Azeris caught in US-Iran tussle
A planned protest Tuesday highlights long-brewing frustrations of Iran's largest minority, which some say Washington is trying to exploit to undermine Tehran.
When ethnic Azeris take to the streets of northern Iran Tuesday, they'll be closely watched for signs of a growing nationalist movement – one that may be getting caught up in a larger tussle between Washington and Tehran.Skip to next paragraph
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Nominally, Azeri Iranians will be marking the first anniversary of large protests sparked by an insulting cartoon of a cockroach speaking Azeri. But at a deeper level, they're driven by long-brewing frustration that their cultural rights have not been respected in Persian Iran, where they have a history of being on the front lines of upheaval.
Tehran is wary because, according to some, the US has tried to tap into those ethnic tensions as a possible pressure point for promoting regime change within Iran.
Though interest from US Department of Defense officials and others has receded over the past year, at least publicly, ethnic Azeris say they feel even more vulnerable as a result.
"These US officials have actually damaged our cause," says Ahmad Obali, a US-based Azeri Iranian activist and head of GunazTV, which broadcasts to ethnic Azeris in Iran. "Not only have we not received anything, but Iran is blaming us for being sponsored by them."
Hersh: US recruiting Azeris in Iran
Seymour Hersh brought widespread attention to claims of covert operations in Iran when he reported in an April 2006 New Yorker article that US troops in Iran were recruiting local ethnic populations, including the Azeris, to encourage local tensions that could undermine the regime.
The US has denied such reports, though it acknowledges several initiatives related to Iran: It's established an Office of Iranian Affairs; committed $75 million to promoting democracy in Iran; installed an "Iran watcher" in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, as well as other cities near Iran; and helped Azerbaijan build a radar station on the Iranian border for the stated purpose of monitoring the Caspian Sea.
But Mr. Hersh and others, such as Massoud Khodabandeh, an Iranian analyst at the Paris-based Center of Research and Terrorism, suggest the State Department may not be apprised of everything the CIA might be doing in the region. Mr. Obali says Hersh's article was based on valid information at the time of publication, but that the situation has since changed.
Ethnic Azeris have meanwhile taken pains to distance themselves from these reports, which, along with the declared $75 million for democracy promotion within Iran, have been used by the Iranian government as a basis for crackdowns and arrests.
Azeri legacy of challenging Tehran
By far the largest of Iran's minority groups, ethnic Azeris have long played a complicated role in Iran's domestic policies. A greater Azerbaijan was split into northern and southern parts in 1828. The northern half became independent Azerbaijan in 1991, while the southern half remains part of Iran.
In Iran, ethnic Azeris have a history of being well integrated into the highest power structures – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for one, is Azeri – as well as a legacy of frequently pushing the Iranian government hard on its policies.