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.
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.
Revolutionary activity in Iran in the early 1900s was centered in Tabriz, a majority ethnic Azeri city. After a failed attempt at autonomy in 1944, an ethnic Azeri group threw its weight behind the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s in the hopes of regaining their cultural rights, but those, too, were dashed.
The current nationalist movement, which has gathered strength since Azerbaijan's emergence, has been hamstrung by an internal lack of unity and threats from the Iranian government.
"We want to function systematically, not secretly," says Sadiq Isabeyli, head of public relations for the Baku branch of an Azeri Iranian activist group based in Iran. "But the government says we're enemies of the state and promote the interests of foreign countries and the United States."
Just how much the US has been supporting ethnic Azeris within Iran is unclear. A bulk of the funding is going to radio and television programming. Yet only one Azeri Iranian radio program – Window Into Iranian Azerbaijan – is broadcast into Iran, for only 10 minutes once a week. And support for the program, which comes from Voice of America – the US government's official radio and television service – started years earlier, says its host, Khadija Ismayilova.
The US has also courted ethnic Azeri activists, such as the prominent Mahmudali Chehrengali, granted asylum in the US several years ago, who claims that initial interest from various high-ranking officials has tapered off.
"The usual suspects in the administration who are hawkish have tried to pick up this issue [of tapping ethnic minorities in Iran], but cooler heads have prevailed," says Svante Cornell, research director of Johns Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and an expert on Azerbaijan.
Why US backed off
Part of the moderates' cautionary message appears to be based on the US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is rife with sectarian fighting.
"I think the US government is very cautious that it could influence the domestic policy in the country, because it has had such failures recently in that regard," says Patrick Clawson, deputy research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a leading expert on Iran.
Analysts say there are several key reasons why the US has stepped back from working too closely with ethnic minorities: fear of alienating Persian Iranians who are well represented in the US, the Azeri movement's ultimate goal of full independence, and the desire to prevent antagonizing Iran.
"While not excluding any Iranian citizens, we're not targeting ethnic minorities," says a US official familiar with US policy in Iran. "To single them out is to support Iranian accusations that we want revolution."
Mr. Cornell agrees. "If you were going to do something serious and subversive in Iran, you would use the Azerbaijani minority," says Cornell. "But the US doesn't want to split up Iran; it wants to change it internally."
While the US may have backed off from supporting Iran's ethnic minorities, its desire for end results may be unchanged. "Right now the trend I see is that the US is hoping the minorities will do something as a unit," says Mr. Obali, the GunazTV head. "But having an interest and hoping for something doesn't necessarily mean they are going to spend money."