Iran's latest power struggles: Anti-government protests rock oil-rich province

Iran's latest power struggles: Anti-government protests rock oil-rich province
Protesters have taken to the streets in Khuzestan in the past week as water and electricity cuts and chronic air pollution focus anger towards Tehran.
3 min read
20 February, 2017
Protests in Ahvaz, the provincial capital of Khuzestan have been ongoing for a week [Twitter]
Power blackouts and water shortages in Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan region have led to protests in Ahvaz and other cities in the province, with anger directed at the country's government.

Amid growing civil discontent, some Iranian MPs have labelled the demonstrations a "national threat" and called for the resignation of figures including the country's energy minister.

In a statement posted on his official Twitter page on Monday acknowledging ongoing protests, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei called on the Rouhani government to address the ongoing problem.

Twitter is officially blocked to internet users in Iran, though many use VPNs and proxies to get around the de-facto ban, and many leading government figures maintain a presence on the micro-blogging site.

"Current issues in Khuzestan are heartrending for any human being; outages of power, water and communications services in the cold weather is very difficult for the people; officials are responsible to take measures to address these problems," read the statement.

In demonstrations in Ahvaz over the past week demonstrators have chanted slogans including "Death to tyranny", "We, the people of Ahwaz, won't accept oppression", "Shame on the State Security Force" and "Clean air is our right, Ahwaz is our city" and also called for the resignation of the province's governor.

Electricity cuts in the province are said to have been caused by the drying up of Khuzestan's wetlands, leading to dust storms that have affected outdated water and power infrastructures.

Around 35 percent of Iran's water and electricity is provided by the Khuzestan province, which also contains numerous oil and gas factories.

Despite being resource-rich, poverty levels in Khuzestan are among the country's highest.

Residents of the province - which borders Iraq and the Gulf coast and is rich in oil and gas - many of whom are ethnically Arab in origin, have long complained of political and cultural repression and of being ostracised by the Iranian state.

Abbas Papizadeh, an MP from the city of Dezful, told local media that the problems in Khuzestan had reached a peak, but had been lurking under the surface for years, with thousands in the region affected by skin and breathing problems caused by air pollution.

"The Khuzestan province for years has been struggling with the issue of particulates, but this issue now is becoming a national threat," said Papizadeh.

According to the World Health Organisation, Ahvaz, Khuzestan's provincial capital, is among the world's most polluted cities.

Statistics from Iran's Health Ministry state that more than 80,000 people die in Iran each year as a result of environmental pollution.

The Iranian government is hopeful that the lifting of economic sanctions - following a landmark nuclear deal between Iran, the US and five other states - will lead to foreign investment in Khuzestan, enabling the much-needed rehabilitation and updating of refineries and power stations.

Large-scale protests in opposition to the Shah in the area contributed to growing civil unrest in Iran in the late 1970s paving the way for the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran - a coalition of Iranian opposition groups in exile lead by the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an armed group banned in Iran which advocates the violent overthrow of Tehran's rulers - has claimed that the Iranian government has dispatched anti-riot police from neighbouring Fars Province to Ahvaz in order to contain the protests.

Local police forces in the city, according to this opposition group, have also declared all demonstrations illegal with authorities said to have attempted to slow state-supplied internet connections to prevent the upload of videos recorded at demonstrations.