Water crisis spurs protests in Iran

A dead cow is seen on dried up grounds in Shahreza, Iran in this undated picture. (Tasnim News Agency/via Reuters)
Updated 29 March 2018
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Water crisis spurs protests in Iran

BEIRUT: A number of protests have broken out in Iran since the beginning of the year over water, a growing political concern due to a drought which residents of parched areas and analysts say has been exacerbated by mismanagement.
The demonstrations have been relatively small, sporadic and limited to towns around the central city of Isfahan and Khuzestan province in the west. But they have highlighted an issue that played a role in earlier unrest and the authorities have cracked down, while recognizing the need for change.
In early March, the turnout was light in a town near Isfahan, with dozens of farmers chanting the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Death to farmers, long live oppressors!,” according to online videos. A week later the protests became more tense.
Dozens of riot police on motorcycles faced off against farmers in the same town, Varzaneh, another video showed. Smoke swirled around the protesters and the person filming said tear gas was being fired. A second person reported clashes. Police in the city of Isfahan were not immediately available to comment.
“What’s called drought is more often the mismanagement of water,” said a journalist in Varzaneh, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“And this lack of water has disrupted people’s income.”
Farmers accuse local politicians of allowing water to be diverted from their areas in return for bribes.
While the nationwide protests in December and January stemmed from anger over high prices and alleged corruption, in rural areas, lack of access to water was also a major cause, analysts say.
At least 25 people were killed and, according to one parliamentarian, up to 3,700 people were arrested, the biggest challenge yet for the government of president Hassan Rouhani, who was reelected last year.

Displaced
In Syria, drought was one of the causes of anti-government protests which broke out in 2011 and led to civil war, making the Iranian drought particularly sensitive.
Approximately 97 percent of the country is experiencing drought to some degree, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Meteorological Organization. Rights groups say it has driven many people from their homes.
“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,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group.
“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.”
Rouhani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mentioned drought as a problem that needs to be addressed in the country during their speech last week commemorating Nowruz, the Iranian new year, while condemning “lawlessness and violence.”
An ad running on state TV which encourages Iranian citizens to conserve water shows a man sitting in a chair in the middle of a desert with the slogan, “Drought is closer than you think.”
A United Nations report last year noted, “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.”
In early January, protests in the town of Qahderijan, some 10 km (6 miles) west of Isfahan, quickly turned violent as security forces opened fire on crowds, killing at least five people, according to activists. One of the dead was a farmer, CHRI said, and locals said water rights were the main grievance.
Videos posted on social media show protesters chanting outside a police station and throwing Molotov cocktails at the building, one of the most violent incidents documented during the nationwide protests.
A journalist in Qahderijan who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue said the attack on the police station was not the right thing to do but that water mismanagement had deprived farmers of their livelihoods.

Security
Hassan Kamran, a parliamentarian from Isfahan, publicly criticized energy minister Reza Ardakanian this month, accusing him of not properly implementing a water distribution law.
“The security and intelligence forces shouldn’t investigate our farmers. The water rights are theirs,” he told a parliamentary session.
In early March, Ardakanian set up a working group comprising four ministers and two presidential deputies to deal with the crisis.
Since the January protests, Rouhani has repeatedly said the government will do what it can to address grievances. But there is no quick fix for deeply rooted environmental issues like drought, observers say.
“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 not immediately available to comment.
Iranian security forces are aware of the potential for water issues to cause instability. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander, Yahya Rahim Safavi, noted in a public speech in late February that water will play a key role for both the Islamic Republic’s national and regional security.
Environmentalists have found themselves in the firing line.
In late January, Kavous Seyed-Emami, the director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and six other environmentalists were arrested.
Two weeks later, authorities said Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in jail after confessing to being a spy for the United States and Israel. His family has denied the allegation.
State TV later aired a report saying Seyed-Emami and his colleagues were telling Iran’s enemies the country could no longer maintain domestic agriculture production because of a water shortage and needed to import food.
In late February, three more environmentalists were arrested and three weeks ago, Seyed-Emami’s wife was prevented from leaving Iran, according to family members.
“Public opinion has become sensitised to environmental issues,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst. “So the government may see the organizations and institutions who work on environmental issues as problematic.”


From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi with his third wife Farah and their son Reza (left). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (right). (AFP)
Updated 16 January 2019
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From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

  • Forty years ago on Wednesday, the shah went into exile and less than a month later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power
  • His departure paved the way for the establishment of an Islamic republic hostile to Arab Gulf states

DUBAI: Forty years ago today, Iran’s then-shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, fled the country after a 37-year reign, in the first stage of a revolution that would replace 2,500 years of monarchy with an Islamic republic.

Prior to the revolution, Iran very much resembled Western countries, with a flourishing economy and tourists flocking to the country for its breath-taking landscapes, beaches and various activities, including hiking and skiing. 

The shah’s departure, prompted by mass protests, paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to return from exile in France, assuming power on Feb. 11, 1979. 

It was “a genuine social revolution against tyranny, domestic and foreign — the first represented by the shah and the second by… the US,” said Dr. Albadr Al-Shateri, politics professor at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi.

“The revolution went awry when religious leaders dominated the government, imposed its version of Islam and eliminated their partners in the revolution, including Iranian nationalists.”

Not long after Khomeini took over, the world got a taste of the new regime. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979, and were held for 444 days, after a group of Iranian students who supported the revolution took over the US Embassy in Tehran. 

The Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980 and lasted for eight years, contributed to the deterioration of Iran’s situation. 

“Fear of the new regime’s attempt to export the revolution to a Shiite-majority neighbor led Iraq to initiate the war,” Al-Shateri said. 

“However, Iran’s insistence on continuing the war until the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein exacted a heavy cost on both countries in human and economic terms,” he added. 

“Iran had legitimate grievances against the US, but the way it tried to redress these gripes was counterproductive.”

The shah was considered one of the best customers of the US defense industry. But his Western-inspired reforms sparked turbulent social change that aggravated the clergy, while his consolidation of power and the secret police gave him the reputation of a dictator.

Opposition to his reign and corruption among Tehran’s elite created an influential alliance of radical Islamists. 

Although Pahlavi tried to modernize Iran, driving up oil prices in the early 1970s and implementing reforms in education and health care, he became alienated among Iranians and angered the conservative clergy, who helped drive his exile. 

“Iran changed significantly from before the revolution to after, from a more civil, open and decent Iran to a closed, aggressive and sectarian one,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences. 

“Post-1979 Iran is deeply sectarian, and is not only responsible for sharpening the Sunni-Shiite divide, but also wholly responsible for politicizing and militarizing it,” he added.

Iran “has funded and armed Shiite militias, and has done everything possible to strengthen them so they can challenge the nation-state, Lebanon being a clear example.” 

Post-1979 Iran does not “play by the rules of the game,” Abdulla added. “It became radical, revolutionary and sectarian, and was about to become nuclear, which is deeply destabilizing.”

He said: “Gulf states have lived with Iran for thousands of years, and they knew how to deal with it all along. They had the best possible neighborly relationship, but it has always been a difficult Iran, whether under the shah or Khomeini.”

Abdulla added: “We’ve never seen an Iran that has become the number-one terrorist country in the world except in the last 40 years.”

Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the Schar School of Police and Government at George Mason University in the US, said: “Unlike the shah’s Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran sought to export its revolution to other Muslim countries, especially the Arab Gulf ones.” He added: “Still, it must be remembered that the shah’s Iran was also fairly aggressive. It seized Abu Musa and the Tunbs (islands) right when the British were leaving the Trucial States and the UAE was being formed. It had also laid claim to Bahrain.” 

Furthermore, while the shah’s troops helped defend Oman against a South Yemeni-backed Marxist insurgency in the 1970s, Katz said the presence of those Iranian troops in Oman was unsettling to Saudi Arabia in particular. 

“The shah had also got the best of Iraq in their border rivalry — something that Saddam Hussein sought to reverse after the Iranian revolution,” he added. 

Before the revolution, the shah’s Iran often behaved “aggressively toward its Arab neighbors, but its close cooperation with the US against the Soviet Union, which Iran bordered and the Gulf Arab states didn’t, meant that Washington wasn’t willing to act against the shah for doing so,” Katz said. By contrast, the rise of an anti-American government after the revolution led to the US working with Arab Gulf states against Iran. 

“Because the Islamic Republic behaved in such a hostile manner, both toward the Gulf Arabs as well as the US, the 1979 revolution led to the isolation and containment of Iran for many years,” Katz said. 

“Although it may seem counterintuitive, Iran may have posed a far greater problem for the Gulf Arabs if the… revolution hadn’t taken place, because if it hadn’t and Western investment in Iran continued or even grew, there would’ve been a tendency for Tehran to assert — and the US to value — an Iranian effort to be the leader in the Gulf in collaboration with the US.”