The Southern Azerbaijan Problem

Karl Rahder

In cities across northern Iran in mid-February, tens of thousands of ethnic Azeris marched in observance of International Mother Language Day, although the subtext was a protest against what they perceive to be the systematic, state-sponsored suppression of their heritage and language.

Hundreds were arrested in what became riots in cities such as Tabriz and Ardebil, the violence instigated by Iranian special forces and Revolutionary Guards, according to witnesses. Others have been held in various detention facilities since violent disturbances in May 2006, including Iran's notorious Evin prison, a favorite dumping ground for journalists and human rights activists.

Unreported by most of the world's media, as many as 100 demonstrators were killed during the 2006 demonstrations, and scores of injuries and an unknown number of fatalities occurred during this year's February demonstrations.

Azeris make up roughly 24 percent of Iran's 69 million inhabitants, according to the CIA, which would put their population at about 17 million and make it the largest ethnic minority group in Iran. Azeri sources in North America and Azerbaijan often put the figure much higher at 20-30 million.

Dangerous rumors
The Azeri demonstrations come at an inopportune moment for The Islamic Republic. Reports out of Washington claim that the Pentagon may be planning to use Iran's ethnic minority groups in the Kurdish, Baluchi and Azeri regions as force multipliers if conflict breaks out between the US and Iran.

Moreover, the region has buzzed with rumors since last year that US special forces are operating surreptitiously in Azeri and other minority regions of Iran, which - true or not - has made life difficult for many of Iran's human rights activists.

Last year, journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in the 17 April edition of The New Yorker that "American combat troops [are] now operating in Iran" and are "working with minority groups," including Azeris in the north of the country. Hersh's source - a "government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon" - claimed that the Americans "are studying the terrain, and giving away walking-around money to ethnic tribes, and recruiting scouts from local tribes and shepherds […]"

The accuracy of Hersh's allegations is difficult to gauge. During the last several months, ISN Security Watch has talked to a number of analysts at think tanks, inside the US government and intelligence communities, and in the "Southern Azerbaijan" movement.

One analyst with ties to the US government expressed skepticism and contended that Hersh "has no way of knowing." However, Hersh's claim has been taken very seriously by the Iranian government, which has tied what they see as subversion by the US and Israel in Iranian internal affairs to minority unrest in Azeri regions of Iran and elsewhere.

Ahmed Obali is an Azeri-Iranian who was born in Tabriz and now operates Gunaz TV in Chicago, a well-known dissident news and commentary channel beamed into Iran and Europe via satellite. Interviewed just after the recent February demonstrations, Obali thought it "would be stupid if the Americans weren't doing this sort of thing," he told ISN Security Watch.

Obali, a naturalized US citizen whose TV station has been on the air since early 2005, spends each day anchoring his broadcasts from a makeshift studio crammed with cameras and recording equipment above the restaurant he owns on Chicago's north side.

"I believe Seymour Hersh because it makes sense. Have I seen any of these American commandos? No. But as we now know, prior to the war in Iraq, there were American special forces operating in northern and southern Iraq."

Obali speculated that US forces could slip inside Iran with relative ease from Kurdish areas in neighboring Iraq. But northern Iran - which is what Azeris often refer to as "Southern Azerbaijan," populated mostly by ethnic Azeris - is a different matter.

Because Azerbaijan proper was once a Soviet Republic, "the Russians know every inch of this land, and they would have a good idea of any American operations in the area." The Russians would surely pass any intelligence of US operations on to the Iranians, said Obali, because Russia has a vital stake in the current Iranian regime and "cannot afford to lose Iran."

One of the more prominent Azeri politicians involved in the Southern Azerbaijan movement is Etibar Mammadov, who unsuccessfully ran for president in Azerbaijan's 2003 election, which was internationally recognized as flawed. Interviewed last year in Baku by ISN Security Watch, Mammadov also thought that US teams operating in the Azeri regions of Iran would be compromised very quickly. He also emphasized a growing problem due to rumors of US money and aid devoted to destabilizing non-Persian regions of Iran: Iranian police arresting Azeri dissidents and accusing them during interrogation of working with the Americans. "In some cases, the Iranian government has arrested people involved in demonstrations, and they have said, 'You are a member of a secret group funded by America!'"

Certainly, the timing of the Hersh article could not have been worse, with the May riots coming only a month after publication, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's request to Congress for a US$75 million fund to undermine the Iranian regime being made in February.

When the May demonstrations swept across Azerbaijani Iran, the government was thus handed a convenient scapegoat, with President Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamene'i - Iran's most powerful man and ironically an ethnic Azeri-alleging that the US, along with Israel, was responsible for instigating the crisis.

Complicating foreign policy
The increased tension complicates Azerbaijan's foreign policy enormously due to a history of testy relations between the two countries over Southern Azerbaijan, as well as Iran's close economic ties to Azerbaijan's adversary Armenia - a continuing source of resentment in Baku.

In March last year, some 600 delegates convened in Baku for the World Congress of Azerbaijanis. During the Congress, a number of participants addressed both the concept of a unified Azerbaijan and human rights abuses against Azeris in Iran. A diplomatic controversy erupted when Iran's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Suleymani, expressed indignation concerning the views of some speakers who advocated the union of southern and northern Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani government must also tread carefully because Iran has represented a nascent threat ever since Azerbaijan's independence from the Soviet Union in 1992. Most analysts agree that the Iranian government has attempted to infiltrate Azerbaijan with agents and fifth column sleeper cells to weaken Azerbaijan from within for many years.

The choreography of arrests and imprisonment of alleged Iranian agents is almost routine in Azerbaijan. One example came last summer when three Iranians were arrested while videotaping the French embassy in downtown Baku. In 2001, six Azeri clerics based in the southern district of Jalalibad were detained on charges of spying for Iran. The arrests came less than a month after an Iranian warship allegedly sailed into Azerbaijani waters on the Caspian Sea. The opposition newspaper Azadlig reported that the clerics in Jalalibad were working with Hizbollah, and that according to Western diplomatic sources, Iran had organized a number of Hizbollah cells in Azerbaijan.

Stephen Blank, an instructor at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania, has written extensively on the strategic picture in the Caspian region, and said in a recent telephone interview that there was "a lot of evidence that the Iranians do maintain connections with underground organizations" in Azerbaijan.

In a paper for the Johns Hopkins University’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute earlier this year, Blank wrote that Iran "is building up networks" among regional terror groups in the South Caucasus and elsewhere "that could be activated in the future to threaten those governments or American interests or bases there."

It is widely believed in the region that Iran will bomb the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Azerbaijan's economic lifeline, if it perceives that Azerbaijan has aided the US in a future attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Persistent discussion that the US is seeking a military base of some kind in Azerbaijan only fuels these expectations.

Although President Ilham Aliyev has steadfastly denied that the US would be allowed to station military personnel in Azerbaijan, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried hinted to an audience in late 2005 that the US would like to establish just such a base.

Azerbaijan's foreign policy calculations must therefore include the consequences of a war between its ally across the Atlantic and its southern Shi'ite neighbor.

In what may be a conciliatory gesture to Iran, the Azerbaijani government announced on 12 April that Hadi Sid Javad Musavi, an Iranian citizen affiliated with the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement, was deported to Tehran. Musavi's lawyer in Baku told the press that his client had been arrested and tortured after participating in protests in 2004 and that his expulsion from Azerbaijan, where he had sought political asylum, was a violation of international norms.

Musavi may face trial in Iran, and if past experience is any guide, he will certainly be sentenced to a prison term, as have many of Iran's Azeri human rights activists.

Editor's Note: This is Part I of a two-part series on Iran's Azerbaijani minority. Part II will appear on Thursday, 26 April 2007.