Ode to Vigilantism?
(Sunday’s front page of hardliner newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz reads “Bijan’s Guards”, criticizing the Petroleum Minister for his heavy-handed response to protestors.)
In a move to further pressure on Petroleum Minister Bijan Zanganeh, a number of Basiji university students gathered in front of the Petroleum Ministry building here in Tehran on Saturday in an unauthorized gathering in protest to the so-called Crescent Petroleum affair and fresh oil contracts.
The Iranian Special Unit police forces cracked down on the protesters, putting a number of them under arrest after coordination with judiciary authorities.
The protesters were apparently Basiji students of three major Tehran universities, Imam Sadegh, Amir Kabir, and Khajeh Nasir, who had announced their plan to gather in front of the main Petroleum Ministry office. “After the Crescent scandal was uncovered, the technocrats, who have nestled in the Petroleum Ministry, became determined to implement their own objectives by signing new oil contracts called IPC,” or Iran Petroleum Contracts, explained Hassanlou, a spokesperson of the ‘Student Basij’ of Imam Sadegh University.
“The times of verbal warnings have come to an end and our ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’ for ‘oil generals’ has entered into a new phase,” stated Hassanlou, referring to Zanganeh and his team of oil veterans. He invited students enraged by the ‘oil plunder’ and the Crescent ‘corruption’ to gather in front of the Petroleum Ministry.
The dispute over the Crescent affair involves a deal first struck in 2001 with Bijan Zanganeh, then Petroleum Minister in Mohammad Khatami’s second presidential term, under which the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) was committed to supply 600 million cubic feet of gas on a daily basis via pipeline from its Salman field, in the southern Persian Gulf, to Sharjah. Although the deal went under thorough investigations during multilateral meetings among the representatives of the Intelligence Ministry, Petroleum Ministry, the General Inspection Office (GIO) and the parliamentary energy committee, officials who came to power with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad found the contract against Iran’s interests and declined to follow its mandates. After years of fruitless negotiations, the Emirati Sharjah’s Crescent Petroleum announced that an arbitration tribunal in The Hague was already in the damages assessment phase of long-running lawsuit over the contract in what would probably result in a multibillion-dollar award.
Conservatives have continued using the contract and its undeclared compensation as a leverage against Zanganeh and Rouhani’s administration ever since the former, called ‘the old general’ by hardliners, won the parliament’s vote of confidence for a new term to serve as Petroleum Minister after a gap during the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
The protests have apparently been also provoked by a research conducted in one of the universities on the Iran Petroleum Contract, a project the ministry says is designed to “to assist oil and gas companies (E&P) position, target, engage and execute the exploration and development projects in the upcoming licensing round in Iran”.
The crackdown, however, has come as a surprise to hardliners who have been accustomed to immunity from persecution for long. Conservative news agencies called it a ‘severe’ crackdown directly ordered by the administration, in which protesters have be beaten by batons, in an attempt to sweeten their claims of the administration’s intolerance in the face of criticism.
Not long after the Iranian Students New Agency (ISNA) reported 38 of the protesters were arrested, Fars said they were released. However, the tables seem to have turned since the Saudi embassy in Tehran was raided earlier this month, which resulted in the severing of ties between the two countries. Judiciary officials have said the leaders of the incident have been arrested and will soon face trial.
Conservatives have made efforts in vain to detach themselves of any links to vigilantes, as an IRGC commander went so far as calling them ‘monarchists’. Ghassemkhani, one of the leaders of the yesterday protests, also seized the opportunity to do the same. “The question is why the Police brings a large number of forces, water cannons and similar equipment for a completely economy-oriented gathering but does nothing in the Saudi embassy assault even though it was obvious what could happen there,” he said.
A number of political figures have expressed their support for the protesters, among them Ahmad Tavakolli, a prominent Principlist MP, who has asked the Parliament Speaker, Ali Larijani, to condemn the police crackdown. “Even tens of nationwide protests against the oil contracts cannot suffice,” he said today, comparing the economic significance of the contracts to the political importance of the nuclear deal.
Iran hopes to boost oil exports and attract foreign investment to its oil industries after the nuclear agreement and removal of sanctions. Tehran has announced its intention to increase oil production as soon as possible at a time when oil is experiencing the lowest prices in more than a decade.