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Cyril Widdershoven

Cyril Widdershoven

Dr. Cyril Widdershoven is a long-time observer of the global energy market. Presently, he holds several advisory positions with international think tanks in the Middle…

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Can Iran Avoid A Major National Uprising?

As Iran is preparing for the inauguration of elected president Ebrahim Raisi, a move that will consolidate the power of the ultra-conservative forces that support Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, its citizens are taking to the streets to protest increased water shortages. For almost two weeks, protesters have been taking to the streets of major cities in the Khuzestan province, Iran’s main oil and gas producing region. Several people have reportedly been killed by Iranian security forces and police during these protests. Even Iranian TV and radio stations are reporting the killings, with analysts now expecting an increase in repression in the coming days. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and others have published reports indicating excessive force by security forces.

This excessive force is now being reported on in other provinces outside of Khuzestan as well, suggesting that unrest in Iran is spreading. The elections themselves are considered illegitimate by the broader international community as the religious establishment was once again able to remove possible “liberal” candidates from running. The position of Raisi is not currently under threat from these protests, although some do fear that the newly elected leader will quell said protests by any means necessary.  The water shortage that sparked protests in Iran is a result of the worst drought in 50 years, exacerbated by Iran’s poor water management due to a lack of knowledge, a lack of investments, and some cases of outright mismanagement

While the protests are linked to water shortages, they are also indirectly linked to the ongoing COVID crisis in the country. The economic impact of US sanctions is also a factor as the economy is in shambles and unemployment is very high. In addition to the water protests, Iran’s other pivotal economic sector, oil and gas, is also reeling from growing protests. Reports are emerging that some Iranian oil workers are on strike, a strike that has the potential to spread across the nation. The combination of water shortages and an economic crisis is most clear to see in Iran’s main oil and gas producing region Khuzestan. Tehran is keeping a close eye on that province in particular as it is also Iran’s main ethnic Arab region, known for its independent views and its potential to rise up against the government. The fact that the water protests and demonstrations have started in Khuzestan is clearly a sign for Tehran to be vigilant. Iranian leaders appear to be unwilling to accept or incapable of understanding that the use of violence or simply ignoring issues are not real solutions. Since the Khuzestan protests began, other provinces have seen their own unrest including Lorestan, Isfahan, and Bushehr.

Tehran is starting to get worried, especially after demonstrators openly called for an end to the theocratic regime in Tehran and targeted Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly. The level of repression within the country hasn’t changed since the protests began, despite the fact that former Iranian presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Rouhani both condemned the ongoing use of violence by security forces.  It isn’t only demonstrators who have been killed either, with reports emerging of police deaths as well. Iranian state-owned news sources are accusing the protesters of using the water issues as a pretense for pushing political goals. International sources struggling to gather independent information as Iran is experiencing severe internet service disruptions, instigated by state information sources. 

Related: Can The Airline Industry Live Without Fossil Fuels?

Fear is growing that the relatively peaceful protests will soon lead to a full-out confrontation with regional or even national security forces. As the Prosecutor’s Office in Khuzestan stated to the press, the demands of the people of Khuzestan should be answered, especially those of livestock farmers and farmers who have suffered from the lack of water. That statement was then followed by a direct attack on the protests, as the official warned that “rioters”, “foreign mercenaries”, “hypocrites”, and the “evil anti-revolutionary elements” would be “countered decisively” and “dealt with severely according to the law” for disturbing the peace. These statements are often an indicator in Iran that full-force repression tactics are being prepared in order to quell the protests. Khuzestan officials are already spreading fear as they accuse protestors of being rioters or seditionists. Up until now, protests have been controlled, but that situation will change dramatically if water protests escalate into an opposition movement. More and more Iranians are blaming the regime for mishandling the economy, enriching themselves, and using revenues for the nuclear enrichment program or funding of regional terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis. 

Any further increase in violence or repression by the Tehrani regime of Khamenei could lead to a full-blown uprising. The IRGC and other security forces have a stranglehold over the country, however, and it is unlikely and protest will succeed in altering the government. At the same time, increased volatility in Iran would not bode well for the already fledgling JCPOA discussions, as the USA and its European compatriots will not be able to make a deal with an extreme and repressive Raisi government if it is violently suppressing an uprising. 

For Iran, Khuzestan is a pivotal province, as it is the country’s largest oil and gas producing area. Most of Iran’s crude oil reserves are located onshore (about 86%) in the Khuzestan Basin (located on the southwest border of Iraq), which contains about 80% of total onshore reserves. Offshore reserves are mainly located in the Persian Gulf. The region grabbed international attention earlier this week due to the opening of a new trans-Iranian oil pipeline and a new oil terminal in the Gulf of Oman, Bander-e Jask, which will allow Iran to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. Unrest in the oil-producing regions would put a major damper on possible Iranian export capabilities or possibly even remove its volumes from the market. Short term, however, no real impact is to be expected, looking at the immense offshore oil storage volumes available to be transported to markets even if the country should implode or destabilize. 

By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com

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