A day after holding his first cabinet meeting, Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi rushed back to his so-called inspection tours of Iran’s provinces along with members of his cabinet. The tours are intended to address Iran’s mounting economic problems and resolve the issues in the country’s border provinces which are home to disaffected religious and ethnic minorities. However, critics say these tours serve to raise Raisi’s popularity while he has no real plan or vision to solve Iran’s ongoing problems.
Raisi has promised to offer affordable housing in Iran’s provinces, given his government’s goal to build 1 million public houses annually. There are further plans to initiate projects that boost the industrial sector and hasten privatization. Raisi’s government also intends to establish provincial planning councils to expand the capacity of human resources at the provincial level.
Provincial “inspection tours” are a routine protocol to review conditions on the ground and identify local needs. According to Iran’s president, the provincial trips permit him to observe problems directly, skip formalities, and make decisions on the spot. Raisi visited the southwestern province of Khuzestan, the northwestern province of Ilam, the central eastern province of South Khorasan, and the southeastern province of Sistan and Balochistan. All four provinces are considered to be economically “backward” and are also home to various ethnic and religious minorities including Arabs, Kurds, and Balochis. These minorities face oppression and neglect, forcing them to protest against Iran’s central government.
Raisi’s surprise visit to the province of Khuzestan came a day after he held his first cabinet meeting. His proclaimed aim is to immediately address the crises plaguing the province, such as, severe energy and water shortages, initiate projects to boost the local agricultural and health sectors, and, Meeting with tribal leaders. Promoting tourism is a major priority for Raisi’s government, and he said he planned to promote the province’s cultural heritage, and preserve its rich ecosystem.
In the province of Ilam, Raisi promised to link the province to Iran’s national railway network. The province shares a 340 kilometer border with Iraq, and Raisi insisted that the province should be developed in order to attract religious tourists. Annually, large numbers of Iranians travel through Ilam to visit Iraq’s holy shrines. Ilam is also rich in hydrocarbon resources, and Raisi’s government plans to develop oil fields to generate at least 1,000 new jobs in the province. The IRGC-affiliated Khatam al Anbiya is building dams in the province to exploit cross-border water resources. Raisi also wants the company to help build cross-border markets to boost economic activities and generate new jobs. The province is also home to Iranian Kurds, Laks and Lurs; all three, have struggled to retain their cultural heritage. Raisi urged his government to connect the province to Iraq through border corridors to boost economic opportunities.
In Sistan and Balochistan, home to Iran’s Sunni Balochi community, Raisi said he intended to promote investment opportunities to develop local ports such as Chabahar. In addition, Iran has plans to expand railway networks throughout the province and fix severe water shortages by insisting on its water share from Afghanistan. While touring the city of Zabol, Raisi said, Iran would defend its share of border waters, promote border markets with Afghanistan, supply gas to the province and develop its mining capacity, and invest in renewable energies.
Raisi also visited the province of South Khorasan, promising to generate jobs, develop its mining industry, and complete large road and railway projects. During the tour, Raisi emphasized the need to maximize cross-border opportunities for growth and development with Afghanistan and Pakistan. He granted a 20-day moratorium to fix labor problems and stalled projects to transfer water from the Sea of Oman to the province. In addition, he visited coal mines, promised health insurance and steady wages to workers, and said the province’s seasonal agricultural capacity meant that border markets had to expand for food export purposes.
Even before becoming president, Raisi frequently led provincial trips to meet with local authorities. As Iran’s chief justice, he led more than 26 provincial visits to meet with local judges and promote social justice. However, under his watch, Iran’s prisons and justice system drastically deteriorated.
Not surprisingly, Raisi is being compared by his critics with Iran’s former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who also led regular provincial tours to boost his popularity. Local economists warn that Raisi is repeating Ahmadinejad’s mistake of seeking popularity rather than presenting a macro-economic plan to address provincial problems. The Khuzestan trip was a formality according to a parliamentarian, and Iranian “reformists” argue that such tours are nothing but PR stunts to distract from the crises and challenges facing the Raisi government.
Raisi has immediately undertaken populist measures to project himself as an ordinary man capable of relating to the misery facing the Iranian people. Populist steps inevitably are exposed, and their effects do not last long, hence Raisi will then have to offer a substantial economic plan or face more protests across the country that will rock the feeble pillars of the political system and further erode the government’s legitimacy which the Raisi administration is seeking to restore.