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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Football Nationalism Among Iran's Azeris

Published in Analytical Articles
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By Emil Souleimanov (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Tabriz, the capital city of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, and some other key cities in Iranian Azerbaijan saw new mass demonstrations in mid-May. This time, supporters of Tabriz’s football club Tractor Sazi, numbering tens of thousands, took to the streets to protest a referee decision in a match against Naft Tehran FC. The decision, which the majority of Azeri protesters considered unfounded, reversed the course of the match and allegedly deprived Tractor Sazi, a football team that has come to embody Azeri Turkic nationalism in the Islamic Republic, of victory in a key match.

BACKGROUND: Ironically, the protests centered on the referee’s decision to give a red card to the Tractor Sazi midfielder Andranik Seymourian, a Tehran-born ethnic Armenian, 20 minutes before the end of the match. The referee’s highly controversial decision turned the tide of the game, reversing Tractor Sazi’s 3:1 lead to a 3:3 draw. Within minutes, the atmosphere in Tehran’s Sahand Sport stadium, where dozens of thousands of Iranian Azeri supporters were gathered, quickly shifted from joy to anger. During and following the match, according to eyewitnesses, Tractor Sazi fans in Tehran, Tabriz and elsewhere shouted “Down with Persian racism,” “Long Live Azerbaijan,” “How happy to be a Turk,” “Tabriz, Baku, Ankara. Persia is so far away to us,” “South Azerbaijan is not Iran,” “Everybody has the right to learn his own language,” and other nationalist and emancipatory slogans. Tractor fans clashed with security forced in the Tehran stadium and on the streets of various cities in East Azerbaijan. The governor of the East Azerbaijan province sought to ease the tension by appealing to the population to remain calm, while publicly challenging the legitimacy of the outcome.

According to Tractor Sazi’s Portuguese coach Toni Oliveira, the Tabriz team had been playing defensive after Seymourian’s disqualification, not least because the coach was told by representatives of Iran’s Football Federation during the game that the results of parallel matches meant that even a draw would suffice for Tractor Sazi to win the championship. “We were tricked,” Oliveira later complained to Iranian journalists. In fact, according to numerous testimonies, mobile communication in the stadium was disrupted during the last minutes of the match. On the 87th minute of the match, TV, radio, and cell phones all suddenly blacked out, leaving the Tractor Sazi coach, fans, and players with no information regarding the results of other ongoing games. Several observers within and outside Iran considered the scale of such interference by authorities unprecedented. Tractor had earlier beaten the Tehran-based Esteghlal FC by 4:1 and a win against Naft Tehran would have brought Tractor the first ever title in the Persian Gulf Pro League, breaking the hegemony of football clubs from Tehran and Isfahan. 

IMPLICATIONS: Nationalism is growing among Iranian Azeris, the Islamic theocracy’s largest ethno-linguistic community (see the 06/14/06; 10/27/10; and 10/05/11 issues of the CACI Analyst). While on the rise since the early 1990s and particularly during the last decade, what started as an emancipatory movement aimed at establishing education in Azeri Turkish throughout Iran’s predominantly Azeri northwest gradually transformed into a relatively strong nationalist movement, now approaching calls for separatism and irredentism. The recent developments have tainted the established image of Iranian Azeris as a perfectly integrated community known for its political apathy. However, due to the strong religious identity prevailing in Iranian Azerbaijan’s rural areas, the long-standing tradition of Iranian statehood, and state-supported persianization coupled with the dominance of Persian nationalism, ethnic nationalism is yet to become a decisive ideological force among the twenty million Iranian Azeris.

Yet those publicly supporting Azeri nationalism risk penalization at the hands of Iranian security forces, known for their brutality and impunity, which has reportedly included extrajudicial executions, severe torture, and sexual abuse. Consequently, while an increasingly large part of Iranian Azeris, particularly secular youth in urban areas, have come to support the ideas of ethnic nationalism, territorial autonomy, and ethno-linguistic emancipation, many have refrained from public protests in order to avoid persecution. Organized dissent in Iran is almost non-existent. Spontaneous mass gatherings have instead been triggered by ecological concerns, as in the case of the dramatic drying out of the Urmiye Lake, considered the jewel of Iranian Azerbaijan; expressions of anti-Azeri bias in the public sphere, as in the case of the 2006 cartoon crisis; and increasingly by sports nationalism, as in the case of Iranian Azerbaijan’s most successful and popular football club, deemed by many to represent the flagship of Azeri nationalism.

In fact, in the last 10-15 years, Tractor Sazi FC has become a channel of Iranian Azeri nationalism and an important subculture in its own right. Iranian authorities have so far been reluctant to ban mass gatherings of football fans – due to the immense popularity of this sport in Iran. Therefore, nationalistically-minded Iranian Azeris (as well as representatives of Iran's other ethnic minorities, for instance Khozestani Arabs) have considered Tractor’s matches an occasion to express their growing frustration with what they perceive as state injustice against their ethnic community. Over time, Tractor’s fans, self-identifying as “red wolves” with reference to the totemic animal of the Turkic peoples, have come to routinely use Turkish and Azerbaijani flags, symbols, and chants during the matches and on other occasions.

Naturally, Iran’s security services are concerned by this development. According to Iranian Azeri sources both in the region and in the diaspora communities, the security services have in recent years successfully infiltrated the ranks of Tractor Sazi’s hardcore fans, keeping a watchful eye on their activities. Yet due to the movement’s massive character, only large scale arrests could decisively change the makeup of the football club’s hardcore fans, an option that Tehran has so far avoided. However, tensions have risen considerably between the Iranian Azeri supporters of the legendary Tebriz club and the predominantly Persian supporters of major clubs from Tehran and Isfahan. During the matches, racist insults are common. Instances of physical clashes between Azeri and Persian supporters have also been on the rise, with authorities outside the Azeri provinces usually backing the Persian fans. Tractor Sazi fans have even acquired a reputation across Iran as fighters who travel with their club to specifically engage in clashes with the competition. Iranian authorities have frequently accused Tractor’s fans of separatism and other “deviations,” with dozens of fans subjected to interrogation and hundreds to surveillance.

CONCLUSIONS: As expressions of public protest in Iran are risky and organized dissent is nearly absent, sports nationalism has come to dominate the country’s ethno-nationalist discourse particularly in the formerly lethargic predominantly Azeri-populated northwest. In recent years, Tractor Sazi has come to embody the increasingly nationalist mindset and emancipatory aspirations of Iran’s largest ethno-linguistic minority. Among Iran’s ethnic minorities and beyond, many have been fascinated by the resolve and fervor of the Tebriz fans who, apart from adopting ethnopolitical slogans, have introduced the “European” way of backing their team in Iran. The recent and unprecedented interference of Iranian authorities in the football match attested to the extent of Tehran’s concern over the politicization of sports in the country, while also contributing to this politicization. The rise of Tractor Sazi has fuelled suspicion among many Iranians of the disloyalty of the country’s Azeri minority – and its sympathies with Caucasian Azeris and Anatolian Turks – with some Iranians increasingly considering the Azeris a “fifth column.” In turn, part of Iran’s Azeri minority – particularly secular urban youth – whose relationship with their Persian counterparts has been deteriorating, has become sensitive to the display of anti-Azeri sentiments or pro-Persian attitudes by Iranian authorities. This has reinforced ethnic cleavages in Iranian society.

While Iranian authorities have so far refrained from banning mass gatherings of football fans, they have grown increasingly concerned over the scope of support that the East Azerbaijani football club is receiving in the country’s Azeri-populated provinces and beyond. Yet large-scale persecution of Tractor Sazi’s supporters would most likely backfire given the football club’s symbolic power, which has come to represent an entire region and its people. A more vocal and self-confident ethnic minority – a political nation in the making – is emerging in the Islamic Republic, a novel reality that Iranian authorities should take into consideration.  

AUTHOR’S BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic (https://cuni.academia.edu/EmilSouleimanov). He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev

Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Boris Ajeganov

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