Staunton, October 15 – For the first time since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, Ashgabat has helped to organize a cultural event for the estimated 1.3 million ethnic Turkmen living across its southern border in Iran, an action that by its very nature represents a challenge to Tehran’s control of the region.
Between September 29 and October 2, Ashgabat helped organize the Turkmenistan Culture Week in Iran’s Golestan region. Turkmenistan had wanted to hold this event in Gonbad-e Kavoos, a center of Turkmen culture in Iran, but Tehran insisted that it take place far from that location (en.baybak.com/a-hopeful-step-for-the-turkmensahra-people.azr).
According to the Baybak.com portal, a southern Azerbaijani source, “officials of the Islamic Republic accepted Turkmenistan’s proposal reluctantly,” doing so Baybak.com said, only because of “the political conditions generated by the economic sanctions” and Tehran’s desires not to alienate its neighbors.
Ashgabat took advantage of this situation, Baybak.com continued, to reach out “for the first time since independence” to the more than one million Turkmensahra Turkmens of Iran, a community that has been under intense “political and cultural pressures” from Iranian officials to assimilate.
An indication of Iranian fears about the implications of even this relatively limited event, Baybak.com said, was provided by Tehran’s efforts to limit the impact of the Culture Week. Not only did Tehran insist that the week take place in a location where Persians were a majority, but it packed the sessions with Persians so that Turkmens could not take part.
Moreover, the Iranian side worked hard to block any publicity about this event in order to prevent Turkmensahra Turkmens from knowing about it. That effort was undercut, the Southern Azerbaijani site continues, by reports in the media of Turkmenistan itself and by Internet coverage of the Culture Week itself
In reporting this development, Baybak.com said that it “considers the Turkmenistani President’s attempt to organize a Turkmenistan Culture Week in Iran a positive step,” one that “shows that Turkmenistan is ambitious about developing the Turkmen culture. And the Southern Azerbaijani site expressed the hope that Ashgabat will take “bigger steps in the future.”
“We again hope that the Turkmenistani officials would also be sensitive about not only the Turkmens’ right to receive education” in their own language and right to the restoration of lands taken from them but also about “the discriminatory policies” that the Iranian authorities apply against them.
“While the Islamic Republic can easily open publishing houses in Iran and carry out cultural activities,” the Southern Azerbaijani portal said, Turkmenistan needs to recognize that Iranian efforts in this regard will be directed against the ethnic Turkmens and consequently take steps to support that community.
Most of the Turkmens of Iran live along the northern border. Like their co-ethnics to the north, they are Sunni Muslims rather than Shiites like most Persians. In the 20th century, some of them fled north to avoid Iranian pressure and others revolved against the Soviet occupation in 1945 and against the Iranians immediately after that.
Following the Iranian revolution of1979, the Turkmens staged a revolt against Khomeini, a rising that Tehran crushed with extreme violence. As a result, some of Iran’s Turkmens have fled abroad, mostly but not exclusively to Turkey, with a small number even moving into the then-Turkmen SSR.
Over the last 20 years, the Turkmens of Iran have cooperated with ethnic Azerbaijanis in that country, protesting against Iranian policies and suffering from similar repressions of various kinds (en.baybak.com/the-regime-of-the-islamic-republic-has-commenced-to-hand-books-in-order-to-destroy-the-turkmen-culture-in-turkmensahra.azr).