Forty-two years ago, Iranians, fed up with the oppression of the 50-year-old dictatorship of the Pahlavi dynasty, joined hands in hopes of gaining freedom in a revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. The revolution brought a new dictatorship to power. A theocracy that still rules today with an iron hand. But what has the clerical regime achieved after 42 years?
Iranians wanted freedom more than anything else in the 1979 revolution. The founder of the Islamic Republic, Rohullah Khomeini took advantage of the people’s desire for freedom and promised freedom to all segments of the society, especially the working class. He was able to deceive Iranians and achieve his own goals, which were the curbing of civil and political freedoms and the establishment of a religious dictatorship that is far more violent than the Shah’s.
Forty-two year later, Iranians have been robbed of most basic individual freedoms, let alone political ones such as freedom of speech and the press.
Iranians are brutally tortured and detained for expressing their opinions or speaking out against the regime. Hundreds of political prisoners are languishing in Iran’s prisons where torture is a common practice. Any opposition to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, even from those close to Khomeini and Khamenei who played a role in establishing the regime, are met by imprisonment, torture, and death in various forms. The regime has killed at least 120,000 dissidents during its 42-year rule.
One example is the killing of at least 30,000 political prisoners, mostly supporters of the MEK opposition group, during the summer of 1988. They were executed according to Khomeini’s fatwa (religious decree) only because they refused to deviate from their principles and beliefs.
Censorship has been imposed on all publications, social media and the Internet. Most social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram are banned in Iran. Iran ranks 173rd out of 180 countries in press freedom. If a publication writes anything against Khamenei’s opinion, it is banned, and its owners and writers arrested and imprisoned on various security charges. In short, the freedoms that Iranians demanded 42 years ago have all but disappeared, making conditions much worse than before the revolution, under the Shah.
Deprivation of liberties does not only include civil and political freedoms. The Iranian regime systematically violates the rights of all Iranians including ethnic and religious minorities. Bahais are banned from practicing their religion, going to school and university and from having businesses, while Sunnis Muslims are not allowed to have their own mosques. Christians are also harassed and Christian converts are prosecuted and jailed.
For this reason, many non-Muslims, including Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Baha’is have left their homeland to settle in other countries.
Iran’s ethnic minorities including Arabs, Kurds, Azeris and the Baluch people are systematically persecuted and executed for demanding their basic rights.
But Iranian women have suffered the most at the hands of Iran’s misogynist state. The laws imposed on women in the name of Islam have deprived them of almost all the achievements they made before the revolution. They now have almost no role in the country’s political affairs. The compulsory hijab, the right of men to divorce unilaterally, not having equal opportunities at work, not being allowed to travel without the consent of a spouse or father, and not even being allowed to go to a stadium to watch soccer matches are just some of the many restrictions they face.
In his early speeches, Khomeini promised social welfare and said the Pahlavi Dynasty stole the people’s money, lived in palaces, and deprived the people of the country’s wealth. Khomeini promised that water and electricity would be free and that he would bring social welfare for farmers, workers and the underprivileged.
Soon after taking power, he broke his promises. He mocked the people who wanted economic welfare and said in a speech that the revolution did not happen so that people “could eat watermelons” and that it was to “bring Islam to power.”
“It is enough for people to eat one meal a day. The people fast and eat one meal a day, and it does not matter if they do not even eat meat once a month, because meat is not a good thing at all,” he said in a speech.
Over the past 42 years, Iran’s currency has lost a lot of its value. Before the revolution, one USD was equal to 7 tomans. However, a couple of months ago, the toman reached an all-time low of 30,000 tomans to the dollar. The daily fluctuations of the national currency have now become a joke for Iranians. Due to Iran’s crumbling economy, the fluctuations have a direct effect on the price of everyday commodities. Food price inflation has reached more than 45% and impoverished Iranians have even resorted to buying bread in installments.
Most Iranians, especially the working class, farmers, employees, and the ex-middle class live below the 10 million toman poverty line. Many Iranians have not tasted meat or fruit for several months due to the high price of red meat and poultry. There were reports from the impoverished province of Sistan and Baluchestan in southeastern Iran that some villagers had been forced to eat cat and crow meat. According to a member of parliament who represents Sistan and Baluchestan, 75% of the province population suffer from malnutrition.
The Nomads Affairs Organization, a government body affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture said on February 7 that red meat consumption had decreased by 40% in Iran.
In the past 42 years, many large and small factories have gone bankrupt due to government mismanagement, lack of support for domestic products and the import of similar goods at the government foreign exchange rate. The government’s foreign exchange rate is much lower than the open market rate and provides huge profits for importers, who are mostly regime elites.
Despite daily protests and strikes by workers, nothing has changed, and the condition of workers and the working class has deteriorated.
According to official statistics, 70% of minimum wage workers are not covered by unemployment and health insurance or pensions. More than 51% of Tehran residents are living in rented homes and more than 60 million Iranians are eligible for government subsidies for daily subsistence. Phenomenons that were not seen in Iran before the revolution, such as the sale of kidneys and other body organs, are now increasingly seen across the country. Many people sell their furniture or family jewelry to cover their daily needs. Poverty and misery have increased the number of drug addicts to 4.4 million. The number of children forced to drop out of school and work to help support their families due to poverty is estimated at 5 million.
In the summer of 2020, Mohammad Reza Mahboubfar, a member of the Land Management Association of Iran, said 38 million Iranians lived in slums adding that “7.6 million people lived around cemeteries.”
“In 2017, about 40% of the urban population in Iran lived in shanty towns and poor housing. After three years, in 2020, due to inflation, the high price of housing, and increase in rent… this figure has increased to 45%,” he added.
These conditions have caused a sharp increase in suicide rates, especially among women and children. Reports of children committing suicide due to poverty and being deprived of education have turned into an almost everyday event in Iran.
Since Iran’s religious regime quickly lost popular support, it started using prison, torture and executions to wipe out its internal opposition, while using terrorism and assassinations to eradicate its external opposition. The regime has successfully eliminated many of its opponents inside and outside the country.
The regime has also spent billions of dollars to secretly acquire nuclear weapons to counter international threats. This was done at the expense of the people of Iran, who were getting more impoverished every year.
Iran’s secret nuclear program was exposed in June 1991 by the NCRI, a Paris based opposition group.
Due to the current political, social, and economic situation, thousands of Iranians emigrate every year in hopes of a better life. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), between 150,000 and 180,000 educated Iranians leave Iran each year. Iran ranks number one out of 91 undeveloped countries in the world in terms of brain drain. The annual brain drain of Iranians is equivalent to the outflow of 150 billion dollars of capital. According to a 2018 estimate by Majid Hallajzadeh, the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Iranian Affairs Abroad, about 7 million Iranians live abroad.
Institutionalized and systematic government corruption
It is not odd to see reports of embezzlement and corruption by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and regime officials in state-run media, Iranian press outside of Iran or on social media. These reports show only the tip of the iceberg. These days, regime official embezzle billions of dollars and unlike the rest of the population, live lives of luxury. Systematic corruption starts from the very top of the regime. Supreme Leader Khamenei owns a personal off the books hedge fund worth billions of dollars.
While most Iranians struggle to put food on the table, the government-affiliated class live in billion-dollar palaces and villas and drive luxury cars inside and outside Iran.
Although Khamenei has so far been able to continue his grip on power through the IRGC and security force by resorting to extreme violence against angry Iranians who are fed up with the regime, many analysts believe that the regime will not be able to hold on to power for long under these circumstances.
Cyrus Yaqubi is a Research Analyst and Iranian Foreign Affairs Commentator investigating the economy of the middle east countries that are relying on the oil revenue and comparing their progress to their ruling system, specially covering a variety of topics about Iran.