Azerbaijani Turks are Iran’s largest ethnic minority but they are increasingly protesting in support of Azerbaijan in its ongoing conflict with Armenia. This is likely to concern Tehran.
Protests in support of Azerbaijan have rocked several cities in Iran including the capital Tehran and the northwestern city of Tabriz.
As clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalate there are signs that Iran’s significant Azerbaijani Turk population could be a source of tension in the country, particularly given that Iran in perceived to be assisting Armenia.
Online videos show demonstrators engaged in street protests with some throwing projectiles at the police.
Some protesters can be heard chanting in Azerbaijani “Karabakh is ours. It will remain ours," in reference to the Armenian occupied area of Nagorno-Karabakh.
On first impression, it may seem that in light of the more than 20 million Azerbaijani Turks in Iran, the country’s largest ethnic group who are also predominantly Shia, there would be mutual cooperation with Azerbaijan, also a predominantly Shia population.
The reality is a bit complicated, however, with both states viewing each other with suspicion.
Historically the Azerbaijani Turk population of Iran has been considered the state's most loyal community, in particular because they were Shia.
Under the Safavid Empire — which ended in the 18th century and the Turkic origin Qajar Empire, which lasted until 1925 — they contributed to the ruling elite or ruled what later became Iran.
The rise of nationalism and the nation state resulted in some Azerbaijani Turks in Iran rediscovering and reimagining their identity, and elevating communities in the Caucasus and Anatolia to fellow brethren.
Tehran has come to see the Azerbaijani Turk community in northwestern Iran, bordering Azerbaijan through a security paradigm. What if the region decides that it wants to split from Iran?
There is a precedent. In 1945 before withdrawing, the Soviet Union set up the People’s Republic of Azerbaijan, which quickly fell lacking a popular mandate. Since then Tehran has been keen to dampen any nationalist sentiment.
Coming back to the present day a lengthy and protracted war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could heighten sentiment amongst the Azerbaijani Turk population, who strongly identify with their kin.
“If Iran judges that the conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan is creating any instability in Iran or stoking ethnic tensions, it will move quickly to secure a ceasefire via work with Ankara and Moscow,” said a Middle East security analyst.
Some have called it Iran’s Azerbaijani Turk question and one that Tehran has tried to deal with by engaging in assimilationist policies.
As millions of Azerbaijani Turks migrated to Tehran and the country’s other industrialised areas, the “lack of education in their native tongue, and certain stigmatization stemming from being a Turkophone Azerbaijani in Iran” resulted in masses of people assimilating in Persian culture, said a report looking at the question.
The policies of assimilating Azerbaijani Turks began under the former Shah, but have continued under the Islamic Republic.
The creation of Azerbaijan following the breakup of the Soviet Union followed by a war with Armenia and the resulting 30 years of tensions has created a headache for Iran.
A continuation of the current war between Yerevan and Baku could spill over into Iran’s Azerbaijani Turk province threatening decades of assimilation policies pursued by consecutive administrations in Tehran.
Tehran has so far publicly called for there to be an immediate ceasefire, however, should the war continue the tensions in the country are likely to peak with Azerbaijani Turks seeking to help their brethren across the border.