Iran's crackdown shows regime knows no remedy but repression
In Iran, a depressingly familiar news cycle is playing out: the people stage mass protests over economic and political discontent, and the government responds with severe repression and killing of protesters, mostly young people.
Beginning in mid-July, a new round of protests broke out in the southwestern province of Khuzestan over the severe water shortages. Home to much of Iran's petrochemical resources, the province should be one of our nation's richest.
Instead, corruption, mismanagement, over-centralisation of state, and a legacy of ethnic discrimination against its Arab majority means that Khuzestan suffers from high unemployment and service deprivation. This summer, as the temperature regularly reaches into the 40s and 50s, the region has also suffered electricity and water shortages that not only make life unbearable for the average citizen but also reduce agricultural and animal husbandry revenues.
The problem isn't unique to Khuzestan. Scientist Kaveh Madani, the country's leading water crisis expert, has long warned about Iran's "water bankruptcy" caused by mismanagement and corruption.
"Khuzestan's problems are symptomatic of a broader crisis of Iranian society"
Khuzestan's problems are symptomatic of a broader crisis of Iranian society: continued economic collapse, severe state incapacity and incompetence, colossal corruption, and an increasingly authoritarian and repressive regime.
It comes as no surprise then that Khuzestan's protests quickly led to demonstrations of solidarity across the country. In the province itself, the false accusation that linked the protest to small Arab separatist parties was quickly dispelled when the non-Arab ethnic Bakhtiaris joined up and publicised unity slogans with their Arab brethren.
In Tabriz, the capital of Iran's Turkic-speaking regions, solidarity protests followed. So far, we've seen similar protests in at least eight provinces, including the three most populous; Tehran, Khorasan Razavi and Isfahan.
Having concentrated the vast majority of power in his own hands, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cannot blame the protesters for directly attacking him and his regime in their slogans. Hundreds who marched in Tehran on Monday shouted spontaneous chants of "Death to the Dictator", and the popular slogan - revived from the 2009 Green Movement - echoed across social media.
"Playing on the most hackneyed tropes, Iran's Intelligence Ministry has claimed that the protests were led by Israel's spy agency"
On Tuesday evening in Isfahan, a Khamenei banner was set on fire. At the time of writing (Wednesday evening, 29 July, in Iran), sporadic protests continue across the country.
The current protests are part of a wave that started in 2017 when it became clear that the administration of centrist President Hassan Rouhani, pressed by the draconian US sanctions and strong-armed by hardline regime loyalists supportive of Khamenei, was unable to preserve the Iranian economy from rapid decline.
Hundreds of protesters have been killed by the ferociously repressive response linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a militia, designated by the US as a terrorist organisation, which now controls much of economic and political power in Iran.
Demonstrations over water shortages have swelled and now include more robust criticism of the Iranian regime and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. https://t.co/iDf6LuAAaK— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 21, 2021
At least eight protesters in the last two weeks have paid with their lives, killed by security forces. Last Thursday, the people of Izeh, Khuzestan, buried Hadi Bahmani, a teenage worker. And in Aligudarz, Lorestan, a 20-year-old was killed last week.
Meanwhile, playing on the most hackneyed tropes, Iran's Intelligence Ministry has claimed that the protests were led by Israel's spy agency, Mossad.
What distinguishes today's Iran from that of previous years is that even many of the regime loyalists cannot hide the incompetence of the ruling clique.
Two of Iran's former presidents, reformist Mohammad Khatami and conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad declared solidarity with the protesters, with Ahmadinejad continuing his radical critique of the status quo by attacking "a corrupt security gang" that "cracks down on every peaceful protest".
"Khamenei must know that Iran cannot kill its way out of this crisis"
Even Khamenei himself, finally speaking about the protests a full nine days after had they occurred, conceded that one couldn't' "complain" about the protests since "the water question is not a small one, especially in Khuzestan's warm climate." However, in the same breath, Khamenei took a page from his usual playbook, warning that the protests show Iran needs to be concerned about "conspiracies of the enemy".
Still, the Supreme Leader must know that the usual mixture of blaming protests on Israel and "enemies", and his regime's brutal crackdown will not put an end to widespread discontent in Iran. He must know that Iran cannot kill its way out of this crisis.
The protests have erupted just as a presidential transfer of power is underway. Next week will see the inauguration of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi who was elected in a pre-determined contest widely viewed as the most unequal poll Iran has seen in decades.
It is clear that the only hope for an improvement to the country's dire economic straits depends on negotiations with the US that could help lift the draconian regime of sanctions that depress Iran's economy.
Many in Iran, and in the Biden administration, had hoped that Khamenei would greenlight a return to the nuclear deal of 2015 prior to Raisi's inauguration. Still, the negotiations in Vienna stalled last month after Iran said it would wait until Raisi's inauguration before resuming them.
Recent statements by Khamenei have increased fears that Iran will revert to a hard line in its nuclear negotiations. This is further signalled by the appointment of Ali Baqer Kani, a close ally of the former hardline negotiator Saeed Jalili, as foreign minister.
"One might be forgiven for believing that the hardliners of the IRGC and pro-Khamenei factions prefer the sanctions to remain in place as they see their own political survival in Iran's continued isolation"
Given the obvious willingness of Biden to return to the JCPOA, one might be forgiven for believing what Rouhani and his allies have long claimed: that the hardliners of the IRGC and pro-Khamenei factions prefer the sanctions to remain in place as they see their own political survival in Iran's continued isolation.
Back in January, I asked if Khamenei, who had shocked the nation by banning US and UK-made Covid-19 vaccines, wanted to turn Iran into a hermetic kingdom like North Korea.
Six months later, that is precisely the direction the country seems to be headed. On Wednesday, the hardliner-dominated parliament passed a cybersecurity bill so extreme in its crackdown on social media outlets that even many conservative MPs protested it.
Moyiendin Sayidi, an independent MP for Chabahar, was speaking for many when he apologised to the Iranian people for a parliament that "did little for Khuzestan's water or Covid-19 and the problem of vaccination" but could find time to crack down on social media.
If the wide and lively opposition to the bill is any indication, Iran's path to North Korea-fication will continue to be heavily contested by its uneasy population.
Arash Azizi is a writer, translator and PhD candidate at NYU. He is the author of the book, 'The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran's Global Ambitions'
Follow him on Twitter: @Arash_Tehran
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.