Persecution, Tension and Awakening in Northern Iran

Gabriel Glickman

The provocation of the graphic image has cut across a year of instability in relations between the West and the Middle East. But the latest ‘cartoons row’ to ignite the region has its origins outside Europe. Indeed, after that country’s role in inflaming tensions caused by the 12 Danish images in February, it is somewhat ironic that the latest dispute has struck at the heart of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

This summer has seen a tide of protest and disorder swelling in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz, home to a population of 1.2 million and the centre of the nation’s largest minority - the Azeri Turks. Demonstrations were launched against a series of images that appeared in a state-sanctioned newspaper, Iran Daily, depicting failed attempts to educate an Azeri-speaking cockroach into adopting the majority Farsi language. The pictures aroused bitter confrontation within the region, provoking public burnings of the newspaper, bringing crowds onto the streets and eventually forcing the dismissal of the editor by his political masters.

Viewed in the narrowest way, Iran Daily’s images highlighted the incendiary discourse licensed in circles close to the government, against ethnic peoples within the country’s borders. Yet the pictures cannot be seen in isolation. Virtually untouched in western newspapers, Iran’s cartoons row becomes a touchstone for the cultural conflicts threatening the unity of the wider nation.

The Azeris have begun to lend their voice to a drumbeat of dissent, emerging from places where Tehran’s writ no longer runs.

Those on the streets of Tabriz have certainly seen the cartoons episode within a larger context, where visual mockery has become a symptom of the perceived repression and humiliation of their ancient culture. Azeris now pay for apparent disobedience with routine smears of dual loyalty, struck with aspersions of spying for Israel, Britain or the US, and goaded with slights on their Turkish heritage. A slew of arrests, beatings and accusations of rape and torture have characterised relations with the government in recent years. At a conservative estimate, 1,000 Azeris currently reside in state gaols in punishment for political activism, including some young teenagers. Arbitrary checkpoints have brought economic malaise to the north and made day-to-day life harder, with young people recurrently harassed on suspicion of activism. With the laudable exception of Amnesty International, this treatment has met only a wall of silence from the West.

The wounds opened up by Iran Daily fester because the issue of language has repeatedly been the main battleground between the Azeri people and the state of Iran. This is not a new phenomenon, but attempts to bind Azeris closer to the will of the regime have certainly intensified under President Ahmadinejad. The Turkish language cannot now be committed to print or used in formal instruction in schools and universities, with kindergartens becoming the latest social units to fall under the eye of the state. With Turkish names for towns, rivers and even children already banned, the simple possession of a calendar in the offending language can leave a householder liable to arrest.

Assaults on the language of the Azeris characterise a ‘Persianifcation’ drive that has seen the government proscribing traditional festivals, destroying historic monuments and seeking seemingly to erase the mental and physical landscape of those in the north. But Tehran has begun to reap the whirlwind. After years of endurance, a struggle over language has brought about the awakening of a people long associated with silent acquiescence, if they were indeed acknowledged at all.

Many Azeris view themselves as something of a sleeping giant in Iranian politics. Accounting, by some estimates, for as many as 30 million of the country’s 75 million people, their northern heartland has conferred a rich and precarious cultural heritage; standing at the crossroads between Iran, Turkey and Russia, with their historic expertise as a trading people opening up a gateway between Europe and the Middle East.

The collision of Azeri Turkish culture with that of the ruling Persians rippled through the twentieth century - it was precisely the desire for greater cultural freedom that propelled many northern leaders into support for the Islamic Revolution. Since then, clashes have been softened by the extension of limited social and economic entrée. The control of parts of the Tehran bazaar has rested in Azeri hands, while reputedly more than half the armed forces are drawn from their ranks. Azeri soldiers marked their commitment to the Republic with the starkest form of sacrifice, 400,000 of their number perishing on the frontline against Saddam Hussein.

The Azeris have not, therefore, been instinctive dissenters. Indeed, the actions of Tehran have forced them to challenge a quietist strain channelled deep within their political and religious thought. But, in the broadest terms, three trends have come together since 1979 to produce estrangement from the state. First - growing disillusionment with a political process that failed to deliver on promised freedoms, and increasingly returned older forms of repression. Attacks on the liberties of those Azeri leaders who began to make a stand - from the defrocking and detainment of Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari in 1982, to the imprisonment of the activist and academic Mohammed Cheregani in 1996 - exposed constraints on the public space allocated since the Revolution.

Secondly, and simultaneously, the penetration of Turkish satellite television into northern Iran has given the Azeris a vital sense of their place within the modern Middle East, undermining abusive caricatures carried through Iranian discourse. Thirdly, this blossoming re-connection with the world outside reached a dramatic zenith with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan. This development emancipated eight million ‘lost’ Azeri Turks, dignifying them with nationhood and self-governance, on the edge of the Iranian border.

Contacts between Azeris and the Azerbaijani government in Baku have been limited - more rhetorical than institutional – and separatist tendencies are contained when the community still overwhelmingly perceives itself as Iranian. But the liberation of a kindred people from tyranny brought a symbolic lifting of the veil for residents of northern Iran. The resentment caused in 1989 when Tehran urged Azerbaijan not to free itself from the Soviet Union offered one landmark indication of a changing worldview.

The confluence of these three forces has linked a growing number of Azeris to principles of reform within Iran’s borders – made evident in public petitions, university campaigns and peaceful mobilisation that demanded to know ‘When will it be possible to give an effective answer to all these humiliations and mockeries’, in the words of one student protest. The recent placards borne onto the streets of Tabriz defied the threats of the revolutionary guards to proclaim, ‘No more chauvinism’, or ‘Cry out, cry out “I am a Turk!”’ Beyond sheer coercion, the state is yet to offer a compelling response.

‘It is clear that the evil hands of foreigners are making efforts to provoke tribal ethnic and religious differences’, Iranian public prosecutor Ghorban Ali Dorri Najajabi commented on the recent cartoon protests. ‘Our nation is vigilant and hates the United States’. But it is a fragile vigilance that rests so firmly upon the stifling of cultural expression and the obliteration of dissenting voices - ‘gradually branding them as American, Zionist and anti-revolutionary’, as Ayatollah Shariatmadari predicted in 1980.

In responding to these events, there is a critical role to be performed by western diplomacy, confronting abuses of human rights and speaking up for Iranian citizens against cultural assault, state violence and the erosion of liberty. But there is also a political implication. At a time when the world agonises over its military and strategic ambitions, it is worth questioning whether Iran can ever be a stable member of the international community without the inner transformation of the state to better reflect the true supra-ethnic profile. At present, the result Tehran most fears - the violent break-up of the polity - is made ever-more feasible when its government prises apart the glue that holds the nation together.

A revitalised nation would incorporate the experience not just of Persians and Azeris, but of Arabs, Kurds, Balochs, Turkmen and other minorities, who make up approximately 60 per cent of the country. It would rest not upon repression, nor retribution, but a return to the lost tenets that inspired Azeris to support the Revolution of 1979 in the first place. If freedom, democracy and ethnic reconciliation have been grimly absent from the soil of modern Iran, there is no more urgent moment to give them the chance to flourish.

13th July 2006