A Look at Hegemony, Racism, and Center-Periphery Relations in Contemporary Iran

Alireza Asgharzadeh

The rise of European fascism and the concomitant breakout of what came to be known as the Second World War changed the balance of forces all over the globe. The totalitarian and dictatorial regimes in Europe as well as in various parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East had to remobilize their forces and focus their attention to the external threat posed by the war.

Response to outside threat relaxed the repressive conditions inside and provided favorable climate for oppressed nationalities and groups to assert their collective social, economic and political rights. The oppressed and marginalized peoples of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan were among various Iranian nationalities and groups that took notice of the opportunity provided by the war and sought to implement their legitimate social, cultural and national demands.

At the beginning of the war in 1939, Iran was ruled under Reza Shah Pahlavi, a military dictator brought to power by a British engineered coup d'etat in 1921 . Throughout his military career as a Cossack trooper, Reza Khan had never hidden his hatred for non-Persian Iranians. Now in full control over the destiny of the people, he had all the resources at his disposal to enforce his racist ideology.

Despite his well-known pro-Nazi tendencies, Reza Khan, under pressure from the Soviets and the British, declared Iran's neutrality. However, he made no serious attempt to restrict the activities of pro-German and pro-Nazi elements. In June 1941, German forces began their offensive against the USSR. Soon after, the Soviet and British diplomatic missions in Tehran demanded the expulsion of a large number of Germans, accusing the Iranian government of sheltering a German fifth column (see also Lenczowski, 1949:168).

On August 25, 1941, Soviets from the north and the British from the south invaded Iran. On September 16, 1941, the allied forces deposed Reza Shah and put his young son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power. On the following morning, September 17, the British and Soviet forces entered Tehran. The United States of America's non-combat forces arrived in 1942 (see also Lenczowski, 1949:74).

While the ruling elite and highly privileged military personnel lamented the changes, masses of the people welcomed weakening of the centralized authority and began to enjoy the new political atmosphere. The presence of the Red Army in northern Iran paralyzed the Pahlavi regime's military machine, and thereby, greatly contributed to the celebration of new social, political, and cultural landscape. Soon, pamphlets and magazines began to circulate in Azeri language, accompanied by hitherto forbidden folkloric songs, dances, literary gatherings, wearing of indigenous clothing, and so forth.

On 12 December, 1945, the Azerbaijani provinces declared their autonomy and formed the Azerbaijan Democratic Government. Azerbaycan Demokrat Firqesi (the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan or ADP) played a pivotal role in redirecting the revolutionary demands and sentiments of Azerbaijani people. A month later, on February 12, a Kurdish Republic was formed in the neighboring Kurdistan, declaring the city of Mahabad as its capital.

Based on their mutual agreement, the allied forces were to leave Iran by March 2, 1946. The British left southern Iran by the deadline; the Russians stayed in the north. The Iranian regime took the matter to the newly founded United Nations. The UN pressured the Russians to leave, America and Britain playing a leading role. The conflict became internationalized, and as some have argued, it came to mark the beginning of the cold war (Fawcett 1992; Atabaki 1993). In May 1946 the Soviet forces left Iran.

On 12 December, 1946, the Imperial Iranian Army attacked Azerbaijan. The Soviet consulate in Tabriz persuaded Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP) leaders not to resist. Considering the Soviets as their ideological brothers and sharing the Leninist illusion of “common struggle of the working classes against imperialism”, the majority of ADP leaders obeyed their big brothers in Moscow, ordering the Azerbaijani militia not to resist against Iran’s invading army. Facing no mentionable resistance, the Shah's army invaded Azerbaijan and savagely massacred its people (see also Douglas 1951; JAMI 1979).

After suppression of Azerbaijan, the neighboring Kurdish Republic was brutally attacked and conquered. The leaders of Kurdistan Democratic Party, Qazi Mohammed and his supporters, were hanged in Mahabad. Throughout both Republics, all the buildings belonging to National Governments, along with houses, crops, and newly constructed schools and universities were set on fire. Mass executions of participants, sympathizers, and those suspected of sympathizing with the national movements were performed in public, followed by the burning of books, magazines and pamphlets published in ethnic languages.

The invading army stayed in Azerbaijan for five years, continuing the persecution of ADP supporters. After five years the Shah declared national amnesty in Azerbaijan and the military rule was lifted. Irrespective of the so-called amnesty, the Persian racist propaganda, along with a fascistic campaign against the democratic movements, continued. The 12th of the December, the day of occupation, was commemorated as a national holiday and was celebrated in all government offices, schools and streets. The young Mohammad Reza Shah was praised as the mighty hero of "Azerbaijan Crisis" and "The Bringer of Azerbaijan onto the Bosom of Mother Iran".

In the year 1979, the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown and, subsequently, the Islamic Republic was formed. With the fall of the Shah, his sponsored Persian racism was, for a short time, overshadowed by a 'supposedly anti-racist', universalistic Islamic ideology of the new rulers. In the revolutionary atmosphere of the time, various nationalistic demands and movements began to emerge particularly in Kurdistan, Khuzistan, Azerbaijan and Baluchistan.

The new regime brutally suppressed the legitimate demands of various nationalities for self-determination, placing even a greater emphasis on Persian racism as a determining factor in maintaining its power bases. Glorification of 'the Aryan race' symbolized through the hegemony of Persian language soon came to dominate the Islamic regime's propaganda machine. The government-sponsored literature introduced 'Shia Islam' as a phenomenon purely Iranian and a greater emphasis came to be placed on what was termed as the "Irano-Islamic civilization”. Identifying the Persian language as “the second language of Islam”, the new regime vigorously continued to enforce the ban imposed on non-Persian languages during the Pahlavi era.

Towards the end of 1991, after the disintegration of Soviet Union, the formation of an independent Azerbaijani nation was declared north of the Iranian borders. Realizing the importance of such an event to the southern Azerbaijanis, the Iranian regime pursued a hostile relationship with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Aryanization and Persianization of socializing agents such as the education system took a new turn, accelerating with the passage of time.

The Discursive Framework

Following the highly effective analytical framework provided by Dei (1999, 1998, 1996) and others in dealing with issues of power, domination, racism and injustice, in this paper I will take an anti-colonial approach to discuss the subject matter at hand. I believe that only an anti-colonial discursive framework is capable of effectively enabling one to critique and disrupt the racist and hegemonic relationships such as the one existing in current Iran. As Dei has argued, ’colonial’ in this context “is conceptualized, not simply as foreign’ or ‘alien’, but rather as ‘imposed’ and ‘dominating’” (1999:399).

The anti-colonial framework is a theorization of issues emerging from colonial relations, an interrogation of the configuration of power, embedded in ideas, cultures and histories of knowledge production. The anti-colonial approach recognizes the production of locally produced knowledge emanating from cultural history and social interactions/daily experiences. (Dei 1999:399)

An anti-colonial approach in studying the rise and fall of south Azerbaijani Democratic Republic is particularly important in that the colonial power relations leading to the downfall of the Republic are still as active today as they were half a century ago. The existing literature on the Republic has not been sensitive to race, class, gender and other biases emanating from social position and location of the researchers. More importantly, almost the whole of the existing literature on the Azerbaijani national movement has been created by the members of the dominant Indo-European-Persian race and their sympathizers (for an exception see Haqqi, 1993).

Independent research on the movement was and is banned by both the monarchic and the Islamic regimes, respectively. Aside from some sporadic government sponsored journalistic references (e.g., Pisyan 1949) and occasional references in retired army officers' memoirs (e.g., Zanjani 1974; Major Derakhshani 1994), there is no officially published work on the subject. The only well-researched Persian source is a book titled Gozashteh Cheragh Rah-e Ayandeh Ast (The Past Is the Light on the Path to Future) written by a political group at the time referred to as JAMI--The Society for Liberation of Iranian Nation. Presumably, such a political organization had existed during the Azerbaijani democratic movement. However, there is no viable information available regarding the group at the present.

The book was first published in exile in 1976, then republished in Iran with some modifications in 1978, the year of anti-monarchic revolution. Owing to the nature of their organization, the authors adopt an Iranian nationalistic viewpoint, greatly emphasizing the territorial integrity of Iran. The ADP leaders are blamed for the defeat of the movement in that they failed to Iranize the democratic movement by focusing on Azerbaijan alone.

Some leftist individuals and organizations have also provided their own account of the movement (e.g., Tudeh Party of Iran 1971; Nabdel 1973; Javid 1977; Khamei 1983; Avansian 1990). Adopting an orthodox class-based approach, the leftist literature, in general, views the aspirations of Azerbaijani people for self-determination through the class lens, seeking to subordinate various racial, national, social, cultural and linguistic issues to issues of class and relations of economics (see for example Nabdel 1973).

Not surprisingly, the independent western scholarship could not escape the censorship placed on the movement by the Pahlavi regime. It was only after the fall of Pahlavi regime that books and articles began to appear on Azerbaijan and Kurdistan democratic republics (for an exception on Kurdish Republic see Eagleton, 1963). Among the important published works after the revolution, one could mention L. Fawcett's Iran and the Cold War: The Azerbaijani Crisis of 1946 and T. Atabaki's Azerbaijan: Ethnicity and Autonomy in Twentieth-Century Iran (1993).

Identifying the national movement as "crisis", Fawcett tries to view the movement 'from an Iranian perspective' (p.3). Her uncritical acceptance of the hegemonic “Iranian perspective” leads Fawcett to adopt, perpetuate and reproduce the dominant racist literature on the movement, produced under the Pahlavi dictatorship. Writing within the boundaries of ‘the Cold War’ ideological framework, Fawcett is more concerned with “exposing” the interference of an evil USSR in Iran’s internal affairs rather than the enslavement of millions of non-Persian peoples.

Atabaki, on the other hand, promises an 'unconventional, non-partisan and balanced account' of the movement (PP. vii-viii). His account serves to support Persian nationalistic ideology, emphasizing the centralized authority and denying the right of various nationalities for self-determination. Quoting a dead Persian historian around the turn of the second millennium, Atabaki confesses that although he despises the Azerbaijani movement, “nevertheless, in writing this history I will avoid presenting any statement which might seem fanatical or vindictive, and thus the reader will not find fault with me” (P. 6).

By way of an anti-colonial discursive framework we learn that there is no such thing as self-confessed impartiality, non-partisanship, and indifference; that “discursive practices are never neutral or apolitical” (Dei, 1999:403); and that historical accounts and narratives “are shaped and socially conditioned by particular interests, histories, desires and politics” (Dei, 1999:403). Atabaki’s self-professed ‘impartial politics’ goes so far as removing the name of “Azerbaijan” from Northern Azeri Republic and replacing it with “Arran”, a designation manufactured by such racists as Ahmad Kasravi (1938), M. Afshar (1921) and others. He bravely ventures to deny the common history, language, culture, religion, tradition, norms and values between a people living on northern and southern banks of the Araz River. It seems that in his view, championship of the dominant Persian ideology is tantamount to impartiality and non-partisanship!

Born into an Azerbaijani family twenty years after the collapse of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, from the very beginning I came to realize the pain and agony of not being able to read and write in one’s own language. From my parents, grandparents, relatives, neighbors and others I heard about the executions, the burning of books, and the banning of my language, the language of my entire consciousness. I also heard and learned about the struggle of our people for self-determination, for justice, equality, freedom and liberation. From the very beginning I tried to be a part of that struggle, a part of that movement for broader social justice and restoration of human dignity.

Thus, throughout this paper, my approach is heavily informed and influenced by my geographical location, my nationality, and my personal experience—in short, by who I am and where I come from. Long before I was born, an Azeri poet, Bulut Qarachorlu, had vividly depicted my location and my background:

Look at my misfortune
My thoughts:
My feelings:
To remember my past:
To dream of my future:
To mention my parents’ names:
Do you know that when I was born
the very utterance of my first words
was Forbidden?
Without my own knowledge
The language of my mother into which I was born
was Forbidden
The Nineteenth century Azerbaijan is characterized by separation in 1828 of northern segment of Azerbaijan and its annexation into Russian Empire. According to a veteran Azeri scholar, Dr. J. Heyat, separation of the northern Azerbaijan not only did not severe the ties between the Azeris on the two sides of Araz, it, more importantly, gave birth to a unique genre of literature and poetry “whose subject is the theme of separation between brothers” (Heyat 1983). In his famous poem, Kamran Mehdi (1980) has captured the feelings of Azerbaijanis regarding the forced separation:

True, the Araz divides a nation

But the earth underneath is one!

The Formation of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic

World War I brought about a new geo-political landscape in the region. The Ottoman Empire was disintegrated into a number of states under the British and French rules, with Turkish Republic emerging as an independent entity. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia breathed new life into the struggle of oppressed groups and nationalities. On May 28, 1920, the northern Azerbaijan declared its autonomy under a democratic party led by Mohammed-Amin Resulzadeh. After a short while, the newly formed republic was invaded by the Red Army and was turned into one of the Socialist Soviet Republics (see also Altestadt, 1992).

Following the events in northern Azerbaijan, a liberation movement took place in southern Azerbaijan in 1919-1920. The movement was led by Sheykh Mohammed Khiyabani, a progressive Azeri nationalist. Khiyabani's 'Democratic Party of Azerbaijan' put out a newspaper called Tajaddud (Progress) and began spreading revolutionary and democratic ideas in Azerbaijan. Invoking the memory of 1906 Constitutional Revolution, Khiyabani came to symbolize Sattar Khan, the legendary leader of Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Movement. In a short period of time, the Khiyabani movement was able to gain the support of Azerbaijani people, disarm the central government's forces, and declare Azerbaijan an autonomous republic called Azadistan or The Land of Freedom (Taqiyeva 1958; Azari 1955).

In the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, a group of workers and peasants came together and formed a party called Social Dimukrat (Social Democrat). Enjoying a tremendous popular support, the organization took control of the Sanandaj municipality and began redistributing grain from the warehouses of big landlords among the needy population (see also Ghods, 1989: 48). In 1915, Mirza Kuchik Khan launched the Jangel Movement which eventually culminated in the formation of the Socialist Republic of Gilan in Rasht, on June 4, 1920 (Ghods, P. 65). And finally, in 1921 a British orchestrated coup detat took place in Iran and reached its culmination in bringing to power a military dictator, known at the time as Reza Khan the Cossack.

Having enjoyed the unconditional support of the British, Reza Khan was able to suppress numerous socialist, nationalist, and separatist movements all over Iran. As early as 1925, Reza Khan was able to replace the ruling Qajar Dynasty with his own Pahlavi Dynasty. Soon after, he centralized power and authority in Tehran, terminated the semi-autonomous status of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, banned the usage of all non-Persian languages in any written form, and set out to enforce his Persian racist ideology throughout the country.

Ever since Reza Khan's usurpation of power, all nationalities and ethnic groups in Iran had been living under a constant fear, humiliation and oppression. They were witnessing the eradication of their native culture, language, history and heritage on a daily basis. The new monarch had centralized government, had introduced Farsi as the only legitimate Iranian language, and had placed a ban on the languages of other nationalities. The languages of other nationalities were repressed either as an imperfect dialect of Farsi, or as an alien, non-Indo-European language, such as Turkish or Arabic.

The officially fabricated Iranian history was rapidly replacing the existing oral and written histories of various ethnic groups. Under the official history, all peoples living in Iran were to have the common 'Aryan ancestry'. The non-Persian nationalities were written new histories in line with Persian racist ideology. They were not encouraged to be proud of who they were, because according to the dominant ideology, their heritage and culture were nothing to be proud of! They were required to be assimilated to 'the superior Indo-European race and culture'; and if they didn't acknowledge the 'superiority of Persian Indo-European race', they would then become subjected to mockery, humiliation, marginaliztion and punishment.

The Azerbaijani Turks, who were very proud of their heritage and accomplishments, were among those most subjected to racist and chauvinistic assimilationist Aryan ideology. In major Persian literary works, and in Persian literature in general, the Azeri Turks were referred to as "donkeys" (see also Baraheni, 1977). They were regarded as subhuman until such time as they openly admitted their inferior Turkish origins and their assimilation into the supposedly superior Persian Aryan race.

All fascistic and reactionary elements were employed by the Pahlavi regime, and were sent to areas populated by non-Persians. These kinds of government employees were serving in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in such positions as governors, mayors, teachers, registrars, and all kinds and sorts of big and little officials. For instance, a man named 'Mostowfi' was sent to Tabriz as the governor of Eastern Azerbaijan. In his reporting of the national census that had taken place in Azerbaijan in the year 1940, he wrote : " According to the census, there are more than 25,000 donkeys in the city of Tabriz" (Dad, 1941: No 8, 18; JAMI, P. 262). If this is the attitude of the highest government official in the province, it's easy to imagine what would be the attitude on the part of the military personnel, gendarmerie, and other low-ranked government officials. It was these kinds of fascistic and racist attitudes that brought the sentiments of Azeri people to a boiling point and paved the way for demands for autonomy and independence through the democratic movement.

The breakout of World War II brought about the conditions for various national, ethnic and anti-racist sentiments to explode. On August 25, 1941, the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan, pushing the Pahlavi regime's military out of Azerbaijani territory. Following these changes, an ethnic organization called The Azerbaijan Society was formed and started publishing a journal titled Azerbaijan. The journal was written in Azeri and Farsi languages and aimed to expose the racist nature of Pahlavi dictatorship.

Mir Jafar Pishevari, the future leader of Azerbaijan Democratic Party, was an experienced journalist publishing a paper called 'Azhir' in Tehran. He was a 50-year-old native of Azerbaijan who had spent most of his life in Baku and had returned to Iran after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Due to his anti-government activities, he had been imprisoned by Reza Shah's regime for 12 years. After Reza Shah's fall, Pishevari, along with other political prisoners, had been set free. Upon his freedom, he had come to Tehran and started publishing his newspaper Azhir.

In October 1943, Pishevari was nominated from Azerbaijan to the 14th Majlis (parliament) of Iran. The people of Tabriz had voted for him unanimously. Despite his victory in Azerbaijan, the Iranian Majlis had rejected his candidacy on the grounds that he was a communist, a traitor and disloyal to Iran's territorial integrity. Khoyi, another Azerbaijani deputy from the city of Tabriz had met the same fate as Pishevari.

The Azeris had viewed Iranian parliament’s rejection of their elected candidates as a direct insult on their integrity and their nationality (see also JAMI, 1978). Being an experienced revolutionary and journalist, Pishevari was aware of the extent of explosive conditions in Azerbaijan. In August 1945, he entrusted the editorialship of Azhir to friends and returned to Azerbaijan to form the Azerbaijan Democratic Party.

On November 23, the Central Committee of Azerbaijan Democratic Party issued a proclamation defining its aim as the obtainment of complete autonomy for Azerbaijan. The party made it clear that autonomy for Azerbaijan did not mean secession from Iran. The people of Tabriz warmly welcomed the formation of Azerbaijan Democratic Party. Following the ADP’s proclamation, a regional Congress of Azerbaijan that was composed of party supporters, designated a 39-membered commission to organize elections to a National Assembly.

On December 12 the provincial National Assembly was formally inaugurated in Tabriz. The assembly was composed of 101 deputies, all democrats and Azeri nationalists from various backgrounds such as workers and laborers, who were determined on demanding autonomy for Azerbaijan (see also Atabaki, P. 129). As its first important task on the day of inauguration, the National Assembly proclaimed the autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan and designated a government under the premiership of Mir Jafar Pishevari, the founder of Azerbaijan Democratic Party.

The newly formed government of Azerbaijan announced that the autonomous state would be run on 'democratic principles'. It issued a program that granted women the right to vote; it announced that the private property would be respected but that the government would distribute to the landless farmers the state-owned lands as well as the lands of reactionary landlords who had run away from Azerbaijan.

Further, the government assured the Azerbaijani people that 'traitors and reactionaries' would be purged from the gendarmerie; that a 'people's army' would be formed from local militia groups; and that Azeri-Turkic would be the official language of the state.

Simultaneously with the Azerbaijani movement, a Kurdish movement took place in the province of Kurdistan, west of Azerbaijan. On December 15, 1945, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan proclaimed a Kurdish People's Republic. On January 21, 1946, Qazi Mohammad was elected to the presidency of the Republic. The Kurdish Republic set out to follow the democratic reforms and events taking place in the neighboring Azerbaijan. While sending observers to the Azerbaijan parliament, the Kurds maintained their distinct identity and insisted on the independence of the Kurdish Republic.

Following the negotiations between the two republics, a treaty was signed on April 23, 1946, between the Kurdistan and Azerbaijan governments. While emphasizing the mutual respect, cooperation and brotherhood between the two oppressed nations, the treaty provided for military alliance, exchange of diplomatic missions, fair treatment of minorities and common diplomatic action towards the Pahlavi regime in Tehran (see also Roosevelt, 1947).

Achievements of the Movement

The Azerbaijan Democratic Government quickly proceeded to carry out its plans. As a major step in eliminating feudal oppression, it started a land distribution program all over the Republic. On 16 February 1946, the National Assembly of Azerbaijan passed two important Bills regarding the land reform. Based on these Bills, lands belonging to reactionary feudals who had opposed the national government, or who had left Azerbaijan due to democratic movement, were to be distributed among landless farmers. Considering the fact that the majority of Azerbaijani feudal lords had already run away from Azerbaijan in the process of the democratic movement, this distribution amounted to a significant portion of agrarian land (see also Mehrban, 1982; Atabaki, 1993).

Moreover, the Bills asked for the distribution of all state-owned lands, along with the water rights, rivers, springs and ganats, among the peasants who lived on those lands and who cultivated them. The reform resulted in distribution of over 380,000 hectares of land amongst more than one million landless peasants (Tudeh 1978; Atabaki 1993).

Following the two mentioned Bills, another Bill was passed that dealt with the system of 'share-cropping’. Traditionally there was no viable agreement between the peasant and the landlord regarding the peasant's share of the crop. Normally it was left to the benevolence of the landlord to decide what to give to peasant in exchange for his cultivation of the land. The new Bill guaranteed to each farmer a minimum share of the crop which he produced on a landlord's land. Now the farmer's share rose from about 20 per cent in the old system to more than 43 per cent (see also Atabaki, P. 150). Considering the fact that about 75 per cent of the people in Azerbaijan were farmers at the time (Kazemi, 1980:14), the land reform illustrates the profoundly popular bases of the Azerbaijan Democratic Movement.

In the course of less than one year, the Democratic Government was able to lay the foundation of a modern educational system in Azerbaijan. In terms of education and pedagogy, the National Government completely revolutionized the Azerbaijani society. The first provincial university in Iran was built in Tabriz. Thousands of schools were built in small towns and villages all over Azerbaijan, accompanied by the introduction of compulsory primary education for all kids beginning at the age of six. For the first time, Azeri-Turkic became the official language in Azerbaijan and was taught in university, schools, and adult education centers, replacing Farsi.

For the first time in the history of Muslim Middle East, universal suffrage was introduced. Women gained the right to elect as well as to be elected. The ADP encouraged women to take active part in socio-political life of the republic. As a result, women participated in various positions from administration to teaching to working in the hospitals and even to serving in the national army of Azerbaijan (JAMI, PP. 289-95).

Important measures were taken to secure the rights of the workers and to underline the obligations of the employers. A labor code was introduced which limited the work to eight hours a day, introduced minimum wages, forbade child labor, acknowledged trade unions, recognized 1st of May as a national holiday, and established the right of the workers to social benefits (ADP, 1946).

A big texture company named Zefer was established. An orphanage was created to take care of needy children. The National Theatre Center was opened in Tabriz. A radio station was established. Numerous publishing houses were opened and countless newspapers, journals, magazines and books were published in the Azeri language (Berenjian, PP. 186-210; Javadi and Burril, 1989:251-55). Promotion of Azerbaijan's culture, history, language and music was greatly emphasized.

Under the Democratic government, all the banks in Tabriz were nationalized, holding more than 3,000,000 tomans at the time (see also Lenczowski, P. 289). Furthermore, a commission formed from representatives of Ministries of Trade, Economics, and Finance was called upon to establish trade connections with foreign governments. William Douglas, an American Jurist, who had chanced to be traveling in Azerbaijan shortly after the democratic movement, has summarized his observations thus:

I had assumed from press reports that Pishevari was not only a Soviet stooge but a bumbling and ineffective one as well. I learned from my travels in Azerbaijan in 1950 that Pishevari was an astute politician who forged a program for Azerbaijan that is still enormously popular... Pishevari's program was so popular--especially land reform, sever punishment of public officials who took bribes, and price control--that if there had been a free election in Azerbaijan during the summer of 1950, Pishevari would have been restored to power by the vote of 90 per cent of the people. And yet, not a thousand people in Azerbaijan out of three million are communists. (1951:43-50)

And finally, in the words of a scholar, under the democratic government, "Azerbaijan had achieved more in one year than it had during the twenty years of the Pahlavi regime" (Swielochowski, 1995: 149).

The Fall of the Republic

The elections for the 15th Majlis (parliament) of Iran were to begin on December 7, 1946. At this time, the Soviet forces had already left Azerbaijan and the Soviet consulate in Tabriz was pushing the ADP for negotiation and peaceful settlement of the issues with Iranian government. Qavam us-Saltana, the Iranian prime minister, after promising a major oil concession to the USSR, had returned to Tehran from his Moscow trip. The oil concession had been granted to the Soviets on the condition that it be ratified by the future Majlis.

The oil concession did not only mean a lion's share of Iran's oil for Russia, more importantly, it meant the security of Soviet borders in Iranian northern zone, particularly in the rivalry with the British and the newly arrived Americans. The Soviets were very concerned about the security of their borders with Iran and an enormously beneficial oil concession meant that their active presence in Iranian affairs would be guaranteed. After extorting the oil concession, now the Russians badly needed its ratification. As a result, the speedy election of the new Majlis was vitally important for the Russians.

Qavam had made it clear that the elections would not be held unless the government was in a position to supervise them all over the country, including Azerbaijan. The existence of an autonomous Azerbaijan had thus become an obstacle for the ratification of Russian oil concession. Without considering any ethical, ideological, or political consequences of their actions, the Russians decided to side with Iranian Pahlavi regime, pressing ADP to surrender!

In his now famous letter to Pishevari, the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, threatens the Azerbaijani leader due to latter’s diversion from “Lenin’s path”. He advises the Azeri leader that the advantage of Azerbaijan’s working class, as well as the working peoples of Iran and the whole world, would only be maintained through ADP’s cooperation with Prime Minister Qavamus-Saltaneh (Araz, 1996).

In the meantime, the British, now working hand in hand with Qavam, had engineered another scenario in the south. In September 1946, a puppet Qashqayi chief in the south led his Qashqayi tribes to capture a number of towns and villages. They then issued a list of demands asking for autonomy similar to that of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. They made it clear that if the government did not destroy the autonomous republics, the Qashqayis would capture more towns and would constitute their own republic! The ADP considered the Qashqayi rebellion as a scenario orchestrated by the central government in order to crush the autonomous republics (JAMI, PP. 374-97).

Through the Qashqayi rebellion, the British manifested their strength to Iranian ruling elite and, thereby, further emboldened Qavamus-Saltaneh in his determination to destroy the autonomous republics (see also Lenczowski, P. 307). Around mid-October, Qavam formed a new cabinet and reached an agreement with Qashqayi chiefs in the south, promising them that he would use all in his power to protect Iran's territorial integrity, and to return Azerbaijan and Kurdistan back to the mother-land. Meanwhile, George V. Allen, the newly appointed American Ambassador to Iran, made it clear that his government was supportive of Prime Minister Qavam's 'democratic decisions' and would do whatever it could to implement them (Lenczowski, P. 308).

On the pretext of supervising parliamentary elections, on November 24, 1946, Qavam ordered the troops to march into Azerbaijan. The American Ambassador to Iran called the decision "quite normal and appropriate" (New York Times, Dec. 7, 1946). On December 3, Pishevari assured the Azerbaijnis that the national army of Azerbaijan was ready to defend the republic. He made it clear that there would be "death but no return" to the colonial conditions (Azerbaijan, Dec. 3, 1946).

On December 10, Qavam's army reached Azerbaijani territory. The first confrontation took place in the outskirts of the town of Miana. The Azerbaijani army pushed the invading forces back and advanced towards Zanjan (JAMI, P. 415). Nevertheless, two days later, the ADP, under heavy pressures from the Soviets, decided to give up resistance and allow the Iranian army enter into Azerbaijan.

The premier of Azerbaijan, Jafar Pishevari, rejected the Soviet demand to surrender and argued in favor of resistance (JAMI, PP. 416-17). The other Central Committee members of ADP followed the Soviet line. Pishevari resigned from the government and left for Baku. On December 12, 1946, the remaining ADP leaders called on all Azerbaijanis to abandon resistance and to allow the Iranian army a peaceful entry into Tabriz.

The Iranian army, however, looked like anything but peaceful. Conscious and assured of non-resistance on the part of Azerbaijanis, the army, accompanied by gangs and thugs hired and armed by local landlords, entered Azerbaijan and savagely massacred its unarmed people. William Douglas has summed up his account of the invasion:

When the Persian Army returned to Azerbaijan, it came with a roar. Soldiers ran riot, looting and plundering, taking what they wanted. The Russian Army had been on its best behavior. The Persian Army--the army of emancipation--was a savage army of occupation. It left a brutal mark on the people. The beards of peasants were burned, their wives and daughters raped. Houses were plundered; livestock was stolen. The Army was out of control. Its mission had been liberation, but it preyed on the civilians, leaving death and destruction behind. (1951:45).

After the invasion of Azerbaijan, the Shah's army marched into the neighboring Republic of Kurdistan. The Kurdish leaders had already set up a 'War Committee' to deal with Shah’s army. When they heard the news of Azerbaijan's surrender, disagreement and controversy fell among the leaders. In the end, they decided to follow the Azerbaijani leaders and agreed on non-resistance. The 3,000 Barzani Kurds refused to put down their arms and were forced to fight their way through Iranian army to the USSR. This event illustrated the extent to which the Shah's army was weak and defenseless in the face of a popular resistance on the part of Azerbaijani national army and people.

The leader of Kurdistan Democratic Party, Qazi Mohammad, was hanged in Mhabad, along with his supporters. Mass executions of participants, sympathizers, and those suspected of supporting the national movements were performed in public, followed by the burning of books, magazines and pamphlets published in ethnic languages. Shortly after the fall of national governments, the “Book-Burning” ceremonies became a source of celebration and entertainment for the members of the dominant Persian race and their invading army. The racist Persian elite made it clear that the “Book-Burning” rituals were conducted for the purpose of sealing the destiny of Azeri-Turkic in Iran once for all (see also Heyat 1983; Berengian 1988; Haqqi 1993, Farzaneh 1999).

The world renowned North Azerbaijani poet, Semed Vurghun, recited a poem in 1952 World Peace Congress held in Paris, by way of a protest against massacre of Azerbaijani people. The poem was titled “Book Burning”, and it was addressed to the Shah of Iran who was referred to as “the butcher”. Below I have rendered parts of Vurghun’s poem into English:

Hey Butcher!
Don’t you know
The pile upon pile of books that you’re burning
Are symbols of a thousand creativity,
Desires of a thousand hearts?
Hey Butcher!
They’re in my language
Those proverbs, those poems
In each of them
Hearts of a thousand mothers are beating
In each of them
Thousands of children are laughing
Tel me butcher
Do you understand this?
Hey Butcher!
What are those gallows?
Who are those upon them?
It’s no game, Butcher!
The blood that you’re drinking like a wolf
Is my people’s blood
Those hanging from your gallows
Are my flesh and blood, my people
Do you understand this, Butcher?

The invading army stayed in Azerbaijan for five years, continuing the persecution of ADP supporters. After five years the Shah declared national amnesty in Azerbaijan and the military rule was lifted. The Persian chauvinistic propaganda, along with a relentless campaign against the democratic movements continued. The 12th of the December, the day of occupation, was commemorated as a national holiday and was celebrated in all government offices, schools and streets. The young Mohammad Reza Shah was praised as the mighty hero of "Azerbaijan Crisis" and "The Bringer of Azerbaijan to the Bosom of the Mother Land". Eyewitnesses and unofficial Azerbaijani sources have estimated the number of people killed in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan during the occupation to be over 50,000 (see also Hasanpour 1994; Ferdoust 1992).

Notwithstanding the roles played by the US, the USSR, and the Britain in the defeat of the movement, one important internal factor remains central in the fall of the two republics. And that is the role played by the leadership. Although the ADP leaders played an essential role in the formation of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, they nevertheless failed to do their duties as leaders of a revolutionary movement. Instead of tying their destinies to the destiny of Azerbaijani people, they tied the peoples' destiny to the demands of Soviet leaders.

From the beginning of the movement, the ADP failed to produce a comprehensive literature outlining the goals of the movement. Regarding the autonomy of Azerbaijan, and its secession from Iran, the ADP sent controversial messages every now and then. It appeared that the relationship between Tehran and Moscow determined the tone and the mood of ADP announcements. When the people's revolutionary sentiment had reached its climax, the ADP leaders worked as mediators to calm the people down.

The change that ADP leaders introduced was conservative and reformist, not revolutionary and sovereigntist, as the people would have wanted. As a result, while the ADP followed the conservative line advocated by the Soviets, the revolutionary demands of thousands of workers and peasants remained unanswered. And when the oppressed peoples of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan needed their leaders the most, the leaders turned their back on the people and by announcing their surrender, opened the gates of the republics to the invading army.

Undecided and perplexed, with no leaders and no commanding centers, thousands of peasants and workers laid down their arms, stood by and silently watched as Shah's invading army plundered their belongings and murdered them one after another. And all this because the leaders of ADP had chosen the Soviets' trade and security considerations over the independence and autonomy of their own people and their own Republic!


The second world war has left a lasting impact on the struggle of Iran's various nations for self-determination. As a direct result of the war, Iran was invaded by the Soviet and British forces; the Pahlavi regime's oppressive military was curtailed, and Iran's dictator, Reza Shah Pahlavi was deposed and forced to exile.

Free from the tyranny of central power, the oppressed nations of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, along with other groups such as workers, farmers, and women all over the country, were provided with an invaluable opportunity to demand their legitimate national, social, economic and political rights. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was formed on December 12, 1945, followed by the formation of the Kurdish Republic a month later.

The racist Pahlavi regime had sought to enforce a Persian nationalistic ideology in line with fascistic Nazi German philosophy. Members of various non-Persian nationalities living in Iran had either to subscribe to a supposedly common Aryan ancestry, or else be humiliated, marginalized and suffer numerous punishments.

Azerbaijan's democratic movement was a genuine struggle grown out of the necessity to counter Persian racism, hegemony and language imperialism. The nationalistic and socio-political demands of Azerbaijani people were legitimate demands rooted in their culture and history. Although the ADP leaders failed to lead the struggle to victory, obtainment of autonomy and unification with northern Azerbaijan have, nonetheless, remained an ideal for millions of Azeris in both sides of the river Araz.

Lack of democracy coupled with unbearable lingual inequality and systemic discrimination against non-Persians came to play a very central role in the demise of Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. The people of Azerbaijan, along with other oppressed nationalities and groups, joined in the struggle against the absolute monarchic regime and eventually managed to bring it down through the 1978-79 popular revolution. The role of Azeris in the overthrow of Pahlavi regime was so decisive and so significant that after the triumph of the revolution, the people of Azerbaijan were accorded the title of "The Heroic Nation of Azerbaijan" (Sistani, 1990:34).

Shortly after the revolution however, and more significant, after the consolidation of clerical power, there did not occur any considerable change in the status of either Azeri people or Azeri language. Nor did come into existence any democratic rule and institution. More than this, in respect to issues concerning human rights, particularly women's rights and freedom, the situation even worsened and kept deteriorating. The rapid deterioration in socio-political sphere, coupled with the destructive impact of 8-year Iran-Iraq war, came to play a major role in determining the nature of future struggle.

The ADP leaders failed in that they tied the destiny of Azeri people to the economic and security considerations of the USSR. After the failure of 1978-79 Iranian revolution, it seems that the Azerbaijani political parties and intellectuals are thinking twice before tying the destiny of Azeri people to maintenance of Iran's territorial integrity.

The proclamation in 1991 of an independent Azerbaijan in north of the borders has forwarded a catalyst that sends the pendulum swinging back again. The achievements, experiences, and failures of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic have become a source of learning and understanding that provide invaluable lessons for a fresh start. The Azeri intellectuals are finding the idea of emancipation within an Iranian state increasingly becoming impossible. Meanwhile, discourses concerning Aryanization and de-Aryanization of various nationalities living in Iran continue as ever...



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