Environmental deterioration is another salient, lesser-understood factor undergirding Iran’s domestic unrest. Although environmental considerations are rarely the explicit cause for 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 its people. According to Nikahang Kowsar in an in-person interview, around 85 percent of the demonstrations since the resumption of protests, in 2019, 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 protesters in Qahderijan, a city close to Isfahan over water rights. Protesters 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 protesters 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 forces. Four environmental activists died fighting the blazes, triggering demonstrations featuring thousands of protesters.
In July 2021, protests erupted in cities and villages throughout Khuzestan province over severe water shortages, which have catalyzed solidarity demonstrations in cities around the country. Experts have attributed Khuzestan’s water crisis to decades of water policy mismanagement, including the over-construction of hydroelectric dams and the diversion of water to other provinces. This mismanagement has been exacerbated by climate change factors, as Iran has faced its most severe drought in decades characterized by a 52% decline in rainfall this year.
Starting on July 15, 2021, thousands of protestors took to the street each evening around Khuzestan province to demand potable drinking water. The protests have added further stresses to the ruling regime, which has faced numerous interconnected crises stemming from managerial ineptitude. In addition to water shortages, Iran has faced a series of rolling blackouts due to high energy demands in the wake of soaring temperatures coupled with a lack of water to fuel hydroelectric power plants. Additionally, the government has lacked transparency amid its struggle to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the country’s economic woes. The cascading crises have led to widespread political alienation, culminating in the June 2021 election, which had historically low voter turnout.
With the ruling regime’s legitimacy facing unprecedented challenges, it has sought to pay lip service to the Khuzestan protestors’ demands while also falling back on repression to stanch the spread of the demonstrations. On the one hand, Supreme Leader Khamenei called on officials to fix the water crisis, affirming the validity of the protestors’ demands. Outgoing President Hassan Rouhani similarly affirmed that “With the exception of a few, people are exercising their legal right to protest.” On the other hand, Human Rights Watch found that Iranian authorities had used “excessive force” to pacify the protests, leading to at least ten deaths and over 100 detentions, according to The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). Videos posted on social media have shown a heavy presence of security forces using tear gas, and reportedly live fire at times, to disperse demonstrators.
The government has reportedly sought to block internet access through mobile phone networks to prevent protestors from organizing and disseminating images of repression by security forces. Regardless, the protests have triggered solidarity demonstrations throughout the country, and the scope of the protests has expanded from narrow concerns over water access to broader dissatisfaction with the ruling regime.
Iranian environmental activists and protesters do not always function as a unified bloc and are frequently concerned primarily with local issues, instead of the larger picture of the regime’s environmental mismanagement. This has led to tensions between activists in different provinces fighting over the 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 environmentalists with conflicting interests against each other. The regime has encouraged and exploited such discord as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy.
In addition to 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 protesters, activists, and experts by changing its harmful policies, the Iranian regime has repressed those groups.
Iran’s campaign against environmental activists and experts is borne of a power struggle between the pragmatic factions represented by the Rouhani 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 to 2015, Rouhani’s administration sought and obtained a nuclear deal with Western powers—with Khamenei’s cautious backing, since-rescinded. 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, and to enrich his 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 Guards their share. Most notably, the IRGC’s intelligence organization arrested Siamak Namazi, a member of a prominent Iranian-American family who had been in business with powerful elements of the regime since the early 1990s, such as the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. The Namazis and their associates were also close to President Rouhani’s team and had sought to invest in Iran. Subsequently, Siamak’s father, Baquer, 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 similarly in the environmental sphere. The administration, particularly DOE head Issa Kalantari, has recognized the severity of Iran’s impending environmental crisis in remarkably candid terms. Rouhani’s team 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 harassing and/or arresting water-management and environmental activists and experts—and often, their families. The regime has also stepped up targeting of environmental activists due to their demonstrated ability to mobilize protesters, which Tehran considers a threat.
In January and February of 2018, the IRGC arrested 13 environmental experts and wildlife-preservation activists. According to a report from an opposition website, the IRGC carried out the 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’s 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.”
In February 2020, Iran’s judiciary announced that it had sentenced eight of the detained environmentalists to prison sentences ranging from four to ten years. Morad Tahbaz, an American citizen, received a ten year jail sentence for allegedly cooperating with the U.S. government. Five others were convicted for the same charge, one for spying, and one for threatening national security. From the initial detainments through the sentencing announcement, the judiciary did not present any evidence publicly to substantiate its allegations. In May 2018, an Iranian government panel tasked with investigating the arrests concluded that there was no evidence linking the environmentalists to espionage.
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 to return to Iran and serve as deputy head of the DOE, where his expertise would be put to use in reversing the country’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 alleges that the IRGC harassed him immediately upon his arrival in Iran in September 2017, 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 pragmatic 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 parliament 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 protesters, 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.