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Iraq, Turkey, Iran Vulnerable To Ethnic Conflict

Mas'ud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan region
Mas'ud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan region
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 in Iraq.

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 region.

"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."

Heavy Shadow

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.

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...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 Iran.

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 Turkish.

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.

Stronger Commitment

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 European Union.

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