For days now, large swathes of western Iran have been covered in dust — literally. Dust storms have overwhelmed the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. Air quality is reportedly some 30 to 60 times the healthy level. Power stations have broken down; banks, schools and offices were closed; water supplies were disrupted; and flights to and from Ahvaz were cancelled — including, ironically, one scheduled for the regime’s top “environment” official.
Wipe the dust off of Iran’s scenic Khuzestan province, and you’ll see an even uglier truth. What is happening in Khuzestan exemplifies the disastrous policies implemented by Tehran’s fundamentalist rulers. While it spends billions to wage sectarian conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, the Iranian regime has systematically and unabashedly neglected the country’s ecosystem and economy for the past 40 years.
That is why thousands of people in southwestern Iran, including the capital city of Ahvaz, rose up earlier this month in protest. Chanting “death to tyranny” and “Ahvaz is our city, clean air is our right,” the people exposed their rulers' ultimate vulnerability — overwhelming domestic opposition.
For years, Washington has viewed Tehran as the world’s worst state-sponsor of terror while, by some twisted logic, trying to placate the mullahs. The West, in general, has never taken into account how the ruled view their rulers. The Iranian people are grappling with unprecedented, devastating challenges caused by the ruling regime’s policies.
Ahvaz, for example, has been described as the world’s most polluted city by the World Health Organization. Khuzestan lies in the Fertile Crescent, with more than one million hectares of agricultural land. Destructive policies, such as the unbridled construction of dams (producing enormous wealth for the select few), have caused rivers to dry up, and the climate has taken a turn for the worse.
For decades, industrial waste and sewage poured into the Karun, Iran’s largest navigable river, without the slightest state interference. Khuzestan is reeling from unprecedented unemployment, a recession, a housing crisis and lack of access to education.
Add a lack of basic civic services to the environmental mishandling, and the systematic failure of public services, including water and electricity, and you get thousands of people pouring into the streets to protest.
It is clear those responsible for bringing on this enormous scale of ruin and tragedy will not be willing or able to offer genuine remedies. This is a regime, after all, that puts greater emphasis on Syria than its own provinces.
In 2013, a former commander of intelligence for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) proclaimed: “Syria is our 35th province, and is a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and seeks to take Syria or Khuzestan, our priority would be to keep Syria, because if we keep Syria, we can take back Khuzestan at a later date. But if we lose Syria, we would lose the capital Tehran.”
It is no wonder that the Iranian people, choking on dust and without jobs, despise the IRGC and everything for which it stands. It should be equally self-evident for the U.S. administration that the IRGC is a terrorist entity, and should be so designated. The IRGC must be evicted from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries of the region before any resolution to the regional crises can be found.
For years, some in Washington naively hoped that elusive “moderates” within the regime would solve everything. But even after the nuclear deal signed in the summer of 2015, the Iranian regime has been neither able nor willing to resolve the Iranian people’s multitude of problems and real-life crises. Now, with the death of their most notable “moderate” figure, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the chances are more remote than ever before.
Last week, the so-called "moderate" president Hassan Rouhani visited Khuzestan and unashamedly tried to deflect blame from the regime by saying that the catastrophic situation in the province is the result of "divine punishment" for the residents' inability to promote righteousness and to protect the environment.
So, instead of pinning its strategy on self-delusion, Washington now has the opportunity to find a real partner in the Iranian people and their organized opposition. For the sake of American security, policymakers need to decouple Washington’s future from Tehran’s failing Islamic extremists and, instead, reach out to the people of Iran who want change, democracy, and a better life.
The regime’s next presidential elections are scheduled to take place in May. In 2009, millions of protesters poured into the streets after those same elections, but, unfortunately, the Obama administration stood silent. The resentment of the population is now even deeper than it was eight years ago. The current administration should not repeat the same mistake.
Washington should adopt a firm policy against the Iranian regime and its terrorist and repressive arm, the IRGC, while vociferously standing with those who seek genuine democratic change. This time, we shouldn’t stand idly by and let the dust settle in Iran.
Ali Safavi (@samsafavi) is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is dedicated to the establishment of a democratic, secular and non-nuclear republic in Iran.