Dozens died after a 10-storey building fell, quickly sparking unrest over allegations of corruption and dishonesty by officials
Iranian authorities are struggling to stamp out an outbreak of political protests after a building collapse in the country’s often volatile and oil-rich southwest, which has long been a hotbed of unrest and discontent.
The collapse of the Metropol Building in the southwestern city of Abadan left at least 37 people dead, with many more still buried in the rubble. The accident has sparked an outpouring of grief and rage directed at the Tehran regime and its ruler, cleric Ali Khamenei.
Attempts by senior officials and narratives spun by state television to win over the public have been greeted with scorn and mistrust.
As rescue workers sifted through the rubble for survivors and bodies of loved ones, mourning processions fused with political protests that were met with teargas and gunfire.
“Abadan is heartbroken,” they chanted in a politically charged mourning procession late Tuesday.
The Abadan protests have spread, prompting night-time solidarily gatherings in other cities, including the capital, Tehran, that have been brutally suppressed by truncheon-wielding enforcers.
Spontaneous and loosely organised protests in the province of Khuzestan and elsewhere have been breaking out for weeks, exacerbated by a scheme to cut food subsidies that has raised prices. The collapse of the 10-storey Metropol building poured fuel on to already volatile tinder.
Though it sits atop some of the world’s largest energy reserves, Khuzestan residents view themselves as living in one of the country’s poorest areas. Ethnic Arabs who make up the majority of the population have long complained of discrimination and neglect.
“Khuzestan is a site for concentration of long-standing grievances – social, political, economic and ecological,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a scholar at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “People are quite sensitive about the regime’s responsibility for this.”
Senior officials have conceded that corruption contributed to the collapse of the reportedly unfinished tower. The provincial governor said the tower was permitted only for six storeys but had illegally tacked on additional floors. Another official said the building had no construction permit whatsoever, even as it was already partially in use.
State media and senior officials have tried to pin the blame for the disaster on the Metropol’s politically connected developer, Hossein Abdolbaqi. Officials have insisted he was in the building and died in the collapse.
“The owner was squarely embedded in the entire regime’s corrupt networks,” said Mr Fathollah-Nejad.
But despite publicising videos showing him entering the building and his body being viewed by grieving relatives at a mortuary, many Iranians remain unconvinced, underscoring the depth of the mistrust toward officials. They insist he fled the country with the help of regime officials, who initially claimed he had been arrested before insisting DNA evidence showed he was dead.
“Abdolbaqi is not dead,” protesters chanted 26 May. “It’s a lie! It’s a lie!”
One commentator in the reformist newspaper Etemaad said the mistrust was symptomatic of a regime that systematically misleads the public.
“Those occupying high posts told lies as easily as drinking water, and that lying had basically become low-cost or cost-free, and even brought dividends,” he wrote.
And even hardline politicians have questioned the regime’s actions.
“There is no consistent explanation for why the rubble was not cleared quickly,” Ezzatollah Yousefian Molla, a former lawmaker, was quoted as saying. “Officials say the owner died in the rubble, but the people do not believe it, because mistrust is so widespread.”
Some Iranians likened the protests to those that erupted after the Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger jet, apparently mistaking it for an American bomber, killing all 176 largely Iranian passengers and Ukrainian crew aboard. That disaster also sparked street protests and demands for accountability which mostly sputtered out.
Such protests are loosely organised and relatively easily suppressed by security forces. Some worry that they are counterproductive outbursts of rage, giving regime enforcers more complete control of public spaces without making any political gains.
Still, the protests put a crimp on the Iranian establishment’s attempt to project the image that it has tightened political controls over the country. On Monday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated longstanding American support for Iranians’ right to peacefully protest.
“This is a message that of course applies not only to the people of Iran – the right to peaceful assembly, the right to peaceful protest, the right to freedom of expression,” he told reporters. “These are universal rights that apply equally to the Iranian people as they do to any other people around the world.”
The protests come ahead of what promises to be a tough economic and international period. Talks aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal and removing crippling United States sanctions are unravelling. Iran’s superpower patrons, Russia and China, are both facing severe diplomatic and economic pressures.