By Dania Koleilat Khatib
August 2, 2021
Protests in Khuzestan Province have rocked the Iranian regime in recent weeks and have now spread to the capital Tehran. The protests highlight a structural deficiency in the country. The water problems in Khuzestan reveal the inequality between regions, as well as the inability of the system to provide a decent living for its people. The ill-advised policies that led to this situation were driven partly by security and partly by ideology.
Forty years ago, Khuzestan was a rich agricultural area. However, the Islamic Republic diverted water from this fertile land by creating tunnels to channel water from Khuzestan’s main river, the Karun, to cities such as Qom, Esfahan and Karman. When Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president, he diverted water from the Karun to his pistachio gardens in Qom. The tunnels are huge structures that a pick-up truck can pass through. The regime also created hydroelectric dams, which have served to push more water through the tunnels.
The Tehran government also proceeded with the ill-advised policy of drying up the wetlands of Hoor Al-Azim between Iraq and Iran. This has had a catastrophic effect on livestock. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, Hoor Al-Azim was dried up to allow for oil exploration by a Chinese company. Though this procedure reduced the cost of extracting oil, it has had severe environmental consequences, such as reduced soil moisture, deforestation, and soil erosion. This has contributed to the severe dust storms the area suffers from. In addition to the economic driver, there was also a security element behind the decision, as many dissidents took refuge in Hoor Al-Azim.
There is another security dimension to these ill-advised policies. The Iraq-Iran War created a sense of paranoia in the Islamic Republic. With Khuzestan being a big industrial area, the government feared that it was vulnerable to attacks from Iraq, so there was a conscious decision to move steel plants away from the border and more into the center of Iran. With the industries, they also needed to divert water.
In 2011, the World Health Organization declared Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan, the most polluted city in the world. The short-sighted development policies of the Islamic Republic, which are driven by ideology rather than people’s welfare, have had catastrophic effects on the environment and public health, ultimately leading to unrest. People have been marching in the streets in Khuzestan, chanting slogans such as “I am thirsty,” “Water is my right,” and “My life is for Karun.”
The Arab minority in Khuzestan feels systematically discriminated against. I remember once taking a taxi in Vienna and the driver identified himself as Ahwazi. He told me that his family used to be wealthy, having had land and palm tree plantations, but the government took everything and they ended up scattered around the world. The alienation of the Arab people has led to the creation of an independence movement. In 2018, there was a deadly armed attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz.
The paranoid regime believes it cannot trust the Arabs and so does its best to keep them in check. However, keeping people under the thumb cannot work. People are fed up and they are starting to rise up. The special representative of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi said the restoration of Hoor Al-Azim would be a top priority of the incoming administration, but the damage that has been caused to the ecosystem is almost irreversible.
The regime’s ideology has run dry and, most importantly, the fear barrier has been broken, with people now daring to revolt. The same applies to other countries that are under the influence of Iran’s proxies. Hezbollah has lost a lot of respect in Lebanon, for example. The narrative of resistance has become obsolete as Hezbollah has been proven to be a mere tool for Iran’s power projection in the region.
Similar to Khuzestan, the south of Lebanon has also been suffering from water shortages. The lack of water there is caused by a shortage of diesel to operate the pumps. Ironically, the diesel has been smuggled to Bashar Assad in Syria by Hezbollah and its acolytes. The most important threat to Hezbollah is the cracks in its own community. Just like in Iran, its barrier of fear has been broken and its ideology has run dry.
When people see that their rulers’ narrative is only for propaganda and has no relation to their well-being, they will revolt. Of course, Iran and Hezbollah have enough thugs to suppress people’s anger, but with the economic situation worsening, suppression will have its limits. Iran is not showing any flexibility or pragmatism. In the last meeting between Ali Khamenei and the outgoing Cabinet of President Hassan Rouhani, the supreme leader admonished them for trusting the US. Obviously, Khamenei prefers confrontation with the West in order to appear true to the regime’s slogans rather than improving the life of the average Iranian.
Iran has jailed environmental experts in an effort to suppress criticism over its water mismanagement, especially since issues such as a lack of water can unite people against the regime. However, its attempts to stifle discontent have not been successful, as protests have erupted in Tehran in solidarity with Ahwaz. It is the time for truth. It is time for the Islamic Republic to realize that power projection in the region is hollow unless it can provide the necessities of life to its own people.