Major cities in northern Iran – most of which have an ethnic Azeri and Kurdish majority – have seen a massive surge in the number of daily anti-government demonstrations since early March.
In cities across the north of Iran, including Tabriz, Ardebil, Zendjan, Qazvin and Julfa, all which are mostly populated by Azeris – have become major centers of the most recent scenes of unrest. Large groups of mostly students and teachers took to the streets to protest the alleged security services-backed mass poisoning of schoolgirls across the country. With more details trickling in about the poisonings, they appear to have deliberately targeted female students in over 200 educational facilities.
Much of the public’s rage is aimed squarely at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who have done nothing to stop or investigate any of the cases. This has led many in Iran to also point the finger at the ruling clerics, most of whom have a history dating back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution of using brutal tactics to intimidate young women who speak out about the regime’s systemic and constant violation women’s rights.
Northern Iran and its Azeri majority, has recorded the highest number of poisonings since rights groups began tracking them in early March. The region is one of Iran’s poorest and underdeveloped in terms of medical services.
Social assistance programs for the provinces where Azeris live are few and far between; far less than in any other region of the country.
The regime in Tehran has long discriminated against the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. The Azeris are a non-Farsi-speaking Turkic ethnic group that lives mainly in Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran. They are predominantly Shias, like their ethnic Persian counterparts, but have suffered under the Islamic Republic’s suppression of non-Persians.
Not dissimilar to the oppressive conditions that the Kurds live under, the country’s theocratic rulers prohibit Azeri names being given to newborn babies and severely restrict the community from using the Azeri language in the media, literature, art, cinema and education.
Activists who want the rights of the Azeri minority protected are actively persecuted and imprisoned by the Revolutionary Guard Corps. A recent case involved a prominent ethnic Azeri activist, Alireza Farshi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her role in promoting the use of Azeri – a language closely related to Turkish – for distributing books encouraging young people to learn and speak their native language.
Rulers accused of robbing Azeri community of its livelihood.
Lake Urmia, a large salt lake southwest of northern Iran’s main city Tabriz – a major urban area of 1.6 million people, where the majority of the population are ethnic Azeris – is deliberately being drained without the local population ever having been consulted. This has caused an immediate drop in agricultural production and a major spike in poverty and malnutrition amongst the area’s population.
Such a blatant disregard for the well-being of one of the Islamic Republic’s most important minorities has sparked a wave of intense anger amongst the Azeri population, which has become one the single largest ethnic groups in Iran to be the most active as a civil rights protest movement.
Discontent and hostility towards mullahs, IRGC growing
The Azeri population’s public criticism of Iran’s theocracy is considered by the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard, which is better known as the IRGC, as a significant threat to the Islamic Republic’s existence. Part of the clerics’ paranoia stems from calls by Azeri demonstrators for either greater autonomy and protection of their civil liberties in the areas where they live, or even full independence. The latter of which is a demand that has long been suppressed by Iran’s rulers.
At least eight different Azeri civil society movements, all with different agendas, have emerged as powerful opposition forces. Their demands run the gamut from calls for cultural autonomy and legal protection of the Azeri language to outright independence. In the case of the pro-independence movement, many want to establish a modern state that would be modelled on Turkey or Azerbaijan.
Challenging the regime
Each of the Azeri political organizations recently declared that they would join forces and present a united front against Tehran’s policies in northern Azerbaijan.
The groups made their presence know by posting leaflets in and around Tabriz emblazoned with the Independent Southern Azerbaijan flag all over city’s major locations, government buildings and the IRGC offices and barracks.
Several individuals have also showed their defiance by taking photos of themselves in front of well-known structures in Tabriz while using the independence flag leaflets to hide their faces.
The regime claims the Azeri civil society groups are separatists and paid agents who work for Israel’s and Azerbaijan’s intelligence services. Those inflammatory remarks even extended Jerusalem’s ambassador to Baku – George Deek, an Israeli-Arab Orthodox Christian – in 2021. Deek was accused by Iran of promoting separatism when he tweeted a photo of himself reading a book about Azeri language and legends, as well as the history and culture of Azeris in northern Iran.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has also been the subject of the Islamic Republic’s paranoia after making an innocuous statement in November 2022 at the Summit of the Organization of Turkic States: “The young generation of the Turkic world should have the opportunity to study in their mother tongue in the countries where they live. Unfortunately, most of the world’s 40 million Azeris who live outside Azerbaijan are deprived of these opportunities. The education of our compatriots, who do not live within Turkic states, in their mother tongue should always be on the organization’s agenda. Necessary steps should be taken in this direction.”
Iran’s ruling clerics and the IRGC simply will not allow themselves the option of improving relations with the country’s ethnic Azeris, which are believed to number roughly 20 million people, or nearly 20% of the Islamic Republic’s total population.
Both parties consider the deepening strategic alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan a fundamental threat. As a result, they have cynically opted to view millions of their own citizens as a clear and present danger to their grip on power.
Iran’s minorities depend on support from abroad to help shed light on their plight. For minority communities, like the Azeris, to have a future in a pluralistic and democratic Iran, the world community must continue to support their calls for the protection of their basic human rights.