Over the past week, protesters have taken to the streets of southwest Iran, chanting anti-regime slogans as they demand better access to clean water, their farmland and their land. livestock.
Protests in places like Ahvaz, Shadegan and Susangerd in Khuzestan province follow recent protests in cities like the capital, Tehran and Kordkuy, over power cuts – the worst since the war with Iraq in the 1980s – when Iranians chanted “Down with the dictator”. At least one person has been killed in protests against the water, a death the government attributes to rioters, not security forces.
The intensity of anger over mediocrity in public services partly reflects the sense of betrayal of the Iranians by the revolution that created the theocratic state in 1979. The founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, promised the Iranians, rejoicing, that “we free for the poor”.
Many Iranians regard the costs of cheap public services as their birthright. “We are a wealthy nation and we sit on the greatest wealth. But this wealth only benefits those linked to the regime, ”says Zahra, a 36-year-old housewife. “Everyone should benefit equally from natural resources. ”
As a result, politicians are reluctant to cut subsidies, which the country can hardly afford and which are among the most generous in the world. With water and electricity hit by rising consumption and the worst drought in half a century, utilities have become a natural outlet for political tensions, analysts said.
“An apolitical area like the electricity sector is seen by people as an area where they can pursue their political demands,” one said. “It is impossible to reduce the subsidies because [people are poorer] and people do not trust officials and reject any change in the subsidy system.
Hassan Rouhani’s government – which will be replaced by Ebrahim Raisi on August 4 – has tackled power outages by reducing the working hours of industries, reducing electricity exports to Iraq and cracking down on the bitcoin mining. While this has contained public anger over power shortages, at least temporarily, it has also hit an economy suffering from crippling US sanctions.
Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with world powers in 2018, imposing the most severe sanctions to date on the republic. Negotiations between Iran and the other signatories to the agreement – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – aim to negotiate a deal that would lead the United States to join the agreement and to lift the sanctions.
With or without sanctions, there is no easy solution for a country which – according to the estimate of Arash Najafi, deputy head of the energy committee of the Iranian chamber of commerce, and other analysts – offers grants totaling $ 100 billion per year. The International Energy Agency, in its 2020 report, said Iran was the world leader in paying 4.7% of its gross domestic product in energy subsidies.
As Rouhani tried to cut back on consumption, Iranians’ demand for electricity has reached a record high of nearly 66,000 MW this year as production does not exceed 55,000 MW, according to official figures, in part due to intense summer heat.
“It is with good reason that Mr. Rouhani decided to slow down the power plant construction policy of his predecessors. . . and rather curb the increase in consumption, ”said Alireza Asadi, research assistant at the Iranian Electrical Industry Union, the largest NGO in the electrical industry. “The government, however. . . failed to convince people to consume less.
With consumption increasing by an average of 5%, Asadi said production is only increasing by 3% per year. The subsidies were so large that Asadi estimated that domestic consumers and industries only paid 15 percent and 30 percent of the actual cost of electricity, respectively.
As the pandemic has further devastated the economy, Iran says it has kept the promise of the revolution and failed to charge a third of the population, the poorest, for water, electricity and gas over the past year.
This is in addition to the economic challenges facing Raisi, which analysts doubt will tackle the subsidies. “The next government [of Raisi] will probably return to the policy of building power plants without daring to cut subsidies, ”Asadi said. “If a government raises electricity prices, it should go into hiding at home. “
Unless the ground is set for subsidy cuts, “whatever we do would have too many social costs,” Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said this month. The memory of the protests of November 2019, triggered by Rouhani’s decision to increase oil prices by 50%, is at the fore in the minds of officials. Hundreds of people have been killed after massive anti-regime protests.
Raisi, whose victory in June was marred by the lowest turnout on record in a presidential poll and the decision to bar his main reformist rivals from running, previously blamed the power cuts on a lack of investment and promised to stimulate domestic production.
For many ordinary Iranians, the promises of politicians have no influence. With inflation of 47.6% in June compared to the same month a year ago, the power cuts are another hit.
“As soon as the electricity goes out, I go to the window and start chanting death to all the Iranian leaders by mentioning their names. Sometimes the neighbors join together, ”said a woman who runs a beauty salon in Tehran and did not want her name published.
“After a horrible year with little business and a lot of debt, the last thing I need in this salon is power cuts with my clients’ hair half brushed and not enough light to finish their job. manicure. I feel like I have nothing more to lose.