Iranian ethnic Azeris staged protests over the weekend in Tabriz after a children's program on state TV insulted Azeris on Friday in Iran where minority rights are often violated, according to several rights groups. "The demonstrators protested the depiction of Azeris in the children's program Fitilehha (Candle Wicks), aired on Nov. 6 on İRİB TV-2, showing an Azeri boy brushing his teeth with a toilet brush," AP said. Iran's state TV claimed that the protests were illegal and they turned violent on Monday. Riot police, who asked the protesters to end the demonstration, were deployed. However, the outcry continued to grow across Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey, where hundreds of social media users slammed Iran, while hundreds of other Azeris protested the insult in many Iranian cities. "Mohammad Sarafraz, Iran's state TV chief, has apologized to Iranians for the insult and has dismissed an official in charge of the program. He also ordered the program to be halted," AP reported. Davud Nemati-Anarki, the head of IRIB's public relation's department, also apologized for the "unintentional offense" caused by the TV program. Two Iranian lawmakers, Masud Pezeshkian and Mohammad Saeed Esmaeili, who are representatives of mainly ethnic Azeri provinces, have blasted the program. "It is an insult to the people of the Azerbaijani provinces," an Azeri website Trend said.
Iran has been accused by several rights groups of violating minority rights. The main ethnic group in Iran is Azeri. "Azeris compose some 16 million people, or 24 percent of the overall population of the Islamic Republic of Iran, three times the population of neighboring Azerbaijan," minorityrights.org says. The ethnic slur is a common problem for Azeris, as a Congressional Research Service report released in 2008 stressed, saying, "A common complaint among Azeris is that the Iranian media often poke fun at them." Similar insults have sparked outrage in Iran before. "In May 2006, violent demonstrations broke out in a number of northwestern cities after a cartoon published in a state-run newspaper compared Azeris to cockroaches. Recently, in May 2007, hundreds of Iranian Azerbaijani linguistic and cultural rights activists were arrested in connection with demands that they should be allowed to be educated in their own language," the same report said. The report linked the creation of an Islamic/Shiite religion to the worsening of minority rights. "Iran is home to approximately 70.5 million people who are ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse. The central authority is dominated by Persians, who constitute 51 percent of Iran's population. Iranians speak diverse Indo-Iranian, Semitic, Armenian, and Turkic languages. The state religion is Shia Islam. After the installation by Ayatollah Khomeini of an Islamic regime in February 1979, the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities grew worse. By the summer of 1979, initial violent conflicts erupted between the central authority and members of several tribal, regional, and ethnic minority groups. This initial conflict dashed the hope and expectation of these minorities who were hoping for greater cultural autonomy under the newly created Islamic state," the report read. Another report, released in June 2014 by the Unrepresented Nations and People Organization said, "In Iran, national minorities face discrimination on a daily basis in all spheres of life. They are being treated as second or third class citizens. Iran is a multinational country with a total population of around 70 million, consisting of Persians, Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Baloch, Fars, Kurds, Lor, Armenians and Baha'i." The report said the main areas of concern were extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, cultural assimilation, language rights, political participation, religious freedom, freedom of expression and economic marginalization.