Most of Iran’s large Azerbaijani population, numbering approximately 25-30 million, lives in their heartland of South Azerbaijan in Iran’s northwest, where their rich and ancient history dates back to the pre-Islamic period. Despite this sizeable population, however, the national people’s native language, Azerbaijani Turkish, is not officially recognised in Iran, marginalising the Azerbaijani people and limiting their role in government and public life. This marginalisation has led to various forms of discrimination against members of this group by the dominant Persian population, whether these are linguistic, cultural, economic, political or social, with the struggles of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people highlighting the importance of respecting and valuing diversity in all societies.
During the Pahlavi era, the regime implemented Persianisation policies in an effort to enforce assimilation and suppress non-Persian cultures and languages, including Azerbaijani Turkish. This resulted in denying non-Persian peoples access to education in their native language and cultural assimilation efforts. As a result, the Azerbaijani people have faced challenges throughout history, including discrimination and marginalisation by the Iranian government.
Protests and demonstrations have regularly taken place in Azerbaijan over issues such as language rights, discrimination, and economic inequality. The Iranian government has responded consistently with repression and brutality, including arrests and imprisonment of activists. Azerbaijani poet Shahryar’s case, exemplifies the Azerbaijani people’s struggles in Iran, as he faced persecution and censorship due to his use of Azerbaijani Turkish in his poetry.
Cultural discrimination against the Azerbaijani people in Iran is a persistent issue, with their rich cultural heritage often marginalised and deliberately ignored. The Iranian government has historically prioritised Persian culture and language at the expense of other cultures, including the Azerbaijanis. This has resulted in these peoples being denied the right to celebrate or commemorate cultural events and even being prevented from speaking their language in public spaces. The Azerbaijani people are also routinely subjected to crude ethnic jokes and ridicule of their accents on radio, television, and official newspapers, all of which are state-controlled. This misrepresentation also extends to education, with Iranian school textbooks depicting Azerbaijan’s historical rulers as corrupt and incompetent. Such expressions of disdain for Azerbaijani culture and all non-Persian cultures are the norm rather than the exception in Iranian media, with Azerbaijan’s traditional music treated with derision and Azerbaijani musicians mocked and humiliated on Iranian TV.
Another way in which cultural discrimination is manifested is through the destruction of historical monuments and cultural sites important to the Azerbaijani people, with successive Iranian regimes either destroying these historic sites or allowing them to fall into disrepair, as a way of erasing Azerbaijanis’ cultural identity and history.
Adding insult to injury, successive regimes have not just marginalised expressions of Azerbaijani culture, but have appropriated famed Azerbaijani symbols like the famously ornate hand-woven rugs for which Azerbaijan has been renowned for centuries, which have been rebranded as ‘Persian rugs’ in an obvious effort to claim these gorgeous carpets as a Persian creation and deny their honoured status as a symbol of Azerbaijanis’ cultural identity and history. Additionally, as with all non-Persian peoples in Iran, the government has prohibited Azerbaijanis from naming their children in their own language, in this case Turkish, instead forcing them to choose from an ‘approved’ list of Persian names, another erasure of a people’s fundamental right to cultural identity.
Many international organisations and institutions across a multitude of countries are working to strengthen and support the use of peoples’ mother tongues – especially those languages facing extinction due to the lack of native speakers. UNESCO was founded to preserve the cultures of peoples and nations so that the world could sustain its cultural diversity. Counter to this endeavour, however, the Iranian regime actively seeks to destroy the non-Persian peoples’ cultures and languages by prohibiting those languages and punishing those activists who demand education in their mother languages in their regions.
Like other non-Persian peoples in Iran, Azerbaijanis are prohibited from speaking or learning in their native language, a variant of Turkish. Despite their large numbers, the Iranian government has refused to recognise Azerbaijani Turkish as an official language and has banned its use in official documents and education. Consequently, members of the Azerbaijani community regularly report punishment and discrimination for speaking their native language in public spaces, with their accents routinely ridiculed in various media outlets.
A recent Amnesty International report confirmed that Azerbaijanis suffer systematic discrimination and have been subjected to a longstanding policy of forced linguistic assimilation. The Iranian regime has even banned teaching Azerbaijani Turkish in schools and universities, in an effort to prevent the language from being passed down to future generations and to replace it completely with Farsi. Successive regimes have even restricted the use of non-Persian languages in the public sphere, including in the media, in addition to banning the use of non-Persian names for businesses and organisations.
Iranian regime publicly espouses the belief that the country should be unified in one culture and one language – Persian. However, in Iran, there have historically been many different nations that used a variety of languages freely until these were outlawed by the regime, with some forgotten over time due to lack of use. Since the 1936 establishment of the Iranian nation-state, the Persian rule, imposed by military force and repression, has sought to assimilate several peoples, some of whom still exceed the Persians in number, in order to create one people with one culture and language – Persian and Farsi respectively.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Iranian regime sought to spread the Farsi language and mandated its usage in all the regions it occupied – regardless of the language and culture of the native people there. At the time, they did this under the pretext that the modern state they founded needed a single language and a common culture in order to thrive. As such, authorities banned the native languages in order to merge and ultimately eradicate the identities of the colonised people of Azerbaijan, Ahwaz, Kurdistan and Balochistan. The regime of the time sanctioned racial discrimination which has subsequently become the norm, with state laws favouring Persian people while neglecting and denying the social, political, and economic rights of non-Persian peoples who collectively constitute 70% of Iran’s population.
In 1979, the Islamic revolution took place. The revolution was strongly supported by the Azerbaijanis, Ahwazi Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, and Balochis, hoping to reclaim what they had lost under the previous authoritarian Shah regime’ rule. One of the most sought-after freedoms amongst all the peoples in Ahwaz, Kurdistan, South Azerbaijan and Balochistan was to study in their own languages.
This was clearly demonstrated at the time by the demands voiced by delegations of these peoples during meetings with Ayatollah Khomeini. However, Khomeini rejected all the demands of those delegations on the pretext that any actions to preserve or revitalise the languages and cultures of these peoples would only contribute to fragmentation and division of Iran. What Khomeini said directly contradicted legal articles contained in the regime’s own constitution which seemed to have been created to meet the demands of these groups, but these articles have not been implemented to this day.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran reports that non-Persian mother languages are treated as a “national security threat” in Iran, leading again to significant discrimination against the Azerbaijani people. Although all these policies violate the fundamental rights of Azerbaijani and other non-Persian peoples, denying them the opportunity to express their cultural identity and hindering their ability to access education and employment opportunities, there is no challenge to them in Iran or from the international community.
Discrimination in education and all other areas leads almost inevitably to economic discrimination, with Azerbaijanis denied economic opportunities and woefully underrepresented in high-paying jobs. Successive Iranian regimes have been accused of providing less funding and resources to the northwestern region of the country, home of the majority of the Azerbaijani people, than to predominantly Persian areas.
As a report by the Minority Rights Group revealed, the higher unemployment and poverty rates, affecting Azerbaijanis as a result of these policies means they’re also underrepresented in decision-making positions. The report also notes that the Iranian regime itself has been accused of discrimination in recruitment practices, with Azerbaijanis additionally underrepresented in government jobs and other high-paying positions.
A United Nations report confirmed the systemic discrimination and unequal access to employment, education and other services faced by Iran’s non-Persian peoples, nothing that this discrimination in the economic sphere further contributes to poverty and economic disadvantage among Azerbaijanis, effectively creating a cycle of poverty and frustration among Azerbaijanis and other non-Persian peoples in Iran such as Kurds, Balochis, and Ahwazi Arabs.
In addition to their underrepresentation in other fields, Azerbaijani have also been denied economic opportunities, particularly in entrepreneurship and small business ownership, with the aforementioned restrictions bolstering this exclusion. According to a report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, the Iranian regime has not only imposed restrictions on the use of the Azerbaijani language in education and public settings, but in business and commercial activities, limiting the ability of Azerbaijani people to conduct business in their language. The report also notes that the government has seized property owned by community members, particularly those involved in activism or cultural activities, with no opportunity for the owners to challenge these state thefts of their property.
Unsurprisingly, all the aforementioned discriminatory economic and other policies and practices towards the Azerbaijani people have led to a widening financial gap between Azerbaijanis and the Farsi-speaking Persian majority. According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, poverty rates are significantly higher among non-Persian peoples in Iran, including the Azerbaijanis. The report notes that economic discrimination has limited the ability of non-Persian peoples to participate fully in the country’s economic life, resulting in entrenched poverty and marginalisation.
Azerbaijanis in Iran face political discrimination, including underrepresentation in government and restricted access to political opportunities. Successive Iranian regimes’ brutal repression, particularly of non-Persian peoples including Azerbaijanis, has led to a lack of representation and participation in the political sphere, with activists who advocate for their rights routinely arrested and imprisoned.
Like other non-Persian peoples, Azerbaijanis are not allowed to form political parties, with any attempt to do so being immediately met with harsh suppression by regime authorities. For instance, when officials from the New South Azerbaijan Awakening Movement Party (YeniGAMOH) tried to register the party with the Ministry of Interior, the regime’s response was to arrest all the central members of the party and sentence them to lengthy prison terms on charges of ‘threatening national security’. Such unjust convictions have resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of many Azerbaijani activists in Iran.
Political discrimination blatantly violates Azerbaijanis’ right to equal representation in government and blocks any participation in the political process, offering no way to campaign for recognition of and respect for their political and cultural heritage. Such discrimination must be addressed and eradicated to create a society that values and celebrates diversity.
Societal discrimination against Azerbaijanis people is a pervasive problem in Iran, with the regime routinely promoting negative stereotypes about Azerbaijani culture and identity, as mentioned above, and attempting to enforce assimilation of Azerbaijanis, denying them any identity but that of Persians, not only through the education system but through media and other means.
In addition to the various forms of discrimination against Azerbaijanis already listed, the Minority Rights Group reports that negative stereotypes about and derogatory comments towards Azerbaijanis are still common and widespread, with Azerbaijanis commonly denied access to public services and amenities, facing discriminatory hiring practices, and excluded from decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors.
Given this systemic prejudice, it’s depressingly predictable that Azerbaijanis regularly face discrimination and violence in the form of hate crimes. An Amnesty International report reveals that Azerbaijanis are regularly physically attacked by individuals or groups based on their ethnicity and cultural identity, with such attacks invariably going unpunished, leading to a lack of accountability for those responsible and to a feeling of impunity among the ruling Persian class.
The impact of Discrimination
Such multifaceted discrimination from childhood onwards adversely impacts Azerbaijanis well-being and their ability to participate fully in Iranian society, preventing young Ahwazis from reaching their full potential. This systemic prejudice has led to a sense of despair and exclusion, resulting in poverty and economic disadvantage among Azerbaijanis as among other non-Persian peoples, with linguistic, political, and social discrimination also limiting their access to education, political participation, and social opportunities.
The discriminatory practices against Azerbaijani people in Iran violate the fundamental principles of human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the right to equality before the law, the right to education, the right to freedom of expression and association, and the right to participate in government. Furthermore, discrimination based on ethnic identity, language, and culture violates the dignity and undermines the principles of democracy and pluralism.
While the Iranian regime should, in theory, be the party to take urgent corrective measures to address these issues, such as promoting cultural and linguistic diversity, providing economic opportunities and adequate funding and resources to the country’s northwestern region, and respecting the right to freedom of expression and association, as the perpetrator and beneficiary of these discriminatory policies, the regime is not about to change anything unless compelled to do so.
Frustration at this longstanding injustice and repression and the strong desire for a modern, inclusive, progressive and just society, not only for Azerbaijanis but for all peoples in Iran, has fueled political activism and an increasing aspiration for independence among young Azerbaijanis. Without serious action to address these issues, tension will continue to grow, along with the risk of potentially violent conflict.
Most political activists and parties in Azerbaijan believe that the only way to end discrimination and gain recognition of their rights is by forming a national, federal government for Azerbaijanis, allowing the people full expression of their own culture and the opportunity to finally exercise their long-denied autonomy and to participate fully in the political process. It remains to be seen how the Iranian regime will respond to the demands of the Azerbaijani people and the Azerbaijani people and whether it will take any action to address and end the systemic discrimination against them. While some activists and political parties in Azerbaijan may see the formation of a national government as the only solution, it is essential to note that any calls for independence would likely face significant major opposition and increase the possibility of potential conflict.
By Babek Chalabi
Babek Chalabi is a South Azerbaijani activist based in Washington DC. Chalabi is also the founder of ArazNews.org. Babek tweets under @BabekChelebi.