Iranian unrest/ Syria’s narco-dictatorship

Jul 24, 2021 | AIJAC staff

A new wave of unrest in Iran: Gathering and protest rally outside Amir Kabir University in Teheran last year (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A new wave of unrest in Iran: Gathering and protest rally outside Amir Kabir University in Teheran last year (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Update from AIJAC


07/21 #04


This Update looks at the growing unrest in Iran over recent weeks, sparked mainly by electricity and water shortages, and the wider international implications. It also features a fascinating piece on the increasing reliance of the dictatorial Assad regime in Syria on narcotics production and trafficking to keep itself afloat.

We lead with Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el, who looks at the connections between the Iranian unrest and Iran’s position in the ongoing negotiations over a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal. Bar’el details the unrest in some detail, and especially the economic mismanagement and corruption that have led to the current situation of mass public anger fuelled by electricity and water shortages, and other welfare problems. He argues that Iran appears to have little hope for remedying the very difficult economic situation on its own, so, despite public displays of reluctance, the regime must ultimately be relying on an expectation that sanctions will be lifted as the result of a renewed nuclear deal. For his convincing discussion in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up is American expert Brenda Schaffer, who focuses on the most serious of the various mass protest waves in Iran – the one involving the Ahwazi Arab minority in Iran’s western Khuzestan province. Schaffer explains the Ahwazi have long felt discriminated against and neglected by the Persian-dominated government in Teheran, while Khuzestan is the centre of the Iranian oil industry, making this a very sensitive problem for the regime. She also discusses the background to the water shortages that are the main driver of the current Ahwazi unrest. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we include a piece from The Economist which discusses the little-known story of the narcotics production and trafficking industry which is allegedly the key financial basis of the Assad dictatorship in Syria. While Syria has a long history of engaging in drug trafficking, the article explains how, since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, the manufacture and distribution of the amphetamine Captagon has developed into the main source of foreign currency for the Assad regime. It also discusses the popularity of this drug in the Persian Gulf, and the toll it is taking within Syria through widespread addiction. To read this important article,  CLICK HERE.

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Amid spiraling protests, Iran puts faith in the nuke deal to stave off discontent


A revived nuclear accord could provide some timely respite for Iran’s new leadership, but it is no panacea to the long-standing corruption and economic woes driving the desperation among ordinary people

Zvi Bar’el

Haaretz, Jul. 22, 2021


Last week, on Tuesday evening, a coronavirus lockdown went into effect in Iran’s capital and the northern province of Alborz. On the government’s orders, all state institutions, banks, schools and public centers are to be closed until July 25, and traveling between cities is forbidden. It is a necessary precaution ahead of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic Festival of the Sacrifice, and after over 85,000 people (according to official statistics) died of COVID-19 out of the 6 million people infected. However, as in Israel, imposing a lockdown is the easy part; organizing for it is another story.

Thousands of Iranians rushing home for the holiday got caught in traffic jams on the intercity roads. Metro passengers in Tehran were surprised to find fewer trains arriving, and that those responsible had not posted the new timetable for the lockdown. It was a sufficient reason for thousands of passengers to hold spontaneous protests in metro stations, denouncing the regime and its supreme leader.

These were not the only protests in Iran lately. For about a week now, thousands have taken to the streets in Khuzestan Province to protest against the regime’s failure to provide them with water during the worst drought the country has seen in 50 years. It’s not just water for drinking and irrigation that’s scarce; some hydroelectric power plants stopped operating because of the drought, causing power outages and shutting down public services.

If that weren’t enough, thousands of contract workers at the country’s oil facilities who are not employed by the National Iranian Oil Company demanded pay raises and other benefits in raging protests about a month ago. The company’s workers earn triple the contract workers’ pay, and they get 10 days off a month to visit relatives, compared to two-and-a-half for contract workers.

At the same time, hundreds of farmers protested against water shortages and rising costs by spilling thousands of liters of milk and tonnes of agricultural products on the streets in front of government offices. Iranian media, closely supervised by the regime, may not have reported on these demonstrations but videos on social media show violent confrontations between police and protesters.

Public protests in Iran, and their violent suppression, are part of the political culture. The prevailing assumption is the sectoral protests don’t threaten regime stability. Still, such working assumptions in the Middle East endure for years, until one fine day they are turned on their heads. In fact, it was mass demonstrations by workers who had nothing left to lose the marked the beginning of the end of the Shah, and paved the way for the Islamic revolution.

Historic mismanagement, continued

Rebuilding Iran’s crumbling economy is the main mission with which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tasked President-elect Ebrahim Raisi when he takes office on August 3. But Raisi is no expert on economics or running a country, and there are even doubts over the level of his religious education.

The regime is relying on new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi to somehow solve its severe economic problems – even though there is no evidence he has any expertise or knowledge related to economics (Photo: Wikimedia commons). 

Although his recent appointment of five economic advisors, who are expected to receive economic portfolios in his government, could rectify this shortcoming, their track records are cause for concern. Three of them were ministers in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, which wasted about half of Iran’s oil revenue – some $700 billion – over the eight-year presidency. Some of them zealously support a centralized economy and oppose a free market, and enjoy the support of the Revolutionary Guards, who are expected to scuttle any attempt at economic reforms that would endanger their control over most of the Iranian economy.

The situation in the interim is not bright either. While the Iranian parliament did approve a $117 billion budget for the current fiscal year, starting in March, half of it is debt-funded and based on projected income that is wishful thinking. The government is borrowing billions of dollars from pension funds to bankroll its day-to-day operations, to the point that it will struggle to meet its obligations to its pensioners. Simultaneously, it is transferring funds to the emergency fund, or future fund, which was once overflowing with revenues from oil exports. The goal of this “holy fund” is to ensure state survival in times when oil revenues are not flowing so freely.

The endemic administrative flaws, corruption, monopolies and yawning gaps between the top 0.1 percent and the rest are not the result of international and American sanctions. They characterized Iran when it arose as a modern nation under Reza Shah Pahlavi. Sanctions mainly hit the middle class, most of whom sank below the poverty line, and enriched the elite who knew how to profit from the distress of civilians.

Outgoing president Hassan Rohani boasted that the new president’s work will be easier because he receives a country in order, which prepared itself well to deal with sanctions. At the same time, Khamenei continues to market the “resistance economy,” a thinly veiled metaphor for belt-tightening. Both ultimately know the truth: Khamenei is lined with billions of dollars deposited in anonymous, unsupervised and unreported accounts, and Rohani is familiar with the ubiquitous machine of corruption.

Rohani’s election to his first term in 2013 brought tidings of an imminent war on corruption. Now, it seems he is bequeathing this war on Raisi, the man responsible for, among other things, the murder of thousands of political prisoners.

Khamenei and Raisi know that the way out of the economic impasse runs through the signing of the new nuclear accord, which would get rid of the U.S. sanctions. The National Security Council, the most important authoritative body in Iran, rejected last Tuesday the draft accord formulated between the Iranian team and the teams of the powers negotiating in Vienna since April, but the final decision is Khamenei’s.

Meanwhile, the wait for Raisi to assume office is delaying the seventh round of negotiations, and consequently the accord’s signing. However, if we judge by Iran’s behavior so far and by its preparations for the lifting of sanctions, including increasing oil production in expectation that markets will reopen to Iran, we can presume that it doesn’t intend on going back from what it has achieved to date and withdraw from the negotiations.

In its three years before the United States’ withdrawl, the original accord didn’t translate into material improvements for most ordinary Iranians. They rightfully fear a rerun – the leadership, for the Revolutionary Guards and the monopoly owners will gain long before the money trickles down to the middle class and poor.

The government is not blind to the profound lack of faith in the regime, as expressed in the low participation rate in the presidential election and in the thousands of requests by educated young people to leave Iran for Europe. Nevertheless, the mutual dependence of government figures on one another, and the need to buy political stability to protect their ways, make remote the chance that the new nuclear accord will foster contentment among Iranians.

Zvi Bar’el is the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz Newspaper. Bar’el has a Ph.D in the History of the Middle East.

The Impact of the Ahwaz protests in Iran

Brenda Shaffer

FDD.org, July 18, 2021

Screenshot from a smuggled video purporting to show Iranian plainclothes police opening fire on Ahwazi demonstrators in Khuzestan (Photo:  Human Rights Activists News Agency)

Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority on July 7 launched extensive anti-regime protests centered in the country’s western Khuzestan Province. Extreme water shortages affecting the Ahwaz were the catalyst for the demonstrations. They escalated on July 15, with activists blocking major roads in the province. Last week, demonstrators stormed the municipality office in Ahvaz City. Regime security forces have fired live rounds against the demonstrators. Local activists report that three demonstrators have been killed. The regime has acknowledged one death. Iran has reportedly intercepted illegal weapons shipments to Khuzestan province, indicating that the showdown with the regime forces is likely to escalate further.

Iran faces chronic water shortages. These shortages are especially severe in Iran’s border provinces, which are home to ethnic minorities. They have amplified the grievances of these minorities, which view the shortages as part of an intentional policy of favoring the needs of the Persians. Among their complaints, the Ahwazis decry the deviation of the Karun River that runs through Khuzestan. Indeed, Ahwazis claim that Tehran purposefully diverts water from the regions where Ahwazis live, and builds dams and industry in their marshlands, to force Ahwazis to leave.

While water may be a trigger, the current protests are undeniably ethno-national. The chants and banners are in Arabic, aiming to mobilize more Ahwazis. A popular chant at the protests is, “We shall redeem you, Ahwaz, with our spirit and blood.”

Iran’s Ahwazis number approximately 5 million people. They live in two strategically important locations: Khuzestan province (home to Iran’s primary oil and natural gas production and major ports), and the Persian Gulf region between Busher and Bandar Abbas, which sees significant maritime traffic. Ahwazis are among the least assimilated of Iran’s ethnic minorities. According to surveys, 82 percent of the Ahwazis speak Arabic at home.

For decades, Tehran has deliberately endeavored to dilute the ethnic Ahwazi majority in Khuzestan, due to the strategic importance of this province. The regime runs programs to encourage Persian and other non-Arabs to move to the province for the sake of demography. In his spring 2021 report, Javid Rehman, the UN Human Right’s Council special rapporteur on Iran, cited “reports of forced evictions in ethnic minority areas” impacting Ahwazis. The Ahwazi Arabs face employment discrimination in the oil and gas industry in Khuzestan; Persian residents hold the high-paying jobs, while Ahwazis are mostly blue-collar workers. On January 6, 2021, Mohsen Haidari, representative of the supreme leader in Ahwaz, ceded that ethnic Arabs hold just 5 percent of the province’s management-level jobs in the oil industry.

Iran’s oilfields (top) are overwhelmingly concentrated in the southwestern province of Khuzestan (bottom), inhabiited by non-Persian, Arabic-speaking Ahwazis – now protesting Iranian rule (Images: Wikimedia Commons ) 

In recent years, violent confrontations between the regime and Ahwazis have erupted. Ahwazi groups have conducted several audacious violent attacks on Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units in Khuzestan. The most daring recent attack occurred on September 22, 2018, when an armed group attacked a military parade in Ahvaz city, killing more than 30 Iranian security forces as well as attendees. Following the attack, the regime executed more than 20 Ahwazis and arrested hundreds more in Khuzestan province.

The UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for Iran reported that the regime crackdown on the Ahwazi following a broader wave of protests in 2017 and 2018 was particularly harsh, leading to 84 deaths in Khuzestan. In winter 2019, amidst a crackdown on protests that erupted across Iran, the regime killed dozens of Ahwazis who escaped to Khuzestan’s marshlands.

Tehran has enlisted foreign Arab militias to squash Ahwazi unrest. In the spring and summer of 2019, floods in Khuzestan caused widespread death and destruction. To quell the subsequent protests, Tehran deployed foreign fighters from Lebanon and Iraq, including Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi) and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Tehran also targets Ahwazi leaders living outside Iran. In November 2017, Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi, a Dutch citizen of Iranian origin, was shot dead at his doorstep in The Hague. The Dutch government officially fingered the regime. In October 2020, the regime kidnapped Sweden-based Iranian Arab activist Habib Chaab in Istanbul and brought him to Iran.

On July 16, a State Department spokesperson acknowledged “reports of Iran shortages and resulting protests, and we continue to urge the Iranian Government to support the Iranian people as they exercise their universal rights to freedom of expression as well as freedom of peaceful assembly.” Amidst ongoing and sensitive nuclear negotiations, it is unlikely that Foggy Bottom will press the issue much further.

At present, other anti-regime forces are unlikely to join the Ahwazi protests. Indeed, most of Iran’s mainstream opposition does not support the political activity of Iran’s ethnic groups, which they fear could undermine the integrity of Iran. The impact, for now, is likely to remain isolated to the oil and gas industry sector, where ongoing protests could disrupt production. Regime crackdowns will almost certainly continue.

Dr. Brenda Shaffer is a senior advisor for energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program. She is the author of the FDD monograph Iran Is More Than Persia, which examines ethnic politics in Iran. She is also a faculty member at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. 

Syria has become a narco-state

But a popular drug is doing damage at home

The Economist, Jul 19th 2021

The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is allegedly being increasingly financed by illegal drug production and exports, especially Captagon, at great cost to ordinary Syrians. (Photo: Valentina Petrov / Shutterstock.com)

IN THE DUNES north of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the sun sets and the party begins. Girls discard their abayas, the black shrouds that envelop them in public, and begin jiving to techno music with boys. A few swig from bottles, but most prefer Captagon pills, nowadays the Gulf’s favourite drug, at $25 a pop. They call it Abu Hilalain (Father of Two Half-moons), after the two letter “c”s (for Captagon) embossed on the pills. Part of the amphetamine family, it can have a similar effect to Viagra—and conquers sleep. “With one pill,” says a raver, “we can dance all weekend.”

Though Saudi rulers have opposed the regime in Syria for a decade, the pill-popping by young people is funding it. For Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, the drug has become a boon—at least in the short run. His country has become the world’s prime pusher of Captagon. As the formal economy collapses under the burden of war, sanctions and the predatory rule of the Assads, the drug has become Syria’s main export and source of hard currency. The Centre for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR), a Cyprus-based consultancy, reckons that last year authorities elsewhere seized Syrian drugs with a street value of no less than $3.4bn. That compares with Syria’s largest legal export, olive oil, which is worth some $122m a year. The drug is financing the central government, says Ian Larson, who wrote a recent report on the subject for COAR.

Syria has long been involved in drugs. In the 1990s, when it ruled Lebanon, the Bekaa valley was the region’s main source of hashish. But mass production of drugs within Syria began only after the civil war erupted in 2011. Officers fed their men “Captain Courage”, as they called Captagon. Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Lebanon, who came to support the Syrian regime, brought their skills in making and trafficking drugs. Hizbullah, Lebanon’s biggest Shia militia, which has given crucial support to the Assad regime, acquired large tracts across the border in Syria’s Qalamoun mountains. They expanded hashish cultivation and developed a new cottage industry, making Captagon pills.

Syria began exporting them in about 2013, as its formal economy shrivelled, thanks to war, economic sanctions and corruption within the regime. Chemical plants in the cities of Aleppo and Homs have been converted into pill factories. In the Gulf the mark-up for pills can be 50 times their cost in Syria. Smugglers hide them in shipments of paper rolls, parquet flooring and even pomegranates. Saudi princes use private jets to bring the stuff in.

Captagon – known as “Father of two half-moons” due to its markings in the Persian Gulf, where it is highly popular, and one of the key exports of Assad regime in Syria (Photo: Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime)

Seizures by police in foreign waters testify to the size of the trade. Italian police last year uncovered 84m pills worth over €1bn on a single ship. It was then said to be the world’s biggest interception of amphetamine-related drugs. In May the Malaysian authorities, acting on a Saudi tip-off, seized 95m pills. The Libyan port of Benghazi, linked by a regular shipping route to Syria, is said to be a key entrepot.

The Assads insist they are not involved. “Propaganda”, says Shadi al-Ahmad, an economist in Damascus, the capital, who is loyal to the regime. But because Mr Assad finds it hard to pay his troops, he farms out much of his country to warlords who oversee the smuggling. The army’s fourth division, which is commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, is said to take a big cut. Other relations run operations at the Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartous. A Lebanese drug-runner close to Hizbullah and wanted by Interpol boasts on Facebook of his ties to the Assads and senior Hizbullah clerics. “It’s out of control,” says an insider in Damascus.

The regime may see Captagon as a lever in regional power struggles. It “uses drugs as a weapon against the Gulf”, says Malik al-Abdeh, a Syria watcher close to the opposition. “The message is: normalise relations, or we’ll destroy your youth.”

In any event, the regime’s loyalists are not the only ones involved. The Kurds who control Iraq’s north-eastern border with Turkey draw on the experience of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which operates routes through the mountains to Europe. Sunni Syrian rebels under Turkish protection in northern Syria are at it too. And the route south through Jordan to Saudi Arabia is getting busier. “All the militias get their earnings from smuggling drugs,” says a tribal leader in southern Syria. He says southern militias have helped thousands of refugees cross the border into Jordan, their knapsacks full of pills.

For the Syrians left behind, drugs may destroy what remains of society after a decade of civil war. “Young men who haven’t been killed, exiled or jailed are addicts,” says a social worker in Sweida, a city held by the Assads in the south. A recent survey of Syrians in the north found that in January this year 33% said they knew a drug user. That is up from 7% in 2019. So prevalent is the habit that during this year’s Ramadan, in April and May, the prime-time serial on state television was “On a Hot Plate”, portraying a family of drug dealers.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Narco-state on the Med”. 

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