Understanding the Iran-Azerbaijani Turks Issues

By Deniz S. Dibazer

Azerbaijan was divided between Qacar and Tsarist Russia by the treaties of Gulistan and Turkmanchay in 1813 and 1828 respectively. The Khanats of Northern Azerbaijan were de jure a part of Qacar dynasty but de facto independent. (Nesibli) (1). After the partition there was close contacts among people until 1930, when Stalin and Riza Shah (the father of the late Shah) decided to close the border. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the northern part of Azerbaijan became an independent state, while the southern part, which makes up three-quarters of Azerbaijan, is still struggling for basic rights.

Currently, South Azerbaijan consists of Qezvin, Zencan, Hemedan, Erdebil, Central (Arak), East Azerbaijan, the West Azerbaijan provinces, and the cities of Talish, Astara, and Enzelei in Gilan province. Lack of clear-cut borders makes it hard to give exact size of territory but it is estimated around 170.000sq.km. "The area of Northern Azerbaijan is 86,600 sq. km., depending on the Caspian Sea level changes." (2)

The Turkification of the Region

Most Persian scholars today follow the official history, written by the historians who were paid to write a glamorous, glowing history in praise of the Pahlavi dynasty and its Persian chauvinist ideology. Thus, the court historians invented a 2500-year history for Persians. The existence of any other nationalities prior to the official history had to be either denied or despised.

So the presence of Turks in Azerbaijan before the 11th century was denied. According to the court historians and their western counterparts, the Turks came to the region after the Persians. Persians historians use every possible means to justify the settlement of Persians in Azerbaijan before the 11th century, even if it means sacrificing the truth for the sake of their egoism. "The Turkic language entered the region of Azerbaijan as a result of the great migration of Turks into Asia Minor in the eleventh century" (Atabaki, P.9). This is the sort of statement that can be found in any history book written by the Persians.

However, the underlying intention behind this non-scientific approach is to undermine the ideological basis of any attempt by Turkish nationalists in Iran to claim the right to self-determination. The logic is that "Iran" is synonymous with "the home of Persians." Other nationalities are considered as ethnic groups, and if they are not Persians, then what they are? Based on the above one-sided logic, they are guests and therefore have no right to self-determination: a guest can not ask the host to leave the house.


There are close to 50 million Azerbaijani Turks all around the world. Eight million of these are in North Azerbaijan, 1 million in Russia, 30 million in South Azerbaijan. It is difficult to determine the exact number of Azerbaijanis in Iran because there are no real official statistics regarding Iran's ethnic structure. There are between 2 and 3 million in Iraq, mostly in Musul and Kirkuk, 3 million in Turkey mostly in Igdir, Kars and Istanbul provinces. There are some in Syria, a few hundred thousand in Georgia, some in Derbend (Dagistan), and there are more than 1 million scattered all around the world, having migrated from Southern Azerbaijan after the Islamic Revolution in 1978 and from Northern Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The language spoken is a dialect of Turkish that is very close to Anatolian Turkish.


More than 90% of Azerbaijanis are Moslem, predominantly belong to Shia sect. Islam has had two paradoxical impacts on Azerbaijan. Belonging to the Shia sect on the one hand helped the Safavid dynasty to build one of the greatest empires of the 16th century, and on the other hand it served to divide the Azerbaijani Turks from the rest of the Turkish world: the majority of Turks living in Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkistan belong to the Sunni sect of Islam.

Beginning with the Otlukbel War (1-11 August 1473) and ending in the 19th century, with some interruptions, the two Turkish states, the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish dynasty of Azerbaijan, have fought a bloody war which led to the weakening and disintegration of both states in the end. The prime beneficiaries of this meaningless war were the European powers, Russia, and finally, in 1925, the Persian chauvinists. Since then, the Golden Bridge or National Path connecting Central Asia to Anatolia has been closed to the Anatolian Turks and as a result Turkey has suffered politically and economically, and continues to do so even today. (Dr. Kengerli.p.18)

The meaning of the word ‘Azerbaijan’

There are two schools of thought, which give two different interpretations for the word Azerbaijan:

1. Scholars of Persian origin and Western scholars.

2. Scholars of Turkish origin. The first group includes Leftists, Rightist, Chauvinist, assimilated scholars of Turkish origin, such as Ahmad Kasravi and Dr. Erani -one of the pillars of Communist ideology in the 1920s.-, officials of both the Shah and Molla regimes, Greeks scholars, and Western scholars. They all agree on that the name Azerbaijan is derived from the name of a local commander, Atrupat, whose name means Guardian of Fire. (Atabaki, p.7)

During the rule of the Pahlavi dynasty, there was an official policy of Persianization of Turks in Azerbaijan. In collaboration with some German social scientist, the regime tried to attach the Azerbaijani name, culture, and history to the so-called 2500 years of glorious Persian culture or to the Greeks. Any attempt to give any interpretation other than the official one is labeled "Pan-Turkist" or "Separatist" or attributed to foreign intrigue. It is a well-known fact in the scholarly community that Greek scholars have a tendency to connect every great thing in the world to something of their own. The goal is to make other people feel empty and valueless so that they can fill their brains with all the great achievements of the Greeks.

The second group is made up of scholars from both parts of Azerbaijan and from Turkey. Some of them think that the name is derived from Atrupat while others, such as Mohemmed Huseyn Ibn Xelef Tabrizi, Mir Eli Seyidov believe that the word Azerbaijan has a Turkish root.

Mir Eli Seyyidov breaks down the word Azerbaijan into its component parts: ‘Az’, ‘er’, ‘bai’ and ‘jan’. He thinks ‘Az’ is a reference to one of the Turkish tribes. It also means good luck; ‘er’ means gentleperson, human; ‘bai’ means great; ‘jan’ means soil, abundant soil. From this analysis he draws the conclusion that the word ‘Azerbaijan’ means the land of great people of Az.

It is expected of scholars that they should be as objective as possible, but unfortunately almost all of the Persian scholars dealing with the question of the Turks are unable to achieve this kind of objectivity. Almost all of them have no knowledge of the Turkish language, which I think is a prerequisite for anyone who attempts to talk about the peoples of Turkish origin and culture.

Socio-economic Conditions Before 1945 in South Azerbaijan
In Azerbaijan, the Turkish language was banned from schools and government offices. Since the Turkish language press shared the same fate, there were no Turkish newspapers or magazines published. Students were forced to speak in Persian at schools, in the face of using their mother language they were fined and whipped by their teachers or principles.

The government-sponsored propaganda portrayed Turks as barbarians. Turks who wanted to climb up in state hierarchy had to deny their ethnic background. In order to assimilate the Turks into Persian culture Tehran was discouraging deliberately investments in Azerbaijan by making it hard to obtain permission to set up any fundamental industry there. Even in the case of obtaining permission, the cooperation of banking system could not be expected. As a result, thousands of people had to leave their homeland and settle in Persian cities to make a living.

The economy was chaotic "In contrast to the majority of people who lived in abject poverty, there was a relatively small class of rich landowners and merchants". (Fatemi, p.79) The people suffered from enormous difficulties in obtaining their essential needs such as bread. In comparison to the other regions the cost of living was much higher in Azerbaijan. The discrimination reached a point where people in Azerbaijan started putting questions such as, "While the sugar ratio in the capital is 1.5 kilos per month, why the ration is for Azerbaijanis no more than 400 grams, and that is not per month but rather, per season?" (Atabaki, p. 86) The political bureaucracy was corrupt and the gendarmerie was nothing more than an instrument in the hands of landowners to suppress the peasants. The appointed officials from Tehran were more worried about their pockets than solving people’s problems "Officials from the south find Tabriz and Reza'iyeh (Urmu) nothing more than dull villages, where they can make money and get back to Tehran, or anywhere down south". (Atabaki, p. 86) The workers had no rights. Not a single organization was allowed to defend their rights. Unions were outlawed. There was no freedom of speech; the press and radio were controlled by the central government. "Azerbaijan was a microcosm of conditions existing in Iran" (Fatemi, p.79).

People who know the fundamentals of revolution would agree that the required subjective and objective conditions were ripe for a revolution in Azerbaijan. But most of the Persian scholars, and their western counterparts not taking into account the above situation, and lessening the importance of socio-economic factors when it comes to the question of Azerbaijan, have tried to label the revolution of the Azerbaijanis as a Soviet-sponsored intrigue. It is also interesting to note that the Persian Liberal minded scholars have a tendency to portrait or paint themselves as "INTERNATIONALISTS" when they are talking about other oppressed people around the world.

However, when it comes to the question of Turks in so called Iran, they put away their quasi internationalist musk and display their despicable racist inclination. It can be seen in almost all of the so-called progressive Persian media's reaction during and after the formation of Azerbaijani Democratic Government. The following excerpt from the newspaper Iran-e Ma (Our Iran) is just an example:

In the view of our writers, it is perfectly obvious that the local language of Azerbaijan deserves respect. However, in our opinion the local language of Azerbaijan can definitely not be the national language of our Azerbaijani fellow countrymen because we do not consider the people of Azerbaijan to be a nation separate from our other fellow countrymen and ourselves (Atabaki, p. 104)

The Autonomous Government of Azerbaijan (1945-1946)

"On September 3, 1945, the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP) was founded in Tabriz. Two days later, the Azerbaijan Province Committee of the Iran People’s Party (Tudeh) merged with it." (Nissman, D., P.33)

Aware of Tehran's desire to crack down on the revolution in Tabriz, the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party called on the people to take up arms to defend their own government on November 9, 1945. Shortly thereafter, the party started setting up volunteer paramilitary units called "Fedayi".

On November 23, 1945, its (ADP) Central Committee issued a proclamation defining its aim as the complete autonomy of Azerbaijan (Lencezowski, p. 288). On December 12 the Provincial National Assembly was formally inaugurated. It was composed of 101 deputies (Lencezowski, p. 289). On its first day of power, the National Parliament of Azerbaijan in Tabriz challenged the puppet government of the Shah in Tehran by declaring the Autonomous Government of Azerbaijan and designating a government under the "premiership" of Mir Jafar Pisheveri designed to safeguard the autonomy of Azerbaijan.

The government declared that it had no intention of breaking away from Iran. Unlike the Soviet Azerbaijan, it did not follow a massive nationalization program. Private property was respected. A people's army was formed from the local militia. Turkish became the official language of the state. The government also declared that it would distribute government-owned land among the peasants, as well as that of the reactionary landlords who collaborated with the enemy and fled the country. Universal suffrage was recognized. Within a short period of time, schools were set up, the first medical school was opened in Tabriz, the roads were repaired, and an eight-hour workday was introduced. Within one year, the democratic government of Azerbaijan had done more good for Azerbaijan than Riza Khan had done in the last 20 years of his reign.

The Azerbaijani crisis was the first to come before the Security Council on January 19, 1946. "Seyyed Hasan Taqizadeh, head of the Iranian delegation to the General Assembly and the Iranian Ambassador to England, was instructed by Hakimi to refer Iran's complaint to the Security Council." (Fatami, p.96) Tehran was concerned about Soviet political support for the autonomous government of Azerbaijan.

Tehran's inability to suppress Azerbaijan prompted it to start negotiations with Tabriz. It also used diplomatic and economic tools to achieve its goal of eradicating the government in Tabriz. As all dictators do in the time of weakness, Tehran partially gave in to the Azerbaijani's demands on June 1946 by signing a 15-point agreement, which recognized some of the Azerbaijani's demands. By appeasing Russia's demand of joint exploration of oil in the northern provinces and also pressuring them to evacuate their army through diplomatic means on the land which had the U.S.A and UK's support, finally the Soviet forces started withdrawing from Azerbaijan on March 24, 1946. The evacuation was completed by May 09, 1946. Aware of Russia's behind the scene negotiations with Tehran, the Pisheveri government started looking the West of the border for help. In an emergency meeting of the "National Parliament", the Prime Minister Pisheveri told the deputies there were three alternatives left for the government:

1) Becoming united with Turkey;

2) Declaring independence if Turkey was to help them become recognized by the foreign countries (this option was to be taken if the first one was thought of affecting Turkey's diplomatic relations negatively);

3) Continuing their struggle within Iran directly if Turkey refused the first two options.

Three emissaries were sent to Ankara to discuss the situation with the Prime Minister of Turkey Ismet Inonu. After staying for three month in Ankara and giving all the military secrets of Azerbaijani army to Turkish officials not only they were denied a meeting with the Prime Minister but also they were sent back to Tehran where they subsequently were executed" ( Oren, Mehmet., p.122).

Finally, Tehran having the U.S and UK's military help and getting green light from Moscow and Ankara attacked Azerbaijan from three sides. On December, 12, 1946 the autonomous government succumbed. On their way Iranian army committed horrible crimes. The Turkish schoolbooks were set on fire and according to some accounts more than 50.000 people were killed.

The West's approach
The West followed a hostile policy toward the Azerbaijani government and used every possible means it could to destroy it. Western political scientists analyzing everything in the context of super power rivalry also have had a negative stand on the issue. Turning blind eye to the socio-political realities in Azerbaijan, western governments, media, political scientists, historians, had made groundless allegations about the Azerbaijan democratic government. Generally speaking, the following sorts of statements made by Mr. Geroge Lenczowski in his book Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1949 can been found in most writings of western scholars;

a) Democratic Party of Azerbaijan was nothing more than the Tude party under a different name. "In the meantime Tudeh (The Communist Party of Iran) assumed a new name in the Azerbaijan province. It became known as the Democratic party." (Lencezowski, p. 287)

b) The government was antidemocratic. In order to disqualify the party and turn public opinion against it, the western governments and the media tried to present the party as an antidemocratic organization. It can be seen by their stand on the elections to National Parliament that was held by the National Government; "These elections were carried out in an atmosphere of terror and intimidation and in their own crude way followed Soviet patterns. The Democratic Party was the only one presenting candidate. No organized opposition existed. The nationalist press, even mail from other parts of Iran, was barred from entry into Azerbaijan or-in some cases-was burned outright by Soviets censors." (Lencezowski, p. 289)

c) The Democratic Party had no social basis and it was nothing more than a puppet in the hands of the Soviets. "The state was a police state. Most of the cabinet members were imported from Russia." (Lencezowski, p. 290) To justify his argument, Lencezowski tells the story of Colonel William T. Sexton, the American military attaché in Tehran who wanted to see the situation first hand, but was not given permission to enter Azerbaijan. "The Azerbaijani people's army or the partisans, fedailar, were infiltrated by hundreds of Soviet agents from the Caucasus and were largely composed of Armenians or those Iranian 'immigrants' Mohajirs, who in 1936 had returned to their native country from the Soviet Union." (Lencezowski, p.290)

As it is obvious from the above statements Mr. Lencezowski, like Western governments, is adamant to prove that the Autonomous Government had no national bases, people of Azerbaijan were not in favor of autonomy and it was just some Soviet agent and outsiders who were pushing for autonomy.

The Azerbaijani Government and the Kurds
At the beginning Azerbaijani government was not in favor of an autonomous Kurdish state. As Bagirov the first Secretary of Communist Party of Azerbaijan, told the Kurdish delegation in Baku "There was no need he declared for the Kurds to hurry the formation of their own state. (Eagleton, p.44) Bagirov thought the Kurdish aspiration could be achieved within Azerbaijani autonomy. But the Kurdish delegation rejected the idea and insisted on having their own state. The Baku government was aware of the fact that the British and Turks were not going to recognize a Kurdish state and beside that the Baku's long term plan was a unified Azerbaijan. Therefore, she was more sympathetic of her cousins in south of Araz River than the Kurds.

Finally, Kurds declared their own state on Jan. 22, 1946 in the city of Soguqbulaq (Mahabad). There was a territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, which was threatening both governments' existence. In order to solve the problems with Soviets initiatives, despite of Kurdish delegation discontent, the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance was signed On April 23, 1946 in Tabriz. Kurds support of Azerbaijan was a tactical one, they knew that the government in Tabriz had close ties to Baku, and also Baku had strong ties with Moscow in return. Therefore, by supporting Tabriz they wanted to have Moscow's military, economic and diplomatic aid in return.

The achievements of the Azerbaijani government within one year of being in power have had an enormous impact on people's minds and helped them to become more conscious of their own distinct nationality. The faith of Azerbaijani government was decided by the big power rivalry and it was the first victim of the Cold War. Tehran without getting American, British, and Russian help would not dare to attack Azerbaijan. The prime motivating force behind West's support of Shah's regime was economic. Ideological battle was nothing more than a mere reflection of struggle over natural resources.

From what has been said above nobody should come to the conclusion that our objective is to sow hatred among certain nationalities. The main purpose of this paper is to shed light to few points. As A. Shaylan said once "Even if somebody is trying to take you to the Heaven you should go with open eyes".

1) Atabaki.Touraj. Azerbaijan Ethnicity and Autonomy in Twentieth -Century Iran. , British Academic, 1993.

2) Bennett, Leroy. A. International Organizations, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1995

3) Eagleton, William, Jr. The Kurdish Republic of 1946. Oxford University Press, 1963.

4) Esgerzade, Eliriza. “Remembering Azerbaijani Democratic Republic.” Qurtulush Magazine, 1997.

5) Fatemi, Faramarz .S. The U.S.S.R In Iran. London, Thomas Yoseloff LTD, 1960.

6) Hajizadeh, Hikmet (Former Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Moscow), Azerbaijan The Way We are. The Wep Page: Virtual Azerbaijan

7) Kengerli Mehmet. “The Treaty of Turkmanchay , 10.Feb. 1828”, Azerbaycan Turk Kultur Dergisi(Azerbaijan Turk Cultural Magazine ), 1998, No: 319, P.18-27.

8) Lenczowski, Geroge. Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1949. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1949.

9) Dr. Nesibli Nesib (Former Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Tehran), The Azerbaijan Question in Iran: A Crucial Issue For Iran's Future, The Wep Page: Virtual Azerbaijan

10) Oren, Mehmet Metin. Iran Turkleri Hurriyet Hareketleri( The Liberation Movements of Turks of Iran), Ankara, Mars Matbaasi ( Mars publication), 1980.

11) Rustemkhanli, Sabir. Omur Kitabi (The Book of Life) . Baki , Azerbaijan Gencliq,1989.