The regime needs to change its policies
Living under the shadow of crippling international sanctions for a long time, Iran has faced many an economic predicament. Its population of over 80 million has been reeling under the isolationist policies of the world, especially those of the United States and Europe, against the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, nearly three decades of Iran’s Revolutionary government’s rule has been marked with lack of good governance and productivity. The Iranian regime, over the years, failed to come up with new ways and means to support its flagging economy. A ray of hope emerged after the landmark Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Deal, also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), whereby some sanctions were lifted, in early 2016, and Iran was given access to its frozen assets amounting to more than US$50 billion besides the long-awaited freedom to sell its oil to the world, but there have been no substantial improvements in the lives of ordinary Iranians.
Although the incumbent President, Dr Hassan Rouhani, has reaped the benefit of the nuclear deal, as he got elected for the second term, no substantial vitality and vibrancy in the country’s economy has been seen yet. The situation has been so precarious that even the Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is considered the real hand behind the regime, in March 2017, condemned Rouhani government for its utter failure to deliver the nation any significant economic rejuvenation. “I receive people’s complaints and experts’ views. [The government] must act in matters such as production, employment, elimination of recession … in a way that people feel its impact on their lives,” said the supreme leader. However, on the other hand, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared an “impressive recovery” for Iran which is attributed mainly to a doubling of Iran’s crude production since the lifting of sanctions in January 2016. Nonetheless, this, too, had least positive impact on the people’s living standards, inflation and employment rates.
This decay has not happened in a vacuum as it appears that the state, after the 1979 revolution, deliberately or criminally neglected the economic welfare and kept on feeding the nation with rhetoric and slogans like ‘Iranian Nationalism’ and ‘Anti-Western’ and ‘Anti-Arab’ doses. In this regard, very surprisingly, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reportedly said during the early days of the new Iran, that economics was “for donkeys,” and over the question of rapidly-rising inflation, he said tauntingly that “1979 revolution was not about the price of watermelons.” It very well clarifies what the priorities of the Iranian regime and its powerful clergy has been all through these three decades. This false and misplaced prioritization can evidently be witnessed from the Islamic Republic’s foreign “missionary” adventures. Its sectarian proxy war with Arab patron Kingdoms of Salafist ideology particularly in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen; recruitment of warriors from South Asia especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, and further plans of expansion and export of its revolution beyond Middle East have always been at the top of its priority list – all, obviously, at the cost of welfare and development of the social sectors and the people’s basic needs. Same priority problem is also the cause of international isolation of Iran and the unending series of sanctions against it.
The major dilemma which the Islamic Republic has been facing since long is the ever-increasing disparity between the various classes of society. Sharp economic differences as well as the uneven state policies in terms of its welfare programmes are further widening the gulf. The inhabitants away from Tehran and other mainstream areas feel alienated and neglected and their living standards are painfully miserable as shown by various reports in international media. One such piece titled: “How the other half live in Iran” was published in New York Times on 15th January 2018.
However, the Iranians might be able to manage their economic problems in the near future but Trump’s increasing threats and declaration to kill the JCPOA have created an environment of uncertainty. His tirades have cautioned the investors to stay away from Iran and that would result in unprecedented economic losses for the country. Given this environment of uncertainty, even if the nuclear deal is not killed, Iran cannot reap the economic dividends of the lifting of sanctions. So, when Trump said during the protests that he is seeing “brave Iranians,” he was actually making fool of the people. But, Iranians paid no heed to his gimmick and they never called Trump for help, unlike the 2009 Green Movement when the protesters kept on calling Obama for assistance.
Although world powers’ policies in Middle East are discriminatory and prejudiced when they come to their Arab friends, the world’s view and perception about Iran, by and large, is based on its history and ideology and seems nothing far from the truth as an Iranian parliamentarian, known close to Khamenei said, “Three Arab capitals (Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad) have already fallen into Iran’s hands and belong to the Iranian Islamic Revolution,” anticipating Sana’a the fourth capital to befall at that time as Iran has been fully aiding and abetting Houthi insurgents. Despite the fact that, historically, Iran never perceived any credible threat from Arabs and the chances of Sheikhs invading the Persian nation had remained slender until Iran’s real engagement in Arab territories. Israel is the country that has successfully exploited these developments by magnifying the Iranian threat, shifting the focus from Palestine issue, hence it became the real beneficiary of Arabs’ fear of Iran.
In this backdrop, the recent protests in Iran were not a surprise; rather they are a bit late because the causes which resulted in the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 are all present in Iran – some even in their developed stages. Despite elections and representation, successive Iranian governments might never prove themselves lesser authoritarian and dictatorial than the monarchs in the Arab region as far as human rights and freedom of expression are concerned. The clergy has full control over power, and questioning their vision and policies is no less than a blasphemy.
The protests erupted as a result of the revelation of recent budget and the losses the common people were expected to face, such as 1) An imposition of 50 percent increase in the fuel price; 2) cancellation of monetary support and subsidy to more than 34 million people; 3) price hike of various daily consumable items including eggs and poultry; 4) further increase in the military budget which mainly goes to the most dominating Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – the practical exporter of revolution. Later on, the protests on purely economic grounds turned political as both cannot be separated, and the slogans against the president and clergy were unprecedentedly resounding. Protestors also demanded the government to end its backing of the ‘terrorist’ groups abroad and echoed clearly in their slogans: “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon … my soul is searching for the redemption of Iran.”
Iran needs to set its priorities right as the strength of a nation is in the prosperity of the people and no sane person could deny that internally fragile nations cannot withstand external threats. It has to learn lessons from its Arab neighbours and as the Crown Prince has declared to bring its Kingdom out of its oil addiction and to modernize the state and society by opting for a moderate, tolerant and open Islam by getting rid of the conservative one. Iran must follow suit and should abandon its expansionist religious designs. It is high time the Islamic Republic abandoned its traditional economics-for-donkeys thinking.