The wall of mistrust between the people and the rulers of Iran is growing ever higher. Contributing factors to this widening gap are too many to mention, but they include: State embezzlement, bribery, social unemployment, unbridled inflation, the display of the luxurious lives of the elites, and most importantly, the dissolution of the middle class, along with ever-increasing poverty.
The “Army of the Hungry” stands ready to revolt at a moment’s notice.
The latest official statistics show that 7 out of 10 citizens live below the poverty line. Destitution has led people to do unimaginable things, like parents selling their infants for money. The sales of body organs, such as kidneys, have apparently skyrocketed, to the extent that there are dedicated kidney clinics in Tehran and other big cities. Residents report that in Tehran’s famous Vanak Square, many public places display advertisements for kidney sales.
According to Steve Hank, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Iran’s annual inflation rate is about 99 percent. The regime’s own legislature has indicated that about 60 million people live below the poverty line.
All these factors, coupled with the rapidly declining purchasing power of average Iranians, have contributed to the pervasive erosion of the middle class. This was on display most recently during the nationwide protests that shook Iran in November 2019. For the first time, major metropolitan areas joined hundreds of smaller cities to demand economic justice and democratic transformation.
Now, in addition to enduring state mismanagement, the economy has been devastated by a global pandemic.
In July 2020, Iran’s Health Minister said that restrictions were lifted because the Iranian economy “does not have the strength” to deal with closures, not to mention that the “treasury is empty.” He then issued a dire warning to President Hassan Rouhani and security forces, saying: “Think about the people’s livelihood and how to prevent an uprising.”
The Main Causes of Poverty
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei controls a vast financial empire whose seed funding came from property seizures. According to a 2013 Reuters estimate, Khamenei controls corporate stakes and other assets worth just shy of $100B.
This tax-exempt astronomical wealth has not gone unnoticed even in the regime’s own circles. Media outlets like Jomhouri Eslami daily wrote back in April that the wealth controlled by Khamenei’s foundation “Setad” can pay for the treatment of all Iranians affected with the coronavirus “in the shortest time possible.”
Indeed, the pervasive economic maladies faced by average Iranians do not simply stem from international sanctions. They are the gradual and tormenting byproducts of state corruption.
A member of the regime’s parliament has said that more than $380M worth of corn has been cleared through customs and sold in the market without the authorization of the Ministry of Agriculture. Who other than the connected would have the audacity to do this?
Full accountability regarding the fate of foreign currency earned through exports is similarly veiled in secrecy. For example, just last year in July, Iran’s Central Bank officially complained to the judiciary that state-linked individuals have parked outside of Iran at least $27B in foreign currency earned through a year of exports.
Combating Coronavirus or dissent?
As the enormous wealth transfer to corrupt state officials takes new proportions at the expense of millions of impoverished Iranians, officials worry that future uprisings will grow increasingly violent and thus will be much harder to suppress.
To ward off that threat, in November, Tehran launched an initiative called the “Soleimani Plan.” The initiative is publicly touted as a plan to combat the spread of COVID-19. But in reality, the Bassij militias, typically involved in the brutal suppression of protests, are given a free rein to control the restive population, going from street to street to search people’s houses in the name of fighting COVID-19.
Their mission: To find weapons as well as teams of activists that will be organized to lead potential protests.
The results are noteworthy. The Ministry of Intelligence in West Azerbaijan Province, for example, said large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition were identified along the border region. The commander of Lorestan’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Bassij is a branch, said that 106 weapons were “discovered” in the province in 48 hours alone.
So, where do the regime’s priorities lie? Fighting the coronavirus or a battered population?
In recent months, hundreds of centers controlled by the IRGC, the Bassij or the Ministry of Intelligence have been targeted by young people seeking to change the status quo. At the same time, the torching of posters and banners of regime leaders like Khamenei provides a potent symbolic reminder of the population’s eagerness for change.
The regime often blames these acts of dissent and others such as anti-regime graffiti or posting banners of opposition leaders on walls on “Resistance Units,” organized teams of young individuals calling for the overthrow of the theocracy. A few short months before the November 2019 uprisings in Iran, the Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi claimed that 116 of these teams, which he asserted were affiliated with the Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK),“have been dealt with” in a matter of months.
Time will tell if the trajectory of Iranian politics would experience a radical departure in the form of the regime’s ultimate collapse. All indicators are that the pace and depth of dissent appear to be increasing. Therefore, officials in Tehran may not be as optimistic as the rest of us about what lies ahead in 2021.