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(Newsweek) One of the world’s largest saltwater lakes is almost gone, and ethnic minority Iranians blame the mullahs in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Over the past two decades, Lake Urmia, in northwestern Iran, has shrunk by nearly 95 percent, destroying the once-booming tourism and fishing industries and the habitat of local fauna, including flamingos, terns, and gulls, as well as endemic species such as brine shrimp. If the lake were to dry up, some four million residents from the West and East Azerbaijan provinces would have to be evacuated, with vicious salt storms making their land uninhabitable.

They’re not going quietly. In the past week, Azerbaijani protesters have taken to the streets throughout the region. A week ago, demonstrators gathered at the provincial office of Iran’s Natural Resources and Watershed Management Organization in Tabriz chanting, “Lake Urmia is thirsty!”

But even as world attention has been focused on protests by Iranian women and their allies, these groups have also turned to resistance and could cause major headaches for the regime.

Iran doesn’t allow censuses, but credible experts estimate ethnic Persians make up less than half of the population. The next largest group is the Azerbaijanis, which comprise up to a quarter of the population. Then come smaller but still significant groups, including Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Lurs and Turkmen.

Over the years these groups have fomented sporadic protests. In 2005, thousands of Azerbaijanis demonstrated after state media caricatured them as cockroaches. In 2013, 2,000 Arabs formed a human chain to protest the diversion of a river during a severe drought. There have been deadly demonstrations, including protests over oil refinery pollution in the largely Arab Khuzestan province in 2017, and over water mismanagement throughout the province in 2021.

Even with press censorship there are many public signs of increasing resistance. Protests over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini— the Kurdish young woman who didn’t wear her hijab properly, protests in Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Arab and Baluch dominant regions were more inflamed and police inflicted harsher crackdowns Persian-majority regions.

Another flashpoint, the ethnic Baluch province of Sistan and Baluchestan has been roiled by a devastating fuel shortage that is causing hours-long lines at gas stations due to government mismanagement.

Rather than addressing concerns of its national minorities, the Islamic Republic represses them. The minorities are at a much greater risk of abuse, forced disappearances, and executions. Ethnic Kurds make up half of the country’s political prisoners and more than 70 percent of judicial executions despite comprising less than 10 percent of the population, according to a 2021 report from the United Nations.

The Iranian government treats these groups as a separatist threat and has carried out a campaign of Persianization against them similar to the Chinese government’s Sinicization tactics against ethnic Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians. This has included initiatives to promote Persian culture while trying to destroy displays of ethnic identity, especially through language. In May 2019, Iran’s Ministry of Education announced that five- and six-year-olds would have to pass proficiency tests in Persian or be placed in special education schools. The policy forces families to teach and speak Persian at home. Tehran has imprisoned educators for teaching minority languages on charges of “forming groups and societies with the aim of disrupting national security.” Tehran has even prevented Azerbaijani parents from giving their children traditional ethnic names.

Tehran has seemingly done everything in its power to show ethnic minorities that the government won’t take care of them, which is why Azerbaijanis are convinced that the government is neglecting to address the oncoming crisis around Lake Urmia. The drying of the lake began in the 1980’s due to dam-building, rising temperatures, and over-farming. The government has been warned about how water mismanagement could destroy the lake since the 1990’s but took no action. Instead, they ramped up dam construction on nearby rivers and even built a highway in the middle of the lake, disrupting the flow of water.

While Lake Urmia desiccates, the government has spared no efforts in supplying water to Persian regions in need. This has not escaped the attention of the protestors. Two weeks ago, Azerbaijani activists in the Caspian city of Ardabil handed out leaflets attacking the regime for pumping water from the Caspian Sea to the farmers in the Semnan province, who belong to Iran’s dominant Persian population and have long mismanaged and wasted water.

In the efforts to protect the lake, an unlikely hero has appeared. Since 2013, the Japanese government has donated almost $4 million and partnered with the United Nations Development Program to restore the lake. While these efforts have achieved some results, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency, the lake is still on the verge of extinction.

The regime may be deliberately neglecting the lake to extract lithium from its dried up bottom in the future, the Voice of America reported last year. Tehran has denied these allegations. Some, like the activist Telegram channel Guney AZfront, paint a darker picture: the regime wants to see the region broken up to destroy any potential for future Azerbaijani secession.

Indeed, tourists no longer flock to Lake Urmia. If they did, all they would see is deserted farms, boarded up hotels and abandoned ships on beds of salt that used to be water.

Rather than taking concrete steps to preserve the Azerbaijanis’ salt-water lifeline, the government has blamed the desiccation on an Israeli plot and villainized the protesters. Last week, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps spokesman accused protesters of using the lake’s desiccation as a political weapon. Earlier this month, security forces detained prominent environmental activists like Said Minayi and Fatima Dadashzade. They also arrested a store owner for wearing a shirt with the shape of Lake Urmia.

Arrests and threats are unlikely to soften the Azerbaijanis’ resolve. Despite decades of repression, Azerbaijanis continue to take to the streets to demand a solution. For Azerbaijanis, the drying of Lake Urmia as an existential problem. They can survive discrimination, but not life without water.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is EMET’s Legislative Fellow. Prior to EMET, Joseph worked in Business Intelligence and Due Diligence for Kroll and Vcheck Global. He has additionally worked as a journalist, analyst, and consultant covering security and migration issues in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Central Africa. From 2017 to 2019, he served as a Lone Soldier in the Israeli Border Police. A graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Political Science and Soviet Studies, Joseph is fluent in Russian and Hebrew.

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