It was recently revealed in the European Parliament that Iranian state media routinely refers to Azerbaijanis as insects. This report comes after it was reported that Iran is holding an Azerbaijani woman Valida Yusifova in its custody, where she is presently being tortured and exposed to other cruel treatment. This comes after another Azerbaijani student Farid Safarli was imprisoned in Iran on trumped up charges, And Iran attempted to assassinate Azerbaijani MP Fazil Mustafa and Iran attacked the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran on International Holocaust Memorial Day, killing a security guard.
The question remains, what stands behind Iran’s hostility towards Azerbaijan? After all, both countries are Shia Muslim and are neighbors. What prompts Iran to side with a Christian nation like Armenia over their Shia Muslim brethren?
While some analysts point to Azerbaijan’s friendly relationship with Israel, the truth of the matter is that Iran was hostile towards Azerbaijan long before Baku opened up an embassy in Tel Aviv.
I was in the war-torn Karabakh regime on four separate instances. In the city of Aghdam going back to the 1990’s, Iran was a full partner in benefiting from Armenia’s crimes against humanity that were perpetuated in violation of four UN Security Council resolutions. They purchased the loot and other raw materials that Armenia stole from Azerbaijani homes, towns and villages and benefited from the transformation of Azerbaijani mosques into Iranian mosques.
They supported Armenia in this war against their Muslim brethren because Armenia is a land-locked country under blockade, which serves as a proxy of Iran in order to remain viable. In contrast, Azerbaijan is a secular, pluralistic and tolerant country allied with the West. Thus, Iran overlooks the faith issue and supports Armenia, for they view secular Shia Muslims allied with the West to be a greater threat than a land-locked, dependent Christian state. The fact that 40 percent of Iran is Azerbaijani makes them an even greater threat to the regime, as a strong Azerbaijan can empower 40 percent of Iran to break off and demand freedom.
Babek Chalabi, a South Azerbaijani activist based in Washington, DC, argued: “Azerbaijan’s strategic importance as an energy nexus and its potential to serve as a conduit connecting Europe to Central Asia and its ongoing disputes with Armenia positions it as a critical participant in the global power matrix. Iran’s intent to destabilize Azerbaijan, evidenced by its escalating clout in Armenia and its aspiration to reinforce its dominion in the South Caucasus, cannot be disregarded.”
Chalabi noted that Iran systematically oppresses its Azerbaijani community, who constitutes 40 percent of the Iranian population, even though they are Shia: “While international attention is primarily directed toward the geopolitical interplay between Iran and Azerbaijan, the predicament of the Azerbaijani minority in Iran must not be overlooked.”
Ahmad Hashemi, a South Azerbaijani dissident, proclaimed: “After the events of Mahsi Amini, the crackdown has been intensified, especially in regards to the non-Persian ethnic groups, especially South Azerbaijanis. They bear the brunt of the suppression and the crackdown. Iran Human Rights, in its report for the six months of 2023, stated Iran has carried out 354 executions. Non-Persian ethnic groups are disproportionately targeted. This report says that Baloch, who are a tiny portion of Iran’s population, they make up about 20 percent of all the executions.”
According to him, “Iran is the second largest executioner worldwide. But it is the largest per capita executioner in the world considering that China’s population is more than Iran’s. Another example I can give is that after the Friday prayer, 95 Baloch protesters were massacred in one day. This is all indicative of the situation against the non-Persian ethnic groups. Amnesty International has a report that speaks of the execution of non-Persian ethnic groups, who make up most of the executions in Iran.”
Hashemi noted that royalists and other Persian nationalists launched anti-Semitic conspiracies after 32 Israeli Knesset members made a public statement in support of South Azerbaijani freedom: “Whoever talks about human rights and discrimination against non-Persians and the ban on South Azerbaijani names and the ban on our language in the schools is called a traitor, terrorist and other inappropriate words. They justify the crackdown and massacre of South Azerbaijanis and other non-Persians on the ground. They call them a threat to the territorial integrity of the country, yet all we want is the end of the systematic discrimination of non-Persian ethnic groups.”
Due to Iran’s systematic oppression of Azerbaijani language and culture, alongside the oppression of South Azerbaijani dissidents and the draining of Lake Urmia, Chalabi stressed “the notion of South Azerbaijan’s independence is gaining momentum, fueling the aspirations of its populace. We crave recognition and support on an international scale, particularly from influential regional powers like Israel, our fraternal nation.”
Chalabi emphasized, “We implore the international community to acknowledge South Azerbaijan and its representatives and to give voice to our situation on an international stage. The South Azerbaijani national movement boasts the strength and potential to challenge Iran’s arrogance. This capacity merits acknowledgment and reinforcement from the global community.”
While he noted that the global perception of the Islamic Republic of Iran often identifies it as a spokesperson for the international Shia Muslim community, he emphasized that “this perception conflicts with Iran’s evident alignment with Christian Armenia during the discord with the Republic of Azerbaijan, a nation with a Shia majority. This paradox may perplex those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Iranian regime. Yet, as a South Azerbaijani native who served as a military officer in Iran for nearly a decade, I can confirm Iran’s tactical use of religion to disseminate Persian influence and culture.”
According to him, “In this scenario, religion acts as a tool to propagate Persian identity, posing a significant threat to Azerbaijan. I perceive Iran’s assertion that establishing the Zangezur Corridor would sever its ties with Armenia as a deceptive pretext to justify its opposition. Iran’s susceptibility lies in its fear of an empowered Republic of Azerbaijan. This fear incites the Iranian regime to attempt to tarnish the country’s image among the people of South Azerbaijan.”
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.”