21 Azer – a Historical Conundrum for the Azerbaijani-Turk Community

The Caspian Post

December 12 is commemorated by some Azerbaijani Turks as “21 Azer.” This refers to the 1945 date (by the Jalali solar calendar used in Iran) on which an “Azerbaijan People’s Government” was established in the northwestern section of Iran. The result was a short-lived, unrecognized political entity that survived just a year before being subsumed once more into Iran. Should this be remembered as just one of many minor footnotes to the chaos of the post-WWII order? Or as a valiant attempt of ethnic Turks to stand up to Farsi-centric linguistic nationalism?  


What Happened in WWII? 

Put somewhat simplistically, Iran had been a fairly weak pawn in international politics throughout the early 20th century. Unlike the Ottoman Empire, it had survived WWI. Once WWII began, Reza Shah played off the Allied and Axis powers, initially with some success.  However, in 1941 when Hitler reneged on its agreement with Moscow leading the USSR to change sides, Iran was essentially carved up and used as a supply base to ensure that Soviet resistance to Hitler could be maintained. 


The Red Army pushed south from Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan while the British sent Indian forces in from Iraq. By September 1941, Reza Shah had been forced to abdicate in favour of his son Mohammad Reza.  The same month an Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP) emerged, led by Jafar Pishevari, a journalist who had been imprisoned for a decade under the former Shah. In November, a National People’s Congress was hosted in Tabriz, during which Tehran was essentially told to mind its own business in the affairs of Iran's Azerbaijani regions. The congress set up a Milli Majlis (national parliament), and in December, Pishevari proclaimed the National Government. Iranian forces were ejected from the region through a mixture of Soviet intervention and, according to some sources, the sacrifices of “25,000 freedom fighters.” However, in 1945-6, as much as now, the rewriting of international frontiers was unacceptable to Western powers, and international tensions grew rapidly. This led to the Iran Crisis of 1946, one of the first diplomatic clashes of the brewing Cold War. The US steadily increased its support to Tehran, and a UN Security Council resolution called for the withdrawal of the Red Army from the self-declared area. Eventually, in December 1946, with US support, Iranian forces retook Tabriz, driving out the leaders of the short-lived People’s Government who fled to the Azerbaijan SSR. 


In Retrospect 

According to the views of some Azerbaijani Turks, the episode of 21 Azer and the Peoples Government remains a “popular national movement” that stood valiantly to prevent the “tyranny of the Pahlavi dynasty against Azerbaijani Turks.” According to western powers, however, this was a largely forgotten episode of a Soviet puppet state. Similar Moscow-orchestrated manoeuvres had taken place to expand its post-WWII zones of influence elsewhere from East Germany to Bornholm (Denmark) to the Kuril Islands (ex-Japan). For Baku, this is an anniversary that’s most conveniently ignored. While there’s a natural tendency to look with sympathy toward the linguistic aspirations of fellow Azerbaijanis within Iran, Azerbaijan’s overarching geopolitical message consistently sees territorial integrity as paramount. This principle underpins Baku’s insistence on Karabakh as being unequivocally Azerbaijani according to long-established international borders.  


What does remain celebrated about the year of unrecognized independence in 1945-6, is the brief revival of Azerbaijani as a literary language in the area, promoted by teachers and writers from across the border in the Azerbaijan SSR.