Iran and Azerbaijan, Part 1
This is probably a topic that should be covered in over a few different postings, so I’m going to try to start by laying out a topic and going from there. This is all about Iran and Azerbaijan. The relationship here is seemingly tense and congenial at the same time, a relationship built on historical legacy, religious ties, and political and economic necessity.
If you talk to enough Azerbaijanis, you’ll come across the idea of Southern Azerbaijan, or Greater Azerbaijan (Apparently all the Caucasus countries have an idea like this…Greater Georgia, Greater Armenia. I like to think what our equivalent Greater United States of America would look like). This idea is one that results in a geographical Azerbaijan which sweeps across northern Iran and parts of Armenia and Georgia. This northern section of Iran was historically associated with Iran prior to the treaties of Turkmenchay and Gulistan, agreements between the Persians and the Russian Empire. From these, the territory of Azerbaijan was slowly carved out and added to the Russian Empire. The later Turkmenchay agreement gave up the Talysh Khanate to the Russians, meaning my current Lənkəran home city was handed over after 1828. Yet, much of the historical Azerbaijan was left within what we know today as the borders of Iran. This northern region even has a few provinces that are majority-Azerbaijani, where much of the population speaks Azeri. Even the leader of the most recent attempt at revolution in Iran, Mir Hussein Mousavi, is an Azeri from this region.
And this brings us to our first interesting conflict of note with Azerbaijan and Iran. Language is an interesting political issue for Azeris in Iran, though it seems like it is probably not as important as some freedom fighters would like it to be:
Call it discrimination or even chauvinism: Millions of Iran’s ethnic Azeris have no right of education in their mother tongue. But, surprisingly, it appears the majority of them don’t care much about this inequality…
…The people I spoke to worked in bazaars or as nurses, as government employees and housewives, computer traders, lawyers, students, medical doctors, and laborers. But I found only five who said they were very interested in seeing education in Azeri Turkish in Iranian Azeri schools.
Most of the others were uninterested and didn’t view it as a priority. Some supported the idea in principle but said that it could lead to elevated social tensions. Some suggested Azeri Turkish could be offered as an optional course of two or so hours per week, although they suspected most parents wouldn’t send their kids to those courses for fear it would weaken their acquisition of Persian. A smaller group even opposed the idea outright.
This is all interesting in theory, but then it becomes a little more visceral when you come across something like this:
In Iran, even poets who write in their own mother tongue are arrested and threatened with heavy sentences in the Islamic courts. And that is what happened in April 2010 to 20 poets, writers and journalists from Azerbaijan…
…Some of them have suffered very harsh interrogations, torture and even electroshock treatment in some cases. Soon these intellectuals – all pacifists – are to be judged by the court in Tabriz, which is famous for the death sentence issued against Sakineh, but which is already responsible for hundreds of verdicts that have led hundreds of innocent people to the gallows or to the hole in the ground for stoning. The poets of Azerbaijan risk a jail sentence of up to six years in prison or worse; not for having praised the revolution or freedom, but for writing love poems and hymns to nature in their native language.
That sounds fairly harsh to me. I’m not really sure who this Roberto Malini is, or his group, Tolerance, but the letter they write doesn’t seem to be kidding around much.
So what does this mean for Azerbaijanis in Iran? Is this really a serious human rights issue, where people are imprisoned for nothing more than publishing in a language that is claimed as native even by the religious leader of the nation? And then beyond that, is this a concern for Azerbaijan? The Azerbaijani language is not exactly experiencing robust growth in its usage, and preservation of the language is probably something important to the culture. If the population of Azeri-speaking citizens of Iran is 10-15 million, as claimed by the RFE/RL article above, then that’s more than in the entire country of Azerbaijan itself (That figure is up for debate, by the way–I come across Azeris claiming as many as 30-40 million Azerbaijanis in Iran, and have seen estimates as low as 5-8 million). If there are that many people who become interested in bringing Azerbaijani in as a more important language in the region, or if this becomes a political spark, Iran could have a rather large constituency to bend to. This could also be an issue for Azerbaijan as the common language is an easy avenue for influence to flow north into Azerbaijan, political, religious and otherwise. As we’ll see in consequent posts, influence from Iran is not exactly something Azerbaijan’s government appreciates.