Iran: Azeri uprising in Tabriz

Another restive ethnic group in Iran is making demands for culture and autonomy felt—and meeting with harsh repression. Following the Arabs of Khuzestan and the Kurds of Kordestan, now the Azeris—who, like the Kurds, had a short-lived independent state under Soviet protection in northern Iran during World War II. Note the irony that the riots were sparked by an offensive anti-Azeri cartoon that appeared in the Iranian press! From IranMania, May 24:

Iranian police arrested 54 people after riots over a newspaper cartoon which provoked angry protests in the large ethnic Azeri community, a legal source said, according toan AFP report.

A cartoon in Friday’s edition of Iran newspaper had depicted an ethnic Azeri as a cockroach, sparking clashes between police and thousands of people in the main northwestern city of Tabriz.

“Fifty-four people have been arrested from the ones identified yesterday for vandalism,” Tabriz prosecutor, Yusef Firoozi, was quoted as saying by the student ISNA agency.

“They have all had police records and the rest of those identified will be arrested soon.”

A local intelligence ministry official, identified as Valizadeh, told ISNA: “the ones inciting unrest and vandalism yesterday were all supported by foreigners and were linked with issues in Khuzestan”.

The oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan has an Arab majority and has been seen a series of bombings in the past year.

Valizadeh also accused the United States and Israel of seeking to incite ethnic disputes in Iran.

“Now that we are more united than ever, American and Israeli intelligence services have put Iran’s ethnic issues on the agenda. Exploiting yesterday’s move was in line with that,” he was quoted as saying.

The Iranian government’s official national newspaper was banned Tuesday, and two of its journalists arrested for publishing the cartoon.

“This ban is because it published material which provokes divisions among people. It is banned, and its case has been sent to the press court,” said Hassan Kamran, a member of Iran’s press supervisory committee.

He told ISNA that the paper would not be published again until a verdict on the case was issued by a special tribunal dealing with press offences.

Tehran’s hardline chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, told state television that the cartoonist and page editor, Mana Neyestani and Mehrdad Qasemfar, had been arrested and taken to Tehran’s Evin prison.

He said the publisher of the paper would also be prosecuted.

Press reports said that thousands of ethnic Azeris in Tabriz had gathered outside the office of the governor of East Azerbaijan province on Monday.

Etemad-Melli paper said police used tear gas to disperse the crowd after some protesters pelted security forces with stones, injuring several policemen.

Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi told the official IRNA news agency that publication of the cartoon was “an insult to all Iranians, and we cannot tolerate that”.

The Iran newspaper, which is published by IRNA, has already made a formal apology and said the cartoonist has been sacked.

Ethnic Azeris, concentrated in northwestern Iran, account for some 25% of the population and are far more numerous in Iran than across the border in former Soviet Azerbaijan.

The hardline newspaper Kayhan blamed foreigners for inciting the ethnic unrest. “Our fellow Azeri countrymen are too clever to be exploited by Iran’s sworn enemies in their plots,” the paper said.

The Iran daily is not the first to run into problems this year.

A weekly publication in southern Iran was shut down permanently in April for “insulting the Islamic republic’s leadership”.

In March, another local weekly published in Iran’s ethnic Azeri provinces was closed on charges of ethnic bias and of acting against national security.

Between 2000 and 2004, Iran’s hardline judiciary shut down a large number of mostly reformist newspapers and magazines, and jailed scores of journalists.

Is the US attempting to exploit Azeri national aspirations for its own imperial purposes, as the USSR did in the ’40s (ironically while denying self-determination to Azeris in Soviet Azerbaijan)? The latest news from Khuzestan indicates the US and UK may be taking a role there, using neighboring occupied Iraq as a staging ground for destabilization. From IranMania, May 17:

Iranian security forces have arrested four weapons smugglers and made a large arms haul in the southwestern oil province of Khuzestan, Iran’s state television reported.

According to the report, a police spokesman said the arms traffickers were detained in the provincial capital of Ahvaz by intelligence agents. Some 178 “military-grade weapons” and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition were also seized.

Ahvaz, situated adjacent to British-patrolled southern Iraq, has been hit by a wave of unrest over the past year.

The city was rocked by ethnic riots in April 2005 and a string of car bombings in the run-up to the June presidential election, followed by more bomb attacks in October that year and January this year, AFP reported.

Authorities have pointed the finger at ethnic Arab separatists backed by British forces, allegations denied by London.

For an overview of how the Azeris have fared divided between Iran and the Soviets, see “The Two Azerbaijans” by David Nissman from Caspian Crossroads website.

See our last post on Iran.

  1. New developments
    A report by the PanArmenian Network claims some 20 Azeris were killed by security forces in the unrest.

    Predictably, Ahmadinejad has explicitly blamed the US for inciting the Azeri unsrest. “They [the US and its allies] must know they will not be able to provoke divisions . . . among the dear Iranian nation,” he said, in a speech in the mainly Arab southwestern city of Khoramshah. (FT, May 24)

    On the other hand, Iranian authorities have ordered closed the government-owned newspaper that published the offensive cartoon, and arrested the editor for “inciting ethnic divisions.” (Reporters Without Borders, May 24)