Iran’s Mounting Malaise

Iranians – frustrated by a flailing economy, compounded by rigid policies of a theocratic government and sanctions from the West that target the country’s nuclear program – expect reforms from President Hassan Rouhani. Iran confronts challenges that, if left unaddressed, will bring severe consequences at home and abroad, warns Jamsheed K. Choksy, professor of Iranian Studies at Indiana University. Iran is a major host country for refugees after years of conflict in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, but is a major source country, too, as thousands of Iranians seek asylum. Economic stress takes a toll on health and family life, with high rates of obesity and low rates of marriage and fertility. Choksy explains that “official and religious pressure may only put more stress on women and lead to their abjuring motherhood even further.” Past officials promised reforms, yet hardline ayatollahs seem intent on pursuing a nuclear program, ignoring discontent and continuing down a path of economic decline. – YaleGlobal

Iran’s Mounting Malaise

Inept policies, religious pressure add to poverty, poor health and cross-border challenges
Jamsheed K. Choksy
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

BLOOMINGTON: Hassan Rouhani took charge of Iran with its socioeconomic safety nets unraveling, thanks to deleterious policies exacerbated by tightened sanctions from the West. Addressing the parliament on July 14, while president-elect, he acknowledged that the nuclear impasse is far from the only factor transforming the Islamic Republic of Iran negatively with impact on other countries. Iran’s challenges pose severe consequences at home and abroad. 

Sanctions worsen existing problems even as the internet offers Iran widening access to the world beyond. Wealthy or poor, young or old, healthy or ill, Iranians must struggle with restrictions on what they wear, hear, say and with who they interact. Yet more than 30 percent of Iranians have access to satellite television and 61 percent to the internet, circumventing government constraints  on communications with the rest of the world. Thus Iranians are well aware that living standards are much higher in the Gulf countries to their south. They see European and North American nations providing not only a comfortable life but sociopolitical liberties as well. Iranians have responded with small, futile gestures, ranging from pumping up the volume of banned music or beating up the enforcers of religious orthopraxy, and there was the populist uprising of 2009. But these are not their only responses. Another reaction is to flee the country. Indeed, Iran remains the largest long-term source of asylum seekers in Turkey and Canada – straining those nations’ welfare resources.

Iran’s economy and politics are stressful. Mehr News Agency reports that 60 percent of Iranians are overweight and many suffer from preventable diseases such as high blood pressure and osteoporosis. Iran’s fertility rate, already on a downward trend in 2000, has now plummeted by 70 percent as 40 percent of young adults opt to remain single and many others defer marriage until their 30s or elect to have small families. Iran’s fertility rate is 1.64 births per woman, reports the World Bank, and, as a result, Iran’s hitherto youthful population has begun skewing toward the elderly who comprise 37 percent of citizens, bringing with it mounting burdens for the domestic health network. The result has been a steady outflow of Iranians seeking residence in countries with better healthcare like Britain and Canada. Tehran responded in August 2012 by scrapping family-planning programs and diverting those funds to encourage larger families, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling upon women to have more children. But rather than increasing birthrates, official and religious pressure may only put more stress on women and lead to their abjuring motherhood even further.

In 2011, 35 percent of Iranian students were reported to have dropped out from school, with many assuming there’s little career value to be gained from an ideologically-driven educational system. Even individuals who make it into the university system find few opportunities to participate in global knowledge networks. Likewise, socioeconomically advantageous synergies are cut off by gender segregation in public universities and stifled thereafter in public workplaces. Indeed, by Rouhani’s own admission, up to 5 million graduates are unemployed. Many search for better opportunities outside Iran, triggering a brain drain that compounds the country’s other negative transitions while adding to the skilled-worker pools of Asian countries like Pakistan (up to 120,000 Iranians) and Malaysia (estimated at 100,000 Iranians) in addition to those of the EU and North America. Yet all those nations are facing economic retrenchment, so the arrival of well-educated Iranians is not always well received.

An estimated 60 percent of Iranian workers have slipped below the poverty line, up 40 percent from a decade ago; unemployment has risen to 24 percent overall and to 67 percent among women. Even the employed find their earnings devoured by inflation, which rose 200 percent between 2009 and 2012, and now deflates buying power by another 45 percent; by housing costs, up 220 percent over the past eight years. Food prices have spiked  57 percent over the past year. Growth dropped to zero this year according to the Iranian parliament’s budget committee. The International Monetary Fund forecasts economic expansion for the nation ranking third in oil and second in gas reserves at only 1 percent for 2014. As a direct consequence, Iran’s imports are slipping – by 33 percent or US $3 billion with Persian Gulf countries in 2012, for example – negatively affecting neighboring economies.

Due to the socioeconomic hardships, at least 26 percent of marriages in Tehran end in divorce; nationwide the rate is 14 percent, modest compared to western nations but high when compared to pre-revolutionary Iran. In a panic, clerics pushed through parliament a bill in 2009 legalizing concomitant second marriages by men. They even instituted a “No Divorce Day” to encourage marital fidelity. Nonetheless, prostitution – estimated in 2000 by Tehran’s Cultural Foundation as having risen by 635 percent among high school students since the late 1990s – continues unabated as more enter the sex trade in their early teens, according to Health Ministry officials. Again, Iran’s internal problem is swiftly spilling over as webs of human trafficking link it to Pakistan, India, the Emirates, Central Asian Republics, Turkey and France.

In January, Iranian officials estimated at least 2.4 percent of the population of 75 million was addicted to narcotics. The number of drug abusers rises by over 100,000 annually and they consume 5 tons of controlled substances each day in the capital city of Tehran and more elsewhere in the country. Most narcotics come across borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, gripping those nations in a losing battle against poppy growth. Moreover although nearly 450 tons of illegal drugs like opium and heroin were seized and destroyed by Iran’s authorities in 2012 many times that volume flows through the country onward to Europe and North America – adding to the West’s substance abuse problems as well.

Under pressure to reform not just foreign but also domestic policies, thereby “reducing the people’s suffering and paving the way for progress,” Rouhani has called for change. He urges Supreme Leader Khamenei and other clerics and politicians to understand that: “A strong government does not mean one which limits the lives of people.” The Tehran stock exchange reached new highs and the Iranian currency regained 30 percent of its value against the US dollar because the financial sector hopes Rouhani will succeed in his quest to give the society much-needed positive boosts. Yet former reformist President Mohammad Khatami sought change between 1997 and 2005 and recently-departed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted it, too, during his second term from 2009 to 2013. Neither chief executive made headway against the ideologues who hold final sway over Iran’s national and international policies.

Iranian politicians conveniently blame mismanagement by those ex-presidents for the nation’s internal problems. Fundamentalist ayatollahs attribute the problems to lax morals as well. And both groups utilize the nuclear dispute with the West as an expedient means of rallying the nation together in the face of decline. Worse of all, unfortunately for Iran and the world, setting aside ideology to resolve domestic issues and their spillover into foreign affairs is not regarded as essential by Supreme Leader Khamenei and others of his persuasion. So, a worst case scenario could result in Iran resembling North Korea by responding to internal socioeconomic disintegration with externally-directed aggression, even nuclear threats.


Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian Studies and chairman of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. He also serves on the US National Council on the Humanities overseeing the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale