“Iranian Turks: Hidden Force of Iran’s Chessboard”
Iranian Turks Hidden Force of Iran’s Chessboard
By Nijat Ismayilov
April 15, 2022
Iran is one of the most important actors in the global geopolitical arena. Its complex and changing foreign policy and the political and economic developments make the country into an actor constantly threatening the world order. All the political changes taken place within this country throughout history have led to a sharp shift in the balance of power in the region and the world.
From this point of view, the Iranian Turks, who have been the driving force and cause of all changes in Iran over the past 120 years, become a very attractive subject of study for international relations and analysts studying Iran as part of the world.
Who are the Iranian Turks?
Turks are the majority of group with influence in Iran contains a polyethnic society with 83 million population. It is difficult to say the exact number of Turks in Iran. The reason is the domestic policy pursued by the Mullah Regime in Iran. Thus, this regime obstructs serious research on the number, identities, territorial divisions and dates of ethnic groups in order to prevent internal divisions and separatist tendencies.
Even the annual reports prepared by the Statistical Centre of Iran, which reflect the country’s demographic indicators, do not show figures on the number of ethnic groups in the country. However, in our research on the number of Turks in Iran, we can cite the following figures, citing three reliable sources:
- According to statistics released by the United Nations Population Fund, 27% of Iran’s population is of Turkish origin, and 24% of them are Azerbaijani Turks.
- As regards the 2016 edition of The World Factbook published by the CIA on world countries, 61% of the Iranian population are Persians, 16% are Azerbaijani Turks, 10% are Kurds, and 6% are Lurs. It was noted that 2% were Baluchs, 2% Arabs and 2% Gashgay Turks and other Turkmen groups.
- As for the information we received from Iranian think tanks, 25-28 million of the 83 million people of Iran are Turks, of which 18-20 million are Azerbaijani Turks.
The second largest Turkic group in Iran after the Azerbaijanis is the Qashqais. Their number is estimated at 1.5-2 million. The Qashqais, who considered themselves the descendants of Genghis Khan, settled mostly in southeastern Iran, in the Persian province, especially around Shiraz.
The Turkmen, who are more or less the same number as the Qashqais, are the third largest group of Turks in Iran. Turkmens live in the north-east of the country, on the Iran-Turkmenistan border, in an area known as the “Turkmen Desert.” Turkmens are also compactly settled in provinces such as Gulustan and North Khorasan.
Shahsevan Turks, very similar to Azerbaijani Turks, settled in Gum, Tehran, Qazvin and Zanjan.
Hamadan Turks and Khorasan Turks are among the oldest Turkic-speaking inhabitants of Iran. The city of Gum, one of the religious centers of Iran, is considered to be the home of the Khalaj Turks. There are also Turkic-speaking groups such as Uzbeks, Sungurs and Tarakama settled in different parts of the country.
The influence of South Azerbaijanis in Iran
Although there are many Turkic-speaking groups in Iran, firstly South Azerbaijanis come to mind while we mention the Turks living Iran. This is due to the large number of South Azerbaijanis, their distinction as a strong group of influence, and their long rule over Iran.
Within the 1274 years starting from the collapse of the Sassanid Empire in 651 to the coming to power of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925, it was the Azerbaijanis who ruled the country at short intervals which is now called Iran. Although the dynasties and states changed, the Azerbaijani government in Iran (Ajam region) had not changed over the years. Even during the Abbasid, Mongol, Seljuk, and Teymurid periods, Azerbaijani Turks were considered as a dominant and effective ethnic group, even if they were not in power.
Additionally, Iranian Azerbaijanis had been the organiser and played the main role in the four major revolutionary movements in Iran over the past 120 years. The first bourgeois revolution in the history of Iran, the “Constitutional Revolution” of 1905-1911, aimed at establishing a parliamentary-style democratic regime in the country, was carried out under the leadership of Azerbaijani intellectuals and fighters (Sattarkhan and Bagirkhan). This movement was followed by another revolutionary movement of another Azerbaijani leader, Sheikh Mohammad Khiyabani, which took place in 1918-1920. (It is worthy to note that Khiyabani is a relative of Ali Khomeini, currently the supreme religious leader of Iran).
The third revolution, called “21 Azer” which only Azerbaijani Turks participated, took place in 1945 under the leadership of Seyid Jafar Peshawari. As a result of this revolution, the first independent state with its capital in Tabriz was established in South Azerbaijan. Although this state lasted only a year, so far it has allowed a significant part of Iranian Azerbaijanis to form a philosophy of independent statehood.
The fourth and most successful revolution was the famous Islamic revolution in 1979. Azerbaijani intellectuals and religious figures were among the organisers of this revolution. Although many people only know Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the real architect of this revolution was the Azerbaijani Ayatollah Mohammad Kazim Shariatmadari. He overthrew the Shah by forming an alliance with Khomeini as the leader of the Iranian Turks, who protested against the anti-Turkic policy of the Pahlavi regime. Shariatmadari, who defended the political and cultural rights of Iranian Turks, was later arrested by Khomeini.
Mullah Regime and Turks
The 120-year history of Iran’s revolution proves that the Azerbaijani Turks are the main ethnic group in this country and the only force that could change the political system in Iran.
Nowadays, the attitude of the Turks in Iran to the regime is equivocal. In some South Azerbaijani-dominated cities, especially Tabriz, local Turks are anti-regime and pro-independence. However, in general, cities such as Ardabil, Khorasan, Meshkin, Urmia, which have a population of mainly South Azerbaijanis, have become social strongholds of the regime. This is because the vast majority of local Turks are Shiites and Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, the head of the regime, is of Turkic origin.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of Iranian Turks do not fully support the Mullah Regime. They are currently facing the problem of national identity and language. The lack of schools for 20 million Azerbaijanis for teaching and learning their own language and the inability to promote their national history and culture is exacerbating the Turks’ attitude towards the regime.
The Mullah Regime in Iran also sees “freedom-loving” Turks as the biggest threat to its government. National activists demanding the independence of South Azerbaijan are either arrested or executed. The Iranian regime is aware of the power of the Turks as an ethnic group, and pursues a different policy within the country to prevent this power from overcoming them.
In order to maintain the regime’s power, it seeks to prevent these groups from uniting against it by creating artificial tensions between the Persians, Turks and Kurds. Ancient Rome’s “divide and rule” policy is now part of the regime’s domestic policy strategy.
Noting that this policy of the mullahs has been quite successful. Tensions between Persian and Turkish intellectuals have become common issue in Iran. These tensions have hampered the solidarity of Persians and Turks in recent uprisings against the regime. For example, the Persians did not join the Turkic protests in 2009, 2015 and 2016, and the Turks did not join the Persian uprisings that began in 2018, 2020 and 2021. Therefore, none of these internal uprisings become a revolution against the regime.
The Mullah Regime is also pursuing very subtle diplomacy to cut off the cultural and historical ties of the Turks in Iran with Turkey and Azerbaijan. For example, the term “Iranian Turk”, which we have repeatedly used in the article, is the name given by the regime to Azerbaijanis in the country. In fact, the Iranian Turks mean a small number of Khorasan, Khalaj, Hamadan and Qashqai Turks. Giving the South Azerbaijanis, who make up the vast majority of the Turkic population, the name of Iranian Turks, highlights some subtle issues, such as emphasizing their ethnic differences with the Independent Republic of Azerbaijan in the North.
Thus, at present, the Mullah Regime continues to rule with the slogan of one ummah, (Shiite) state (Iran) and one language (Persian). Although Iranian Turks are dissatisfied with the regime being the only force in the country that can overthrow this regime, they do not support any revolutionary movement because they cannot form an alliance with the Persians and Kurds and do not trust them. Moreover, they agree that mullahs who do not emphasize ethnic identity should remain in power, rather than Persian political activists who want the Pahlavi regime to continue. In general, the overthrow of the Mullah Regime in Iran now seems possible in only two ways. The first way is for the two dominant ethnic groups, the Turks and the Persians, to fight together against the regime, and the second way is for the Turks and Kurds to intensify their efforts to secede from Iran and establish an independent state.