The Iranian Azerbaijani people are an ethnic Turkic minority group, which constitutes close to a third of Iran’s population
At the beginning of 2023, the Iranian regime believed that mass protests in the northern provinces of the country inhabited by 25-30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis were practically suppressed. But the events of recent weeks in the northern city of Tabriz have shown that the situation is completely different and an old terrible threat looms again over Tehran’s regime.
Southern, or Iranian Azerbaijan is a historical region in northwestern Iran that borders Iraq, Turkey, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Iranian Azerbaijan includes three northwestern Iranian provinces: West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan and Ardabil. The Iranian Azerbaijani people are an ethnic Turkic minority group, which constitutes close to a third of Iran’s population.
The Iranian government has long discriminated against this minority and marginalized it. This stems from the idea that Southern Azerbaijanis pose a threat to national unity and security. They are deprived of what is considered basic human rights: they cannot teach their children in their native tongue, or register Azeri names for their kids, and the Iranian government invests very little in improving their living conditions.
Suppressing the protests in 2022 has stricken Iranian Azerbaijanis harshly, as they were one of the major groups (together with other minorities) who took to the streets. Basij militia (created specifically to suppress minorities) and Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) literally invaded their cities, arresting and beating thousands of demonstrators.
One of the main problems of the protest movement of the Iranian Azerbaijanis was the total lack of coordination. There are at least eight major movements with different agendas, ranging from demands to grant cultural autonomy to independence. Some of them see future Southern Azerbaijan as an Azeri clone of Iran, others wish for a westernized state, resembling Turkey and Azerbaijan.
But recently everything changed: in Tabriz, the historical and cultural center of the Southern Azerbaijanis, all the organizations joined forces. National Liberation Front of South Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan National Resistance Organization, Azerbaijan student movement, South Azerbaijan Independence Party, Democratic Turkic Union of South Azerbaijan, Democratic Party of South Azerbaijan, Liberal Democratic Party of South Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan Center Party are leading a joint effort—a different kind of protest, which is much harder to suppress.
The city’s major locations, governmental buildings and even the buildings of IRGC are being plastered with leaflets carrying the logos of these movements and a flag of Independent Southern Azerbaijan. Videos of the posters and leaflets of different quality and size are circulating the local social networks. Another activity is a flash mob: hundreds of people are taking pictures with the leaflets covering their faces in front of the recognizable buildings in Tabriz. These joint actions are organized by Telegram channel Gunay AZfront, which is publishing those videos and pictures.
These actions oddly coincide with other events. For example, Tabriz was covered with leaflets calling for independence before the visits of Raisi and Khamenei to the city for the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. The same happened during the explosions at the centrifuge manufacturing facility in the city of Karaj in northern Iran.
IRGC and other security services are still unable to catch any activists involved in these actions, though patrols were doubled. One of the videos published by the Southern Azerbaijani activists shows one of the “perpetrators” filming the leaflets and then passing unnoticed along the IRGC bus full of officers.
State media tries to ignore these actions, but the reports of such agencies as Fars talk vaguely about some “Zionist controlled media sources” that are trying to “provoke” the citizens of Tabriz. IRGC, failing to catch the supporters of the pro-independence movement, suspended the activity of the Center for Azerbaijani Studies operating at the University of Tabriz. Its members were subjected to pressure, threats and interrogations both inside and outside the university.
Why is this less public protest seen as a major threat? Because Tabriz has a very symbolic value. For the last 120 years, three notable revolts took place there: in 1908, 1920 and in 1978. The last one, on February 18th, 1978 against the Shah, started the Islamic revolution. Secession of Tabriz as a capital of Southern Azerbaijan is perceived in Tehran as a catalyst for the fall of the regime.
Is this scenario possible? It all rests upon the support the independence movement receives from abroad. It is not the first time that the issue of secession arises, but it is the first time that the local organizations join forces.