Iranian Stance against the Nagorno-Karabakh Issue
Iran’s vague approach towards the occupation of Karabakh stems from a number of reasons. First is the “Greater Azerbaijan” factor. As a successor to an empire, Iran claims rights, to varying degrees, over many of its neighbors through “Cultural and Historical Iran” concepts. However, this notion is two-sided since a copious amount of various ethnic groups inhabiting the country feel affinity to their cognates abroad. Regarding the Caucasus, since Iran has both historical and cultural ties with Caucasian countries, Iran does not perceive its Georgian and Armenian origin population as a threat, although the Azerbaijani case has some particularities. Despite no official figure, the statements of some officials, personal observations, and estimates based on recent anecdotes clearly reveal that there are around thirty million Azerbaijani Turks in Iran. This shows that the ethnically Turkish population residing in the country is three times the population of the current Azerbaijan Republic. Moreover, the emotional and identity ties between these two groups have been distinctly demonstrated during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through some Iranian activists’ slogan “We do not support Azerbaijan, we are Azerbaijan”.
Iran has survived several crises in the face of separatist movements in the modern era. Once again, the state was on alert upon some Azerbaijani leaders’ statements against Iran’s integrity after Azerbaijan gained independence following the collapse of the USSR. Although in the last thirty years Iran's official position has remained unchanged, ethnic nationalists within the country have started to gain a different, dynamic status. Following the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring, regional Kurdish nationalism has significantly increased within Iran, with local and international support. This dynamism became apparent with anti-Turkey demonstrations on the one hand, and on the other, acts from different terrorist organizations in the northwest of Iran have turned into a direct security threat. Iran responded to the rising Kurdish nationalism through military means and sought to protect itself politically by directing Kurdish nationalism to ulterior goals. In this regard, notwithstanding the armed Kurdish militia’s ongoing actions of more than a decade, the issue is considered taboo in the Iranian press and the public opinion. For example, expressions such as “armed bandits, marauders” are used by the press while reporting these incidents, whereas the political dimension of the issue or the terrorists’ identity is utterly ignored. Nevertheless, the fact that the majority of the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives are of Turkish origin fuels local anger, which manifests itself in a number of ways, especially during funeral ceremonies. In recent years, it is observed that at such demonstrations people chant, in Turkish, “Şehitler ölmez, vatan bölünmez” meaning “Martyrs do not die, homeland indivisible”. Moreover, Turkish activists continuously question why the Iranian soldiers who lost their lives or the raids on military stations are disregarded with merely two lines of news while Turkey’s Afrin operations constitute the country’s first item on the agenda.
Presently, it is obvious that the Azerbaijani government has learned from its past mistakes. Baku is cautious not to directly confront Tehran even though a pro-Armenian attitude is evident both among the dissidents living abroad and the influential Persian nationalists within Iran. As a matter of fact, numerous officials, particularly President Ilham Aliyev, emphasize that they have a positive view of Iran's attitude during this process and endeavor to use a discourse that will mitigate Iran’s concerns about foreign fighters and Israel’s effectiveness. Furthermore, it was eye-catching that Aliyev, who sent a congratulatory message after the rescue of Zengilan, also commended Iran. The Aliyev government follows a constructive strategy to not push Russia and Iran into an alliance against itself.
Another area of change is the rise of ethnic minorities, in particular Turkish nationalism in Iran. The Turkish population defines itself as a central power due to its strong historical affiliations and because it constitutes Iran’s largest ethnic group. Therefore, this group’s mobilization is significant. While this segment has generally been ignored by the domestic and international mainstream media, in recent weeks it has succeeded to attract attention with its actions. Whereas the demands of this group are mostly complimented by the Iranian clergy, important channels outside the country also broadcast in Azerbaijani Turkish and nationally oppositional figures such as Shirin Ebadi place more emphasis on their Turkish roots; a trend expected to continue in the upcoming period. Unlike the Kurds or Balochs, for centuries, Azerbaijani groups have seen themselves as a main constituent population of the country and have played a determining role in two major milestones, i.e., the Constitutional Revolution and the Islamic Revolution. However, they consider that they have been subjected to discrimination including the right to learn the mother tongue – enshrined in the constitution but not used de facto – and a fair distribution of the country’s resources. Yet, while facing international and economic pressures, the Tehran government must also effectively manage this delicate process in the near future.
This article is first published in 24.10.2020 at Sabah.