Raisi Sworn In As President On Heels Of Protests Triggered By Water Shortage

On August 5, Ebrahim Raisi was sworn in as the president of the Islamic Republic on the heels of major protests, and ongoing strikes in the strategic energy sector. Beginning in June, thousands of workers in the energy sector including petrochemical plants went on strike to protest late payment, low wages, and poor working and living conditions. Protests then also erupted in late July in the southwest region of the county in response to water shortages, subsequently spreading to dozens of Iranian cities in a two-week time span before security forces quashed them.  

The July protests began in the Arab areas of Khuzestan province where ethnic Arabs constitute about 34% of the population according to the latest survey information. Although drought and water shortages resulting from mismanagement triggered the protests initially, protesters are also motivated by other grievances. Ahwazi Arabs have faced discrimination for decades, such as restricted access to education and employment. Protesters have taken to chanting popular chants in Arabic such as we protect Ahwaz with our blood and soil” and “no, no to displacement.”

Iran is constituted by about half Persians and other ethnic groups like Azeris, Arabs, Kurds, and Baluchis. For centuries, successive dynasties in Persia largely let different groups and tribes manage their own affairs. That changed in the 20th century under the Pahlavi monarchy, which tried to promote a unified Iranian identity, often at the expense of local identities and languages. The short-lived Soviet-backed Azerbaijan’s People’s Government and the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, which both emerged in the aftermath of World War II, have contributed to an Iranian fear of lost territory and still influence how the state responds to minority demands such as teaching of their languages at school.

Under the Islamic Republic, discriminatory policies against minorities have continued, albeit with a sectarian emphasis. For instance, Kurdish Shiites remain better integrated than Kurdish Sunnis. Yet, Arab Shiites are not particularly well-integrated. It’s key to bear in mind that ethnic relations in Iran are complex. As an example, Azeris are semi-integrated into Iran and have historically been at the forefront of promoting Iranian nationalism, while in recent decades, pan-Turkic sentiments and increases in calls for greater autonomy for ethnic Azeri regions in Iran have grown.

Since July, protests have spread to 41 cities, including non-Arab areas, in support of the southwest and in opposition to the Islamic Republic, more generally. Protestors have chanted “from Karaj to Khuzestan, unity, unity” and “death to dictator.” In northwestern Tabriz, home to ethnic Azeris, protesters chanted “Azerbaijan is awake, supporting Khuzestan” and “Azerbaijan, Ahvaz, unity, unity.” Protestors in ethnic Bakhtiari areas were reported to express support for the late Pahlavi monarch Reza Shah. Protests in the southwest have also received support from oil sector contractors, political dissidents, teachers and artists.

The Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), which have received significant funding and training over the years to act as the first line of defense against protests, are deploying anti-riot units. Authorities have also shut down the internet in protesting areas in Khuzestan, and reports of mass arrests have surfaced. At least eight have been reportedly killed, and the actual death rate could be in the dozens. That is a relatively low death relative to the casualties of the mass protests in November 2019, where hundreds were killed.  Internet disruption has made it difficult to assess whether the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was deployed in the latest protests, which is the protocol should LEF prove incapable of quelling unrest.

The Islamic Republic has released footage to support its claims that it is implementing measures to relieve the water shortages. However, it is unclear if these measures are merely propaganda or meaningful measures capable of addressing the long-term water shortage issue.

Even as major protests subsided, Iranians used other opportunities to express their anger toward the state. For example, Persepolis soccer club fans in Tehran chanted explicit curses at the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei following the July 30 finals game.

Many government officials have sought to divide classify protestors into two categories: legitimate grievances over water shortages on the one hand, and political agitators on the other. Officials have claimed the former will receive leniency. Ali Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, stated that security forces are under orders to free protestors who have not committed “criminal actions.” Similarly, the Judiciary branch chief Qolam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei demanded the release of those arrested “solely for protesting.” Other officials have taken a harsher rhetorical stance. For example, the Ahvaz Judiciary issued a statement calling protesters “agitators” and threatened them with a harsh crackdown and Khamenei stated that while protesters in Khuzestan are entitled to “have grievance” about the water shortages, he also warned about “enemy’s plots” seeking to take advantage of the protests. The Ahwazi Organization for the Defense of Human Rights has reported that widespread arrests continue, and published the names of 310 individuals, including 14 children who remain under arrest. Human Rights Activists News Agency has confirmed 361 detained citizens, the status of many of whom are unknown, adding that hundreds could be currently detained.

The IRGC has taken to blaming the previous administration. An editorial on Basirat, a publication of the IRGC political directorate, blamed protests and water shortage issues on former President Hassan Rouhani and the Reformists, among others. The piece urged a more active response in order to deny “enemies” the opportunity to inflict harm through “infiltration.”

In his 2016 book “Democracy in Iran,” Misagh Parsa observed that a “broad, nationwide coalition of major social classes and collectivities” to “disrupt social, economic and political structures” can “potentially isolate antidemocratic regimes, neutralize repressive forces, instigate military insubordination, and instigate democratic transformation.” While democratic transformation is far from clear, solidarity protests among different groups can potentially lead to the broad nationwide coalitions Parsa speaks of. Opposition to the Islamic Republic itself animates dissatisfaction among widespread segments of populations in Iran. Many protesters have rallied behind Reza Pahlavi as a symbol, but there is no indication yet that he leads an organization that can challenge the state. What is also clear is that the Islamic Republic leadership is willing to fight to the death. We can expect more protests and repression on the horizon, with the outcome also too early to tell.