Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Minority Rights of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Minority Rights of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran

Article excerpt


Since its establishment, the Islamic Republic of Iran has faced criticism for its repeated human rights violations. Despite its poor human rights record, however, Iran's position in the Middle East has made it a major player in international politics. Iran is a multiethnic country, with different ethnic groups and minorities throughout the country.

The rivalry over the control of the Azerbaijani territories and over hegemony both in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea led to two major wars between Russia and Iran, which were concluded with the Treaties of Gulistan (October 12, 1813) and Turkmenchay (February 10, 1828). The massive region of "Southern Azerbaijan" in northwest Iran, which encompasses six provinces-East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardebil, Zanjan, Qazvin, and Hamadan-became known as such after Azerbaijan was officially split into two parts (north and south) by the Russian Empire and Iran following the second Russo-Persian war. Southern Azerbaijan has since become a significant province of Iran. "Despite their separation under fundamentally different political and cultural systems... for over 150 years," Southern and Northern Azerbaijanis continue to share a common ethnic identity.1

Precise estimates of the Azerbaijani population in Iran are unknown. Some researchers estimate that more than half of Iran's population is Persian while the others claim Persians make up less than 50 percent. Nonetheless, Azerbaijani activists and political groups believe Azerbaijanis are the largest ethnic group in Iran and that their numbers in the country are underestimated. According to Azerbaijani student groups in Tehran, 27 million Azerbaijanis live in the Islamic Republic, 2 with the majority of Azerbaijani Turks concentrated in the northwestern part of Iran. They are also the predominant population in several provinces, including in East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Ardabil Province.

Pressure from the Iranian authorities also forced large communities of Iranian (or Southern) Azerbaijanis to emigrate. Many left to the Republic of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia, European Union countries, and the United States. Some eight million Iranian Azerbaijanis live outside Southern Azerbaijan, over a million of whom are considered political immigrants residing in Europe or America. Some have also left the Azerbaijani provinces for other Iranian provinces, such as Tehran. Some estimates claim the population of Tehran to be made up of between 25 percent to a third of Azerbaijani immigrants and their first or second generation offspring.3

Based on these estimates, some 25 million Azerbaijani Turks live in Iranian or Southern Azerbaijan, making them the largest ethnic group in the country. Despite their size, however, the rights of Azerbaijani Turks, including minority, cultural, and linguistic rights, as well as their national identity, have been violated by the Iranian authorities. In order to limit their expansion and control their population growth in the country, the Iranian central government has implemented an assimilation policy. This article will focus on the outcome of demonstrations by the Azeri minority throughout the 1990s and the 2000s against the central government in Iran.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Northern Azerbaijan's restored independence, Azerbaijani national identity grew stronger. This historical event also influenced Iran's Azerbaijani Turks and encouraged them to push for independence in the South. From the mid-1990s, the Azerbaijani Turkish population held several peaceful demonstrations demanding ethnic and cultural rights and protesting the Iranian government's discriminatory policies. Such demonstrations were held in Tabriz, Urmia, and many other Azerbaijani cities. Their main demands were official permission to use their mother tongue and recognition of their national identity as "Azerbaijani Turks. …

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