The fanatical musings of the Mullahs in Iran and their nuclear ambitions have been on the radar of the U.S. and western analysts for decades. With the Obama administration’s seemingly deep desire to leave a legacy in rapprochement with Iran, it is imperative that Congress provide significant oversight, perspective and, if necessary, intervention to protect the interests of the U.S.
Lack of sufficient detail and analysis has contributed to a vacuum of information on the ethnic minorities of Iran, who constitute roughly 49 percent of Iran’s total population. Ethnic Azeris (Azerbaijanis) by many estimates number more than 25 million in Iran, making them the largest and most influential, yet least-discussed, ethnic minority group in Iran. They are a Turkic-speaking minority group, kin to the Azerbaijanis of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Their identity dates back several centuries and they have been extremely influential in Persia and subsequently Iran’s historical narrative. Easily able to assimilate into the Islamic system, Azeris are heavily represented in Iran’s bazaars, government and military. Over 95% of Azeris are Shia Muslims, “aligning” themselves with the prevailing ideology of the theocratic-driven state. Tehran is now regarded as the city with the largest number of Azerbaijani-Turkic speakers in the world.
A general consensus does not exist as to the desires and hopes of the Azerbaijanis in Iran. While some scholars tout Azerbaijani loyalty to the state citing the vigilance of Azerbaijani soldiers against the Iraqi army in the Iran-Iraq War, others claim that since the early 20th century, Azerbaijanis have sought either independence or autonomy using movements in 1918, 1946, and 1979 as examples of Azerbaijani restiveness. Azerbaijani groups are rapidly forming both inside Iran and in diaspora communities all prescribing different political futures for the Azerbaijanis: some are vehemently pro-Iranian, some strictly speak on the implementation of self-determination, some advocate for a federal Iran divided along ethnic lines, some advocate separation from Iran, and others call for unification with the Republic of Azerbaijan. One thing certain is that the overwhelming majority of the Azerbaijanis in Iran support broader cultural and linguistic rights, which are guaranteed in articles 15 and 19 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran’s Azerbaijani-Turks and other minorities are well aware that Ahmadinejad’s presidency was marked by a systematic wave of repression. Despite promises of concessions in education and assembly rights, Hasan Rouhani so far has not given any indication of change in this policy. In fact, a recent series of arrests would prove otherwise.
Azerbaijanis continue to peacefully advocate for their rights and have yet to develop militias to combat the state, unlike some of the other minority groups. Since 1979, virtually all-rebellious activity in their region has been in the form of unarmed protests. The Azerbaijanis have been particularly active since 2006, when a cartoon published in a state-run newspaper compared their ethnicity to cockroaches, spurring massive protests that, although peaceful on the Azerbaijani side, were put down by the Mullahs in a ruthless manner.
Currently resistance has manifested into massive chants of support for Azerbaijani rights at soccer games in the city of Tabriz, the unofficial capital of the Azerbaijani provinces. Protests also erupted in August of 2011 over the Irani government’s contribution to the drying of the world’s third-largest salt lake, Lake Urmia, which sits at the heart of the Azerbaijani-populated region of Iran. Activists claim that irresponsible dam projects have contributed to a 60 percent decline in the body of the lake and that the remaining salt can be carried throughout the region, severely affecting health and destroying crops. Another point of anger has been over the government’s lack of response to an earthquake that hit the predominantly-Azerbaijani city of Tabriz in August 2012, killing over 300 people.
It is imperative that the Obama administration and Congress not drop any means of communication and paradiplomacy with the various democratizing forces within Iran, especially the ethnic minorities and in particular the Azerbaijanis. Closer ties, recognition and involvement with the Republic of Azerbaijan will help significantly in this regard. We must signal that all Azerbaijani efforts for reform have not been in vain.
Understanding the role of the Azerbaijanis in Iran should be part of a U.S.-led inclusive strategy with Iran. The promotion of internationally-recognized values and norms, such as cultural and linguistic rights, should be a necessary stipulation in future negotiations. Washington has every right to remain skeptical of Hasan Rouhani’s intentions and should not proceed with rapprochement strictly on the grounds of a hope for nuclear compromise.
Farzin Farzad is an Iranian-born analyst and serves as the executive director of the Network of Azerbaijani-Americans from Iran (NAAI), the seminal voice of ethnic Azeris living in Iran. He holds a master’s degree in international affairs from American University. Jason Katz is the principal of TSG, LLC, a consultancy that advises foreign governments, NGOs and corporations in the realms of strategic communications, politics and policy. He is also the former head of public affairs and public relations for the American Jewish Committee, based in Los Angeles.