By the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828, Iran was forced to cede its dependent khanates north of the river Aras to Russia. The majority population of both North (Russo-Soviet) and South (Iranian) Azerbaijan belong to the same ethnic group within the Turkic linguistic family. Many Azerbaijanis tend not to differentiate between the modern republic and Iranian Azerbaijan; they consider the Iranian Azeris “kith and kin.” In fact, many Azerbaijanis actually have family on the other side. The nomenclature of North and South Azerbaijan is a way of asserting that the two areas belong together; the river Aras, which under the Soviet Union was a hermetically sealed frontier, symbolizes the artificial chasm running through the Azeri nation.
The Azeris are the biggest minority in the multiethnic Iranian state, variously estimated at between a fifth and a third of the population. Persian speakers often speak of Farsi as a “more cultivated” language, which naturally is resented by Azeri speakers, who feel that they are the victims of cultural humiliation. Violent oppression, however, has decreased since the fall of the Shah. Azeri-language publications, for example, have advocated the free expression of Azeri identity and cultural rights. In 1997, newly elected President Muhammad Khatami offered more space for minority cultural rights so as to win the support of the periphery against the centralizing elite.
Iran Fears Azeri Nationalism
The Turkic peoples of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey itself are more secular-minded than the deeply religious Persians; whereas for the latter, the great marker is Islam, the former respond more to ethnicity. Language can thus be seen as a proxy for the very ancient Ottoman/Persian “clash of civilizations” in the Transcaucasus; for Tehran, pan-Turkic nationalism is the biggest threat of all. Promotion of a Turkic language in Iran can therefore be seen as potentially treasonous. When Abulfaz Elchibey, the first post-Soviet President of Azerbaijan, openly advocated irredentism, the Iranians were genuinely alarmed. They therefore determined to keep their new northern neighbor small and powerless.
One way of weakening Azerbaijan is to keep the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the boil; Iran openly supported Christian Armenia against its own (both Muslim and Shi‘ite) co-religionists. Iran was afraid that supporting Azerbaijan instead could strengthen the ties across the frontier and thereby facilitate Azerbaijani backing for Iranian Azeris. This tells us something about the balance between ideology and realpolitik in the Islamic Republic.
Both Azerbaijanis and Iranian Azeris viewed this opportunism as a double betrayal — of both co-religionists and ethnic cousins — and were encouraged to political activism. For this reason Tehran does not want Armenia to get too strong either, as that could lead to an influx into Iran itself of Azerbaijani refugees who would be very negatively disposed towards the Iranian state and inclined to ally with “the enemy within” (i.e., the already restive Iranian Azeris).
Divided by a Common Language?
In the nearly two centuries since the Treaty of Turkmenchay, two very different cultures have evolved on the banks of the Aras. The situation is analogous to that in 1989 between the two Germanies, except that the separation between the two Azerbaijans has lasted about four times as long. For this reason, the early euphoria over the prospects of fellowship between Azeris in the two countries did not long outlive the encounter with political reality. Azerbaijanis both desire and fear this fellowship; they see themselves as secular and cosmopolitan, but see their Iranian cousins as regrettably influenced by Persian religion and culture. Iranian missionaries in Azerbaijan have been given the cold shoulder.
The Iranian Azeris and the Iranian State
It is hard to gain a clear picture of the strength of the Azeri identity in modern Iran. The Islamic Republic says that the Azeris are happy in the Iranian state; ethnic identity movements are largely non-violent and thereby invisible to the outside world. Moreover, metropolitan Azeris tend to display their Islamic identity in the public space, their Turkic one at home. It is such sophisticates, who do not see their double identity as a problem, whom foreigners tend to meet. In the provinces, however, people are less assimilated, and there are sporadic disturbances. The closer to the Caspian, the less the acceptance of the clergy’s watchdog role and Tehran’s attempt to equate Islam with Persianness is resented. It is frequently said that emissaries from the capital are not competent to govern the provinces of the northwest because they lack a comprehension of the area’s mentality; they should stay in Tehran where they belong.
The fact that almost everyone can now get hold of TV sets that can receive both Turkish and Azerbaijani programming has brought Turkic civilization psychologically much closer. The language of the Iranian Azeris can now be considered part of a “world language” rather than a despised sociolect. Tehran’s endeavor to present all things Persian as superior is thus losing ground.
Such Turkic programming gives the minority population insight into another world, one that resonates with its own identity and mentality. Whether this will lead to Iranian Azeris feeling steadily more alienated from the Iranian state, to the point of wanting to break away altogether, is another question. Can the Azeri identity in Iran be integrated into loyalty to the Iranian state, or might the Iranian Azeris — in certain circumstances — consider reuniting with their cousins in Azerbaijan?
War as the Trigger
It would not be hard to unleash ethno-nationalism in both north and south, especially in times of war and disaster; for then, people would turn to their “own kind.” In the spring of 2006, an American attack on Iran seemed imminent. This served to revive the flagging idea of pan-Azeri identity. Indeed, Azerbaijan feared that a military attack on Iran could destabilize the country to such a degree that oppressed minorities could seek new alliances with surrounding states and ethnic groups. Thus, if a conflict or a domestic crisis were to occur, one cannot rule out a surge of Azeri ethno-nationalism, nor in that event predict what the repercussions might be.