South Azerbaijan is not Iran

By Umud Duzgun
History made by South Azeris in an international club match between Tractor of Tabriz and Aljazeera of Dubai. A political chant gained voice and momentum.
On February 26, an Asian Champions League match took place between the soccer teams of Tractor (Tabriz) and Aljazeera (Dubai, UAE).  A seemingly non-political event turned into a highly politicized one when an impressive crowd of 85,000 people started chanting " Yaşasin Azerbaycan! " or Long Live Azerbaijan!
Those were the fans Tractor, a soccer club representing an Azeri region of Iran. Following its state ideology based on Persian nationalism, the Iranian authorities prohibit Azeri soccer fans to carry any cultural and political symbols and banners. Despite all these prohibitions, the fans of an Azeri soccer team managed to sneak in a huge 50 feet long banner writing in English for the first time "South Azerbaijan is not Iran" resembling the Catalan slogan “Catalan is not Spain.” It caught the eyes of millions of viewers around the nation and beyond.
The soccer team  “Tiraxtur” (Tractor) is one of the most favorite Azeri soccer clubs which turned into a symbol of national pride and the independence movement of over 30 million Azeri Turks in South Azerbaijan, which is part of Iran at the moment.
The slogan “Long Live Azerbaijan!” held up and cheered by the crowd resonated with the nationalist feelings of millions of Azeri viewers in and outside the stadium. In an interview after winning 3-1 Tractor’s Portuguese head coach Tony Oliveira said the following: "This was more than a football. I have seen big crowds in Portugal, but in my 45 years of sport career I have never experienced this much enthusiasm.  It was a beautiful emotion to see this happy atmosphere."
“Obviously, this was a historic day because for our people Tractor is more than a club because of the values its red flags represent,” added the team captain Murteza Asadi from Ardabil the third largest city in South Azerbaijan.
Most of the post-match confrontations occur when Azeri clubs playing against Persian clubs in domestic games. However, this time the confrontations followed an international AFC match between Tractor of Tabriz and Aljazeera of Dubai which played at Sahand Stadium in Tabriz the historic capital of South Azerbaijan.
The Persian government in Tehran tried hard to present Tractor club as a regular Iranian soccer club and turn the crowd’s attention to the regional rivalry between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which the official Tehran considers to be an enemy. In Persian cities the Iranian government often mobilizes crowds to create a hostile atmosphere for the guest clubs from Arab nations. However, in Tabriz the local Azeri people would not follow the suit. For their surprise Azeris chanted a warm welcome and even chanted a friendly slogan of “Ahlan va Sahlan” (Hello in Arabic) to the guests.
Similar to the FC Barcelona for the Catalan independent movement in Spain, the FC Tractor is the symbol of South Azerbaijan independence movement in Iran.  Unlike the Catalan people in Spain where democratic institutions exist, the South Azeri people suffer under the totalitarian regime in Iran which lacks similar democratic institutions. Under such conditions, Tractor’s matches allow the Azeri people to express their national sentiments at a limited time and space provided by the soccer match.
Previously, Azeri people expressed their voice of protest on various issues where the interests of the local Azeri people were affected.  The protests to save the Lake Urmia is a perfect example.  At the time of the protests there were widespread sentiments among the local Azeri population that the Iranian government did nothing to stop the drying of the Lake Urmia because it was part of the government’s deliberate policy to displace the local Azeri people from the area around the lake. The local Azeri’s also protested to commemorate the victims of the Khojaly genocide in 1992.  When earthquake hit the Ahar-Varzeqan region, the local Azeris were quick to organize a campaign to help the victims of the earthquake. In recent years the Azeri people have been demanding education in their own native language and some have even initiated a petition for referendum to secede from Iran.
The theme of slogans in the past was to show the distinct national identity such as “Haray Haray Men Turkem” which means Hey- hey we are Turks.
However, this time the message was clearer: “South Azerbaijan is not Iran.” The Azeri people not only have different identity from Persians but they have their own historic homeland in South Azerbaijan. This manifestation provoked angry reaction from the Persian nationalist circles and the official Tehran. Several Azeri fans were arrested. 
From late 1990s, the Iranian regime tried to sideline all South Azerbaijani soccer clubs by pushing them to play in a lower division league. Under the supervision of FIFA, after seven years Tractor finally managed to come back to the premier league and last year it achieved the second place in the premier league of Iran.  And now Tractor is treated almost like a security threat to the Iranian government.
The authorities don’t allow any match to be played in the stadium at the city center. The place allocated for Tractor’s games – Sahand stadium – is heavily guarded by the security forces. And the stadium itself is located well beyond the city of Tabriz. Azeri fans are not allowed to bring in the slogans in Azeri Latin alphabet, which is the one used in the Republic of Azerbaijan, an independent part of Azerbaijan. Tractor fans face jail term threat for promoting slogans with cultural and political messages. Waiving the flag of United Azerbaijan is also prohibited.
Despite all these restrictions, the Azeri fans fill the stadium to its full capacity in most of the matches. Waving red flags and raising their hands in wolf head’s shape as a symbol of resistance, singing national songs, dancing and shouting the most radical slogans. Politics became integral parts of Tractor’s existence. A fan from Hamadan, the sixth largest city in South Azerbaijan, wrote a comment on his Facebook page : “It is only when you see the struggle of the South Azerbaijan people that you can start to understand the importance of Tractor in this independence movement.
And now with upcoming referendum on the Catalonian independence approaching, the similar demand requested by nine political parties of South Azerbaijan for independence under the supervision of United Nation and the free world. In real sense, South Azerbaijan is not Iran. Like FC Barcelona for Catalan, FC Tractor will carry on its symbolic role in strengthen the Azeri independent movement. A distinguished Azeri writer professor Zehtabi said: "when the right time comes, the people will clear the dark cloud from the skies of South Azerbaijan quicker than one could predict."