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Iranian Azerbaijan: A Brewing Hotspot  

 

Presentation to Symposium on “Human Rights and Ethnicity in Iran”, November 22, 

2004, organized by the Moderate (conservative) party, Swedish Parliament, Stockholm. 

 
 

Svante Cornell

*

 

 

 

 

Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani community is seldom in the news, but is gradually becoming 
an increasingly important factor in the domestic politics of Iran as well as in the 
regional politics of the so-called Northern Tier of the Middle East, where Iran meets 
the South Caucasus and Turkey. Both domestic political developments in the Islamic 
Republic and the larger environment surrounding the region are contributing to 
making the Azerbaijani community in Iran a potential hotspot. This paper proposes 
to present the major factors at play that make the issue of Iranian Azerbaijan a 
transnational issue worthy of international attention. In so doing, it studies the 
domestic, regional and international aspects of the issue. 

The Development of Iranian Azerbaijan in the Past Decade 

The area inhabited by Azerbaijani Turks in fact lies not only in what is today the 
republic of Azerbaijan, but in large tracts of northern Iran. Indeed, the term 
‘Azerbaijan’ was the designation of a geographical area on both sides of the river 
Araxes long before, in the twentieth century, it became the ethnonym of a distinct 
self-conscious people, referred to variously as the Azeris, Azerbaijanis, or Azerbaijani 
Turks. Estimates vary regarding the distribution of the Azerbaijanis, but it is beyond 
doubt that Azerbaijanis in Iran form at least twice the number that exist in the 
independent state of Azerbaijan. Estimates close to the Iranian government mention 
a number of 15 million; nationalist Azerbaijani sources talk of close to 30 million. 
The real number is likely somewhere between these two. The figure of 20 million 

                                                 

*

 Dr. Svante E. Cornell is Executive Director of Cornell Caspian Consulting, LLC. He is also 

Research Director of the Silk Road Studies Program, Uppsala University, and Deputy Director, 

Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. He is Editor of the 

Central 

Asia-Caucasus Analyst

 (http://www.cacianalyst.org) 

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often mentioned in the literature is certainly no exaggeration, and the Azerbaijanis are 
by far the largest minority in Iran, followed by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Baluchis. 
They are also considered the most well-integrated minority in the country, given their 
long attachment to Iran and the Shi’a factor common with the Persian population. 
Conventional wisdom indeed stresses the strength of their Iranian identity, and the 
weakness of their ethnic Turkic or Azerbaijani identity. To a certain extent, this is 
true, considering the fact that the representation of ethnic Azeris in the economy, 
Ulema, and to a lesser extent the political spheres in Iran is high.  

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a native of the Khameneh city of 
the West Azerbaijan province, and is known to be half-Azerbaijani, and to speak 
Azeri. This illustrates the fact that much like the Kurds in Turkey, Azeris in Iran are 
not hampered by their ethnic origin, as long as they assume and integrate into the 
language and culture of the majority population. Large parts of the Tehran Bazaar is 
in Azerbaijani hands, and Azerbaijanis are numerous in the high ranks of the armed 
forces. The strength of Iranian identity among Azerbaijanis is derived from the fact 
that the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran from the early 16

th 

century, was Azerbaijani 

in origin – visitors to Baku will find Shah Ismail Khatai, the founder of the Safavid 
dynasty, as an important element of republican Azerbaijani identity. 

This said, recent studies have reevaluated the conventional neglect of the distinct 
identity of the Azerbaijanis in Iran.

1

 

These studies point to a recurrent political 

expression of distinct Azerbaijani identity throughout the post-World War II era in 
Iran. During the revolution, the strong following of the ethnic Azeri Ayatollah 
Shari’at Madari in Tabriz and other parts of Iranian Azerbaijan has been considered 
to be linked to a perception among Azerbaijanis of Shari’at Madari as a representative 
of the interests of the Azerbaijanis.

2

 

It is reasonably clear that a separate and distinct 

Azerbaijani identity has been growing among the citizens of north-western Iran. 
Whereas hardly representing an immediate threat to the regime in 1991, the size, and 

                                                 

1

 Nasib Nassibli, 

Iranda Azérbaycan Mésélési

¸Baku: Ay-Ulduz Néshriyatí, 1997; Nassibli, ‘The 

Azerbaijan Question in Iran: A Crucial Question for Iran’s Future’, 

Caspian Crossroads

, Winter 

1998; Alireza Ashgarzadeh, 

The Rise and Fall of South Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1945-46): A 

Look at Hegemony, Racism, and Center-Periphery Relations in Contemporary Iran

, Paper presented at a 

seminar on Race and Racism, University of Toronto, December 1999. 

2

 Brenda Shaffer, “The formation of Azerbaijani Collective Identity in Iran”, 

Nationalities Papers

¸ 

vol. 28 no. 3., 2000, pp. 449-478. 

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economic as well as strategic significance of the Azerbaijani minority was certainly an 
issue Iran treated with utmost caution. In this context, the emergence of an 
independent Azerbaijani state in 1991 could not have been greeted with anything but 
dismay in the ruling circles in Iran. Whether irredentism would grow strong there or 
not, the very existence of Azerbaijani statehood was  set to act as a magnet for 
significant numbers of Azerbaijanis in the South, and would in the long term ensure 
that distinct Azerbaijani identity in Iran would not wither away, but quite to the 
contrary, gradually increase. To be added to this, the nascent Azerbaijani republic was 
endowed with relatively large oil resources for a comparatively small population, and 
thus had the potential of acquiring significant wealth, whereas Iran has been in a state 
of economic decay due to war, a stagnant economy – and, significantly, U.S.-imposed 
economic sanctions and international ostracism. Hence much in the same way that 
Turkey has made it a foreign policy priority to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish 
state in Northern Iraq, Iran would have preferred the continuation of the pattern 
established with the 1828 Turkmanchai treaty which confirmed the Russian conquest 
of substantial Azeri-populated areas. 

As the war over Karabakh escalated, Iran was domestically torn in devising a policy. 
Religious and ethnic Azerbaijani forces advocated support to the brethren in 
Azerbaijan against the Armenian infidel.

 

Meanwhile, the foreign policy establishment 

saw the weakening of the republic of Azerbaijan as concomitant to Iranian national 
interest, and therefore pursued a policy of tacit support for Armenia in the conflict. 
Whereas Iranian vacillation and hesitation in the first years of the 1990s can be 
ascribed to these internal divisions, the general direction of Tehran’s policy soon 
became clear. With the exception of instances where it became necessary to restore a 
balance by preventing Armenia from turning the region into chaos (since too much 
suffering and chaos in Azerbaijan would risk arousing Iranian public opinion) Tehran 
used the conflict to pressure Baku. Iran served as Armenia’s main purveyor of 
electricity and goods, and after the Armenian conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, 
Iranian trucks have been supplying most of the secessionist enclave’s needs. The 
decisive factor tilting Tehran towards Yerevan was nevertheless the policies of the 
Popular Front government in Baku, which ruled Azerbaijan from mid-1992 until June 
1993. Led by President Abulfaz Elçibey, 

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the Popular Front government oriented Azerbaijan toward Turkey and the west, and 
gradually developed a vehemently anti-Russian and anti-Iranian policy. Elçibey 
himself was a convinced secularist, despised Iran’s theocracy and openly criticized 
Iran’s denial of cultural rights to the Azerbaijani minority. Worse, Elçibey before 
ascending to the presidency spoke of Iran as a ‘doomed state’, and openly flouted the 
idea of reunification of Azerbaijan. In a sense, Elçibey and his nationalist policies was 
precisely the Azerbaijani government of Tehran’s worst fears, and pushed Iran 
further toward Armenia. Indeed, Iranian economic support played an important role 
in keeping Armenia alive at a time of economic embargo from Turkey, and of course, 
the severing of trade links with Azerbaijan. Should Iran have sided with Azerbaijan 
and joined the joint embargo on Armenia, the latter would have had to rely only on 
supplies through Georgia.  

After Elçibey’s overthrow and Heydar Aliyev’s arrival to the presidency, relations 
improved somewhat, but only on the surface. While refraining from nationalist 
rhetoric, Aliyev mainly pursued  and refined the foreign policy inaugurated by the 
Popular Front, and tension with Iran has remained. Whereas the Iranian-Armenian 
cooperation has blossomed in political, economic, scientific and cultural spheres, 
Baku repeatedly blames Tehran for supporting Armenia against it.

 

Aliyev has 

personally voiced the offense felt by Azerbaijanis over Iran's close ties with Armenia.

 

As recently as in March 2001, President Aliyev walked out of a meeting with an 
Iranian minister after the latter informed of Iran’s plans to restore a bridge over the 
Araxes between Iran and Armenian occupied territories in Azerbaijan.

3

 

Iranian Political Changes and the Azerbaijani Question 

The collective identity of the population of Azerbaijan has undergone significant 
changes since the early 1990s, and the Iranian government’s response has oscillated 
between repression and conciliation. To begin with, as noted above, the emergence of 
an independent state of Azerbaijan and the dissolution of the Soviet Union enabled 
contacts across the Araxes river to develop at much greater speed than before. This 
led to the spread of cultural and family linkages. Yet trade relations between 

                                                 

3

 ‘Iranian Diplomat’s Stance Makes Azeri President Interrupt Meeting’, ANS TV, Baku, 29 

March 2001. 

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Azerbaijan and Iran remain limited. A second factor has been equally, if not more 
important: that the population of Northern Iran has come into much closer contact 
with Turkey partly through trade and even more through the effect of Turkish 
satellite television. Iran’s theocratic regime ensures that the state TV programming is 
of little interest to its population, and furthermore, it is broadcast in Persian. Hence 
the Azeri population of northern Iran has gravitated toward Turkish culture, given 
the very limited differences between the Turkish and Azerbaijani dialects. In fact, as 
in the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Azeri language itself has in Iran been subjected to 
change: a number of Turkish conjugations, words and expressions have entered the 
language, most clearly in regions of Iran bordering Turkey.  

Exposure to Turkish culture has also affected the self-perception of the Iranian 
Azerbaijanis. Formerly, the dominance of Persian culture and its pejorative attitude 
towards Turkic culture had an effect of socializing many Azerbaijanis into the Persian 
culture, perceived as the ‘high culture’ in Iran. Contact with Turkey has nevertheless 
shown the far greater level of social and economic development of Turkey compared 
to Iran, and has boosted a sense of ethnic pride and identity – in many ways erasing 
the feeling of cultural inferiority that the Persian elite had long sought to impose 
upon the ethnic minorities of Iran.  

The political repercussions of these developments in identity have nevertheless 
remained limited. A National Liberation Movement of South Azerbaijan has been 
created, though its political strength appears limited and its political following is 
unclear. Azerbaijani nationalism in Iran has remained relatively poorly organized, 
partly as a result of Iranian repression. However, an important impediment to its 
development has been a lack of consensus on the goals. The politically motivated 
Azeris are torn between those desiring mainly increased rights within the Iranian 
state; those seeking political autonomy within Iran; those seeking the creation of an 
independent state; those seeking unification with the Republic of Azerbaijan; and 
those seeking a confederation embracing Turkey and both Northern and Southern 
Azerbaijan. 

The increase in political expression of Azerbaijani nationalism is nevertheless 
unmistakable. The number of violent protests against the Iranian state, and violent 
repression of the same protests, have increased since the late 1990s. In January 2000, 

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Iranian forces opened fire on a demonstration in Tabriz.

4

 A commemoration of a 

historical Azeri hero with 8,000 participants was broken up by Iranian authorities in 
August 2002.

5

 Tabriz University has been a focal point of the organization of the 

protests, including a large protest movement in the Summer of 2003.

6

 Following 

these demonstrations, the Iranian government cracked down on student as well as 
nationalist organizations. A 19-year old Azeri girl was executed by Iranian authorities 
in July 2003 for her role in the protests.

7

 

Members of the NLMSA are regularly arrested, imprisoned, and occasionally put to 
death. The non-violent leader of the Azerbaijani community, Dr. Mahmudali 
Chehregani, was repeatedly prevented from standing for election to parliament. He 
was arrested, denied medical treatment, and suffered torture resulting in partial 
paralysis.

8

 Dr. Chehregani now lives in the United States, having managed to leave 

Iran in 2002. In 2002, the UN Commission on Human Rights noted human rights 
violations against the Azerbaijani minority in Iran.

9

 Azeri newspapers are, as is the 

case for oppositional media in Tehran and elsewhere, repeatedly closed down.

10

  

A change in political atmosphere has nevertheless taken place in the country, in 
parallel with the successive liberalization of Iranian society that took place in the late 
1990s under the Khatami regime. This included the easing of restrictions on music 
and societal activities, and also benefited the Azeri minority. Hence while the 
government continued to harshly repress any political expressions of Azerbaijani 
identity, it sought to liberalize cultural rights to simultaneously remove some of the 
popular base of the protests. A larger number of Azeri language press, courses, and 

                                                 

4

 “Azeri TV says Iranian police opened fire during rally in Tabriz”, 

BBC Summary of World 

Broadcasts

, 10 January 2000.  

5

 “Ethnic Azeri in Iran Gets Prison Sentence Following March to Fort - Azeri Paper”, 

BBC 

Monitoring International Reports

, 25 August 2002.

 

6

 “Recent Unrest in Iran Shows Iranian Azerbaijan is Awakening, Azeri Paper”, 

BBC Monitoring 

International Report

, 5 July 2003; “Iran Aims to Prevent Ethnic Azeri Politicians from Influencing 

Protests”, 

BBC Monitoring International Reports

, 25 June 2003.

 

7

 “Ethnic Azeri Student Leader Killed in Iran – Paper”, 

BBC Monitoring International Reports

, 22 

July 2002.

 

8

 “Tehran cracks Down on Azerbaijanis of Iran”, 

RFE/RL Iran Report

, December 1999. 

9

 “UN Rapporteur Points to Serious Rights Abuses of Azeris In Iran - Azeri Report”, 

BBC 

Monitoring International Reports

, 17 April 2002. 

10

 “Head Of Banned Tabriz Weekly Appeals Against Sentence - Azeri Report”, 

BBC Monitoring 

International Reports

, 19 April 2002; 

Yeni Musavat

, 3 April 2003. 

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academic programs were allowed.

11

 This policy does nevertheless not seem to have 

taken the edge of the rising levels of Azerbaijani nationalism. In fact, it may have 
contributed to raising the potential of an increase in political activity, reminiscent of 
the effects of Perestroika and Glasnost’ during the late Soviet period. In the late 
1990s, the Azerbaijani question was still in many respects a taboo in Tehran.

12

 Any 

expression of Azeri ethnic identity could risk labeling as separatism, and Azeri-
speaking Iranian government officials would (except in private) tell visiting foreigners 
that they had learnt the language in Turkey – in spite of the obvious fact that they 
spoke in the Azeri dialect and not in the Turkish one.

13

 By 2003, the situation had 

nevertheless changed. Azeri was spoken freely even by government officials to one 
another; and political activity including scholarly writing on ethnic issues in Iran was 
tolerated. While it is difficult to determine whether this liberalization has worked as a 
safety valve, the perception of continuing discrimination in the political, economic 
and cultural fields by the Azeri minority continues to be palpable. It may very well be 
that the liberalization has served to galvanize the nationalist movements in the 
country. 

The overtly manipulated parliamentary elections to Iran’s parliament in February 
2003 are unlikely to improve the situation. Quite to the contrary, the effort to 
marginalize and exclude the reformist forces in society from decision-making 
authorities signals an intention on the part of the hardliner forces to reverse the 
uneasy ‘cohabitation’ between a hardliner spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, and a 
reformist President, Mohammad Khatami. The hardliner forces, partly due to their 
perception of Iran’s geopolitical situation, are seemingly intending to assert a greater 
degree of control over the state apparatus. This will in all likelihood remove the 
perception by reformists that they had a possibility to affect the country’s politics by 
participating in the existing institutions. This feeling has already faded due to 
Khatami’s inability to accomplish meaningful change and the utter lack of power in 
the institution of the presidency. Indeed, Iran had been characterized as the only 
country in the world where the President is also the leader of the opposition. 

                                                 

11

 Interviews, Tehran, December 2003. 

12

 Experience from discussions in Iran in April 1998. 

13

 Author’s discussions with Iranian officials, 1998. 

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What consequence this has for the Azerbaijani minority is unclear. It could mean a 
joining of forces of all reformist groups irrespective of ethnicity, depending on the 
relations between ethnic Azerbaijani activists and the rest of the Iranian opposition. 
In all likelihood, it is also likely to worsen the standoff between the Azeri nationalist 
movements in Tabriz and elsewhere and the government. This is borne out by the 
fact that the apparently largest demonstrations in many years took place in Tabriz in 
summer 2004. Azeri sources reported several hundred thousand people participating 
in the rally, which was kept under control by over 40,000 Iranian police.

14

 Even more 

recently, protests over the continued rejection of instruction in the Azeri language in 
schools led to protests and clashes in September 2004, with several people injured as 
a result and a dozen arrested.

15

 The risk is apparent that an increasing hardliner 

control over Iranian state institutions will lead to larger repression and eventually to a 
deepening of the polarization of the population on an ethnic basis.  

The Regional Aspect 

The developments taking place in Iran occur against the backdrop of a rapidly 
changing regional environment. The most dramatic example is the feeling of isolation 
and American encirclement that the Iranian regime is perceiving since Operation 
Enduring Freedom and the subsequent Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

The direct impact of Operation Enduring Freedom was positive for Iran: it removed 
a vehemently anti-Iranian and anti-Shia government from neighboring Afghanistan. 
In fact, Iran and the Taliban had had a tense standoff on their common border in 
1998, after the Taliban conquered Mazar-i-Sharif, leading to the killing of several 
Iranian diplomats. Neighboring the Taliban was also a mantra in Iranian expressions 
of the precariousness of their geographic location; Iranian representatives illustrated 
this feeling of vulnerability by arguing that they were ‘sandwiched between the 
Taliban and Saddam Hussein’. In this sense, OEF removed a government that was 
also, on an ideological as well as practical level, a threat to Iran. This was true also 
with the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq eighteen months later. In 

                                                 

14

 “Paper Reports High Turnout in Azeri March in Iran”, 

BBC Monitoring International Report

, 4 

July 2004 

15

 “Five Injured, 10 Arrested as Ethnic Azeris Clash with Police in Iran – TV”, 

BBC Monitoring 

International Report

, 26 September 2004. 

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both conflicts, Iran showed an ambivalent position, expressing the fact that Tehran 
had little problem with the overthrow of either the Taliban of Saddam Hussein. 
However, Iran worried much about what would come afterwards. In particular, Iran 
was worried of the results of American presence on its doorstep. Having been 
included in the ‘Axis of Evil’ by President George W. Bush, Iran increasingly felt a 
direct threat of American military action against it that has only increased after U.S. 
operations in Iraq and the ensuing soaring debate about Iran’s nuclear program. 
Secondly, Tehran worried about the impact of the unrest and instability that would 
result if American intervention did not stabilize these countries – fears that continue 
to this day, especially in Iraq. 

On the whole, the perceived impact of the two American operation on the Islamic 
Republic has been a negative one, in the form of an acute feeling of encirclement. 
Prior to OEF, the American military was by no means far from Iranian shores or 
borders. The U.S. Navy was omnipresent in the Persian Gulf; America also had 
military installations in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Meanwhile, Turkey was a 
NATO country with a U.S. air base on the Mediterranean. But the U.S. military was 
not a factor to the East or North of Iran. OEF changed this. Afghanistan became a 
de facto American protectorate; Pakistan hosted several, though minor, American 
troops, including in the province of Baluchistan neighboring Iran; Uzbekistan and 
Kyrgyzstan became areas of permanent U.S. bases; in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan saw 
increased American military assistance while U.S. training forces were deployed in 
Georgia. With Operation Iraqi Freedom, the encirclement of Iran was completed: 
American forces now effectively surrounded the Islamic Republic. 

This new situation is the one under which Tehran operates, and in which Iranian 
policy in Central Asia is being formulated. Consequently, Tehran has followed a 
policy that is best described as a combination of defensive caution and limited 
containment of the United States on its borders. Iran has strengthened its close 
relationship with Russia, which has meant the enlisting of Russian diplomatic support 
for Iran and crucially important nuclear technology and other weaponry – which is 
partly of Russian origin.

16

 This Moscow link has gained increasing importance in 

                                                 

16

 Robert E. Freedman, “Russian-Iranian Relations in the 1990s”, 

Middle East Review of 

International Affairs

, Vol. 4 no. 2, June 2000. 

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Tehran as the regime is apparently frantically seeking to achieve nuclear weapons 
capability, feeling that only such capability would give it a measure of security in an 
increasingly hostile environment. The cost of this policy has however been in the 
realm of Iranian policy in the former Soviet sphere. Indeed, it seems to be an 
unwritten rule that Iran’s role in the Caucasus and Central Asia is circumscribed by a 
deference to Russian domination. In other words, Iran’s policy seldom interferes with 
or contradicts Russian policy in these regions. Its policy of supporting Armenia and 
counteracting the development of a strong and wealthy Azerbaijan lies in tandem 
with Moscow’s interests, though for clearly different reasons: Moscow seeks to 
dominate the South Caucasus and secure a monopoly over energy resources there, 
while Iran is mainly afraid of the possible effect of a wealthy and American-allied 
Azerbaijan on its sizable and increasingly restive Azeri population. Increasingly close 
relations between Baku and Washington, however, have aggravated tensions between 
Iran and Azerbaijan. In fact, rumors in Summer 2003 – predictably emerging from 
the Russian media – that Azerbaijan would be used as a launching pad for an 
American invasion of Iran and that Baku had already consented to this – led to thinly 
veiled Iranian threats of military action and violations of Azerbaijani air space by 
Iranian jets. Again in 2004, persistent rumors of an impending American military base 
in Azerbaijan have revitalized Iranian pressure on Azerbaijan, especially after U.S. 
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Baku twice in the past year.

17

 

Iranian Azerbaijan and Regional Geopolitics 

The combination of internal and external developments leaves Iranian Azerbaijan in a 
precarious situation. Several factors contribute to worsening the situation. On the 
external front, the Azerbaijani republic’s close relations with the U.S., Iran’s 
increasingly harsh attitude toward Azerbaijan, and Tehran’s determined quest for 
nuclear capability all point toward increasing tensions. On the internal front, this is 
compounded by the strengthening hardliner control over the Iranian state, as well as 
increasing discord and a cycle of protests and violent repression in Iranian 
Azerbaijan. These array of factors make Iranian Azerbaijan a most central weakness 
of the Iranian state, especially given the significant population of the region.  

                                                 

17

 Fariz Ismailzade, “Azerbaijan Under Iranian and  Russian Pressure on Relations To U.S.”, 

Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst

, 3 November 2004. 

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11 

The Iranian Azerbaijani community is not yet strongly politically organized. 
Suspicions have been voiced that the United States may provide support, either 
overtly or covertly, for Iranian Azerbaijani organizations, allegations of which 
increased after Dr. Chehregani was received in Washington. At present, there is 
nevertheless no indication that such support is being considered.  However, the 
impending standoff over Iran’s quest for nuclear capability is a source of concern for 
the stability of the region. The hopes that existed in 2001 for an improvement of 
U.S.-Iranian relations presently seem very distant. Indeed, with the election cycle in 
Washington over, confrontation between the U.S. and Iran over the nuclear issue is 
likely to deepen with the possibility of a military strike on Iranian nuclear installations 
not to be discounted. Moreover, the discussions on Iraq’s future have a direct bearing 
on Iran. A federalization of Iraq into Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish areas would pose a 
precedent for ethnic communities in Iran, not least the Kurds, but also the Azeris.  

There is no direct link between the U.S.-Iranian confrontation and the Azerbaijani 
question in Iran. However, it just so happens that developments inside Iran and the 
changes in the regional environment result in the simultaneous worsening of both 
situations. The feeling of encirclement of Iran’s ruling regime has already led to a 
worsening of the cycle of internal protest and repression, which has been 
concentrated in the Azerbaijani areas of Iran. It does not seem far-fetched to assume 
that the Iranian leadership fears external meddling in its ethnic relations, and could 
see the increasingly close U.S. military interest in the South Caucasus as related to its 
internal unrest. This will in turn likely exacerbate the counter-productive repressive 
policies of the Iranian government in Iranian Azerbaijan. In this sense, the internal 
developments in Iran, especially as they concern the Azerbaijani community, cannot 
be dissociated from the regional politics of Iran’s neighborhood – despite the fact 
that the troubles in Iranian Azerbaijan are entirely homegrown. Azeri nationalists 
have so far received precious little support from either Turkey, Azerbaijan or the 
United States, limited to fringe nationalist groups in the two former countries and a 
part of the neo-conservative faction in the latter.  

It should nevertheless be clear that the development of the Azerbaijani question is of 
paramount importance to Iran’s security, and therefore an increasingly important 
factor in the regional security of the Middle East as well as the Caucasus. The Iranian 

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12 

government’s own policies currently serve to worsen the prospects of defusing the 
brewing crisis in its northwestern provinces, instead fueling a spiral of violence. 
Iranian Azerbaijan is therefore in the process of becoming an potential zone of 
conflict, with potentially disastrous consequences for regional security. Protracted 
unrest or conflict in Iranian Azerbaijan would make it very difficult for either 
Azerbaijan or Turkey to remain on the sidelines; and with the current unrest in Iraq, 
the last thing that the region needs is internal unrest in Iran. 

Conclusions 

The developments in Iranian Azerbaijan are regularly overshadowed by other, more 
acute, developments in the region. Yet the processes taking place there do not bode 
well for the future. The Iranian government is pursuing policies that exacerbate 
tensions between itself and the Azerbaijani community. Given the volatility of the 
wider region, the risk of conflict in Iranian Azerbaijan cannot be discounted, 
although it is by no means unavoidable. The recent strengthening of hardliner forces 
in Iran is therefore a clear threat to the country’s internal stability, which is worsened 
by Iran’s persistence in seeking nuclear weapons capabilities.  

While there is time, it is important for the international community to seek to defuse 
tensions in Iranian Azerbaijan. The road toward this goal goes squarely through Iran’s 
liberalization and democratization. Increasing international support for democratic 
forces in Iran and greater attention to the repressive policies of the Iranian regime are 
therefore crucial elements of policy that European countries should follow. 
Unfortunately, the increasing siege mentality in the Iranian leadership makes it 
doubtful whether international efforts will have much impact on the regime in 
Tehran. In this case, the possibility exists that the issue of Iranian Azerbaijan will one 
day be a much more prominent item in the news than it is today.