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Ethnic tensions could crack Iran's firm resolve against the world

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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.

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