By Mahmoud Hakamian
On April 8, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that at least four individuals in Iran’s capital city had been arrested for speaking out about the effects of recent flooding and the woefully inadequate government response.
Official figures indicate that at least 70 people have been killed in floods that affected nearly all of Iran’s 31 provinces, but the theocratic regime’s detractors accuse it of downplaying a death toll that is upwards of three times that number. Many of those same critics emphasize that government institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have placed more focus on managing public outrage over a situation that was exacerbated by poor infrastructure and resource management than on actually providing relief to those affected.
That accusation was substantiated in the last days of March, when outlets including the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that authorities had expressly warned citizens of the potential for prosecution if they posted on social media about their experiences or otherwise communicated publicly about the regime’s activities in the wake of the flooding. The IHRM report then made it clear that the same authorities had followed up on these threats with action by making arrests at the same time that they contradicted citizens’ accounts through state propaganda networks.
The report quoted Hossein Rahimi, the commander of state security forces, as praising the government’s relief response and decrying the public for supposedly exploiting the situation to undermine confidence in the government. “All officials, including government officials and the armed forces, made great efforts during the floods, but unfortunately some people have destroyed their image,” he said before announcing the arrests that had been carried out with the help of the nation’s cyber police.
IHRM also referenced other Iranian law enforcement officials, to demonstrate that the stated priority of regime authorities is to maintain the “security” of the state in the midst of a crisis that has helped to stoke public outrage. Indeed, a report published on April 3 by EA Worldview quoted General Mohammad Pakpour, the head of the IRGC’s ground forces, as saying “the people are in a rebellious mood” amidst the floods and the uncoordinated recovery effort.
In the face of that outrage, some authorities have acknowledged simply steering clear of flood-hit populations – a situation that in turn spurred many citizens to take it upon themselves to offer relief efforts. But as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran revealed, this led to conflict between the IRGC and residents of certain areas over whether to direct floodwaters away from homes and farmland or away from industrial infrastructure controlled by the IRGC itself. The resulting efforts by the IRGC to tear down civilian flood barriers led to violent clashes in Khuzestan Province, with the Guards firing upon the crowd, wounding several individuals and reportedly killing one.
In the days following that report, further evidence emerged of the IRGC and other security forces actively opposing and criminalizing civilian-led recovery efforts. In another April 8 report, IHRM noted that two residents of a village in Khuzestan had been arrested while providing aid to victims of the flooding. The authorities’ motive for their arrest was not immediately clear, but it is perhaps significant that both arrestees were identified as members of Iran’s ethnic Arab minority.
Yet another IHRM report states that in a different Khuzestan village, an elder by the name of Khalaf Mardani was arrested and transported to an undisclosed location after trying to prevent the IRGC from destroying civilian-made flood barriers. The decision to arrest this individual specifically may have been motivated in part by his status as a tribal sheikh, insofar as it sends a message to the rest of the population and thus puts pressure on the entire Ahvazi Arab community.
Of course, this sort of pressure is also exerted by the floods themselves, with Khuzestan being one of the hardest hit areas. As Asharq al-Awsat pointed out on Friday, the disaster has deepened the preexisting adversity for Ahvazi Arab communities, especially as the government appears reluctant to declare a state of emergency even while the city of Ahvaz is threatened by the convergence of two nearby rivers. The report emphasizes that locally displaced people are suffering from a lack of food and aid, in the face of a crisis that many attribute in large part of systematic mismanagement.
In context with previous reporting upon Tehran’s crackdown on the Arab population, the latest stories from Khuzestan Province may suggest that the absence of relief is to some degree intentional. On March 26, as the flooding crisis was just beginning, IHRM reported upon the long-term repression of the Ahvazi Arab community, particularly in the wake of last September’s attack on a military parade by separatist gunmen. This attack apparently set the stage for warrantless and indiscriminate raids and arrests, with entire families being subjected to indefinite detention in some cases.
In much the same sense as the military parade provided an excuse for the intensification of pressure on one of Iran’s already marginalized minorities, the Khuzestan flooding may be regarded as an opportunity for more of the same. This perception is arguably supported by the announcement that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, would be spending a month overseeing recovery efforts in Khuzestan, as well as Lorestan. The IRGC, having been the target of September’s separatist attack, is also a driving force behind the ongoing, generalized crackdown on the local community.
On the other hand, a report by EA Worldview emphasizes the effort to use Soleimani’s deployment as a means of further raising the profile of the IRGC, although it does not dispute accounts of the paramilitary organization’s misplaced priorities in previous recovery efforts. Indeed, the Quds Force commander’s presence can be expected to fulfill the dual roles of threatening the regime’s critics and promoting the IRGC among its hardline supporters.
The latter goal has clearly already been a guiding principle in some of the actions and public statements by IRGC officers and others. Many reports have highlighted conflicts between the two factions of Iranian politics against the backdrop of the flooding. And some of these quoted the IRGC’s chief commander, Mohammadi Ali Jafari, as placing blame for the inadequate government response not only on the pragmatist administration of President Hassan Rouhani but also on all those who voted for him in 2013 and again in 2017.
“It’s the people who should have made the right choice. They are the ones who need to act with watchfulness,” Jafari said according to EA Worldview. But as recent clashes demonstrate, the IRGC commander likely did not mean to imply that the people themselves should take control of relief efforts. Yet this precise recommendation has been offered by persons outside of the Iranian government and particularly by its longstanding critics, like the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
On Friday, NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi reiterated her call for civilian intervention in the face of inaction and repression by regime authorities. Specifically referencing the “people and youth of Ahvaz and other parts of Khuzestan” in a statement on the organization’s website, the Resistance leader urged public accessibility for resources belonging to the IRGC, the army, and other government institutions. “These facilities are abundantly available,” the statement observed before lamenting that currently they “all serve to suppress the people, wage war in the region and fill the pockets of the regime's leaders.”