Nothing to celebrate about Iran’s revolution
As the regime in Tehran commemorates the 40th anniversary of the revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic, is there really much to celebrate?
Rather than realising utopian dreams, the revolution and its aftermath have created a dystopian nightmare. The regime sits atop a system that restricts freedom of expression. It is constantly at odds with adversaries near and far and is economically and ideologically bankrupt.
Take the Iranian economy. On February 1, 1979, the day of his return to Iran from exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini delivered a speech that promised Iranians “free water, free electricity and free bus service.” He assured the Iranian public: “We not only secure your world but also your afterworld.”
No one has returned from the grave to tell us about the afterworld but it is painfully clear that Khomeini and his successors soon forgot the more worldly promises.
By 2018, a study by economist Hamid Raghfar revealed a dismal picture. It said 33% of Iran’s population — nearly 26 million people — live in absolute poverty, and 6% — 5 million people — cannot afford adequate food. The numbers were confirmed by Parviz Fattah, president of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, which provides needy Iranians with food and other necessities.
Compare Iran’s economy with that of Turkey and South Korea and the poor performance of the Islamic Republic becomes very apparent. Forty years ago, Iran’s economy was slightly larger than that of neighbouring Turkey and was almost double that of South Korea. Today, Turkey’s nominal GDP is twice that of Iran and South Korea’s economy is seven times as big.
A recent Atlantic Council paper further showed the dismal slide of Iranians’ per capita income since the revolution. In 1980, Iran’s nominal GDP per capita was $2,374; in Turkey it was $2,169 and in South Korea $1,711. In 2018, Iran’s nominal GDP per capita was $4,838; in Turkey it was $11,125 and in South Korea, $32,774.
Iran’s economic woes are compounded by its conflicts with regional adversaries Saudi Arabia and Israel and with distant ones, such as the United States. Unilateral American sanctions further complicate the situation.
Not all Iranians suffer, however. “The Rich Kids of Tehran,” a popular Instagram account, provides a window into the decadent lives of the sons and daughters of the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic. They light Havana cigars with $100 bills and show off their designer handbags and jewellery. They holiday on idyllic islands and drinking and partying are privileges of the few.
There are no such indulgences for the middle class and certainly not for the downtrodden, whose cause the Islamic Republic claims to advance. Arrest and imprisonment are their lot, not only if they are caught breaking the written and unwritten laws of the Islamic Republic but also if they demand their rights.
Those rights include the freedom to vote the candidate of their choice into public office and demand their salary, which government agencies have not paid for months.
Iran is engaged in exporting its model abroad, using scarce
resources to finance foreign adventures in Syria and to prop up the Lebanese Hezbollah as well as Shia communities across the Middle East.
However, Shia communities are not always welcoming to the Islamic Republic’s attempts to intervene in their affairs. Such meddling makes them vulnerable to accusations of constituting an Iranian “fifth column” in Sunni majority states.
There is perhaps one reason to rejoice at the 40th anniversary of the revolution in Iran. Four decades on, establishing a so-called Islamic Republic is no longer a utopian dream for Iranians. They have experienced its economic and ideological bankruptcy, its unfreedom and need for foreign conflicts first-hand. Those Iranians have nothing to celebrate but a lesson learnt at great cost.