“Our ultimate aim is the independence of Turks living in ‘Southern Azerbaijan.' But we seek independence by democratic, peaceful means, not through the use of weapons,” Cemal Mehmethanoğlu, the spokesperson of the council, declared at a press conference held at the Azerbaijani Cultural Association in Ankara on Monday.
But Azeri Turks at the press meeting also stressed -- presumably desiring not to be associated with any US or Israeli intentions towards Iran -- that their search for independence has nothing to do with a possible military intervention into Iran by the US or a military airstrike against Iran's nuclear installations by Israel. They assert that their goal is a century-old dream which goes back to the days before the foundation of modern Iran in 1925, and is therefore independent from any other initiative.
But Dr. Yasemen Karakoyunlu, both a member of the board of management and head of the council's Strategic Research Unit, maintains that at 35 million, people of Turkish ethnic origin make up the majority in Iran -- nearly half of the Iranian population -- and made a point of saying that should the US have any plans regarding Iran, it should discuss the issue not only with Turkey and Azerbaijan, but also with Azeri Turks in Iran.
People at the press conference made it clear that they are a little frustrated with Turkey's policies in the region. “Turkey should change its policy regarding Turks in Iran,” Karakoyunlu told Today's Zaman. “Turkey keeps a close watch of the Palestinian problem, and raises its voice when Palestinian people are targeted by Israel, but doesn't seem to care much about what's happening to Turks in South Azerbaijan,” she added. Noting that hundreds of people are in prison in there, she asked, “Why doesn't Turkey take a genuine interest in their problems?” Karakoyunlu believes Turkey's fainthearted attitude is also to do with the fact Azeri Turks in Iran belong to the Shiite sect of Islam. “But today, the Azeri people in Iran, although they are Shiite by faith, have a democratic and secular mindset,” she noted.
She also claimed that some Azeri Turks in Iran tend to wander away from Shia belief, seeing it as a major part of the assimilation process Azeri Turks are subjected to in Iran.
Mehmethanoğlu also severely criticized the Iranian authorities: “In the last six months or so, teachers who clandestinely teach Turkish to children at home or at cultural associations in Iranian Azerbaijan are being put in prison.” He added that Azeri Turks in Iran are not allowed to publish newspapers in Turkish, nor to establish television stations broadcasting in their own language. In fact, a Turkish television channel formerly broadcasting from the US is no longer being relayed through Turkey’s Turksat satellite following pressure from Iran.
Azeri Turks tried to organize a two-day forum, the “First International Forum of South Azerbaijani Turks,” in Ankara on May 12-13, which is said to have been cancelled by the Ankara governorship due to pressure from Iran. However, according to Mehmethanoğlu, the spokesperson of the council, they managed to find another location to hold the forum, which he told Today’s Zaman was given full support by most of the nationalist movements in Iranian Azerbaijan.
The forum aims to bring the troubles in the area of human rights facing Azeri Turks in Iran to the world public, to demand education in their mother tongue and to create public awareness about the rights of the Azeri population in Iran. It was also noted at the press conference that although Armenians are a small minority in Iran, they freely enjoy their cultural heritage, while Turkic culture remains subject to oppression.
More than 300 people from fifteen countries, most of whom are from Turkey and Azerbaijan, attended the forum on Saturday. Among the attendees are Prof. Firudin Celilov, former Azerbaijani minister of national education, Ferec Ulusoy, and Sabir Rüstemxanlı, Azerbaijani deputies, former Turkish deputies Cemil Ünal and Orhan Kayıhan, Iraqi Turkoman deputy Fevzi Ekrem, and the chairman and members of the board of the World Azerbaijani Congress.