The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Khuzestan remains a tinderbox for any future anti-regime riots
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Forecast: Ongoing labor strikes may exacerbate long-standing ethnic, ecological, and economic grievances in southwestern Iran, potentially leading to the renewal of anti-regime riots. Recent arrests and rumored reports of the torture of a strike leader by regime security forces will encourage the continuation of strikes in Khuzestan Province and may incite more intense solidarity protests in other parts of Iran. The regime’s reluctance to implement long-term economic fixes, paired with mounting financial pressure following the reimposition of U.S. secondary sanctions on Iran, increases the likelihood that southwestern Iran will be a trigger point for deadly anti-regime protests in the future.
Labor strikes over old, unaddressed grievances in southwestern Iran continued for the past three weeks. Workers at Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Co. in Shush, Khuzestan Province went on strike over unpaid salaries on November 5. Haft Tappeh workers also protested the company’s privatization and called on the government to retake ownership of the organization, in response to the government’s *divestment of its majority stake to the private sector in November 2015. Haft Tappeh workers have held several strikes over the last year, including in December 2017 and January 2018. Workers *gathered in front of the local Shush County Governor’s office and staged demonstrations and marches throughout Shush. Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) *reported on November 26 that Haft Tappeh workers received their August-September salaries. The field workers have yet to receive their backlogged pay from the last two months, however.
The regime likely attempted to decapitate the strikes by suppressing the movement’s leaders through the arrest of high-profile organizers and the use of torture. The regime deployed Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) anti-riot units to control the peaceful and non-confrontational protests. Regime security forces arrested numerous Haft Tappeh demonstrators on November 18. Many of those arrested were released on bail days later. Many remain under arrest, including Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate leader Esmaeil Bakhshi. Bakhshi became a high-profile and vocal leader for Haft Tappeh laborers during previous strikes. A labor rights group reported that regime security transferred Bakhshi to an IRGC-affiliated hospital on November 29 after regime security forces tortured him during his detention. Local security forces also *arrested Syndicate board member Ali Nejati in his home on the same day. An unnamed Khuzestan Province judiciary official stated that Nejati’s arrest “probably had no connection” to the Haft Tappeh strikes, but that remains doubtful.
Solidarity protests have the potential to coalesce sectoral protests into a larger anti-regime movement. Solidarity protests could lead to a larger protest movement centered on labor-related grievances. Regime attempts to arrest protesters and to neutralize strike leaders have backfired. The recent labor strikes in Khuzestan galvanized more spirited protests in Shush. The recent labor strikes in Shush also sparked movements across other guilds and economic sectors in various Iranian cities:
- Laborers with Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) joined Haft Tappeh in solidarity strikes in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province on November 10. INSIG employees have held intermittent strikes since February 2018. Their protesters recently chanted, “Inflation, high prices, give an answer [President Hassan] Rouhani!”
- Workers with Aryan Steel held solidarity demonstrations in Qazvin Province on November 27.
- Employees of Imam Khomeini Hospital in Karaj, Alborz Province have held continuing strikes, citing that they are owed seven months of backlogged pay.
- University of Tehran students held *demonstrations expressing their support for the labor strikes in Shush.
These protests, alongside ongoing trucker strikes and other labor-related movements across Iranian cities, may coalesce into a larger, more politically charged movement against the regime’s economic mismanagement and poor policies, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
The politicization of economic- and labor-related protests remains worrisome for Tehran. The recent labor strikes quickly became political with chants aimed at regime officials’ corruption and profligacy, including one recorded instance of a protester calling for Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi’s return to Iran. Pahlavi is the son of the late shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iranian economic protests have a tendency to gain political and anti-regime tones. This remains a worrisome trend for the regime as Iran’s protest scene continues to evolve.
Khuzestan remains a key trigger point in Iran’s protest scene. Some of the most diverse and violent protests of the past year have occurred in Khuzestan. Khuzestan experienced some of the most violent and frequent protests during the Dey Protests. Khuzestan also experienced several ethnically-, ecologically-, economically-motivated protests over the last year. The recent strikes also included comments on the unsuitability of life in Khuzestan, including accusations that the regime has “plundered” Khuzestan of its resources, businesses, soil, and water. Protesters in Khuzestan oftentimes evoke powerful moral messages to regime leadership of the sacrifices its people made during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. They habitually note the number of martyrs their city offered for the Islamic Republic during the war. Protests in Khuzestan will undoubtedly continue. The regime’s arrest and torture of labor organizers, like Bakhshi and Nejati, may have been calculated moves against perceived future insurgent leaders during a potential future nationwide armed conflict. Worsening economic and ecological crises, discrimination against Iranian Arabs, and indicators of low-level ISIS and anti-regime infiltration make Khuzestan a dangerous nexus for the regime. Southwestern Iran may serve as a front line in any nationwide armed conflict during the next round of widespread anti-regime protests.