The latest anti-regime protests and internal security problems are more damaging to Iran’s national security than external threats, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned today. , the former chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) made the remarks during a trip to the restive Khuzestan Province in western Iran. Safavi cautioned that security and stability of Khuzestan, which has experienced intermittent protests over the past one year, is vital for Iran’s economic stability and national security. He noted that the province accounts for 70 percent of Iran’s oil resources and more than 30 percent of surface water as well as one-third of hydroelectric energy. Khamenei’s aide further stressed that the IRGC should take a lead in ensuring security of the province. “The nature and direction of threats have changed. External threats have been replaced by external threats to the national security… One of the foreign enemies’ goals is to organize the latest riots in order to keep Iran’s power occupied with internal issues and to create a gulf between the people and officials,” he concluded.

Comment: Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan Province has witnessed angry protest rallies over the past one year as residents have been calling on the government to address the region’s worsening environmental degradation and air pollution.

Air pollution in Khuzestan has reached “extremely dangerous” levels, earlier this month. All flights at the international airport in Ahvaz, Khuzestan’s capital, were suspended, and schools in several cities such as in Ahvaz, Abadan, Khoramshahr, and Mahshr were temporarily shut down. A video clip published on the BBC Persian website showed that dense dust pollution had forced scores of residents to leave the area. The pollution problem and dust storms in the region are said to be getting even worse as spring is on the horizon. The pollution problem in Ahvaz is deteriorating at a time that Iranian government official warn about water scarcity and other environmental problems across the country.

Although the province accounts for a vast majority of Iran’s oil production and government revenues, its residents – particularly the Arab community – have been subjected to economic, social and political marginalization for decades. Anti-government protests forced President Hassan Rouhani to visit the often-neglected province to assure its disfranchised residents that the government will resolve their environmental issues. But it appears that rather than the country’s Department of Environment or other civilian institutions, it is the IRGC and the Basij Force that is exploiting the situation and taking the lead in dealing with the issue.   

A senior Iranian military official last year that the IRGC and the Basij Force are ready to assist in the implementation of projects to reclaim desert lands in Khuzestan. Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, added that the armed forces had the necessary know-how to tackle the pollution problems across the country, particularly in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. “In this regard, the IRGC and Basij have announced their readiness to assist the administration in desert greening by setting up jihadi [hard-working, resistance] groups,” the commander added.

In last year’s protests, the Khuzestan residents were not only criticizing the government for mismanagement, deliberate negligence and corruption, but they were also angry at Tehran’s involvement in foreign wars at the expense of domestic priorities. “When saving [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is more important than protecting Khuzestan, seeing such a dreadful situation is not unexpected,” Mostafa Tajzade, a leading Iranian reformist figure and political activist. His message was re-tweeted several hundred times and generated a heated discussion among Iranians living inside and outside the country.

Government authorities predictably responded to protesters’ demands with a campaign of intimidation and arrests. President Rouhani also pledged to address the protesters’ problems. But the worsening environmental problems in the province show that the government has not matched its promises with action.

Separatist groups have also in the province, although such claims are difficult to corroborate independently. Last December, Ansar al Furqan, a jihadist group based in Iran, claimed that it had targeted a pipeline in Khuzestan. The al Qaeda-linked group added that it has established a new unit dubbed Ahwaz Martyrs Brigade. Ahwaz (also spelled as Ahvaz) is the capital of Khuzestan.