For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, Turkic-speaking lawmakers have formed a bloc in the Iranian parliament. The Faction of Turkic Regions was formed in late October. It has been reported to have 100 members in the 290-seat parliament and is led by Masoud Pezeshkian, who represents the northwestern city of Tabriz and who served as minister of health (2001-2005) under Reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
Controversy has surrounded the formation of this faction since its inception. This has mainly had to do with the stated number of its members. Iran’s election law grants each province a certain number of lawmakers based on its population. In this vein, the main Turkic-speaking provinces and their respective number of members of parliament include West Azerbaijan with 12 parliamentarians, East Azerbaijan with 19, Ardebil with seven and Zanjan with five. Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province as well as the provinces of Gilan and Fars also have Turkic-speaking populations, but the origins and history of these Turkic-speakers are very different from those who reside in the northwest of Iran. While ethnic Persians constitute a slight majority of Iranians, Turkic speakers make up a sizable minority.
Based on these figures, one would expect the newly formed Turkic-speaking faction to have no more than 43 members. So how is it that it counts 100 lawmakers among its members? Zahra Sai, a Tabriz member of parliament and spokeswoman for the faction, has said, “Lawmakers who speak Turkic but are from other cities have also joined the faction.” This is while a member of the group’s board of directors told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “There are really 60 lawmakers in this faction. However, when the news [of the formation of the group] was being transmitted to media outlets, one group member put the figure at around 100 and so this number began circulating in the media.”
One key question is what precisely this faction seeks to achieve. In an interview with ISNA news agency Nov. 6, Pezeshkian, who also serves as deputy speaker, said, “This faction hasn’t done anything in particular yet. Unfortunately, however, some are [already] trying to divert public opinion [about its objectives]. The goal was to have Turkic-speaking MPs come together and pursue their demands of the government within the framework of the law.”
Critics, however, see the emergence of the faction as a threat to Iran’s national unity, saying that it highlights ethnocentrism. Responding to this, Pezeshkian told ISNA, “This should not happen. We are defending the law, and the government should give everyone the right to act within the framework of the law. No one has the right to do anything against the law. Public opinion should not be twisted in a way as to give certain individuals pretexts for making lawful opportunities seem like threats.”
Still, it appears that some experts on ethnicity, and especially Azeri-speaking ones, do not have favorable opinions about the formation of such a faction. Many in East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces and elsewhere speak Azeri, which is a Turkic language. In an editorial published in Shargh newspaper Dec. 6, Nouraldin Gharavi, former governor of East Azerbaijan province, criticized the very idea of such a group and said, “Parliament Speaker Mr. [Ali] Larijani and other [parliament members] are aware that this is a dangerous innovation that goes against the constitution. Negligence in this area will have bitter consequences for everyone down the line.”
But is the formation of parliamentary factions along ethnic lines really something new in Iran? In his book “Iran Between Two Revolutions,” prominent historian Ervand Abrahamian writes that the only time such a development has previously occurred was in February 1944. According to Abrahamian, nomadic tribes formed a parliamentary group called The Faction of Democrats and began pursuing their own tribal demands. Of note, this faction was formed following the suppression of nomads and tribes by former rulers Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941) and his successor and son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979).
Salar Seifoddini, an Azeri researcher who focuses on ethnicity, told Al-Monitor, “The Azeri-speaking [Turkic] faction, which a group of Iranian [parliament members] is insisting on solely for electoral purposes as well as political and personal gains, is a rare occurrence in other parts of the world. It is clearly not only against the constitution but also a new and dangerous innovation for creating divisions among the different ethnicities in Iran. I think those who came up with such an idea are more than anything after their own personal gain and want to pull in the public [in the mix] for [the purpose of winning] their own election races.”
Mojtaba Maghsoudi, a professor of political science at Tehran’s Azad University and a researcher on ethnicity, told Al-Monitor, “In democracies, factions are representative of parliamentary parties. In Iran, however, and in the case of the Azeri-speaking faction, it is the opposite. … The faction presents its own partisan demands. In developed societies, however, it is parties [based on political agendas] who form factions in parliament.”
Indeed, the new Turkic-speaking parliamentary faction notably features a collection of rival political forces. For instance, Pezeshkian, who is leading the group, entered parliament through the moderate-Reformist “List of Hope.” This is while Nader Qazipour, the deputy head of the faction and a member of parliament from Urmia, belongs to the hard-line end of the Principlist movement.
Maghsoudi, who is also the head of Iran’s Association for Peace Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The most important function of parliaments in all political establishments is to deal with national issues. With the Turkic-speaking faction, it is the complete opposite and we are seeing a section of the parliament being involved in ethnic matters instead of dealing with citizens’ rights. Such a trend is an indication of the poor performance of the parliamentary system in Iran and is considered a detour from the main path and duties of this important body.”
So far, there have been very few reactions by top officials regarding the formation of the Turkic-speaking parliamentary faction. On Nov. 27, Ali Younesi, the presidential adviser on ethnic and religious minority affairs, voiced his opposition to the formation of such a faction and stressed that ethnic divisions should not be allowed to intensify through the formation of such groups. Mansour Haghighatpour, a Turkic-speaking former member of parliament for Ardebil and current adviser to Larijani, has also voiced his opposition to the initiative. Yet there does not seem to be a consensus among government officials over the matter of the emergence of the group and whether or how to respond to it.