Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Puzzle of a Loyal Minority: Why Do Azeris Support the Iranian State?

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Puzzle of a Loyal Minority: Why Do Azeris Support the Iranian State?

Article excerpt

Ever since its inception, the state of Iran has been pressed with the challenge of integrating the multiple ethnic identities that make up its plural society. In contrast to a number of other minorities like the Kurds and the Baluchis, the Azeris have shown loyalty to the Iranian state to the surprise of foreign scholars and policy makers. They have done so even in spite of a number of potentially favorable political and economic conditions that could support the realization of national aspirations. This article addresses this puzzle: why, against seemingly favorable odds, have Iranian Azeris refrained from asserting their national ambitions and joining their newly independent kin north of the border? In an attempt to solve this puzzle, the paper will examine the triadic relationship among the Azeri minority in Iran, their home state (Iran), and their kin state (the Republic of Azerbaijan).

The Islamic Republic of Iran is ethnically diverse. For centuries, Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchs, Turkmen, and other ethno-linguistic groups have been living alongside one another. Successive Iranian governments have always coped with this multi-ethnic society. Since there is no official data on the size of the ethno-linguistic groups, scholars have to rely on their own estimates and numbers provided by local non-governmental organizations and international relief agencies: Persian 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7% (Indo-European family, Iranic branch), Baluch 2%, Lur 2%, Turkmen 2% (Turkic family), Arab 3% (Semitic family), and others (mainly Armenians and Georgians) 1%.1 Despite their different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the majority of these Iranian ethnic groups are native to Iran. While many Iranians also identify with specific religious, linguistic, or tribal groups, there is a pervasive idea that the inhabitants of the Iranian low-lands have a common, unique Persian heritage. In contrast to the diversity of its ethnic landscape, Iran is relatively homogenous in terms of religion: 90% of the population is Shi'i. Overlapping identi ties within Iran have posed political challenges to the regimes in the past. The country's Azeri and Kurdish populations have frequently agitated for more cultural freedom and a greater degree of local autonomy from Tehran. These two ethnic groups also have a geographically consolidated critical mass in neighboring states. Yet, one ethnic group has dominated the various minorities of Iran for centuries: ethnic Azeris.

The Azeris differ from the majority Iranians in that they do not speak Persian. Rather, they speak Azeri (also known as Azeri-Turkic), a dialect of slightly Persianified Turkish. In reality, the most important aspect that creates binding commonalities is the Shi'a Islamic tradition that most Iranians share, and which does not extend far into the Caucases. The demographic potential of the Iranian Azeris attracts the attention of policymakers in Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv. The Azeri provinces have the highest number of industrial and trading facilities outside of Tehran. Although the area represents the Iranian bridge to Europe, with major transportation routes and large-scale energy projects, no pecuniary value can be credited to Iranian Azerbaijan. The significance of the Azeris to the rest of Iran is even more conspicuous when looking back at its controversial history. There are over 35 million Azeris in the world, of which around 15 million are believed to be living in Iran, around 8 million in the Republic of Azerbaijan, close to 2 million in Turkey, and about 2 million in Russia.2 In The Ancient History of Iranian Turks, Professor M.T. Zehtabi has argued that current Azeris descended from the ancient inhabitants of western Iran and the Caucasus.3 Historically, three different ethnic components have participated in the formation and the evolution of Azeri people: the Medes, who were mainly concentrated in southern Azerbaijan; the Aran-Albanese, who were living in the north; and the Turks, who lived in various parts of Azerbaijan. …

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