Atul Aneja

Teheran takes steps to maintain social cohesion

Alarmed at protests by minority AzerisCartoon provokes controversy

DUBAI: Iran has begun to take urgent steps to maintain social cohesion, as tensions with United States over its nuclear programme show no signs of abating.

Iran has been alarmed by recent protests by a section of its Azeri population, following the publication of a cartoon in the state-run Persian daily, Iran, which seemed to ridicule the ethnic group. Surprisingly, there were no protests for nearly a week following the publication of the cartoon in the children's section of the daily.

Hundreds of Azeris took to the streets in the northwestern city of Tabriz. The demonstrators reportedly smashed windows at the office of the provincial Governor.

Largest minority

The Azeris are Iran's largest minority and comprise nearly one fourth of the 70 million population. Many of them reside in an area that shares border with oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has been improving its relationship with the U.S. recently.

The Government shut down the daily and arrested the cartoonist and the editor-in-chief of the newspaper.

Analysts point out the action may have nothing to do with curbing press freedom.

On the contrary some publications, which have been consistently critical of the establishment, have not been closed down after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency.

At a rally in Khorramshahr, Mr. Ahmadinejad blamed the U.S. of "hatching plots" against Iran.

"Today, they [the U.S. and its allies] are hatching plots. They want to provoke differences, divisions, disappointment ... to prevent the Iranian nation from achieving all of its rights."

Interior Minister Mostaf Pourmohammadi said on Tuesday miscreants were deliberately attempting to undermine social harmony.

"Some are misusing the situation. Others outside borders are trying to propagate protests through their satellite channels," he said in reference to Opposition television channels, which operate from the U.S. In February, the U.S. State Department had sought $75 millions of additional funding for "democracy promotion" work in Iran.

Iranian authorities have also been highly concerned about the acts of violence in its Kuzestan province. Unlike the rest of Iran, the area has a majority Arab population.

Besides, most of Iran's oil reserves are located in this region, which borders Iraq.

Six persons were killed and 46 wounded in a blast on January 24, for which an Iranian Arab group claimed responsibility.

Iran had blamed Britain, which has its troops deployed in nearby Basra, in Iraq, and the U.S. for the incident. Khorramshahr, which Mr. Ahmadinejad visited on Wednesday, is located in Kuzestan.

Calling for national unity, the former President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, on Wednesday stressed that Iran was being "threatened more than ever before."