Azerbaijanis in Iran: Experiencing a Cultural Reawakening

by Brenda Shaffer

The collapse of the Soviet Union helped foment a cultural reawakening among ethnic minorities in Iran. As reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami proceeds with the democratization of Iran's political institutions, he and his supporters must contend with both conservative clerics [See Eurasia Insight Archive] and restive minorities. Balancing the concerns of all parties involved promises to be a difficult task.

Iran is a multi-ethnic society in which approximately 50 percent of its citizens are of non-Persian origin. Minority groups include Arabs, Azerbaijanis, Baluchis, Kurds and Turkmens. These ethnic peoples are particularly vulnerable to external pressures, since most of the non-Persian people are concentrated in the frontier areas and have ties to co-ethnics in adjoining states, including Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Azerbaijanis are the largest minority group, comprising up to one-third of Iran's overall population of about 64 million. Indeed, the number Azerbaijanis in Iran is far greater than the 7 million in Azerbaijan proper. Many Azerbaijanis refer to most of northwest Iran as "south Azerbaijan." Within Iran, this region is divided into four administrative units: East Azerbaijan Province, West Azerbaijan Province, Zanjan Province and Ardabil Province, but many Azerbaijanis lives outside the northwestern provinces, especially in Tehran, where they comprise approximately half of the population of the city.

The cultural rights and political activities of minorities were restricted under both the Pahlavi monarchy (1921-1979), and under the Islamic Republic (1979-present). Up until the establishment of the Pahlavi regime, the political leadership of Iran was mostly Azerbaijani-Turkic, and Turkic and Persian cultural elements both influenced the regime and the culture of the country. For much of the 20th century, Azerbaijanis were at the forefront of political activity in Iran. Major milestones include the 1920 Khiyabani-led revolt in the Azerbaijani provinces, and the establishment of the Autonomous Provincial Government in Azerbaijan (1945-46). The main city in the Azerbaijani provinces, Tabriz, was a center of the revolutionary activity that precipitated the fall of the Pahlavi regime, and Azerbaijani activists who rebelled against Ayatollah Khomeini effectively controlled Tabriz for over a month in December 1979.

The Soviet collapse served as the catalyst for the cultural reawakening of Azerbaijanis in Iran. Research indicates that the establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991 served as a stimulant for many Azerbaijanis in Iran to identify with the Azerbaijani ethnic group, though not necessarily with the new state itself. For instance, Iranian Azerbaijani university students have conducted a number of coordinated letter-writing campaigns calling for expansion of Azerbaijani rights within Iran. One of the most important developments affecting the collective identity of the Azerbaijanis in Iran was the widespread viewing of television programs from Turkey beginning in 1992. This seems to have produced important social consequences for the Azerbaijanis, whose language allows them to easily understand Turkish.

Initially, the Iranian government, hoping to prevent a rise in cultural awareness of its Azerbaijani minority, adopted a policy of de facto support for Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan over control of Nagorno-Karabagh. Tehran acted in the belief that a weak Azerbaijani state would not serve as an attractive alternative Iranian Azerbaijanis. Subsequently, many Azerbaijanis in Iran, including elected representatives in parliament, exerted pressure on the Iranian government to alter its policy, achieving limited results.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran's northwestern provinces have developed into important trade hubs, establishing direct relations with economic partners. Thus, they have circumvented Tehran. This new status has led them to make demands for greater resources from the central government.

So far. the rise in Azerbaijani cultural awareness has not fostered significant separatist sentiment. However, it has placed pressure on officials in Tehran to loosen their grip on power. Many Azerbaijani's support greater cultural rights and decentralization of the decision-making process.

President Khatami, in attempting to strentgthen his political power base, has appealed to ethnic minorities, offering the prospect of wider cultural latitude. In addition, the president has sought to enlist the support of regional elites in his struggle with the conservative establishment in Tehran. While these policies are useful in the short-term in building a power base, Khatami may find that ethnic minorities, once empowered, may not be accepting of secondary status in the future.

The rise in Azerbaijani identity serves as a challenge to both center-periphery relations, and to official Persian-linguistic and cultural dominance in Iran. The matter of cultural rights has emerged as an important issue in the political arena of Iran with broad implications for ongoing stability. It appears that the post-Islamic Revolution regime will have to redefine the relations with the ethnic minorities, especially if it continues with its democratization agenda.

Editor's note: Brenda Shaffer is a post-doctoral fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.