The direction of Iranian socioeconomic reform

 Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister. || Mehr News Agency.

Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister. || Mehr News Agency.

Benefits of living in Canada include being fortunate enough to live free of tyrannical or authoritarian rule. Although our democratic decisions may occasionally appear contradictory, by no means are they totalitarian. Western liberal democracies are just that; western, liberal, and democratic. The only instances we hear of non-democratic practices are either through our history books, dystopian novels, or media on alien areas of the world; most particularly, the Middle East. Only 1 in every 5 countries in the UN-defined Middle East-North Africa Region is democratic, with that number dropping to 1 in every 11 states which are fully democratic in practice. Out of the non-democratic remainder, the Islamic Republic of Iran has consistently made headlines for being the pinnacle of authoritarianism and false democracy for decades in the western world. Although the truth behind the aforementioned statement is debatable, political unrest among citizens is indisputably apparent. In the past two weeks alone, a series of events in the Islamic Republic have led to various protests across the country. The demonstrations have claimed the lives of at least 25 citizens and led to thousands of arrests in multiple towns and provinces, from large metropoles to rural villages. Although the cause of these rebellious acts is economic grievances, their roots trace back decades to general disdain for the Iranian political structure as a whole. As the country with the world’s third largest oil and second largest gas reserves, a tremendously diversified economy, a population of 80 million, 71% of which are between the ages of 14 and 64, and a geographically advantageous position, one would think Iran leads the region in development and progress. After all, the numbers alone prove that Iran is a nation with tremendous potential. Unfortunately, numbers fail to illustrate the full picture. The recent geopolitical calamities in the region prove this is not the case. The main reason for Iran’s failure to achieve its potential as a continental superpower, and a facet the reformist party in Iran have mentioned time and again in their party’s political platform, is the crushing four-decade-long sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community. Since 1980, no international banking agency was permitted to conduct business within Iran, companies could not receive loans from creditors if they wished to invest in Iran, the Iranian Rial was not accepted as an appropriate currency for international trade, and imports to and exports from Iran were tremendously limited. These sanctions isolated Iranians from much of the world’s great economic advancements, most particularly a lack of bank compatibility, diminishing demand for the Iranian Rial, and a crucial lack of McDonald’s and Miniso. Inflation rose due to vast amounts of Rials that could have been used by foreigners and unemployment rose due to a lack of foreign investment and lack of demand for Iranian goods. Moreover, Iran became one of the most diplomatically isolated countries in the entire world, second only to North Korea. The reasons behind these sanctions were largely due to Iran’s expanding nuclear effort, and the international community deemed it acceptable to pressure Iran away from its nuclear ambitions. Although the sanctions were peaceful in nature, they were spearheaded by the United States of America, who had private quarrels with Iran over the Hostage Crisis of 1980 and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, where the pro-American ruler Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi II was ousted and replaced with a critical and zealous Islamic Republic of Iran. The new government promised democratic reform, but introduced the concept of a “Supreme Leader,” who ruled Iran with an iron first. The Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the power to veto any bills passed by parliament, ban candidates from running for presidency, and control political freedom in the country. Additionally, only two political parties were allowed to exist; the right-from-center reformist party and the far-right hardliner conservatives. The Iranian government is by all definitions authoritarian and totalitarian, as the former monarch was only replaced by a religious one. Nevertheless, Iran was historically one of the first semi-democratic governments in its region. Apart from Turkey and Israel, all other countries in the Middle East were much more authoritarian than Iran was, and the concept of a ballot box was new. Citizens were hopeful that the theocracy would be replaced by a democratic republic, hence the name “Islamic Republic.” However, the ruling religious elite were reluctant to give up power so easily, and they continuously shoved the democratic promises they made during the revolution under the (Persian) rug. This behaviour was tolerated at first, largely due to Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in 1980. However, as the world entered the 21st century, Iranians became fed up with the system and demanded change. Their demands escalated in 2009 when the conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term in office by a huge margin, even though the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi received copious public support. The public was enraged, and blamed the Supreme Leader for interfering in elections and inciting voter fraud. Mass demonstrations were held, some of the largest in Iranian history, and clashes between protesters and the police were frequent. Eventually, the Islamic Republic employed its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps —the government’s private military— to quell the protests and break up the unrest. The protests eventually died down in 2010 and 2011, but the Islamic Republic now sat on a tenuous base without public support. Adding to the public’s social woes were economic ones, such as hyperinflation and high unemployment. Nevertheless, the government blamed the economic issues on the international community’s desire to see Iran become a weak state similar to its neighbours. Things changed in 2015, when the reformist president Hassan Rouhani and his dashing foreign minister Javad Zarif finally negotiated a deal with the international community to severely curb their nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. They won immense support in Iran, and were praised as the usherers of Iran’s future. The future seemed bright, and immediately Rouhani and Zarif set off on expeditions to welcome European and Asian investors and companies to Iran. As it turns out, events didn’t play out according to plan, and European corporations were reluctant to invest in Iran due to the election of Donald Trump, who constantly threatened to “tear up the nuclear deal.” If America pulled out, American banks would not be allowed to invest in Iran or loan money to companies who wish to invest in Iran, American or European. Due to the unpredictability of the Trump establishment and the numerous proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, European investment was limited. On the Iranian side, the public slowly started distrusting the government, and didn’t see their lives improve in 2015, 2016, or 2017. However, they put the blame on Rouhani’s establishment and the Supreme Leader, saying they weren’t managing the economy properly and preferred to supply their pro[xies abroad instead of invest the money in Iran proper. Tensions between clerics and citizens were higher than ever, and all that was required now was a match to light the fuse. This came in December of 2017, when the government released its budget plan for 2018. According to the plan, the price of staples such as eggs, milk, and bread would skyrocket in early 2018, and water shortages would increase the price of water and utilities. This was the exact opposite of what Iranians expected after the nuclear deal in 2015, and the public was rightfully aggravated. In the final week of December, thousands of Iranians took to the streets, protesting against Rouhani’s establishment. Clashes with the police have taken the lives of 25 people so far, with tens of thousands being arrested in many cities across the country. Things were different than 2009, however, as this time Iranian anger was directed at the system in its entirety, not against the Supreme Leader or Ahmadinejad. The protests evolved from peaceful demonstrations against economic policies to violent confrontations and open acts of dissent calling for the death of the president, Supreme Leader, and an end to the Islamic Republic. Thus far, the government’s reaction has been relatively modest compared to its brutal crackdown in 2009, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have not yet been called. President Hassan Rouhani has even used the protests to call for further modernization and social reforms in Iran, a severe obstacle for the hardliner political party in Iran, and it seems to be working. In late December of 2017, the Islamic headscarf —which has been required for women to wear ever since 1979— was no longer mandatory for women to wear on most days of the week in certain areas of urban centers. Although it may not seem like it, this was a huge win for the reformist party in Iran, and the protests, which call for further such reforms and for the government to pay closer attention to the economic plight of the people, are giving the reformist party in Iran momentum. Challenges towards Iranian reform do exist, but the global trend seems to be going in a positive direction.