The 1979 Islamic Revolution, followed in short order by the Iran-Iraq War, devastated the Iranian economy. When faced with both popular complaints about the dire economic situation and the warnings of his aides, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would often wave them off with the quip that “We didn’t have a revolution over the price of a watermelon.” As the revolution has aged, however, Iranian officials have grown increasingly wary of economic hardship. After all, many Iranians have grown cynical about the economic fortunes of those with political connections, which ordinary Iranians juxtapose with their own deprivation.
Nowhere might these tensions be more acute than in Khuzistan, the oil-rich province bordering Iraq at the tip of the Persian Gulf. While Khuzistan should be Iran’s richest province, it remains devastated a quarter century after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict which saw the destruction of its major cities and towns. Residents of Ahvaz, Khorramshahr, Abadan, and Dizful must regularly travel to Tehran, several hundred miles away, for medical care because the government has rebuilt mosques destroyed by the war, but has yet to invest in enough hospitals and medical clinics.
Seyyed Ja’ far Hejazi’s warning to clergy, as reflected in the italicized excerpt below, may interest analysts for several reasons. First and foremost, it provides an illustration of the manner in which the Iranian government uses mosques and Friday prayer leaders in order to transmit messages to the public. While some reporters amplify their interactions with more cosmopolitan and educated Iranians in Tehran into broad assumptions about decreasing religiosity within Iran, and while participants in people-to-people dialogue—often called Track II —likewise interact with an elite but narrow segment of Iranian society, ordinary Iranians in their country’s periphery and in more rural areas still may depend on the mosque rather than the state media for their information.
At the same time, Hejazi’s speech suggests that sanctions are beginning to bite. The decline in value of the rial to record lows relative to the dollar—and to the currencies of Iraq and Gulf Cooperation Council states, which are effectively pegged to the dollar—might have the greatest impact on border provinces, in which residents are more likely to engage in casual cross-border trade.
Disenchantment with Iran’s economic situation might further be compounded by juxtaposition with events across the border. While Iraqi statistics, as with their Iranian equivalents, must be taken with a grain of salt, anecdotal evidence suggests that southern Iraq is booming as Persian Gulf investment transforms Basra, Najaf, and other southern Iraqi cities. If sanctions force a further diminishing of living standards in Iran while southern Iraq rebounds, many Iranians might start blaming their own government, questioning why southern Iraq can recover from a devastating war in a matter of years, while Khuzistan remains stagnant 25 years after the end of Iran’s last war.
Ahvaz—The Governor-General of Khuzistan said, “Clerics and imams should prepare people for the tough sanctions imposed by the Arrogance toward the nation and government of Iran.” According to a report from the Mehr News Agency, Seyyed Ja’far Hejazi on Saturday evening [January 26] told a conference of clergy and mosque imams in the city of Ahvaz sponsored by the Islamic Propagation Organization that… the reception of the people of Khuzistan has been unparalleled, and that some of them had walked dozens of kilometers to attend… And the Governor-General of Khuzistan said that, in reference to the sanctions that the enemies of the Islamic Republic and Iranian nation have inflicted, that the severity of the sanctions will be most high. The aim of our enemies in the coming weeks will be to cut completely import and export of basic goods for our country. However, without any doubt, that having endured eight years of the unjust [Iran-Iraq] war, our nation cannot be defeated by such adventures…