Iran’s middle class marginalized by regime
The Iranian middle class played a major role in ensuring the success of the 1979 revolution, showing solidarity with the rest of Iranian society and contributing to the movement to oust the shah’s regime and agitate the educated class — including professors, university students and members of the intellectual elite — to action.
The mercantile class and shop owners also contributed to the overthrow of the shah’s regime through funding demonstrators and revolutionary clerics. In addition, on more than one occasion, members of Iran’s business class announced their role in organizing general strikes that paralyzed commercial and public life in the country, putting tremendous pressure on the regime. This, along with other factors, ultimately contributed to the toppling of the shah.
After the revolution, the new Islamic Republic regime quickly comprehended the power of the middle class and the potential threat it could pose to its survival, especially in light of its failure to fulfill its numerous pledges made before and during the revolutionary period.
Spurred by this comprehension, the post-revolutionary regime systematically worked to undermine and disempower the middle class. The regime’s certainty about the need to eradicate the middle class to ensure its own survival increased after the events that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, in which the incumbent hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term at the expense of candidates affiliated with the Green Movement, such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Both have remained under house arrest ever since.
The Green Movement succeeded in winning over the middle class, with shop owners and traders organizing a sizable general strike, most significantly in Tehran’s historic Grand Bazaar. In addition, they organized demonstrations and rallies in which thousands of protesters loudly condemned the results of the 2009 election, which they and other observers believe to have been “rigged.”
To counter the power of the middle class, the revolutionary regime worked to establish a new loyal political elite and certain bodies that would safeguard its interests and fight to ensure its survival. For example, it created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which effectively controls Iran’s economy and economic resources, along with the Basij, and positioned certain credible and powerful figures close to the supreme leader. However, beyond this privileged political elite, the regime still targeted rich and influential figures, cracking down hard on them. The economic hardships endured by Iranians since 2009, especially due to the severe collapse in the value of the Iranian currency, led to the erosion of the middle class on an unprecedented scale.
Over the past six years, most of those who were considered to be among the middle class have increasingly fallen into poverty, with many factories and businesses shutting down and many people being laid off. This has put more pressure on members of the middle class economically and socially, leading them to lose their former power and influence on the Iranian street. Among the signs of the decline and demise of Iran’s middle class is the fact that more than 90 percent of Iran’s population have applied for the government’s meager assistance payments in recent years. This put the regime in an awkward position, leading it to remove wealthy claimants from its list of recipients.
Those following Iranian affairs have also observed a steep decline in the average annual household income for city dwellers. This has fallen to $2,571 per year ($214 per month), according to the black market dollar exchange rate, forcing many among the middle class to change their lifestyles. Some, especially in the capital Tehran, have seriously considered selling their homes in the better-off areas to move to more impoverished neighborhoods, such as those in south Tehran, simply to survive.
Moreover, the collapse of the Iranian currency’s value and the resulting increase in burdens facing the business class have led many of them to cut corners on quality and commit commercial fraud at restaurants, markets and other places due to their inability to increase prices at rates commensurate with the new rising costs, while still being able to attract customers. Businesspeople and shop owners are well aware that the vast majority of their fellow citizens can no longer afford to pay for non-essential merchandise, especially imported items, due to their soaring prices. Consumers, meanwhile, have become increasingly adept at at-home repairs and recycling their existing possessions, such as electronic devices and clothes, despite their poor quality — a move that has led to the economic recession intensifying in some commercial sectors in the country.
All this adds to the woes of the middle class, who feel that successive governments under the theocratic regime have exacerbated and deepened their suffering.
Some businessmen have called on the government to release the funds owed to them in order to implement a number of state-controlled projects. However, the massive deficit in the Iranian budget and the lack of will from the regime to cover its debts mean these arrears are unlikely ever to be repaid. The regime is effectively leaving these businessmen high and dry, leading them to declare bankruptcy without recourse to any state body that could help them reclaim their losses. Moreover, the current government’s refusal to commit itself to addressing or resolving the consequences of the economically disastrous policies first introduced under Ahmadinejad is also causing tensions, especially in light of the emergence of major embezzlement scandals involving the former president’s aides and close officials.
The post-revolutionary regime systematically worked to undermine and disempower the middle class.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
The harsh impact of sanctions and the collapse of the Iranian currency’s value led many citizens to pin their hopes on the dream of Iran’s regime and the P5+1 international powers reaching a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. This hope explains the displays of delight expressed by the Iranian people in 2015 after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They believed the JCPOA would lead to an improvement in their living conditions and breathe life into their ailing business activities, compensating them for some of the massive losses they had incurred in previous years and restoring part of their role in Iran’s social and political life. This was not, as the regime claimed, a spontaneous outbreak of celebration in the hope of seeing Iran possess nuclear weapons, but simply the Iranian people expressing their hope for an improved economy and society.
Six years after the signing of the JCPOA — and in the wake of the subsequent turbulent political and economic consequences of this both domestically and regionally — the Iranian people find themselves living in even more miserable conditions than those they endured before the signing of the agreement, in light of deteriorating economic conditions and the regime’s focus on parroting empty, hollow slogans that will not feed the hungry, heal the sick or contribute to improving the socioeconomic conditions. Perhaps the latest clear demonstration of this are the recurrent power outages afflicting the country in the searing summer heat, over which the government has taken no action, while the leaders make their customary fiery but empty speeches about “resistance.”
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami