The conflict between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh—which is internationality recognized as Azerbaijani land—erupted on September 27. Its impact has not been limited to the Southern Caucasus. The war has ignited waves of protests from dissidents within neighboring Iran, where Azerbaijani Turks comprise approximately one-third of Iran’s 84 million population. Various cities in both Iran’s northwestern provinces and the capital Tehran have witnessed such protests. From the dawn of the conflict on September 27, authorities have arrested over 200 Iranian-Azerbaijanis peacefully protesting Russian military aid to Armenia. Some of the arrestees were reportedly tortured and beaten by both police and intelligence officers.
War Unites Ethnicities: Iran-Iraq War
Historically, war has played a pivotal role in the formation of national identity around the world. Iran’s history has shown that war has significantly impacted ethnic relations. Despite the hardships of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, there was an unintended positive consequence in terms of improved ethnic relations and the promotion of national Iranian identity. In response to foreign threats, Iran experienced an increased level of national solidarity. This has occurred among other multiethnic countries with aggrieved minority communities too; Iran is no exception. During the war, countless individuals of discriminated ethnic backgrounds sacrificed their lives on the frontline to defend Iran. Given that ethnic minority groups comprise a significant majority of Iran’s population and each group experiences different forms of discrimination, the war itself played a significant role in creating interethnic solidarity.
Under the new Islamic Republic, formed as a result of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, Shia Islam has been promoted as the country’s collective, umbrella identity by which people are expected to adhere to. Additionally, the Iranian regime has continually declared “Islamic solidarity” as its principal foreign policy approach. Such a policy was key as it allowed for salient religious identity to transcend the boundaries of ethnic identity and, therefore, hamper ethnic grievances. In fact, because Iran is a predominantly Shiite country (90-95 percent), the strength and popularity of Shiite Islamic belief have effectively spilled into the concept of Iranian national identity, thereby strengthening the sense of belonging to Iran. Representative data on Iran has shown that those who attend religious services more frequently tend to have higher levels of national pride compared to those who do not.
The Failure of Identity Politics: Nagorno-Karabakh War
Iran’s identity politics is revealed through the lens of yet another war: the Nagorno-Karabakh War which lasted from 1988 to 1994 between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Due to Iran’s policy on the conflict, the war has marked waves of protests from Azerbaijani Turks across Iran protesting supporting Armenia and recently demanding the border with Armenia be closed. In contrast to Iran’s officially neutral stance of recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, in the last three decades, Iran has maintained good relations with Armenia and supported Yerevan by transferring Russian military aid. Even back in 1992, there were demonstrations against the Iranian regime’s Karabakh policy in cities like Tabriz, Urmia, and the capital Tehran. Iran, primarily due to geopolitical concerns and the concern about the domino effect of Azerbaijan’s independence on their Iranian co-ethnics has supported Armenia. Such concern is nothing new. Historical documents suggest that the same concern was raised following the establishment of the short-lived Republic of Azerbaijan on May 28, 1918. An independent Azerbaijan has always been conceived as a potential threat to Iranian national security. The Iranian regime has preferred to see the Republic of Azerbaijan mired in problems such as war instead of a healthy and attractive Azerbaijan. This is a policy to deter the inspiring effect of independence on aggrieved Azerbaijanis in Iran.
The Iranian regime’s hope for internal solidarity has not been very successful. In contrast to Tehran’s hopes, its foreign policy approach has weakened the sense of belonging to Iranian national identity among Azerbaijanis. This has happened primarily because Iran’s Karabakh policy was against the acclaimed principles of “Islamic solidarity.” Iran has mostly refrained from expressing Islamic solidarity towards the Republic of Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite nation itself. The result has been a feeling of betrayal by ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran towards the central ruling authority in Tehran. Such an attitude has not only decreased the resonance of Iran’s Islamic discourse among its Azerbaijani citizens but also damaged the salience of overarching religious collective identity. Data clearly demonstrates a trend of declining religiosity in Iran. 66 percent of Iranians believe that people within the country have become less religious today as compared to five years ago and will become even less religious in the next five years. The percentage of decline in religiosity for Azerbaijanis in Iran is higher than Iran’s national average, at 70 percent. The failure of Iran’s identity politics has crucial implications for Iranians because it paves the way for the rise of alternative identity boundaries.
The Nagorno-Karabakh War was an external shock to Iran because it revealed the regime’s exclusive Persian nationalist nature that had been covered by a collective Shia identity. This raised more awareness of ethnic discrimination. Only 39 percent of Azerbaijanis in Iran, according to representative survey data, say that the state does not discriminate against ethnic minorities. Once one of the most loyal ethnic minorities in Iran, Azerbaijanis Turks have gradually become increasingly disillusioned in the country. Awareness of ethnic inequality and discrimination in the context of declining religiosity is accelerating ethnic cleavages among Iranian Azerbaijanis. Recent developments show that the salient Azerbaijani identity translates into action. Despite state repression, the level of expressed solidarity of Azerbaijanis in Iran with the Republic of Azerbaijan is unprecedented.
The failure of inclusive nation-building in a multiethnic country not only worsens ethnic relations, but it also complicates the potential for a transition towards democracy. Iraq is a striking example that has encountered extreme obstacles in such a transition. Research shows that when ethnic or religious groups are politicized due to discrimination and exclusion from political power, the transition from an autocracy to a democracy will be problematic. Without considering Iran’s politicized ethnic identities and without the prospect of a shift from the Persian-dominated power structure to a state-level multiethnic power configuration, any democratization project for Iran may lead to catastrophic outcomes.
Ramin Jabbarli is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has written for various publications on ethnic minorities in Iran. His research focuses on ethnic conflict, identity, and social movements in autocratic regimes with an emphasis on Iran and the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @Raminjabbarli