Are Iran and Türkiye on a collision course over Western Azerbaijan?

    REGION  28 February 2024 - 10:09

    Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi travelled to Türkiye last month, Jan. 24, for discussions on the growing instability and escalatory trends in the Middle East region stemming from the war in Gaza. And though the visit showcased Iran and Türkiye’s capacity to cooperate or at least align together on shared issues of concern, the bilateral relationship remains a complicated one. reprints the article from Middle East Institute.

    Over the centuries, Iran and Türkiye have engaged in an ebbing and flowing, but continual, rivalry for regional influence and supremacy. That thorny relationship persists to this day, in some cases manifesting in Tehran and Ankara supporting partners or allies fighting on opposite sides of foreign conflicts, including in Syria, Iraq, and the South Caucasus. Yet such potentially escalatory dynamics have not been limited to geopolitical competition by proxy; they have also spilled over into efforts to meddle in each other’s internal affairs. This is notably evident in the northwestern region of Iran, a crucial geopolitical focal point that borders directly on Türkiye. Here, the Turkish side has periodically sought to incite the complex and long-running tensions involving Kurds and ethnic Azerbaijanis (also known locally as Azerbaijani-Turks). In turn, Iran has tried to play the Kurdish card and is currently supporting Alevi Kurds against Türkiye.

    Ethnic dynamics in northwestern Iran

    Northwestern Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, a crucial economic and business corridor between Iran and Türkiye, has transformed into a challenging but tempting front for Ankara’s periodic efforts to exploit its points of leverage against Tehran. This region has a mixed population of mainly Sunni Kurds and Shi’a Azerbaijani-Turks; but for decades, the latter ethnic group has dominated the former, facilitated by Tehran’s endorsement of a “divide and rule” policy over this area. By some estimates, Azerbaijani-Turks constitute more than 20 million, or approximately 24% of the total population of Iran. A similar number of ethnic Kurds live in Türkiye, making up approximately 19% of that country’s population; whereas, in Iran, the Kurdish population is estimated to number between 8 million and 12 million. However, the status of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran is different from that of Kurds in either country. Azerbaijani-Turks have been one of the pillars of the Iranian administration for centuries; and in more recent times, members of this community have wielded significant power serving in Iran’s military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

    What is today West Azerbaijan was a birthplace of Kurdish nationalism, the site of the establishment of the first modern Kurdish political party, and where, in 1946, the Soviets helped set up a short-lived Kurdish authority (the Republic of Kurdistan). And yet modern-day Kurds who live here face discrimination on two levels: from the central government in Tehran and from local Azerbaijani-Turkish authorities. As one particularly salient example, when it comes to parliamentary races, many Kurdish candidates approved by Tehran to run for elections are subsequently rejected by the local authorities in West Azerbaijan who are, in some cases, operating independently of Tehran’s reach. Tensions between the province’s main two ethnic groups, thus, stand at an alarming level, particularly in comparison to other areas of the country.

    Türkiye's growing influence among Iran’s Azerbaijani-Turkish population

    The complex and strained nature of inter-ethnic dynamics in West Azerbaijan province, combined with the close ethnic affinity of Turks and Azerbaijanis, has made the Azerbaijani-Turkish community an important target of outreach for Türkiye, despite their religious differences, much to Iran’s concern. The widespread use of satellite dishes and access to Turkish channels since the 1990s have significantly contributed to amplifying Türkiye’s soft power among Iranian Azerbaijani-Turks: Many households in northwestern Iran, particularly Azerbaijani-Turks, regularly tune in to Turkish television stations. Moreover, Türkiye has been providing growing training and support, with a focus on cultural revival, to Azerbaijani-Turkish activists and journalists in West Azerbaijan through the Turkish consulate in Urmia city. This exposure and public diplomacy fosters awareness of Turkic solidarity as well as contributes to improved proficiency in the Turkish language, leading to an observed increase in Turkish influence since the early 2000s. As a result of this policy, the local Azerbaijani authorities in West Azerbaijan have added Azerbaijani-language toponyms to Farsi street names in the capital city of this province, Urmia. Additionally, the local Azerbaijani authorities push the usage of the Azerbaijani language over Farsi in official meetings, causing tension with Kurds. For instance, conflicts between Kurdish and Azerbaijani members of the Urmia city council over language use have prompted Kurdish members to walk out of meetings in protest. These incidents have sparked significant debate and anger on social media and in public opinion.

    Accompanying this Turkish-encouraged and (partially) -facilitated cultural revival is a radicalization of Azerbaijani-Turkish nationalism in this province, which has extended beyond opposition to Kurds to encompass Persians as well. In recent years, during most soccer matches in Azerbaijani-speaking Iranian cities, fans have been seen carrying flags of the Republics of Azerbaijan and Türkiye to the stadiums chanting, “Persians, Kurds, and Armenians are Turkish enemies,” which has been echoed in Turkish media. Tehran has tried to downplay the large turnouts at these demonstrations, mostly involving young people with less interest in religion and more in their ethnic identity. The responsibility for this shift lies partly with the Iranian regime due to its failure to provide adequate ethnic rights. Since the change of Iran from an empire to a modern nation-state based on Persian identity in the 1920s and the subsequent denial of rights to other ethnic groups — ranging from restricted access to justice, schooling, religious freedom, and political processes all the way to arbitrary imprisonment, repressed non-Farsi language use, and even a lower government focus on demining in minority-populated areas — resistance movements among many non-Persian Iranian ethnic groups have persisted in the pursuit of their political, cultural, and societal rights.

    Against this background, the Kurdish-populated region, which was divided between Iran and Türkiye due to wars between the Ottoman and Safavid empires, poses a challenge for Türkiye in implementing its Turkic world plan and establishing direct contact with Azerbaijanis in Iran. Most border cities and villages on both sides of Iran and Türkiye — much like villages on both sides of Türkiye’s borders with Iraq and Syria — have a majority-Kurdish population. And importantly, the Kurds of Iran’s border areas adjacent to Türkiye speak the same Kurdish Kurmanji dialect as Türkiye’s Kurds, whereas Iranian Kurds who live farther away from the border use the Sorani dialect. Türkiye claims members and supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an armed insurgency against the Turkish government for the past 40 years, are present in the border cities of Iran’s Kurdistan region and exploit these cross-border kinship and ethno-cultural ties. In 2020, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’ asserted that 100 PKK fighters were present in the northwestern Iranian city of Maku, and warned that if Iran did not remove them, Türkiye would act, implicitly calling to mind Türkiye's interventions against Kurdish militant forces in northern Syria.

    As a result of policies pursued by both Iran and Türkiye, tensions between the two ethnic groups in West Azerbaijan province dramatically and violently escalated two years ago. In July 2022, clashes erupted between Kurdish and Azerbaijani smugglers in Maku. Following the escalation, a group of Azerbaijani-Turks attacked a Kurdish summer-time tent camp in the Avajik Mako area, wielding sticks, clubs, and other weapons, leading to the destruction of the nomadic Kurdish herders’ tents by setting them on fire. Tragically, Azerbaijani attackers killed a 43-year-old Kurd, and in retaliation, the Kurds killed two Azerbaijani-Turks. Subsequently, more than 120 Kurdish nomad families and their 20,000 cattle were evicted or forcibly relocated by local — ethnically Azerbaijani-Turkish — authorities without compensation or explanation. Further enflaming the situation, the incident was reported in Türkiye’s Yeni Safak newspaper as supposedly having been sparked by a PKK attack on ethnic Turks in Iran, with accusations that the Iranian government was collaborating with the Kurdish group to ethnically cleanse the area.

    Can Iran counteract Turkish influence in West Azerbaijan?

    Tehran, aware of the growing threat posed by Ankara’s support for Azerbaijani-Turks inside Iranian borders, has belatedly attempted to reassert more centralized control over those areas where Kurds and Azerbaijanis have experienced tensions or come into open conflict. For the first time since the Islamic regime’s inception, two Shi’a Kurds from Khorasan (Mohammad Mehdi Shahriari, serving from September 2017 to October 2021) and Kermanshah provinces (Mohammad Sadiq Motamedian, in office since October 2021) have been appointed governors of West Azerbaijan (where the majority of resident Kurds adhere to Sunni Islam). Nonetheless, Azerbaijani-Turks still dominate most of the high-ranking administrative positions there. Among the four deputy governors — collectively responsible for political, security, and economic affairs, construction, as well as human resources — all are Azerbaijani-Turks. Similarly, out of the 17 administrative offices in the province, 14 are led by Azerbaijani-Turks, with the remaining two held by Kurds and one by a Persian.

    Also notably, Iran’s former president, Hassan Rouhani, in his visit to East Azerbaijan in 2019, referred to West Azerbaijan as “Urmia” — the Kurds’ preferred name for this province. However, the use of this name was an attempt not so much to appease Kurds but rather to try to counter Ankara’s messaging that maps West Azerbaijan as part of the “Turkic world.”

    Türkiye’s support for Azerbaijanis in Iran within the context of the development of the Turkic world has appeared in the rhetoric of Turkish leaders in recent years. In late 2020, while taking part in a military parade in Baku to commemorate Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in their 44-day war over the Karabakh enclave, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recited a short poem that symbolically called on all Turks to “liberate” Iran’s West Azerbaijan. The Iranians’ firestorm reaction to that poem prompted the two countries to summon each other’s envoys in Ankara and Tehran. The Turkish foreign minister at the time, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, asserted that Erdoğan had been unaware of the sensitivities around the poem and condemned what he called Tehran’s offensive response.

    Meanwhile, Iran has continued its years-long policy of supporting the PKK, not only to weaken Iranian Kurdish opposition parties such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Komala domestically but also to antagonize its longtime rival in the region, Türkiye, when needed. Tehran’s relationship with the PKK goes back to 1982, when Iran persuaded Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani to allow the PKK to establish camps in northern Iraq.

    However, the dynamics shifted when Iranian Kurdish cities erupted in massive rioting following the Turkish arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. Rallies in support of Öcalan swiftly morphed into protests against the Iranian regime for Kurdish rights. The government responded harshly, killing hundreds of protesters and arresting more than 2,000 across multiple Kurdish cities. Moreover, Iran asked the PKK to leave its territory, after having given them permission to stay and establish a base there since 1987.

    The 1999 protests in Iranian Kurdistan vividly demonstrated the PKK’s successful ability to garner substantial support from and to mobilize Iran’s Kurds. Indeed, a significant number of Iranian Kurds joined the PKK after 1999, leading to the establishment of a local branch known as the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK). Consequently, Iran switched tack and undertook a policy of support for Kurdish Alevis (who follow a form of Shi’a Islam), deliberately prioritizing their religious over their Kurdish identity. This has allowed Tehran to challenge Türkiye without inciting a Kurdish national movement at home.


    Iran’s Islamic regime, which has heavily invested in Shi’ite Islam as a cornerstone of both its internal and foreign policies, now faces the challenge of rising nationalism, both domestically and from its immediate neighborhood. And these ethno-nationalist forces are proving more powerful than the common religious identity of Shi’ism that the regime has sought to instill — a reality especially apparent among the young Azerbaijani-Turks. This demographic, more inclined toward adopting Turkish radical nationalism, poses a potential challenge to the Iranian regime. If current intra-ethnic tensions persist and Ankara and Tehran fail to stop their interference in each other’s affairs, history may repeat, turning the prolonged Turkish-Iranian cold war into a hot one. Unless current trends are halted, the contemporary successors to two former regional empires, Ottoman and Persian, could find themselves embroiled in armed hostilities along their border. However, the sectarian differences between Iranian Shi’a Azerbaijanis and Sunni Turks in Türkiye may not play out in the Islamic Republic’s favor, despite how these dynamics benefited the Safavid Empire against the Ottoman Empire in the early 1500s, when the Alevi of the Sunni Ottoman Empire sided with the Shi’a Safavids of Iran.

    Iran’s weak internal position and international isolation prevent it from wanting to directly confront Türkiye at this time, even though the latter has not shied away from supporting ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran or threatening to militarily pursue PKK forces inside Iran’s borders. Still, it is in both Tehran and Ankara’s interest to stop fueling inter-ethnic tensions on each other’s territories; the blowback and possible consequences would be exceedingly difficult to predict given the complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious natures of both countries’ societies.



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