WASHINGTON — During the last week of May, thousands of Iranians demonstrated in the northwestern city of Tabriz, and the previous week there were protests at universities in five cities. The protests were triggered by the official government newspaper - the Islamic Republic News Agency's Iran - publishing a cartoon which depicts a boy repeating "cockroach" in Persian before a giant bug in front of him asks "What?" in Azeri.
Azeri-Iranians - who make up approximately one-quarter of the country's population - were particularly offended by the cartoon. These disturbances come at a bad time for the Iranian government, which is stressing national unity in the face of international concern over its nuclear program.
Ethnic Persians make up a little more than half the total population of 69 million, but there are sizable minorities - in addition to the Azeris there are ethnic Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, for example. Some of these groups, furthermore, practice Sunni Islam instead of the Shiite branch of Islam, the state religion. The Iranian Constitution guarantees the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, but in reality the central government emphasizes the Persian and Shiite nature of the state.
The recent incidents of ethnic tensions are only the latest examples of what has been escalating for more than a year. In mid-March in the southeast, which is home to many of Iran's 1.4 million Baluchis, a Baluchi group called Jundallah took responsibility for an attack on a government motorcade in which 20 people were killed. Jundallah seized a number of hostages and claimed that it executed one of them, a member of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. At least 12 people were killed in a similar attack in the second week of May. Nobody has taken credit for explosions May 8 in Kermanshah, which is home to Iran's 4.8 million Kurds, but the July 2005 shooting of a young Kurd by security forces led to demonstrations in several northwestern cities and the deaths of civilians and police officers. Since April of last year, there have been a number of violent incidents - including bombings that have targeted government facilities and which also have killed innocent bystanders - in the southwest, where many of Iran's 2 million Arabs live.
The central government typically reacts to ethnic unrest with a combination of repression and scapegoating. For example, two men were executed in early March for their roles in fatal October bombings in the southwest. They "confessed" on state television the night before their executions that Iranians in Canada and Britain instructed them to create insecurity.
The government commonly blames foreign agitators. Violence in the southwest is usually attributed to the Britain for historical reasons and because British forces are stationed near that part of the Iraqi border with Iran. In the May 19 Friday Prayers sermon in Tehran, which was broadcast across the country by state radio, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani pinned southeastern violence on the United States and Israel. He added that the most recent killings are meant to create tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. This would, he continued, undermine the country's security.
Official reactions to the unrest caused by the cartoon of an Azeri-speaking cockroach followed the familiar pattern. Although the cartoonist was arrested and the newspaper suspended, foreigners received the blame nevertheless. According to Reporters Without Borders, furthermore, two Azeri journalists were detained without charges.
Tehran's method of dealing with the ethnic issue will ultimately backfire. It can successfully employ overwhelming force against geographically isolated groups, but it would be much more difficult to handle angry Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, and other minorities if they act against the state simultaneously. If such an occurrence coincides with other forms of disorder, such as the violent student demonstrations that took place in Tehran May 23 and 24, then the regime could find that it has more than it can handle.
However, Iranian minorities are not pursuing separatism or special privileges. They identify with the Iranian nation - many defended the country in the Iran-Iraq War, and others serve in the government and legislature. When minorities protest they are not making unreasonable demands, they are just insisting on their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Such rights include use of their languages in local media, as well as the absence of discrimination. They also object to levels of unemployment and underdevelopment that affect their regions more severely than other parts of the country. The Iranian regime ignores minority rights and dismisses their concerns at its peril.
• Abbas William Samii is a regional analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc. The views expressed here are his own.