An old saying his it that Azerbaijan, the populous, northwestern province of Iran, is like a camel: "hard to rouse and get on its feet, but once up, difficult to stop."

With the recent events in its capital of Tabriz, Azerbaijan is now finally involved in the very core of the Iranian problem, which it long seemed determined to sidestep at almost any cost.

Whether Azerbaijanis will ultitimely crimp Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's powers is far from clear and events are still unfolding.

But this solid, hard-headed people who account for a third of Iran's population, once again have demonstrated that they are a force to reckon with.

The best educated, most organized, richest and most politicized of Iran's ethnic minorities, Azerbaijanis consider the Persians not as their betters, but as their equals. In fact, Azerbaijanis traditionally have provided the backbone of Iran's officer corps and bureaucracy.

Theirs are not the demands for autonomy voiced by the smaller minorities -- the Kurds in the west, the Turkomans in the northeast, the Arabs in the southwest's oil-rich Khuzestan or the Baluchis in the southeast.

For Azerbaijanis autonomy has the ring of separatism. And they equate separatism with the autonomous republic the Soviets set up during their World War II occupation of the province to reunite Azerbaijanis living on both sides of the Iranian-Soviet border under Kremlin control.

That episode ended in 1946 when, under diplomatic pressure from the United States, the Soviets evacuated Azerbaijan and young Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's Army carried out massive reprisals against alleged collaborators.

Rather Azerbaijanis object to key provisions of Khomeini's handtaillored constitution that give virtually unlimited powers far surpassing -- at least on paper -- those that the previous constitution allowed the shah.

Azerbaijanis also are convinced that, they received less than their fair share of the country's oil wealth under the shah and that it is time for economic discrimination against the province to cease.

The Azerbaijanis feel they have the right to participate fully in the affairs of the Iranian nation and in its central government. And they are now challenging Khomeini for a share of national power.

They point to Iranian history. The 16th century Safavid Dynasty, which adopted Shiite Islam as the state's offical religion to distinguish Iran from its marauding Arab and Turkish neighbors to the east, sprang from Azerbaijan.

In 1906 the Western-influenced constitution, which only last week was replaced, owed much of its impetus to Azerbaijanis' role in forcing modern concepts of the state on a failing Qajar Dynasty.

Azerbaijanis are also proud of their role in the Islamic revolution. It was in Tabriz in February 1978 that the drive which eventually unseated the shah took on massive proportions for the first time.

Tens of thousands of angry Azerbaijanis rampaged down the long Pahlavi Avenue -- now renamed for Khomeini -- smashing banks, liquor stores movie houses and other signs of Western culture deemed sinful by devout Moslems.

That set the pattern for a year of turmoil. Aside from the characteristic violence, the Tabriz riots also were distinguished by the disapperance of police unwilling to shoot fellow citizens and the overreaction of the Army, which killed scores of Tabriz residents.

It was also in Tabriz in November 1978, that the first instance was reported of Army troops in significant numbers throwing away their weapons and joining the demonstrators. That, too, was to prove an increasing problem for the Iranian military, which was finally paralyzed by massive desertions and takeovers of various units and bases by dissidents.

Listening to Tabrizis complain gives a visitor a clear view of their grievances in postrevolutionary Iran. Theirs is a city which has never accepted outside dictation, and they are not about to start now.

They seem genuinely furious about Khomeini's use of toughs to prevent their Moslem People's Republican Party from touring towns and villages to recommend boycotting last week's constitutional referendum.

They are sincerely angered by Khomeini agents; announcements claiming that 340,000 Tabrizis, or all the eligible voters and then some, had voted and massively approved the draft constitution when only meager lines were seen at polling stations.

They believe reports that in some villages ballot boxes were stuffed with yes ballots before they were put in the polling booths.

And they are especially infuriated that their basically moderate reasons for revolting are variously explained by Khomeini and his aides as being remote-controlled by the CIA, Communists or SAVAK, the shah's once-dreaded secret police.

"We are like cats," a university professor said. "If you push us to far, if you mistreat us, forget to feed us, we will scratch."

"We Azerbaijanis will not accept peace at any price," he added.

But, like many other Azerbaijanis, he is beginning to realize that his Moselm People's party -- and its moderate spiritual leader, Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari -- relied too much on sweet reason and not enough on party organization, much less on military strength.

If indeed the central government succeeds in imposing its views on Tabriz, it will be because of that oversight.