Economic Equality Continues To Escape Iranians
By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE
Iran's revolutionaries, having taken Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's promises of
Islamic justice, prosperity, and democracy to heart, were looking forward to a
bright future for themselves and their children.
"We want to make your material life comfortable but we will also make your
spiritual life peaceful," Khomeini said in one of his first speeches upon
returning to Iran from exile in 1979.
"You need spirituality; they took away our [spiritual values]. Don't only be
content that we will build houses; we will provide water and electricity free of
charge; we will make the use of public buses free of charge," he said. "But
don't be content with that -- we will give you moral and spiritual greatness."
But 30 years later, the prosperity envisioned by Khomeini's followers has yet to
materialize, leaving many Iranians disillusioned. The children of the revolution
have entered adulthood to find a lack of jobs, limited freedom, and little hope
for the future.
About a fifth of Iranians live in poverty
Reza, a 33-year-old truck driver from Sabzevar, has no memory of the revolution
his father supported, in large part because of the inequality that existed
during the nearly 38-year reign of Iran's last shah.
But he knows that his father, seeing how the gap between rich and poor has
widened, now expresses regret, while Reza himself is left with frustration.
"In the past 30 years our country hasn't moved forward," Reza says. "The
policies of [Iran's leaders] are harming Iranian people. They haven't done
anything positive for the people -- they've only filled their own pockets."
Many Iranians share Reza's opinion that they have not benefited from their
country's immense wealth of oil and natural gas.
The Islamic republic's constitution enshrines the elimination of poverty and
deprivation, and the provision of basic needs such as housing, health care, and
employment, as rights that all Iranian citizens can expect their government to
Yet economic data shows that Iranian leaders have failed in many of these areas.
According to a recent report by Iran's Central Bank, 14 million Iranians, over a
fifth of the population, live below the poverty line. Some 20 percent are
unemployed, many are underemployed, and all struggle with a 25 percent inflation
Compounding this is the disparity of wealth. And according to Ahmad Alavi, an
economist and university professor based in Sweden, the problem is only getting
Unemployment in Iran is about 20
"We are now witnessing a very obvious inequality between the income of the
richer class and the low-income families," Alavi says. "Because of the inflation
and the mechanisms of income distribution, the inequality will increase in the
Fereydun Khavand, a Paris-based professor of international economic relations
who is Radio Farda's economy expert, believes that the economy constitutes one
of the revolution's biggest failures.
"When this establishment came to power, Iran's economy had some weaknesses --
including overdependence on oil; the economy wasn't very much on the path of
liberalization -- but with this establishment the weaknesses were aggravated and
Iran, more than before, sank into an oil and single-product economy," Khavand
A New Elite
"More importantly, Iran's economy became government-controlled, especially in
the first decade following the creation of the Islamic republic," he adds.
Following the revolution, banking and other key industries were nationalized.
Companies and factories were confiscated from fleeing monarchists and the
wealthy, and transferred into new state-controlled foundations (bonyad) that are
exempt from taxes and accounting transparency.
As a result, Iran's new clerical leaders and those with close ties to the
establishment became the main beneficiaries.
Khavand says that while in the past three decades many countries launched
economic reforms and successfully joined the global economy, Iran's economy has
"I think that the main factor of Iran's [economic] failure is that, in a
historical and very important era, it lagged behind and didn't manage to go
through reforms that could modernize Iran's economy," Khavand says. "And what's
even more important is that Iran's economic structure went backward."
Corruption, mismanagement, and factionalism have also plagued the country's
Some economists inside Iran have warned that under hard-line President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad, economic mismanagement has grown. They argue that his government's
policies have harmed growth and raised inflation. And they have blasted
Ahmadinejad over his "tension-creating" foreign policies.
Iran's international reputation has suffered from its refusal to halt uranium
enrichment, despite growing international pressure. And sanctions and additional
measures imposed by the UN and United States and others have affected Iran's
economy by making trade difficult and scaring away foreign investors.
"You basically don't see Iranian decision makers reach consensus on any
solution. This is one of the major problems facing Iran's economy," economist
Alavi says. "The situation could improve only if [Iran] were to have effective
management of natural and human resources and also a logical relationship with
the outside world. Unfortunately, [Iran ] is lacking [both]."
Reza, the son of a revolutionary supporter, calls for a UN-held referendum on
the future of the Islamic republic.
"Hasn't the time come to hold elections and see what people in Iran think [about
the current regime]? I know that they all have a negative view of this
establishment," he says. "People should express their views on this, and [Iran's
leaders] should respect people's views -- even though they would definitely not
attach any importance to them."
Perhaps in a sign that Reza's hopes for a change in the government's approach
will not be realized, President Ahmadinejad on February 1 reminded Iranians that
the revolution is still alive, and will live on until social justice is served.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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