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Iran's Reformers Must Address Economic Problems, Panelists Say

Political reform, civil society organizations also critical

Washington – Iran’s democratic reformers must offer solutions for the country’s economic problems, which for most Iranians represent the current government’s biggest failure, said participants at a recent seminar on the future of democracy in Iran.

Iranian and Iranian-American participants agreed that Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won the 2005 presidential election by pledging to address the country’s economic problems but has concentrated instead on other issues, most notably the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program.

“Ahmadinejad’s failure to fulfill his promises to improve the economy and the welfare system might well become the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Iranian regime,” said Ali Afshari, a former member of Iran’s largest student organization.  He spoke at the April 18 panel on the future of Iran’s democracy, convened at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington.

Reformers should address economic issues such as privatizing state enterprises, fighting corruption, creating a stable political environment, attracting investment and reversing Iran’s high rates of unemployment and under employment, Afshari told USINFO.  The democracy-development link also must be explained, he added.

“Democracy will be widely spread in Iran,” Afshari said in prepared remarks, “if it is explained to the masses in their own language that it can serve as a means to eradicate poverty.”  He added that “economic development in Iran is only possible if the power structure is fundamentally changed.”  Afshari is currently a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. 

Iran’s economy has been plagued with high unemployment, high inflation and insufficient growth to provide jobs for the estimated 750,000 young Iranians who enter the labor market each year.  “Iran is dramatically underperforming its economic potential in the region,” said Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New American Foundation and a former Iran correspondent for the Washington Post.  Iran’s economy is struggling even as the Persian Gulf region enters an “economic boom” driven by new trade and investment links with Asia’s growing economies, said Molavi, who moderated the panel.

Panelists also said political reform and the development of civil society organizations are essential for economic reform.  Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani, an Iranian-American who has worked with civil society organizations in Iran, called for increased “people-to-people exchanges” involving Iranian and U.S. environmental groups, journalism associations and other professional organizations.

Afshari said the problem for political reform is that Iran’s democratically elected parliament and president are subordinate to the unelected Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  “We have a special democracy that they call ‘religious democracy’,” he said.  “Religious democracy doesn’t lead to a real democracy.”

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed to the political reform movement that gained strength during the government of President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005.  “Is the reform movement dead or is it dormant?” he asked.  A revived reform movement will have to “rethink the ideas of democracy and economic improvement,” he said.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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