Iran’s Election and Unrest: What’s behind the silence of the Azerbaijanis in Iran?

Nadir GHAZANFARI - Eurasia Critic, August, 2009

Just hours after voting ended following last month's presidential election in Iran on June 12, the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi claimed an early victory with a majority of the votes. But a day after the election where two prominent reformist candidates, Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, and the conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaie, had run against the president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran's Interior Ministry announced that Ahmadinejad would retain the presidency--coming out ahead with more than 62 percent of the votes over his rival Mousavi, who had trailed far behind at 32 percent. After the election results were announced, reformist rivals Mousavi and Karrubi immediately protested, claiming the elections were rigged by Ahmadinijad. Mousavi contended that the election was marred by widespread fraud and insisted that he was robbed of a rightful victory. Rezaie followed suit.

People dissatisfied with the result of the elections demonstrated in Tehran and in some other cities, chanting "Where is my vote?" Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Tehran to support Mousavi and Karrubi's claims that the election had been flawed. In a statement, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the high turnout (reported to be 85%) and described the elections as a "real celebration" and called on people to stay calm.

Despite a number of both veiled and open threats against the protestors issued by Tehran, swarms of disappointed voters, reported to number more than 2 million people, pressed on with the demonstrations on June 15. But the firing on the crowds changed the tone of the protests. Iranian authorities confirmed that at least 8 people were killed. While Tehran was clearly home to the most volatile display of unrest and anti-government protests in the history of the Islamic Revolution, protestors rallied in support of a wider demonstration of dissent in other cities. The violent clampdown by the government and clashes between security forces and civilians during 10 days of protests ended with more than 20 people killed, hundreds injured and many arrested.
Protests also took place in some larger cities in Iran including Mashhad, Esfahan and Shiraz. But the predominantly Azerbaijani region of northwestern Iran, including its capital, Tabriz, remained quiet during the turbulent days of protests that rocked Tehran. There were a number of factors determining which way the Azerbaijani vote would go; one being the fact that Mousavi is an Azerbaijani and secondly, Ahmadinijad's bloody handling of the demonstrations by ethnic Azerbaijani citizens back in 2006. Against a backdrop of active engagement and even leadership on the part of Iran's Azerbaijanis in the social and political movements that have shaped Iran over the last century; the Azerbaijanis silence at today's strategic juncture is no coincidence.
The role of the Azerbaijanis in the revolutions and political movements in 20th century Iran

In Borders and Brethren, Brenda Shaffer argues that in the history of modern Iran, Azerbaijanis always struggled for democracy hoping that this would bring autonomy to Azerbaijan. Starting from Iran's 1906 Constitutional Revolution to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, as well as the period in between, Azerbaijanis have always taken on important roles during the critical turning points that determined the country's political fate. Its proximity to the Ottoman Empire and to the Caucasus has historically made the Azerbaijani region of Iran open to progressive ideas and trends.

In the early 20th century the Constitutional Revolution took place in Iran in August 1906. The system of constitutional monarchy was created by the decree of Mozzafar-al-Din Shah as a result of the Revolution. After his death, his eldest son Mohammad Ali, an opponent of constitutional government, became the Shah. He carried a coup d'état and dissolved the National Assembly in 1908. Some deputies were killed and others were seized in Tehran. But Tehran is not the whole of Iran; and a civil war broke out as revolutionaries stood up in defense of the revolution in Tabriz. Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan, two main figures of the revolutionary movement, led the people of Tabriz to endure two sieges in defense of the Iranian Constitution of 1906, resisting against the royalist forces. The movement spread to other parts of Iran. Finally, the civil war was over when the rebel armies reached Tehran, and the second National Assembly was declared in 1909.6 Iran's ethnic populations, and especially the Azerbaijanis, played an active role in the reestablishment of the Constitutional Assembly.

In 1919, an agreement was reached between Iran and the United Kingdom known as the Anglo-Iranian Agreement. According to the agreement, decision-making authority over Iran's military, financial, and customs affairs were transferred to Britain. The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan under the leadership of Shaykh Muhammad Khiabani was the first to demonstrate against the agreement and accused Tehran of selling out to foreign colonialists. The party demanded the establishment of a republic in Iran and went even further, calling the province of Azerbaijan as Azadistan (the land of freedom). The demonstrations spread to other parts of Iran, especially Tehran. Khiabani led Tabriz and the surrounding areas to another revolt against Britain's colonial maneuvers. Iranian forces were sent to Tabriz, the revolt was suppressed and Khiabani killed. The agreement was abrogated in 1920.6

After 1926, when the Pahlavi dynasty took over power in Iran, an era of dictatorship started under Reza Shah Pahlavi's reign. He launched various projects that he called reforms and aspired to build a nation through a rapid push for modernization, all the while eliminating all ethnic rights which had been the first of their kind in the history of Iran--a country which has never had an officially dominant ethnic group. The demand for ethnic cultural and economical rights was voiced from the Azerbaijani region. During World War II, Iran was occupied by the Allies and Reza Shah was removed from power, after which time the winds of democracy blew in Iran. The first voice of democracy rose from Tabriz.

Jafar Pishevari announced the foundation of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (the same name as Khiabani's organization). "The party expressed that Azerbaijan will remain as part of Iran but demanded three major reforms for Azerbaijan: the use of Azerbaijani Turkish in state schools and government offices; the retention of tax revenues for the development of the region; and the establishment of the provincial assemblies promised in the constitutional laws".6 The party announced the autonomy of Azerbaijan on December 12, 1945 with Pishevari as the founder and chairman of the Azerbaijan People's Government. Tehran was strife with concern about the rising demands for ethnic rights, fearing that other ethnic minorities would soon vocalize similar demands. The Iranian government sent forces to Azerbaijan in order to crush the Azerbaijan autonomous government. The forces attacked Tabriz and the autonomous government was crushed only a year later, in December 1946. Thousands of people were killed and executed after Tabriz was occupied. Once again, demands for democracy in Iran were cut down in Tabriz.

The 1979 revolution that lifted Ayatollah Khomeini to power was carried out by a wide coalition of groups with different ideological orientations. What united them was the desire to dismantle the throne of monarchy in Iran. Many of the provinces with predominately non-Persian ethnic groups did not favor the new rules that the incoming regime was planning to institutionalize, especially the referendum for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran.

Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, born to an Azeri family in Tabriz, was the leading representative of the clergy during the final years of the reign of Reza Shah. He opposed the establishment of an Islamic republic which did not fully represent the will of the Iranian people and which aimed to exclusively grant all power to the supreme leader. An outspoken critic of Khomeini, Ayatollah Shariatmadari opposed the new constitution, which was based heavily on Khomeini's view of "governance of the jurist" or Velāyat-e faqīh. Following the referendum on the constitution, Azerbaijanis demonstrated against the results on the basis that the media had treated them unfairly and that the referendum was rigged. The Muslim People's Republican Party (MPRP) was founded in 1979 by supporters of Ayatollah Shariatmadari in his native Azerbaijan and took control of Tabriz for a month. The government maintained that the protestors were foreign instigators, not Iranians, a move reminiscent of statements issued earlier by the Shah after the Tabriz demonstrations in 1978 against the Pahlavi regime. During this time, Azerbaijani protestors and the Revolutionary Guard clashed in violent confrontations and when finally the security forces wrested control of Tabriz, eleven MPRP leaders were executed. Killings which aimed to eliminate political opponents continued for days in Tabriz. Further executions of MPRP members took place some months later in May. Soon afterward Khomeini ordered the MPRP disbanded. Once again, the Azerbaijanis endeavors in the name of furthering democracy in Iran were thwarted by bloody means. No show of support came from Tehran or other Iranian cities. The events of late 1979 and early 1980 were a turning point for many Azerbaijanis in their relation with the Islamic Republic.

The Azerbaijanis national movement

After the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, Azerbaijanis hoped that they could finally claim, at a minimum, the rights which are laid out in the Constitution. But state policies were moving the country in a completely different direction.

During this period, Azerbaijani national identity entered a phase of increasing awareness and consolidation in Iran. This trend accelerated dramatically following the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Additionally, the occupation of Karabakh proved to add more steam to the ethnic stirrings among Azerbaijanis in Iran.8, Iran has long been weary of a strong handed Azerbaijan which could mobilize ethnic-based identity politics in Iran and provoke demands for ethnic rights among its own Azerbaijani population in Iran. Despite ideological differences with Armenia, Iran supported the Armenians against Azerbaijan in the Karabakh conflict-even though Iran and Azerbaijan both have a Shiite Muslim majority. This caused dissatisfaction with Iran's policies toward Azerbaijan among Iranian Azerbaijanis at home. Students at Tabriz University organized a protest inside the university. The demonstrations were the first of their kind in terms of the political content and tone highlighting demands for the recognition of Azerbaijani language and identity.

In 1995, the Iran Broadcasting Authority released a survey in which widespread prejudice was revealed among Persians toward Azerbaijanis. Students at Tabriz University organized a protest to condemn the racist questionnaire.11 The demonstration ended when the East Azerbaijan Province governor accepted to meet the protesters. The demonstrators indicated that the survey was conducted "to divert our national struggle from its main stream to a reduced issue of Fars-Turk conflict". The protests came to an end but the event deeply affected the terms of the Azerbaijanis relationship with the government, as well as their approach to promoting Azerbaijani identity from that point forward. Feeling sidelined from mainstream Iran, ethnic Azeris became more eager to embrace their own cultural heritage and history.

The period of collective awakening among the Azerbaijanis marked by more vocal demands for their ethnic rights reached its peak with the Iranian parliamentary elections in 1996. In Tabriz, Mahmudali Chehregani, the parliamentary candidate who had the support of the Azerbaijani student activists, ran on a platform that called for the use of Azerbaijani Turkish in schools and in the state apparatus, and greater economic development measures for the Azerbaijani provinces.5 Although Chehregani received overwhelming support from the voters in Tabriz, the central government could not tolerate it. The security forces detained Chehregani, the Tabriz-based demonstrations in his support were silenced, and hundreds of students and activists were arrested. He was released after he agreed to withdraw his candidacy from the elections.

The 1996 elections were a disappointment for the Azerbaijanis who had held high hopes that it would be a watershed moment in strengthening pluralistic democracy in Iran. It also changed their strategy in terms of voicing demands for an expansion of ethnic rights. In the face of Tehran's resistance to signs of the opening up of political spaces for the Azerbaijanis, they arrived at the conclusion that there was no longer any hope of achieving greater freedoms from inside the existing political system and decided that the struggle should continue independently. The result was what is today called the "South Azerbaijan National Movement" (SANM).

Demands for greater recognition of ethnic rights in Iran are rising among Iran's diverse non-Persian ethnic groups. Along with Azerbaijani Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Beluchis, and Turkmans are also struggling for an expansion of democratic measures to ensure the rights of all ethnic minorities in the country. The efforts of Azerbaijanis in achieving progress through political struggle have generally been halted by the government. The irony has been the prevalence of persistent restrictions and limitations even in the period of the reformist government under former president Khatami-a time which had held out great hopes in favor of liberalization and plurality in Iranian politics.

The cartoon crisis

On May 12, 2006, "Iran", a state-run newspaper published a cartoon insulting Azerbaijanis. It depicted an Azeri-speaking cockroach and suggested people deny it food until it learned to speak Persian. Azerbaijani university students held demonstrations protesting the cartoon and demanded a formal government apology. In the first days of the demonstrations, no official response from the government condemning the cartoon materialized. The demonstrations spread to other cities in the predominantly Azerbaijani region of Iran. On May 22, Tabriz was home to the greatest anti-state demonstration since the founding of the Islamic Revolution. The protestors went out to the streets and called on Tehran to respect ethnic rights, and demanded that Azerbaijani Turkish be an official state language in Iran. The Azerbaijanis peaceful demonstrations were met with force. The security forces fired on people, reportedly killing at least 15 and arrested hundreds of protestors. Similar demonstrations shook most of the Azerbaijani cities. Naghadeh (Sulduz), Urmia, and Meshghinsherhr (Khiyav) hosted bloody demonstrations with at least 10 people killed.

In response to the vast demonstrations, the government quickly removed the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and the caricaturist, but no official apology was released. The Iranian media did not adequately report the events that occurred during the demonstrations despite their unprecedented size and duration and the events went largely unnoticed in foreign media outlets as well. Azerbaijanis found themselves completely alone in the struggle for their rights in Iran. The opposition in Iran, the so called reformist camp, also did not support the rightful protests of the Azerbaijanis. The demonstrations were not only a backlash against the cartoon, but represented a wider uprising against the tens of years of discrimination and oppression in Iran toward the Azerbaijanis.

Why are Azerbaijanis quiet today?

The silence among the Azerbaijanis in light of the widely contested results of the June 12 presidential election in Iran has three major reasons. The first and most important is the historical background of the Azerbaijani struggle for democracy in Iran. Although Azerbaijanis have played a central role in the battle for ethnic rights, sacrificing themselves at times to achieve the common goal they share with other ethnic groups in Iran, the movements and revolutions were deflected or even brought down brutally by centralist sentiments in Tehran. Since the Azerbaijanis demands have not been guaranteed despite previous political attempts, there is a sense of disillusionment among the Azerbaijanis today who do not want to participate in what they view as passing trends that are not likely to identify with or support their cause for greater rights and freedoms.

The second reason is how the May 2006 uprisings of the Azerbaijanis were clamped down by Tehran. The opposition centralists did not support the demonstrations. In fact, the most damaging reaction came from human rights organizations in Iran who ignored the news of human rights violations reported in the Azeri region. Such actions disappointed the Azerbaijani community, and brought them to a position where some now think of themselves as no longer a part of Iran.

Finally, many Azerbaijanis interpret the recent post-election uprisings on the streets of Tehran as a struggle for power and control, not for the ideals of democracy. Although Azerbaijanis do not approve of Ahmadinijad's policies and attitudes toward ethnic groups in Iran, they are not confident that the reformists will choose a different, and more tolerant, set of policies. Azerbaijanis recall the Khatami presidency which failed to bring any genuine change in the regime's approach toward an expansion of ethnic rights. This is also true for other ethnic groups in Iran, since they also are tired of being caught up in Iran's domestic power struggles at the expense of progress on cultural and language rights granted to ethnic minorities not far beyond Iran's borders.

Any new proposal tabled by the opposition movement on the issue of ethnic minority rights needs to be convincing and support measures such as formally recognizing the decades of discrimination that ethnic communities in Iran have had to endure; acknowledging Azeri and other language and cultural rights; and introducing institutional mechanisms to allow ethnic groups to participate in a more representative and pluralistic political system in Iran. Such steps would encourage non-Persian ethnicities to actively participate in molding Iran's political, economic and social future, and help regain lost confidence in Tehran.

i Mousavi's official website.
ii Last access 10/07/09.
iii Keyhan newspaper official website.
vi The official news agency of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last access 10/07/09.
v Brenda Shaffer, Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity, The MIT press (2002).
vi Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, Princeton University press (1982). Ahmad Kasravi, History of Iranian Constitutional Revolution, Amir Kabir press (1978).
vii Alireza Asgharzadeh, Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Islamic Fundamentalism, Aryanist Racism, and Democratic Struggles, Palgrave Macmillan (2007).
viii Brenda Shaffer.
ix Hamed Yeghanepur, "Azerbaijan national movement", South Azerbaijan Social and Cultural Researches (GUNASKAM).
x Alireza Asgharzadeh, "In Search of a Global Soul: Azerbaijan and the Challenge of Multiple Identities", South Azerbaijan Social and Cultural Researches (GUNASKAM).
xi Araz Student Journal, Azerbaijan student movement, Tabriz University (2005).
xii Arif Keskin, "Azerbaijani-Turk nationalism in Iran and the cartoon crisis", South Azerbaijan Social and Cultural Researches (GUNASKAM).
xiii Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran,