Iraq, Turkey, Iran Vulnerable To Ethnic Conflict
By Abbas Djavadi
Occasionally, I have heated discussions with my
Turkish and Kurdish friends. Most of those from Iraq's Kurdistan region,
emboldened by the region's semi-independence from Baghdad and its current
relative stability, warn that it would declare independence if things fall apart
At this juncture, we have
serious disagreements over whether the resulting small, landlocked country
encircled by hostile neighbors (Arab Iraq, Iran, and Turkey) would be viable.
Even a "Greater Kurdistan,"
although seemingly an impossible project that would lead to decades of bloodshed
and destruction, would not drastically change the geostrategic environment of
that new independent state.
The Turks are certainly very
strongly opposed to any manifestations of separatism and, no doubt, Turkey's
strong and popular army would do its utmost to suppress any independent Kurdish
state proclaimed on Turkish territory. Its reaction would be much harsher than
the current efforts to contain the PKK.
The International Crisis Group
recently published a report titled "Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: Conflict or
Cooperation?" which I strongly recommend to all those with an interest in this
"At a time when Arab-Kurdish tensions still threaten Iraq's stability," the
report says, "neighboring Turkey's approach toward Iraqi Kurdistan has been a
study in contrasts: Turkish jets periodically bomb suspected hideouts of the
banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, and Ankara expresses
alarm at the prospect of Kurdish independence, yet at the same time has
significantly deepened its ties to the Iraqi Kurdish region.
"Both Turkey and Iraq's
Kurdistan Regional Government would be well served by keeping ultranationalism
at bay and continuing to invest in a relationship that, though fragile and
buffeted by the many uncertainties surrounding Iraq, has proved remarkably
pragmatic and fruitful."
Most Iranian Kurds are Sunnis, while the Iranians
are Shi'a, and the heavy shadow of Shi'a Islam pervades state ideology and
practice. But despite their high ethnic awareness and strong feelings of kinship
with the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, with whom they want to enjoy close contact
and trade relations, they do not seem to have strong aspirations to secede from
I am not sure what percent of Turkey's estimated 10 million to 15 million Kurds
would really favor Kurdish independence from Turkey. Probably not many. But I
believe most of those who look beyond today's low-level conflicts and problems
ask themselves how wise it would be to sever relations with a modern,
Westernizing Turkey and join their ethnic brethren in a united but uncertain, if
not dangerous, future.
Iran's Kurds are in a somewhat different situation
But although Iran's Kurds identify more closely with the state than do their
co-ethnics in Turkey, the two groups share the same wishes and demands: to be
able to use their own language in all spheres of public life, including
education and courts of law; support for their ethnic and regional culture,
which has been not only ignored but also suppressed in both countries; and some
degree of local or provincial/regional autonomy.
Iran's Azeris, who live mainly in the provinces of eastern and western
Azerbaijan and Iran's Ardabil and Zanjan, have been and still are a large and
influential ethnic group with a strong commitment to the country's unity and
territorial integrity. They are Shi'a, like most other Iranians. They speak a
slightly different dialect of Azeri Turkish (as opposed to Persian, Iran's
official national language) than that of the neighboring Republic of Azerbaijan
to the north. The Turkish spoken in Turkey is also quite similar to Azeri
Since the establishment of a unified and central education system in the 1920s,
Iran has not permitted the official use of the non-Persian languages of other
Muslim ethnic groups such as the Azeris, Kurds, Turkomans, Arabs, and Baluchis.
This reflects both the drive to build a unitary and modern country, as well as
the fear of potential separatism. But the use of the languages of some
non-Muslim groups, notably the Armenians, has been tolerated.
Both under the late Shah and in the Islamic republic, Armenians have had their
own schools in which subjects such as language, history, and religion are taught
in Armenian. The main reasons for this discrepancy have been the perception that
the relatively small Armenian community does not pose a separatist threat, and
the historical understanding, which also holds good for Turkey, that all Muslims
are one nation and that members of each nation need only one official, national
language -- Persian in Iran and Turkish in Turkey.
Although deprived of the right to use their mother tongue in education and state
bodies, Iran's Azeris have demonstrated a stronger commitment to national
Iranian affairs (politics, labor, economic activity, and trade) than to local or
ethnic issues such as language and culture. Over the past three decades, the
Republic of Azerbaijan has transformed itself into an independent country with a
dominant Azeri language and culture, and Turkey has evolved into a modernizing
republic with free media, elections, a liberal and Western-style government
system, and a prospering economy -- a NATO member that aspires to join the
These developments in the immediate neighborhood and the international isolation
of Iran have not given rise to much sense of pan-Turkic or separatist tendencies
among Iranian Azeris, who still consider themselves strongly Iranian in the
first place, and Azeri only second. Additionally, the national memory of a
one-year (1945-46) pro-Soviet autonomous republic in Iranian Azerbaijan that
aspired to become part of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan (and ultimately the
Soviet Union) has created fears and strong reservations among Iranians (and most
Iranian Azeris) that any demands by the latter for ethnic and cultural rights
would ultimately be directed against Iran's territorial integrity.
Still, especially after the fall of the Shah, there have been individual or
collective calls for linguistic and cultural rights for Iranian Azeris launched
by social movements that have increasingly enjoyed popular understanding or even
sympathy among the Iranian Azeri public. The Islamic regime, however, views all
such demands as ultimately harmful to the country's territorial integrity, and
has suppressed them harshly. Even the implementation of a constitutional article
granting the right to use non-Persian languages has been delayed since the
establishment of the Islamic republic.
The Kurdish issue is currently a source of serious tension and danger for Turkey
and, to some extent, for Iran, too. If Iraq disintegrates and Iraqi Kurds
declare independence, neighboring Turkey and Iran may also be drawn into the
resulting chaos and violence.
Although currently not an urgent threat, in the event that Iraq implodes, the
Azeri ethnic issue in Iran has the potential to become a major source of
regional instability that would affect not just Iran, but also the Republic of
Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Armenia.
Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views
expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect
those of RFE/RL
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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