Iran: Khuzestan protests reveal rage towards rotten regime

Protests have been increasing in Iran’s Khuzestan province, a week after the 10 and 11-storey Metropol Towers in the city of Abadan collapsed, killing and wounding up to 100 people. After much hesitation, the Iranian regime called for a national day of mourning on Sunday, but the ceremony in Abadan, led by the local Friday Prayer Imam, was also disrupted by angry protesters.

Nine days have passed since the collapse of the Metropol Towers, a prestigious commercial complex built by one of the biggest developers of Abadan in one of the busiest streets of the city. According to official state media, 34 people have been confirmed dead and 37 injured, with many remaining trapped under the rubble. However, locals report that at least 44 families have been informed of the death of their loved ones. They say that the total number of dead and wounded could be up to 120.

The building collapse has lifted the veil from a network of corruption, involving developers and top officials, spanning the municipal, provincial and national level. The callous handling of the matter by the regime has sparked sporadic protests in Abadan, spreading to other cities in the Khuzestan province and beyond.

On a daily basis, growing crowds of people led by the youth, have braved a heavy security presence in taking to the streets, chanting slogans such as: “It's a day of mourning today, the neglected Abadan is ruled by mourning today”, “Death to the dictator”, “Don’t be afraid, we are all together”, “Get lost basiji” (Basij refers to the regime’s domestic militia), “We are people of war, fight so we can fight”, “Abdolbaghi [the owner of the Metropol Towers whom the regime claims died in the collapse] is not dead”, and “I will kill, I will kill, he who killed my brother”.

Anti-riot forces have been dispatched throughout affected areas, and on several occasions they have opened fire on protesters, though for now with what appears to be non-lethal slugs. Reports also indicate that at least 100 people have been arrested so far in Abadan alone.

The repression however, has only added further fuel to the fire. Numbering in the hundreds early last week, crowds in Abadan on Sunday appeared to number in the thousands. There have also been significant protests in Ahvaz, Khorramshahr and on Minoo Island, as well as smaller protests in Omidiyeh, Behbahan, Mahshahr and Sar-Bandar and other towns and cities in the region.

The regime has attempted to stamp out news coming from Abadan by cutting off internet connections in the region, as well as tightly controlling reports in the national media. Nevertheless, a deep sense of solidarity exists with the Abadanis across the country. In the past few days there have been reports of isolated solidarity protests in Tehran, Shahr-e Rey, Andimeshk, Shiraz, Isfahan, Shahinshahr, Bandar Abbas, Bushehr, Yazd and Qom. A clip from Tehran’s Azadi Football Stadium appears to show fans chanting “Abadan” in solidarity with the people of the city.

From grief to rage

Most of the dead and wounded were poor workers, shop owners and ordinary people who were working in or just happened to be in and around the buildings when they collapsed. Their deaths have evoked a strong sense of grief across Khuzestan. This has been in sharp contrast to the official reactions of the regime, which at first appeared indifferent and aloof. Now, in a blatantly calculating and opportunistic manner, it has tried to exploit the tragedy for its own benefit.

Unmoved by the gravity of the accident, the initial response of the regime was largely to ignore what had taken place. The Supreme Leader, who often gives long, meandering speeches, did not mention the event until three days after it happened. And even then, he only spent about one minute on the topic, out of which he spent almost 50 seconds praising the authorities, and around ten seconds sending condolences to the people of Abadan.

On the same day, with much fanfare, the authorities organised a celebration rally in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, where an estimated crowd of 100,000 people sang songs of praise for the regime and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Following nationwide protests against inflation three weeks ago, the regime was eager to rally its supporters and make a show of strength. This came as a slap in the face for Abadanis who were either mourning or anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones who they believed to be under the rubble. Slogans heard in protests across Khuzestan that day included: “In Tehran there is a wedding, [while] there is a bloodbath in Abadan”; and “Khamenei leave, set the country free”.

Under the impact of rising pressure, Khamenei finally declared a day of mourning on Sunday 29 May, six days after the disaster. State media was suddenly full of condolences and words meant to placate the anger on the streets. Footage of the protests was shown on TV but presented as mere mourning ceremonies. The regime also organised vigils in different locations, while a nationally televised mourning ceremony was held near the site of the collapsed buildings, led by Abadan’s Friday prayer Imam, Ayatollah Mohsen Heidari AleKasir.

But people were not in the mood to be soothed and there was enormous anger at the regime’s opportunistic attempt to hijack the city’s grief. Thus, before the Ayatollah could speak the crowds started interrupting him with chants of “Shameless!” (a word which in Persian also roughly translates as “bastard”), so that the live transmission had to be cut.

The crowds later took to the streets, where they were joined by Arab and Bakhtiari tribal youths, who marched into the city with their tribal flags symbolising solidarity, chanting mourning songs and vowing to defend the people against repression. This is significant because the tribes are the only non-regime-linked organised groups which are openly armed in Iran. The protests were attacked by security forces, which nevertheless stopped short of using lethal violence for fear of sparking a war with the tribes.

The mismatch between the official tally of dead and injured, and the claims of the locals, is yet another source of the deep suspicion and mistrust towards the establishment that has surfaced in the wake of this tragic event. As we reported last week, another source of contention has been the fate of Hossein Abdolbaghi, the owner and developer of the building.

Abdolbaghi was first reported by the judiciary and national media outlets to have been arrested. The following day however, the story was suddenly changed and he was pronounced to have been killed in the accident. But the people of Abadan did not believe in this story. A surreal and obviously staged nationally televised clip purporting to show Abdolbaghi’s family identifying his body and weeping, only strengthened these suspicions.

Whatever the actual course of events, there is a feeling amongst the masses that something is being swept under the carpet, and that there is a conspiracy against letting the truth come to light. So far, 13 people have reportedly been arrested on charges of corruption. These include one present and three former mayors of Abadan, as well as several municipal officials. What is clear, however, is that Abdolbaghi’s connections went far beyond the municipal level.

So far, reports have surfaced suggesting the involvement of Ali Shahkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council; Mohammad Forouzande, the former head of Bonyad-e Mostazafan va Janbazan (the biggest holding company in the Middle East); as well as Mohammad Mokhber, the First Vice-President of Iran and former Deputy Governor of Khuzestan.

These characters have served on leading bodies of the Arvand Free Zone (a special economic free trade zone that covers Abadan) over the past three decades. As one investigative journalist reports, they, as well as top officials of Abadan municipality, were directly involved in corrupt land and construction deals with Abdolbaghi and his company Abdolbaghi Holding.

Meanwhile, others have pointed to links between Abdolbaghi’s family and Vice-President of Economic Affairs, Mohsen Rezaei; as well as the Abadan Friday Prayer Imam; and Esmail Zamani, the current head of the Arvand Free Zone. The truth is that the mafia networks that run Khuzestan include all of these figures, and they were all complicit in Abdolbaghi’s crimes.

It was through the use of such connections that Abdolbaghi could ignore building regulations, despite countless warnings from official and private experts that the Metropol Towers were unsafe. While the majority of the people of the region live in poverty under the constant threat of fines and persecution for small infringements, these people loot, plunder and generally act with impunity in the full light of day.

Abdolbaghi, while being a major developer in Abadan however, was only a small fish compared to his backers, who are connected to the very core of the regime. While trying to suppress the truth from coming out, the regime is trying to deflect blame by pointing its finger at local officials and businessmen. But the people are not being fooled.

If anything, the obvious manoeuvering and blatant lies, directed towards people who have lost their family members, friends and acquaintances, is only agitating masses and stiffening the resolve of those on the streets. They sense instinctively that the true perpetrators of this crime must be found higher up, and that ultimately, the collapse of the building is only a reflection of the rottenness of the whole regime. That is the significance of the popularity of the slogan “death to the dictator”, and other slogans aimed at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Water water everywhere, not a drop to drink

Khuzestan has known its share of tragedies. In the ‘80s, the province was the frontline of the Iran-Iraq War, the scars of which still remain as part of the memory of the region. But while the regime habitually mentions the heroism of the Khuzestan in the war as a part of its own mythos, it has consistently neglected the development of the region.

Khuzestan has some of the largest water reserves of Iran, but decades of mismanagement and the diversion of water to other areas have drained the region dry. In the past years, worsening droughts have led to severe water shortages - a problem which has become endemic in Iran - leaving 700 villages in the province without running water. Last July, this sparked protests and clashes with state security forces all over the region. The water shortages have led to dried-up wetlands and caused extreme dust storms and wildfires. As a consequence, the region’s agriculture is in tatters, a problem which is compounded by pollution of the soil caused by the oil industry.

Iran Demonstrations of Farmers in Isfahan and Retirees in Tehran 3Last July Khuzestan was rocked by a protest over water shortages, when more than 700 villages in the province were without running water / Image: National Council of Resistance of Iran

The region is also the heart of the Iranian economy, home to 80 percent of the country’s oil and 60 percent of its natural gas reserves. While billions of dollars of profit is extracted from the natural wealth of the province every year, its people are left in a state of poverty and desperation, with the third-highest unemployment rate in Iran. As such, the restive province composes a microcosm of the contradictions of Iranian capitalism.

Official youth unemployment stands at 35 percent and some parts of the province are reported to have up to 45 percent general unemployment. The Arab and Bakhtiari Lur minorities, which together form the majority of Khuzestan’s population, are particularly discriminated against and comprise some of the poorest layers in Iran.

Khuzestan is also home to a powerful industrial proletariat with revolutionary traditions. It is home to the Abadan oil refinery, one of the biggest refineries in the world, as well as numerous other oil and petrochemical industries. Abadan and Ahvaz oil workers famously played a leading role in the 90-day oil workers’ strike, which broke the back of the Pahlavi Monarchy in the 1979 revolution.

More recently, the workers of the Haft Tappeh sugar cane plantation have been at the forefront of Iranian trade union struggles, continuously calling for re-nationalisation of privatised companies under workers’ control. In 2020, they secured the renationalisation of the company, although the implementation of this is still pending. Their struggle and their slogans have become a focal point for youth and workers’ movements across the country.

Partially inspired by the Haft Tappeh workers, thousands of workers of Ahvaz steel also went several months long on strikes in 2018, calling for the payment of unpaid waves and the renationalisation of their company. Also, last year thousands of casually employed oil and petrochemical workers of the region joined a national strike of oil workers for better wages and for permanent employment. The Iranian oil workers movement has been taking important steps towards reestablishing an independent national trade union movement, with its strongholds in the south and south west of the country.

Winds of revolution

Iranian capitalism is at a complete impasse. The enormous wealth of the country is gobbled up by a tiny minority at the top, while the majority are pushed into a state of abject poverty and desperation.

As we have previously reported, three weeks ago the regime decided to cut subsidies to basic goods such as bread and cooking oil, the prices of which multiplied overnight. This led to protests in more than 100 cities across the country. Khuzestan, with its large, poor communities, saw some of the biggest. That movement has been violently suppressed with an unknown number of people killed and detained. But it is only a matter of time before a new movement raises its head.

On a daily basis, new layers are entering the path of struggle: pensioners fight for the right to retire in dignity; teachers, oil workers, bus drivers, taxi drivers and truck drivers fight for a living wage; farmers fight for fair water distribution; the poor fight for bread; the youth fight for democratic rights; national minorities fight oppression and people everywhere fight against the endless corruption and mismanagement by officials.

We are already seeing the first signs of a convergence of these struggles, with the rise of national unions for teachers and oil workers, for instance. These in turn are becoming focal points for the wider movement, and they have begun more explicitly to express solidarity with other struggles.

But isolated and purely economic struggles are not sufficient. As we can see in the conditions of dictatorship and acute economic crisis, every struggle, however local it may appear to be at first, immediately becomes political, and necessarily turns against the very heart of the regime. The aim of the regime is to keep these struggles isolated, portraying them as local incidents, or events related to a particular layer of people, which they can deal with one at a time.

The task of revolutionaries is the exact opposite. We must show in every instance that the vast variety of movements that are erupting in all four corners of the country are essentially the same. We must fight to unite these under a common revolutionary banner, with the working class at the forefront. On such a basis, nothing can stand in the way of the Iranian masses.

Khuzestan has played a pivotal role in every revolutionary movement in Iran in the past century and the coming revolution will be no exception. The Metropol Tower tragedy has brought light to the extent of the rottenness of Iranian capitalism. It has exposed a regime at a complete impasse. But it has also revealed the explosive social forces that such conditions are preparing, just underneath the surface.