BACKGROUND: According to the New York Times (Dec 24, 2006), "More than a third of Iran's 66 million people are ethnically Azeri, a beleaguered minority that frequently agitates for more rights and cultural autonomy." Ethnic Azerbaijanis or Azeris (the names are used interchangeably), are concentrated in the northern part of Iran, which consists of the following provinces (ostans): East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zenjan, and Hamadan, as well as partially the adjacent areas of Astara and Gazvin. The size of these territories is estimated at around 170,000 sq. km (106,000 sq. mi), although larger estimates are prevalent. They also make-up a very large number of residents in the capital city of Tehran. The native language of the ethnic Azeris belongs to the Altaic language family, whilst Persian and other Iranian groups' language family is Indo-Iranian. Despite all the dissimilarities and very distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences, Azeris have played a key role in all aspects of the history of Iranian peoples and multitude of states and empires, and have founded the Iranian national identity in 1501 and again during the Constitutional Revolution in the early 20th century. Largest protests are also staged by Azerbaijanis (e.g., May 2006).
OUTSTANDING PROBLEMS: While most ethnic and religious groups in Iran experience problems, the Azerbaijanis being the largest ethnic minority of Iran are a case in point. Their biggest complaint is highly restrictive cultural rights, lack of any cultural autonomy and great administrative-financial interference. Although some of the problems are due to the nature of the regime, i.e., all TV, radio and newspapers in Iran are government owned, whilst elections and travel are tightly controlled, thus leaving little room for freedoms to anyone, the limited programming, education opportunities and books published in native Azerbaijani language are the immediate and pressing problem for the majority of ethnic Azeris.
1) More attention should be given to the ethnic Azeris of Iran by encouraging greater research and publications by Western, including of Azerbaijani origin, students, journalists and scholars;
2) Azerbaijani Studies departments, chairs and classes at public US educational institutions should be promoted and helped to setup. Not a single Azerbaijani Studies department, chair or endowment exists in the US;
3) Promote greater cultural and educational exchanges, by inviting a great number of ethnic Azerbaijani scholars and students to study and teach in the US under the FSA and other programs;
4) Increase (re-align) funding and staff for the Azerbaijani-language Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Farda (part of RFERL) services, allow them to broadcast in Azerbaijani language throughout Iran, as well as Iraq and other countries of the Greater Middle East, as well as into the USA and Europe, for the Azerbaijani diaspora living there;
5) Encourage and provide more funding opportunities for the US-based Azeri satellite TV channel(s);
6) Translate, digitize and publish a number of major Western books in Azerbaijani (or do quality republishing if the works are available in Turkish Latin and/or Azerbaijani Latin alphabet), in the fields of fundamental and earth sciences, medicine, international law, economics, history, etc., to be given out free of charge or for reduced prices in US and abroad, possibly in Iran itself;
7) Encourage better treatment of ethnic Azeris, and stop police abuses and brutalities reported by Amnesty International and other human rights groups;
8) Conduct hearings and conferences on the issue in the Congress and leading think tanks.