Iranian Azeris seek rights, Turkey's support
Iranian Azeris' quest for rights puts Turkey in a difficult spot as it manages relations with Iran.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 08/06/12
Aimed at giving momentum to a movement for broader rights and freedom in "South Azerbaijan" -- the Azeri-populated northwest of Iran -- members of the Azeri minority are calling on Turkey to support their ethnic brethren's struggle following the establishment of the Azerbaijani National Council (ANC) in Istanbul last month.
A Turkish ultra-nationalist holds Turkey and Azerbaijan flags during a protest against Armenia in central Istanbul on February 26th. [Reuters]
Azeris -- Turkic-speaking Shiites who make up an estimated 25% of Iran's population of 70 million -- have long complained that their rights are stifled in Iran, where mother tongue education is limited and national identity and cultural rights restricted.
Turkey has established close political and economic relations with the post-Soviet state of Azerbaijan since its independence, but Turkish policymakers have long expressed less interest in the views of Azeri dissidents in Iran.
But recently Iranian Azeris have managed to organise in Ankara at a time when Turkey's close "brother" Azerbaijan is in the midst of a major political rift with Tehran. Viewed from Tehran, the independent secular state of Azerbaijan and rising ethnic demands constitute a threat to national unity in a multi-ethnic Islamic state.
The South Azeris' move comes as pro-democracy movements in the broader Middle East have put Turkey in the position of backing opposition movements, most notably in Syria, where Iran and Turkey have come out on different sides of the ongoing uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But Cemal Mehmethanoglu, the ANC's spokesperson in Ankara, says the ruling AKP government is wary of supporting Iranian Azeris due to pressure from Iran.
"All we expect from Turkish leaders is to find the will within themselves and advocate for our basic rights in South Azerbaijan; at least let us get organised here [in Turkey], just like Syrian opposition does," he told SES Türkiye. "It's also in Turkey's national interest to have Azeri-Turkic rights protected in the neighbourhood," he added.
Faced with its own ethnic problems in the Kurdish issue, Turkey is wary of playing the Azeri card in Iran, where it has substantial economic interests and seeks to maintain amiable political relations in the name of broader regional stability.
As a result, Davud Turan, the chairman of the South Azerbaijan Social and Cultural Research Centre, emphasises that the creation of ANC in Ankara "wasn't easy" for the organisers.
"We do understand that Turkish politicians care about the relationship with Iran. But our struggle is not political, this is a basic human rights issue and we expect all countries to help us," he told SES Türkiye, adding that Azeri culture in Iran is "vanishing."
"If Turkey still wants to be a main regional player, [it] should open its doors to us," he emphasised.
The ANC plans to open a permanent office in Ankara in the coming weeks.
"We hope the Turkish government will not stop us this time, as we're representing 90% of Azeri Turks," Mehmethanoglu said.
For many in Ankara, however, it is hard to speak of a monolithic Iranian Azeri population. Many Azeris have been integrated into the economic and political fold of Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the former prime minister and leader of the opposition Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, are both ethnic Azeris.
Mehmet Sahin, an analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) -- an Ankara-based think tank, told SES Türkiye that Azeri federalist or nationalist groups inside Iran have long overstated their influence, "although the situation is changing so rapidly that it's impossible to predict the future."
"Generally speaking, I don't think that Turkey might enter into this issue, as there are already some problems between Tehran and Ankara, such as Syria. Also, Turkey is unlikely to support ethnic activities in its neighbourhood, while it is suffering from ethnic problems. This is not an Ankara-type policy," he explained.
Murat Yildirim, an AKP deputy and member of the parliamentary human rights commission, said that human rights issues are one of main topics discussed with Iran, but highlights that Turkey "will stand by human rights and democracy in the region, without damaging international relations."
"We have a very deep relationship with the Iranian people. We also share common values, close family connections with Azeris in Iran and abroad," he told SES Türkiye.
"But it's up to Iranian Azeris how to protect their national identity," he added.