Apartheid unseen: human rights abuses of Azerbaijanis in Iran prt.1

By | Rachel Brooks

January 17, 2021

Image credit: “File:Mozaffariyeh, Grand Bazzar of Tabriz, IRAN.jpg” by Navid Alizadeh Sadighi is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Iranian regime has a long history of violating human rights of its citizens, domestically and abroad. Within Iran’s borders, the largest minority are the Azerbaijanis. The Azerbaijani people are the target of consistent punishments by the regime. 

Ahmed Obali, the founder of GunAz.tv, who has been called by some the “Walter Cronkite of Azerbaijani” gave context and background for the human rights abuses of Azerbaijanis in Iran. 

“Iran is a multiethnic country,”said Obali, noting that the population of Persians and Azerbaijanis in Iran are almost equal halves, with a little over 30 million Persians and a little over 30 million Azerbaijanis populating the nation.

With ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Arabs likewise present, Persians are not the ethnic majority of Iran. However, all previous census data is unreliable or has been destroyed due to the politicization of race in Iran, which seeks to control its population in a Persian apartheid. Obali stated that an academic study is being conducted to prove that Persians are not the predominant majority of Iran, and that Iran’s multi ethnicities populate specific provinces of Iran. 

“Ethnicity was not important in the beginning,” said Obali, noting that the discrimination against Azerbaijanis in Iran started with the push of ruling class to pressure for Islamic theological control of the area. 

However, Obali noted that ethnicity is now of primary importance, as at one time in Iran’s history, Azerbaijanis and Turkic Iranians had a major influence over the politics and culture of the region. Iranian Azerbaijanis typically populate the northern region of Iran near Tabriz, which is directly south of the Azerbaijani republic’s border, and has thus earned them the nickname South Azerbaijanis.  

“Until the 1920s, the Azerbaijani-Turkic people ruled Iran for over a 1000 years until 1925 when Reza Pahlavi came to power than the Persians took over.” Obali noted, 

“Yet the Persians have dominated. They have sought a policy of one nation, one culture, and one language.”

Obali briefly described the history of Iran, which formerly had its political capital in Tabriz. The Azerbaijani influence over Tabriz was a hub of politics and culture in Iranian society. He described the rule of Azerbaijanis in Iran before the Persian prominence. 

Safavids were Azerbaijanis from the City of Ardabil that ruled Iran from 1501 to 1722. They moved the capital from Tabriz to Qazvin then to Isfahan.

 Another Turkic dynasty, the Qajar dynasty, came to power in late 18th century that moved the capital to Tehran.

When Persians began to take control over Iran in the 1920s, they became scared of the Turkic influence. This was an early impetus of the targeting of Azerbaijanis in society. 

“In 1980, there was an uprising of Azerbaijanis in Tabriz. The Azerbaijani did not want to add the Supreme Leader into the Iranian constitution, but rather simply wanted a Republic. Hundreds were executed in the streets,” said Obali. 

Obali noted that in such discrimination, all basic human rights, not just cultural rights, but also economic and political were affected. This dealt Azerbaijanis a heavy blow. Yet, when the Azerbaijani republic reclaimed its sovereignty from the Soviet Union, things improved somewhat.

“Azerbaijani started to reorganize themselves once the Republic of Azerbaijan became independent of the Soviet Union in 1992,” said Obali. 

Obali then noted that a student uprising in May of 1995 defined the moment where the two major ethnicities of Iran truly became combative against each other. The Azerbaijanis of the country and the Persians launched two separate student movements in Tehran and Tabriz, as there was a sort of social division between them. 

Despite this fact, Obali noted that Azerbaijani uprisings and demonstrations are typically civil and nonviolent. 

“The government actually doesn’t like this because they then have no excuse to execute. They want the Azerbaijanis to take up arms like the Kurds or Arabs have done because then they can kill them,”Obali noted. 

“They can only incarcerate them because they have no believable excuse to kill.”

Obali also stated that Iran could not pin false flag acts of violence on Azerbaijanis because no social groups would believe that the Azerbaijanis would state violent uprising, as this is not typical behavior. 

“Attempts to pin false flag terrorism on Azerbaijanis did not work because no one would buy them.”

Obali stated that a major driver for discrimination against Azerbaijanis in Iran comes from direct cultural suppression, which encompasses all aspects of life. The ruling class must keep Azerbaijani in check to enforce the policy of one Persian-dominate culture and language.

He stated that there are more than 100 Azerbaijani prisoners at the moment. Still hundreds have served jail times and have been released to date, yet more than 100 are still in prison.

“Abbas Lesani is serving a 15 years term for advocating education in mother language,” he added, recalling a most troubling case.

Ahmad Hashemi, an independent journalist with GunAz.tv, likewise added context for the cause of Iranian targeting of Azerbaijanis. Hashemi stated that the abuse of human rights across the board in Iran is ethnically, religiously, and gender motivated. The major ethnic group of Iran is Persian, and the Azerbaijanis are predominantly Turkic in their ethnic background. For this reason, they fall under the category of ethnically-motivated persecution by the regime. 

The problem is that in spite of what Iranian regime claims, one of its foundations and pillars is Persian chauvinism. The regime in Iran claims that it is not a nationalist system; it is only an Islamist regime and all the Muslim ethnicities are equal,’ said Hashemi. 

“However, the fact of the matter is that the regime in Iran is both Islamist and ultranationalist (Persian chauvinist). Therefore, the system in Iran is an apartheid regime on three levels.”

Hashemi then went into detail regarding each of the three specific categories he listed as major drivers of Iranian abuse of Azerbaijani. He began by describing the ethnic motivation. He described the ethnic abuses as an apartheid. 

“Non-Persian ethnicities are considered second class citizens. The Constitution imposes Persian language, traditions and literature to all other ethnicities and other languages are banned in the education system and generally in the press,” said Hashemi. 

He then stated then described religious discrimination within the nation as a religious apartheid. 

“Only Shiite Muslims enjoy full citizenship. Non-Muslims and Non-Shiite Muslims are not considered equal citizens and, in the Constitution, populations such as Jews, Christians, and Sunnis are barred from occupying high positions within the government,” said Hashemi. 

He also described how gender is controlled under an apartheid regime, where women are not considered citizens. 

“Gender apartheid comes through constriction, as women are not equal to men, in terms of their personal status including, marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.” 

Under this umbrella, Azerbaijani citizens fall into primarily the ethnic category of abuse, for demanding the rights to their ethnic heritage. 

“Therefore, Azerbaijanis fall into the first category of this discriminatory system (Ethnic Apartheid) and because they are not Persian, they cannot receive education in their mother tongue, they cannot have a nationwide TV channel, and they cannot have a nationally distributed newspaper,” said Hashemi. 

“Even though, together with other Turkic people in Iran, Azerbaijanis make up about half the population and despite the lack of ethnic surveys and statistics, it would not be an exaggeration to call Turkic-speaking people in Iran as an ethnic group that constitutes the relative majority in Iran but their language is banned in the education system and dozens and even hundreds of  Azerbaijani civil rights activists who advocate for the mother tongue education are being incarcerated in Iranian prisons.”

He then went on to describe why Azerbaijanis are frequently punished. 

“They are so frequently punished by the regime because they challenge the Persian-Chauvinist nationalism. Iranian nationalism (chauvinism) considers Persians superior ethnicity and Azerbaijani language and culture inferior. This is a matter of anger and resentment by Azerbaijanis who want to be treated as equal citizens,” said Hashemi. 


Continued in part 2…