Represented by Masoud Pezeshkian, Turkish community is engaging in election campaigns through the lens of Turkic identity. / Photo: AA

By Ata Şahit

As Iran readies for its fourteenth presidential election on June 28 to elect the nation's ninth president, pan-Turkism has emerged as one of the biggest political buzzes in the Shia-majority country.

The Iranian election was necessitated by the death of former president Ebrahim Raisi, who perished in a helicopter crash on May 20, 2024.

The candidates competing in this election include Mustafa Purmuhammadi, Saeed Jalili, Mohammad Baqer Galibaf, Alireza Zakani, Seyed Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, and Masoud Pezeshkian.

Only Masoud Pezeshkian is identified as a reformist among these six approved candidates, while the remaining five candidates are conservatives. This indicates that, following a significant hiatus, reformists will once again be engaged in Iran's electoral process.

A distinctive feature of this election is the active participation of the Turkic ethnic community, which constitutes a substantial portion of the Iranian population.

Represented by Masoud Pezeshkian, this community is engaging in election campaigns through the lens of Turkic identity.

Consequently, for the first time in the history of Iranian presidential elections, the issue of Turkic identity has prominently entered the national discourse, with one candidate explicitly accused of pan-Turkism by official sources.

As a political ideology, Iran's official literature employs the concept of pan-Turkism—interpreted differently across various regions of the world—to denote Turkic nationalism.

The official discourse in Iran accuses individuals and groups among the ethnic Turks who advocate for Turkic nationalism or defend the political and social rights of the Turkic community of being pan-Turkists.

However, these individuals and groups categorically reject this accusation, asserting that their activities are solely aimed at advocating for the social and political rights of Turks living in Iran.

Turkic population of Iran

Although official statistics on Iran’s Turkic population are not publicly available, semi-official sources indicate that at least 30 million ethnic Turks reside in various regions of the country.

For instance, the Strategic Geography of Iran, published by the Geographical Organization of the Iranian General Staff in 2014, mentioned that Persian ethnicity constitutes less than half of the Iranian population.

More than half of the population is comprised of non-Persian or non-Persian-speaking ethnic groups, with Turkic ethnicity being the second-largest after Persian ethnicity.

Former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in an interview during his visit to Türkiye in 2014, stated that “40 percent of Iran's population is Turkic”, highlighting that this demographic factor has significant potential to enhance bilateral relations and that there are at least 30 million ethnicTurks living in Iran

Iran's Turkic population is categorised into sub-groups such as Azerbaijani Turks, Turkmens, Qashqai Turks, and Khorasan Turks. Among these Turkic communities, the Azerbaijani Turks of northwest Iran have the largest population.

Following the Azerbaijani Turks are the Qashqai Turks, who live in central and southwestern Iran, and the Khorasan Turks and Turkmens, who inhabit the country's northeastern regions.

In addition to these communities, there are also Khalaj Turks and Kazakh Turks in Iran, although they are not considered among the primary ethnic groups due to their populations not exceeding a few thousand individuals.

Growing debate on Turkic identity

The 1979 revolution marked a new phase in Iranian history and precipitated fundamental changes and transformations in the relationship between the state and society.

Foremost among these changes has been the rise of ethno-nationalist demands among non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran. Indeed, one of the principal concerns of Iranian national security today is the increasing ethno-nationalist tendencies among Iran's primary ethnic groups, such as Azerbaijani Turks, Arabs, Baloch, Kurds, Lors, Turkmen, and Qashqai Turks.

The rise of Turkic consciousness, which can be considered part of the broader debate on Turkic identity in Iran, is one of the areas that Iranian authorities pay close attention to due to its unique internal dynamics, historical background, goals, regional impacts, and rapid spread within society.

Considering the debates that have occurred in Iran in recent years, the discourse on Turkicness appears to have become more prominent in Iran's political and social spheres and gained significant traction.

Indeed, various academic studies in Iran indicate that the discourse on Turkicness, often framed as the pan-Turkism threat, has a substantial social foundation.

For example, a study conducted by researchers from Mazenderan State University in the provinces of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan concluded “that there is a high inclination towards pan-Turkism in Iran”.

In this study, 90 percent of the respondents stated that they are deeply connected to the Turkic language, history, culture, and identity and that Turkicness is very important to them.

According to a widespread belief in Iran, non-Persian ethnic groups face discrimination, and Iran's state ideology is based on Persian nationalism, institutionalised through the denial of ethnic cultures, particularly the Turkic identity.

During the Islamic Republic period, especially after the Iran-Iraq War, protests occurring in regions inhabited by Azerbaijani Turks in Iran were generally ethnically themed.

An analysis of the slogans and symbols used in these protests reveals that they were predominantly centred around Turkic identity and aimed at protesting Tehran's policies.

Some of the most notable Turkic ethnic rights-themed protest marches in Iran in recent years, which have seen the participation of large crowds, include the 1992 Khojaly Massacre protest, the 1995 Iranian Radio and TV Corporation (IRIB) Survey Questions protest, the Babek Castle Assembly (2000-2004), the 2006 Iran Newspaper Cartoon Crisis, the 2011 Urmia Lake Protest, the 2015 IRIB TV2 Fitile Program Protests, the 2016 Tarh-e Nev Newspaper Protests, and the 2020 Second Karabakh War protest march.

Notably, the primary slogans used in all these protests were 'Bellow, bellow, I am a Turk!', 'Long live Azerbaijan!' and 'School in the Turkic language / It should be for everyone', which were vociferously chanted by the protestors.

What is particularly noteworthy is that these slogans are not confined to protest demonstrations but are also vocalised in various public spaces frequented by the younger generation.

The most conspicuous example of this phenomenon is the chanting during matches of the Tractor football team, a well-known team supported by Azerbaijani Turks in Iran.

Tens of thousands of spectators chant 'Tabriz, Baku, Ankara / Where are we, where are the Persians!' in the stadium during the Tractor team’s matches, a team recognised as one of the most popular in Asia, has repeatedly sparked controversy in the Iranian media.

Consequently, the supporters of this team have been accused of pan-Turkism.

Polls under the shadow of Raisi’s death

The election campaigning in the new political climate following the death of Raisi reveals a polarisation in Iranian society along two general political lines.

It appears that five candidates from the radical and moderate conservative factions and one candidate from the reformist faction are vying against each other. Additionally, Iranian society is observed to be segmented into distinct categories: reformists, moderate conservatives, radical conservatives, ethnic rights activists, and boycotters.

Among these candidates, Masoud Pezeshkian is aligned with the reformists, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Mostafa Purmohammadi with the moderate conservatives, and Saeed Jalili, Alireza Zakani, and Seyed Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi with the radical conservatives.

The prevailing view in Iranian public opinion is that the electoral competition will be between the radical conservative Saeed Jalilis, seen as a super-revolutionary in Iran, and the reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian.

According to the latest poll conducted by the Iranian Students' Polling Agency, Masoud Pezeshkian is leading the race with 24.4 percent support, Saeed Jalili is second with 24 percent, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is third with 14.7 percent.

The poll indicates that 43 percent of respondents would definitely vote, 7.7 percent would likely vote, 14.8 percent are undecided, 5.7 percent would probably not vote, and 27.9 percent would definitely not vote.

Among these candidates, Masoud Pezeshkian is expected to attract the new opposition that has emerged following the headscarf protests and the reformists who became disenchanted with former president Hassan Rouhani.

Since the 1979 revolution, the highest voter turnout in the 13 presidential elections occurred in the presidential elections on June 12, 2009, which was followed by protests where many lives were lost due to clampdown by the authorities.

The lowest turnout recorded was 48.8 percent in the presidential elections held on June 18, 2021. This has primarily sparked a debate on whether the political system is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.

According to some interpretations, the Iranian Guardian Council's decision to permit a reformist candidate like Masoud Pezeshkian to participate was aimed at addressing the low turnout in the previous elections.

However, events during the election campaigns indicate that Masoud Pezeshkian's prospects are increasingly favourable, and a significant portion of the dissatisfied populace is seen to be leaning towards him.

Turkic identity debate

One of the significant dissatisfied groups supporting Masoud Pezeshkian consists of Iranian Turk activists who emphasise the ethnic rights of Iranian Turks, a substantial portion of the Iranian population.

Considering the rhetoric employed by Masoud Pezeshkian during his election campaign, it appears that he has articulated the demands of these ethnic activists well.

For instance, during a televised debate on Iranian state television, Masoud Pezeshkian faced accusations of having pan-Turkists among his supporters. He responded, “If pan-Turkism, pan-Arabism, or other various pan movements are being discussed, it is because of injustice. When none of these movements have a place in the government and regardless of how talented they are, they still lack representation, it is natural for them to voice their grievances.”

In various videos shared on Iranian social media, it is evident that supporters of Masoud Pezeshkian endorse his candidature, using slogans to emphasise his Turkic origin.

What stands out here is that Masoud Pezeshkian's supporters are not confined solely to Azerbaijani Turks residing in northwestern Iran but also have a significant following among the Qashqai Turks living in central Iran

What stands out here is that Masoud Pezeshkian's supporters are not confined solely to Azerbaijani Turks residing in northwestern Iran but also have a significant following among the Qashqai Turks living in central Iran.

To summarise, Turks residing in Iran have played significant roles in Iranian history as one of the country's foundational components over the past millennium, and they have been among the ethnic groups shaping the nation's political destiny.

Historically, ethnic motivations, particularly among Azerbaijani Turks in Iran, have taken a backseat to sectarian considerations, which have been prioritised to ensure national unity.

However, in recent times, there has been a noticeable increase in Turkic ethnic consciousness among the Turkic population in Iran. Indeed, it can be argued that the issue of Turkic identity has become a prominent factor in Iran's political landscape.

The growth of Turkic consciousness in Iran has notably gained political prominence in the past forty years, and the debate over the forthcoming presidential elections reflects this visibility.

The author, Ata Şahit, is an executive producer for TRT.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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