Southern Azerbaijan: Iran Stifles the Azeris
As more and more Azeri human rights activists are targeted by the Iranian government, the struggle for democracy and human rights in
Below is an article written by Karl Rahder and published by ISN Security Watch:
Trouble is brewing in Iran's 'Southern Azerbaijan' as the government targets Azeri human rights activists and cracks down on what some view as the Azeri ethnic minority's struggle for more democracy and human rights, and what others call separatism.
Like much of the post-colonial world, the demographics in both
The Araz River marks the border that was delimited after an 1828 treaty between Iran and imperial Russia, and separates Azerbaijan's eight million Azeris (along with small ethnic minorities of Russians, Lezgins and others) and the much larger Azeri population in Iran.
Despite at least some Iranian success in recruiting agents in Azerbaijan, a trip across the Araz River into northern Iran leads one to a region of simmering discontent - a place where hundreds of thousands of Azeri demonstrators have clashed with riot police in what began as a series of protests against Persian institutional racism but lately may have morphed into something much broader and more dangerous.
The cockroach conundrum
The catalyst for the riots that spread across northern
The parallels between an illiterate cockroach and Azeris were not lost on
As a result of the unrest, during which cars were torched and a bank set ablaze in
As of late January, Lisani had ended a month-long hunger strike and was reported to be weakened and in ill-health.
Lisani has been targeted frequently by Iranian prosecutors over the past several years. In 2004, he was reportedly severely beaten by Iranian police during an arrest in a mosque in
Other Iranian Azeris, such as liberal cleric Hojjatoleslam Ezimi Qedimi, had been convicted of similar crimes prior to last year's cartoon controversy. Qedimi was released last August, but is forbidden to speak publicly on Azeri rights issues and to wear the clothes of a religious scholar.
After demonstrations in February this year, as many as 60 Azeris were arrested in the city of
Some 20 people were arrested in the city of
One former political prisoner now lives in the
Mahmudali Chehregani, a former literature professor, enjoys considerable prestige among Azeri Iranians and has been consulted by officials in the Pentagon, the State Department and even the White House in recent years - talks that have fueled speculation that the
Cherhraganli is often referred to as a separatist, although in a recent interview with ISN Security Watch in
"We want only democracy and human rights. And we want a change in the Iranian regime to a democratic and secular government. We favor a federal
Even if a separatist uprising is remote, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a lot to be nervous about, some say.
"If you're an Iranian politician, you have a major problem with the Azeri minority," said Stephen Blank, "and you have a constant fear that that minority can be used by outside forces to stir up trouble within Iran […] Iranians today are very conscious of this fact. It's a big problem for them domestically."
Most western analysts and even many Azeris believe that the prospects for a "Greater Azerbaijan" are slim.
Etibar Mammadov is one of the skeptics. He points out that even if an opportunity for southern
Obali is convinced that the movement is undergoing a shift in emphasis from a protest against Persian racism to a wider anti-regime struggle, and once that happens, he says, "the whole character of the movement changes. And now the Iranian government has to take notice, so the problems for them have been multiplied in the past year or so."
For Obali, who sees
"The movement is so deep. And it's a popular, grass-roots movement. The government brought in close to 200,000 extra troops to handle it, and they couldn't do anything until it was too late […] We are the single most devastating news for the Iranian government!"