Monday, September 20, 2021
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Iran Water Protests Reflect Awareness of Longstanding Corruption

Dried Karun river in Khuzestan

Protests have been ongoing for several days in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, in response to mounting water scarcity issues. The real cause of Iran’s water crisis is the regime’s policies and practices, as well as the economic dominance established by the terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

At the end of the 1980s, the IRGC established a construction firm upon orders from the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Since then, Khatam al-Anbiya has grown to become the largest player in its field by far, and the recipient of countless government contracts, often on the basis of no-bid arrangements. In 1992, an entity called Sepasad branched off from Khatam al-Anbiya with the sole purpose of handling dam-building projects. Together with a regime-linked consulting firm known as Mahad Ghodss, it came to be known as part of Iran’s “water mafia,” exerting control over virtually all domestic waterways for personal enrichment and at the expense of ecological and civilian wellbeing. 

Iran's potable water crisis in Khuzestan southern Iran

IRGC-linked damming projects routinely run over cost, receive little to no oversight, and are undertaken either in absence of environmental impact studies or in direct defiance of warnings from experts about the potential effects on wetlands, groundwater access, salinity, and so on. Prior to the 1979 revolution, fewer than two dozen large-scale dam projects were either completed or in progress throughout the revolution. Since then, over 150 such projects have been added, and water shortages have simultaneously expanded to affect more than a quarter of Iran’s 83-million person population. 

The scale of the problem speaks to the potential scale of the public response to it. On the first night of the Khuzestan protests, residents of at least a dozen different cities became involved. Almost immediately thereafter, reports emerged of clashes between those protesters and security forces, with at least two fatalities being confirmed later on. Nevertheless, participation continued to grow in the following days while spreading beyond Khuzestan. At least 31 separate protests were reported across Iran on Monday and Tuesday. 

The National Council of Resistance of Iran called attention to the regime’s violent response to the legitimate protest, and quoted Mrs. Maryam Rajavi as saying the situation “again demonstrated that as long as the plundering mullahs remain in power, poverty, unemployment, and disease will continue.” 

Protests in Khuzestan province and Izeh in Iran continue for 8th day despite the internet blackout

Mrs. Rajavi went on to say, “The mullahs deny the people water, power, bread, housing, and vaccines to provide for the unpatriotic nuclear and missile projects and their warmongering in the region.” This remark recalled attention to the grievances underlying prior protests, including those which took place just days before the water shortage demonstrations, in response to blackouts that were occurring throughout the country in the midst of a severe heatwave. 

Like the water shortages, those blackouts have natural contributing factors but are ultimately attributable to deliberate action by the Iranian regime and government-linked private entities. As part of an effort to counter the effects of international sanctions targeting Tehran’s human rights abuses, terrorist sponsorship, and nuclear program, cryptocurrency mining has proliferated in Iran, bringing along all its attendant energy consumption and leaving power stations unable to keep up with demand from ordinary consumers. The resulting protests called attention not only to the self-serving nature of this scheme but also to the fact that it was grounded in longstanding regime practices. Many participants echo the sentiment expressed by the MEK and NCRI, chanting “death to the regime” in order to suggest that such issues can only be conclusively rectified in the wake of regime change. 

Compilation—Demonstrations & protests in Iran's southwest provinces over severe water shortages

Tehran is certain to take note of such messaging, and human rights abuses may accelerate once again unless international support for Iranian activists brings more scrutiny to authorities’ response. In the wake of shootings and torturous interrogations following a nationwide uprising in January 2018, the relative absence of such scrutiny helped to set the stage for even worse crackdowns on a subsequent, larger uprising in November 2019. Then, the IRGC opened fire on crowds of protesters, killing 1,500, and the judiciary promoted the systematic torture of arrestees over a period of months. 

The head of that judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, has since been confirmed as the next president of the regime and is due to be inaugurated on August 5. The IRGC, meanwhile, has continued to deepen its influence over the economy and over Iranian society in general, as Khamenei carries on with an apparent project of consolidating power into the hands of his faction.  

The protests over blackouts and water shortages represent a challenge to this project, especially in light of their connection to the prior uprisings. However, the odds of success for such challenges would be much greater if it were clear that the Iranian people were not pursuing redress of these specific grievances, much less the goal of regime change and democratic governance, on their own.