Although the protests have been limited to towns around Isfahan, they highlight the unrest fomenting in rural areas that were traditionally considered conservative.
There were only a few farmers chanting the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Death to farmers, long live oppressors!” in online videos early in March, but a week later the protests escalated. Farmers faced down riot police on motorcycles in the town of Varzaneh, according to another video. Allegedly, tear gas was fired.
Police in the city of Isfahan were not available for comment.
A journalist in Varzaneh, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “What’s called drought is more often the mismanagement of water, and this lack of water has disrupted people’s income.”
Analysts say that during the nationwide protests in December and January, the people were angry over high prices and perceived corruption, however, in rural areas, lack of access to water was also a major issue. The drought is a particularly sensitive matter, when one realizes that this was one of the problems that led to the Syrian civil war.
According to the Islamic Republic of Iran Meteorological Organization, approximately 97 percent of the country is experiencing drought to some degree, and rights groups say it has driven many people from their homes.
In fact, Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group said, “Towns and villages around Isfahan have been hit so hard by drought and water diversion that they have emptied out and people who lived there have moved. Nobody pays any attention to them. And people close to Rouhani told me the government didn’t even know such a situation existed and there were so many grievances.”
Last week, in their speech commemorating Nowruz, the Iranian new year, President Rouhani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mentioned drought as a problem that needs to be addressed, while condemning “lawlessness and violence”.
Recently, state TV ran an advertisement encouraging Iranian citizens to conserve water. It shows a man sitting in a chair in the middle of a desert with the slogan, “Drought is closer than you think.”
“Water shortages are acute; agricultural livelihoods no longer sufficient. With few other options, many people have left, choosing uncertain futures as migrants in search of work,” noted a United Nations report, last year.
Locals said water rights were the main grievance. in the town of Qahderijan, in early January, where protests quickly turned violent as security forces opened fire on crowds, killing at least five people, according to activists. Protesters chanting outside a police station and throwing Molotov cocktails at the building — one of the most violent incidents documented during the nationwide protests — were documented by videos on social media.
A parliamentarian from Isfahan, Hassan Kamran, publicly accused energy minister Reza Ardakanian of not properly implementing a water distribution law. He told a parliamentary session,“The security and intelligence forces shouldn’t investigate our farmers. The water rights are theirs.”
While Rouhani repeatedly claims that the government will do what it can to address grievances, deeply rooted environmental issues like drought, will prove difficult to fix. “These are local grievances but the solutions are with the national government,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that the government had limited power and widespread corruption.
Rouhani’s office was also unavailable to comment.
In a speech in late February, Yahya Rahim Safavi, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, noted that water will play a key role for both the Islamic Republic’s national and regional security.
Now, environmentalists find themselves in danger. Kavous Seyed-Emami, the director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and six other environmentalists were arrested in late January. Later, authorities claimed that after confessing to being a spy for the United States and Israel, Seyed-Emami committed suicide in jail, two weeks later. His family has denied the allegation.
State TV reported that Seyed-Emami and his colleagues were telling Iran’s enemies that the country needed to import food because it could no longer maintain domestic agriculture production because of a water shortage.
In late February, three additional environmentalists were arrested, and according to family memebers, Seyed-Emami’s wife was prevented from leaving Iran and three weeks ago.
“Public opinion has become sensitized to environmental issues, so the government may see the organizations and institutions who work on environmental issues as problematic,” said Tehran-based economist and political analyst Saeed Leylaz.