By Joan Trevor
Between one quarter and one third of Iranians are Azeris, descended from Turkic people who settled in north western Iran, in the region now called Azerbaijan. (The historic and ethnic links between Iranian Azerbaijan and the former Soviet Republic of the same name, now an independent state, on its northern border are not as significant as you might think, or as some politicians make out.)
Azeris – in Iran they are generally called “Turks”– live throughout the country, but mostly in West and East Azerbaijan provinces and the capital Tehran.
Their first language is Azeri, although the vast majority also speak Farsi (Persian), the national language. Azeris have played a crucial role in building the national identity of modern Iran. Azeris formed the backbone of the constitutional revolution between 1906 and 1911 that ended the Qajar dynasty and provided Iran’s first taste of democratic reform.
In spite and sometimes because of this, they have been variously neglected and discriminated against by Iran’s rulers, and the use of their language has been restricted.
The chauvinism of Iran’s rulers has tainted the way other Iranians see Turks, and there are many negative stereotypes about them. Non-Azeri Iranians tell the sort of jokes about Turks that British people used to tell about supposedly stupid Irish people.
Recently a state-owned newspaper in Iran published a cartoon depicting an Azeri-speaking cockroach, unable to understand Farsi. The paper was closed for this publication of "divisive and provocative materials" and its editor and the cartoonist were arrested. The interior minister said the cartoon was "an insult to all Iranians, and we cannot tolerate that".
The Islamic Republic regime’s treatment of Iran’s minorities is complex; it stresses the equality of all Iranians, and the common Iranian national identity of all the ethnic groups, whilst repressing any manifestations of separatism or autonomism.
While the centre was apologising for its newspaper’s offence, Iranian security forces killed a number of demonstrators protesting in Azerbaijan against the cartoons.
Iran’s other ethnic or language minorities include Kurds, Arabs, Baluchs, and Turkeman. Farsi (Persian) and its numerous dialects are the mother tongue of about one half of Iranians.
By Joan Trevor