Ethnic Tensions Over Cartoon Set Off Riots in Northwest Iran

“In the aniversary of the May 2006 demonstrations of the South Azerbaijanis against ethnic discriminations in Iran”

Nazila Fathi

TEHRAN, May 28 2006 — Four people were killed and 70 were injured in riots last week in the Azeri region northwest of here, according to local news reports, as tensions spread after the publication of a cartoon that has outraged Iran's Turkish population.

The deadly protests occurred last Thursday in the city of Naghadeh, and followed other demonstrations in Ardabil.

On Sunday, about 2,000 Azeris demonstrated in Tehran outside Parliament and were dispersed by the police, the reports said.

In a show of defiance that appears to have unnerved the government, demonstrators chanted in Turkish Azeri, as the language is known here for its close relation to Turkish, and demanded that it be taught in schools.

Among the group's other demands, listed on Iranian news Web sites, were the release of jailed protesters and the right to start independent television channels that would broadcast in Turkish Azeri.

Unrest has mounted since the publication of a cartoon in an official newspaper on May 19 that depicted a cockroach speaking Turkish Azeri. The newspaper was subsequently closed and the cartoonist and editor jailed, but the tensions have increased.

Azeris are Iran's largest minority, making up more than a quarter of the population.

In remarks in a meeting with some members of Parliament on Sunday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the West for the ethnic tensions, as he and other government officials have done in the case of other ethnic conflicts.

He noted the Azeri people's involvement in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

"Our enemies do not know Azerbaijan because the Azeris have always bravely defended the Islamic revolution and the sovereignty of this country," he said, referring to Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, where the riots have taken place.

"People in Azerbaijan are awake and will give a proper response to the enemy," he added.
Iran's Azeri region borders the country of Azerbaijan, as well as Turkey and Armenia.

The tensions are occurring as Iran's government faces international criticism for its nuclear program.

Published: May 29, 2006 New York Times