Iranian police stand guard (upstair) as Iranians, most farmers, gathered at the dried Zayandeh Rud river to protest against the water crisis in the city of Isfahan on Friday. Photo by Fatemah Nasr/EPA-EFE
Nov. 23 (UPI) -- Tens of thousands of impoverished farmers have taken to the streets every day for the past week in the central Iranian city of Isfahan to protest water shortages.
In a mass uprising, the angry farmers pointed to the Zayandeh Rud river, which used to flow through the city and is now a dried-up crevasse, covered with cracked and sun-baked mud. Chanting slogans such as "Raisi, this is the last warning," the farmers courageously challenged Iran's repressive President Ebrahim Raisi, known for his leading role in the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners.
The crowd chanted, "We will obtain our water rights, even if we have to sacrifice our lives," and, "The nation has never seen so much injustice," "Zayandeh Rud water is our inalienable right," "Give Zayandeh Rud back, let Isfahan breathe." A group of the protesting farmers staged a sit-in on the dried-up Zayandeh riverbed by setting up a special encampment.
Apart from a few brief periods, the Zayandeh Rud river has been dry since the year 2000 due to the recurrent diversion of water by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which runs more than 75% of the Iranian economy under the mullahs' regime. The celebrated 400-year-old Si-o-seh Pol bridge used to be a major attraction in Isfahan, with water cascading through its 33 monumental arches. Now it towers over a barren and desiccated landscape.
The farmers claim that the IRGC has constructed tunnels and canals to divert the river to neighboring Yazd province, where they have corruptly plundered the profits from a series of heavy industrial, water-guzzling military factories. Some protesters damaged IRGC infrastructure east of Isfahan in an effort to prevent the water from being diverted.
The protests took place against a background of threats from the repressive theocratic regime. Claiming that the water crisis was due to an ongoing drought, Isfahan's public and revolutionary prosecutor announced, "Any rally without the permission of the Provincial Security Council demanding rights over agricultural issues and about the Zayandeh Rud is prohibited." The announcement claimed, "These demands have been subject to abuse by opponents, and infiltrators have sought to exploit the protests to achieve their political and subversive goals."
However, following deadly protests that broke out in July in the southwestern province of Khuzestan after drought led to widespread water shortages, the mullahs have begun to panic. Raisi met with representatives from the provinces of Isfahan, Yazd and Semnan and promised to resolve the water issues, stating that he would form a working group tasked with rehabilitating the Zayandeh Rud river and resolving the associated water problems.
The mullahs' energy minister, Ali-Akbar Mehrabian, told another group of protesting farmers last week that the government would "take fairness into consideration in water distribution." Meanwhile, fearing that support for the farmers' protest would spread nationwide, the mullahs have cut off the Internet and tried to suppress information about the uprising.
The increasingly desperate theocratic regime even broadcast a video on state media seeking to blame the main democratic opposition party, the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK), of attempting to inflame the protests to overthrow the government.
The repressive regime's rank incompetence, venal corruption and voracious profiteering have increased the risk and the incidence of natural environmental disasters in Iran. The devastating floods, raging forest fires, toxic air pollution, uncontrolled desertification and grave water shortages have all pushed the Iranian environment to the edge of destruction. As has been seen in Isfahan, the IRGC is playing a key role in this environmental catastrophe, thanks to its institutionalized corruption and destructive policies.
In the last five years alone, 60,000 hectares of the country's forests have been destroyed due to fire, pests, disease, dams, road building, other construction activities and timber smuggling, much of it under the control of the IRGC. Forest fires are destroying another 12,000 hectares every year. Rapid desertification, due to the IRGC's reckless dam and tunnel-building program, has caused Iran to lose more than two-thirds of its agricultural land. Air pollution is so severe in Tehran and most large cities that schools, businesses and government offices must be regularly closed because of dangerously high levels of toxins. Tehran and other large Iranian cities are among the most polluted cities of the world.
The protesting farmers in Isfahan say that the water crisis is so calamitous that they have been unable to plant crops for several seasons and can no longer grow wheat to make bread, a staple food in Iran. With 75% of the 80 million Iranian population struggling to survive on daily incomes below the international poverty line, protests against the mullahs have grown in size and ferocity. On top of the water crisis, the people are suffering from high unemployment, rampaging inflation, spiraling prices, disintegrating living conditions and a collapsing economy.
The coronavirus pandemic has spread out of control across the country, with, according to MEK resistance units, an estimated 480,000 dead from the disease. The theocratic regime's incompetence in dealing with the coronavirus has been shocking. The pandemic has overwhelmed hospitals in Iran's fragile health service, leading to the surging death toll. Meanwhile, to hide the appalling truth about the coronavirus, the government has ordered that death certificates are falsified to claim that victims died of other causes.
The fact remains that during its 40 years of power, the mullahs' theocratic regime has not only slaughtered the Iranian people, violated human rights and spread terror around the world, it has also caused irreversible destruction to the Iranian environment. The answer to the environmental crisis in Iran, as well as the answer to the economic crisis, the answer to the social crisis and the answer to the security crisis across the Middle East and worldwide is the downfall of this regime by the Iranian people and their resistance, to create a free and democratic Iran with a government for, by and of the people.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He serves as chair of the "In Search of Justice" committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.