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Thursday 18 January 2018

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Residents of Qaen pray together for rain in the deserts around the Iranian city.

Iranians in some of the regions hardest hit by years of drought have taken to public prayer sessions in desperate bids to end the dry spell and ease the strain on Iran's dwindling water supplies.

Religious services have been routinely held outdoors in Iran since the cleric-led revolution in 1979, but the recent rain prayers were unique in their focus, and in at least one case worshipers gathered in a remote, arid location.

The events were staged in Birjand and Qaen, both in the parched eastern province of South Khorasan on the Afghan border, and in Zabol, in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan, according to Iranian news agencies.

Photos posted online show many hundreds of men and women, boys and girls, supplicating for rain.

The rain prayers in Birjand on January 15 were led by Hojatoleslam Seyed Bagher Asadi, who teaches at Birjand's religious seminary. He appeared to suggest that such natural disasters were divine warnings to people that they should change course.

'Repent And Beg Forgiveness'

"We have to [to stop] sinning and repent and ask for forgiveness," Bagher Asadi was quoted as saying. "Drought, earthquake, [and] disasters such as the fire in Tehran's Plasco building" -- which killed at least 20 people in January 2017 -- "and the burning and sinking of the [Sanchi] oil tanker"-- which took 32 lives this month -- "are all warnings and hints to us."

“When people don't respect divine, individual, and social rights, the doors of divine blessing are shut," the cleric told worshippers, according to local media.

Photos from Qaen on January 8 were posted by the official government news agency IRNA, which said citizens prayed together for rain in the deserts around the city.

Photos of a drought in Iran's Khuzestan Province. Experts say Iran will be among the most water-stressed countries in the world by 2040. (file photo)
Photos of a drought in Iran's Khuzestan Province. Experts say Iran will be among the most water-stressed countries in the world by 2040. (file photo)

IRNA reported that rainfall in the South Khorasan province has fallen by 81 percent from a year ago, placing the province among the regions with the least rainfall in the country.

South Khorasan is home to many farmers who are being directly affected by the drought and water shortages, which have reportedly resulted in water rationing in some of the province's villages.

Domestic media report that more than 50 percent of South Khorasan province has been affected by severe drought.

National Security Issue

Iran’s deputy energy minister, Rahim Meidani, warned over the weekend that the decline in rainfall in the Iranian year that began on March 21 is unprecedented in the last 50 years.

Meidani said on January 14 that rainfall has been "normal" in only two provinces: Ardebil in the northwest and Golestan in the north.

Iranian officials have acknowledged the problem by identifying the water crisis as a national security issue.

Speaking in July, Meidani said the issue was raised at a meeting of the country's Supreme National Security Council.

"We should tackle it with all the scientific tools and expertise available to us," he said.

Experts cite a number of factors for the water shortages in Iran, including climate change, rapid population growth, wasteful agriculture practices, mismanagement, and poor planning.

The crisis has led to migration and the desiccation of some lakes and rivers, prompting protests in some cases.

Experts have warned that the crisis could worsen if authorities don't come up with some long-term solutions.

A 2015 study by the World Resources Institute predicted that Iran would be among the world's 33 most water-stressed countries by 2040.

Meanwhile, Hossein Komeili, the head of prayer headquarters in South Khorasan, was quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency as saying that an order has been issued for rain prayers to be held across South Khorasan.

"In times of famine, drought, and water shortage, there's nothing anyone can do. Only God can spread mercy on the people by sending rainclouds,” Komeili said.

Iran's hard-line Tasnim news agency has posted pictures of alleged protesters on its Twitter feed while calling on followers to identify and report them to the authorities.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has sparked anger by using media proxies to crowdsource the identification and reporting to authorities of individuals photographed at antiestablishment protests, including indirectly through social media like Twitter.

The effort came as a week of demonstrations and violent unrest across the country eased but were said to be continuing in some places, with protesters chanting slogans against rising prices, corruption, and Iran's clerically dominated leadership.

The protest slowdown follows days of increasing shows of force in cities and towns across the country and a day of televised pro-government demonstrations to counter the eruption of public anger.

The Gerdab.ir website, which was launched a decade ago by the IRGC, posted images of suspected protesters in several cities, including two of the earliest hot spots, provincial capitals Kermanshah and Zanjan.

Gerdab called for the public to help identify the individuals, repeating a tactic it employed during street demonstrations in 2009 that attracted millions to complain of irregularities in the reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Gerdab pledged to release more pictures of "elements behind the unrest" and "rioters."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed foreign "enemies," but President Hassan Rohani has acknowledged that public discontent has played a role in the protests, one of the most serious domestic challenges to Iran's leadership in decades.

Pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad on January 4.
Pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad on January 4.

Gerdab's statements and images for identification have in turn been carried by news sites that include the hard-line Mashregh, Khabaronline.ir, and Jahannews.com.

"If you have any details about those in the pictures or any kind of information, including pictures, videos, e-mail, or any complaint about those causing unrest, report it via [us]," Gerdab said in a statement.

Official Crackdown

Monitoring and activist groups say official sources have acknowledged more than 1,000 arrests around the country, including at least 450 in the capital, Tehran.

Iran's hard-line Tasnim news agency, which was launched during the Arab Spring movement in the region in 2012 in part to "defend [Iran] against negative media propaganda" and is also said to be affiliated with the IRGC, has posted pictures of alleged protesters in the Iranian capital on its Twitter feed while calling on followers to identify and report them to the authorities.

Tasnim, whose coverage frequently reflects hard-line Iranian views, also posted contact numbers for Iran's Intelligence Ministry, the IRGC, and police forces for browsers to call and provide information on the individuals in the photos.

Tasnim alleged on its Persian-language Twitter feed that individuals circled in red in some photos are leaders of "the rioters" in Tehran, which has been less directly affected by the current protests than during the 2009 unrest.

Twitter is blocked in Iran, although it is openly used by state officials including Khamenei, Rohani, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and official and semiofficial news agencies used it to spread news and other information.

But many Iranians access Twitter and other social media like Telegram through antifiltering tools.

'Stalinist Tactics'

Tasnim's move outraged some Iranian users, who called on Twitter to take action.

"This pro-IRGC news agency is putting protesters' life at a very serious risk," Amir Rashidi, an Internet security researcher with the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, wrote on Twitter on January 3.

Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, tweeted, "Predictably, IRGC and its affiliates resort to Stalinist tactics of intimidation to crush protests."

Amin Sabeti, a London-based expert on Iranian Internet, is among those who have reported Tasnimnews_FA to Twitter for what he regards as a possible violation of the social network's rules of use. "Tasnim's move is a clear breach of Twitter's rules on abusive behavior and also abuse and hateful conduct," Sabeti tells RFE/RL.

Twitter says it prohibits "behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user's voice."

It also says that users "may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else's voice."

Sabeti says those Tasnim reporters and editors who have shared images of protesters and called for their identification should also be "disciplined."

The Tasnim tweets remained online on January 4, some 24 hours after being posted.

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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