In recent days, Iran has made headlines, as there has been a fear that Israel could strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, after Iran obtained 84% nuclear enrichment. However, while headlines are dominating around the nuclear issue, what is less discussed is the role that the Iran protests play in trying to get the regime overthrown without any sort of need for Israel to attack – and the Azerbaijani role in those protests.
The question remains, do the Azerbaijanis play a critical role in trying to topple the regime or are the Azerbaijanis just another group that is protesting?
Vladimir Mesamed, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the Azerbaijani media that the “ethnic factor plays a big role in Iran and protests of Azerbaijanis there drain the Islamic system with all of its strength. The Iranian Azeris, who are deprived of their national culture and language, are actively undermining the regime of the mullahs, demanding education in the schools in their national language and that it be allowed to develop. Their rights are being severely trampled, not even allowed to give their children Turkic names. The Iranian Azeris have been struggling for years to improve the ecological condition of Lake Urmia as their symbol and to restore their national holidays, which have been introduced and then amended. And this dynamic of struggle inspires civil unrest among citizens across the country.”
Following his remarks, Ahmet Obali, an Iranian Azerbaijani who heads Gunaz TV, proclaimed: “Azerbaijanis make up around a third of the population in Iran. Our numbers are close to three times more than in the Republic of Azerbaijan. After the takeover of the government by the Pahlavi regime, we went through an assimilation process. Our language has been barred in schools for the past 100 years. Our land has been divided into multiple provinces. Some of our land has been given to adjacent provinces. Since then, we have been moving towards getting our rights back.”
He noted that in 1946, the Azerbaijanis got some of their rights back and this trend continued in 1979, when “our people rose up after the Islamic Revolution and we were promised education in our mother language. It is written in the 15th amendment of the Iranian Constitution. But that has not been applied. The rule is only written on paper. All of our cities, like Tabriz, that are 100 percent Azerbaijani, do not even have one school teaching our language. We have come to the understanding that if we want to have our rights, we must secede from Iran and have an independent South Azerbaijan.”
According to him, “We have no choice at this point. We are now moving more towards independence. During these past five months of protests, Azerbaijanis were active. Our slogans are different. Our protests are not covered in major Persian outlets. Our slogans ask for independence, so they do not cover us. As for the Iranian government’s feelings towards Azerbaijanis, they look towards us as enemies. They are upset with North Azerbaijan, which has a warm relationship with Israel and are upset with us for also supporting Israel.”
Obali noted that the Iranians view Azerbaijan as a “security issue, as they give some hope to South Azerbaijan to be independent also. This is another issue we have with Iran. Iran really does not want the Republic of Azerbaijan to exist. They want it to disintegrate. They want to wipe it off the map, but they do not say it. But they do whatever they can to support Armenia and anyone else against Azerbaijan. They have animosity against both North and South Azerbaijan. This also pushes us towards separatism.”
Obali has a different take on the Azerbaijani role in the Iran protests than Mesamed does: “During these past five months, we were very careful not to be passive, but we also did not want to be the front-runners, as we have our own demand, self-governance. We are different from Persian protesters on this matter. Our numbers are 30 million. We are almost half of the population in Tehran. 40% of Iranians speak Turkish. We are a third of the population. The protests in Iran do not have a single leadership as all of the ethnic groups have their own leadership.”
In an exclusive interview, Tarlan Ahmadov, the head of the Azerbaijani Society of Maine, had a quite different perspective than Obali: “As a person who traveled in Iran and lived there for some time, I suggest that the Western world undermines the power and interests of the ethnic minority of Azerbaijanis in Iran. The history through the 20th century shows that Azerbaijanis very strongly wish to have their own independent state of the Democratic Republic of South Azerbaijan. Of course, their interests were always betrayed by the great powers. Economics and oil prevailed in deciding the fate of the Azerbaijani community.”
He noted that for 500 years before the Pahlavis rose to power, Qajars and Safavids and all of these dynasties between 1490’s and 1920’s, were “Turkic based. This whole revolution is also an awakening of some Azeri ethnic groups for building their own independence. There should be a big support for them in building a surface for today’s Iran. I strongly believe this factor has to be brought into consideration. People must think about what can be done to change Iranian society. It should not be undermined and be considered. I hope that a country like Israel will bring to the table the idea of supporting Azerbaijanis in Iran in their quest for freedom and help them to win this fight.”
Ahmadov added that “for the past 100 years, there has been a “Personification” and all of the indigenous ethnic groups, like Baloch, Azeris, Ahwazis, etc. have to have their own identity. They must have the ability to educate their own culture. The younger generation has been brainwashed about having their own identity. I asked a couple of young Azerbaijanis in Iran what their identity was and they said Iranian. I explained to them that ok I live in America, but my ethnicity is Azerbaijani and our ethnicity is important to us for preserving our language, culture and writing. The cultural cleansing of Azerbaijanis has been going on for many decades. I hope that this awakening will help us to preserve our own national identity and cultural autonomy. There should be fundamental changes in this whole arena.”
“We Azerbaijani Americans always support our brothers in Iran in their fight for freedom,” he noted. “We are always there for them. One day we will go to an independent Tabriz. That is a dream for us that will come true. We should not only dream and hope. Dreams and hopes about an independent South Azerbaijan should always be something we always work towards. These are places where our ancestors lived for thousands of years.”
In conclusion, Azerbaijani activist Raphael Nabizade declared: “Iran is becoming worse by the day. It seems that the protests have slackened but it does not mean that a revolution will not take place in Iran. This is just a matter of time. The mullah regime is afraid of the uprising of Azerbaijanis which constitute Iran’s largest ethnic minority. Baku is becoming more and more agile and strong. Azerbaijan is a friend and strategic ally of the Jewish state. Tehran is really worried about its indigenous Azerbaijani population. The stronger that Azerbaijan is, the higher will be its desire to unite with its compatriots in the south. There is a possibility that all ties between Baku and Tehran might be cut off. The mullah regime attacked the embassy of Azerbaijan and unfortunately, the murderer has not been imprisoned yet. Azerbaijan will not tolerate Iranian aggression anymore.”
Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and an Israel-based journalist. She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media.”