Iranians’ anger over slow response to flooding adds to pressure on Tehran

Weeks of heavy rain across Iran since mid-March have caused an estimated $2.5 billion in damage to roads, bridges, homes and farmland.
Sunday 21/04/2019
Modest means. Iranians carry bags of sand as they set up barricades to contain flood waters in the city of Hamidiyah in Iran’s Khuzestan province, April 10.(AFP)
Modest means. Iranians carry bags of sand as they set up barricades to contain flood waters in the city of Hamidiyah in Iran’s Khuzestan province, April 10.(AFP)

ISTANBUL - Public anger over what is seen as a slow and inadequate response by Iranian authorities to widespread flooding is adding to pressure on the government in Tehran.

Weeks of heavy rain across Iran since mid-March have caused an estimated $2.5 billion in damage to roads, bridges, homes and farmland, officials said. Iran’s worst floods in 70 years have killed at least 76 people and forced more than 220,000 into emergency shelters.

The floods have affected 4,400 villages, damaged 14,000km of roads and destroyed more than 700 bridges, reports said. In late March, 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces suffered from flooding or faced the threat of a disaster. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said an estimated 2 million people needed humanitarian assistance.

In some affected regions, locals protested the lack of government help after the disaster. Footage from some areas showed villagers trying to block flood waters with their bodies. Reports said there were clashes between flood victims and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

An impression that leaders in Tehran did not care about the victims added to the anger. Reports by the ultra-conservative Fars News Agency that Iranian President Hassan Rohani was vacationing when the dimensions of the disaster became clear triggered criticism from his hard-line opponents and even some reformist allies.

The protests fuel public dissatisfaction over corruption, a deepening economic crisis, mismanagement and costly foreign policy adventures that have triggered on-and-off demonstrations for more than a year. The widespread perception of poor performance by authorities in response to the flooding cements the image of a government that is unwilling or unable to look after ordinary people.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the damage done to the government’s prestige in the eyes of many was likely to be a problem for the leadership in Tehran even after the current crisis passes. “The immensity of the tragedy and public anger at authorities’ multiple shortcomings will likely outlive the immediate crisis and add to pre-existing grievances,” he said via e-mail.

Tehran has tried to deflect public anger by blaming US sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the sanctions, reimposed after Washington quit a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, impeded aid efforts.

“Blocked equipment includes relief choppers: This isn’t just economic warfare; it’s economic TERRORISM,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

Fathollah-Nejad pointed out that this argument failed to explain the extent of the slow government response. “Although sanctions have complicated the inflow of international aid, much anger among ordinary Iranians is directed against the authorities and their shortcomings,” he wrote.

Another answer by the government to criticism has been to pressure social media users who share news of the tragedy. Opposition news outlets reported that several people were arrested for spreading “fake news” and “rumours” about the disaster. Fathollah-Nejad said the arrests were an indirect admission by the state that something had gone wrong in the response to the flooding.

Some reports said Tehran sent the IRGC’s al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani, a popular military leader, on a tour through the disaster area to demonstrate that the government cared about the fate of the flood victims. The government was “hoping the popular general can rally public support for the regime,” Omer Carmi, vice-president of intelligence at the Israeli cybersecurity firm Sixgill, wrote in an analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Criticism is not confined to the immediate response to the natural disaster. Analysts said mistakes and poor management in the past left Iran exposed to catastrophic results of extreme weather phenomena. “The flood disaster is to a considerable extent a result of a combination of man-made ecological degradations, including deforestation and mismanagement of rivers,” Fathollah-Nejad said.

Holly Dagres, editor of the IranSouce blog of the Atlantic Council in Washington, said “the loss of vegetation and soil, as well as deforestation, have made water more likely to run off than be absorbed into the ground.”

The disaster was the result of longer-term developments, Dagres wrote in an analysis posted on the Atlantic Council website. “Over the years, the Iranian government has been guilty of poor water management and has become complacent about flooding in part due to the extensive construction of dams,” she said.

Tehran said it will pay compensation to those who have incurred losses, especially farmers, but the state budget is already stretched because sanctions on its energy and banking sectors have halved oil exports and restricted access to revenues abroad.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved drawing up to $2 billion from the country’s sovereign wealth fund for relief and reconstruction. The Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, which tracks the industry, said Iran’s fund was worth about $91 billion.

15