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How a hawkish Washington ‘think tank’ is promoting ethnic strife in Iran

As Iran is riled by a series of incidents, of which some bear all the hallmarks of a novel, and audacious, sabotage campaign, traditional forms of pressure on the country persist. Among those are attempts to promote ethnic strife in a society where various minority groups account for almost half of the population. 

These efforts were triggered by an escalation of the conflict in mid-July between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbors stuck in a decades-long quarrel over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. While a destabilization of the northern border itself would add to Iran’s woes, Tehran also has to factor in the existence of Azerbaijani and Armenian communities inside Iran. Of the two, Azerbaijanis are by far a bigger group, amounting to, according to some estimates, up to a quarter of the total population. In fact, many more ethnic Azeris live in Iran than in the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Inspired by ideas of a “balkanization” of Iran, hawkish anti-Iran forces in Washington and Tel-Aviv are exploiting these divisions in order to incite the Azeris to revolt against Tehran by promoting a narrative that Iran sides with Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Not surprisingly, the Washington-based “think tank” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading proponent of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, is at the vanguard of this effort.

FDD senior advisor for energy Brenda Shaffer argued in a “policy brief” published last week that the anticipated Azeri protests against Tehran’s alleged pro-Armenian bias, together with other sources of unrest, could spark a new wave of protests across the country that “is already at a boiling point.” Another leading Iran hawk, the right-wing Hudson Institute’s Mike Doran, enthusiastically endorsed her analysis by dubbing the Azeri protests “a potentially very big deal.”  

Shaffer has a long track record of politicizing the ethnic issues in Iran. She called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to explicitly embrace ethnic-based opposition groups to complement the “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran.

Azerbaijan is her particular focus. In 2002 she published book that simplistically portrayed the situation of Iranian Azerbaijanis as that of a minority oppressed by the Persian majority. Shaffer speaks neither Azeri Turkish nor Persian and never conducted any field research in Iran. Her career was heavily funded by Azerbaijan’s state oil company, which she failed to disclose when publishing op-eds over the years presenting the positions of the Azerbaijani government in leading publications like The New York Times and Washington Post. Shaffer’s recent FDD policy brief also made no such disclosure.

These connections go a long way in explaining why Shaffer presents a highly distorted view of Iranian Azeri attitudes toward their government’s policies on Nagorno-Karabakh. When fighting broke out in mid-July, not more than a handful of protestors shouting “Karabakh is ours, and will remain ours” showed up at sporadic rallies in Iranian Azerbaijani cities of Tabriz, Ardabil, Maragheh, Urmiye, and Zanjan, as well as in Tehran.

After security forces detained a few dozen protesters, the rallies quickly fizzled out. A member of the Iranian parliament from Ardabil, Seyed Kazem Mousavi, issued a statement against the Armenian actions by proclaiming that Karabakh is a “land of Islam and will remain so.” The Friday prayer leader in Tabriz, by contrast, has avoided directly criticizing Armenia and instead blamed the conflict on the regime’s all-purpose bogeyman — Israel. 

The “big deal” Azeri protests in Iran anticipated by the Washington hawks thus turned out to be a no deal at all. In fact, BBC Persian reported that there were indeed protests in Tabriz, but those focused on national issues, such as the economic situation, the Iran-China agreement, and the pending execution of three young men involved in past protests (the executions were, meanwhile, halted).

Similar protests also took place in Isfahan, Shiraz, and Behbehan — cities outside Iran’s Azerbaijani region, which confirms what hawks promoting the Azeri “separateness” narrative refuse to acknowledge: that this region is fully integrated into the larger Iranian body politic and shares the same concerns as the larger Iranian public in other parts of the country.

The efforts to manipulate the Azeris into believing that Iran supports Armenia against Azerbaijan also fly in the face of the evidence. Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan, in fact, steadily improved under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who exchanged multiple visits with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev.

Last year Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif identified Azerbaijan as one of the countries with which relations improved significantly. During the latest episode of the armed confrontation, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi reiterated Tehran’s support for both countries’ territorial integrity and sovereignty, and offered mediation to resolve their differences peacefully.

Unlike Turkey, however, Iran has no reason to support Azerbaijan unconditionally. For one, it has close relations with Armenia. Then there is a lingering mistrust of Azeri irredentism and Baku’s close ties with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Baku in 2016 and the Azerbaijani finance minister’s speech to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Council conference in 2020 is only the visible side of this intimate relationship. Azerbaijani officials also boast about close security and defense cooperation with Israel.

Tehran chose not to highlight these irritants, and instead focused on pragmatic cooperation, as it has bigger problems to deal with in the Persian Gulf and Levant.  That, however, does not mean that Iran has an interest in excessively favoring Azerbaijan over Armenia, as it fears that an Azerbaijani victory will lead to the strengthening of the Turkish and Israeli influence in the region and reviving Azeri irredentism in Iran proper. Therefore, Iran essentially favors the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh. This may not fully satisfy Azerbaijan, but Iran cannot be expected to act against its own national interests. Currently, Tehran and Baku seem to have reached a mutually acceptable balance of interests in their relationship.

Agitating and exaggerating the “Azeri question” in Iran would undermine this balance, and incentivize Iran to lean more explicitly towards Armenia. Azerbaijan, therefore, should be vigilant not to let itself to be manipulated by extra-regional anti-Iranian agendas. On a broader level, Iran has so far shown enough resilience against efforts to “balkanize” it. The dogs of ethnic strife are, largely, silent in Iran, and it’s in everybody’s interest in the region to keep it that way, in spite of FDD’s efforts to make them bark.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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