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Iran: Power Cuts In An Energy-Rich Land Spark Protests

  • Vahid Sepehri --> Snow in Tehran on January 1 (Fars) January 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Despite its wealth of oil and natural-gas reserves, Iran has faced a gas crunch as people turn up the heat this winter.

Partial or total energy cutoffs were reported in 11 provinces, with residents of colder western provinces worst affected, and exports to Turkey were suspended for five days.

The National Iranian Gas Company issued a statement on January 2 warning of shortages and asking Iranians -- including Tehran residents -- to moderate their consumption or face cuts.

There are energy shortages in 11 provinces, with partial or total cuts that include Kurdistan in western Iran, the northwestern Zanjan Province, and the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan.

Lawmaker Fakhredin Heidari asked President Ahmadinejad whether he would respond similarly if it were his family and that of the oil minister spending nights in the cold.

Officials have blamed rising consumption and delays in unspecified projects for the shortages. Deputy Oil Minister Hasan Kasai told ILNA on January 1 that gas consumption rose by 45 percent over last winter.

Authorities have in the past lamented Iranians' wasteful use of natural gas, electricity, gasoline, and water. And some have blamed the problem on state subsidies that keep those prices low.

Iran also suspended natural-gas exports completely to Turkey on January 3-7, after determining that its 40-day reduction was not enough, Radio Farda and AFP reported.

Iran signed a deal in 1996 to supply up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Turkey by 2007. Turkey has been receiving natural gas since 2001 through a pipeline running from Tabriz in northwestern Iran to Ankara.

Public Anger

In western Iran, the energy cuts led to protests. In Saqqez, in Kurdistan Province, residents gathered outside the district governor's office on January 4 to protest eight days without sufficient gas supplies.

From there, some 200 protesters went to the city council, then to the town's central square, by which time they numbered about 1,000, according to Protesters demanded that the government resolve such fundamental problems instead of attending to its high-profile nuclear program.

Fakhredin Heidari, the parliamentary representative for Saqqez and Baneh, wrote to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on January 3 to complain about the situation.

Heidari reminded Ahmadinejad that on his last visit to Saqqez, the president responded to public outcry by promising that shortages would not happen again "this year." The lawmaker recounted the death of a family of five due to a faulty heater that they were forced to use because of a lack of gas.

Heidari asked whether Ahmadinejad would respond similarly if it were his family and that of the oil minister who had to spend the night in the cold.

He also accused gas authorities of "giving away" natural gas to states who side with Iran's opponents in the nuclear standoff, leaving none for Iranians.

About Fairness

Heidari struck a note that the president himself has played in many of his speeches since taking office 1 1/2 years ago -- that of social justice. The lawmaker questioned the justice of a situation in which "the negligence of some officials" leaves Saddez residents "shivering in the cold" or burning to death in their homes.

Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh (Fars file photo)

Lawmaker Amin Shabani, from Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province, argued on January 5 that Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh should be questioned in parliament if the gas shortages continue -- particularly in the country's colder western provinces. He said many western areas had experienced weeks of gas shortages or cutoffs.

Shabani said that such areas are living "entirely the opposite" of Ahmadinejad's reported campaign pledge to bring "oil to the people's tables" and oil wealth into Iranian homes. He said gas exports should be cut until domestic needs are met. He invited Vaziri-Hamaneh to visit Kurdistan "one day" and -- in his words -- "feel the cold...and properly answer how helpless people are to live" in near-freezing temperatures without gas, gasoline, or oil.

The crisis appears to have eased for now. Shabani said recently that there are currently sufficient supplies for the city of Sanandaj, and intermittent but less severe cuts in Saqqez and Baneh, according to ILNA on January 8.

But Shabani also warned ominously of a "100-percent possibility that with another cold wave, people in cold regions will face a fuel crisis."

He accused the oil minister of fulfilling just half of his pledges to help avoid fuel shortages.

Shabani also took up the challenge to the Ahmadinejad administration, saying the public expected a government that "takes pride in...understanding issues close-up to have traveled to the region" as the crisis unfolded, ILNA reported.

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