Staunton, July 18 – Since the outburst of violence in Ganca at the beginning of July, Azerbaijani officials and commentators have suggested that foreign forces rather than domestic problems were behind the attacks that killed two senior police officials in the country’s second largest city.
Some of the foreigners named are improbable – despite Armenia’s long-running war with Azerbaijan, Yerevan almost certainly can’t organize demonstrations in Azerbaijani cities and Azerbaijan is hardly the hotbed of religious radicalism that some suggest – indeed, in Ganca, only four percent of the residents routinely attend mosque.
But one suggestion is worth attending to not because it is beyond dispute but rather because the very possibility that it may be true undermines the assumptions of some in Baku and the West about Azerbaijani identity in the Republic of Azerbaijan, on the one hand, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other.
All too many people in Western capitals have expressed the conviction that they could mobilize what some in Baku call “Southern Azerbaijan,” the areas of Iran in which perhaps as many as four times as many ethnic Azerbaijanis live than do in the Republic, against the ayatollah regime in Tehran, playing ethnicity against religion.
That has always been a problematic notion. Despite linguistic and cultural discrimination, many ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran are sufficiently Persianized to rise to the highest levels of the Iranian state. In fact, the current supreme ayatollah comes from an Azerbaijani background and speaks Azerbaijani like a native.
Moreover, most Azerbaijanis in Iran are vastly more religious and even more Shiite than their co-ethnics north of the Arax; and it may even be the case that their religion is a more important source of identity than is their ethnicity and language. To the extent that is the case, they would likely line up with Tehran against anyone they viewed as a threat to their Shiite faith.
Within Azerbaijani charges that Iran was behind the Ganca violence is a view which undermines the assumptions of those who would like to put the Southern Azerbaijanis in play against Tehran. According to an article in today’s NG-Religii, it may be that Iran is using them against Baku (ng.ru/ng_religii/2018-07-18/11_446_zagovor.html).
The paper’s religious affairs specialist, Artur Priymak, writes that “Azerbaijanis in Iran have begun to think about overthrowing Ilham Aliyev” in the Republic of Azerbaijan largely because of their religious convictions and Tehran’s willingness to tolerate their recruitment efforts for Shiite militias in the Middle East and support for their activities as religious zealots.
He provides details on this going back more than a decade; but the most important conclusion that arises from his article, at least for Western governments who might like to produce regime in Iran is simply this: the Azerbaijanis of Iran may not be the allies you would like, and any effort to use them as such could backfire on your friends.
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