Ethnic Azerbaijani communities commemorate suffering of their compatriots in Iran, by Dr. Marat Terterov 

Ethnic Azerbaijani communities commemorate suffering of their compatriots in Iran, by Dr. Marat Terterov 

The majority of such analysis tends to focus on instability and violence resulting from the Iranian regime’s clashes with ethic Kurds, or Iran’s Baluch minorities. Less attention has been given to the plight of the country’s ethnic Azerbaijani communities, whose numbers make up tens of millions and who are located mostly in Iran’s provinces neighbouring Azerbaijan. This is perhaps somewhat surprising. The momentum of unrest involving Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijanis has been on the rise.

However, few present-day analysts recall the events of Khordad, or ‘National Day of Mutiny’, which took place in May 2006. Those events, whilst not well known in the West, were perhaps reflective of the largest and most turbulent protests of ethnic Azerbaijani communities ever to have taken place in the Islamic Republic. So significant were the protests that rocked Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijan regions (Zanjan, Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil) in 2006 that some activists now refer to these events as the ‘Day of National Awakening’ of ethnic Azerbaijani communities in Iran.

The protests were sparked by an offensive caricature published on 12 May 2006 in the pro-regime Iran-e-jomee newspaper. This news item caused massive offence to ethnic Azerbaijani communities and the publication was probably intended as a provocation. It was published in the children’s section of the newspaper and associated ethnic Azerbaijani communities in Iran with cockroaches. Fierce protests erupted, lasting for some two weeks.

As the violence and tensions spiralled, the regime-backed media outlet responsible for the publication appeared to backtrack, possibly to appease the protesters. On 21 May 2006 the newspaper issued an apology, whilst the editor-in-chief and cartoonists responsible for the caricature – Mehrdad Ghasemfar and Mana Neyestani respectively – were both arrested. Substantial damage was done by that time. Violence continued. The government admitted that there were casualties, claiming that four protestors were killed and another 330 were detained by the authorities. Amnesty International refers to much higher numbers with up to several thousand ethnic Azerbaijani communities jailed or killed. Ethnic Azerbaijani community activists in Iran themselves claim that more than 5,000 activists were detained and even tortured, with up to 150 killed. Some were reportedly killed using methods too violent to be mentioned in this article.

Whatever the final numbers of victims, it is clear that ethnic Azerbaijani communities in Iran and their compatriots all over the world mark the date 22 May (I Khordad on the Iranian calendar) every year as a day to commemorate and to remember those who died in the protests. Commemorative events have been taking place in Azerbaijani communities around the world since that time. In May 2023, large scale commemorative rallies honouring the victims of Khordad were staged in Berlin. The capital of Germany became the focal point for remembrance processions for ethnic Azerbaijani communities in Europe. Thousands of Azerbaijani communities gathered in front of Berlin’s symbolic Brandenburg Gates to protest against policies of ethnic discrimination and oppression orchestrated by the Iranian regime and to demand equal rights for Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani communities.

The swathes of demonstrators, many of them originally from Iran, called for freedom and justice for their compatriots inside Iran. Many waved Azerbaijan flags and were adorned by symbolic slogans reflecting their ethnic Azerbaijani identity, which are currently banned by the Iranian authorities. It is high time that the international community recognises the long struggle of ethnic Azerbaijani communities in Iran. Commemorative events remembering Khordad are only going to get bigger and become more prominent in the future.

Article by Dr. Marat Terterov,

Senior Professional, International Relations and Global Energy Security.



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