Actually, Azerbaijan and Iran, it seems, should pursue a coherent policy in the region because of many commonalities. But there are many factors that speak against this.
Due to historical and cultural similarities and the geopolitical situation, Azerbaijan and Iran are key parties in the Caspian and Caucasian region. Geographically, the southern part of the Caucasus ends in northern Iran, where an immense Azerbaijani community has also established itself – apparently good conditions for forming a unity at the state level.
Despite many similarities, numerous frictions
After gaining independence on October 18, 1991, Azerbaijan officially became the second largest Shiite state in the world. Both nations celebrate the Zoroastrian Novruz festival, share a history of the Safavid, then Afsharid and Kajar Empire, whose leaders were all of Turkish origin. Both Azerbaijan and Iran lay claim to the legacy of Nizami Gandschavi – a poet who lived in Azerbaijan but wrote in Persian. On closer inspection it must be noted that after the Peace of Turkmanchai in 1828 the Azerbaijani people were divided into two by the river Aras. In the north the Russian presence gained importance, while in the south the Persian influences remained. As a result of this separation, some 30 million Azerbaijani Turks still live in Iran today, while the population of the Republic of Azerbaijan consists of only 10 million people.
After the Persian dynasty of Pahlavi came to power in Iran in 1925, the persecution of the Azerbaijani population began. An almost racist approach was developed. Among other things, it was claimed that the Azerbaijanis living in Iran were Turkified Aryans of Iranian descent. The Turkic peoples, on the other hand, are nomadic barbarians. As a result of this assimilation policy, many of the Azerbaijanis who moved to the capital have adopted Persian culture and thus lost their roots. Iran’s assimilation policy toward minorities was noticeable until 1979. After the Islamic Revolution in the same year, the assimilation of minorities began on the basis of the Shiite religion, whereby less and less attention was paid to the national question and it was made completely superfluous. Azerbaijan’s independence, however, led Iran to change its regional policy as well.
Complicated relations between the two Shiite states
As an independent state, Azerbaijan inherited the conflict with Armenia in this process: Armenia occupied Azerbaijani territory and forced the population to leave their homeland. If it were only a matter of religious policy, Iran would have to support Azerbaijan in the Armenian conflict. However, a different scenario has developed, so that to this day Iran clearly supports Christian-influenced Armenia. In the 1990s Kurds were also resettled to Northern Iran, i.e. to border areas with neighboring Azerbaijan – obviously to minimize contact between the two Azerbaijani communities.
Iranian policy towards Azerbaijan has always had an impact on Azerbaijani foreign policy as well, because Azerbaijan was striving for good relations with the Jewish state of Israel. Already in the 1990s, Israeli specialists built electronic intelligence stations along the Azerbaijani-Iranian borders. In 2011, Israel began supplying Azerbaijan with drones to monitor the border. The independence of Azerbaijan thus enabled Israel to become a relevant actor in the region. Since then, Israel has been trying to minimize the Shiite ideology of Iran through its presence.
After the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan last July, it became known that Russian weapons had been delivered to Armenia via Iranian territory. On September 27, a war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Karabakh and Nagorno-Karabakh regions. Shortly after these events, Azerbaijanis living in Iran shared videos in the social media confirming that Iran is once again allowing the delivery of Russian weapons to Armenia via its territory. This happened in front of the eyes of Iranian Azerbaijanis. As a result, there were riots in the Azerbaijani cities of Iran as well as in the capital Tehran.
This time a lot of Azerbaijani flags could be seen on the streets, also the slogans of the protesters were new. The Azerbaijanis shouted for example: “We do not only support Azerbaijan, we are Azerbaijan”. The protests were a clear sign within the Azerbaijani movement in the recent history of Iran. In order to calm the demonstrators, various governmental circles announced central statements in which Tehran in turn confirmed that the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan was to be officially respected. As a result, Iran called on Armenia to comply with UN resolutions.
To illustrate why these protests could have such relevance: Usually the Azerbaijani minority in Iran demonstrates for their own rights in the country, such as the right to education in their own language. But ecological problems also became the subject of protests. These include the rescue of the almost completely dried up Lake Urmia. Iranian Azerbaijanis also take to the streets to celebrate the victorious soccer club Traktor, also known as “Barcelona of Iran”.
The last time Azerbaijanis living in Iran had shown such solidarity with their northern siblings was 31 years ago. On December 31, 1989, thousands of Azerbaijanis from Nakhichevan, together with Iranian Azerbaijanis, tore down the fences of the Soviet-Iranian border over the river Araz to achieve unification.
Iran’s fears in connection with the Azerbaijani factor
The oppression of Azerbaijanis in Iran and the tense relations with Baku have their reasons and motives. Tehran fears that the Azerbaijanis living in Iran could develop an affinity for the Caucasian Republic of Azerbaijan and thus create conditions for secession in the country. Among the Iranian Azerbaijanis one can recognize different approaches and motives.
1 The conservative Iranian Azerbaijanis believe that they should integrate into Iranian society and politics.
2. those who fight for the mother tongue demand cultural autonomy within Iran
3 However, there are also organizations, especially those active abroad, that are fighting either for the independence of an Iranian Azerbaijan or for unification with northern Azerbaijan.
Political developments in recent years show that the Iranian Azerbaijanis’ contact with Azerbaijan and Turkey has become stronger. The most recent pro-Azerbaijan demonstrations confirm that Iranian Azerbaijanis no longer offer civil resistance exclusively for their own problems, but are also increasingly reacting to events in the neighborhood.
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