Deadly Water Protests in Iran Challenge Its Distracted Leaders

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's president, holds his first news conference in Tehran. (Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg)

Deadly Water Protests in Iran Challenge Its Distracted Leaders

Anger over water shortages in Iran’s key oil region radiated nationwide Thursday as a recording of a protester assailing security forces as they attempted to stifle demonstrations spread on social media, aided by a top official.

Thousands have been protesting this week across mostly southern areas of Khuzestan province over a lack of water, an issue worsened by record summer temperatures but rooted in historic neglect of a largely Arab region.

Iranian media reported two civilians and a police officer had been killed in the clashes. Footage widely circulated on Telegram and Instagram showed crowds chanting slogans for water and against the Islamic Republic. The videos cannot be verified by Bloomberg.

President Hassan Rouhani said he’d instructed his leading deputy to go to the southwestern region immediately. Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric who will replace Rouhani on Aug. 3 with the pandemic and stalled nuclear talks already needing his attention, said he’d appoint a special governor for the area.

The governor of Khuzestan’s Izeh said a man killed in the town had been shot by “rioters,” a characterization Iranian officials often use for protesters while rarely acknowledging the role of heavily armed security forces in civilian deaths.

A resident of Shush, who asked to be identified only as Mohammad fearing reprisals for speaking with foreign media, said security forces killed a protester there. Internet access had been shut several times, he said. Authorities dismissed as “fake” social-media posts claiming a higher civilian death toll.

Rare Gesture

In a rare display of official empathy with demonstrating civilians, Vice President for Women’s and Family Affairs Massoumeh Ebtekar tweeted an audio clip of a woman in Khuzestan apparently pleading with a member of the security forces to stop shooting at peaceful protesters. The file, which had no video, circulated widely Wednesday, sparking anger among social-media users.

However, the version Ebtekar published had been cut substantially and didn’t include the sound of the woman screaming as she appeared to be pushed or beaten by the officer she’d confronted.

Other clips shared on Twitter showed protests purportedly on the outskirts of the city of Esfahan, in central Iran, where residents have also complained about water scarcity.

Khuzestan was gripped by protests in 2019, when anger over a hike in fuel prices led to a security operation that Amnesty International and other rights groups say killed hundreds in the region.

Despite being the home of Iran’s largest single source of foreign revenue, the province is also one of its most deprived. Buildings and infrastructure damaged during the 1980s war with Iraq haven’t been repaired and are dotted throughout residential areas, a constant reminder of both the conflict and Khuzestan’s lack of development.

Officials have tried to address the crisis with tanker trucks and bottled water, though most of the anger stems from a lack of management of water resources, particularly for agriculture, and widespread poverty.

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