Monday, December 21, 2020

Armenian Scholar Argues Azerbaijanis in Iran and Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan are Separate and Distinct Ethnic Groups

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 19 – The relationship between language and ethnic identity is always complicated. Sometimes sharing a common language is sufficient to form a common identity. At others, a common language may divide two communities rather than unite them because of the competition it invites. And in others, the relationship is even more fraught.

            In Eurasia at present, there are two claims about a common language being the basis of a common identity that are especially important, Moscow’s suggestion that Russian speakers wherever they live are part of a common Russian world, and the ideas of some in Azerbaijan and Turkey that Azerbaijani speakers in Iran are the same as those in the Republic of Azerbaijan.

            In both cases, the expectation that a common language is the basis for a common national identity, however problematic it may be, drives the thinking of many policy makers. That makes it all the more important to consider evidence that argues against this assumption lest it create serious problems.

            There are many studies about the relationship of language and ethnicity in what the Kremlin calls “the Russian world.” There are far fewer about that linkage in what many in Baku and elsewhere call “Southern Azerbaijan.” As a result, the view that there are 20 to 40 million Azerbaijanis in Iran is widespread and often unchallenged.

            That makes investigations by those who are not Azerbaijanis and especially by those who can be counted as opponents of Baku and Ankara especially worthy of attention, even if at the end of the day, one concludes that they have overstated their position that the Azerbaijanis in Iran and the Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan are separate and distinct ethnic groups.

            A new article by Garnik Asatryan, an Armenian specialist on Iran at Yerevan State University, offers just such a contrarian view; and his observations are important if for no other reason than as something to test what are often the easy assumptions of commonality between Azerbaijanis south of the Arax and those north of it (

            Specialists on the interrelationships of the South Caucasus and Iran will be familiar with his earlier book, The Ethnic Composition of Iran (in Russian; Yerevan: Caucasian Center for Iranian Studies, 2012, 129 pp,), the fully text of which is available at

            “People on both sides of the Arax,” Asatryan says, “speak similar and mutually intelligible dialects. But these are absolutely different ethnic groups” (stress in the original). Those north of the river were known as Caucasian Tatars as recently as the 19th century, and they have not fully consolidated as a nation.

            The Soviet authorities promoted the idea that all the Turkic speakers in the Republic of Azerbaijan were Azerbaijanis because of the name of the republic in which they lived, something most but far from all of them accept now. But given that, it is impossible to say they are identical to the Azerbaijanis south of the river.

            Those who live in northwestern Iran and speak Turkic dialects have “an exclusively Irani self-consciousness,” the Armenian scholar says. The only exceptions to this are “some marginal groups of Iranian citizens from the northwestern districts of the country” who say otherwise to fit in with the “anti-Iranian activities” carried out by Baku and Ankara, Asatryan says.

            Even Azerbaijani scholars like Academician Ziya Buniatov acknowledge that the Turkic speakers in northwestern Iran are very different from those in the Republic of Azerbaijan not only because of recent history but because of their ethnogenesis.  They emerged differently and they are different, although not so different that they do not have mutually intelligible languages.

            The Azerbaijanis south of the Arax are well-integrated into Iranian cultural and political identities. Thus, it is no surprise to learn that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or former opposition leader Mir Hoseyn Musawi speak Azerbaijani but are committed Iranian nationalists beyond any question.

             Those who talk about Southern Azerbaijan, Asatryan suggests, should recognize these differences rather than assuming that language alone is sufficient to define the identities and loyalties of those who speak it. 

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