More than 600 representatives of Azerbaijani diaspora organizations in 49 countries assembled in Baku on March 16 for the second World Azerbaijani Congress. The event was organized by the State Committee on the Affairs of Azerbaijanis Living Abroad, which was established in 2003 by a decree from then-President Heydar Aliyev to help unite all Azerbaijanis abroad.
The event was grandiose both in scale and impact. The goal of showing the unity of millions of Azerbaijanis around the world for the sake of an independent, strong, and prosperous Azerbaijan was achieved. The Congress discussed issues regarding coordination among the Azerbaijani diaspora organizations, strengthening relations with other nations’ diaspora organizations, promoting information about Azerbaijan around the world, and building relations with foreign governments.
As a result of the Congress’ work, a new strategy was developed regarding the activities of the Azerbaijani diaspora in other countries and the joint activities of the Azerbaijani and Turkish diaspora organizations. Moreover, Congress participants adopted a resolution addressed to Azerbaijanis around the world, foreign governments, and international organizations regarding Armenian aggression toward Azerbaijan.
Yet, the Congress made news not so much for its work, but for a row that erupted between Azerbaijan and Iran after the Congress. The Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Afshar Suleymani, reacted very angrily and emotionally to the speeches given at the World Azerbaijani Congress by some representatives of Azerbaijani diaspora organizations in Europe. These delegates called for the unification of North Azerbaijan (the independent Republic of Azerbaijan) and South Azerbaijan (in northern Iran, populated by Azerbaijanis and considered by Azerbaijanis as part of a once-unified Azerbaijani state). The speech by Javad Derekhti, an Azerbaijani from the Iranian Azerbaijan, was particularly provocative, because he talked about human rights violations suffered by ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran (Trend News Agency, March 16).
The Treaty of Turkmanchai in 1828, which ended the three-decade Russian-Iranian War eventually divided Azerbaijan into two parts along the banks of the Araz River. It is estimated that more than 25 million ethnic Azerbaijanis currently live in Iran, but they have no rights to be educated in their native language and any attempts to organize movements for cultural autonomy are strongly repressed by the authorities in Tehran. Iran is extremely touchy about this issue and has kept its distance from official Baku for most of the 1990s exactly because of the issue of Azerbaijani separatism in Iran.
Suleymani tore into these speeches in a press release from the Iranian embassy on March 17. “Iran is deeply upset about the participation of some anti-Iranian elements in the Congress and their provocative statements on the issues of Iran’s domestic affairs,” it read. “The Embassy considers these steps to contradict the friendly relations between the brotherly nations and those commitments taken by the Azerbaijani government in the treaty of 2002, sighed in Tehran. The Embassy is very surprised about the references at the Congress to the Turkmanchai Treaty of 1828 and mentioning Azerbaijan as a divided country.”
The Iranian Foreign Ministry also sent a protest note to the Azerbaijani ambassador in Iran. The row intensified after remarks by the Iranian ambassador regarding Azerbaijani poets Nizami and Shahriyar, whom he called “Iranian poets.” This caused an immediate protest from the Azerbaijani Writers Union, saying, “The Union deeply regrets and is surprised that the ambassador made such remarks and demands an immediate end to such uneducated discoveries” (APA News Agency, March 24).
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted to the Iranian ambassador’s complaints by asking him to calm his emotions. Speaking at a press conference the next day, Tahir Tagi-zadeh, the head of the informational department of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “The speeches made at the World Azerbaijani Congress by representative of the public organizations are their personal opinions. The emotional speeches of the ambassadors might spoil the cooperation based on the principles of friendship and good neighborliness” (day.az, March 17).
Nazim Ibrahimov, head of the State Committee on the Affairs of Azerbaijanis Living Abroad, also downplayed the significance of speeches, saying they were private opinions of Congress participants. “The State Committee has functioned for three years already, and we have never interfered in the internal issues of Iran” he explained (AzTV, March 20).
The issue continues to be a hot topic of discussion in the local press, with a majority of Azerbaijani politicians and intelligentsia condemning the actions of the Iranian ambassador and calling for a renewed discussion of the human rights situation of Azerbaijanis in Iran. Yet some diplomats and experts in the country believe that the Iranian ambassador’s remarks were intentionally aggressive, meant to scare off the United States from using the ethnic card to weaken the regime in Tehran.