Iran’s Turkish Question: What Does Iran’s Largest Ethnic Minority Want?

Afshin Molavi

Shaffer describes a cultural reawakening among Iranian Turks, calls Iran’s national and ethnic-minority policy unjust and suggests that Iranian support for Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute stems from a fear of the Republic of Azerbaijan becoming strong and, as she said in a recent London lecture, emerging as "a source of attraction to [Iran’s] own Azerbaijanis."

Iranian Turks, who comprise at least one-quarter of Iran’s population and possibly more, are attracting increased interest from US policy-makers, especially those who are interested in promoting "regime change" in Tehran. Some American analysts view Iranian Azeris as a potential source of instability for Tehran.

At present, there is little tangible evidence to support the notion that Iranian Azeris are prepared to confront the government in Tehran. Iranian Turks are widely known to be well-integrated into Iranian society and the state. Nevertheless, a new book by Brenda Shaffer, Harvard University’s Director of Caspian Studies, has reportedly captivated the attention of "regime change" advocates in Washington. In her book, "Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity," Shaffer challenges the widely held view in contemporary Iranian scholarship that a broad Iranian identity supersedes ethnic identities.

Shaffer describes a cultural reawakening among Iranian Azeris, calls Iran’s national and ethnic-minority policy unjust and suggests that Iranian support for Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute stems from a fear of the Republic of Azerbaijan becoming strong and, as she said in a recent London lecture, emerging as "a source of attraction to [Iran’s] own Azerbaijanis."

Washington policy-makers have also expressed an interest in the views of Iranian Azeri cultural rights activist and political dissident Mahmudali Chehregani, a former Tabriz University Professor who was jailed briefly three years ago in Iran, and who currently resides in the United States.

On April 9, he told an audience of policy-makers, diplomats, journalists and students at the Johns Hopkins University Central Asia-Caucasus Institute that a strong sense of Azerbaijani nationalism is growing in Iran, predicting the possibility of Azeri-led unrest unless the demands of this "movement" were met. He predicted "radical changes" in Iran within three to five years, hinting that those changes could emanate from unrest among Iran’s large Azeri population.

Chehregani also complained that Iran’s central government bans the use of Azeri language in schools, changes Azeri geographical names, harasses and imprisons Azeri cultural activists and underreports the Azeri population, which he claims is 35 million (which would make it an ethnic majority).

The CIA World Factbook estimates Iranian Azeris as comprising nearly 16 million, or 24 percent of Iran’s population. The United Nations human rights report on Iran notes that "there may be as many as 30 million" ethnic Azeris in Iran.

Chehregani backers in Turkey and in the Republic of Azerbaijan have hinted and said publicly that Iran’s Azeri community should unite with Azerbaijan, a view with virtually no support among Iranian Azeris, most on-the-ground observers agree.

Chehregani publicly disassociated himself with the unification idea in his Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Speech, instead arguing for more cultural rights for Azeris, and a future Iranian government with "a federal structure resembling the United States, where Azeris can have their own flag and parliament."

Still, Iranian officials, as well as some in Iranian Azeri intellectual circles, have expressed alarm with Chehregani’s alliances with pan-Turkic backers of secession and/or unification. His web site includes a flag with similarities to the Republic of Azerbaijan’s flag. His frequent use of the term "South Azerbaijan" to denote Iranian Azeri territories implies unification and/or secession, and he heads a group known as the South Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement.

While Iranian Azeris may seek greater cultural rights, few Iranian Azeris display separatist tendencies, or go as far as Chehregani does in predicting ethnic-inspired unrest. Extensive reporting by this author in the three major Azerbaijani provinces of Iran, as well as among Iranian Azeris in Tehran, found that irredentist or unificationist sentiment was not widely held among Iranian Azeris. Few people framed their genuine political, social and economic frustration – feelings that are shared by the majority of Iranians – within an ethnic context.

According to Dr. Hassan Javadi – a Tabriz-born, Cambridge-educated scholar of Azerbaijani literature and professor of Persian, Azerbaijani and English literature at George Washington University – Iranian Azeris have more important matters on their mind than cultural rights. "Iran’s Azeri community, like the rest of the country, is engaged in the movement for reform and democracy," Javadi told the Central Asia Caucasus Institute crowd, adding that separatist groups represent "fringe thinking." He also told EurasiaNet: "I get no sense that these cultural issues outweigh national ones, nor do I have any sense that there is widespread talk of secession."

Iranian Azeris – much like Persians, Kurds, Baluchis or any other ethnic group – have expressed frustration with the current political gridlock, the country’s economic malaise and lack of political freedom. Indeed, Iranian Azeris have played a key role in Iranian nationalist freedom movements throughout the twentieth century. Today, the Azeri city of Tabriz is widely acknowledged as the host of the most active and progressive student democracy movement outside of Tehran, carrying on a long tradition of Tabriz-Tehran nationalist-democratic opposition dating back to Iran’s 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution.

Still, Chehregani, Shaffer and others raise important questions when they talk about Azeri cultural rights. Other cultural minorities – Kurds, Baluchis, ethnic Arabs, Turkmens – have often complained about what they characterize as Iran’s centralized "Persian chauvinism."

Many Kurdish Iranians, meanwhile, say that the Islamic Republic has continued "the Persian-centric policies" of Iran’s Pahlavi kings, adding another layer of "Shi’a chauvinism" that distresses the Sunni-oriented Kurds. In October 2001, all six Kurdish members of Iran’s Parliament resigned in protest at what they described in a letter to the interior minister as "denial of their legitimate rights" and the central government’s failure to address the "political, economic and cultural rights that they have brought out."

Some experts contend the perception of Shi’a chauvinism is perhaps overblown, suggesting instead that the government tends to favor Tehran at the expense of the provinces. Still, there is no doubt that the central government’s heavy hand on cultural issues has embittered many cultural rights activists. It is far less clear, however, whether this heavy hand might have implications for Iran’s instability that outweigh the more pressing points of potential instability: joblessness, a stagnant economy, a nascent national democracy movement, an extremely young population eager for political and social change, and the external pressures of the US military on Iran’s borders to the East and West.


A EurasiaNet Commentary

Editor’s Note: Afshin Molavi, a Washington-based journalist, is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran. He was born in Tabriz, Iran and regularly reports on Iran for a variety of Western publications.