By Eldar Mamedov
An American politician is trying to stir up inter-ethnic tension in Iran. His initiative runs a great risk of stoking conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran.
Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican member of Congress from California, introduced a resolution in September calling for the self-determination of the Azeri people, who are “currently divided between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The resolution failed to attract a single co-sponsor, and even if it did, it would not have been binding for the Obama administration.
Still, some Azeri nationalists in Baku and a few leaders of the Iranian-Azerbaijani diaspora greeted this initiative as an important milestone for their cause. Some even hope that in the event the Republican candidate Mitt Romney wins the US presidential election on November 6, support for the self-determination of different ethnic groups in Iran could become part of a more aggressive US policy toward the Islamic Republic.
These hopes are misguided, since initiatives like Rohrabacher’s are more likely to do harm to Iranian Azeris than benefit them.
A dangerous dynamic is now at work in the northwestern corner of Iran, where the Azeri minority is concentrated. It is undeniable that the Islamic Republic discriminates against ethnic minorities, including Azeris. Even though Iranian constitution guarantees the right to education in minority languages, in practice this is ignored. Another factor fuelling Azeri resentment toward Tehran is the central government’s perceived incompetence and indifference to coping with natural disasters in Iranian Azerbaijan, including declining water levels in Lake Urmiya and the recovery effort following a recent earthquake.
As Iranian leaders come under greater pressure from the international community over the country’s nuclear program, they are becoming ever more repressive and intolerant toward the country’s minority groups. Minorities, in turn, are growing more hostile toward Tehran. In the absence of reliable survey data, it is difficult to gauge the extent of secessionist feelings among Iranian Azeris, but nationalist, pro-Turkic sentiments seem to be on rise.
Rohrabacher and like-minded, neo-conservative fellow travelers are trying to tap into this discontent. But their motivations have little to do with the Azeri cause. Rather, they represent an idea, popular in some neo-con circles, that any means short of outright military strike (at this stage, in any case) should be used to undermine Iran from within in order to pave the way for the regime change.
In this scheme of things, an enemy’s enemy becomes a friend. Thus, it is not surprising that Rohrabacher also happens to be one of the chief supporters of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), a cult-like Iranian group with Islamist-Marxist leanings that is a bitter enemy of the Islamic Republic. In October, the US State Department took the MEK off its list of terrorist organizations.
If there is anything that unites Iranians across the board, it is their distaste of the MEK. Thus, the best way to discredit any cause, in terms of winning the support of the Iranian public, is to associate it with MEK supporters. Seen in this light, Rohrabacher’s initiative is far from a favor to Iranian Azeris. It is more like a gift to hardliners in Tehran.
Rohrabacher’s plan could easily produce the Balkanization of Iran, ushering in a prolonged period of bloodshed and devastation. It is delusional to think that a Czech-Slovak-type of ´velvet´ divorce could be feasible in this part of the world. In such an environment, radicals would only have greater influence.
A far more preferable, although admittedly less exciting, way for Azerbaijani nationalists to redress their grievances would be to work with Iranian reformers to push for greater cultural and linguistic rights for ethnic minorities. This, of course, would take time and patience. One productive thing that international actors could do is encourage Azeri nationalists and Iranian reformers to work together. At present, the level of mutual trust is not high.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.