Apr 25, 2018

Iran: Hidden Costs of European Investments in Iran

Lately, Iran has been in a period of constant unrest. Public frustration has reached a stage that makes maintaining total stability a challenge for the Iranian government, which in turn has desperately asked for help from European investors. Starting on 28 December 2017, the Iranian people welcomed the new year with a major protest which would last for weeks, during which they were mainly asking for “work, bread and freedom”.

During these protests, a majority of experts on Iran stated that it was a unique moment. What distinguished these protests from previous ones was that they were set in motion without a particular leadership, but rather in the form of a spontaneous general uprising. Furthermore, the wave of protests spread from the border and minority regions towards the central regions, in opposition to what happened with previous movements. This time, protesters were not asking for small reforms or voting recounts but were targeting the core of the regime and its need for change.

Minority regions in particular went through big demonstrations and boldly challenged the system. The ease at which protests continued and spread to other minority regions can be explained in two ways. Firstly, security measures in big cities like Tehran, Mashhad or Isfahan are more solid than in more rural cities, also due to a more modern urban design, and controlling mass protesters is therefore easier. A second explanation is the social and economic gap between minority regions and the central part of Iran. The security reasoning behind the lack of participation in central and more Persian inhabited regions due to the military presence can be easily questioned and refuted since minority regions like Kurdistan, Baluchistan and Al-Ahwaz are well known for being heavily controlled by the military as well, with numerous camps and barracks present.

Quickly, popular discontent from the suppression of protests reached an explosive stage in minority regions. Unemployment, denial of national rights, the high number of political prisoners and executions among people from religious and minority backgrounds, as well as forced assimilation policies in conjunction with continuous government-funded racism has made minorities regions fraught with instability. 

The policy of extreme centralisation by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has pushed populations from minority backgrounds mostly into the lower social classes. There is also a divergence in sensitive subjects between regions, as people from the central part of Iran sometimes protest against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, but this cause might not interest people from minorities and marginal regions who suffer from extreme marginalization and lack of their basic rights and therefore don’t see this as a priority. 

For example, 80 percent of Baluchistan’s population do not have immediate access to drinking water. In Kurdistan, even months after the earthquake in November 2017, people are still living in tents, where they had to spend the cold winter. According to the Iranian Constitution, diverting water for any reason other than providing drinking water is illegal, yet despite the illegality of these diversions there has been an increasing amount of water projects in Al-Ahwaz region. Water diversion has been a subject of dispute in the Iranian Parliament and has launched a series of protests in the Al-Ahwaz region regarding the environmental consequences that have ensued such catastrophic sandstorms and droughts. These government-caused social and economic gaps between the centre and border regions of Iran make the country more divided.

While there is little to no solidarity from people living in the central part of Iran for their fellow citizens in marginal regions, there is growing solidarity between different unrepresented nations and minorities living in these border regions. When Ahwazi Arabs filled the streets on 23 March 2018 for more than 2 weeks, following the controversial exclusion of the Ahwazi Arab ethnicity from a children’s programme aired on Channel 2 of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) corporation, the main Iranian media company, all Iranian minorities expressed their solidarity with this protest in the Al-Ahwaz region through social media and various human right and political organisations released statements in support of the protesters in Al-Ahwaz. This recent wave of protests in the Al-Ahwaz region was due to a Channel-2 programme screened on TV, where a young boy placed dolls dressed in different ethnicities’ folklore, in their designated regions on a map of Iran, yet the doll symbolizing the 5-8 million Ahwazi Arabs in Iran was nowhere to be seen. Thousands have since protested asking for an apology.

For Ahwazi Arabs, the elimination of their identity in a TV show is a reflection of the Iranian government’s policies towards minorities and comes after years of personal offenses from government officials. In 2005 a leaked document from the office of the first reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, contained an action plan composed of six articles aiming to reduce the population of Ahwazi Arabs from two-thirds of the region’s population to one third. Such a plan led to major protests in the region, which later became known as "Intifada Naisan". Less than 10 years after this incident, another 45-page document was leaked in 2014 by activists. This leak contained an action plan to further control Ahwazi Arabs by granting them limited cultural rights, but at the same time prohibiting any political initiatives. Following these recurrent attacks on their identity and region, the Ahwazi Arab population perceived the recent Channel-2 programme on TV as an expression of the central government’s policy to deny or eliminate the Ahwazi Arabs’ existence in Iran.

After the nuclear deal, the Iranian government, which has damaged the country with its mismanagement policies, motivated by a predominant security approach, has asked European nations to help them manage their country in total crisis. The government has been calling for help in three primary areas: air pollution (including sandstorms), water management and waste management. European experts will provide assistance without knowing or caring about the complexities of the situation and it is unlikely that they will openly challenge the government on this, given that it is the government that asked for their help in the first place. European experts feel like they are simply “doing their job” and may not feel the obligation to demand social and political rights.

In this way, the Iranian government distributes huge and unsustainable development projects to revolutionary affiliated companies which implement such projects whilst negatively impacting the environment. The Revolutionary Guards receive money to conduct development projects without any legal responsibility binding them to the protection of the environment. When an environmental crisis eventually sparks, the Iranian government claims that the reasons relate to mismanagement and “unintentional mistakes” and asks for international funding and help from foreign experts. Sadly, even when receiving help from European nations, funds and consultants are mostly directed towards central regions, rather than minority and border regions. However, minority regions are the first impacted and main victims of environmental disasters, yet European experts are only allowed to visit major and centrally located cities such as Esfahan and Tehran, and are often not permitted to visit minority regions like Balochistan, Al-Ahwaz or Kurdistan, with the occasional exception of lake Urmia in Southern Azerbaijan.

Unfortunately, helping some parts of Iran and neglecting others will only increase the gap between minorities and the dominant Persian influence in Iran. This imbalance in sustainable development, and structural marginalisation impairs national harmony and paves the way for deeper mistrust between ethnicities.

Persian speakers already have the privilege to study in their mother tongue and have  higher chances in employment, contrary to minorities. Furthermore, development projects that systematically benefit mostly if not only the central regions of Iran, use natural resources such as gas, oil, water and in some case fertile soil extracted from minority regions.

If European countries provide the Iranian government with their expertise on such development projects, on one hand they assist the functioning of the Iranian regime and on the other, they increase the social and economic gaps in Iran creating more division. This form of discriminatory foreign aid does not truly help the Iranian people, but delays democratization, good governance, and national unity.