Iran - South Azerbaijan: Ethnic Turks of Iran and Anti-Racist Demonstrations - May 2006


On May 12, 2006, "Iran", a state-run newspaper published a cartoon insulting Turks of Azerbaijan. It depicted an Turkish-speaking cockroach and suggested people deny it food until it learned to speak Persian.
Azerbaijani university students held demonstrations protesting the cartoon and demanded a formal government apology. In the first days of the demonstrations, no official response from the government condemning the cartoon materialized. The demonstrations spread to other cities in the predominantly Azerbaijani region of Iran. On May 22, Tabriz was home to the greatest anti-state demonstration since the founding of the Islamic Revolution. The protestors went out to the streets and called on Tehran to respect ethnic rights, and demanded that Azerbaijani Turkish be an official state language in Iran. The Azerbaijanis peaceful demonstrations were met with force. The security forces fired on people, reportedly killing at least 20 and arrested hundreds of protestors. Similar demonstrations shook most of the Azerbaijani cities. Naghadeh (Sulduz), Urmia, and Meshghinsherhr (Khiyav) hosted bloody demonstrations with at least 10 people killed.
In response to the vast demonstrations, the government quickly removed the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and the caricaturist, but no official apology was released. The Iranian media did not adequately report the events that occurred during the demonstrations despite their unprecedented size and duration and the events went largely unnoticed in foreign media outlets as well. Azerbaijanis found themselves completely alone in the struggle for their rights in Iran. The opposition in Iran, the so called reformist camp, also did not support the rightful protests of the Azerbaijanis. The demonstrations were not only a backlash against the cartoon, but represented a wider uprising against the tens of years of discrimination and oppression in Iran toward the Azerbaijanis.