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Khatami's Azeri Joke Backfires

Azeri Protests In Iran
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In the last two weeks, a video showing Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami telling a joke about Iran’s Azeri minority has led to protests by Iranian Azeris and students in several cities including Tehran, Orumyeh, and Tabriz. (The video above is from a protest in Tabriz on May 25.)

The protests have drawn scores of people, many of them calling for a public apology from Khatami; others have said he should be defrocked. It is not clear when the video was made, but it appears to come from a private meeting.

The video, which is of poor quality, shows Khatami sitting in a room with several others, including some clerics, telling a joke.

“There was a preacher from Ardabil whose expertise was telling the story of how Fatemeh Zahra [the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad] got married," he says. "[The preacher] said that the night she became a bride, she was being taken to the house [of the groom] and the Prophet was walking in front of her, while Imam Hassan and Imam Hossein [both the sons of Fatemeh Zahra] were walking with her.”

Jokes about Azeris in Iran tend to focus on the idea that Azeris are slow, with the implication here that the preacher couldn't even get the story right.

What's interesting is the timing of the video's appearance and the possible motives for its release.

The head of the Azeri lawyers association in Tabriz, Hossein Farhudinia, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda earlier this week that he believes the posting of the video is a calculated move ahead of the June 12 election.

He also said that telling jokes is a tradition among Iranians and that those who tell jokes generally do not mean to show disrespect or insult others.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as one of Khatami’s vice presidents, gave a similar explanation to an Azerbaijani website He said that the video is “a pre-election provocation by the forces who are in power.”

Khatami, who withdrew his presidential candidacy, is now backing former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi, who is seen as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s main challenger.

Musavi is from Iran’s Azeri minority and is expected to garner a good deal of Azeri voters. The minority is actually huge, making up at least 25 percent of the country's population. A speech Musavi gave on May 25 in Tabriz reportedly attracted a crowd of some 30,000.

According to former Vice President Abtahi: “By provoking Khatami, the conservatives are trying to get Azeris to turn away from their 'native candidate.'” He added that both Khatami and Musavi have great respect for the Azeris.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari