Iran’s Neutrality Under Strain As Ethnic And Religious Sympathy Builds For Azerbaijan
By Maryam Sinaee
Iran’s foreign policy makers continue to stress Tehran’s neutrality in the war that broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia on Sunday over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But elements in the country’s Shiite clerical establishment, including representatives of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and pan-Turkic groups in Iran’s Azari-speaking north-western regions are increasing their backing for Azerbaijan.
Iran has urged its two neighbors to agree a ceasefire and offered to mediate. But the Iranian authorities face a challenge of simultaneously assuring Shiite Muslim clerics that that Iran is not backing Christian Armenia against Shiite Azerbaijan and, at the same time, resisting separatist sentiments in Iran’s northwest where feelings are rising among the ethnic Azari who make up the majority of the population.
Turkic-speakers in Iran generally call themselves ‘Turki’ and are often called ‘Azari’ internationally. Their language shares grammar and vocabulary with Turkish and has a still closer affinity with the Turkic language spoken in Azerbaijan.
On Wednesday Iranian President Hassan Rouhani telephoned his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, while his Chief of Staff Ali Vaezi spoke to Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev to underline “the necessity of stopping the fighting and resolving the dispute within the framework of international regulations.” Rouhani also warned against “foreign involvement,” presumably referring to Turkey, the United States and Israel, which all have friendly relations with Azerbaijan.
Iran’s foreign policy apparatus calibrates its moves over the several-decade-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh on the basis of Tehran’s regional rivalry with the Republic of Azerbaijan, which it considers a US ally, the challenge of pan-Turkish separatism in Iran’s northwest, as well as Iran’s relations with Russia, which supports Armenia against Azerbaijan.
But finding a balance has become harder as fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has continued. On Thursday [October 1], representatives of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Iran’s north-western provinces, where ethnic Azari are a majority, issued a statement calling Azerbaijan’s move to retake Nagorno-Karabakh “absolutely legal, sanctioned by [the Islamic Sharia], and [aimed] towards the implementation of four UN Security Councils.”
The signatories - including Khamenei's representatives in East and West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan provinces - underlined that they were duty-bound to support and defend “the oppressed” as dictated by Quranic teachings and their Islamic revolutionary beliefs.
On the other hand, clerics who represent Khamenei strictly follow the regime’s political line, so it is entirely possible that they cleared their statement with higher authorities or even perhaps received encouragement from them.
Calling Azerbaijani casualties in the war “martyrs,” the statement highlighted Iran’s consistent support for the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan. “The occupation of Azerbaijan [by Armenia] would have extended to Baku [the Azerbaijani capital] if it weren’t for the support of the Islamic Republic when Karabakh was first occupied,” they said, referring to Armenia’s intervention in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Supporting Islam against Christianity and defending Shiism are the main drivers of Iran’s clerical establishment’s sympathy with the Republic of Azerbaijan. For the clerics, ethnic and linguistic links between Iranian Azari and Azerbaijanis are largely irrelevant.
But Turkic nationalist sentiments in Iran’s north-western regions are based not on strong religious affinities but on ethnic and linguistic identification with other Turkish-speaking peoples, including Azerbaijanis. While Azerbaijanis are mainly Shia, other ‘Turks’, including those in Turkey, are mostly Sunni.
Separatist groups, who call Iran’s north-western regions ‘South Azerbaijan,’ launched strong media and social media campaigns in support of the Republic of Azerbaijan as soon as the fighting broke out on Sunday [September 27].
Araz News, website of the Azerbaijan National Resistance Organization (ANRO), an exiled separatist group of Iranian Azari, published on Wednesday a statement by “a number of nationalist activists of South Azerbaijan” urging Iran’s Azaris to march in support of “North Azerbaijan” in several cities on Thursday [October 1] afternoon. They demanded that Iran renounce Armenia as an occupier and offer active support to Azerbaijan by cutting transit routes to Armenia through Iran.
Separatist groups advocate a Turkish homeland with Turkish-speaking peoples of the region under one banner. Iran’s Shia establishment and the government of the Islamic Republic have always strongly opposed such sentiments and suppressed separatists.
The media of the Republic of Azerbaijan and websites of Iranian Azeri groups have accused Iran of assisting Armenia and allowing Russia to transit military equipment to Armenia through Iran. Iranian officials, including Chief of Staff Ali Vaezi, have vehemently denied this.
According to the CIA World Factbook, 16 percent of the Iranian population speak Azeri Turkish with an additional 2 percent who speak other Turkic languages such as Turkmen and Qashqai. Azari is the predominant first language in the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan – an area that is also home to Kurds, Persians and other groups and where Farsi is the lingua franca as in the rest of Iran.