Last week’s protests by Azeris in several major cities of Iran caught official Tehran off guard. Based on their response, Iranian officials fear domestic unrest could destabilize the ruling regime in Tehran. Leaders were quick to play up ethnic harmony inside Iran and argue that only an outside force could disrupt that unity.
Demonstrators in Tabriz chanted slogans against the newspaper and stoned government buildings and banks. Tens of thousands of Azeris marched in several major cities to protest a cartoon mocking their ethnic identity. The controversial cartoon, which was published on May 12 in a special Friday edition of the state-run daily Iran, depicted a boy trying to practice the word “cockroach” in Persian, while a perplexed cockroach in front of him asked “What?” in Azeri (Bakutoday.net, May 23; also see EDM, May 26).
Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and arrested 54 people in connection with the unrest. Several dozen were reported wounded (Bakutoday.net, May 23). On May 28, four protestors were killed and 43 others were arrested in the West Azerbaijan region of Iran (IranMania, May 29).
The government moved quickly to restore order. On May 23, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Saffar Harandi appeared on state-run television, apologized for the cartoon, and ordered the newspaper offices closed. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Mehrdad Qasemfar, and its cartoonist, Mana Neyestani, were subsequently arrested (Reuters, May 23).
Iranian officials labeled the incident a provocation and blamed “foreign powers” for trying to destabilize the internal situation in the country. The Iran Student News Agency (ISNA) quoted a local Iranian intelligence officer as saying, “Now that we are more united than ever, American and Israeli intelligence services have put Iran’s ethnic issues on the agenda” (Bakutoday.net, May 23).
“[Those who incited] unrest and vandalism [on May 22] were all supported by foreigners and were linked with issues in Khuzestan,” declared the officer, referring to bombings last year in an oil-rich southwestern province of Iran. Khuzestan is predominantly populated by Arabs and borders Iraq. It is also seen as a strategically important gateway in case of a U.S. military attack against Iran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently toured the southwestern regions and accused the United States and its allies of trying to use the “ethnic card” inside Iran. “They must know that they will not be able to provoke divisions and differences among the Iranian nation, despite their desperate attempts,” Ahmadinejad remarked during one of his speeches (RealAzer.com, May 24).
“Those who have failed to block Iranians from achieving progress through pressure, conspiracies, and misuse of international organizations have now launched a strategy to foment discord and disillusion among Iranians in order to prevent them from realizing their goals and enforcing their rights,” declared Ahmadinejad (IRNA, May 24).
Other high-ranking officials in the Iranian government, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were also quick to downplay the recent disturbances. During a commemoration event in memory of Ayatollah Khomeini, Khamenei talked about the importance of religion in Iranian society and praised the strong unity and solidarity among the Iranian people (IRNA, May 24). Khamenei also declared, “[T]he enemies do not know the Azeri people of Iran, who have set a model for defending the territorial integrity of Iran” (IRNA, May 28).
At a seminar titled “Cultural Diversity and National Solidarity,” the former president of Iran and current Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani highlighted the historical and cultural ties among the various nationalities in Iran. “Iranian people, despite their diverse languages and dialects, have always rallied in support of their country,” he stated (IRNA, May 24)
However, the government gave a blunt warning to any locals who create ethnic disturbances. On May 26, speaking at a Friday prayer service at Tehran University, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards, warned, “Iran’s security and intelligence forces are completely aware of the enemies’ movements in the region [and] any acts of fomenting discord among the nations will be regarded as treason against the nation and the IRGC and Basij forces would strongly counter such betrayers” (IRNA, May 26)
Some one-third of Iran’s population is ethnic Azeri. They constitute the majority in the northwestern regions of Iran, which border Azerbaijan. A significant number of Azeris also reside in other parts of Iran, including Tehran. Both Azeris in Iran and in Azerbaijan speak the same language, which is a Turkic language of the Altaic family.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Iranian authorities have worried about the rise of nationalism and the revival of ethnic identity among Azeris. Tehran believes that increased ethnic awareness among ethnic groups in Iran could weaken the religious and national (Iranian) identities — two pillars of Iran’s current establishment. It could also lead to domestic disorder and threaten Iran’s territorial integrity. But what scares Tehran the most is the fact that some U.S. observers view the Azeri community in Iran as a domestic force that could potentially bring about regime change in Iran (Zerkalo, May 24).