On MondayBy Edward Carney
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement in response to the flooding that has been taking place in Iran for approximately three weeks, which has killed at least 60 people but likely many more. The statement expressed condolences and included an offer of American assistance in relief and recovery efforts, but it also placed blame for the seriousness of the disaster squarely on the shoulders of Iranian authorities. “These floods once again show the level of Iranian regime mismanagement in urban planning and in emergency preparedness,” Pompeo wrote.
In the wake of that statement, Al Monitor criticized the Trump administration for supposedly focusing its response upon an effort to score political points. However, it bears mentioning that the State Departments comments came only after Iranian officials had largely turned their own efforts toward blaming foreign adversaries for the situation. To wit, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the US of committing “economic terrorism” with its sanctions, while President Hassan Rouhani took advantage of a disaster management meeting in Khuzestan Province to deride the Trump administration as a “racist, lawbreaking, and war-mongering group.”
With such rhetoric coming even from the supposedly “moderate” faction of Iranian politics, it seems unlikely that the regime would have seriously considered accepting any American offer of assistance, regardless of the accompanying commentary about Tehran’s response to the floods. Nonetheless, Al Monitor criticized the US State Department for its apparent failure to provide guidance to foreign governments and international aid groups about how to guarantee that they would not encounter sanctions enforcement issues upon offering material assistance.
Yet the same Al Monitor article quotes State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino to suggest that such guidance may not be necessary. After all, the White House has long insisted that humanitarian goods such as food and medicine are already exempt from the sanctions on Iran. This contradicts a message that has been repeated by the Iranian regime both in the global media and in lawsuit last year that alleged the US was in violation of a Treaty of Amity that had been signed between the two countries long before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The resulting judgement from the International Court of Justice ordered the US to avoid restricting the flow of humanitarian goods, but it gave no indication that any such restrictions had actually been in place previously. Tehran’s latest references to “economic terrorism” and supposedly overreaching US sanctions simply repeat longstanding talking points, but these arguably serve only to cover up the regime’s own culpability for an economic crisis that has affected ordinary Iranian citizens to a far greater extent than government officials and persons affiliated with hardline institutions like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
One clear contributing factor to that crisis is Iran’s refusal to come into compliance with the anti-money laundering standards of the Financial Action Task Force, which are enforced upon every nation that engages in commerce with major international markets. Iran’s persistent heel-dragging on FATF compliance legislation prevented full access to sanctions relief following the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. And more recently, it has hampered the full implementation of the sanctions-busting payment vehicle created by the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May of last year.
According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the recent flooding and the desperate need for access to foreign capital has reinforced awareness of the need for FATF compliance. The report cites Masoud Pezeshkian, deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament, as saying that the country’s current problems are worse than during the eight year war with Iraq. But in spite of this, the NCRI notes that Pezeshkian “refused to blame the mullahs for the crises, instead accusing foreign forces of hurting the country.”
Such stubbornness reflects the broader regime’s unwillingness to compromise or submit to international standards, according to the NCRI. Furthermore, the report emphasizes that as the nationwide flooding was just beginning, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addressed the country on the occasion of the Nowruz holiday to insist that the Islamic Republic “should forgo the help and company of the West altogether.” Such a sentiment puts at least some of the onus upon the regime itself for any difficulty that it faces in receiving support from the international community during the ongoing crisis.
Khamenei’s sentiment has carried over into the public statements by other Iranian officials, attempting to blame the US and its allies for the severity of the flooding. These statements include not only the aforementioned references to sanctions as a source of impairment in the domestic relief efforts, but also outright conspiracy theories regarding “climatic manipulation” by the West. As IranWire pointed out on Monday, similar conspiracy theories had been peddled in previous months to explain the long-term drought that preceded the floods and were reportedly exacerbated by poor environmental management on the part of the Iranian government.
Similar mismanagement issues have been credibly identified as contributing factors in the flash-flooding crisis. As the Associated Press pointed out on Tuesday, government authorities and construction companies affiliated with the IRGC have routinely been criticized for “widespread disregard of safety measures and construction of buildings and roads near the rivers.” The effects of these practices were arguably on display one year ago when more localized flooding was seen in East Azerbaijan Province, which killed 30 people.
As such, there was reportedly a high degree of public awareness about government mismanagement in the run-up to the current crisis. This point was emphasized by Al Monitor in its reporting on the State Department’s commentary on that same mismanagement. Although critical of Pompeo’s decision to publicly blame Tehran, the article only suggests that those remarks are redundant and politically opportunistic, not that they are inaccurate. Indeed, Al Monitor quoted Ali Vaez, the Iran director of the International Crisis Group, as saying, “The Iranian people are fully aware of endemic mismanagement and corruption in their country,” and do not need to be reminded of it by foreign officials who are hostile to the regime.
The preexisting public awareness was no doubt a contributing factor in one aspect of the regime’s response to the flooding. It has been widely recognized that at least in the first several days during which government officials were present in flood zones, in-fighting was amplified between the hardliners associated with Khamenei and the IRGC, and the pragmatic political faction that is led by Rouhani. The NCRI stated that in lieu of taking responsibility for the corrupt and incompetent practices that contributed to the recent devastation, these factions have been “blaming each other for their crimes because they fear being overthrown by the Iranian people.”
The primary outlet for wider factional feuding was a series of conflicts between the president and the Revolutionary Guards, a phenomenon that IranWire describes as having “arisen before in times of national emergency.” The same report claims that Rouhani and IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari “have been trading accusations and insults” regarding each other’s general capabilities and actual responses to the situation, thereby suggesting that there is little coordination between the two factions as they pursue their own projects and preferred outcomes.
Meanwhile, both factions are separately subject to condemnations from the public and from opponents of the entire regime. On one hand, Rouhani was criticized for taking a full nine days before traveling to an area affected by the floods. On the other hand, the IRGC’s presence on the ground has been widely recognized, but its motives have also been questioned. Iran Human Rights Monitor, for instance, described the hardline paramilitary as being more focused on managing the people’s anger and repressing dissent than on actually providing relief or preventing further loss of life.
As a result, even regime officials have come to acknowledge that the people’s anger has been growing. This was underscored by another NCRI report, which pointed to remarks delivered by Mohammad Pakpour, the head of IRGC ground forces, to a media outlet that is close to the Guards. “There are too many problems, there is no management,” he said, adding, “I have just been able to get out of their way. They are very upset. They are very angry.”
In the face of that situation, factional infighting may be waning somewhat, as evidenced by the efforts in recent days, by the Rouhani administration and hardline authorities, to turn their joint propaganda against the US and other foreign “enemies.” At the same time, authorities on both sides of the factional divide have also been contributing to the silencing of domestic dissent, as by threatening flood victims and their families with prosecution for speaking publicly about their experiences.
In reporting upon this, the Center for Human Rights in Iran quoted Iranian human rights lawyer Abdolkarim Lahiji as saying, “The government wants to shift the blame to the people and unleash the police against them. We are dealing with a regime that considers it a crime to inform the public about natural disasters and criticize.”
The regime’s threats provide ominous overtones to efforts by Iranian state media to portray a vigorous response to the flooding. Fars News Agency, for example, has relentlessly boasted of the military and paramilitary presence in flood zones.
On Monday, it emphasized that “100 units of the Army have been mobilized” and on Tuesday it identified Major General Seyed Abdolrahim Moussavi as saying that the army will “stand by flood hit people [until the] end.” Then, on Wednesday, Fars reported that 1,341 civilian militias were active in the provinces of Golestan and Mazandaran alone, adding to the well-recognized presence of the IRGC, which controls these “basiji” volunteer groups.