Iran's ethnic Azeri community numbers roughly 15-20 million, or almost a quarter of the country's overall population. Most Azeris harbor deep feelings of resentment toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration in Tehran, and they are believed to have voted strongly for the aggrieved presidential challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi, who is himself an Azeri from Tabriz. Even so, most Azeris remain unwilling to take an active part in the continuing battle for control of Iran's social and economic agenda.
Mousavi's lackluster record on promoting civil rights for minority groups in Iran is the main reason why many Azeris are currently sitting on the sidelines. Iranian Azeris see little to gain from getting involved. Regardless of the outcome of the power struggle in Tehran and Qom, few Azeris expect that their quality of life will improve significantly.
Yashar Hakkakpour, spokesperson for the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran, an unofficial organization based in Tabriz, explains that Azeri activists see no advantage to be gained from pushing for Mousavi, or opposing Ahmadinejad.
"The Tehran-based organizations that back Mousavi do not report on the activists arrested in Azeri cities. Persian-language media ignores minorities. Why would Azeris support their cause?" asked Hakkakpour in a telephone interview from Van, Turkey. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"It does not mean that Azeris support the current regime," he added. "They just do not see a big difference."
That situation, argues another activist, explains why the reaction to events by Azeris in Azerbaijan proper has been relatively muted. For example, there have been no pro-Mousavi protests staged outside the Iranian Embassy in Baku.
One Tabriz-based Azeri cultural rights activist concurred with Hakkakpour. "We [ethnic Azeris] have decided not to interfere in the confrontation between the regime and Mousavi," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The activist pointed out that some prominent Mousavi backers today endorsed the use of coercive measures to contain Azeri protests in Tabriz and other cities in 2006. The protests erupted after an Iranian youth magazine published a cartoon in which an Azeri was depicted as a cockroach.
While most Azeris may not feel inclined to publicly display support for Mousavi, some did take to the streets following the June 12 rigged presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Media outlets in Azerbaijan reported that five people were killed and dozens injured in mass protests on June 13 and June 15 in Tabriz and Orumieh, the capitals of Iran's East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces, respectively. [For additional information click here].
In general, many areas with high concentrations of ethnic minorities -- not just East and West Azerbaijan, but also Kurdistan, Baluchistan and Khuzestan -- have been quiet amid the post-election tumult in Tehran. Minority groups, including Azeris, Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis, have long resented systematic discrimination carried out by authorities in Tehran, in particular restrictions on cultural and linguistic rights. But they don't see the present crisis as an opportunity to seek redress for their grievances.
Hardliners in Tehran are doing all in their power to make sure ethnic minorities don't become more active. The ethnic minority issue is a potential powder keg for Iran, and if it were to blow up at this time, it could completely alter the nature of the country's power struggle. Just as hardliners have flooded Tehran with security forces, they have placed the regional capitals of ethnic minority enclaves under lockdown conditions. Hardliners also reportedly told the Mousavi camp that security forces would take drastic action if it appeared that the opposition was trying to stir up trouble among ethnic minority groups.
During the presidential election campaign, both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad promised to expand civil rights for Azeris. Ahmadinejad, who claimed to speak Turkish, promised to allow Azeri-language classes in universities and schools, the Tabriz source told EurasiaNet. Mousavi, meanwhile, promised to designate Azeri as Iran's second official language and to grant greater financial autonomy to Azeri-populated regions.
But few Azeris treated these campaign pledges as anything more than empty rhetoric. "Every election, candidates come to Tabriz, Orumieh and other cities and make similar promises. However, once they win the elections, they immediately forget their promises," Hakkakpour said.
"Mousavi during his entire career has never shown concern about [Azeri language rights and pressure on ethnic Azeris] and there were no signs he is willing to bring changes," added Agri Garadagli, an Azeri activist now living in exile in Baku as the spokesperson for the South Azerbaijani National Awakening Movement.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.