Member of the US Congress Dana Rohrabacher recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the United States to back freedom for Azeris from Iran. How would you comment on that?
Dana Rohrabacher’s letter to Secretary of State Clinton was the first gesture by an American politician to draw attention to the plight of Azerbaijanis in Iran in recent memory. Unbeknownst to many in the Western world, in the past few years, Iran has recently been seized by a wave of ethno-nationalism in its Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Baluchi, and Arab regions--comprised of minority groups who have been calling for not only self-determination, but the basic human rights of cultural expression and access to linguistic education in their native languages. Rohrabacher is actively aiming to draw awareness to this phenomena.
On September 12, Rohrabacher went one step further and introduced House Concurrent Resolution 137, expressing the view that the Azerbaijanis in Iran (South Azerbaijanis) and Azerbaijan are of the same stock, unwillingly separated in 1828, and should be granted their internationally-accepted right of self-determination. His bill falls in accordance with Article 1 of the UN charter, which guarantees the right of all peoples to determine their respective fates. It should be noted that the bill is a Concurrent Resolution, meaning a non-binding statement in Congress that essentially has no enforceability.
Despite this fact, however, there has been a disconcerting wave of backlash against Rohrabacher from the Iranian-American community, who claim that he is supporting the division of Iran. It should be made clear that the right of self-determination does not necessitate independence, but a degree of autonomy afforded to all peoples by the Helsinki Final Act. Rohrabacher’s letter and proposed bill mention nothing of an effort to encourage the division of Iran, but instead are a symbolic show of support for the plight of the ethnic Azeri minority in Iran.
Furthermore, Rohrabacher has developed a reputation as a politician who champions the rights of underrepresented ethnicities in the region. He also actively supports Baluchi demands for expanded ethnic rights and proposed a similar legislation in February calling for the recognition of self-determination for Baluchistan.
Do you believe that this proposition is strictly an initiative by Rohrabacher himself or does it reflect the plans of a wider group of politicians?
No. Rohrabacher’s stance represents a minority view in American politics. While many members of Congress are fully aware of the role of ethnic minorities in Iran, there are a substantial number of Congresspeople that cannot truly articulate the extent of the influence of ethnic Azeris in Iran. Rohrabacher’s letter to Clinton and his subsequent bill aim to change that by encouraging the notion that Iran is not a monolithic state comprised of a single ethnicity, language, or more importantly, train of thought. It presents a rarely-discussed method of challenging Iran’s human rights abuses by focusing solely on the Azerbaijanis.
So to answer your question, it does not represent a view that is widely accepted by politicians in the U.S., but it will have an affect on dialogue. Only about a fifth of Concurrent Resolutions in Congress are passed and this particular one has a very slim chance for success. More importantly, it could have a profound effect in changing the rhetoric in Washington and could also increase awareness on the international level. Though given Rohrabacher’s actions, the United States is now significantly outperforming the European Union in its gestures of good will to the Azerbaijanis of Iran. The U.S. Congress has thus shown and will continue to show its consideration for the concerns of Azerbaijani-Americans.
Richard Morningstar, the new US ambassador to Baku, said during a briefing that “Iran is a major security threat of Azerbaijan”. Do you agree with him?
Yes. Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan (RoA) remain high, even though Iran was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan after its independence. Iran considers Azerbaijan to be a threat to its territorial integrity and is wary of a militarily and economically powerful neighbor to its North. That is due to the fact that in the heart of all Azerbaijanis is the yearning to reunite with their ethnic brethren, whether it be within the context of an independent state or as an autonomous entity inside of a more powerful state (this idea is discussed more so within South Azerbaijani communities since Azerbaijanis in the RoA highly value their independence and would rather see a united Azerbaijani state). In the past century, there have been at least 3 attempts by South Azerbaijanis to form an autonomous government and an argument can be made that this concerns the Islamic Republic more than a military strike from the West.
Since its Independence, the RoA has either vociferouslyor tacitly supported at minimum self-determination for the Azerbaijanis in Iran. And the Islamic Republic, from the outset of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, sought to weaken its neighbor by aiding the Christian Armenians and continues to attempt to destabilize Azerbaijan with its links to Islamic groups in the southern regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Cells that have been linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have sought to attack Israeli diplomats in Azerbaijan. And recently, Iran-Azerbaijan relations soured further when two Azerbaijani poets were unlawfully detained by the Islamic Republic on the alleged grounds that they were spying for the RoA.
Another dimension to consider is that Azerbaijan’s close relationship with Israel has infuriated the Iranians thus far. In February, Azerbaijan signed a deal with Israel to purchase $1.6 billion worth of drone, anti-aircraft, and missile defense technology. Should Israel pursue a military strike on Iran, it can be said with near certainty that Azerbaijan will be targeted by Iran.
Do you believe that a war could erupt between the US or Israel against Iran? And how it may influence the situation in the neighboring the South Caucasus region?
I don’t generally like to make predictions on the future of the Middle East as none of us can truly know Israel or the U.S.’s military strategy without being directly involved in policy-making. That being said, however, there are things to be taken into account. War is never inevitable, but an option still remains on the table. I don’t think that Israel is unilaterally willing to strike Iran and jeopardize its own security without backing from the Obama Administration, who at this point is unwilling and financially incapable of sustaining another war in the region. A military strike on Iran’s nuclear targets will surely be met with some degree of retaliation, and in some scenarios could drag the United States into an unaffordable, protracted war with Iran. I hold the opinion that the United States is currently not willing to pursue military options.
Instead I believe that the U.S. wants to see Iran defeated without firing a single shot. Currently sanctions have created an air of frustration in Iran as its economy continually tanks--its currency has hit an all-time low and exports have fallen to 1.1 million barrels per day, down from roughly 2.4 million bpd earlier this year. I believe the Obama administration’s strategy is to defeat Iran economically, as Reagan is said to have done with the Soviet Union. If this strategy begins to take hold, the rising tide of ethno-nationalism for the Azerbaijanis will surely be a factor in Iran’s future. Though the age of nation-building is over, I do believe that the West is interested in supporting a devolved (less-centralized) Iran, in which the ethnic groups do have greater power within the state. That precedent was laid by U.S. and Israeli support for the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.
But should a strike occur, South Caucasus entanglement in the conflict is almost inevitable. There is no telling as to how the Armenian side would help Iran as it has a record of selling arms to Iranians. And as I said before, Iran is wary of Azerbaijan’s strong relationship with Israel and could target sites of Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation in Azerbaijan’s southern provinces.