Mass demonstrations of ethnic Azerbaijanis protesting the drying up of Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran, the Middle East’s largest water reservoir and the third largest salt-water lake in the world, recently struck the cities of Iranian Azerbaijan. Although information from the region is scarce, numerous reports state that hundreds of protesters have been beaten, arrested and mistreated by Iranian police and security forces. Additionally, new clashes have taken place between supporters of the Tehran-based Esteqlal and the Tabriz-based Tractor Sazi football club (TSFC) with the latter raising Urmiye-related claims alongside their longtime demands for establishing school education in Azerbaijani Turkish.
BACKGROUND: Environmental protests have been on the rise since August following the Iranian parliament’s refusal to accept an emergency rescue plan for reviving Urmia, a lake that has the status of a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Indeed, this extremely salty lake with its unique flora and fauna could be facing a large-scale environmental catastrophe resembling the fate of Central Asia’s Aral Sea. This is a result of Tehran’s recent policies of building numerous dams on more than 20 tributaries feeding into the lake, which has in turn reduced the depth of the lake by around two thirds to less than 2 meters. The government’s plan to build a bridge connecting the cities of Tabriz and Oroumiye across the lake has further worsened its ecological situation.
During football matches that took place shortly after the parliament’s decision, dozens of TSFC fans were arrested for protesting the Iranian government's failure to take measures to save the lake. In spite of the routine detainments of environmental activists and ordinary protesters, several thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis took to the streets of Tabriz, Oroumiye, and other cities of Iranian Azerbaijan on August 27 and September 3; and more demonstrations are expected. These peaceful protests were crushed by large contingents of Iranian police and security forces using repressive means such as tear gas and firing metal bullets. According to local sources, the number of detainees has reached a thousand people with many dozens of protesters injured and at least one killed.
In the meantime, violence occurred during a football game between TSFC and Esteqlal in Tehran on September 9, in which the TSFC’s victory placed it among the leaders of the Iranian playoff. Intriguingly, before the game started, the authorities took measures to prevent thousands of TSFC supporters from entering the stadium. The authorities had received reports about the intention of TSFC supporters to articulate politically flavored demands during the match, related to the apparent unwillingness of the regime to save the lake. Those who managed to attend the game still used the opportunity to chant slogans related to Urmia and condemning the authorities, which brought about the clashes with security forces.
IMPLICATIONS: The increasingly vocal demands of Azerbaijanis, Iran’s by far largest ethnic community making up around a quarter of the country’s multiethnic population, have recently attracted the attention of observers of the region (see the 10/27/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst). It has been argued that the younger generation of Iranian Azerbaijanis has increasingly come to identify along the lines of secular ethnic nationalism, thereby embracing the notion of their Turkic identity and reducing the commitment to Iranian statehood, which is anchored heavily in religion.
Importantly, this development has taken place alongside increasing numbers of violent incidents with Azerbaijanis on one side and Iranian police and security forces on the other being reported across the country. For instance, concerned over the dramatically growing scope of Azerbaijani nationalism aired during TSFC games, the authorities have started to limit the numbers of predominantly Azerbaijani TSFC supporters attending its games. During the frequently occurring racial and nationalistic clashes between Azerbaijani fans of TSFC and the predominantly Persian fans of Esteqlal and Persepolis, another Tehran-based football club, police and security forces usually do not hesitate to take the side of the ethnic Persians. The above-mentioned victory of TSFC over its traditional rival, Esteqlal, brought about mass celebrations in Tabriz, which were accompanied by political demands. The initiative was crushed by police and security forces and ignited a new wave of detentions of Azerbaijani activists which has been ongoing for several weeks. In turn, this has been viewed by an increasing share of Iran’s Azerbaijani community as additional evidence of ethnic discrimination, anti-Azerbaijani bias and Persian nationalism.
Accordingly, established ethno-nationalistic pro-Azerbaijan, pro-Turkey, and increasingly anti-Persian and anti-regime slogans chanted by several thousand TSFC fans as well as ordinary Azerbaijanis have recently been accompanied by slogans focusing on Urmia such as “Lake Urmia is dying, Iran is ordering its execution,” or “Urmia is thirsty, Azerbaijan must rise up, otherwise it will lose.” Symbolically, these and similar chants were first articulated at a recent meeting of Azerbaijanis at the Tabriz-based tomb of Sattar Khan, an ethnic Azerbaijani national hero of Iran and a key figure in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911.
Even more importantly, confronted with Tehran’s apparent unwillingness to put an effective end to the dehydration of the Urmia Lake, increasing numbers of Azerbaijanis regard this as a result of an alleged sophisticated plan by the government to turn Iran’s Azerbaijani provinces into a salty desert as the remaining salt would be dispersed by winds throughout the whole region destroying soil and crops. Since the Urmia Lake plays a crucial role in Iranian Azerbaijan and supports around 15 million local inhabitants, the argument continues, the upcoming ecologic disaster would gradually force local Azerbaijanis to migrate into other areas of the country effectively reducing the prospects of Azerbaijani secessionism and fostering their assimilation into the Persian mainstream.
CONCLUSIONS: So far, the existence of the TSFC, whose significant sport successes and wide popularity across Northwestern Iran’s predominantly Azerbaijani provinces has contributed greatly to awakening the masses of once politically apathetic Iranian Azerbaijanis. The commitment to save the Urmia Lake, regarded as the pearl of Iranian Azerbaijan, has further united many ordinary Azerbaijanis. This is regardless of their politically motivated sympathies – or antipathies – toward the idea of Iranian statehood or Azerbaijani Turkic nationalism, as well as efforts aimed at ethno-linguistic and cultural emancipation advocated by a portion of the Iranian Azerbaijani population. The indiscriminate use of force by the regime even over this seemingly apolitical issue has further deepened the ethnically defined gap between Iranian Azerbaijanis and the Iranian state, paving the ground for considerable conflict in the future.AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective“ (Peter Lang, 2007).