* Tehran angered by anti-Iran protests in Baku
* Protests were against "gay" Eurovision comments from Iran
* Already tense relations between neighbours worsen
By Margarita Antidze
BAKU, May 22 Iran has withdrawn its ambassador
from Azerbaijan after clerics criticised Baku's hosting of the
Eurovision Song Contest, further souring relations between the
Islamic Republic and its secular neighbour.
Iran's withdrawal of its ambassador, for consultations in
Tehran, comes after months of accusations by the two countries
of meddling in each other's affairs and as the western-allied,
mostly Shi'ite Muslim Azerbaijan is about to host a hugely
popular international talent show.
Azerbaijan's hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest - a
flamboyant annual pageant of pop music from around Europe - has
been condemned by some Iranian clerics and lawmakers who have
referred to a "gay parade" - although no such event is planned.
A senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Sobhani, issued a
statement urging Muslims in the region to protest what he
described as anti-Islamic behaviour by Azerbaijan's government.
"We heard that the government of Azerbaijan is hosting the
international Eurovision Song Contest and that during this
contest there will also be a gay parade," the semi-official Fars
news agency quoted the cleric as saying.
Iran was angered by subsequent anti-Iranian protests in the
Azerbaijan capital Baku, where demonstrators carried pictures of
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei and banners that read "Azerbaijan does not need
The latest spat between the countries that share a religion
but have sharply different political systems is part of wider
Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in what it
says was the Jewish state's assassination of Iranian nuclear
Azerbaijan, for its part, arrested dozens of people this
year on suspicion of links with Iran's Revolutionary Guards and
of plotting attacks on targets that included the Israeli
Azerbaijan won the right to host the contest by winning last
year's event in Germany, and sees the annual event watched by
millions of television viewers as a chance to showcase the
country. The final is scheduled for Saturday.
"I do not know who got this idea into their heads in Iran,"
said Ali Hasanov, head of the public and political issues
department in Azeri President Ilham Aliyev's administration.
"We are hosting a song contest, not a gay parade."
The song contest has cast a spotlight on Azerbaijan's human
rights record and exposed tension over religion. Azeri officials
in private blame Iran for Islam's growing influence in the
officially secular country.
Hackers calling themselves Cyberwarriors for Freedom
attacked official websites of the contest on Thursday and posted
an Azeri-language message demanding Azerbaijan "stop carrying
out Eurovision 2012 in Baku and not allow gay parades".
Residents of Baku last week found in their mailboxes
leaflets and a video disc condemning the contest and what the
materials called a gay pride march.
The videos tell the stories of Muslim martyrs, accuse the
government of closing mosques and informally banning head
scarves in schools, and warn of natural disasters.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and