Joshua Kucera 3/10/08

The US government is planning to beam Azeri-language radio broadcasts into Iran, in a bid to influence opinion among the significant ethnic Azeri population there.

The new programming was proposed in the State Department budget that begins in October 2008. It must first be approved by Congress. If approved, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would begin broadcasting two hours a day of Azerbaijani-language programming in shortwave into Iran, said Jeff Trimble, Director of Programming at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The United States already has 24 hours a day of programming, via Radio Farda, in Farsi. Persians are a plurality in Iran and Farsi is the state language. But "research indicates that people prefer to get news and information in their native language," Trimble said. "Iran is an obvious case because the Azerbaijani population is so large, about a quarter of the population." Much of Iran’s Azeri population lives in northern areas of the country.

RFE/RL already broadcasts Azeri-language content to listeners in Azerbaijan proper. Even though these broadcasts deal with events mainly in Azerbaijan, they have a significant following among Iranian Azeris, according to Trimble. "This new programming will emphasize issues concerning Iran and the ethnic Azeri, Azerbaijani-speaking population of Iran," he said.

According to surveys conducted by RFE/RL, about three-quarters of Azeris in Iran have access to shortwave radio and 12 percent listen to shortwave programming weekly ? figures that are higher than for the population in Iran as a whole, Trimble said. "That’s a pretty high percentage. The potential target audience for this is pretty high."

Given the long-standing tension between the United States and Iran, some experts believe that Tehran is likely to interpret the launch of Azeri-language broadcasting as an American attempt to foment Azeri separatism. Azeri discontent with the policies carried out by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration has risen noticeably in recent years. In 2006, thousands of ethnic Azeris protested after an Iranian newspaper printed a cartoon featuring an Azerbaijani-speaking cockroach. (The cartoonist and the editor of the newspaper were arrested after the cartoon was published.)

Trimble denied that the intent of the new broadcasts would be to stir up ethnic strife. "The professional journalistic code of RFE/RL ? strictly prohibits the airing of programming or any kind of advocacy for secessionism," Trimble said. "So that is not in any way the design or intent of this programming for Iran. ? All throughout the history of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, there has been a tradition of minority-language broadcasting."

Mohsen Milani, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who studies Iran, said that such explanations likely would not be enough to assuage Tehran’s concerns. "Regardless of what the State Department says, the Iranian government is going to view this as interference in Iranian affairs," he said. "They believe this is part of the overall plan to destabilize Iran by helping ethnic minorities against the Islamic republic."

Mahmudali Chehreganli, an émigré who heads the Southern Azerbaijan Awakening Movement, applauded the decision to broadcast Azeri-language programming into Iran. He added that, despite his persistent lobbying, US policy makers are not entertaining ideas about fomenting an ethnic uprising in Iran.

"After the Iraq war, from 2003 to 2006, I had hundreds of meetings ? in the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon," Chehreganli said. "I told them that the United States could easily destroy the regime by helping the ethnic groups. But they never gave us any help." Chehreganli said he has not had a meeting with a US government official since 2006.

"Cooler heads prevailed," said S. Enders Wimbush, the former director of Radio Liberty and a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "There’s nobody, even in this White House, which can get a little loopy at times, who wants 15 more ?berserkistans’ out there."

That idea "didn’t go anywhere, because there was no support for it inside Iran," Milani said. "Iranian nationalism trumps the ethnicities. You are not talking about Czechoslovakia here, a country that was formed after World War I or by the Soviets. We are talking about 2,500 years of history and these ethnic groups have been part of that for all these years. Especially Azeris, there has been dynasty after dynasty that came from that part of Iran. There was at one time this idea that ethnic separatism could really undermine the Islamic republic, but over the course of the last three years they have realized that is not going anywhere."

Nevertheless, the new Azerbaijani-language programming does have a more subtle political purpose, Wimbush said. "Most of the critical elite in the Soviet Union spoke Russian, but we broadcast in 14 languages because it drew audiences toward us," he said. "The medium, in many respects, was the message: ?The Americans care enough to treat us, to address us as we are. They don’t feel as if they have to go through this Russian filter.’ And I’m sure that’s very much the same kind of thinking that’s going on here in Iran. It’s a big population ? if they were in the Balkans or Eastern Europe we would have broadcast to them a long time ago."

Editor?s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.