Anger over corruption fuelling Iran protests

An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in Teheran, Iran, on Dec 30, 2017.
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in Teheran, Iran, on Dec 30, 2017.PHOTO: AFP
Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in Teheran, Iran, on Dec 30, 2017.
Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in Teheran, Iran, on Dec 30, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

It seems ironic that social unrest should break out in Iran just now given the country's economy has been booming for two years but endemic graft stands between the new riches and a destitute population.

Iran's regime and its internal opposition seem poised for a showdown. For several days, thousands of supporters and detractors of the government have amassed in the country's streets, leading to escalating violence.

The main complaints centre on the economic plight of many of the protesters and Iran's foreign policy.

To some, that may come as a surprise as Iran's situation has not seemed better in years.

It can boast of several diplomatic accomplishments and the economy is on the upswing. Still, unrest has been fomenting as widespread corruption prevents average Iranians from profiting from their country's successes.

Undoubtedly, Teheran's diplomats can be smug looking back at the past two years. First, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement at the beginning of 2016 terminated their international isolation, removed the threat of war and ended a debilitating sanction regime. Next, Russia's intervention in Syria's civil war saved Iran's most important vassal in the region, President Bashar Assad.

Concurrently, Teheran's influence in Lebanon and Iraq has increased, bringing the long-held dream of a land corridor to the Mediterranean tantalisingly close. Even the bet in Yemen, where Teheran supports the Houthi rebels to weaken its arch-rival Saudi Arabia, seems to be successful so far. In addition, several diplomatic missteps by Saudi's inexperienced crown prince has served the Ayatollahs well lately.

 

More importantly, Iran's economy - the Middle East's second largest - has begun to hum again. Only a few days ago, vice president Eshaq Jahangiri noted proudly that the "the country's growth is on a good trend".

Independent analysts seconded that view: Inflation was down to single digits and oil exports up 60 per cent, while tax revenue rose 80 per cent in 2017. To close its deficit, that government has also reduced its spending, cutting subsidies for water, electricity and fuel.

In 2007, subsidies devoured 27 per cent of Iran's GDP. In 2016, that was down to 3.4 per cent. After the signing of the JCPOA, Iran's GDP rose by more than 12 per cent, 2017 probably brought another 4 to 5 per cent increase.

"The economic situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran has improved visibly in recent years," the UN certified in a recent report, estimating further growth of 5 per cent annually for the coming two years as well.

However, all these riches do not trickle down to the masses, but remain in the hands of few powerful politicians and well-connected businesspeople with ties to the ultra-conservative establishment. The reason for this is widespread corruption.

On the annual list of NGO Transparency International, which ranks states according to perceived corruption, Iran came 131th among 176 nations.

In November, a hospital in Eslamabad-e-Gharb put the catastrophic consequences of this graft in plain sight for all the world to see. When an earthquake shook Khermansha province, the new wing of the clinic collapsed. Many people could have died had the 40 year-old original hospital wing not supported the walls of the new structure that was erected by companies connected to the regime, in violation of building standards.

Hundreds, if not thousands, died in that quake, many buried by edifices erected by public companies who no one held accountable for flouting regulations. According to some estimates, 18,000 homes were completely destroyed. Many of the homeless have yet to receive help from the government.

All of that is of little concern to the revolutionary guards and the "Setad Ejraniye Farmane Hazrate Emam", the "Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam" or in short, the Setad, who together control about 80 per cent of Iran's economy. They fight with all means to maintain and even expand their monopolies and enrich their members.

By dispossessing political rivals and marginalising competitors, Setad has become the most powerful and richest organisation in Iran. Through the Setad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khaminei owns banks, telecommunication firms, ostrich farms and even factories for birth control pills. An investigative report by Reuters in 2013 estimated Setad's net worth at US$95 billion.

That leaves very little for the rest of the population. Even after two years of consecutive growth, unemployment officially remains at 12 per cent, while some estimates put it as high as 25 per cent. Some studies place 40 per cent of Iranians under the poverty line.

Iran's Civic Registration Office noted that more than 37,000 girls under the age of 15 were married off in 2015, most often because their families in poor rural areas see this as the best way of providing for them.

Opposition activists contend that two to seven million Iranian minors have to work instead of going to school and that 70 per cent of the population do not consume enough protein, fruit or vegetables.

These people were the ones hit hardest by the latest price hikes for poultry and eggs. And things could get much worse still; the next budget plans to raise fuel prices by 50 per cent and cancel monetary support for 34 million people.

All this is happening while evermore money is funnelled to military interventions abroad, the nuclear programme and the country's missile development.

Two years after the signing of the JCPOA, more and more Iranians therefore believe that neither the United States nor sanctions are the real cause for their economic plight, but the regime itself. That is what they want to change now.