Another point of concern is that Iran has one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world (Hood and Hoyle, 2015: 75). This is a clear indication of the conditions under which ethnic minorities in the country live.
Currently, there are two official political factions (conservatives and reformists) in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Among other things, the conservative and reformist wings have different views and policies concerning ethnic minorities. Conservatives, mostly backed by traditional clerics, Revolutionary Guards, and dozens of allied Persian elites, give preference to the Persianized Shia theocracy that unites non-Shia and non-Persian ethnic minorities. On the other hand, the reformists propose a policy of uniting Iran’s ethnic minorities by expanding political forces beyond the traditional elite. The election of the reformist leader Mohammad Khatami in 1997 was made possible with the support of women and ethnic minorities in particular. After becoming president, Khatami carried out electoral reform that gave local representatives of ethnic minorities the right to vote. However, all these positive factors disappeared during the mass arrests of Arabs, Kurds and Balochi and the executions of ethnic minority activists during the presidency of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013).
It is no coincidence that it was during his presidency that the largest mass protests of Azerbaijanis took place in the country.
Azerbaijan gaining independence in 1991 spurred on political activism in South Azerbaijan as well. During this period, various legal and illegal parties were established by Iranian Azerbaijanis. The main organization founded at that time was the South Azerbaijan Devotees Organization established in the early 1990s. The United Independent Azerbaijan Front, operating in Tabriz, continued its covert activities until 1993.
The charter of the United Independent Azerbaijan Front says that the organization was established in 1979 during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Its most active members initially fought on the side of the Muslim People’s Party. However, the party leadership changed its position because it could not get the national rights it wanted, and came to the conclusion that South Azerbaijan would get its rights only after seceding from Iran (Shaffer, 2002: 200). The main goal of the front was to create an independent, free, democratic state of law in South Azerbaijan and to unite the two independent Azerbaijan under the law. The activity of the front was covered in the Jarchi newspaper, which was first published on February 18, 1997.
Another organization was the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, founded by South Azerbaijani activists. Unlike the United Independent Azerbaijan Front, this party recognizes the territorial integrity and independence of Iran, and advocates for an Azerbaijani autonomy within Iran. The Azerbaijan Democratic Party also supported the establishment of the Azerbaijani Parliament, the proclamation of the Azerbaijani language as the official language in Azerbaijan and the use of Persian as an ethnic language.
Another organization established in this period was the South Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement (SANAM, or GAMOH in Azerbaijani). This organization was established in 1995 by Professor Mahmudali Chohraganli (Chehregani) and his colleagues at the University of Tabriz (Yunusov, 2007: 68). GAMOH was a democratic sociopolitical movement based on modernity and uniting about 100 scientific, literary, national and cultural institutions.
The center of GAMOH was located in South Azerbaijan. Later, the number of supporters of the movement, which was secretly organized in other parts of Iran, began to grow.
The GAMOH program says that South Azerbaijan was trying to restore its right to self-determination on the basis of international law and principles. This organization had two positions on the future of South Azerbaijan: first, establishment of a federation or a national confederation in Iran, and if this fails, establishment of an independent state.
During the parliamentary elections in the spring of 1995, political and ideological demands for national culture and language became clear. Mahmudali Chohraganli, who stood for elections as a candidate from Tabriz, stated in his election platform that he would strive for a status for the Turkic language and the development of the Azerbaijani economy (Cornell, 2015: 323). The voicing of the issue of national rights by Azerbaijani candidates was an important event for both the Iranian and Azerbaijani national movements. However, Chohraganli’s activities first led to his disqualification from the elections and his arrest in 1999. Released after a hunger strike in 2000, Chohraganli left Iran in 2002 and now lives in the United States. And yet GAMOH still operates in Iran. In 2003, the organization established the Voice of South Azerbaijan radio station broadcasting in the native language in South Azerbaijan. Iranian security forces raided the radio station and shut it down (Howard, 2004: 207).
Along with NGOs, there are also Azerbaijani deputies represented in the Iranian parliament (Majlis) through legal elections in the country. An example of this is the Faction of Azerbaijani Deputies established in 1993 by members of parliament (Shaffer, 2002: 180). The faction’s program includes issues related to the development of relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan and issues related to the Azerbaijani provinces. Members of the faction expressed their views on the problems of all Azerbaijanis, as well as the problems of their constituencies in the Parliament. In July 1993, a member of parliament from Marand protested against the appointment of non-Azerbaijanis as governors of the Azerbaijani provinces. Azerbaijani MPs also signed a declaration calling on the Iranian government to cut ties with Armenia and change its policy of neutrality in the Karabakh war. After the occupation of Kalbajar on April 6, 1993, Mahammadali Najafzadeh, an MP from Tabriz, condemned the actions of Armenians on behalf of all Azerbaijani MPs in the Majlis and called on Tehran to support Azerbaijan in the Karabakh issue (Hajiyeva, 2017: 111-112).
Education in the native language
After Reza Shah Pahlavi’s 1921 coup in Iran, the “One Nation, One Language” policy was applied and the use of the Turkic language in both official and public life was banned in the country. The Shah’s government violently persecuted ethnic minorities until the 1979 revolution. The Islamists who came to power lifted all these bans imposed by the Shah. Although the Islamists initially declared freedom for all ethnic and religious minorities, over time they shifted to a restrictive policy that was no different from that of the Shah. However, the language rights promised in 1979 were enshrined in the Iranian Constitution.
Although the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran recognizes Persian as the official state language, the constitution allows the use of ethnic languages in the press and mass media, as well as the teaching of literature in ethnic languages in schools along with Persian. (Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 15. (Mirwahedi, 2019: 10)). In addition, the Iranian government signed the 1991 Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989, which includes language rights. This convention was ratified by the Islamic Consultative Assembly in 1994, with the reservation of the right not to apply its provisions or articles that contradict the Islamic Laws and the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Thus, in terms of compliance with the Iranian legal code, one might say that the implementation of the articles relating to the state’s obligation to teach children of ethnic minorities their native language is protected by law. However, the Iranian government not only fails to fulfill its obligation to teach Azerbaijani children their native language, but also prevents this right from being exercised in various ways. The deprivation of Azerbaijani children of the possibility to learn their native language leads to growing illiteracy and alienation in the region. For this reason, the Association for Human Rights of Azerbaijani People in Iran (AHRAZ) appeals to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and calls on the Iranian government to implement these reforms:
- Teaching Azerbaijani Turkish language and literature in schools in the provinces where the Azerbaijani Turkish is the native language.
- Provide the conditions that non-governmental organizations and educational institutions can freely
teach the Azerbaijani Turkish language.
- Freeing Azerbaijani civil society activists who were arrested and imprisoned for demanding the right
to receive education in their native language.
- Establishing the Azerbaijani Turkish Language Institute to preserve this language and also to provide the educational books for children in this language.
- Broadcasting TV programs for children and adolescents in Azerbaijani Turkish language.
- Implementing positive discrimination in governmental facilities and providing subsidies for publishing children’s books and publications in Azerbaijani Turkish language.
- Removing ban on using Turkish names for public places.
- Removing ban on choosing Turkish names for children.
- Reviewing the current educational (school) textbooks in order to remove contents offensive to Turks (Radmehr and Azari, 2015: 4).
Protests over the language issue
Since the 1990s, the desire of some Azerbaijanis to differentiate their identity and their rallies to draw more attention to learning Azerbaijani Turkish have led to clashes with police. Since 1999, Azerbaijani activists from Tabriz and other cities have celebrated International Mother Tongue Day on February 21 with street rallies. Those who were particularly active during those rallies were arrested by police and given long prison terms on charges of “separatism.” In this case, the Iranian government does not make a distinction based on age. For example, a 14-year-old teenage boy (Mohammad Reza Evezpour) and his 16-year-old brother Murtaza were among 15 people detained by Iranian police during the protests in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan Province, in 2006. Mohammad Reza Evezpour was kept in prison hanging by his legs for 2 days.
One of the activists on the language issue was Said Matinpour, a journalist from Zanjan. In his writings, Matinpour protested against human rights violations by the Iranian government and advocated peaceful activities in the pursuit of Azerbaijani cultural and linguistic rights. He was arrested in 2007 for his activities and tried in a closed court without his lawyer present. In June 2008, court sentenced him to eight years in prison on charges of “affiliation to foreign entities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
The Iranian government interferes not only in rallies, but also in the organization of meetings in Azerbaijani Turkish, and imposes severe penalties. For example, in May 2009, Iranian court sentenced Alirza Farshi and his wife Sima Didari to six months in prison for attending a demonstration in El Golu Park in Tabriz, where “Education in Turkish” was one of the slogans (International Federation for Human Rights, 2015: 15).
Ayat Mohammad Jafari, who took part in the march to Babak Fort in May 2010, was sentenced by an Iranian court to 91 days in prison for “disrupting public order.” One of the activists arrested in connection with the marches to Babak Fort was Abbas Lisani. In 2004, Azerbaijani national activist Abbas Lisani and his lawyer Saleh Kamrani were accused of organizing marches to Babak Fort and creating a Turkish calendar.
At his trial, Lisani said that he would speak Turkic in court and demanded that an interpreter be provided to him. The prosecutor objected, saying that Lisani knew Persian. Lisani reminded him that everyone in court had the right to speak their own language and that it was enshrined in the Iranian constitution, and he would speak Turkic. The judge was forced to allow the defense to speak Turkic. This was the first Turkic-language trial after the fall of the National Government in South Azerbaijan and could be considered an important step in the struggle for the native language (Hajiyeva, 2017: 134).
Police arrested 31 Azerbaijani activists during the protests over the language issue in May 2010. Protests over the language sometimes led to schools being boycotted. For example, classes have been boycotted in many Azerbaijani schools at the beginning of the school year (September 23) since 2010, because children there do not have the right to study in Azerbaijani Turkish. The protests were not limited to schools and universities. Azerbaijani activists also sharply criticized the lack of Turkish-language programs on local radio and television stations. Responding to such criticism in April 2010, head of the Zanjan Province Radio and TV revealed: “We are not legally authorised to broadcast programmes for children, adolescents and young people in local language. Tehran must give authorisation for Turkish broadcasting of those programmes to enable us to do it… Based on their instructions, 50% of the programmes must be in Persian.” (International Federation for Human Rights, 2015: 15)
For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, President Hassan Rouhani during the 2017 presidential election campaign accepted the demand that ethnic minorities living in the country receive education in their native language tongue and promised that the right to education in the native tongue would be enforced if he was elected president. However, after he was elected, the president’s special deputy for ethnic minorities claimed that Azerbaijani Turks were not interested in learning their native language. At the same time, for the first time during the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, specifically in 2016, the teaching of the Azerbaijani language began in the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at the University of Tabriz, Iran. In 2019, for the first time, a plan was developed to teach the Azerbaijani language in schools. The Azerbaijani language as a school subject is currently used as a pilot project in East Azerbaijan Province of Iran, and there is no way to say in which regions this plan will be applied in the future.
The current theocratic system in Iran discriminates against Azerbaijani Turks in economy as well as in other areas. After the Islamic Revolution, attention to the regions where Azerbaijanis live compactly compared to the Persian-populated regions began to decline. According to the current unitary system, funding for the economic development of the Azerbaijani regions should be allocated from the state budget. Because to various restrictions on these investments, the Azerbaijani provinces dropped from 2nd to 17th place in industrial production compared to the pre-revolutionary period (Hajiyeva, 2017: 91). The regulation of the economy of these regions by political rather than economic laws has led to an influx of local Azerbaijanis to the center in search of work. In particular, discrimination in agriculture, lack of economic support for the rural population and other reasons have led to the collapse of infrastructure and the depopulation of villages.
According to official statistics for 1997, hundreds of settlements in the Azerbaijani provinces were reported as completely or partially depopulated. Most Azerbaijanis moved to the capital city of Tehran. In 1965, 101,000 people moved to Tehran from East Azerbaijan Province alone. In 1986, the number reached 224,000 (Shaffer, 2002: 64). After the establishment of Ardabil Province in 1992, mass migration began from this region. Official statistics says that a total of 155,000 people migrated from the region to other Iranian cities between 1992 and 2005. According to official Iranian statistics, East Azerbaijan was the province losing the most population. Ardabil Province, which has an absolute majority of Azerbaijanis, was third on the list, and Zanjan was fifth. As a result of this wave of migration, one-fourth of Tehran and almost half of Karaj, the satellite city of the capital, were Azerbaijanis. All these demographic changes were a result of economic discrimination (Hajiyeva, 2017: 92).
The impact of the establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991 on Iranian Azerbaijan was very strong. Iran feared that the establishment of a strong Azerbaijani republic could stir up political activity in its Azerbaijani population. In the early 1990s, the Iranian government worked on a plan to separate Ardabil and surrounding areas from East Azerbaijan Province. In 1992, the Iranian government decided to divide the East Azerbaijan Province and create a new province in the Ardabil region. The names Savalan, Sahand and Ardabil were suggested for this new province (Rakel, 2008: 164).
Many Azerbaijanis, even influential members of Iran’s ruling elite, protested against the abolition of the toponym “Azerbaijan” in the region. However, the plan passed in the parliament, establishing Ardabil Province with the center in Ardabil, consisting of 9 cities, 12 counties and 2,221 settlements. The establishment of Ardabil Province was aimed at weakening ethnic unrest and political activity in the region. This process began as a reaction of the Iranian central government to the formation of national consciousness of Iranian Azerbaijanis. Thus, Iran intended to prevent the emergence of national identity in the region by dividing the Turkic areas of the region and including them in the provinces inhabited by other ethnic groups (Hajiyeva, 2017: 90).
One of the main reasons for regional discrimination in Iran is that the country is a unitary republic. Surveys conducted in Iranian Azerbaijan between 2009 and 2014 revealed that the federalization of Iran and the establishment of an Azerbaijani autonomy were welcomed by the absolute majority. Similar ideas were discussed among the ruling elite of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Velayat-e Faqih” theory, formulated as a policy of unifying religious authority after the 1979 revolution in Iran (and also based on Iran’s unitary system), was criticized by Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, who supported federalism and rejection of religious rule. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is also known as a supporter of Iran becoming a federal state.
However, the first person to officially declare this in the presidential election was Mohsen Rezaee, known in Iran for his conservative views. During the May and June 2013 presidential election campaign, Rezaee promised to implement economic federalization based on the individual provinces if he was elected. Rezaee said the idea, which he had introduced a year earlier in his book Economic Federalism, aimed to maintain economic balance between the provinces. In spite of the predominant emphasis on economic matters, the idea of federalization has caught on mainly among nationalistic activists, who saw in it an opportunity for the creation of nationality based autonomous territories. In the context of the election campaign, Rezaee’s remarks can be viewed as a targeted attempt to woo voters from the periphery and the Azerbaijanis, Kurds, and Balochi in particular. However, Rezaee was unable to communicate his views to the general public. Everything changed with Hassan Rouhani’s easy victory in the first round of the presidential election. Rezaee received most of his votes in regions inhabited by minorities, especially in the Arab, Kurdish, and Lur areas in the west of the country, but also in Iranian Azerbaijan. It remains unclear to what extent this was a result of his ideas on federalism (Souleimanov and Kraus, 2017: 23).
The cartoon controversy
The cartoon scandal in Iran occurred after a cartoon was published in the May 12, 2006 issue of the children’s magazine Kudek. The cartoon depicts a child trying to speak Farsi to a cockroach. The cockroach does not understand the child’s question and asks “What?” In Azerbaijani (“Namana?”).
The publication of the cartoon was followed by mass protests that began in northern Iran. Organized in the predominantly Azerbaijani-populated cities, such as of Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil, and Zanjan, at the initiative of Azerbaijani students, the protests quickly spread to other areas.
Interestingly, the focus of the protests soon shifted from controversial cartoons to sociopolitical issues. The outbreak of national anger was so strong that many Persians, especially government officials, were fleeing the Azerbaijani-speaking regions of Iran. The protesters’ slogans—”Down with chauvinism”, “Long live Azerbaijan” and “Azerbaijan is awake and will protect its language”—reflected both ethnic-related issues and the general sentiments. Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Ali Asghar Ahmadi acknowledged that the protests in Tabriz were more than simple protests against the cartoon. To defuse the crisis and quell people’s anger, the authorities arrested the magazine’s editor-in-chief Mehrdad Gasimfari and cartoonist Mana Neyestani, and the magazine was shut down (Yanow, Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, 2015: 362).
The protesters did not want to stop there. They demanded an apology from the Minister of Culture, as well as from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself. The minister belatedly apologized, but President Ahmadinejad had no intention of apologizing at all. Instead, Ahmadinejad blamed the unrest on foreign influence, linking it to Western pressure over Iran’s nuclear policy. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei echoed this statement a few days later by saying that the riots were the doing of Iran’s enemies trying to disrupt national unity (Gheissari, 2009: 310).
Some Iranian politicians accused the Republic of Azerbaijan of deliberately inciting unrest. The Iranian government named Mahmudali Chohraganli as one of the initiators of the protests. Indeed, the protesters chanted his name at rallies in Tabriz and other cities in northern Iran. However, both witnesses and protesters categorically denied any outside interference, explaining the protests as a spontaneous reaction of an angry group and the long-standing ethnic discrimination against the Turkic ethnic minority. Protesters seized control of a television station in Urmia and a municipal building in Sulduz. Meanwhile, most of the local police (pasdaran) and militia (basij) units consisting of ethnic Azerbaijanis joined the protesters. This was an unprecedented event in Iran after the 1979 revolution.
Realizing that the situation was spiraling out of control, the Iranian government mobilized troops and other law enforcement agencies to put down the protests. Iranian security forces have sent special groups to the area to break the resistance of tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis who took to the streets in northwestern Iran—in Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil, Maragha, and Zanjan. At the end of May, 40 Azerbaijanis were killed in clashes. A large number of protesters were arrested in the Iranian city of Sulduz in West Azerbaijan Province. The number of injured was in the thousands, and the number of those arrested reached 11,000. One month later, the Iranian government officially acknowledged the killing of only 4 and the arrest of 330 Azerbaijanis (Yunusov, 2007: 77)
The TV program controversy
In 2015, there was another scandal on Iranian television. The children’s TV program Fitileh aired on the Iranian state television channel (IRIB TV-2) on November 6, 2015 contained a skit in the Azerbaijani language. It depicted an Azerbaijani staying at a hotel with his son and the boy confusing the toilet brush with the toothbrush and brushing his teeth with it. The following sentence was used in the program: “Azerbaijani children smell very bad because they can’t tell a toilet brush from a toothbrush.”
The broadcast caused a wild wave of protests in the Azerbaijani-populated regions of Iran. On November 9, thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis took to the streets to protest against the TV program. Demonstrations began in Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil, Zanjan, Meshkin, and in Tehran (Litvak, 2017: 237). The protesters gathered in front of government buildings with the slogans “Stop racism against Azerbaijanis,” “We are Turks,” “Down with racism,” and “Long live Azerbaijan.” Police and security forces used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. Hundreds of people were detained by police, many were injured. One of the protesters, Ali Akbar Murtaza, was killed by the police during the clashes in the West Azerbaijani city of Urmia on November 10.
On November 9, Mohammad Sarafraz, the head of the Iranian State Television (IRIB), and Davud Nemati, the head of the broadcaster’s public relations department, formally apologized to Azerbaijanis for the “unintentional offence” caused by the TV program.
Environmental protests over Lake Urmia
Lake Urmia is a salt lake located between the provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan in Iran. Most of the settlements around the lake are inhabited by Azerbaijanis. The catastrophe of Lake Urmia was brought about by the drought in the late 1980s and was felt by most Azerbaijanis. The 1988 drought in the country resulted in the overuse of river water by residents of neighboring towns and villages, as well as in the construction of dams on the rivers that feed the lake, drying up more than 60% of Lake Urmia. The drying up of the lake caused massive migration in the region, as it affected the health of many people living in the area and caused serious damage to agriculture. By 2014, 50 villages in the area were completely depopulated because of frequent salt storms and other problems. In general, the lake’s drying up and water shortage problems could make the region of 6.5 million population completely uninhabitable (Warren, 2016: 344).
The local population linked the drying up of Lake Urmia to Tehran’s lack of interest in the region and its interest in dams and bridges over rivers flowing into the lake. Protests began in the region in 2010-2012 as the environmental problem deteriorated. In August 2011, the Iranian parliament’s refusal to adopt an emergency rescue plan to revive Lake Urmia sparked mass protests in the region. The protesters’ demands were not political at first and were simply a reaction to the drying up of the lake. However, police crackdowns on protesters and arrests changed the nature of the rallies and provoked a nationalist reaction. In subsequent demonstrations, protesters took to the streets shouting out the slogans “Lake Urmia cries: I’m thirsty, help, help!” and “Lake Urmia is dying, the Majlis orders its execution!”. Chanting one of the most popular slogans, “Let’s go and cry, let’s fill Lake Urmia with our tears!”, fans of the Traktor Sazi football club in Tabriz joined the wave of nationalist protests over Lake Urmia (Khalili, 2016: 172).
The persistence of the protests led the government to take concrete action to address the problem. In 2012, Iran announced a half-billion-dollar project to revive Lake Urmia over the next five years. The funds were to be spent mainly on improving water management, a reduction of water usage for farming, and the overall restoration of the environment. The Iranian Ministry of the Environment and the UN Development Program introduced a plan to save the lake and the surrounding areas, which President Rouhani publicly confirmed. At present, the complete drying up of Lake Urmia has been prevented. However, it will take years for the lake to return to its previous state. Thus, Lake Urmia, as the most significant manifestation of Azerbaijani nationalism, is going to remain an important issue in the relations between Azerbaijanis living in the region and the Iranian government (Souleimanov and Kraus, 2017: 47).
The role of football in the national issue
One of the important roles in the political struggle of Iranian Azerbaijanis belongs to the Traktor Sazi football club in Tabriz. Founded in 1970, the football club has been a symbol of national self-awareness since the 2000s, gaining widespread support from ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran. Any game of the club in Tabriz is attended by an average of 60,000 fans, and the team usually fills even non-Azerbaijani stadiums, such as Azadi Stadium in Tehran, which has a capacity of 90,000. Tractor’s great popularity is also aided by satellite television broadcasts of most of their games on the regional Sahand TV in Tabriz and GünAz TV in the Republic of Azerbaijan (Souleimanov and Kraus, 2017: 26).
Fans wave Azerbaijani flags at Traktor Sazi home games, shouting politically-flavored slogans to raise national issues. These slogans emphasize their distinct ethnicity: “Hey, hey, I am a Turk”, “Azerbaijan is ours, Afghanistan is yours”, or explicitly support Azerbaijani separatism “South Azerbaijan is not Iran”, “Tabriz, Baku, Ankara, where are we, and where are Persians?” (Khalili, 2016: 172).
Racist slogans are especially common for matches between Traktorsazi and Persepolis and Esteghlal clubs. In particular, the use of insulting expressions by nationalist fans of Persepolis, which emphasize the ethnicity of Traktor Sazi fans, creates intense confrontations among fans. The most famous of these expressions is “Torke Khar” (translated from Farsi as “Turkish donkey”) used by Persian nationalists during the Pahlavi regime (Mabon, 2015: 158). Traktor Sazi fans usually respond to this insult with the racist slur “Fars dili, it dili” (translate from Azerbaijani as “Persian language, dog language.” Traktor Sazi–Persepolis matches in Tehran usually end in violent clashes.
The largest of these clashes took place in 2010. A violent fight broke out between Azerbaijani Traktor Sazi fans and Iranian police and ethnic Persian fans after a Persepolis–Traktor Sazi game marked by mutual rounds of racist insults in Tehran on July 27, 2010. Dozens of fans were injured, and almost all of those arrested were Tractor fans. Concerned about the dramatic rise in Azerbaijani nationalism during Tractor games, the authorities began to limit the number of Azerbaijani fans who were allowed into the stadium (Souleimanov, 2011: 81).
Despite the tensions, Azerbaijanis are now represented in Iran political, military, intellectual and other areas of life, as well as religious hierarchy. The current religious leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is half-Azerbaijani. In this regard, the Azerbaijanis’ position in the country is better than that of the Baloch people, who are blatantly discriminated against for being Sunni Muslims. It is because of their Shia affiliation that many Azerbaijanis have successfully found a place in the Persian society. The Iranian government does not accept allegations of discrimination against Azerbaijanis precisely for this reason, claiming that the government policy over the past 40 years has been based on Islam, which covers various ethnic groups. According to the official position of the Iranian government, the country’s policy does not specify any particular ethnicity, including the Persian majority, and the official language, Persian, is used as a continuation of preservation of Iran’s traditional centralized model. However, the government still has serious problems with Azerbaijanis, Kurds and Balochi. Only time will tell what form (soft or hard) of action it will take to tackle the ethnic issues in Iran.
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