Monday, February 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Iran’s Azerbaijanis: Both a ‘Bastion of the Islamic Revolution’ and a Challenge to Tehran

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 25 – The Azerbaijanis of Iran present two faces to the world: that of an ethnic group well-integrated into the broader Persian community with ties to the most senior Shiia leadership and that of an oppressed minority whose members aspire to autonomy, independence, or a link-up with the Republic of Azerbaijan to the north.
During the past week, both of these faces of this 20 to 25 million-strong group were on public view. At the beginning of the week, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received a group of Azerbaijanis from the northern Iranian city of Tabriz on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of the overthrow of the shah.
Khamenei, who himself is an ethnic Azerbaijani, recalled that an Azerbaijani protest had set in train the revolution that put Ayatollah Khomeni in power and, speaking in Azerbaijani, praised that community as “the bastion” of the Islamic revolution. (
Only two days later, however, a very different aspect of the Azerbaijani minority in Iran was presented to the world. On the occasion of international native language day on Thursday, Tehran’s security agencies suppressed demonstrations across northestern Iran and arrested numerous Azerbaijanis demanding more rights for their language.
As is typically the case, information about these events outside of Tehran has been both fragmentary and slow in reaching the international media. But there are now enough reports from multiple sources to permit three cautious conclusions about this other aspect of the Azerbaijani community in Iran.
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First, however integrated most ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran may feel on most issues most of the time, some of them – the percentage is far from clear – are upset about Tehran’s language policies which are almost as Persian-centric as were those of the shah, however much some Iranian leaders suggest otherwise.
Second, Iranian leaders are worried that anger on these linguistic and cultural issues could grow into a political challenge and thus are prepared to use both carrots – Ayatollah Kamenei’s remarks – and sticks – the suppression of demonstrations and arrest of participants – in order to prevent that from happening.
And third, however much anyone may want the situation to be more straightforward, the Azerbaijanis of Iran are neither an integrated community nor a political opposition to the existing regime. They are both, and any actions based on the assumption that they are only one or the other almost certainly are doomed to fail.

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