Rumblings afoot in Azerbaijan

Washington officials continue to look for a way to
dislodge the clerical leadership of Iranís Islamic
Republic. The latest ploy may be to inflame passions
in the most politically active part of
Administration officials have been meeting quietly
with Mahmoud Ali Chehregani, who heads the Southern
Azerbaijan National Awakeness Movement which is
operating inside Iran. Although, according to the
Washington Times, defense officials emphasized their
meetings were not aimed at supporting or encouraging a
change in Iranís government, it is hard to believe
such an assertion. 

It is now no secret that the Bush administration would
like to see ďregime changeĒ in Iran. However, military
planners know that an Iraq-style invasion could not
win in a military conflict with Iranian troops.
Therefore the most satisfactory strategy for the White
House hawks will be to try to find an indigenous
resistance movement and provide it with financial,
possibly logistical, support and hope for the best. 

Chehregani seems ideal. He is an academic (a
linguist), and a charismatic figure. He was a popular
Parliament representative from Azerbaijan, elected
with 600,000 votes. He was imprisoned three years ago
for his strong protests against the Islamic regime,
but freed with the help of Amnesty International and a
letter from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. More
important, he espouses a secular, democratic
government for Iran. 
Azerbaijan is fertile ground for a new Iranian
political movement. It has traditionally been the part
of Iran with the loosest connections to Tehran.
Although culturally Iranian, the majority of its
population speaks Azeri ≠ a Turkic language. Armenian,
Assyrian and Kurdish communities make up significant
minority populations in the region 

Over the past century, four major anti-government
movements have begun from Azerbaijan, starting with
Iranís constitutional revolution in 1905. Azerbaijanis
also claim to have started the Islamic revolution of
1978-9. Its independent spirit was exploited by the
Soviet Union immediately after World War II.
Azerbaijanis also tried to set up an independent
Peopleís Republic of Azerbaijan in 1945. For a short
period, they succeeded. Then the Soviet Union tried to
convert it into a communist republic. The United
States intervened at that time, and the Iranian state
took the extraordinary measure of using the World
Court in the Hague to get the Soviets to withdraw. 

Ever since this period, the Iranian central state has
kept a wary eye on the Azerbaijanis. Under the shah,
publication in Azeri and other minority languages was
repressed, and although there has been some relaxation
of this policy, publication and school instruction in
Azeri is discouraged. 

Under the Islamic Republic, chief resistance to the
form of government espoused by Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini was Ayatollah Shariatmadari, who had
extensive support in Azerbaijan. When Khomeini held a
referendum on the kind of government Iranians were to
choose, he gave voters only one choice: an Islamic
republic with the chief Ayatollah as head.
Shariatmadari lobbied for wider choice, and his
followers rioted and occupied the Tabriz radio
station. Eventually, Shariatmadari was arrested and
stripped of his religious credentials, leaving
Azerbaijanis deeply resentful of this action. 

The idea of independence for Azerbaijan is still
alive. Chehregani was welcomed warmly in the former
Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. It is known that the
citizens of that country would welcome reunification
with Iranian Azerbaijan, something the Iranians do not
Chehregani has also espoused a government for Iran
that would be a federation, somewhat like the United
States or Germany, where individual states would have
a degree of autonomy. 

Still, President Aliyev of the Republic of Azerbaijan
is 80 years old and in poor health. He collapsed
suddenly on June 3. Although few people expect much
change in that nation upon his passing (his son is
being groomed for the presidency), one never knows. 

The United States is interested in the developments in
Azerbaijan not only because of the possibility of
launching regime change from an Azeri platform, but
because of something much more important ≠ oil. 
Azerbaijan lies just between the great Caspian oil
fields, and the oil fields of northern Iraq. The
transport of Caspian oil is one of the great economic
puzzles of modern times. If Iranian Azerbaijan were to
take a sharp turn toward the United States, a new
pipeline linking the Caspian fields with the Iraqi oil
delivery system would be constructed in a trice. 
The schemes for transforming Iran now seem to be
proliferating: using the Mujahideen Khalq (the
anti-Iranian government terrorist group in Iraq),
restoring the monarchy, direct military intervention.
With so many plans in play, can anyone doubt that one
of them, at least, will eventually be activated? Stay

William O. Beeman ( teaches
anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at
Brown University. He is author of Language, Status and
Power in Iran, and two forthcoming books: Double
Demons: Cultural Impediments to US-Iranian
Understanding; and Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.


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