By Ümit Nazmi Hazır*
Azerbaijani Turks in Iran took to the streets in Tabriz in order to protest the Iranian government and a television channel after a children’s television programme aired in the beginning of November on the Iranian state TV that, insulted Iranian Turks. This television programme on the Fitilehha channel included offensive jokes about Iranian Turks being stupid. One joke showed a Turkish child brushing his teeth with a toilet brush in this programme. Even though the state broadcaster apologised and this programme was discontinued, Iranian Turks continued protests over the following weekend. Subsequently, police in Iran reacted and used pepper gas on the protesters. Some of the protesters were taken into custody during the protests. Likewise, one million Iranian Turks took to the streets in May of 2006 due to a cartoon in Iran’s government newspaper that insulted Iranian Turks. Moreover, Iranian Turks have often complained about human rights violations against the minorities in Iran in recent years. For instance, the Iranian government often overlooks Iranian Turks’ demand for mother tongue education.
More than 20 million Azerbaijani Turks currently live in Iran, a state which more than 75 million people call home. Besides Azerbaijani Turks, the total Turkic population in Iran is approximately 30 million which, consists of Azerbaijanis, Turkmens, Khorasani and Qashqai Turks. Iranian Turks, have primarily viewed the history of Iran and their destinies as one since these were dominant elements in the governance of Iran until 1925. On the other hand, Iranian Turks, unlike other ethnic groups in Iran, found important positions in the center of the Iranian government. Iranian Turks contributed to the realization of the constutionalism movement in 1906 and the Iran Islamic Revolution in 1979. Their undeniable role in the system and the modernization of Iran makes them a key element in both Iran’s future and past.
Despite all of this, Iran’s Pehlevi (1925-1979) and Islamic Regime (1979-present) periods recognized Iranian Azerbaijani Turks as a threat and tried to expel them from the system. In the Pehlevi period, the aim of forming one unified nation was pursued. In line with this, the purpose was to create a single Iranian identity and, in this regard, other ethnicities in the country were recongized as a great threat. With thoughts of forming a nation-state, an assimilation policy was applied to minorities in the country. This assimilation policy, an authoritarian understanding of other ethnicities, and anti-westernization set the stage for the Islam Revolution in 1979. Azerbaijani Turks in Iran supported and set their hopes on the revolution in Iran due to the oppression and assimilation that targets them. However, the new regime after the Iran Islamic Revolution, tried to form an Iranian Islamic identity that took the position of Shia Islam and began to impose these views to the whole society. Despite the new regime based on Shia Islam, Persianism-centered nationalist ideology found a place for itself. As the result of all of this, Iranian Turks exposed themselves with an authoritarian regime no different than the one in the Shah Era.
These historical developments and the Cartoon Crisis in 2006 caused Iranian Azerbaijani Turks to become more distanced from the system and promoted Azerbaijani identity and the Azerbaijani National Movement in Iran. The Iranian identity not only became estranged from being a center of attraction to Azerbaijani Turks but also to Kurdish, Arabian and Baluchi people. This indicates the insufficiency and questioning of the Iranian identity. The socio-economic condition of the country and the regime’s inability to respond to the public’s demands has caused Iranian identity and the regime to come to a deadlock. The constitutional crisis in the Islamic Republic, coupled with Persian-centered Iranian identity that overlaps with Shia identity, has also gone through a crisis and has undergone a failure on a political platform.
Albeit Iran is commemorated in the outside world with its nuclear practices and, crises with USA and Israel, its inside world harbors greater risks and crises. Internal intervention in Iran hosts an attempt to shelve identity problems on an ethno-cultural scale rather than competition between conservatives and reformists. The South Azerbaijani Movement is growing in power and consciousness, and Kurdish groups are broadening their elbowroom with the formation of a center of attraction. Arabic nationalism is in a position to gain momentum, and Baluchistan faces historical problem with Iran. Iran, instead of paying attention to opposition and ethnics groups, has continued to exhibit authoritarian attitude. As a result of this attitude, Iranian Turks began to view themselves no longer as a significant element of Iran. There are some solid examples that indicate how mental disintegration between Turks and Perians has gradually deepened: Following Turkish broadcasts in many regions in Iran, Iranian Turks are teaching Turkish to their children; and, in between matches of Tabriz, Iranian teams with Azerbaijani people are unfurling banners of “South Azerbaijan is not Iran, Haray Haray Men Türkem’’ (-listen, hear me, I am Turkish ) and flying Turkish and Azerbaijani flags.
Along with globalization, which is expanding the elbowroom of micro-nationalism, and the advancement of technology, we also see increased mobilization and awareness between ethnic groups. Through websites, blogs and comments made by Iranian Turks, we can observe that they are adversely affected by the regime in Iran. Although governments ban the use of the internet and broadcasts, young Iranian Turks continue to organize their propagandas.
The Iranian government has been ignoring peoples’ socio-cultural and economic demands and, thus, Iranian Turks, are first place among non-native Persians as long as the goverment provides democratic rights to every ethno-cultural groups the system will gradually become inextricable. As for the regime, instead of leaning toward democratization, it continues to impose the legitimacy of the declining Shia Iranian identity to the whole society. Dissentient ones are accused of being Israeli or American spies and thus earn regime enmity. As the Shia Iranian identity losing its legitimacy, the Turkish identity will continue to grow stronger and be the center of attraction. As long as the Iranian government does not pay attention to the human rights demands, Iran will face greater challenges.
*Ümit Nazmi Hazır is a researcher at the Center for Caucasus Strategic Researches (Kafkassam), a think tank based in Ankara. Hazır conducts research on Turkish and Russian foreign policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia and has been to most of the countries in Eurasia in order to undertake field studies.