TEHRAN — Iran closed a newspaper and detained its chief editor and cartoonist yesterday for publishing a cartoon that sparked riots by ethnic Azeris, the first such move since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power last year.
The sharp response was a sign of the hard-line government’s concern over any internal divisions amid its confrontation with the United States — and suggested there were worries the United States may try to stir up trouble among Iran’s ethnic minorities.
The indefinite closure of Iran, the state-run Farsi language newspaper, came after it published a cartoon of a cockroach speaking Azeri, the language of the country’s largest ethnic minority.
Iranian officials quickly apologized for the slur and stressed the nation’s unity in the standoff with the United States, which accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
“It is clear that the evil hands of foreigners are making efforts to provoke tribal, ethnic and religious differences under the present circumstances,” State Public Prosecutor Ghorban Ali Dorri Najafabadi told state press outlets.
“Our nation is vigilant and hates the United States,” he said.
Hundreds of Azeris marched Monday in the northwestern city of Tabriz, protesting the cartoon. Some broke windows in the governor’s office, and police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators, witnesses said.
The demonstration was reminiscent of riots that raged across the Muslim world in early February, sparked by cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper last fall.
The Danish cartoons were reproduced in other European and a few American newspapers in what became a debate pitting the right of free speech against respect for other religious faiths. Several Danish diplomatic posts and businesses were targeted in the outburst.
Azeris, a Turkic ethnic group, make up about a quarter of Iran’s 70 million people, dominated by ethnic Persians. Azeris speak a Turkic language shared by their brethren in neighboring Azerbaijan.
The May 12 cartoon that angered them suggested that Azeris are stupid. It showed people from different walks of life — including an athlete and a merchant — trying to teach the cockroach, who always answers, in Azeri, “What do you mean?”
There was no explanation why the protests broke out more than a week after the cartoon appeared in Iran, one of the country’s top three daily newspapers.
Culture Minister Saffar Harrandi, speaking on state television Monday night, apologized for the drawing. But Azeri legislator Eshrat Shayegh said the apology came “at least one week” too late.
Tehran Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi announced yesterday that the paper’s cartoonist and editor in chief had been detained in the capital’s Evin prison.
“Those responsible, the cartoonist and the chief editor, were summoned and the charges were read to them,” Mr. Mortazavi said.