Environmental deterioration is another salient, lesser-understood factor undergirding Iran’s domestic unrest. Although environmental considerations are rarely the explicit causal factor behind protests, they act as a force multiplier; an added combustible ingredient on top of the Iranian citizens’ social, political, and economic grievances. Lack of drinking or agricultural water is a potent symbol of the government’s failure to provide the most basic of services to the Iranian people. According to Nikahang Kowsar in an in-person interview, around 85% of the demonstrations since the resumption of protests have taken place in areas hit by drought and water shortages due to excessive damming, and many of these demonstrations have been among the most violent examples of unrest.
In January 2018, for example, Iranian security forces clashed with protestors in Qahderijan, a city close to Isfahan over water rights. Protestors threw Molotov cocktails at a police station, leading security forces to open fire, killing at least five.
In July 2018, the regime quelled four days of demonstrations in Khorramshahr, a majority-Arab city in the oil-rich Khuzestan province bordering Iraq, by escalating from using tear gas to disperse the protestors to employing live fire, reportedly killing four. The protests centered on the lack of desalinated water for drinking and agriculture due to the regime’s mismanagement, which had exacerbated local drought conditions.
In August 2018, protests broke out against the IRGC in Marivan, a city in Iranian Kurdistan, after the IRGC reportedly set wildfires in order to drive out Kurdish peshmerga. Four environmental activists died fighting the blazes, triggering demonstrations featuring thousands of protestors.
It should be noted that Iranian environmental activists and protestors do not always function as a unified bloc and are frequently concerned primarily with local concerns rather than focused on the larger picture of the regime’s environmental mismanagement. This has led to tensions between activists in different provinces fighting over rights of certain rivers and their sources. For example, activists in Isfahan province fighting to save the Zayandeh Roud River call for water to be transferred from the Karun basin and the Gavkhuni wetland, which has virtually dried up, pitting activists with conflicting interests against each other. The regime has encouraged and exploited such discord as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy, as it keeps Iranian activists focused on their own provincial concerns rather than the bigger picture of the regime’s mismanagement.
In addition to the demonstrators who are directly impacted by deteriorating environmental conditions, numerous Iranian environmental experts and activists have warned that the regime’s mishandling of water resources and agricultural and industrial malpractice are setting the nation on an unsustainable, calamitous path. Rather than acting to placate protestors, activists, and experts by amending its harmful policies, the Iranian regime has disregarded their protestations and expert advice, and responded instead with repression.
Iran’s campaign against environmental activists and experts is borne of a power struggle between the pragmatic factions represented by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, and the hardline clerical and IRGC elites who provide the backbone of support for Supreme Leader Khamenei and remain the true power brokers in Iranian society. Rouhani was elected twice on a platform that prioritized boosting civilian power in the political and economic spheres by curtailing the IRGC’s pervasive control. From 2013-2015, Rouhani’s administration sought and obtained – with Khamenei’s cautious backing which he has since rescinded — a nuclear deal with Western powers. Rouhani’s primary motivation was to open up the Iranian market to Western trade and investment, which he believed would empower civilian business interests at the expense of the IRGC. It should be noted that Rouhani’s efforts to empower an alternative civilian elite do not stem from benevolence, but from his belief that this represents the ideal path to salvage and preserve Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary regime, as well as a desire to enrich his own political allies and benefactors.
The IRGC, naturally, has proved loath to cede its power, influence, and riches, and therefore acted to sabotage the Rouhani administration’s machinations for greater economic openness and integration with the West. The IRGC has sought, through threats and harassment, to prevent investment in Iran from those who would not give the IRGC its share. Most notably, the IRGC’s intelligence organization arrested Siamak Namazi, a member of a prominent Iranian-American dual national family who had been in business with powerful elements of the Iranian regime since the early 1990s, such as the Rafsanjanis and the Khatami administration. The Namazis and their associates were also close to President Rouhani’s team, and had sought to invest in Iran. Subsequently, his father, Baqer was arrested after attempting to visit his son. The Namazis’ arrests sent the message that the IRGC would not allow alternate elites to challenge its prosperity and served to chill the investment plans of other Iranian expatriates.
The power struggle between the Rouhani administration and the IRGC has played out in a similar vein in the environmental sphere. Rouhani’s administration, particularly Department of the Environment head Issa Kalantari, has recognized the severity of Iran’s impending environmental crisis in remarkably candid terms. Rouhani’s administration has called for environmental reforms and more sustainable policies, most notably moving to curtail dam construction, a crucial revenue generator for the IRGC and its construction arm, Khatam al-Anbiya. Environmental activists have also sought to prevent the IRGC from carrying out military exercises and building military installations in protected lands. Sensing a threat to its profits and military activities, the IRGC has responded by targeting water management and environmental activists and experts – and often, their families – for harassment and arrest. The Iranian regime has also stepped up targeting of environmental activists due to their demonstrated ability to mobilize protestors, which the regime views as a threat particularly during the current period of unrest.
In January and February of 2018, the IRGC arrested 13 environmental experts and wildlife preservation activists. According to a report in an opposition website, the IRGC carried out the January and February arrests due to the detainees’ opposition to the IRGC’s efforts to install missile silos and related military equipment on UN-protected environmental preservation areas.
The IRGC Intelligence Organization has held the detainees in its wing in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where they have suffered from mistreatment and abuse. The IRGC has denied the detainees visitation with their families and lawyers. In June, two of the detainees reported suffering a nose injury and broken teeth. In October, five of the detainees charges were reportedly upgraded from espionage to “corruption on Earth,” a capital offense. Iran’s Islamic Penal Code defines “corruption on Earth” as: “Any person who extensively commits felony against the...people, offenses against internal or international security of the state, spreading lies, disruption of the economic system of the state, arson and destruction of properties, distribution of poisonous and bacterial and dangerous materials, and establishment of, or aiding and abetting in, places of corruption and prostitution…shall be considered as ‘corrupt on earth’ and shall be sentenced to death.”
Another prominent instance of the IRGC’s targeting of environmental experts was their harassment of Kaveh Madani. Rouhani and DOE head Issa Kalantari asked Madani, an American-educated water management expert and academic, to leave his teaching post in London in order to return to Iran and serve as deputy head of the DOE, where his expertise would be put to use in reversing Iran’s water shortages. It was also hoped that Madani’s appointment would lead other expatriate technocrats to return to Iran to apply their expertise to solving the country’s problems, stanching an ongoing brain drain.
Madani was immediately subject to IRGC harassment upon his arrival in Iran in September 2017. Madani alleges that he was detained and interrogated immediately upon his arrival in Tehran, and that IRGC intelligence agents accessed his online accounts and confiscated various files and photos. The harassment grew worse following the resumption of domestic unrest in late December 2017 due to the regime’s increased sensitivities. In February 2018, the IRGC detained Madani again but ultimately released him due to public outcry. The IRGC accused him of spying on behalf of the MI6, Mossad, and CIA.
The IRGC’s mistreatment of Madani was meant to undermine the Rouhani administration and can be viewed as an extension of its power struggle with the moderate and reformist factions. Madani was also marked for persecution because of his outspoken criticism of Iran’s water mismanagement, particularly its over-construction of dams, which the IRGC viewed as an attack on its economic interests. The IRGC’s harassment campaign led Madani, fearing for his safety, to resign his post in April and flee the country. Angered conservative parliamentarians summoned Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, a Rouhani ally, to Iran’s majles to demand answers for how Madani was able to leave the country without facing the espionage charges against him.
Reformist politicians were critical of the regime’s handling of the Madani affair, complaining that it would have a chilling effect on expatriate elites from returning and contributing their expertise to solving the country’s many issues. In the face of mounting environmental and water crises, the Iranian regime and IRGC have employed a shoot-the-messenger approach, choosing to repress protestors, activists, and experts and reject their demands and advice in favor of protecting their narrow, short-term political and economic interests. As climate change, environmental mismanagement, and corruption continue to take their toll, Iran is likely to face growing protests and subversive activities, particularly from those hardest hit in peripheral communities, which also face the worst ethnic, political, and economic discrimination in the country.