Significance of ethnic minorities in Iran

Fortification at Natanz

By Justin Farrell

Amid continued game of rattling rhetoric by the United States, Israel and Iran, coupled with navy movements in the Persian Gulf, Iran took another step to show off its ability to ignore the West. On February 15, after inspecting Iranian-made fuel rods loaded into the core of a reactor in Tehran facility, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a televised address before the scientists, government officials and religious leadership of the country, declared reaching a milestone in the state nuclear program, pledging new developments in the near future. He then went on to denounce the West and its efforts to  circumvent the Iranian nuclear program. The Iranian leadership also announced that within the next thirteen months, the government would build a new yellowcake processing factory as part of its nuclear program

It is believed that this show of new developments, apparently followed by the international community, is a part of the ongoing rhetoric warfare between Iran and the United States, which is meant to underline Iran’s explicit ignorance of U.S.-dictated rules in the Iranian front and backyards, regardless of U.S.- and Europe-exterted pressure through sanctions or threat of war, or both. Others believe the recent display of Ahmadinejad’s confidence is targeting mostly the domestic audience, diverting them from actual problems within the Iranian society and building up domestic nationalism. In an interview to BBC, Robin Wright of U.S. Institute of Peace described it as “jumpstarting Iranian nationalism” (against the external threats) before the upcoming Iranian elections of 2012.

Ethnic minorities and their use by the West

Iran is a multiethnic country where the Persians make up a little more than a half of the population versus big ethnic communities such as Azeris, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis, Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians. While there have been precedents of separatism within Iran, most of movements were timely suppressed and went underreported. Scattered along the perimeter of Iranian border with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, these minorities, especially the sizable ones, are considered a threat to Iranian statehood. Baluch (Balooch) minority of about 1.6 million, for example, predominantly living  in southeastern Iran, look across the border to their kin in Pakistan, a sizeable minority of 7 million. Although considered a part of the Iranian group, Baluchis have a distinct language and culture. Kurds, which make up about 7% of the Iranian population and live mostly in the western regions of the country, long for a unification with their brethren in Turkey and Iraq with an eventual aim of establishing a state of Kurdistan. These aside, comes the largest minority in Iran – Azeris. Azeris, or more officially, Azerbaijanis are Turkic people that live in northern provinces of Iran and have an unbreakable connection to their kin to the north of Arax river, where a sovereign Republic of Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence from Soviet Union in 1991. At 24% of the entire Iranian population, Azeris are well integrated into the Iranian society and some do not even quest for independence or identify themselves as Azeri. Several leaders of Iran, such as the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamanei, or former prime minister and presidential hopeful, Mir Hussein Mousavi, are actually ethnic Azeris. However, with the latest trends in the last decade or so, things are changing and many Azeris come to define their roots within the Azeri Turkic kinship.

That’s one of the reasons, the Iranian regime had imposed stricter rules for its Azeri minority restricting their rights of learning written Azeri, banned newspapers and magazines in Azeri and jailing Azerbaijani activists. With Azerbaijani Republic reclaiming its sovereignty from the Soviets, caused severe a headache for Tehran. In December 1989, before Azerbaijan became independent, a section of wired Soviet (Azerbaijani)-Iranian border was demolitioned with chanting Azeris on both sides for unification. More Azeris (30 million) live in Iran than in the Republic of Azerbaijan (9 million). Both areas where Azeris live have been fought for by the Persian and Russian empires, at last ending with Russia’s victory in early nineteenth century, when with treaty at Turkmenchay, what is now Azerbaijan and Armenia was passed under Russian imperial jurisdiction and what is now East and West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan provinces of Iran remained in Iran. A precedent for complete independence from Iran was established in 1945, when Stalin extended his support for newly founded and short-lived Azerbaijan People’s Government. History repeating would be a nightmare for Iranian ayatollahs because it would tear the Iranian statehood apart. To avoid these trends, Iran has implicitly supported Azerbaijan’s enemy Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1992-1994, which resulted in Armenian taking control of 16% of Azerbaijan’s territory. To this day, Iran is one of Armenia’s biggest trade partners.

The Republic of Azerbaijan is in good relations with Iran and does not explicitly support any separatist movements within Iran but is wary of Iranian threats to its national security. Azerbaijani leadership had repeatedly circumvented Iranian invasion of its domestic politics and influence it had via building and funding religious groups within Azerbaijan. To help Azerbaijan fight off the Iranian incursion, U.S. and Israel had established its visible presence in the country, assisting Azerbaijani government in modernizing its navy, border and security services. Apart from talking to Azerbaijan, U.S. has reportedly engaged with the ethnic Azeris inside Iran. Many believe anti-government protests, involving Azeri minority, in 2009 were due to the invisible hand of the West. As recent as in summer 2011, Azeri minority was yet on its feet in an increasing discontent over government policies on drying Lake Urmia, its ecological negligence and ignorance of human rights of Azeris. The Iranian leadership witnessing a growing dissatisfaction which was already transforming into a nationalism issue, was able to tame the movement by issuing $900 million to feed the drying lake from the Arax river in the north.  Azeris are that gunpowder to fill many bullets during a possible conflict with Iran, that United States has been nursing.

In a series of what was described as retaliation attacks for killing of Iranian scientists, in the past weeks Iranians have been accused of attacks on Israeli diplomats in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Thailand. Azerbaijan was first to point fingers at Iranians. In the wake of increasing tensions between the United States and Iran, Azerbaijan is eyed as a potential launch point for U.S. and Israeli operations against Iran, a claim that Azerbaijan itself denies. Nevertheless, utilization of Azerbaijani airbases and territory, in general, is not the only reason the country on the shores of the Caspian Sea can be used as a springboard. By engaging Azerbaijan in the operation, the U.S. is looking into sending a distress wake up call to the Azeri minority in Iran itself, with the objective of possibly igniting the lights of revolution to bring down the Iranian regime once and for all.

Photo: Courtesy of Flickr

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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Good article. Iranians are using proxies too in other countries, and that’s they know how to contain that in Iran

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