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Is Iran Moving in the Direction of (another) Revolution?

Three days of protests in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, with hundreds of angry shopkeepers taking to the streets against the sharp fall in the value of the Iranian currency, have been suppressed by the regime. The sentiments which drove the protests are still very prevalent. The Mullahs used excessive force to quell the demonstrations. However, the regime has only bought time before more protests will break out because it has failed to address the crumbling Iranian economy. Moreover, Iranian’s frustrations are exacerbated when they see that their leaders have no solutions to end their hardships. Iranians’ anger against the regime is at all time high which was clearly echoed when people shouted slogans against Iran’s ultimate authority, the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other top officials, calling them thieves who should step down. At the core of this dissatisfaction is the government’s decades-long disregard for the economic prosperity of the citizenry.

What the Iranian regime is failing to understand is that one of the main catalysts for the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s was economic dissatisfaction. The Islamic Revolution won the hearts and minds by making grand promises like equal educational opportunities, a healthy and robust economy based on the values of “Islamic banking,” creating new youth employment opportunities, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, as well as good relations with the Muslim world based on the principles of good governance. Now Iranians question how many of these promises have been realized 39 years after the revolution.

So, it won’t be a surprise if history repeats itself. What happened to Shah Reza Pehlevi can surely happen to the Mulla regime as well. Unlike the 2009 Green Movement, which was largely a product of urban middle-class youth in Tehran, the current unrest reflects the economic grievances of the lower and working classes, which are alienated from Iranian institutional politics and are suffering from the consequences of a broken economy. The protests are driven by disaffected young people in rural areas, towns, small cities and larger urban centers. The current unrest has a broader base than the 2009 green movement.

Since the nuclear deal, Iran’s economy improved to some extent but citizens complain that the benefits have not filtered down to ordinary people. Almost all the economic growth has been concentrated in the oil industry. Lack of access to finance, raw materials and foreign markets have been a major impediment. The Iranian rial has lost 40% of its value since last month when President Trump pulled out of Iran’s 2015 nuclear accord and announced draconian sanctions on Tehran. Now the rial is a relatively worthless currencies. The country is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, leaving electricity output from hydropower plants at a bare minimum. Capital outflow surpassed inflow and last year Iran had a capital account deficit of $11 billion and unemployment is above 11%. Although purchasing power parity per capita is $20,030 according to the International Monetary Fund, far below neighboring Turkey and countries like Mauritius and Equatorial Guinea, Iran’s economy is fragile and is quickly moving into a death spiral.

Although Iran boasts the world’s second largest reserves of oil and gas, Iran needs to integrate it with the global economy and shift the government’s priorities to improving economic conditions. It is very important that the Iranian regime abandon its policy of expansionism in the Middle East. Moreover, Iran needs to change its foreign policy, especially toward its Arab neighbours, the European Union and countries with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations, like the United States so that Iran can also benefit from the regional and world economic orders. If Iran doesn’t act quickly to end its economic isolation, most likely it will become the Venezuela of the Middle East.