The authorities in Iran, fearing the onset of mass protest actions on the eve of the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s murder (September 16), have encountered another uncontrollable problem – the elusive southern Azerbaijanis. They are organizing creative protests, fighting for the fundamental rights of the 30 million southern Azerbaijanis, which were taken away from them by the Iranian state as of 1925.
Recently, the Telegram channel Guney AZfront, managed by activists in Tabriz, the cultural capital of South Azerbaijan, received recognition from Iranian authorities and free advertising on the official Telegram channel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
On September 1st, for two hours, several cars adorned with AZfront emblems, South Azerbaijani flags, and slogans in the Azerbaijani language calling for independence from Iran, paraded through the main streets of Tabriz. Photos and videos of the event were posted on the AZfront channel.
The official Telegram channel of the IRGC, Sepah_pasdaran, one of the main mouthpieces of the Ayatollah regime, shared a video of the event with threats directed at the organizers.
It is unlikely that the editors of AZfront and the organizers and participants of the Car Rally had ever dreamed of such massive publicity within the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the IRGC channel boasts over 385,000 subscribers.
IRGC posted AZfront’s video with the following commentary: “Decisive measures are required against separatists in the western part of the country. Undoubtedly, security forces will swiftly dismantle this network of activists and harshly punish those who betray their homeland.”
The post on the IRGC Telegram channel about the AZfront protest has become one of the most popular posts of the year there, garnering over 700 comments where people express frustration with the regime’s apparent inability to deal with a “handful of separatists.” The posts demanded a “relentless fight against separatists” and called for “shooting” Azerbaijani “nationalists.” Expressing profound disappointment with the “security forces,” subscribers suggested involving Afghan militants in the fight against the AZfront underground, similar to how the IRGC engaged Shiite fighters from Afghanistan in the war in Syria.
The frustration expressed by pro-government commentators over the IRGC’s perceived ineffectiveness is easily understandable. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been trying to apprehend at least one person from the organizations united under the AZfront Telegram channel for over six months now. As far back as May of this year, enormous billboards featuring the AZfront logos, South Azerbaijani flags, and calls for independence were displayed on the city’s largest bridges in Tabriz.
The IRGC and the Basij militia have launched a veritable hunt for Tabriz-based AZfront activists. So far, all their efforts have proven fruitless: in nearly four months, they have apprehended several individuals who had no connection whatsoever with the channel.
Sources in Tabriz report that the leadership of the local IRGC branch and the Basij “volunteer” forces are in a state of complete bewilderment. In the upper echelons of these organizations in the East Azerbaijan province, there is now an intensive search for individuals to blame for the failure. Furthermore, higher authorities in Tehran are expressing growing dissatisfaction: inspections from the central government are expected and even personnel changes are on the horizon.
While the IRGC and Basij were in pursuit of elusive separatists, activists were actively engaged in advocacy efforts in Israel, Europe and the United States. The truth about the situation of the largest ethnic minority in Iran, the Southern Azerbaijanis, about the Ayatollah regime’s policy of forced Iranization and discrimination against them, about the repression and other forms of persecution, has been communicated to government officials, parliamentarians, human rights advocates, journalists and the general public.
Since April, dozens of publications on this topic have been initiated by activists in major media outlets in Israel, the United States, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Germany. Notable publications highlighting the activities of Southern Azerbaijanis in Tabriz include: Newsweek, The National Interest, a publication associated with the Republican Party; The Jerusalem Post, the most authoritative English-language media outlet in Israel; Stiripesurse, one of Romania’s leading media outlets; Sofia Globe, the only English-language publication in Bulgaria; and The Jewish Tribune, Britain’s primary Jewish newspaper.
Citing the activity of AZfront subscribers, Israeli lawmakers urged their foreign minister to secure international support for the national aspirations of Southern Azerbaijanis.
On April 6, during a conference held in Vienna with the participation of former Vice Chancellor of Austria Heinz-Christian Strache, a video presentation showcasing the actions of activists in Southern Azerbaijan was featured. On July 6, at the initiative of AZfront, a special event dedicated to the issue of Southern Azerbaijan took place in the European Parliament. One of the editors of Guney AZfront addressed European parliamentarians and human rights advocates via video link from Tabriz calling on them not to silence the “issue of violence and discrimination against a third of Iran’s population.”
The activity of AZfront in South Azerbaijan serves different objectives: it aims to enhance national consciousness among the local population and to advocate extensive coverage of the issues faced by Southern Azerbaijanis. The efforts of these activists are intended to bring about support of the hope of establishing an independent South Azerbaijani state with its historic capital, Tabriz.
This hope should be shared and supported by the Southern Azerbaijani minority of Iran and the entire international community.