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Fears Of Ethnic Tensions Rise In Iran Amid Azeri Clashes

Radio Free Europe: Iran has launched a fierce security clampdown in the country's Azeri and Kurdish regions amid fears of rising ethnic tensions on its northern borders


Reports from inside Iran say security forces clashed with demonstrators in the northwestern cities of Orumieh (aka Urmia) and Tabriz on September 3, with at least one account alleging that troops used live ammunition. Officials say 60 people were arrested in the latest protest


A live blog posted by the South Azerbaijan Student Movement reported that 13 people were taken to Orumieh's University Hospital suffering from bullet wounds. Four were said to be in critical condition


Videos posted on YouTube and purporting to have been shot in both cities showed the heavy presence of riot police and vast numbers of protesters chanting slogans. In one video, a member of the security forces is seen aiming what appears to be a gun at demonstrators. Other footage shows demonstrators running in panic against a backdrop of possible gunfire


It's impossible to verify the authenticity of the videos, most of which appeared to have been shot on mobile phones, or to establish where they were taken


However, the demonstrations followed displays of anger over a perceived lack of government action to save Lake Orumieh, Iran's largest lake, which has shrunk to less than half its previous surface area due to extensive dam-building and drought. Earlier rallies over the salt lake's plight reportedly occurred in Orumieh on August 27


Campaigners say the lake could disappear in a few years, leaving behind 10 billion tons of salt and displacing up to 14 million people

Locals fear Lake Orumieh (Urmia) will soon disappear completely at the rate it's drying up today.

Ethnic Azeri Tension s

But the government fears anger over the lake could spread to embrace wider ethnic discontents in provinces such as East and West Azerbaijan, home to many of Iran's Azeri-speakers, who make up more than a quarter of the country's population.

Mohammad-Javad Mohammadi-Zadeh, Iran's vice president for environmental affairs and head of its Environmental Protection Organization, gave voice to that concern when he accused some of trying to "politicize" the Lake Orumieh controversy.

"The issue of Lake Orumieh is an environmental challenge [but] some want to exploit the situation, politicize it, and mount a social campaign," he told Iranian reporters on September 4.

Iran's Islamic regime has long been sensitive to tensions in the country's Azeri regions, believing it could be used by the United States and Israel to stir up separatist sentiment. Tehran has been particularly suspicious of the close links forged by neighboring Azerbaijan -- which shares the same language as Iran's Azeris -- with the United States and Israel since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991

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