In an election where there is no good guy with a real plan for improving the lives of Iranian citizens, the debates appear to be squabbling among children. Hardline conservative challengers faced off with Rouhani, accusing him of not reviving the economy as he claimed he would after the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Rouhani secured Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers, which was seen as a positive development by many Iranians, since it included the lifting of various secondary economic sanctions. They were told it would help to bring foreign investment into Iran and would have an overall positive impact on employment and the economy. However, stories continue to filter out of Iran about business shutting down, workers that aren’t being paid, and billions of dollars of money released as part of the agreement being filtered toward Iran’s military objectives, instead of its people.
But these supposed opposition candidates have no solutions to tackle the real issues of Iran’s troubled economy, where poverty and unemployment remain rampant. Yet, among all the posturing, there were a few key facts that one should note about the current economic conditions the Iranian people are living with.
“The gap between rich and poor has widened in Iran…Monthly cash handouts to poor people should be tripled,” said Ebrahim Raisi, who rose to prominence in the Iranian judiciary and was part of the 1988 “Death Commission” which ordered the deaths of thousands of political prisoners. “One of the main priorities of the Islamic Republic is to preserve social justice…Steps should be taken to protect poor people. We need to overhaul the economic system.”
What is interesting about that position is that the Iranian government is riddled with corruption, making it virtually impossible for real economic reform to take place. According to the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, “The government of Iran in 2016 loaned 530,000 billion of Tomans (about 140 billion dollars) and nobody knows who they are.”
Iran’s real gross domestic product grew by 7.4% over the past year, but that was mainly driven by oil exports rather than job-creating investment, according to the International Monetary Fund. Official unemployment runs at just over 12%, but independent analysts put it at around 20%.
Foreign investors are key to economic growth, according to Rouhani, yet foreign investors have been turned off by a variety of obstacles. The first is the United States. Although some sanctions have been lifted by the U.S., many more remain in place, creating a legal quagmire that most companies are unwilling to step into. The U.S. marketplace is seen as worth more to companies than the Iranian market, despite the fact that it is the second largest population in the Middle East.
Secondly, there are multiple obstacles to doing business with Iranian banks and the heavy role that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline institutions play in the economy.
Several candidates have promised to create millions of jobs, if elected, but economists argue that this is unrealistic at best. The Iranian population is also dealing with increasing illiteracy among a large swath of its population, with more than 10 million Iranians considered illiterate, according to former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mostafa Mirsalim.
Iranians fear a hardline president being elected would usher in more repression and isolation in the international community. Yet, President Rouhani was billed as a moderate, but executions remained steady during his presidency and human rights violations continued to mount. But poor Iranians are the ones suffering the most.
“The wealth and power of the Iranian society is in the hands of 4% of the population,” said Ghalibaf.
Raisi talked about the need to use social justice to reduce the gap between the social classes and the corruption. “16 million people are living on the outskirts of the cities, and many people are living on a base of only 45,000 Tomans (about $15),” said Raisi. Yet, this same man agreed to the execution of thousands of political opposition members. His talk of social justice falls a bit flat when one examines his record of oppression and persecution of the Iranian people.
In the end, none of these candidates offer a significant change from what has come before. It is the infighting of the only group that controls the Iranian government and the power grabs that occurs during the election from the factions within this group. Crackdowns continue on human rights activists and those who are protesting the conditions of the economy and environment, despite claims of the Iranian government that they care for their people.
While each of the candidates talked about reform, social justice, and job creation, none of them will actually bring any of that to fruition without the approval of the supreme leader, who prefers things remain just as they are.