By James M. Dorsey
Iranian authorities have arrested scores of soccer fans and protesters demanding during a match this weekend that the government take measures to prevent Lake Orumiyeh in the predominantly Azeri northwest of the country from drying up.
The protest followed an Iranian parliament vote against allocating funds to channel water from the Araz River to raise the level of the salt lake that lies between the Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan near the border with Turkey. Parliament suggested instead that Azeris living near the lake be relocated.
The protest was the third time this year that anti-government sentiment spilled onto the soccer pitch, one of the few places that strength of numbers and moments of intense passion spark expressions of dissent.
The protest erupted during a match on August 25 in the city of Tabriz between storied Iranian top league team Tractor Sazi SC, a flashpoint of Iranian Azerbaijan’s identity politics that is owned by state-run Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), and another local team, Shahrdari Tabriz SC.
“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” says a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.
Thousands of fans chanted "Lake Urmia is dying, the Majlis orders its execution" during Tractor Sazi’s match against Shahrdari.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that at least 30 ethnic Azeris had been arrested because of the protests, some of them during an iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast. Protesters were also reportedly arrested in Ardabil and other Iranian Azerbaijani cities.
RFE quoted Azeri human rights activist Vahid Qaradagli as saying the arrests were designed to prevent further protests. Mr. Qaradagli said tha some 10 million tons of salt would be exposed and pose a risk to the environment and public health if the lake dried up.
Lake Orumiyeh (Source: Mehr News Agency)
Iranian soccer pitches are battlefields for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a soccer fan who sees the game as a way to polish his tarnished images, and fans who view it as a venue to express dissent.
A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks describes how Mr. Ahmadinejad has sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to curry popular favour.
Mr. Ahmadinejad went as far as in 2006 trying to lift the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadiums, but in an early public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The funeral in May of a famous Iranian soccer player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
A fan waves a photo of late defender Nasser Hejazi at the entrance to Azadi Stadium in Tehran (Source: France 24)
Tens of thousands reportedly attended the ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
In a rare occurrence, some 1,000 women were allowed to be present during the ceremony. Iran bans women from stadiums in accordance with its strict segregation of genders in public places.
Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April to task for Iran’s gaping income differences and budgetary measures which hit the poorest the hardest.
The mourners also shouted "Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning" and "Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore".
The Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) postponed in February league matches in Tehran in a bid to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests inspired by the anti-government protests in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled presidents Zine el Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.