(October 1, 2020 / JNS) Azerbaijanis (“Azeris”) are Turks who speak a language that is almost completely intelligible to Turks in Turkey. But, unlike the rest of the Turkish/Turkic world, which is Sunni, Iranian Azeris are Shi’ite. This Sunni-Shi’ite divide is crucial.
Independent Azerbaijan (I.A.), the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan located along Iran’s northwestern border, has always been a problem for Iran. Three-quarters of the total Azeri population in the world live in northwest Iran, just across the border from I.A., and in the area stretching eastward all the way to and including Tehran.
About 80 percent of Tehran’s population either speaks Azeri or is of Azeri origin, even if many no longer speak the language. And though there are no reliable figures on Iran’s religious and ethnic make-up, the high number of Iranians who personally identify as Azeris suggests that the largest ethnic group in Iran could very well be Azeri.
That is why Iran always feared that if an independent Azeri state were created, it might attract Iran’s Azeris to join them, and thereby dismember Iran.
But Azeris in Iran have historically done everything they could to prove that they were really Iranians. Thus, for example, in the early 20th century, they created modern Persian (later called Iranian) nationalism.
They claimed that they were originally Persian-speaking and descended from the ancient Iranian Medes and Parthians. To “prove” their claim, they concocted a theory that they were forced to abandon Persian and switch to Azeri Turkish by a Central Asian Turkish tyrant who conquered Iran in 1401.
Why did these Azeris make such an argument that had no historical basis? Because, as true Persians, they were among the most important Iranian peoples who stopped speaking Persian against their will.
During the last years of the Soviet Union, most Soviet Azeri intellectuals believed they would eventually create their own country and that the Azeris living in Iran would clamor to join them.
But that was not the case. Iranian Azeris bluntly told the Soviet Azeris, “Yes, we are Azeri, but we are Iranian and wanted to remain part of Iran.”
That shocked the Soviet Azeris, who had hoped to create a large Azeri state encompassing both Soviet Azerbaijan and large parts of northwestern and central Iran.
These Iranian Azeris told the Soviet Azeris that all Azeris were originally Persians, and that these former Soviet Azeris should therefore also join Iran. From an Iranian Azeri point of view, why would they as “pure Persians” want to separate from Iran, which was their ancient homeland?
Moreover, if the former Soviet Azeris joined Iran, Iranian Azeris—already most likely the largest ethnic group in Iran—could possibly gain more political leverage in that country.
In this context, if an independent Azerbaijan did not join Iran, it would always constitute a threat to the territorial integrity of Iran. This is why Iran established relations with Azerbaijan’s arch enemy, (Christian) Armenia, and has supplied it with whatever aid it could. It is also why Iran’s enemies—in this case, mainly Israel, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabis, and Turkey (for different reasons described below)—are (Shi’ite) Azerbaijan’s natural allies.
Many international actors have a stake in the outcome of the Armenian-Azeri conflict. But the situation is so complicated, because what we in the West would think were natural alliances (i.e. Shi’ites on one side, Sunnis on another and non-Muslims supporting the non-Muslim Armenians) are non-existent.
Russia supports Armenia. Russia and Turkey are enemies in Syria. Was the recent Azeri-Armenian eruption an attempt to draw an even larger wedge between Russia and (Sunni) Turkey, which, as explained below, strongly supports (Shi’ite) Azerbaijan?
(Hindu) India also supports Armenia, in part because Turkey is training radical Indian Muslim clerics in Turkey, and sending them back to India to fan the flames of Hindi-Muslim latent tensions. India’s implacable enemy—Muslim Pakistan—also has serious problems with Iran, because Iran foments unrest among Pakistan’s Shi’ites, who make up 20 percent of Pakistan’s population.
(Sunni) Pakistan supports (Shi’ite) Azerbaijan, in part because of its historically close emotional ties with Turkey—since Pakistan’s upper class is largely of Central Asian Turkic origin. So, given Pakistan’s problems with Iran and India, it naturally supports Azerbaijan.
The Armenian-Azeri conflict spells trouble for Israel. Israel wants no part of a conflict with Christian Armenia. But Azerbaijan is a close ally of Israel’s, because of the Iranian threat to both. Israel also supplies Azerbaijan with weapons that it hopes won’t be used against Armenia.
(Shi’ite) Iran supports (Christian) Armenia, largely—as explained above—because Iran sees Azerbaijan as an existential threat to Iran’s territorial integrity.
Turkey and Israel oddly find themselves on the same side in this conflict, with both supporting Azerbaijan. But in the long term, the militant fundamentalist Sunni Turkey that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is creating is much more dangerous to Israel even than Iran.
Turkey also has an emotional bond with Azerbaijan, while hating Armenia and Armenians. Israel, of course, does not share that hatred.
Some observers have asked whether Iran might have provoked the Armenians to attack the Azeris. If so, did Iran do so to distract/preoccupy America and its allies from turning up the heat against Iran even more severely? On the other hand, will Iranian Azeris—so passionately Iranian, yet still Azeri—remain silent as Armenians kill their fellow Azeris across the border?
Iran is looking for every opportunity to distract its population from the catastrophic situation it faces. Foreign conflicts between Iranians and others, in the past, have succeeded in doing so.
But is this a foreign conflict, or will it provoke in Iranian Azeris a feeling of solidarity with their Azeri co-ethnics across the border in I.A.? And if so, does it make Iranian Azeris even more angry with their government for supporting Azerbaijan’s enemy, Armenia? Will there be demonstrations in Tabriz, the largest, almost totally Azeri city in northwestern Iran?
Could these demonstrations turn into riots? Could these riots get out of hand? Could we hear chants against the government for supporting Armenia, which is killing their Azeri co-ethnics across the border? Iran has been very good at suppressing demonstrations. Given the nature of how easily demonstrations turn into riots, however, it is impossible to predict what might happen.
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Islamic history and later served as an Advisor on Islamic Culture for 28 years in the Office of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.
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