On September 2, a small demonstration took place in front of the Iranian embassy in Baku. The event, organized by the Baku branch of the World Azerbaijani Congress, focused on the ecological problems of Urmiyya Lake in Iran and the related demonstrations by thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis, taking place in various Iranian cities (www.1news.az, September 2). Police quickly dispersed the crowd and the embassy officials did not comment on the event. Yet, it is noteworthy that the protest action was the second in the last week, focusing on this particular issue and sending a message of support to the ethnic Azerbaijanis who have been persecuted by the Iranian authorities over the last several weeks.
Protest actions by ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran started in late August. People were demanding urgent measures by the government to save the Urmiyya Lake (the third largest salt lake in the world and a special UNESCO biological reserve), which has dried up by 70 percent as a result of the construction of dams, bridges and irrigation canals (www.day.az, September 1). Police and security forces responded fiercely and some 60 protestors have been arrested so far. Demonstrators, although focusing on the ecological issue, nevertheless used the ethnic card, often chanting in the protest rallies: “Long live Azerbaijan, death to those who don’t want it.”
This issue might further aggravate the already strained relations between Azerbaijan and Iran. In the past few weeks, bilateral relations between these two neighbors have worsened after the chief of the joint forces of the Iranian military Brigadier-General Seyid Hasan Firuzabadi accused Azerbaijan on August 11 of conducting anti-Islamic policy (Echo Newspaper, August 12). The brigadier-general referred to the suppression of Islamic groups in Azerbaijan and has warned that if this policy does not change, “the future of the country will be dark” (www.news.ru, August 11). This is not the first time Firuzabadi has made such statements, as in June 2009, prior to the visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres to Baku; he made similar warnings towards the Azerbaijani political establishment.
Official Baku has responded harshly. The foreign ministry sent a protest note to the Iranian government calling such remarks by an official person “irresponsible, directed towards Azerbaijani people and state, national interests and security and going against the friendship and mutual understanding between the two states” (www.day.az, August 11). The Foreign Ministry’s Press Secretary, Elkhan Polukhov, added that Azerbaijan would not allow anyone to interfere in its domestic affairs. Meanwhile, the head of the Azerbaijani border service, Lieutenant-General Elchin Guliyev described such remarks as a “contradictory ultimatum by a person who has exceeded his official responsibilities and going against the official policy of his own state, ….attempting to draw attention by such shallow, illiterate and unprofessional statements” (APA News, August 11).
Public organizations and political parties have similarly expressed anger over this statement. Executive Secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Member of Parliament Ali Ahmadov said, “We are sorry to hear this irresponsible statement… we would like to believe that this is his personal opinion and does not express the position of the Iranian state” (APA News, August 12). And the popular news site 1news.az published a satirical op-ed, “reminding Firuzabadi that 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis live in Iran” and then went on to list ethnic Azerbaijani dynasties ruling Iran for many centuries.
Seeing the harsh reaction from Baku, the Iranian Mehr news agency, which originally published the statement, deleted it from its official website. Moreover, the press office of the Iranian embassy in Baku has denied that such remarks were made (www.1news.az, August 11). Meanwhile, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani who recently visited Azerbaijan responded by saying “Iranian officials should be careful while making political remarks vis-à-vis our Muslim neighbors” (www.day.az August 12).
Azerbaijan traditionally abstains from aggravating relations with Iran and interfering in its domestic affairs. The latest round of demonstrations by ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran is likely to receive very little support from official Baku. Yet, when it comes to its own domestic affairs, the Azerbaijani government uses very assertive language against Iran and its other neighbors. This is clearly a sign of the growing power of the small Caucasian state and its increased confidence in its own importance in the region.