Sports And Lake Urmia As Tools In Fighting For Azerbaijani National Identity In Iran – OpEd


Identity struggles: Sports & environment

The utilization of football and environmental activism around Lake Urmia serves as pivotal tools in the multifaceted struggle for Azerbaijani national identity within Iran. This complex narrative unfolds through various interconnected topics and events that highlight the challenges and aspirations of the Azerbaijani/Turkic community.

Ethno-nationalism & sports

The Tabriz-based Tractor football club has for a long time emerged as a locus of Azerbaijani Turkic identity assertion within Iran. Amidst restrictions on overt political expressions of Azerbaijani identity, sports, in particular, football and volleyball offer a surrogate platform for voicing ethnolinguistic rights.

The fervent support for Tractor transcends mere sports fandom, evolving into an engine for advocating broader socio-political emancipation. Fans utilize football matches to amplify demands for educational rights, linguistic recognition, and cultural distinctiveness, often through politically charged slogans. The stadium becomes a symbolic arena where Azerbaijani Turkic identity is proudly asserted, challenging the dominance of Persian culture.

Lake Urmia: Environmental activism & identity assertion

The plight of Lake Urmia catalyzes environmental activism intertwined with assertions of Azerbaijani identity. The shrinking lake serves as a poignant symbol of neglect and marginalization by Tehran authorities, resonating deeply with Azerbaijani sentiments.

Protests, both within Iran and in diaspora communities, highlight the nexus between environmental conservation and ethno-nationalist aspirations. The rejection of legislative measures to save the lake sparks outrage, galvanizing Azerbaijani activism across geographical boundaries. Chants and slogans at football/volleyball matches intertwine with calls to protect Lake Urmia, underscoring the interconnectedness of environmental concerns with broader identity struggles.

The resonance of Azerbaijani/Turkic identity extends beyond Iran’s borders, finding expression in transnational solidarity movements. Diaspora communities in Azerbaijan and Türkiye stand in solidarity with their counterparts in Iran, amplifying demands for linguistic and cultural rights.

Pickets outside Iranian diplomatic missions signify the global reach of Azerbaijani/Turkic activism, spotlighting Iran’s treatment of its minority populations on the international stage. The convergence of environmental activism with ethno-nationalist sentiments creates a potent force for political mobilization, challenging the status quo and demanding recognition and rights for Azerbaijani communities within Iran.

Theocratic regime’s response & repression

The Iranian government’s response to Azeri/Azerbaijani identity assertion oscillates between accommodation and repression. While some concessions may be made to appease simmering discontent, as evidenced by limited educational reforms, broader demands are met with harsh reprisals.

The “cartoon crisis” of 2006 exemplifies the regime’s intolerance towards challenges to its authority, resorting to violent suppression to quell dissent. Arrests and crackdowns following protests underscore the regime’s determination to stifle dissent and maintain centralized control.

The recent milestone of allowing women to attend football matches in certain Iranian cities, notably Tabriz with its Azerbaijani population, marks a significant step forward in the struggle for civil rights within Iran. After years of overt and covert efforts advocating for gender equality in sports attendance, this development deserves recognition and encouragement.

On April 12, during the 23rd week of the Iranian Premier League, a match between Tractor Sazi from Tabriz and Zob Ahan from Isfahan took place at the Sahand (Relic Imam) Stadium in Tabriz. This game witnessed a historic moment as Azerbaijani women were permitted to attend a football match for the first time. The female fans enthusiastically waved flags of the Tractor team, symbolizing their newfound access to this cultural and sporting event.

The presence of Azerbaijani women at the stadium was met with supportive chants from Tractor fans, who hailed them as “Azerbaijani girls, stars of the sky”. Furthermore, the display of the Republic of Azerbaijan’s flag by youth in the stands was met with applause and spirited cries of “Long live Azerbaijan,” underscoring the strong ethnic and cultural ties within the crowd.

However, it’s important to note that this progress was not without its challenges. Quite often, individuals are arrested for displaying flags of Azerbaijan and Türkiye during matches between Tractor and other teams at home or away games. This incident highlights ongoing tensions and sensitivities surrounding symbols of ethnic identity and international relations within Iran.

Analyzing political messaging in sporting events

Sporting events, particularly football and volleyball matches, have become platforms for ethnic Azerbaijani fans to express political discontent and denounce unpopular policies of Iran’s theocratic government, especially in regions like Urmia, the focal point of Western Azerbaijan.

During a recent football match between Petropalayash Shazand and 90 Urmia teams in Urmia city, Azerbaijani fans displayed a prominent banner declaring “Urmia is the heart of Azerbaijan,” accompanied by spirited national slogans. This demonstration was a direct response to the manipulation of parliamentary election outcomes in Western Azerbaijan, where only one out of three candidates from Urmia gained a seat in parliament, causing discontent among Azerbaijani residents.

The chanting of “Urmu is the heart of Azerbaijan” by fans served to reject Kurdish territorial claims and protests following the election results. Kurdish candidates’ securing victories prompted protests in Urmia, with Kurdish demonstrators asserting claims that “Urmia is Kurdistan” and advocating for territorial expansion into Azerbaijani lands.

These cases illustrate the intersection of sports, politics, and societal grievances in Iran’s Azerbaijani regions. Sporting events serve as potent platforms for Azerbaijani fans to voice dissent against perceived injustices and highlight ongoing tensions related to territorial disputes, environmental degradation, and social issues, reflecting broader geopolitical complexities within the region.


In conclusion, the intersection of football culture, environmental activism, and ethno-nationalist sentiments reflects the intricate tapestry of identity politics within Iran.

Tractor FC and the movement to save Lake Urmia emerge as potent symbols of Azerbaijani/Turkic resistance against cultural assimilation and environmental degradation. Transcending mere sports and ecological concerns, these phenomena embody the enduring struggle for recognition, rights, and autonomy within Iran’s complex socio-political landscape.

Fuad Muxtar-Agbabali

Fuad Muxtar-Agbabali is a distinguished journalist from Azerbaijan and has authored many white papers on International Affairs and political analysis focused in the regions of Europe and Southern Caucasus.

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