Major cities of so-called Southern Azerbaijan – northern regions of Iran — are seeing a massive surge in discontent and demonstrations again. Tabriz, Ardebil, Zendjan, Qazvin, Julfa became centres of the unrest. Students and teachers are taking to the streets to protest serial mass poisoning of schoolgirls by unknown perpetrators. Poisonings are happening all over Iran, and seemingly deliberately targeting girls and female students. They took place in over 200 educational facilities through the past weeks, but security forces are doing nothing, thus confirming the opinion that it’s a governmental plot to intimidate young women, who took active part in the protests. Northern Iran, populated mostly by ethnic Azerbaijani minority – “Southern Azerbaijanis” — suffers from these poisonings more than central regions, not just because it is a peripheral area, but also because it is utterly underdeveloped in terms of medical services.
This is part of consistent oppression and discrimination against the minority. The very fact that it is not known how many Southern Azerbaijanis live in Iran, 18 or 30 million, is evidence of discrimination in itself. There is a plethora of examples: the Iranian government prohibits giving Azerbaijani names to newborn babies, the government has restricted their cultural expression by imposing limits on the use of the Azerbaijani language in the media, literature, art and education.
Activists who advocate for the rights of the people of South Azerbaijan are being persecuted and imprisoned. For example, Alireza Farshi, a prominent activist from South Azerbaijan (https://www.amnesty.org.uk/urgent-actions/defender-beaten-and-denied-health-care), was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her role in promoting the use of the Azerbaijani language on International Mother’s Language Day, and for distributing books to young people in South Azerbaijan to encourage them to learn and speak in their native language.
The social assistance programs for the provinces where Southern Azerbaijanis live are much scarcer than in any other region. The problem of draining Lake Urmia, around which many ethnic Azerbaijanis live, is deliberately not addressed by the Iranian authorities, which leads to the decrease in agricultural produce, poverty and malnutrition.
These are the reasons why Southern Azerbaijanis are the most active minority taking part in the recent protests against the regime.
Though it seemed at the end of 2022 that harsh repressions put an end to the demonstrations and other actions of Southern Azerbaijanis, there is a new wave of uprising, which is much harder to stop, and which constitutes a significant threat to Tehran.
The idea of an independent Southern Azerbaijan, which has always been menacing the Iranian regime, has made a comeback. If previously the protest movement of the Iranian Azerbaijanis suffered from a total lack of coordination, recently everything has changed (https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/middle-east/iran-eastern-states/1677754384-iran-s-new-old-fear-southern-azerbaijan-wants-independence). At least eight major movements with different agendas have emerged, ranging from demands to grant cultural autonomy to independence. Some of them see future Southern Azerbaijan as an Azeri clone of Iran, others wish for a westernized state, resembling Turkey and Azerbaijan.
All the organisations joined forces in Tabriz, the historical and cultural centre of Southern Azerbaijanis. The process was organised by the activists of the Guney AZfront (https://t.me/guneyazfront9) Telegram channel, which started at the beginning of February to plaster leaflets with the flag of Independent Southern Azerbaijan all over the city’s major locations, government buildings and even the IRGC offices and barracks.
The second wave of leaflets carried not just a flag, but the symbols of all the major organisations.
Videos of posters and flyers of all sizes and quality are being shared on regional social networks and in Telegram. (Note: insert video here). Then came the turn of a flash mob: a large number of Iranian Azerbaijanis started snapping pictures in front of well-known structures in Tabriz while using leaflets to hide their faces – not to be apprehended by the Iranian security services. Up till now none of the activists of the independence movement ha been arrested, although Tabriz is flooded with police and IRGC patrols.
The regime claims that the “separatists” are supported by Israeli and Azerbaijani intelligence. Iranian officials have pointed out that in July 2021, Israel’s ambassador to Baku, George Deek, tweeted a photo of himself reading a book called “Mysterious Tales of Tabriz”.
“I’m learning so much about Azerbaijani history and culture in Tabriz in this great book I was recently presented. What are you guys reading these days?” – he wrote (https://twitter.com/GeorgeDeek/status/1549774617061036034).
Also, Iranian pro government analysts have referrred to the words of President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on November 2022 Summit of the Organisation of Turkic States. “The young generation of the Turkic world should have the opportunity to study in their mother tongue in the countries of their residence. Unfortunately, most of the 40 million Azerbaijanis living outside Azerbaijan are deprived of these opportunities. Education of our compatriots living outside Turkic states in their mother tongue should always be on the organisation’s agenda. Necessary steps should be taken in this direction”, Aliyev stated.
Recent rapid development of strategic cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan fuels Tehran’s fears. If the secession of Southern Azerbaijan does takes place, Iran will collapse. Strangely enough, the Iranian regime does not consider an option of warming up its relations with Southern Azerbaijanis.
On March 25 in Brussels a mass demonstration of Iranian Azerbaijanis is planned in front of the Belgian parliament. “The March of Freedom and Justice”, as it is called, will mark the beginning of a campaign to gain support for an independent Southern Azerbaijan.
The movement for independence depends on the support of the West: it is vital for its very existence. Although the subject of secession has come up before, this is the first time that local organisations have joined forces.