IMPLICATIONS: The fifteen years of existence of an independent Republic of Azerbaijan, increased communication with both Azerbaijan and Turkey, and satellite broadcasts from both countries have spurred to a new level the national consciousness of Azerbaijanis, who are identifying themselves much more clearly with their “Turkic brethren” to the north and west. The cases of ethnically motivated unrest in Iranian Azerbaijan have gradually multiplied. These occasionally resulted in clashes with police, though the successive liberalization of Iranian society under former President Khatami allowed the use of Azeri in local media, although limited in scope and frequency. The conservative come-back under President Ahmadinejad brought renewed restrictions in these recently gained benefits, which inevitably led to mounting protests among frustrated minorities. Consequently, the “cartoon crisis” was a triggering factor, whereas the demonstrations revealed the increasing strength of Azerbaijani nationalism. Current events are the best indicator of this development. The temporary shutdown of the newspaper, the arrest of the author of the column and caricature, and the public compliments of certain highly-placed Iranians calling Azerbaijanis a “heroic people”, and similar actions, did not reduce the size of the protests - in spite of the brutal attacks of the Iranian police and the threat of torture in prison. The demonstrations lasted for over two weeks without respite, until the deployment of tens of thousands of elite army and police troops in the northwestern provinces. At the demonstrations, which are not unprecedented but way larger than any previous ones, calls were voiced for ethnic autonomy and the de facto legalization of the Azeri language in public sphere. Many observers both inside and outside Iran wondered who was behind the demonstrators, and whether the publication of the caricature was a coincidence. Three possibilities have been advanced. A first claimed that the events were planned long in advance, organized by the illegal organizations seeking the independence of southern Azerbaijan. Coincidentally or not, Prof. Mahmudali Chehragani, leader of the banned Southern Azerbaijan National Revival Movement, has been received since 2003 in Washington at a very high level. Western forces favoring the collapse of the Iranian regime, the story goes, would take advantage of serious unrest in Iranian Azerbaijan and its brutal repression to organize another “humanitarian intervention”, for which the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey could be used as a bridgehead. A second version, conversely, sees the events as a provocation on the part of Tehran, which is trying in this manner to pre-empt any pre-planned events. Thus the protests broke out before they were supposed to, so the regime had the chance to effectively disrupt the rebels’ underground before a massively organized action could begin. Iranians traditionally see the origins of the unrest in the influence of the ubiquitous Americans, British and Jews, and are calling for national unity. Whatever the merits of these theories, none is particularly credible. This was in all likelihood a spontaneous protest event. The public sphere in Iran is under strict control by the secret services, and in this situation, no “color revolution” would be feasible, nor could such large protest have been planned without being disrupted. It is also highly unlikely that the small Republic of Azerbaijan or Turkey would risk a serious armed conflict with powerful Iran, which almost certainly would occur in case their territory is used for attacks against Iran. This view is lent credence by the fact that the Turkish and Western establishments have taken little interest in events in Iranian Azerbaijan. The demonstrations went virtually unnoticed in Western media.
CONCLUSIONS: Blood spilled in violence is not forgotten, and the thoughts that have awakened the Azeri masses from their lethargy will not disappear overnight. Since the days of Sattar Khan’s Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), in which he led the masses primarily in southern Azerbaijan against the Shah, the current events represent a significant experience of common resistance and mutual suffering. This experience could act as a catalyst for the activity of various separatist or irredentist groups within Iran itself. As experience around the world has shown, indiscriminate state repression creates and expands the circle of potential avengers among the population, increasing the importance of insurgents’ appeals. An appropriate ideological base begins to profile itself, and the resistance movement is indoctrinated into it. The activities of illegal groups trigger a cycle of violence. Created or strengthened soon thereafter are links to supporters from abroad or adherents from within. Within Iran’s borders, these could be insurgents from among the Arab or Kurdish minorities that also have somewhat tense relations with Tehran. A rather strong polarization of identity and ideology is taking place among Iranian Azerbaijanis, developing along generational lines. The Azeri youth, along with young Persians, Baluchis, Turkmens etc., are ever more rejecting the current government of mullahs, which has meant life in a less than prosperous country with many restrictions. The ethnic factor then ties in with socio-economic factors and overall dissatisfaction with the regime. Also apparent is a certain ideological vacuum in the country, caused by the weakening attraction of political Islam, especially among the young generation. While older generations generally have attitudes that are more reserved, and feel stronger loyalty to the idea of an Iranian state, the Azeri youth is yearning for a life of freedom, and the West is ever more closely associated with Turkey and even independent Azerbaijan where their counterparts experience greater freedom and prosperity. Pan-Turkic nationalism and pan-Western sentiments are gradually becoming a sort of escape from current problems. No wonder, then, that crowds in Iran were shouting slogans like “Baku, Tabriz, Ankara, Biz hara, Iran hara?” (Baku, Tabriz, Ankara, where are we going, and where is Iran going?).
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is senior lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is author of An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, autumn 2006)