Iran's Oil Strikes Hint at Regime's Weakness, Future Unrest

The Iranian regime—buffeted by U.S. sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and a series of mysterious explosions—has been forced to address unrest and strikes among key oil and gas workers across the country, as the effects of President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign bite in key industries.

Strikes erupted last week among workers in industrial sectors including oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, amid worsening economic conditions and high inflation in Iran, Radio Farda reported.

Reports and videos published on social media and by worker-affiliated and exiled dissident organizations suggest that the strikes lasted through this weekend as workers demanded the payment of unpaid wages and improvement of poor working conditions.

The protest movement was sparked by the death of petrochemical worker Ebrahim Arabzadeh in the southwestern city of Mahshahr in July, who succumbed to heatstroke after working in high temperatures.

Another worker—Emran Roshani Moqaddam, employed at the Yadavaran Hoveyzeh oil field in the southwest of the country—killed himself in June to protest overdue wages.

Iranian state-run media has so far not addressed the latest round of strikes, which reportedly spread across facilities in the south of the country.

Leftist and Iranian dissident groups abroad jumped on the unrest as evidence of the regime's supposedly collapsing popularity among the population, though most protesters appear to have returned to work as of this weekend.

The cash flow problems that sparked the protests speak to the strain on the Iranian economy, a significant portion of which is accounted for by oil, gas, petrochemicals, and mineral deposits.

Trump's "maximum pressure" sanctions—re-imposed since he withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, in 2018—are designed to throttle the Iranian economy and cut its exports, especially its lucrative oil sales.

Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in Britain, told Newsweek that the regime is responding to the recent protests at oil and gas facilities with restraint, wary of sparking any wider conflagrations.

"I think there's just been sort of a bandaid put on the situation," Vakil said Monday, explaining that some commitments have been made to address issues of back pay and worker safety, though noted this does not mean there will be "any immediate solutions."

"I think the government has been quite careful and trying to not be heavy-handed because they don't want to see something spiral out of control that they think they can manage," Vakil said. "There's so much attention on Iran and its economy right now, that overreacting is also something they're trying to be mindful of."

The Iranian regime has remained stubborn despite the economic strain, vowing to outlast the president and his sanctions, which leaders have branded "economic terrorism." But the sanctions are "putting monumental pressure on the Iranian economy," Vakil said.

Tehran must consider how it will respond to unrest when the impact of sanctions trickles down to workers. "This is maybe one of the few first examples of that," Vakil said. "If it becomes a systemic challenge, you might see some sort of adjustments or shifts on the Iranian position."

Last year, mass protests erupted over a new fuel tax, driven by anger over persistently poor economic performance and no apparent hope of improvements. Then, according to the State Department, Iranian security forces killed around 1,500 protesters.

The result of November's presidential election will be pivotal for Iran's medium-term outlook. Tehran might face a softer approach if former Vice President Joe Biden unseats Trump, but four more years of maximum pressure could be crushing.

"November is a very big turning point in how they're playing things domestically and calculating regionally, vis-à-vis the U.S.," Vakil said.

"I think, for the time being, the consensus is that they're going to try to get to November and then decide whether there's going to be a push for new negotiations or some new calculation on how they're going to try to manage economically."

Iran, protests, fuel, oil, gas, sanctions
This file photo shows Iranians gathered around a charred police station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan on November 17, 2019. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty