By Edward Carney
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the European Civil Protection Mechanism have recently released estimates regarding the severity of the flooding that struck at least 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces beginning in mid-March. The figures indicate that upwards of 12 million Iranian citizens have been affected by the disaster, and that roughly two million of them are currently in need of humanitarian relief. However, such relief has not been forthcoming from the Iranian government, and Iran Human Rights Monitor seized upon the international reports last week to accuse Tehran of withholding available funds.
IHRM pointed to a letter written by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei approximately a month after the outset of the disaster. In it, he withdrew his previous agreement for the release of monies from the National Development Fund, a national monetary reserve that is largely comprised of income from the country’s oil exports. Khamenei is likely concerned about the possible depletion of this fund in the face of escalating sanctions from the United States, and has therefore insisted that the NDF may be drawn upon only after the current budget has been fully utilized.
But as IHRM notes, these same concerns have not prevented Tehran from spending money on other priorities, including priorities beyond Iran’s borders. With the flooding crisis still fresh in the minds of the entire nation, state media reported on April 27 that the regime had spent roughly 30 million dollars on construction projects in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, victims of the floods profess having received no government assistance as yet.
This situation is exacerbated by the worsening economic crisis in the Islamic Republic. And some Iranian government institutions have sought to illuminate both the details of that crisis and the deficiencies in the regime’s current response. IranWire reported last week that the Parliament Research Center had predicted a dramatic increase in the level of “absolute poverty” throughout the country. Whereas the previous figures attributed that condition to approximately 16 percent of the population, it is now expected to reach as high as 40 percent within the next 12 months. Meanwhile, some entities with no ties to the Iranian government can be expected to predict even worse outcomes.
The runaway inflation rates, rising cost of essential goods, and poorly structured subsidies cited in the Research Center’s study underscore the difficulty that ordinary Iranians will have in recovering from the floods on their own. And yet, following the destruction of nearly 90,000 homes and a total of more than 2.5 billion dollars’ worth of damage, that is exactly what many citizens are trying to do.
Yet, these civilian efforts have sometimes sparked conflict with the regime, either because flood victims are focused on different areas of recovery than regime authorities or because their efforts are accompanied by expressions of discontent at the lack of an adequate government response. The aforementioned IHRM report highlighted some of the public protests that have emerged out of the still-unresolved situation, and it reiterated that the response from entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has tended to focus on suppressing dissent instead of addressing the people’s grievances.
Accordingly, there have been a number of reports of Iranian citizens being arrested by those authorities and subjected to prosecution precisely because they attempted to provide flood relief independent of government authority, or simply because they spoke publicly about the severity of the conditions in affected areas. IHRM reported that at least 24 people were arrested in Khuzestan Province alone for “spreading flood rumors.” And last Friday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported upon the arrests of two women affiliated with the charity group Voice of Iranian Women.
On April 29, Akam Nasirian was detained by security agents who did not identify which law enforcement body they worked for. She has since been held in Evin Prison, where she is reportedly facing charges that include “disturbing public opinion.” Then, on May 15, her colleague Nahid Shaghaghi was arrested in a raid of her home, and was taken to an undisclosed location. Although it has been suggested that at least one of these arrests may have been motivated in part by the group’s women’s rights activism and opposition to the country’s forced veiling laws, it is also the case that Voice of Iranian Women had contributed to aid and rescue operations in flooded areas, and that the recently arrestees had contributed to these efforts.