Politics, Analysis, Middle East

Political dimensions of Iran’s economic ordeal

Besides the economic factor, the ongoing uprising has a lot to do with the issue of who will succeed the Supreme Leader

 Political dimensions of Iran’s economic ordeal

By Selim Celal

The Turkey-based writer is an expert on Iran's foreign policy and domestic politics.


Since December 2017, the popular uprising in the Islamic Republic has been making the headlines in the world media. The Islamic Republic has failed to get to the crux of the problem, instead of fighting with symptoms only. As a result, one strike follows another, the most recent one having been staged by teachers over their “poverty level” wages.

But, economic hardship is not something new for Iranians; it goes back four decades. The Iranian economy started deteriorating right after the 1979 revolution. Once a fast-growing country with a huge reserve of petrodollars, Iranians soon realized their blunder. The Pahlavi regime, initially branded "Taghoot" (tyrant), was renamed as "Yaqoot" (Ruby). The economic hardship, political oppression, and the overall mismanagement of the country in the last four decades have whitewashed the Pahlavi era, portraying it as a ‘golden age’ for most Iranians, even those born after the 1979 revolution.

Economic factor

That said, no doubt that the economic factor is playing a major role in the ongoing popular uprising. Apparently, addressing the economic problems of the country seems to be the most obvious step to take. But then, again, one may wonder why the Islamic Republic is not taking that path. Does it mean that it is not able to run the economy? No, it is not the case at all. Iranians are quite intelligent people, and there is no shortage of human resources in Iran. Apart from Iranian expats, there is a good number of qualified professionals, technocrats and skilled individuals inside the establishment who can fix the economy.

As matter of fact, the current issue is one of ‘priority', and not ‘capability'. Over the last couple of years, the legitimacy of the Iranian regime has always been a controversial issue. As a rule of thumb, once a regime has lost its confidence about its legitimacy, survival becomes its priority. In such a situation, the country, along with its resources, is galvanized towards the holy cause of keeping the regime afloat. For instance, Iran knows all too well that joining the FAFT (Financial Action Task Force) would have a positive impact on the Iranian banking sector. But the regime is unnecessarily resisting it, as the agreement would limit the regime's ability to fund its proxies, such as the Hezbollah of Lebanon, the Houthis of Yemen, etc. For forty years, the Islamic Republic has bred them for use in tough times. Now, being a tough time, the regime cannot leave them in the lurch, rather it has to help them more. The regime is very much afraid of defection in the lower ranks of military officers. It certainly considers using non-Iranian Shia militias to protect itself at the time of necessity. If these militias are sacrificing their lives for the protection of Bashar Assad, they are expected to sacrifice even more for the protection of the so-called "Guardian of the Muslims of the world" (wali amr e Muslim jahan), as he is referred to in the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

On the other hand, it is expected that the failure to fix the economy will cause the popular uprising to continue one way or another. Nonetheless, despite its normally heavy-handed measures, the Islamic Republic seems reluctant to suppress the protestors the way it would be expected of an authoritarian regime. There is either a lack of consensus among the commanders and leaders, or the regime believes that any strong crackdown would just provoke people more. Whatever might be the reason, technically speaking, whenever an authoritarian regime is reluctant about suppression, it catalyzes its collapse.

Issue of succession

However, besides the economic factor, the ongoing uprising has a lot to do with who will succeed the Supreme Leader. The Iranian establishment is really obsessed with the issue of Ayatollah Khamenei's succession. Right from the very beginning of his presidency, Rouhani has been coveting the supreme leadership position. But, to the establishment, especially the military circle, Hassan Rouhani could turn into the Boris Yeltsin of Iran. That is why the establishment tried to push him out before too late, by trying to limit his presidency to a single term. Its strategy during the 2017 election was based on highlighting economic issues in order to undermine Rouhani's image. After suffering a defeat in the election, the establishment began to pursue the same strategy more feverishly this time.

Hence, it can be said that it was, for the first time, the establishment itself that began to discuss the economic issues from a realistic perspective, and in so doing, inadvertently emboldened people to take to the streets and chant slogans about their fundamental human rights. It seems quite paradoxical that an authoritarian establishment should teach its people to exercise their long-forgotten democratic right to protest. Prior to that, no one would protest against economic problems; instead, they would skillfully adjust to the new economic realities by doing overtime, working two jobs, doing part-time work, or finding any other source of income.

As far as President Rouhani is concerned, he is fully aware of the causes of the economic problems. He knows that every problem leads back to the Supreme Leader’s apparatus. Most embezzlement and corruption cases which are surfacing one after another are linked with the Supreme Leader's office one way or another. Yet, Rouhani is avoiding any open confrontation with the Supreme Leader; instead, he is seeking to reconstruct his relationship with him as well as Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament. A smooth relationship with these two figures is vital for his aspiration to the supreme leadership position. In fact, he is looking for a scenario like that which happened in 1989, when Hashimi Rafsanjani (the then speaker of parliament) and Khamenei (the then president of the Republic) made a deal to divide power between themselves, with the former becoming president and the latter the Supreme Leader.

Supreme Leader's image

The overall situation has seriously tarnished the image of the Supreme Leader. While he has always been sensitive about his public image, in every uprising he has become the key target of the protesters. Possessing a semi-divine position, he could have recommended a number of guided structural changes, but he has missed all these opportunities owing to his obduracy. This fact was very visible during the recent parliamentary discussion on the FAFT. A few days before discussing the issue, Larijani wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader to inquire about his personal opinion. But the Supreme Leader, in his reply, wrote that he had already given his opinion to him (Larijani) during a conversation. It means that he does not even care to clarify his position on an important national issue.

When Ayatollah Khomeini signed the ceasefire with Iraq, he equated his decision with drinking from a poisoned chalice. But, the Supreme Leader, who has already sipped once from the so-called poisoned chalice during the nuclear deal, knows very well that any other sip will kill him by alienating his few remaining hardline supporters. This can be easily seen in the statement of Khalil Muvahid, who sent thousands of threatening messages to MPs, warning them not to vote in favor of the FAFT. When Larijani claimed that he had the approval of the Supreme Leader, Muvahid stated: “if it is proven that the Supreme Leader did actually approve [of the plan to] join the FAFT, I would be the first person to reject his leadership”.

That said, so far, instead of addressing people's genuine grievances, the general strategy of the Iranian leaders has been to mislead their compatriots by warning them about the Syrianization of the country. One should ask them, who is responsible for the Syrianization of Syria in the first place. Obviously, it was the Islamic Republic itself which blocked the Tunisization of that country. When Iranian leaders use the term ‘Syrianization', they use it as a threat, not as a prediction, though many may wrongly take it as a prediction and assume that if the current regime were to collapse, Iranians would face a harder situation like Syrians. But the regime means that they would not leave Iran to others, rather, much like Bashar Assad, they would destroy it, so that it is better to continue with them at any cost.

It is not certain whether the establishment could successfully come out of this self-imposed crisis or not. At the moment, the only glimmer of hope for the regime is to try and survive until Nov. 3, 2020, and witness a dramatic win by the Democratic presidential candidate in the U.S. so it can conclude a sanction relief deal. Nonetheless, the fact is that the Iranians are becoming aware of their fundamental rights. Owing to this ever-increasing awareness, the current level of pressure on them feels heavier and heavier. No matter what kinds of good treatments they may get, they have already set their minds on getting their freedom back and enjoying their fundamental rights to the full. All in all, the establishment has condoned the popular uprisings so far due to power politics in order to undermine President Rouhani, but now it is the Iranian public that will decide when to end it. The establishment seems to have missed an important rule: nothing is controllable forever.

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