Analysis |

Iran Floods Leave Its Regime Drowning in Domestic Criticism

President Rohani's major difficulty to conduct a consistent policy, implement economic reforms or navigate between the sanctions and EU states lies in the fact elite Quds Force's chief Qassem Soleimani is the one pulling all the strings

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Iran's streets flooded with water and mud, 2019.
Iran's streets flooded with water and mud, 2019. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In about two weeks, from mid-March to the beginning of April, some 70 percent of the annual precipitation fell in Iran. About 1,900 cities and villages – some estimates cite 4,500 communities in about 21 districts – were flooded with water and mud. More than 70 people were killed and about two million are in need of food and medicines.

Some 150,000 housing units were destroyed or damaged, dozens of bridges collapsed or were rendered unsafe and some 12,000 kilometers of roads, about one third of Iran's paved roads, have been damaged or destroyed. According to a preliminary assessment the damage is $2.2 billion.

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The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Iran's fierce rivals, sent an airplane with some 90 tons of humanitarian aid in the wake of the disaster and hundreds of warriors of the Iraqi popular militias crossed the border to help the afflicted communities. This last move reawakened old tensions between Iraq and Iran and the social networks spread denunciations and criticism of the "Iraqi foreign forces" entering Iran's territory.

Iran's citizens didn't need to read the Iranian commentators, who blamed Hassan Rohani's government for its years-long neglect of infrastructures and the failure to manage the natural disasters, with which the country is inundated. Nor were the citizens impressed by Rohani's accusing the state's meteorological service of failing to pass on accurate warnings in real time.

This accusation was unjustified, for the service had passed on the information and warned of expected floods. But little could be done with it since the government had granted licenses to cronies to build on the river banks, thus increasing the damages to houses and to the collapsed banks.

Bijan Khajehpour, a partner of the Austrian consulting company Eurasian Nexus Partners, wrote recently in the Al-Monitor media site that the main problem is the absence of coordination between Iran's authorities, vague regulations that don't define each authority's jurisdiction properly, struggles over funds and a culture of temporary solutions without an orderly plan.

The compensation law for disaster victims was enacted in 2016 but hasn't been implemented due to disagreements over financial sources and the compensation distribution.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed American sanctions, which prevented Iran from preparing for the natural disaster. But this is a groundless argument in light of the government's incompetence following previous less harsh disasters such as earthquakes or floods. The sanctions are now cited as an excuse for any shortcoming, certainly for the acute economic crisis, which began long before the sanctions had come into effect.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei's decision to use two billion dollars from the national development fund to cushion the Iranian economy from the sanctions' effects, shows that the state's budget hadn't taken into consideration natural disasters or unforeseen needs.

The government's most significant step to soften the sanctions' blow was to ban the import of dozens of goods, including cars, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, tractors, ambulances, powdered milk, ambulances, ovens, cameras and musical instruments, in a bid to save the dwindling rial currency, which had dropped to more than 145,000 per dollar.

Last year, Iran imported some 70,000 cars, 9 percent less than the previous year. Local car producers are unlikely to be able to step up production this year to replace the imported cars in view of the demand, due to funding difficulties and lack of spare parts.

Iranian economists attribute little importance to the ban on imports, saying it would only increase the smuggling and strengthen the administration-sponsored crime rings. Iran occasionally reports the development of a new missile or details of its advanced space program. Recently it stated its intention to invest in building a railway between Baghdad and Damascus.

Until six months ago, Iran exported 2-3 billion oil barrels a month to Syria, which consumes some 100,000 oil barrels a day and produces only some 24,000 barrels a day. Then it stopped exporting oil to Syria in an effort to save expenses due to the sanctions. Now the lines are very long at Syrian gas stations, following the government's quota of 20 oil liters per two days to every car owner.

In the past Iran usually separated between financing its military and civilian involvement in other states and managing domestic economic crises. The elite Revolutionary Guards Corps and mainly the Quds Force, under Qasem Soleimani's command, have a separate budget and unsupervised income sources that are not part of the state budget.

The Guards Corps' advantage is in controlling the airport, export and import terminals and hundreds of production factories. So Soleimani and his forces haven't been harmed by Iran's economic upheavals even when the sanctions were in full force prior to the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015.

However, when U.S. President Trump designated the Guards this week a foreign terror organization, the rial plummeted by some 7.5 percent, sending people to stand in queues outside money changers' stalls and bank doors. Only the central bank governor's promise that there was no shortage of foreign currency calmed things down and raised the rial a little.

Perhaps suspending the oil export to Syria is meant to pressure Assad's regime to grant Iran economic favors, development franchises and investments for the post-war period. Iran has learned that despite the military and economic assistance it gave Assad, the Syrian president favors Russia, to which he granted franchises to develop the Syrian oil fields and huge contracts to rehabilitate infrastructures after the war.

The economic rivalry between Iran and Russia has been reflected this week by clashes between Iranian militia forces and Russian forces near Aleppo's vegetable market over controlling checkpoints and charging commissions.

Iran also blames Russia for indirectly coordinating the last air force attack with Israel. Iranian commentators believe Russia and Israel are planning to dispossess Iran of its achievements in Syria.

Iran's relations with Russia will be tested again on Wednesday, when delegates of Russia, Iran and Turkey gather in Astana for another round of peace talks toward ending the eight-year civil war in Syria. They are due to discuss retaking full control of Idlib and to plan the continued diplomatic moves.

Iran's problem is the duplicate systems running the policy vis-a-vis Syria. President Rohani, whose term is ending in two years, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif may be the ones appearing at those international meetings, but Qasem Soleimani is the decider, backed by Khamenei.

Here lies Rohani's major difficulty to conduct a consistent policy, implement economic reforms or navigate between the sanctions and EU states, which have decided to set up a payment system bypassing the sanctions, but haven't implemented it yet.

One part of Iran's policy remains fixed, however. Iran is implementing the nuclear agreement with no violations or deviations. By so doing it has obtained at least the support of the United States Congress.

Republican Senator Rand Paul warned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week that the administration would not be able to wage a war against Iran without the Congress' explicit approval. The warning was required following Pompeo's statement at the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee that "there is no doubt there is a connection" between Al Qaeda and Iran.

The administration classified the Revolutionary Guards Corps as foreign terror organization two days earlier to enable the United States to attack Iran without the Congress' approval.

Senior State Department officials apparently share Senator Paul's position and, according to Reuters, have criticized the department's annual report on international compliance with arms control accords. The report, which was published on the State Department's site, removed and then put up again, does not include Russia, North Korea, Myanmar and Syria, unlike previous reports.

The sources told Reuters that the administration intended by means of this report to politicize and slant assessments about Iran without proper evidence. The transactions between the administration and Congress show that Washington has no orderly policy or agreed plan of action to pressure Iran, not to mention launch a war against it.

Washington and Tehran are currently stuck. The United States will continue hoping the sanctions work, while Iran will attempt to cut damages and implement a survival policy until the next presidential election in the United States. By that time the floods are likely to dry up as well.

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