PRAGUE, May 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The publication of the controversial cartoon prompted a swift response from Iran's central authorities.
Cabinet ministers condemned the caricature, describing it as "an offense to the Iranian people as a whole."
"They have mobilized mobs against the crowds that took to the streets. They also started mass repression, [with] arrests and imprisonments. They think this is the best way to tackle the crisis. The point is that the government did not expect such a [protest] movement, [that it would develop] on such a scale."
A Foreign Plot?
On May 23 -- the day after the first protests broke out in Tabriz -- the country's judiciary ordered the indefinite closure of "Iran" and the arrest of its editor in chief and its cartoonist.
But this did not help defuse tensions in the northwest.
As new protests were reported, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad alleged in a May 25 television address that the unrest was part of a foreign plot aimed at disrupting Tehran's efforts to acquire "peaceful nuclear technology."
On May 28, it was the turn of the country's supreme leader to enter the fray.
In an address to Iran's parliament, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested a link between developments in the northwest and a recent announcement that U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is seeking a multimillion-dollar bill in Congress to promote democracy in Iran.
"This tumult -- these ethnic and religious instigations -- are the last arrow left in the quiver of the enemies of the People's Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. "They are wrong when they plan to spend money with a view to stirring ethnic groups, social classes, and the youth. As a rule their plans are based on a wrong assessment of the situation. And now they've decided to turn to Azerbaijan."
Stirring Up Arabs And Kurds, Too
This is not the first time Iranian authorities have blamed domestic unrest on foreign countries.
Tehran accused Britain last year of instigating bomb attacks in the southwestern Khuzistan Province, a region with a large Arab population. It also blamed the United States for allegedly stoking unrest among ethnic Kurds.
Touraj Atabaki teaches at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. This expert on Iran's Azeri minority says there might be some truth behind Iran's claims of a foreign plot. Yet, he tells RFE/RL he believes responsibility for the unrest lies first and foremost with the central government.
"Of course one cannot confirm that foreign agencies or [individuals] from [neighboring] Azerbaijan or Turkey, or from the U.S., are involved," he said. "This is very difficult to [make such accusations]. There might be some foreign involvement. But one can neither confirm nor deny this. Yet, the [approach] of the Iranian [authorities] toward social protests is very security-oriented and based on conspiracy theories. They immediately come to the conclusion that protests are instigated by foreign powers and they don't want to see the social, local [reasons] of these protests."
Ever since Tehran quelled the short-lived autonomous government of Tabriz in 1946, Azeris -- who make up to one quarter of the country's population -- have been demanding more rights in line with Iran's Constitution.
In the late 1990s, President Mohammad Khattami introduced reforms aimed at giving ethnic minorities more control of their respective regions' political life. But Atabaki says Ahmadinejad, who took office in August of last year, is in the process of reversing this policy.
Ahmadinejad Reversing Previous Policy
"What Khattami did was to try to bring more local people into the political establishment. Governors, mayors, and local officers were elected or appointed from [amongst] various ethnic groups and that was a trend that started some eight years ago. But now, [under] the presidency of Ahmadinejad, we see that those officials who were appointed [over] the past eight years [are being] replaced with people coming from [other] geographic areas. Those are mostly people who have links with the Revolutionary Guard."
Ali Hamed-Iman is the director of "Shams-e Tabrizi," a reformist electronic newspaper that has its office in the capital of East Azerbaijan Province. He tells Radio Farda the controversial cartoon served as a catalyst for the country's Azeris.
"This caricature became an excuse for Turkic-speaking students and people all across Iran," Hamed-Iman said. "It was a spark that blew up the gunpowder of the Azerbaijani national movement. It was like a knife stuck in the back of the [Azeri] people, or to put it differently, in the back of the Azerbaijani national movement."
That Azeri protests are going beyond the cartoon controversy is confirmed by reports from Tehran.
As Khamenei was preparing to address the legislature on May 28, dozens of Azeris marched on the parliament before being dispersed by police. Iran's student news agency (ISNA) said they were demanding that their language be taught in Iranian schools and that an Azeri-language television channel be established.
Difficult To Determine
Meanwhile, what really happened in Iran's northwest remains shrouded in secrecy.
Authorities initially said the protests were limited to Tabriz and that one person was wounded and another 54 people arrested during the unrest.
Subsequent reports, however, suggest the disturbances were on a much broader scale.
On May 28, the top security officer of West Azerbaijan Province, General Hassan Karami, said four people were killed in the town of Naqadeh, some 150 kilometers southeast of Tabriz.
Various Accounts Offered
This official death toll pales in comparison to that given by the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement (Guney Azerbaycan Milli Oyanis Harekati -- or GAMOH).
The Baku-based GAMOH advocates unification of Azeris living on both sides of the Araxes River, which separates Iran from Azerbaijan.
The group says unrest spread across Iran's north and that deadly clashes in Tabriz, Urumiyeh, Ardabil, Maragheh, Zanjan, Khvoy, Bukan, and other towns left at least 20 dead and scores of wounded. It also claims security forces made hundreds of arrests and sustained a few casualties at the hands of protesters.
The World Azeri Congress last week released a list of casualties that indicated that some of the deadliest clashes took place in Sulduz (Fesanduz, in Persian), a town GAMOH claims fell briefly into the hands of insurgents.
Given the political agenda of those two organizations, independent observers may find it hard to give credence to their claims.
Yet, Atabaki -- who has just returned from Iran -- says the protest movement "is spreading everywhere" and has reached Farsabad, near the border with Azerbaijan. He also says the government seems unable -- or unwilling -- to respond to the unrest other than through coercion.
"They have mobilized mobs against the crowds that took to the streets," Atabaki said. "They also started mass repression, [with] arrests and imprisonments. They think this is the best way to tackle the crisis. The point is that the government did not expect such a [protest] movement, [that it would develop] on such a scale."