Iran suffered both power outages and water shortages during the scorching summer heat wave in 2021. Starting on May 23, several major cities, including Tehran, were hit by rolling power blackouts that were the worst since 2010. The outages were caused by soaring temperatures – as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) – and rising demand on crumbling infrastructure.
Meanwhile, by July, more than 300 cities—nearly a fourth of all municipalities—also faced water shortages caused by a drought that produced one of the driest years since 1971. Iran’s southern and eastern provinces were hit the hardest. In arid provinces, Iranians waited in line to purchase water, according to a lawmaker from Khuzestan. The average level of water in dams decreased by 47 percent from September 2020 to July 2021, The Tehran Times reported. The drought in turn exacerbated the power crisis. Iran relies partially on hydroelectric dams for electricity. On July 6, President Hassan Rouhani warned that hydroelectric power generation was “almost” zero.
The twin crises triggered protests in major cities and the provinces across several days. Rouhani blamed the power outages on the drought and high temperatures and said that the crisis was “temporary.” But he was also forced to publicly acknowledge government shortfalls. “I apologize to the dear people who are suffering these days, and I ask them to save some electricity consumption,” he said.
The intermittent power outages, a byproduct of the summer heat wave, sparked rolling blackouts and even fires. Hospitals lacked power for respirators and other basic medical equipment. The government blamed surging consumer demand for electricity, particularly from so-called “miners” of cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin. (Bitcoin mining entails using a computer or set of computers to solve complex math equations. The equations help verify financial transactions on the blockchain, which is a digital ledger of all bitcoin transactions in the world. Whichever computer is the first to solve the equation is rewarded with a free Bitcoin). Cryptocurrency mining requires a large amount of electricity, and Iran is responsible for approximately 4.5 percent of the world’s Bitcoin mining.
Newspapers lambasted the government for the crisis. "For how long are the power cuts going to continue, and can anyone do anything to resolve the crisis?" asked Hamshahri, a centrist paper, on July 7. Iranians protested against the government’s response in major cities, including Tehran and Shiraz, in June and July. In the darkness, protesters reportedly yelled slogans, such as “death to Khamenei,” from their windows.
The water shortages were caused by an unprecedented drought. Iran’s annual average precipitation is 9.8 inches (250 mm), which is less than one-third of the global average of 39 inches (990 mm). In 2021, rainfall was down 40 percent from the annual average, the government reported. Rainfall was down in Iran’s eastern and southern province even more – from 50 percent to 85 percent. “Bluntly speaking, there is no water,” Ahad Vazifed, head of the National Center for Drought and Crisis Management, said on June 15. Iran’s plight was exacerbated by limited desalination technology, which allows countries to desalinate seawater for drinking. Iran lagged far behind Persian Gulf neighbors with similar challenges.
The water shortage sparked protests by farmers, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on May 21. Vice President Isa Kalantari, head of the Department of Environment, warned that a “war has broken out over water” among residents of Isfahan, Yazd, Khuzestan, Lorestan and Charmahal and Bakhtiari. On July 5, newspapers in southern Khuzestan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces warned of critical water shortages. "Warning alarm for water shortage in 304 large cities,” Etelaat, a centrist paper, reported. In July, hundreds of farmers in Isfahan city protested outside the provincial governor's home. “We will get our share of the water even if we have to die for it,” they chanted.
Starting July 15, protesters angry about the water shortage burned tires and blocked roads in Khuzestan, home to Iran’s restive Arab minority. Two men were killed in the town of Shadegan on July 16, Al Jazeera reported. One of the deceased was Arab. Local authorities said that the man had been killed accidentally by "opportunists and rioters" shooting into the air. But video footage reportedly from the province showed anti-riot police opening fire with unknown ammunition on protesters. On July 18, Iranian police opened fire on protesters in Susangerd, also in Khuzestan province, the Associated Press reported. Abdollah Izadpanah, a lawmaker from the province, warned that "Khuzestan's insecurity means a lack of security for the whole country”.
The government took several steps to conserve power, including closing all department offices on Thursdays. On July 11, it announced increased electricity imports from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. It also banned cryptocurrency mining during the summer. On June 22, the government seized 7,000 computers mining Bitcoin that were operating illegally in an abandoned factory west of Tehran. By July 12, the government had reportedly confiscated more than 200,000 machines; their power usage was "equal to the total consumption of five provinces," the head of state-owned energy company Tavanir said.
Iran also cut off electricity exports to Iraq across four cross-border power lines and significantly reduced the supply of gas to power plants in southern and eastern Iraq. In Basra, residents were only receiving a fifth of their needed power supply. Afghanistan was the only country still importing Iranian electricity, the energy ministry reported on July 7. But the government was unable to address the water shortage.
Conservative and hardline politicians blasted the Rouhani administration’s response. “Frequent power outages throughout the country and disruption of people’s lives and businesses require planning and management,” Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative, said on July 5. On July 6, the new head of the judiciary, Mohseni Ejei, demanded that the attorney general launch a probe into the power crisis.
Timeline of Protests
July 15: In the evening, residents of Khuzestan province protested the water shortage and power outages. Protestors gathered in the streets of several cities, including the provincial capital of Ahvaz. Videos showed demonstrators lighting tires on fire and blocking roadways. Security forces reportedly used tear gas to disperse crowds. Anti-riot police appeared to fire live ammunition or less lethal bean bag rounds at demonstrators.
July 16: Two men were reportedly killed in the town of Shadegan amid a second night of protests in Khuzestan. One, Mostafa Naimawi, was killed by “opportunists and rioters” who were shooting at both protestors and security forces, according to Omid Sabripour, the acting county governor. Sabripour described Naimawi as a “30-year-old passerby.” The second young man who was killed, Qassem Khozeiri, was shot by unknown attackers after returning home from work at night, state-controlled media reported, citing his uncle. But human rights groups reported that Khozeiri was shot by security forces in the town of Kutabdollah. Amnesty International later reported that Khozeir’s family was coerced by intelligence agents to give a scripted statement on camera.
First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri dispatched the deputy energy, agricultural and budget ministers to Ahvaz to address the water shortage.
July 17: Residents of Khuzestan protested in Ahvaz and at least half a dozen other cities and towns. A young man, Ali Mazraeh, was reportedly shot and killed by security forces in Ahvaz, according to human rights groups. But Fars News Agency reported that Mazraeh had been arrested by security forces, not killed. Protestors in Shush reportedly blocked roads and overturned a Basij (paramilitary) vehicle. A video from Shadegan appeared to show protestors chanting “People want the regime to fall” in Arabic.
Deputy Governor General of Khuzestan, Valiollah Hayati, rejected reports about security forces killing protestors. “The enemies of the Islamic Republic have in recent days released some reports and footage which claim that three individuals have been killed in the province, which is completely false,” Hayati told reporters. He acknowledged that two young men, Naimawi and Khozeiri, had been killed, but said that only Naimawi’s death was connected to the protests. Hayati blamed stray gunfire by rioters for Naimawi’s death. He claimed that Khozeiri was killed after a family dispute unrelated to the demonstrations.
July 19: Protestors gathered in Ahvaz and at least four other cities in Khuzestan. Videos posted on social media showed demonstrators chanting and lighting fires to block roads. Security forces appeared to use tear gas to disperse crowds. In one city, Chamran, security forces reportedly opened fire.
In Parliament, Mojtaba Mahfouzi, the representative for Abadan, a major city in Khuzestan, called for relief during a floor speech. “Rescue Khuzestan and its oppressed people! Give back to it what it deserves!”
July 20: Residents of Khuzestan protested in several towns and cities. Videos circulated on social media showed security forces using tear gas to disperse crowds. Iranian media reported that rioters shot one policeman to death and wounded another in the coastal city of Mahshahr. Videos also showed protestors chanting “Death to Khamenei” in the city of Izeh.
In an interview, Naimawi’s father blamed “rioters and saboteurs” for the death of his son, who was killed on July 16. “My son was not a person who would go out for crime or rioting,” he told Fars News Agency.
Prominent human rights activists – including Jafar Azimzadeh, Arash Keykhosravi and Narges Mohammadi – gathered outside of the Interior Ministry in Tehran in solidarity with protestors in Khuzestan. Mohammadi’s husband said that the activists were beaten and briefly detained.
Videos posted on social media also showed people at a Tehran metro station chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic” and “Death to velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist).” The concept of velayat-e faqih is a foundational principle for Iran’s system of government, in which a cleric is the supreme leader.
July 21: Residents in several cities in Khuzestan protested despite the deployment of riot police and Basij forces. Videos posted to social media appear to show protests in Ahvaz, Behbahan, Dezful, Izeh, Masjed Soleyman, Ramshir and Susangerd. In Masjed Soleyman, demonstrators reportedly chanted, “Police, support us.”
Iranians in at least two other provinces rallied in solidarity with protestors in Khuzestan. Videos on social media showed a rally in the city of Yazdenshahr, Isfahan province, in central Iran. Residents also gathered in the city of Sheyban, Sistan and Baluchistan province, in southeast Iran.
State television reported that one civilian was killed and 14 police officers were injured during protests in Izeh city on July 20. State media also said that a security officer in the Taleghani district of Mahshahr city, also in Khuzestan, was killed and another was injured by “rioters” who fired on both security forces and demonstrators. The acting governor of Mahshar, Fereydoon Bandari, confirmed the death and injury.
Videos on social media showed the deployment of anti-riot forces at Tehran’s Azadi Square, but no protests were reported in the capital.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that officials were “obliged to address Khuzestan’s problems.” The Instagram post was his first public acknowledgement of the unrest. “No one can rest with comfort in the face of the difficult situation in Khuzestan if they care about people,” he added.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that the United States was closely monitoring the protests in Khuzestan. “We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves .... without fear of violence, without fear of arbitrary detention by security forces,” he said.
Cell phone internet service in southwestern Iran was disrupted starting on July 15, according to NetBlocks, a company that monitors global internet connectivity. The company warned that the regional shutdown was “likely to limit the public’s ability to express political discontent or communicate with each other and the outside world.”
July 22: Protestors again took to the streets of Ahvaz and other cities in Khuzestan. Videos from Mahshahr appeared to show security forces opening fire on demonstrators.
Protestors in Aligudarz, Lorestan province, gathered in support of demonstrators in neighbouring Khuzestan province. Videos showed them chanting slogans against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One video appeared to show security forces shooting at demonstrators. A police official told Fars News Agency that several demonstrators were detained after four police officers were shot.
Videos on social media showed protests in three other provinces. In Shahin Shahr,a city in Isfahan province, residents held a rally in solidarity with Khuzestan. A small demonstration was also held in the town of Jonghan in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in southwestern Iran. In Borazjan, a city in Bushehr province in southwest Iran, protestors blocked a main road with burning tires. In a public square in Ganaveh, another city in Bushehr province, young men chanted “Don’t be afraid, we are all together.”
President Rouhani said that residents of Khuzestan “have the right to speak, express themselves, protest and even take to the streets within the framework of the regulations.” He appeared to allude to the reported killings but implied that security forces were not responsible. “It is possible that a malicious person could take advantage of the situation, come in the middle of it all and use a gun, shoot and kill one of our dear citizens,” Rouhani said in a televised speech.
In a phone call, Rouhani told the governor of Khuzestan, Qassem Soleimani Dashtaki, that people “should not doubt that the government is listening to their legitimate protests and is making every effort to solve the problem of water shortage quickly.”
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said that security forces had been ordered to immediately release detainees in Khuzestan who had not committed a criminal act. “Protest is a natural and acceptable right in the Islamic Republic,” he tweeted.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) sent tens of water tankers to the Dasht-e Azadegan area of Khuzestan, Brigadier General Hassan Shahvarpour said. “Another group of tankers are on the way and will help to address the people's water problem. Basij (volunteer forces) and the IRGC, along with the provincial officials, are standing by people with all their power,” he added.
President-elect Ebrahim Raisi expressed concern about Khuzestan’s water crisis and pledged that his government would work to address the problem. “In order not to waste time until the formation of the new government, we convened this meeting to find operational solutions to solve the problems of the province and to implement everything possible from now,” he said in a special meeting on the issues of Khuzestan province.
July 23: Protestors reportedly took to the streets in several cities and towns in Khuzestan, including Abadan, Ahvaz, Dezful and Mahshahr. Videos showed protestors marching in Aligudarz, Lorestan province, for a second day in a row.
In a speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei acknowledged the plight of Khuzestan’s residents. Water shortages are “not a minor issue, considering the hot weather in Khuzestan,” he said. Demonstrators “cannot be blamed, and their problem should be addressed.” But Khamenei also warned people to be vigilant because Iran’s enemies may want “to take advantage of the situation.”
First Vice President Jahangiri arrived in Khuzestan to survey the province’s problems. He met with Arab and Bakhtiari tribal leaders as well as local officials. Jahangiri also toured agricultural and water projects.
State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said that the United States supports the rights of Iranians to “voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable.” She said that Washington was closely following reports of internet shutdowns and use of deadly force by security forces. “We urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their universal rights of freedom of expression as well as freely access information online,” she told reporters.
Iran’s security forces have deployed unlawful force to crush peaceful protests in Khuzestan. The systematic impunity that continues to take lives in Iran must end. pic.twitter.com/ius6H8dwMZ— Amnesty International (@amnesty) July 24, 2021
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called on Iran to address the water crisis and criticized the crackdown on protests. “The impact of the devastating water crisis on life, health and prosperity of the people of Khuzestan should be the focus of the Government’s attention, not the protests carried out by people driven to desperation by years of neglect,” she said. “I am extremely concerned about the deaths and injuries that have occurred over the past week, as well as the widespread arrests and detention.” Bachelet also warned that “shooting and arresting people will simply add to the anger and desperation.”
Amnesty International reported that security forces had killed at least eight protesters and bystanders in seven different cities since July 15. “Using live ammunition against unarmed protesters posing no imminent threat to life is a horrifying violation of the authorities’ obligation to protect human life. Protesters in Iran who take to the streets to voice legitimate economic and political grievances face a barrage of gunfire, tear gas, and arrests,” said Diana Eltahawy, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
July 24: Protestors reportedly gathered in at least four cities in Khuzestan. In Ahvaz and Mahshar, security forces reportedly used tear gas and fired guns toward protestors to disperse the crowds.
Demonstrators gathered in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province in Iran’s northwest, to show support for Khuzestan’s residents. Protestors also held rallies in Bojnourd, in the northeast province of Khorasan, and Saqez, in the eastern province of Kurdistan, to show solidarity.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh rejected remarks by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights as “interventionist.” Bachelet’s “non-expert and biased comments on the management of the country's water resources were not within the scope of [the] commissioner's responsibilities,” he said.
Major General Hossein Salami, the commander of the IRGC, arrived in Ahvaz to examine Khuzestan’s problems and check on the status of IRGC and Basij water supply projects. “[W]e are committed and loyal to these people. We do not leave them alone, and we stand by them during hardships, as was the case in the 2019 flood,” he said.
July 25: Protestors reportedly demonstrated in several cities in Khuzestan, including Ahvaz, Mahshahr, and Shadegan. Videos showed the deployment of security forces across the province. Residents reported that the internet was shut down in several cities.
Protesters took to the streets in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province, in support of Khuzestan’s residents.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, head of the national judiciary, ordered Sadegh Moradi, the chief justice of Khuzestan, to immediately release protestors who were detained.
July 26: Videos showed a protest on a major street in Tehran in the morning. Demonstrators marched down Islamic Republic Avenue and chanted “Police, support us.“ Some demonstrators also chanted slogans critical of the government, including “Death to the dictator,” “Mullahs get lost,” and “Not Gaza, not Lebanon. I give my life for Iran,” a critique of Iran’s regional policies. The protestors dispersed peacefully. Hamidreza Goodarzi, the deputy governor of Tehran, said that the protest was due to power outages.
In Karaj, the capital of Alborz province, videos showed protestors marching and chanting “Death to the dictator.” Karaj is so close to Tehran that it is often considered a suburb. Videos also showed protestors gathering in a square in Fardis, another city in Alborz.
In Kermanshah, the capital of Kermanshah province in western Iran, a video showed protestors burning tires in a road at the city’s entrance.
In Isfahan, the capital of Isfahan province, residents demonstrated against the shutoff of water to the Zayandeh River. “Give Isfahan’s breath back, give Zayandeh River back,” they chanted. Authorities had temporarily allowed water to flow from a dam after demonstrations earlier in July.
Residents also reportedly took to the streets of Ahvaz and clashed with security forces.
During a cabinet meeting, President Rouhani reiterated his support for the right to protest but suggested that internal opposition forces and Iran’s adversaries were also behind the unrest. “Civil protest is one of the fundamental rights of all members of the nation, and managers have a duty to listen to the protests and be humble and tolerant, but there is no doubt that behind these incidents are the dirty hands of the enemy and the provocations of some internal groups,” he said.
July 27: Videos posted online from Isfahan city showed a crowd chanting “Isfahan, Khuzestan, Unity, Unity.” Protesters alsolit a banner of Supreme Leader Khamenei on fire. Protestors also chanted anti-government slogans in:
- Karaj, Alborz province
- Fardis, Alborz province
- Ivan-Gharb, Ilam province, in western Iran
In Khuzestan, mobile internet service in several cities was reportedly disrupted in the evening until morning. In Ahvaz, locals told IranWire that security forces had deployed in force across the city.
The counterintelligence department of the intelligence ministry claimed that it had dismantled a network of Mossad agents and seized a large cache of weapons at the western border, Fars News Agency reported. The ministry said that the agents intended to use the weapons to “turn protests into riots” and for assassinations or other acts of sabotage.
July 28: The United States condemned Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protests. “We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves, without fear of violence and detention by security forces,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said. “We urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to freely access information, including via the Internet.”
July 29: Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated U.S. support for the protests. In an interview with Sky News Arabia, he said that the demonstrations were initially about meeting basic needs but were evolving. “And now we’ve seen them move to people expressing their larger aspirations for freedom and for a government that respects them and respects their rights. And, of course, we stand with the people of Iran in the desire to have their voices heard, and we urge – strongly urge the government not to use violence and repression to silence those voices.”
Human Rights Watch urged Iran to release peaceful protesters and allow an independent international investigation into the alleged use of deadly force by security forces. “Only a transparent investigation into the deaths of protesters, holding security forces accountable for wrongdoing, and a commitment to address long-term grievances can begin to address the local population’s loss of trust in the authorities,” Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said. The watchdog said that at least nine people had been killed in Khuzestan and Lorestan provinces since July 15.
Residents in Taleghani, Khuzestan, only had one hour of running water per day, according to Asr-e Iran newspaper. "The water that enters the pipes is mixed with sewage," the paper reported. A hardliner parliamentarian from Ahvaz said that he was working to secure the release of juvenile protesters arrested in Khuzestan. "There is no precise information on the number of [minor] detainees, but we are working for people from all age groups to be released if they [participated in the protests peacefully and] haven't committed crimes," Karim Hosseini told the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA).
July 31: Videos posted on social media showed more than a hundred people demonstrating in front of Tehran’s City Theater. “The country has no water, the pressure continues” they chanted. “Security forces reportedly broke up the gathering.
Photo credits: Gorgon residents via Tasnim News Agency (CC By 4.0); Kermanshah water crisis via Tasnim News Agency (CC By 4.0); Zayanderud River via Tasnim News Agency (CC By 4.0)
Andrew Hanna, a program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote this report. Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, and Julia Dickson, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center, contributed to the timeline.