12 July 2018
Iran In Crisis
Economic, political and now ecological.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Last week, a man was arrested in Tehran for hoarding two tons of gold coins.
Two tons of gold coins. Imagine that. How many suitcases did that fill? How much was it worth? Were the coins modern, or looted from an ancient site? All from Iran, or from all around the Middle East, or from all around the world? How had the man managed to collect them all, in an enclosed and tightly-controlled country like Iran?
Like the few other news stories that reach us from inside Iran, it raises more questions than it answers. It also sheds a different light on the country than do those stories originating outside it. We’re used to hearing about Iran as a powerful and dangerous force: a country (according to the leaders of the US and Israel) which is well on its way to becoming a nuclear power while cunningly deceiving everyone else about its (non) compliance with the Obama agreement; a country which allegedly sponsors terrorism around the world (there were reports this week of Taliban fighters from Afghanistan being trained in Iran, and an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Brussels about an alleged plot to bomb an Iranian opposition event near Paris); a country which is spreading its influence throughout the region by participating in armed conflict in Syria (this week, the Iranian-backed Assad regime is close to driving the rebels out of Deraa, one of only two areas they still hold) and in Yemen (where the Saudi-backed government forces are still fighting to dislodge the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from the key port of Hodeida).
And yet the report of the two tons of gold coins hoarded in Tehran tells a different story – the story of a country deep in terrible crisis. The hoarder is accused of attempting to manipulate the gold market, and he isn’t the only one at it, apparently; the stockpiling of such secure investments is a sign of the plummeting value of the country’s currency, the rial. It has lost half its value in the last six months. The regime has reportedly banned the import of more than 1300 products in what appears to be an attempt to strengthen the currency. The expense of the war in Syria and of backing conflict in Iraq and Yemen, and the anticipation of imminent US sanctions, are pushing the country towards financial and economic disaster. A request by Iran this week (apparently from Tehran’s central bank) for the transfer of between 300 million and 400 million euros in bank notes from deposits in Germany suggests that Tehran is worried that it might be about to run out of cash.
Strikes and demonstrations broke out again last month; protests against rising prices and collapsing trade erupted outside the Grand Bazaar and the parliament buildings in Tehran and rapidly spread across the country. Unlike the protests of six months ago (see Unrest In Iran, Shaw Sheet issue 135, 04 January 2018) which began among the poorer classes in provincial Iran, these protests seem to have originated among the traders and middle classes of the capital. There are claims that riot police and other members of the security forces were taking a hard line against these protests as they did against the protests at the beginning of the year. Both sets of unrest appear to have been widespread and violent and to have escalated into political protest, and to have been violently and ruthlessly suppressed.
And this month, further violent demonstrations broke out, this time triggered by another kind of crisis – not economic or political, but ecological. Iran is facing a severe water-shortage. A long-running drought and a heat-wave with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees celsius have put an unbearable strain on resources already struggling to support population growth (quadrupled, from 20 million to 80 million, in two generations) and demands for the country to be self-sufficient in food. Attempts to tackle the problem by building dams has only aggravated the situation; the stored water evaporates in the heat, and the downstream supply is cut off. The water table is shrinking as agriculture extracts groundwater which is not being replenished.
Violent protest began in the southern cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan, in Khuzestan province, where farmers are unable to irrigate their crops and drinking water is polluted. The extent and level of unrest remains unknown (reports confirm that protesters have clashed with police, and shots have been fired which have injured at least eleven people) but is certain to be repressed.
Repression, however, will not solve this problem, and the regime has vowed to address the water-shortage. But the signs are not promising. An Iranian general is blaming foreign interference; Israel and another country in the region are stealing the clouds from the sky over Iran, apparently. The government appointed Kaveh Madani, an Imperial College London academic and expert on Iran’s water-shortage, to solve the crisis; but he was arrested on his arrival at Tehran airport and interrogated for several hours while his computer and phone were confiscated and inspected, before he was allowed to take up his new position in the environment ministry. And within months, the strategies of conservation and efficiency which he was promoting were being condemned as subversion and espionage. Other campaigners and experts who advocated them were charged with espionage, and Mr Madani himself was detained for three days. He resigned after six months in the job and has returned to the UK. So it seems that sooner or later the water is going to run out altogether.
Also in Iran last week, a girl was arrested for dancing in her own home; she’d filmed herself and posted the footage on-line. But repression won’t stop teenagers from dancing in the privacy of their bedrooms, any more than it can make rain fall from a cloudless sky, or, it seems, stop unrest by shooting protesters.