Iranian intelligence officials have linked a riot in Tabriz by thousands of ethnic Azeri Turks with "issues in Khuzestan".
The security services reportedly fired at the crowd killing up to 20 Azeris after demonstrators chanted slogans such as "Azeri people will not tolerate sufferings" and "Chehraganli, the hero of Azerbaijan", a reference Mahmudali Chehraganli, the leader of the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement (SANAM) which campaigns for self-determination of ethnically Azeri areas of Iran.
Speaking to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), a local intelligence ministry official said: "the ones inciting unrest and vandalism [...] were all supported by foreigners." He also accused the US and Israel of seeking to incite ethnic disputes in Iran, saying: "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."
The Azeri riot was sparked by a cartoon in a conservative Iranian newspaper in which the Azeri people, who comprise around a quarter of Iran's population, were caricatured as cockroaches.
The government closed down the newspaper for "creating divisions within the people", condemned the cartoon and arrested the cartoonist and one of the newspaper's editors who are now being held in the notorious Evin Prison where political dissidents are usually imprisoned.The regime has also arrested 54 Azeris on charges of vandalism. The police have vowed to arrest more accused of violence.
The scale of the Azeri unrest has shaken the regime and forced it to take drastic action to quell the anger shown by Iran's second largest ethnic group. However, a ban on a weekly newspaper published in Iran's ethnic Azeri provinces was closed in March on charges of ethnic bias and of acting against national security. The banning of newspapers due to their protrayal of ethnic issues has inflamed ethnic divisions in Iran.
Ethnic Azeris are often subjected to ethnic slurs in Iran and the Azeri language is effectively banned in schools and restricted in the media. Although some of Iran's most senior religious and political leaders are Azeri, Persian culture and the Farsi language is imposed on the non-Persian minorities who make up at least half the country's population.
These include Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Balochis, Turkmen and other groups. Some regional ethnically Persian groups which have their own dialects and cultures, such as the traditionally nomadic Lurs, also hold grievances against the regime over its model of economic development which often leaves them marginalised.
The Iranian Azeri population is larger than the population of Azerbaijan, while Iran's Arab population, estimated at up to five million, is greater than the size of Gulf states such as Kuwait or the UAE.
Ethnic minorities are increasingly mobilised in their opposition to the government, with a large number of mass demonstrations and rising militancy seen in provinces such as Kurdistan, Balochistan and Khuzestan, which is the homeland of the Ahwazi Arabs.
The Ahmadinejad administration is keen to portray the growth of ethnic movements as a foreign plot, although it has refused to publish the evidence it claims to have linking ethnic movements to foreign governments.
Azerbaijan Cultural Society
Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran