Sunday, October 22, 2006
Kurds, Azeris, and the Disintegration of the Middle East
An October 20 post on EurasiaNet reports that "Iranian officials are intent on keeping a lid on ethnic-minority discontent, as the country prepares for pivotal elections." The article focuses on Iranian sensitivity about an apparent resurgence in Azeri self-assertion.
Azeris, who speak a Turkic language and are mostly Shi'a, make up a quarter of Iran's population of 68 million, according to estimates. Most Azeris live in northern Iran, near the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Azeris of Iran were last in the international news spotlight when a state-owned paper published a caricature representing an Azeri as a cockroach. In the wake of that caricature's publication, which also mocked Azeris for not being able to speak Farsi, Azeris staged demonstrations, some of which turned violent. In September, protests flared up again, with a number of Azeri organizations demanding greater cultural rights. Since then, a number of Azeri activists have been arrested.
But until now, Iranian Azeris have been loyal to the state. Azerbaijan has also been careful not to antagonize its powerful southern neighbor. Certainly, tensions between the state and the Azeri minority cannot be compared to the difficult history of the country's Kurds. Iranian Kurdistan is in the northwest of the country, and is home to about 4 million Kurds. Unlike the Azeris, Iranian Kurds do not yet have a state on the other side of the border to which they might turn if things get rough. But the American invasion and subsequent (failing) occupation of Iraq has allowed the Kurds of Iraq to move closer and closer to independent statehood.
What the Kurds and the Azeris share is a history of suppression by one or more of the region's dominant ethnic groups and their representative empires: the (Muslim) Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Their claims to historic territories and to distinctive national identities were not recognized in the post-Ottoman and post-colonial orders. There are a number of other historic ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East: the Druze, Circassians, Assyrians, Armenians, Maronite Christians, and the Jews. Of all these small ethnic groups, the Jews, who benefited from a strong diasporic nationalist movement have been the clear winners of the post-colonial order. Most of the other minorities suffered genocide, deportation, and/or subjugation at the hands of one of the dominant ethnic groups. (Jews suffered the century's most horrific genocide - but mostly on European soil. Though Middle Eastern Jewry faced acute danger from Arab nationalists during and immediately after WWII, and massive displacement post-1948, it was spared genocide, and instead gained sovereign statehood together with European Jews who migrated en masse to the region after the Shoah).
Most of those watching the Iraq war and its fallout have focused on the impact of the American invasion and occupation on Iraqis. One of the most dramatic and lethal consequences of Saddam's collapse has been the civil war between Sunni and Shi'a in the country. But the current carnage represents only the preliminary phase of the far more bloody struggle that will break out to determine the new borders of incipient Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi'a states when partition becomes a real possibility (i.e., when the Americans leave). The fall of the Saddam regime also sounded the death knell for the old, Arab-nationalist (sometimes mistakenly called "secularist" - in fact, no truly secular national identity has ever emerged in the Middle East) visions of the region. The disintegration of Iraq is rendering a non-sectarian Arab national identity impossible. It is also empowering those minorities who never quite fit the paradigm.
It has become increasingly clear that Iraq is headed for a tripartite division among Kurds, Sunni, and Shi'a. While the latter two groups can count on the backing of Arabs (i.e., the Sunni states and the Islamist organizations) and Persians (Iran), the establishment of an independent Kurdistan faces the opposition of all three traditional dominant groups - Arabs, Persians, and Turks. It also unlikely to take place without the type of ethnic cleansing so familiar to 20th-century historians of Europe. In turn, the formation of a Kurdish state would provoke further crackdowns by various regimes against minority populations such as the Azeris in Iran. This would put increasing pressure on "protector states" such as Azerbaijan to attempt interventions against their more powerful neighbors, in order to liberate their irredenta. In short, the potential for momentous border revisions and waves of deadly ethnic strife has never been greater.