By Frud Bezhan, RFE/RL
As Iranian authorities attempt to quell lingering anger among ethnic Azeris over an alleged insult against them on a popular children's television program, a key actor in the controversy is pleading his innocence.
WATCH: The Iranian Kids' Show That Sparked Outrage (natural sound)
Members of Iran's Azeri community have reacted angrily to the November 6 episode of Fitilehha, which depicted an ethnic Azeri as having mistaken a toilet brush for a toothbrush.
The outcry resulted in an apology from Iran's state broadcaster, and large street protests in Azeri-populated areas in northwestern Iran.
Fitilehha was taken off air amid the outcry that ensued after the program aired on November 6.
Mohammad Moslemi, the director of the show and one of program's main actors, took to Facebook to present his side of the story.
"How is it possible to insult an ethnic group in a clip when I myself am an Azeri and Turkic speaker?" Moslemi asked in a video posted on Facebook on November 10:
"I do not know why such a misunderstanding has happened," he added. "I hope we will never face such issues again."
It is unknown whether Moslemi will face punishment over the joke.
The contentious Fitilehha episode showed a father -- played by Moslemi -- and his son speaking Persian with Azeri accents. They express their unhappiness with the hotel they are staying in, deeming it "smelly," before it is revealed that the son had mistakenly used a toilet brush to clean his teeth.
In announcing the show's suspension, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) head Mohammad Sarafraz apologized on November 8 for the "unforgivable mistake" in the episode, which he said was "insulting" to ethnic Azeris.
The next day, large street protests were staged in the northwestern cities of Tabriz, Orumieh, and Zanjan, which have majority Azeri populations.
Following those protests, the Supreme National Security Council on November 10 urged Iranians not to "listen to provocative remarks" in the episode and pledged to take action against the perpetrators.
Iranian state media have criticized the coverage of the controversy by the Western media, accusing them of trying to incite unrest in the Islamic republic. "This time these media have got hold of a mistake made by a children's TV show and turned this issue into an 'ethnic crisis'," the Fars news agency reported on November 11.
Iran's hard-line Keyhan daily said on November 11 that although the "program's producers cannot be defended ... we should not allow the enemies to exploit and create divisions in the country."
Iran's Azeri minority, estimated to be about 13-million strong, is well integrated into society and the government. The minority includes prominent figures such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi.
The community has accused the government of discrimination by banning the Azeri language in schools, harassing Azeri activists, and changing Azeri geographic names.
Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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