Thursday, December 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Is Iran Planning to Move Its Capital Because of Country’s Azerbaijani Minority?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 26 – Iranian officials have taken a preliminary decision to move their country’s capital from Tehran to another city, ostensibly because of overpopulation and the threat of earthquakes where it is now located.  But a Russian analyst says that security issues may be involved, including concerns about the country’s large ethnic Azerbaijani minority.

            In an article in “Vzglyad” on Tuesday, Stanislav Borzyakov notes that the planning committee of the Iranian mejlis “has taken a decision on moving the capital of the state from Tehran to an as yet unnamed city,” a step he says has the backing of Supreme Ruler Ali Khamenei (

            Iranian officials in arguing for this change have pointed to Tehran’s overpopulation and the transportation and infrastructure problems that causes, crime, environmental and health concerns, and the current capital’s local in a seismically active zone where they have been many earthquakes.

            But there is “a fifth factor,” politics, that may be playing the most important role of all, Boryakov continues.  Moving the capital northwards would give Iran’s leadership greater security from attack from the south; and at the same time, it would help integrate the ethnic Azerbaijani minority living there who today form more than a quarter of Iran’s population.

            Tabriz, Iran’s fourth largest city, would be a logical choice for both historical reasons – it was a Persian capital at various points in the past – and for present-day ones – that northern city is often identified as “a center of [ethnic] Azerbaijani separatism” and thus a problem for the central government.

            There are more than twice as many ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran as there are in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Iran became a Persian state “in the first instance” because of the Russian conquest of the north, he continues. “If history had worked out otherwise, it is not excluded that Azerbaijanis would have dominated [Iran].”

                Both after the Russian Revolution and during World War II, there were efforts to create a Southern Azerbaijani state, but these were ultimately countered by the Persian-centered nationalism of the Pahlevi dynasty. Given that attitude, it is not surprising that “Azerbaijanis became the avant-garde of the Islamic Revolution” in 1979 and that “Tabriz became its cradle.”

                The Azerbaijanis who took part in that revolution were fighting “not so much for an Islamic state as for national autonomy” and followed Ayatollah Mohammed Kazem Shariatmardari, an ethnic Azerbaijani by origin.” But once again, Iran’s Azerbaijanis lost out, this time to Tehran and Qum’s promotion of super-national Islamic solidarity.

                After the revolution institutionalized itself, Tehran allowed the ethnic Azerbaijanis to have their own media and some native language instruction in the schools, but the central government blocked all efforts for political, linguistic or cultural autonomy. That led to protests in Tabriz and across the north, protests that Tehran put down with particular cruelty.

            Nonetheless, the issue has continued to percolate, often just below the surface of high politics in Iran.  The 2009 presidential elections, for instance, had a nationality subtext. They were not simply “the struggle of the reformers of Musavi against the conservatives of Akhmadinejad” but also between Musavi as an Azerbaijani and Ahmadinejad who may have been one too but who “did not position himself as such.”

            Obviously, in Iran, there is an unwritten prohibition of any public discussion about “the Azerbaijani question” or about “separatist threats.”  But if Iran does decide to move the capital, Boryakov argues, that question and those threats are likely to be more important considerations than the environment, overpopulation or even security.

            If Iran’s capital were to be in Tabriz,that would undermine any Azerbaijani particularism by transforming what has been “a nest of separatists into a bastion of the supreme power.” And that is something the Iranian leadership understands full well. Ayatollah Khamenei after all is himself an Azerbaijani by background but totally committed to “a super-national Islamic Iran.”

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