Why the Islamic Republic is so unpopular with Iranians
After the last shah of Iran, his family and loyalists fled the country on Jan. 16, 1979, nearly 99 percent of Iranian voters supported abolishing the monarchy and establishing the Islamic Republic.
The “Islamic Republic” was an undefined system of governance. People believed that this political establishment would be the opposite of the monarchy, as a large portion of the population was dissatisfied with the widespread political and financial corruption, lack of freedom of the press, infringements on the rights of assembly and free speech, elitism, forced Westernization and modernization, disregard for the society’s religious traditions, the repression of human rights activists and political dissidents by security police, and the suppression of social movements and political parties.
Based on the ruling clergy’s promises, people thought that the Islamic Republic would bring social justice, democracy and freedom.
But, year by year, the popularity of the theocratic establishment declined to the extent that even a supporter of the regime, Sadegh Zibakalam, who is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, said last year that “if there were a referendum on the political system in Iran now, 70 percent of the people would say no to an Islamic Republic.”
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he described the population’s disappointment and disenchantment with the political system. Infuriated with his comments, the Revolutionary Court sentenced the professor to 18 months in prison and banned him from giving interviews, writing articles and delivering public speeches on the vague charges of spreading “false information” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
A key question to ask is: How did a political system that was supported by an overwhelming majority of the population four decades ago become extremely unpopular and despised?
The regime’s organizations, officials and their connections became wealthier as the ordinary people became poorer.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
One of the major reasons is the unfair distribution of wealth and resources. Instead of providing equal job and market opportunities, private enterprise and entrepreneurship, the regime took full control of the country’s wealth and means of production.
The Islamic Republic monopolized the industries and led a state-controlled economy. The Washington office of the Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, released a book entitled “The Rise of the Revolutionary Guards’ Financial Empire,” in which it demonstrated that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls more than half of Iran’s gross domestic product and owns several major economic powerhouses and religious endowments, such as Astan Quds Razavi in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
The regime’s organizations, officials and their connections became wealthier as the ordinary people became poorer. For example, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who gained his wealth after he became Iran’s second supreme leader, reportedly has a financial empire that is worth at least $95 billion. One of Khamenei’s major organizations, which is rarely spoken of, is Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam.
Roughly half of Setad’s holdings are invested in the corporate field and the other half in real estate, mainly through “the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians,” mostly dissidents and foreign expatriates. Setad enjoys the advantage of monopolizing economic sectors, exploiting the nation’s wealth and bending the law in order to maximize its profits.
As the regime and its cronies accumulated wealth and monopolized the economy, they saw no need to create jobs or improve people’s living standards. This resulted in a high unemployment rate in spite of many of the younger generation having university degrees. According to an official representative of the regime’s Planning and Management Organization, “42 percent of unemployed people in Iran have a university degree, and huge sums of money have been spent on their education.” Although Iran has an educated youth population, almost 30 percent of them cannot find jobs. In some provinces, the unemployment rate is above 60 percent.
The unemployment rate among university-educated women is much higher than that of men, hovering near 80 percent in some provinces. In addition, more than 40 percent of the population, or approximately 32 million citizens, live below the poverty line.
In some provinces, such as Sistan and Baluchistan, more than 75 percent of the population is struggling with food shortages and a lack of drinking water.
The revolutionary regime made the middle class slowly disappear, which caused a wide gap between social classes. This is all happening while the Iranian people are cognizant of the fact that their country is one of the richest in the world when it comes to natural resources and commodities. In fact, by having approximately $27.3 trillion of natural resources, Iran is ranked fifth in the world, ahead of China and Australia and only behind Canada, the US, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Income inequality and the leaders’ failure to create jobs are among the most critical reasons why the revolutionary regime is so unpopular in Iran.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh