by Emil Souleimanov
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst
October 27, 2010 Issue
Conventional wisdom has it that Azerbaijanis, the largest ethnic minority in Iran, have historically tended to identify themselves with the idea of Iranian statehood and Shiite religion rather than ethnic nationalism. Yet recent years have shown a growth of their Azerbaijani Turkic self-consciousness which has not least manifested itself in the form of “sport nationalism”. The numerous fans of the Tabriz-based Tractor Sazi football club have become advocates of the ethno-linguistic emancipation of Iranian Azerbaijanis, an emancipation sometimes bordering on separatism and irredentism.
BACKGROUND: Last July 27, following expressive racial insults, the Tractor’s Azerbaijani fans engaged in violent clashes with the ethnic Persian fans of the Tehran-based Persepolis football team and Iranian police. During the clashes, dozens of fans got injured and dozens of predominantly Azerbaijani fans were jailed by police.
Iranian Azerbaijanis are known for being well-integrated into Iranian society as disproportionally high numbers of them are part of the political, economic, military and cultural elite of Iran. For instance, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic ayatollah Ali Khamenei and last year’s key reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi are both of Azerbaijani origin.
Yet education in Azerbaijani Turkish is prohibited and only a limited number of media outlets print in Azerbaijani while there is de facto no TV broadcasting in this language. The roots of this attitude date back to the shah regime, which in an effort to secure the unity of this multi-ethnic nation subjected Azerbaijanis to intense assimilatory policies. Discrimination of their ethno-linguistic rights, as well as denial of their distinct identity was commonplace. Azerbaijanis were considered “Turkified Aryans”, Iranians by origin, and a sense of cultural and racial inferiority of the Turks as descendants of nomadic barbarians vis-à-vis the ancient cultivated Persians was raised by the authorities. It was in the Pahlavi period that the derogatory image of “a stupid Turk” (“Turkish donkey”) was cultivated to be applied predominantly to Iranian Azerbaijanis. As a result, millions of Azerbaijanis, especially those that had moved to Teheran and other urban areas of central Iran since the 1960s-70s, tended to distance themselves from their Turkishness, assimilating into the Persian socio-linguistic mainstream. Provided they did so, they faced virtually no obstacles in reaching high positions in the state. The shah’s chauvinist policy was generally halted following the Islamic revolution of 1979 with the notion of supra-ethnic Shiite Islam obtaining the status of state ideology.
Yet the situation has changed since the 1990s, the establishment of the independent Azerbaijani Republic playing only a partial role in this. Many thousands of Iranian Azerbaijanis have frequently traveled to Turkey for both work and recreation, coming to be affected by the strength of Turkish nationalism with its developed sense of pan-Turkic solidarity with both Azerbaijanis and representatives of other Turkic ethnicities. They have also experienced that Turkey is, in comparison to Iran, a much more modern, free and developed state. Turkish satellite broadcasting with its rich menu of entertaining programs has also entered the homes of ordinary Iranian Azerbaijanis, contributing to the improvement of their ethno-linguistic self-perception. Many Azerbaijanis started to regard Turkishness as by no means inferior to Persianness, since Persia, as they found out, had been ruled predominantly by Turkic dynasties for a millennium and as they embraced key personalities of Iranian history of Azerbaijani descent,such as Shah Ismail I and Shah Abbas the Great.
Since the end of the 1990s, Iranian Azerbaijanis have become increasingly vocal in their demands for education in their native tongue and recognition of their Turkic identity. Aside from this, there is a lack of consensus over what should be achieved, whether autonomy within Iran, independence, unification with Turkey and/or Azerbaijan, or just the right to education in Azerbaijani. Nevertheless, the emancipation movement of Iranian Azerbaijanis have brought about increasing reprisals from state authorities which have culminated during the so-called “cartoon crisis” [see the 06/14/2006 issue  of the CACI Analyst] of May and June 2006 that cost the lives of dozens of Azerbaijani protesters.
IMPLICATIONS: As a result of the imposed restrictions on any politicized expression of Azerbaijani identity, the focus of Azerbaijanis has since then shifted to the realm of sports. The Tabriz-based Tractor Sazi football club has earned massive support of ethnic Azerbaijanis across Iran, breaking all nationwide attendance records. Dozens of thousands of Azerbaijani fans accompany the Tractor football team during its matches, occasionally waving Turkish flags, carrying pan-Turanist symbols and shouting politically-flavored slogans ranging from rather moderate demands to establish school teaching in Azerbaijani Turkic to ones emphasizing their distinctiveness from the Persians (“Hey, look out, I am Turkish”, “Azerbaijan is ours, Afghanistan is yours”) to explicitly supporting Azerbaijani separatism (“Long live Azerbaijan and down with those who dislike us”, “Tabriz, Baku, Ankara, our path is different than that of the Persians”). This, in turn, has contributed to growing tensions with the Persian fans whose racist slurs (“Turkish donkey”) being returned by Azerbaijani fans (“Persian dogs” or “Persian monkeys”) which often results in violent clashes, especially during the Tractor’s matches with the Teheran-based teams, Persepolis and Esteghlal.
Likewise, the situation of Iranian Azerbaijan has changed dramatically over recent years, which is facilitated by the overall atmosphere of détente in Iranian society. While most Azerbaijanis preferred to speak Persian even in the streets of Azerbaijani-dominated Tabriz two decades ago, Azerbaijani Turkish has now become commonplace, displacing Persian in most of the predominantly Azerbaijani areas of northwestern Iran. Ordinary Azerbaijanis in Teheran and elsewhere do not hesitate to speak in their native tongue, showing pride of their ethnic identity. Importantly, demonstrations for ethno-linguistic rights have become periodical in Iranian Azerbaijan. Although crushed down violently by police forces with the demonstrators routinely subjected to torture and imprisonment, they still persist. Separatist flags of Southern Azerbaijan are occasionally displayed visibly overnight in Tabriz and other cities of Iran’s Azerbaijani northwest, just as posters advocating Azerbaijanis’ right to education in their native tongue.
Any sign of nationalism and separatism among its largest ethnic minority accompanied with loyalty to outside nations are of outmost concern for Iranian authorities as they might endanger the unity of the state, especially in light of Iran’s internal problems with its Sunni (Kurdish, Baluchi) and to some extent also Arab minorities and uneasy relationship with the U.S. and Israel. Although it is too early to envisage catastrophic scenarios for Iran, the ongoing tendency is not without its potential dangers, and generational factors are leading among them.
In a country where around two thirds of the population are made up of people below the age of 30, the younger generations of Iranians, especially inhabiting urban areas, generally tend to have pro-reformist attitudes, willing to live in a freer country, as they showed during last year’s protests over the results of presidential elections and subsequent violent reprisals. In fact, the theocratic regime has alienated many young Iranians who are now eager to identify themselves not primarily with Shiite Islam but with alternative ideologies. For young Persians, it is Persian nationalism with emphasis on its pre-Islamic roots, while for many Azerbaijanis, it is increasingly Azerbaijani nationalism with its pan-Turkic overtones.
CONCLUSIONS: The ongoing split in Iranian society along social and ethnic lines is paralleled by the split within the Azerbaijani community itself. In this split, rural, less educated, deeply religious and usually older Azerbaijanis, supportive of the conservatives, still link Shiite religion, the main layer of their self-identification, with Iran and stick to the centuries-old tradition of referring to the Sunni Turks as heretics. For them, those who in their opinion seek the dismemberment of their Iranian homeland are traitors and “agents of Israel”. However, as the ethnic polarization in Iran deepens, they too are affected negatively by the increasingly anti-Turkic sentiments of their Persian compatriots and are thus becoming increasingly aware of their ethnic roots. On the other hand, pro-reformist, relatively educated Azerbaijani youth of urban areas generally incline toward ethnic nationalism, increasingly dissociating themselves from the Persians and associating with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Whether the current emancipation stage of Azerbaijani nationalism results in separatist efforts over time or not now depends on the ability of Teheran to further secure the favor of its loyal Azerbaijani population while keeping Azerbaijani nationalists low profile, possibly meeting their basic ethno-linguistic and cultural demands. In any case, the genie of Azerbaijani nationalism is already out of the bottle.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective“ (Peter Lang, 2007).