Iran's conservative tightrope

10-12-2022 10:01 AM
Djavad Salehi-Isfahani

The massive public protests that have raged across Iran since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police in September arrived at the World Cup. Ahead of its 6-2 loss to England last month, the Iranian team refused to sing the Islamic Republic’s national anthem, with some activists in attendance waving protest signs and booing the team for not quitting the tournament altogether in a show of solidarity toward the hundreds of young Iranians killed during the past ten weeks.

Football is by far Iran’s favourite sport. So, for Iranians to turn against their national team, especially one that had topped the Asian qualifiers, speaks to the deep wound that the protests have etched on the country’s psyche. As the movement has grown and protests spread from Tehran to the provinces, protesters have broadened their demands. Their call for an end to harassment by the morality police soon hardened into chants of “death to the dictator”, referring to 83-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

To be sure, this crisis does not appear to threaten the regime’s survival. The protesters lack the means to overthrow the government, and the leadership is unlikely to splinter. Fortunately for the regime, its external enemies are helping it keep its different factions united.

But the Islamic Republic’s harsh crackdown on protesters has severed the government’s ties to several generations of Iranians, not only young people. Their parents’ generation had been largely loyal to the revolution; in their own youth, middle-aged Iranians sought to reform the system from within rather than overthrow it. They elected politicians who promised not just material benefits but also greater tolerance toward different lifestyles.

Over the past two decades, Iranian reformists have tried with limited success to make the Islamic Republic more tolerant. Former President Mohammad Khatami, elected in 1997, pushed for “dialogue among civilizations” until he stepped down in 2005. President Hassan Rouhani, who served from 2013 until 2021, promised more moderate social policies, as well as repairing relations with the West and bringing an end to economic sanctions. Even former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected as a hardliner in 2005, later turned against his conservative benefactors and adopted his own style of reformism. Since leaving office in 2013, he has campaigned for greater individual liberties and abolition of the morality police (a step the regime has now taken).

In 2021, frustrated hardliners engineered the election of a deeply conservative cleric, current President Ebrahim Raisi, whose task would be to demonstrate to the public what true Islamic revolutionaries could deliver. A uniformly traditionalist government, the hardliners hoped, would deliver economic prosperity at home and cement Iran’s position as a regional power, turning Iranians away from reform and rapprochement with the West.

When prosperity failed to materialise, the hardliners blamed Iran’s poor economic performance on Western sanctions, neoliberal policies introduced by previous governments, and over-reliance on globalised markets. Some even blamed the ineffectual 2015 nuclear deal for the country’s economic ills. Raisi, who won the presidency with only 18 million votes (out of an electorate of 59 million), lacks the mandate and the experience to deliver on his promises to reach a deal with the West, tame inflation and stop the depreciation of the currency.

It follows, then, that Iranian conservatives were unprepared when the protests erupted. Tensions between young women and the authorities over forced hijab wearing have been bubbling for years, but conservatives paid little attention. In fact, hardliners had been pushing for increased surveillance of women in public spaces since 2019, before Raisi’s election. Many thought it was time to reverse the lax enforcement of the 1983 hijab law that criminalised female attire deemed “un-Islamic”. That doing so was inconsistent with the changing times, and that the dress code had already sparked protracted anti-hijab protests in Iran’s more affluent urban neighbourhoods, did not seem to trigger alarm bells.

What the regime missed is that Iranian society has changed since 1983, when most women observed the hijab law willingly. Many women lived very different lives back then; they experienced 6-8 pregnancies on average, did not seek work outside the home and were not as highly educated. The pro-poor policies of the early Islamic revolutionaries provided electricity, clean water, and health services to rural and poor urban areas, transforming many women’s lives. Today, however, women in Iran marry in their mid-to-late twenties and have two children on average. Thirty-eight per cent of Iranian women in their twenties have at least some higher education, compared to 33 per cent of men in their age cohort. To them, the mere thought that they could be arrested and dragged to a reeducation camp by the morality police is intolerable.

To his credit, Raisi, who promised to create a million jobs and a million new homes every year during his four-year term, has mainly focused on realising his ambitious economic goals. But during his first year in office, the economy added only 374,000 jobs. We do not have data on how many new homes were built during this time, but it seems safe to assume that it was far fewer than a million.

A decade of economic failures has stoked even more anger among Iran’s youth. Young Iranians graduating from college wait more than 2.5 years on average before landing their first job. In 2021, almost half of college-educated women in their twenties and a quarter of their male peers were unemployed. Most Iranians in their late twenties still live with their parents, financially unable to start a family of their own.

In trying to quell popular unrest, the authorities will likely find it was much easier to abolish the hated morality police than it will be to bring about robust economic growth. Given Iran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, reviving the nuclear deal seems all but impossible, as does the prospect of Iran rejoining the global economy anytime soon.

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, professor of Economics at Virginia Tech, is a research fellow at the Economic Research Forum in Cairo and an associate of the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Centre. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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