London- “Those interested in the people cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of the people of Khuzestan.” This is how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the “Supreme Guide” of the Islamic Republic in Tehran commented on Monday on the current social unrest in Khuzestan, Iran’s southwestern province.
What is euphemistically referred to as “the unrest” started earlier this month when a few hundred protesters gathered in front of the Governor’s Office to demand the resignation of the governor.
Since in the Islamic Republic governors are not elected but appointed by the Interior Ministry, the demand was really addressed at the central government in Tehran.
Slogans chanted by the protesters ranged from a mild “Khuzestan Suffers, Pay Attention!” to a defiant “Khuzestan Dies but Won’t Accept Humiliation.”
The mood in Khuzestan is of capital importance in shaping the general political mood in the country. Khuzestan is not only a major producer of farm goods but is also where 70 per cent of Iran’s richest oilfields are located, and the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry. In other words it is Iran’s Eldorado, accounting for 14 per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 25 per cent of government revenues.
And, yet, statistics related to life expectancy, levels of poverty, unemployment, poor-housing and substandard schooling, put Khuzestan in the bottom one-third of Iran’s 31 provinces. The protesters have plenty of legitimate grievances.
As the days unfurled the protest grew in size and the militancy of slogans. At the end of the first week of protests, similar gatherings were held in other cities, notably Dezful, Shushtar, Abadan, Behbahan and Ramhormuz.
Gatherings of “solidarity with Khuzestan” were also held in a number of other provinces, notably Isfahan, Kerman and Zanjan.
Some commentators have seen the protests as the beginnings of a nationwide movement against the Islamic system as it prepares to hold a presidential election this spring. Some have even dubbed it “the new Green Movement” after the uprisings that shook the Islamic Republic in the disputed presidential election of 2009.
However, such analyses are premature.
Despite the fact that many Iranians believe that it is the system that has transformed what was once Iran’s richest province into a poor-house, it is not at all certain that the current wave of protests might morph into a direct challenge to the Islamic system.
But what are the sufferings of the Khuzestani which Khamenei speaks of?
The last drop that has made the cup overflow has come in the form of a systemic collapse in public services.
The province is subjected to prolonged electricity cuts and an unofficial rationing of water that leaves many cities dry for days.
To make matters worse, the province, which accounts for about four per cent of Iran’s territory and five per cent of its population has been hit by a series of sandstorms, known in Persian as “riz-gard” that make breathing difficult and cause a range of related illnesses.
“We live in hell” says Parinaz Rahimian, a resident of Ahvaz, the provincial capital. “With no water and no electricity, and, at times, even deprived of air to breathe, daily life has become a pronged torture.”
Hussein Muhammadian, a member of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, from Ramhormuz, in Khuzestan, goes further. “The disaster in our province dishonors Islam,” he claims.
Khamenei didn’t specify what he meant by his enigmatic comment. But almost immediately the media controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) suggested that the province be put” under the protection of Defenders of the Shrine”, a phrase that refers to an international force of Shi’ite mercenaries that Iran has created with Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani volunteers for martyrdom” to keep the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in power.
“What every society needs above all is security,” wrote the IRGC’s Mashreq news in an editorial last Friday.”
Ensuring national security must become the most important red line for all political groups in the country.”
The editorial continues: “Khuzestan needs the Defenders of the Shrine to ensure its security. They should be given authority to take over the situation and ensure the comfort of the people of Khuzestan.”
Former Baseej (Mobilization) chief Gen. Muhammad-Reza Naqdi has gone further by suggesting that 50,000 Baseejis be sent to Khuzestan to take control of the province and discourage any attempt at revolt.
However, some commentators believe that the security reflex of sections of the Iranian government could only aggravate the situation.
“What we have in Khuzestan is not a security problem, says analyst Nasser Zamani. “The crisis is the result of years, if not decades, of neglect and mismanagement.”
One key problem in the province is a growing shortage of waters with devastating effects on agriculture, industry and urban life.
That Khuzestan faces such a shortage may sound paradoxical. For the province has the largest number of rivers in Iran.
The mighty Karun, Iran’s only navigable river, passes through the heart of the province linking the capital Ahvaz to the Gulf and beyond it the Indian Ocean. Until the 1950s, regular shipping lines operated between Ahvaz and several Indian ports, notably Bombay. The provinces other rivers include Dez, Shush, Jarrahi, Zohreh, Khersan, Maroun, Bahmanshir, Karkheh, and Ramshir.
Some of these rivers periodically flood, turning much of the province into a huge lake linked with the Gulf. Some scholars even believe that Khuzestan was the location of the Great Flood mentioned in Semitic literature and holy books.
So, how could a province with so many rivers run out of water?
The answer is: through mismanagement and reckless neglect of the province’s needs.
That started in early 1950s, long before the mullahs seized power.
Inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s success in creating a massive network of irrigation in southern United States under President Franklin Roosevelt, Iran demanded American aid in launching a similar scheme albeit on a much smaller scale. With help from American consultants, a hydroelectric dam was constructed on the River Karkheh, close to the Iraqi border. The project, at the time marketed as a symbol of US support for the government of the anti-British Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadeq, proved a disaster as it deprived Karun from one of its tributaries while leading to the destruction of over 600 villages that could no longer depend on a regular flow of water.
In the late 1950s, local political calculations led to another project with grave consequences for Khuzestan. This was the Kuhrang Tunnel in the Isfahan province, siphoning water from some of Karun’s tributaries in the Zagros mountain range to the River Zayandehrud that passes through the gear city of Isfahan.
It was obvious that Isfahan, a city with much greater political clout than Ahvaz, had won the debate in the decision-making circles of Tehran. Later another dam, this time on the River Golpayegan, further reduced the flow of water from Zagros to the southwest.
Interestingly, the change of regime in Tehran has not changed the mind-set that led to a fascination for hydroelectric projects. A second Kuhrang Tunnel was built in the 1980s and, last month, President Rouhani’s Cabinet approved the construction of a third one, dealing another blow to the water resources that Khuzestan needs.
Despite the bitter experiences of the 1950s, the dam-building bug struck roots in Iran. In the 1960s the Shah invited the French to come and build a dam on the River Dez to the north of Ahvaz. When completed the Dez Dam became the world’s 6th largest hydroelectric project, producing power for both Khuzestan and the neighboring provinces. In time, 40 other dams were built under the Shah including such giant one on Sefidrud, flowing into the Caspian, the Aras Dam on the border with the USSR, and the biggest of all dams, on Karun itself.
The dam-building fever both before and after the Islamic Revolution was always justified with reference to Iran’s growing need for electricity as a majority of the population shifted to an urban life. (The same argument was later used to justify an unnecessary and dangerous nuclear program.)
More than six decades of experience has revealed the real cost of the projects in terms of environmental damage to eco-systems and the destruction of rich farming traditions not only in Khuzestan but also in neighboring provinces such as Ilam and Poshtkuh, Boyer-Ahmad and Kohkiluyeh and Luristan.
The whole thing looks more paradoxical when we remember that Iran has enough natural gas to produce as much electricity as it might ever need. While planners were damaging the Iranian nature in the name of economic modernization through hydroelectric projects, natural gas emanating from Iran’s oilfields burned uselessly instead of producing electricity.
Shortage of water has led to desertification at a rate that can no longer be ignored. The disappearance of woodlands has transformed vast tracts in the province into dry soil that is washed away by seasonal floods or turned into mini-bullets in sandstorms that hit the urban areas.
Several cities, including Abadan and Ahvaz, in Khuzestan, where the first oil wells were dug in 1908, were the first Iran to have piped water and electricity from the 1930s and, seven decades later, they continue to suffer from water and power crises.
Since the seizure of power by mullahs in 1979, the province’s public services have suffered from the effects of a devastating eight-year war with Iraq and systematic lack of investment. The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 but in many parts of Khuzestan, the province that bore the brunt of the Iraqi invasion, almost nothing has been done to rebuild what Saddam Hussein’s forces destroyed. Khorramshahr, once Iran’s biggest port, remains a shadow of its past glory and the Shatt al-Arab , for centuries a major trade route for both Iran and Mesopotamia, remains blocked to navigation by ships sunk in it during the Iran-Iraq war. Power stations and water-boosting hubs and refineries have degraded into semi-dereliction for lack of repair and modernization.
Many Khuzestanis feel that they have a raw deal not receiving a fair share of the nation’s oil income in the form of investment in public infrastructure.
Khuzestan is Iran’s oldest province and the seat of the most ancient civilizations that together have shaped the Iranian identity. Long before Aryans arrived in the Iranian Plateau Khuzestan was the center of the Elamite Empire of which glorious vestiges are still visible in such places as Choga Zanbil and Susa. The Achaemenians who created the first Iranian Empire used the Elamite capita Susa as an alternative seat for their government. They called the local people the “Khuzis” or “Hujis” which meant “sugar-planters” a reference to the province’s sugarcane plantations that continue to this day. The world’s first regular postal service was created under Darius the Great between Susa, north of Ahvaz, and Athens, then an outpost of the empire.
Under the Sassanid Empire, Susa was briefly abandoned in favor of a new city named Hormuz-Ardeshir on the Karun in the 3rd century AD. That city was to become what is Ahvaz today. It was also there that the Sassanids built Iran’s first major university, Gondi-Shaper in the 5th century. Ahvaz rapidly declined and its university disappeared in the early Islamic era. However, it was revived during the Seljuk era when Nizam Al-Mulk, the renowned vizier, launched an Islamic version of Gondi-Shapour named after himself.
Under the Qajar dynasty, Ahvaz was renamed Nasseri, after Nassereddin Shah, and experienced an economic boom as a hub for trade with the Gulf area and beyond it India and East Africa. However, in 1926, the new Pahlavi Dynasty, wishing to obliterate the memory of the Qajars, brought the name Ahvaz back and made it a garrison town for 10th Divisions of the newly created national army. The building of the Trans-Iranian railway, linking the Gulf via Khuzestan to the Caspian Sea and beyond it Russia and Europe, accelerated a demographic change that had begun with the advent of the oil industry.
From the 1950s onwards, Khuzestan also developed into a pole of attraction for domestic tourism with millions of Iranians coming there to escape the harsh winter of the plateau and enjoy the region’s hot and sunny climate.
Originally, a majority of the province’s population had consisted of Shi’ite Arab tribes including the Bani Tamim, Bani-Torof, Bani-Amer and Bani-Kaab and Luri tribes notably the Gotvand, the Sagvand, and Fuladvand plus the urbanized communities of Shushtar, Dezful and Behbahan who had their own version of the Iranian culture and, like the Luri tribes, spoke dialects of the Persian.
Both the Shah and the Islamic Republic regimes were anxious to reduce the strength of the Arabic-speaking population by encouraging and, in some cases, financing the whole-sale transfer of populations from other parts of Iran. Over the past 60 years new villages almost entirely populated by people from other parts of Iran, notably Yazd and Kerman, have come into being and prospered alongside Arab-majority villages close to the marshlands and the border with Iraq.
Under President Muhammad Khatami, the arrival of new farmers from his native Yazd provoked the anger of local Arab villagers and led to riots and acts of violence in 2005 and 2006.
The mood in Khuzestan is important for another reason.
Because of its demographic composition the province represents Iran’s ethnic and religious diversity in a miniature scale. According to the latest national census, almost half of the province’s population is of Luri origin, speaking one of four dialects of the Persian language prevalent in neighboring provinces of Luristan and Bakhtiari. Iranian Arabs also account for a big chunk of the population along with Qashqai and Boyer-Ahmad and Afshar tribes.
Although a majority of the people is Shi’ite Muslim, there are also communities of Mandeans (Sabeans), Nestorian Christian, Armenian and Jewish communities.
In 1979, a general strike by oil industry workers spelled the end of the Shah’s regime. So far, this time, the Khuzestan protests have not spread to the oil industry. But it is clear that neither repression, including a high rate of executions, nor empty promises could deal with a worsening situation in a sensitive province.
Because people from almost every province in Iran are present in Khuzestan, whatever happens in the province could reverberate throughout the whole nation.
According to an Ahvazi saying: “If Khuzestan sneezes the whole of Iran catches cold.”
Khamenei would need something more than a bland statement to defuse what could become a ticking time-bomb right next to Iran’s biggest oilfields.