities of illegal groups trigger a cycle of violence. Created or strengthened soon thereafter are links to supporters from abroad or adherents from within. Within Iran’s borders, these could be insurgents from among the Arab or Kurdish minorities that also have somewhat tense relations with Tehran.

A rather strong polarization of identity and ideology is taking place among Iranian Azerbaijanis, developing along generational lines. The Azeri youth, along with young Persians, Baluchis, Turkmens etc., are ever more rejecting the current government of mullahs, which has meant life in a less than prosperous country with many restrictions. The ethnic factor then ties in with socio-economic factors and overall dissatisfaction with the regime. Also apparent is a certain ideological vacuum in the country, caused by the weakening attraction of political Islam, especially among the young generation. While older generations generally have attitudes that are more reserved, and feel stronger loyalty to the idea of an Iranian state, the Azeri youth is yearning for a life of freedom, and the West is ever more closely associated with Turkey and even independent Azerbaijan where their counterparts experience greater freedom and prosperity. Pan-Turkic nationalism and pan-Western sentiments are gradually becoming a sort of escape from current problems. No wonder, then, that crowds in Iran were shouting slogans like Baku, Tabriz, Ankara, Biz hara, Iran hara? (Baku, Tabriz, Ankara, where are we going, and where is Iran going?).

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is senior lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is author of An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, autumn 2006)

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