As Iran continues to face devastating floods and inclement weather, the government is unable to fund vital recovery projects because it is already dealing with one of the worst economic crises in the country's history. And yet the country’s Supreme Leader has the power to improve the situation, given that he is effectively in charge of the Islamic Republic’s biggest budgets. How hard will President Rouhani’s government have to argue for this assistance, and how responsive will the Leader be?
In his memoirs, Ayatollah Khamenei tells the story of a flood wreaking havoc in the city of Iranshahr, a city in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, 41 years ago. He described how he threw holy soil — earth he had brought back from his pilgrimage to the shrine of the Shia saint Imam Hossein in Iraq — into the “turbulent waters.” He wrote that, “by the grace of God,” it took no more than a few moments for the flood to subside [Persian link].
Iran’s Supreme Leader is clearly in no doubt that supernatural forces play a deciding role in the leashing and unleashing of natural disasters such as floods. But today, everybody in Iran is looking for somebody to blame for the recent unforeseen — or rather, unplanned for — floods and the ensuing disasters. So if one was to accept Khamenei’s “grace of God” theory, then it seems logical to ask him a question: As the most important, powerful and influential political and religious figure in Iran, why did he this time around fail to prevent, or at least mitigate, the floods and their damage?
In the real world, outside the mind of Iran’s Supreme Leader, floods are the result of climatic factors, and cannot be prevented by humans’ direct intervention, though people can devise ways of mitigating the damage. This is not to say that humans do not play a role in climate change, but they do not play a direct role in bringing about specific natural disasters.
“With or without humans,” writes Nasser Karami, a climatologist from Golestan province, “the floods would have happened” [Persian link]. But a large part of this devastation did result from human actions, including the destruction of forests and tampering with rivers. Karami believes that the tragedy that occured at Quran Gate in Shiraz, where many people were killed and injured [Persian link], was not a “natural” event at all — but the result of human action that “must be pursued by the judiciary as a case of criminal mismanagement.” This is because Quran Gate was built on a dry river bed, a dangerous, and intentiononal, move.
Direct Damage: Deforestation for Profit
If a criminal case for damage to the environment is ever opened, many institutions under the supervision of the Supreme Leader will be the primary defendants — from his representatives in northern Iran to the Revolutionary Guards.
The Supreme Leader’s representatives in the northern provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan are officially engaged in business activities in forested areas. According to Ayatollah Kazem Nour-Mofidi, Khamenei’s representative in Golestan, the Leader gave him a permit that grants him a monopoly in wood harvesting from Golestan’s forests so that, he says, he can use the proceeds to support religious seminaries.
But in addition to this revelation, there is incontrovertible evidence that the Supreme Leader’s representatives have even violated laws designed to protect forests, specifically the “10-Year Reprieve for Forests” law. Paragraph F of Article 38 of Parliament’s Sixth Development Plan [Persian link] ruled that for three years, starting on March 21, 2017, only fallen, uprooted or broken trees could be used for commercial purposes and after that, until 2027, forests could not be exploited for profit. But as a result of pressure from interested parties, this law has not yet been implemented and its future is in doubt [Persian link]. On January 4, 2017, the Supreme Leader’s representatives in the three northern provinces wrote a letter to the speaker of the parliament, opposing the law.
In fact in Shiraz, Revolutionary Guards have faced accusations that they were responsible for the criminal mismanagement Nasser Karami referred to at Quran Gate, since they oversaw, or at least knew about, the real estate developments built in the dry ravine.
Indirect Damage: Khamenei’s “Resistance Economy”
His direct role aside, the Supreme Leader, as a key player in shaping Iran’s economic structure, has played an effective, albeit indirect, role in damaging the soil's resilience against climatic crises. Over the last 10 years, there has been a hike in real estate and land prices, partially brought on as a result of economic sanctions that closed the gates of commerce to Iran. So a large part of the economy has gravitated toward land speculation and real estate. Naturally, since most Iranian cities are populated beyond capacity, the motive to use land outside the cities, on mountain slopes and in forests, has become stronger. Economic conditions have helped strengthen a land-grab mafia, involving some of Iran’s most powerful political figures. But conditions have also forced ordinary citizens to engage in land speculation and real estate developments on mountainsides, forests and river beds. In these difficult economic times, many villages in the north — which usually enjoy clement weather — have been making a living out of land and real estate development.
Given the economic situation, it is only natural for people to point the finger at the real architect of western economic sanctions: Ayatollah Khamenei. The Leader has made himself the biggest obstacle blocking the normalization of relations between Iran and the West, and even with neighboring countries. His obstinacy has cost Iran dearly, including the destruction of natural resources and irreversible damage to the environment.
Crisis Management: Policies and Permissions
But the Supreme Leader plays a decisive role not only before, but also after, disasters strike.
On September 16, 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei officially endorsed “general policies to prevent and mitigate dangers resulting from natural disasters and unforeseen events” [Persian link] as a guideline for crisis management at the higher levels of the regime. The nine-point document features the word “earthquake” eight times, but it does not mention “flood” at all. Paragraph eight refers to “climatic phenomena” and calls for the creation of a “national atlas of natural phenomena” and an improvement to early warning systems. In its last paragraph, the document advocates for national development plans to be based on “compatibility with the climate.”
On June 28, 2009, the Iranian cabinet approved the “bylaws for the headquarters for preventing and managing crises resulting from natural disasters and unforeseen events” [Persian link]. According to these bylaws, two members of the crisis management headquarters — the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) — are appointed by the Supreme Leader. In addition, out of the three cabinet ministers who are headquarter members, one (the defense minister) is directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, and he must give his approval to the appointment of the second (the minister of interior).
The bylaws and the bill for “Crisis Management,” which was sent for the approval of the parliament in 2107, both clearly state that decisions taken by the Crisis Management Headquarters that affect institutions under the supervision of the Supreme Leader and the armed forces must be approved by the “commander-in-chief” — none other than Ayatollah Khamenei [Persian PDF].
Reconstruction and the Imam’s “Account no. 100”
The Revolutionary Guards’ Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters and the Housing Foundation of the Islamic Revolution are the two largest and most important entities to carry out reconstruction of damaged areas after natural disasters, including earthquakes and floods.
The Housing Foundation is the main contractor for rebuilding damaged and destroyed buildings after natural disasters. The government deposits annual funds for the foundation into the “Imam’s no. 100 account.” In addition to the annual budget, the foundation draws on other financial sources, although information about these sources is not public. In the latest national budget, the Housing Foundation has been allocated 406.476 billion tomans, close to $96.5 million.
The Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters is active in various sectors, one of which is development projects. It contributes expertise and resources for both large and small projects, including road construction and urban development, whether under normal circumstances or in times of crisis.
Khatam al-Anbiya is one of the wealthiest economic entities in Iran, although its exact monetary turnover is not known. However, in June 2018, its commander, General Abdollah Abdollahi, stated that Khatam al-Anbiya was engaged in 40 projects across various sectors including oil, gas, water, roads, railroads and ports, with a capital of 120 trillion tomans, close to $28.5 billion [Persian link]. In summer 2018, this figure was close to one-eighth of the total liquidity in Iran. And in the most recent budget, as with other annual budgets in recent years, 10 trillion tomans, close to $2.4 billion, was earmarked for Khatam al-Anbiya.
Paying for Damages: Khamenei’s Permission Required
The annual national budget does not include a line to pay for damage caused by disasters. However, an entry for “Unforeseen Expenses” does appear under the heading “Miscellaneous.” This year, the amount allocated for this entry is 1.216 trillion tomans, almost $288.5 million. Of this amount, one trillion tomans, over $237 million, is at the disposal of Ayatollah Khamenei for his “travels.”
It is not clear how the amount specified in this category is spent, but what is certain is that Ayatollah Khamenei plays a decisive role in providing financial resources to rebuild damaged areas and compensate for loss.
The scale of the damage caused by the recent floods is yet to be fully evaluated, but it is clear that the resources provided by the existing budget will not be enough to cover it. The government will have to submit a new budget to the parliament. However, President Rouhani’s government has already been engulfed by a severe financial and economic crisis, so it will not have any resources at its disposal to deal with the aftermath of the flood — unless it dips into National Development Fund and, according to an unwritten law, it can do so only with the permission of the Supreme Leader. This was also the case when, after a devastating earthquake in autumn 2017 in the province of Kermanshah, the government was able to withdraw $200 million from the National Development Fund following Ayatollah Khamenei granting his official permission [Persian link].
The National Development Fund is not in good health either [Persian link]. The government is practically bankrupt, and has even had difficulty in paying the salaries of its employees and retirees’ pensions. Iranian oil sales have fallen and are likely to fall even further. The economic recession has eaten into taxes and will continue to do so. Inflation continues to rise. The richest and most powerful economic entities, which are under the supervision of the Supreme Leader, pay no taxes and refuse to work with the government. In other words, Iran is in one of the worst economic crises in its history.
Under such conditions, responsibility for compensating for the extreme damage done and for reconstruction after the floods falls squarely on the shoulders of the Supreme Leader. After three decades of having a monopoly on Iran’s power and wealth, it is time for him to accept responsibility and take action. But will he?
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