Ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, who dominate the northwest quadrant of that country and by some estimates make up a quarter to nearly half of the overall population, have been energized by Azerbaijan’s military advances into Armenian-occupied Karabakh. They are holding rallies throughout northwestern Iran and even in Tehran, burning trucks thought to be carrying Russian military cargo to Armenia, demanding that the Armenian-Iranian border be closed, collecting money to support the Azerbaijani army, and insisting, “We are not on the side of Azerbaijan: We are Azerbaijanis.” (Turantoday.com, September 29, October 15; Amerikaninsesi.org, October 14).
The reaction of Iranian Azerbaijanis to Baku’s battlefield successes has both short-term and long-term consequences. On the one hand, it helps to explain the Iranian position on the current conflict—Tehran backs Moscow’s call for an immediate and effective ceasefire. But on the other hand, it raises the likelihood of new restrictions on Iran’s Azerbaijani population. In the short term, this increased ethnic mobilization has sparked concern in Tehran that if the Republic of Azerbaijan is too triumphant in its military campaign, that will create domestic problems for Iran, including more demands for Azerbaijani autonomy within the Islamic Republic (Valdaiclub.com, October 9; see EDM, October 21)—something the central government only grudgingly and minimally extended over the last several years. In a more extreme case, further victories in Karabakh by Baku’s forces, might lead to new demands by Azerbaijanis in Iran for secession and union with Azerbaijan north of the Aras River.
That latter fear—one of Tehran’s worst nightmares and which some in the West have occasionally suggested could be exploited against the Iranian government—has intensified over the last few weeks because of certain declarations made at Azerbaijani gatherings in multiple Iranian cities. “Today,” speakers at these rallies have said, “Southern Azerbaijan [that is, the ethnic-Azerbaijani-populated districts of northwestern Iran] has yet again shown its unity with the North [Republic of Azerbaijan].” And that unity reflects not just small groups of Azerbaijani intellectuals but enormous numbers of ordinary people who see their future as one with the Republic of Azerbaijan rather than with the Islamic Republic of Iran (Vk.com/turkunsesi, accessed October 22).
Azerbaijan proper has a long history of activist support for what it calls Southern Azerbaijan, activism that reflects the fact that, according to some estimates, there may be at least three times as many ethnic Azerbaijanis south of the border than north. Moreover, for most of the last millennium, both regions, now split by the Aras, were part of a series of single unified states. The present-day political division dates back to the Russian advance into the Caucasus two centuries ago (Kavpolit.com, September 13, 2014; see EDM, September 29, 2006). Yet Azerbaijani state officials have heretofore been cautious about showing support for those seeking to once more unite all Azerbaijanis into a single country.
Three reasons explain that hesitancy in Baku: First, many Azerbaijanis in Iran remain linguistically and culturally Azerbaijani but are well integrated into their country of residence and entirely loyal Iranians. In fact, many of the leaders of the Iranian Republic have had ethnic-Azerbaijani backgrounds and speak Azerbaijani fluently. Second, Iran has sometimes used its Azerbaijanis as agents against the Republic of Azerbaijan (Windowoneurasia.blogspot.com, October 9, 2007). And third, any interest in Baku in expanding Azerbaijan’s borders to the south would put the country on a collision course not only with Tehran but Moscow as well. That is because Azerbaijan’s borders with the Russian Federation remain a neuralgic problem (Kavkasky Uzel, June 21, 2018).
All that said, an even more important reason raises doubts about the basis for Tehran’s internal fears of its Azerbaijani minority or about the ability of any outsider to exploit them. In the past, it has been Moscow rather than Baku that has sought to play the Southern Azerbaijan card. Notably, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin occupied northern Iran during World War II and in the fall of 1945 even established a “People’s Republic of Azerbaijan” on this territory in the hopes of retaining it. Only threats by the United States, reportedly involving nuclear weapons, ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Iran and for its puppet Azerbaijani entity to collapse (David Nissman, The Soviet Union and Iranian Azerbaijan: The Use of Nationalism for Political Penetration, Boulder, 1987). Today, Moscow has no interest in exacerbating this issue because it would doom any possible cooperation between Russia and Iran and make it far more difficult for the Kremlin to provide support for Armenia or to put pressure on Azerbaijan.
In the coming weeks, Azerbaijan almost certainly will avoid any appeals to its ethnic brethren south of the Aras River, and Tehran is likely to continue to call for a ceasefire in Karabakh and use its police powers to limit the response of Iranian Azerbaijanis to any military advances by the Republic of Azerbaijan. But the enthusiasm of Iran’s Azerbaijani community to Baku’s successful campaign may prove beyond the capacity of either government to fully control. Last week (October 17), after Azerbaijani forces retook the land adjoining the Khudeferin Bridges spanning the Aras, Azerbaijani-Iranian crowds were every bit as excited as those north of the riverine border and equally welcoming of the Azerbaijani army (Turantoday.com, October 17). Moreover, the Azerbaijanis of Iran have never forgotten their links across the river because Azerbaijanis who want to travel overland between Azerbaijan proper and Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan have to go by bus through northern Iran. By the same token, the Azerbaijanis of Azerbaijan have not forgotten that it was the destruction of border controls between the two republics at the end of the Cold War that helped power the independence movement in Soviet Azerbaijan.