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Souring on New President, Azeris on Hunger Strike in Iran

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During his campaign for President, Hassan Rouhani made many promises to Iran’s Azeri population. Among them was access to education in their mother tongue, one of several “cultural rights” that Azeris believe the Islamic Republic denies them. Today’s Zaman reports that five South Azerbaijani activists who in May were sentenced to nine years in prison are now about a month into a hunger strike. Pessimism about Rouhani’s willingness or even ability to deliver on his promises is starting to settle in:

South Azerbaijanis are not optimistic about Rohani keeping his pre-election promises to Azeris on allowing education in their mother tongue. The new president promised in his election campaign to provide Azeris with a ‘Turkish language institution in Iran” and to save Lake Urmia from drying up.

“If these [promises] happen, it will mean that Persian nationalism loses its dominance in Iran. But this is not something we can expect. The Iranian system is not in the hands of the presidency. It is in the hands of the Iranian intelligence and judiciary. And these are directly linked to the Grand Ayatollah [Ali Khamanei] in Iran,” Rodmehr said.

The MSM has a tough time covering Iran unless the news is about nukes, sanctions, or elections, and even then the coverage is pretty thin. Part of this has to do with the fact that Western observers often forget that Iran is not a nation state. The country is full of minority groups, many of whom are quite restive. From the standpoint of Tehran, one of the most troubling groups is the Azeri population, numbering 18 million, or roughly a quarter of Iran’s total population. The report from the Turkish paper Today’s Zaman points to the interest that many Turks are taking in the Azeri cause; the Azeris are one of many groups who speak languages related to Turkish in central and western Asia.

The one dimensional press coverage of Iran almost always misses stories like this. Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis, and other groups in Iran have a history of resistance, sometimes violent, to Persian control and centralized power in Tehran. It’s likely that the strains caused both by sanctions and by mismanagement of the increasingly politicized Iranian economic system are making inter-ethnic tensions within Iran worse still.

The government works hard, especially with the numerous Azeris, to create a sense of common Iranian identity. In fact, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself is Azeri by origin. Nevertheless, not all Azeris buy the official story.

The tendency for multi-ethnic states to break up into smaller and more homogeneous units is a fact of life in the region. Just as the USSR and Yugoslavia broke apart after the fall of Communism, there are fears by some (and hopes by others) that the current round of upheaval in the Middle East could lead to the redrawing of frontiers. Russia, which remains a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional country is worried about breakaway movements in its ethnically diverse Caucasus region—one more reason why Moscow and Tehran see eye to eye on many issues.

Maintaining national unity is one of the considerations that guides Iran’s policy both at home and abroad. One of the stronger arguments from an Iranian point of view for reaching a nuclear agreement is that better economic conditions would help prevent greater ethnic tension.

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  • USNK2

    Iran’s Azeris are members of, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples, as are Iran’s Kurds and Iran’s Baluchis, and a few other ethnic minorities.
    UNPO membership requires non-violent activism.
    When will anyone in any media start noticing

    • Mahmood Safari

      If it means distorting the truth of the unity of Iran, I hope NEVER anyone recognizes (books in) this organization, and by the way these are many Ethnics or different Races from a same Nation that all have Representatives in the body of the Government, This is why my country is charming:

      “Different Races, Different Weathers; a Rainbow of great cultures bind together (no matter how large is each of their specific population or region) as one common Identity, as Iranian.”

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