By Sam Ghafarzadeh, Economic Analyst
The recent unrest in Iran has once again attracted the attention of media outlets around the world. It has also intrigued western foreign policy makers, and increased opposition activity. Criticizing Iran’s theocratic government is the common ground upon which most politicians and experts on Iran meet, in order to attack the Iranian regime. But one important fact is missing: the Islamic Republic is rooted in socialist ideology and has been using it to advance its aims ever since it came to power. The growing discontent around standards of living has made these protests unique. The stark reality then, is that if a secular and democratic regime were to replace the Islamic Republic in Iran, the situation for people in Iran would not change unless the difficulties surrounding the economic system were to be addressed first. In this context, understanding the Iranian regime’s sophisticated use of socialism is deeply important.
The Islamic Regime in Iran was founded on anti-imperialist and socialist ideology, so naturally the Iranian working classes have been amongst its greatest supporters. Those attending state-orchestrated events such as Friday prayers or Quds rallies, often consist of lower income groups, who also tend to be more religious.
Analysts miss a crucial point, here. Although the regime is often described by Westerners as a theocratic state, it is in fact an authoritarian leftist government. The implications of this, both in terms of foreign policy, and understanding the regime and those who function in it, are enormous.
Islam, socialism, and nationalism were three major movements which played important roles in the 1979 Revolution. Originally working as a coalition, power shifted entirely to the Islamic movement soon after. Unwilling to share their victory with their allies, the end result was the total exclusion by Islamists, of socialists and nationalists from any positions of political power in the new regime. The clerical establishment then stripped the left of their ideology for good measure, and adopted it as their own. This final act of severance carried with it the added shame of the socialist movement losing any status it had held before the Revolution.
Particular to the Islamic regime is the practice of assuming others’ mantras and identities and marketing them as their own. It’s a unique form of search and seize which has been evidenced throughout the regime’s governance. One such example is the way in which the regime has taken on International Workers Day, which is typically celebrated on 1st May every year. An iconic event for Leftist groups all over the world, the Islamic Republican Party, the main political organisation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters, copied posters designed by the Iranian Left and then added their own religious messages as part of a propaganda effort, as these examples show.This act and similar tactics used by Islamists resulted in disarming the Iranian left wing. An ingenious strategy, a successful formula by the Islamic Republic for hijacking the support of people who are fond of Left-wing ideology whilst maintaining its support from religious segments of society without drawing attention to its use of contradicting philosophies: Islam and Socialism. This kind of political straddling could have helped Mohammad Reza Shah, the last Shah of Iran, to gain the support of two main groups within the lower social classes of the country.
Over the last four decades, the regime has behaved like a self-appointed representative of the working classes fighting against imperialism and the West. Furthermore, just like a classic socialist state, the economy and major markets became centrally controlled by the Government. According to the “Economic Freedom” report by the Fraser Institute, Iran’s economic freedom ranks 150 of 159 in 2017 and this has been worsening year on year. Added to this, the government’s actions have had a significant impact on international affairs. Instead of being an ally to America, today, Iran’s international diplomacy hinges on its relationships with China and Russia.
The high level of dissatisfaction in Iran, highlighted by the recent protests, stem from decades of a centrally governed economy. According to the Iran Chamber of Commerce, more than 80 percent of the economy is owned by Government or quasi-state entities. So it is not surprising that what we now see in Iran is similar to developments in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and other economies moving against the free market mechanism.
There is a valid concern that because of this general dissatisfaction, Iranian politicians have now started to lean towards populism.
The Islamic Republic’s response after the protests was predictable. Officials tried to blame and punish radical demonstrators as a minority abusing the dissatisfaction of the majority. At the same time, the regime confirmed that the country was in economic freefall. It would not be surprising if the next phase of these events involved state TV producing a series of reports and analyses blaming President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet in the strongest terms.
In order to contain the political damage the protests have caused, it’s more than likely that the major factions of the regime, known as moderates (reformists) and hardliners, will work together to set a new social welfare programme in the annual budget bill, which is under review in parliament at the moment. The impact of allocating funds to social care instead of investment and developing the country, during a period in which Iran’s economy is suffering from financial distress and the government is facing a dramatic budget deficit, would be severe. Better options in the form of foundations and welfare organisations could help ease poverty, rather than place yet more pressure on an already fragile economy.
Iran’s delicate economy has been let down badly by socialist economic policy. More than 90 percent of citizens receiving monthly cash benefits and kind such as petrol, electricity, or bread are subsidized under socialist policy but like other failures of the Left, has only served to increase the income gap.
What makes the situation in Iran complex is that in the absence of Left-wing parties and the prevention of syndicated activities of any kind, the government has a monopoly when it comes to mobilising the masses. However, instead of lifting the red flag of communism, they have the flag of Islam in its place and so, any discourse from the opposition seems like a form of resistance against theocracy, which shields the Left-wing establishment in power and makes the establishment elusive, and inaccessible.
This shielding mechanism makes it very difficult for opposition groups to target the root of the regime. Nevertheless, any opposition will remain unable to hold the government to account if it continues to ignore the reality that Iran’s problems don’t come from its theocratic governance, but from its centrally-governed economy. Whilst issues such as democracy, human rights, and free elections in Iran are important, the protesters were concerned with something more fundamental to their survival – a living wage. Once the opposition shifts its attention to Iran’s closed economic system, problems like corruption and human rights breaches can then be effectively addressed.