It was recently reported that the United States government seeks to possibly make a fresh nuclear deal with Iran, where the US would provide sanctions relief to the mullahs in exchange for a decrease in uranium enrichment. While it was widely reported that Israeli officials are very much against this possible nuclear deal, what is less reported is that Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim Shia country, is also opposed to this nuclear deal, as are South Azerbaijani dissidents from Iran. Since Azerbaijan is an ally of the State of Israel and the United States that borders Iran, it would behoove the United States to understand the Azerbaijani position before going forward with any nuclear deal.
Tarlan Ahmadov, the head of the Azerbaijani Society of Maine, stated that Azerbaijani Americans are very upset that the US would make such a deal, when the Iranians are holding an Azerbaijani student hostage: “We are very stressed by the outrageous actions of Iran by arresting Azerbaijani students and tourists that visit Iran. It is clearly the government is doing this. Azerbaijan is not the first country that they did this to. Iran has a history of doing this to civilians that visit their soil, imprisoning them with falsified accusations and making people miserable, and destroying the lives of people with false espionage and other charges. They are torturing people. The Azerbaijani people imprisoned in Iran have been tortured. The Azerbaijani government is trying to negotiate with the Iranian government to free them, but they are hostile towards their neighbors and support terrorism in the world.”
According to him, “there is nothing ok with a nuclear deal. The whole idea of giving a break to the Iranian government will lead to them creating a nuclear bomb, and threatening other countries like Israel and Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijanis, we are very unhappy with these negotiations. The US government should not forget what happens with South Azerbaijanis and their rights, and the constant violation of their human rights, with the killing and oppression of minorities. The US should not negotiate with this government and should not let them do everything they want. Iran must be pushed to stop all this nuclear program and to stop their terrorist activities, and their support for terrorism against Israel, Azerbaijan and democracy in the region and the world. The US government must put the interests of its allies in the region first before making any deal.”
Azerbaijani activist Ahmad Hashemi added that taking hostages and then releasing them is a foreign policy tool for the Iranian regime and any kind of sanctions relief will just embolden Iran to continue this policy: “Iran benefits from this lucrative business for the last decades. Iran catches foreign nationals and releases them in return for a huge sum of money or uses them as a tool for leverage. Hostage diplomacy is a lucrative money-making tool since the Iranian Revolution. The first move was taking US diplomats hostage for 444 days and then asking concessions from the US. Recently, an Iranian diplomat terrorist was released in exchange for some Belgian hostages. They held them in Evin Prison. Now, they want to bring back home other diplomat terrorists in return for some other concessions from the West.”
According to him, Iran bullies Azerbaijan for three reasons; 1) to force Azerbaijan to abandon its partnership with Israel; 2) to penetrate into Azerbaijani politics and to let Shia extremists thrive in Azerbaijan, where there is a long secular tradition; 3) Iran tries to prevent the so-called the opening of the Zangezur Corridor. He noted that “Iran is concerned that this will lead to a Turkic alliance. These are the reasons why Iran tries to terrorize Azerbaijan, attack MP’s and attacks the embassy and now takes a student hostage. Now, the Iranians are going to demand concessions to release that student who went to Iran for romantic reasons.”
He argued that South Azerbaijan is a top existential threat to the Iranian regime and thus it would behoove the West to support South Azerbaijani freedom rather than appease the mullahs with sanctions relief: “Iran mistreats all ethnic minorities and treats them as second-class citizens. Iran is an apartheid regime. Ethnic Persians in the school text books are superior and they teach that their language should be forced on non-Persians. Azerbaijanis and other non-Persian groups are portrayed negatively. Good things are only attributed to the Persians. Then, there is gender apartheid.”
He noted during recent protests, “women tried to be liberated from the misogyny, where women are considered half of a man in Iran’s law. And then Shias are considered first class citizens, while Sunnis, Jews, Christians and Bahais are second class citizens. This is why there are an independence movement among South Azerbaijanis. A lot of them want independence from Persian tyranny for they see no future with their oppression that imposes Persian, male and Shia supremacy. Iran considers Azerbaijan to be everything they are fearful of. Azerbaijan has secular values and interfaith coexistence, where Christians, Jews, Shias and Sunnis live peacefully. Azerbaijan has co-ethnic ties with 40 percent of Iran’s population. All of these identities that are affiliated with Azerbaijan go against what Iran is.”
Babek Chalabi, a South Azerbaijani activist, added that being anti-Azerbaijan is viewed by Tehran to be critical for the survival of the mullah’s regime, as their regime is based upon terror and fear: “Iran perceives Azerbaijan as its primary vulnerability, implementing a dual-pronged strategy against it. Despite outwardly expressing support for Azerbaijan during the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories, Iran’s logistical and military support for Armenia was evident. The expansion of the internet and social media platforms has made Iran’s pro-Armenia stance harder to disguise, causing a surge of resentment among Azerbaijanis. This anger manifested in widespread protests against the regime across various cities in South Azerbaijan during the Second Karabakh War.”
He explained the history of Iran’s animosity towards Azerbaijan as follows: “For the past three decades, Iran’s support for Armenia’s occupation was strategically designed to distract Azerbaijan from the plight of their southern compatriots in South Azerbaijan. The substantial Azerbaijani population in Iran could foster a robust bridge between the two countries. However, the pan-Persianism policy adopted by Iran’s regime infringes on their fundamental rights. Tehran’s security-oriented perspective on the Turks has led to prohibiting Turkish language instruction in schools, fostering a climate of cultural assimilation for Azerbaijanis.”
But the outcome of the Second Karabakh War “caught Iran off guard,” Chalabi noted, which led to increased Iranian aggression against Azerbaijan which will only be emboldened if there is sanctions relief in the framework of a new Iran deal. “The Azerbaijani army’s rapid liberation of occupied territories in just 44 days was an unwelcome surprise for Iran, which reacted unfavorably to Azerbaijan’s victory. The moral backing of Turkey and the employment of advanced Israeli military equipment further incensed Iran. In response, Iran attempted to delay the peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia, using various tactics, including inciting Armenian nationalists, conducting military exercises on the Araz beach, and issuing verbal threats through IRGC commanders.” Lately, Iranian media has been vocally opposed to the construction of the Zangezur Corridor, arguing that it will cut off Armenia from Iran, thus making it harder for Iran to use Armenia to oppose Western-backed sanctions.
Due to frustration over Azerbaijani gains to the detriment of Iran, Chalabi noted that “the situation escalated with an armed attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, resulting in the death of a security guard. This led to the closure of the Azerbaijani embassy and the expulsion of four Iranian embassy employees in Baku on charges of espionage. Iran’s attempt to provoke disorder and insurrection in Azerbaijan through the Hosseinyoun terrorist group has been largely unsuccessful due to the vigilance of Azerbaijani security forces.”
Chalabi believes “Azerbaijan is on the correct trajectory and deserves the global community’s support in its stance against Iran. Iran’s only reasonable course of action is to acquiesce to Azerbaijan’s conditions. However, some of Azerbaijan’s allies must refrain from enticing it into making concessions to Iran,” in a clear hint to the Biden administration as they edge closer to a fresh nuclear deal. He concluded: “While this perspective may not resonate with everyone, I firmly believe that bolstering South Azerbaijanis is the most viable strategy to curtail Iran’s ambitions. With a population running into millions, Azerbaijanis have the potential to exert significant control over Iran, a capability that is seemingly absent among the other opposition groups.”
Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and an Israel-based journalist. She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media.”