KURDISH EXPANSION : ‘Northern Kurdistan’ gets icy response in Iran’s west Azerbaijan province

By Frud Bezhan – RFE/R – January 10, 2014 – The idea that a new, Kurdish, province be formed in Iran’s northwest has been floated — and it is going over like a lead balloon among the country’s large Azeri minority. Osman Ahmadi, a Kurdish member of parliament, proposed the formation of “Northern Kurdistan” province during a parliamentary session on January 5. He said the capital of the proposed province should be Mahabad, a predominantly Kurdish town in Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province. The province, whose southern border meets the existing Kurdistan Province, is predominately Azeri.

Kurds, however, claim to make up the majority, illustrating the importance of the ethnicity issue in the region.

Lawmakers in West Azerbaijan have reacted angrily to the prospect of giving up territory to a new province, and Ahmadi’s remarks have renewed long-running tensions between the Kurdish and ethnic Azeri communities. Azeris, who are Turkic speaking, are mainly Shi’ite Muslims. Kurds, meanwhile, have their own distinct language and are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Both communities are geographically concentrated in Iran’s northwest along the border with Iraq, Turkey, and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Iran’s northwest provinces have also been at the center of a diplomatic row between the Islamic republic and Azerbaijan, where some nationalist groups support the independence of Iran’s Azeri minority.

New Provinces Needed?

According to Iran’s ISNA news agency, Ahmadi told lawmakers on January 5 that he wants “Northern Kurdistan” to be among the handful of new provinces the government is planning to create.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli has said in recent months that the government could create 10 new provinces, but that no final decision had been made. Iran currently has 31 provinces. Four new provinces have been formed since 2004. Ahmadi also referred to a new “bill of rights” charter passed by the government in November that promises equality to all ethnic and religious minorities. “We hope this document is really implemented so we Kurds will no longer feel like second-class citizens.”

Several ethnic-Azeri lawmakers in Iran have reacted harshly to Ahmadi’s “Northern Kurdistan” proposal.

Nader Ghazipur, a deputy from Orumieh (Urmia), the provincial capital of West Azerbaijan, denounced Ahmadi’s remarks as “propaganda.” “Under no circumstances will we allow West Azerbaijan to become partitioned,” he was quoted as saying by the news website Shnobas.ir. Hajatul Islam Rohullah Begi, another legislator from West Azerbaijan, ridiculed Ahmadi. “Anybody who has the intelligence of a second grader knows that Miandoab [a small town in West Azerbaijan] has more chance of becoming a province,” he was quoted as saying by Shnobas.ir. Abed Fattahi, head of the Sunni and Kurdish faction of Iran’s parliament, said the only way the proposed province would be created would be if it were in the interests of the region and the country.

Cross-Border Propaganda War

The debate over the merits of a “Northern Kurdistan” spread quickly to social media.

A pro-Kurdish Facebook community page called “Change the Name of West Azerbaijan Province” threw its support behind Ahmadi’s proposal. The page’s profile photo is a map of West Azerbaijan Province under Kurdish flags. Facebook user Maruf Doorandish commented on January 5 that he supported the proposal, writing, “Long live Kurds and Kurdistan.” Another Facebook user, Mohammad Jahane, commented on January 7: “Kurds were in Iran when [Azeris] didn’t even know where Iran was. The first Turkic migration to Iran came after the invasion of the Seljuk Turks [Turkic tribes from Central Asia]. Kurds, however, migrated to Iran thousands of years ago.”

Meanwhile, a pro-Azeri Facebook community page called “Expel the Kurds of Azerbaijan” denounced the proposal.

Facebook user Moh Rza ridiculed the proposal on January 5 by posting: “Northern Kurdistan?” Are you kidding?”

The debate comes amid a diplomatic row between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iran. Last year, Iranian lawmakers discussed annexing Azerbaijan. Iran ceded much of the Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, during the 19th century to the Russian Empire, and Iranian legislators have argued that several treaties signed at that time should be revoked. The suggestion of annexation provoked uproar in Baku, and came after Iranian lawmakers called for a public referendum in Azerbaijan to decide whether the country should join the Islamic republic. Months earlier, lawmakers in Azerbaijan discussed a motion to change the name of the country to the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan. Azeri nationalists often refer to Iran’s East and West Azerbaijan provinces as “Southern Azerbaijan,” suggesting they need to be liberated from Iran.