Dr. Mordechai Kedar
The citizens of Iran are not one ethnic unit but many units. The main ethnic groups in Iran are the Persians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and Turkmens. There are many other smaller groups as well. The Persians are the ruling minority, and the rest are oppressed with a heavy hand and an iron fist. The largest minority is the Azerbaijanis who are located in northern Iran, south of the independent state of Azerbaijan, which until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, the Azerbaijani people are divided into two parts: in the north, the free, independent part of their country, Azerbaijan, whose capital is the city of Baku, and in the south, the southern Azerbaijanis, who are trying to survive under a cruel system of discrimination and oppression operated by the Iranian regime. The historical capital city of the Azerbaijani people, Tabriz, is located in Iranian territory and the language of the Azerbaijani people is a Turkish dialect. It is important to note that the oppression of minorities in Iran is not an invention of the Ayatollah regime, as they were severely oppressed under the regime of the Shah as well.
THE AZERBAIJANI MINORITY CASE
Tens of millions of Southern Azerbaijanis suffer from everyday discrimination in Iran. The actual number of Azerbaijanis in Iran is unknown – since the regime considers this information too sensitive. Azerbaijanis in Iran claim that their group is bigger
than the Persian one, yet the Persians keep the key positions to themselves and oppress the other groups. Although there are between 25 and 30 million Azerbaijanis in Iran, the Iranian regime, held in the hands of the Persians, strives to erase their culture and self-identification, turning them into “Iranians”; or even “Persians”. The regime simply does not register many of them as Azerbaijanis. At the international conference in the European Parliament on July 6, 2023, dedicated to the plight of the Azerbaijanis in Iran, a representative of this minority from Tabriz – the cultural and historic Azeri center for centuries – told the story of their oppression. An editor of a TG-Channel AZfront, which coordinates protest activity of eight different Azerbaijani organizations, could not participate directly, because she and her colleagues are hunted by the IRGC.
The minorities in Iran – and especially the Azerbaijanis- suffer from many kinds of discrimination:
The Azerbaijani language and culture, the very essence of the people’s national identity, are the main targets of the Iranian regime, led by the Persians:
- The Iranian regime destroys, or at least neglects, cultural sites and monuments important to the history of the Azerbaijani people, erasing centuries of their history in their own land.
- The Iranians have appropriated one of the distinctive features of the art and crafts of the Azerbaijani Turks: what is now known as “Persian rugs” are in fact the product of Azerbaijani traditional hand-woven techniques created many centuries ago. · Azerbaijanis in Iran face difficulties with celebrating national cultural events in public.
- The government prohibits the use of Azerbaijani names for children, literally cutting the young off from their ethnic roots.
- State TV and other media, including children’s programming, humiliate Azerbaijanis and devalues their cultural background and practices.
- The language of Azerbaijanis has never been given official status: it is not used in official documents and the regime forbids using it as the language of instruction in educational institutions. · The use of Azerbaijani or any non-Persian names for businesses and organizations is not allowed in Iran.
- Any use of non-Persian mother tongues is considered a “national security threat” 1. · Speakers with Azerbaijani accents are satirized and humiliated in state media outlets.
- Although Azerbaijani people live in the north of Iran, they are consistently denied funding for development.
- As a result, Azerbaijanis face high poverty rates; they are underrepresented in high-paying and decision-making jobs 2.
- Azerbaijanis’ entrepreneurship is crippled by bans on using the Azerbaijani language in business and commercial activities.
- Although the family of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, is partially Azerbaijani, Azerbaijanis, in general, are underrepresented in the government and public sector.
- They are not allowed to create their own political parties and associations. Any such attempt is construed as a national threat and results in persecution, wrongful imprisonment, and other repercussions.
- Political dissent is nipped in the bud: rallies and protests are violently repressed, participants detained, arrested, and tortured, and political persecution extended to the families of the protesters.
- Azerbaijani protestors against discrimination are labeled by regime officials and the state-controlled media as separatists or Turkish spies.
- There is ample evidence that the government diverted and mismanaged natural resources, primarily water, from regions inhabited by Azerbaijani Turks, often for the benefit of IRGC-affiliated contractors 3. These practices devastated the local environment on which farmers and others depended for their livelihoods and well-being.
- Pollution of the Aras River, which runs along the Iran- Azerbaijan border, has led to an increase in cancer among the Azerbaijanis who depend on it for their water, but the problem has been hushed up by the government.
- The provinces populated by ethnic minorities, including the Azerbaijanis, face the problem of landmines that have been sitting in the ground since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. According to a 2014 report published by Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, over 10,000 Iranians, including a notable number of children, have been victims of landmines since 1988 4. The Iranian regime could not care less.
What can be done by people, especially politicians, who care for human rights and minority rights? The only way to convince the Iranian regime to release the grip on the neck of the minorities is pressure: political, economic, and ultimately military pressure. It does not really matter which way the regime will be forced to stop the oppression – any kind of pressure is a step in the right direction. The goal should be, at least, cultural autonomy for the ethnic minorities of Iran. Cultural autonomy will allow these groups to develop themselves, to raise their national conscience, and enable them to participate in politics with dignity and thus hopefully lower the level of the regime’s hatred towards the minorities.
If the regime continues subjugating the minorities and denying their political, economic, and cultural rights, it could push them to revolt as we all have already seen during the last two years and to demand the creation of independent states for the minorities: Southern Azerbaijan in the north, Eastern Kurdistan in the west, Arabistan in the southwest, Western Baluchistan in the East and Southern Turkmenistan in the northeast of Iran. Such a process will bring down the Iranian regime, dismantle the artificial Iranian state and in addition, solve the problems of the terrorism which the Iranian regime spreads all over the Middle East and beyond. This will ultimately remove the threat to global security posed by the Iranian military nuclear program, by their drones and ballistic missiles which the regime develops with North Korean support. In a reality where the currently oppressed minorities of Iran become independent states, the world will be a safer and a better place to live in, including the Persians of Iran. The oppressed Azerbaijanis in Iran are more than ready and willing to exercise their rights to dignity, freedom, and independence, and the other minorities will proudly follow them. Whoever supports human rights and political freedoms should embrace and support this idea wholeheartedly.