Little change in Iran despite promise of ‘transformation’

Many Iranians are frustrated with President Rouhani as they grapple with sociocultural restrictions, unemployment and downward social mobility.

“Those who are constantly creating rifts do not know what kind of burden we carry.”

These words, uttered by President Hassan Rouhani in the midst of a publicity tour of Iran’s provinces, sum up the political temperature inside the country after the centrist administration’s first six months in office. Despite pivotal breakthroughs in international negotiations, Rouhani faces increasing pressure on the domestic front as he balances the concerns of a rigid conservative camp against the grievances of voters grappling with sociocultural restrictions, unemployment and downward social mobility.

“In domestic politics, what has changed? Did anything get cheaper? Did the inflation rate drop? Have the jobless returned to work?” asks 48-year-old former business owner Hossein, who joined Tehran’s ever-expanding legion of gypsy cab drivers after his factory went bankrupt during the sanctions-plagued administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Lifting the sanctions should make the situation better, but when [Mr Rouhani] wanted to be president, he promised a total transformation in the first 100 days. Now, it’s as if he hadn’t said anything.”

Even as Rouhani pushes for economic development in critical areas like petrochemicals, the automotive industry and shipping lines – all of which are slated for liberation from international sanctions as the nuclear talks with the United States and the European Union advance – his supporters are growing impatient with the lack of progress on job creation and inflation control. The Iranian economy shrank 2% in the past six months, according to official statistics, and consumer prices have increased 5.6% since Rouhani’s inauguration last August. After a routine visit to Tehran earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund warned that without “reforms to promote stability, investment and productivity,” Iran would continue to struggle with the “large shocks” that have impeded its stability and growth in past years.

Recognising the ever-increasing financial strain on Iranian households, the government has tried to aid some of the country’s neediest through subsidies and breadlines, but some of these efforts have ended in near-fiasco due to the large volume of applicants. In an economy where the average urban family must spend 23.8% more than it did a year ago to maintain the same standard of living, the people lining up for government handouts are not just the abjectly poor and the unemployed, but also labourers and civil servants whose monthly salaries fall well below the national average of $500.

Last month, the government announced that it had earmarked 13 trillion Rials ($433 million) for food baskets intended for poor households, but the swelling numbers of those who considered themselves eligible created an administrative nightmare, earning Rouhani criticism both from conservative MPs and impoverished citizens who questioned the fairness of the system through which the aid was disbursed. Among the rejected applicants was 55-year old Mohammad, a custodian at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. Mohammad says his salary amounts to $310 – barely enough to feed a family in a city where the average monthly cost of living is $553. “How can you give the basket to someone who owns a car worth $10,000 but not give it to me, with my salary?” he asked. “Ahmadinejad [or Rouhani], it doesn’t make a difference.”

The question of social justice under Rouhani is not limited to the economic realm. Much of the sociocultural restrictions imposed on Iranian citizens under Ahmadinejad remain in place, despite the president’s pre-election pledge to relax cultural censorship and strengthen personal freedoms. The Internet remains slow and heavily filtered, and social networking sites are still blocked despite their widespread use by politicians. The cinema, despite a surge in creativity this year, remains prone to censorship and favouritism to pro-government directors. At least three newspapers – including the centristAseman, which vocally supported the Rouhani administration – have been forced to shut down, while others were banned before they ever hit the newsstands. Another still-existing publication, the magazine Mehrnameh, is on thin ice after a reprimand for publishing an article that mentioned the Baha’i, a religious sect whose members are persecuted in Iran. International watchdog groups have also noted a surge in hangings since Rouhani took office, noting that many of those executed were ethnic or religious minorities.

Despite these harrowing social and economic issues, the new administration has proven effective on several key domestic fronts. Among Rouhani’s early successes was currency stabilisation. The plummeting price of the rial, which at its lowest point traded at 40,000 per one US dollar, has been steadied at 29,000-30,000 per $1, ending an era of wild speculation and financial uncertainty that undermined international trade. “The market has regained a sense of balance,” says Nadia, 33, a manager at a logistics firm based in Tehran’s financial district. “That’s enough of a reason for which to stand up and applaud Rouhani.”

Another, more recent achievement is the renewed flow of pharmaceuticals to the country, providing relief to the thousands of patients who have been dying due to lack of access to essential drugs and medical equipment after its import was disrupted as a consequence of the financial sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, as the government lobbies for the removal of sanctions on key industries, large construction projects for new ports and oil refineries are in the works, promising job creation and economic revitalisation in the provinces.

Yet while the long-term economic perspective seems positive, the new government’s failings in the social and cultural sphere suggest that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei may be keeping Rouhani on a shorter leash than voters had expected. The newspaper closings, the ongoing censorship in the arts, and the poor human rights record indicate that while Rouhani may be in favour of a more open Iranian society, his hardline critics remain determined – and able – to block even the slightest attempt at relaxation. This political reality does not bode well for the Green Movement voters who supported Rouhani in last year’s presidential race, hoping that electing a centrist figure would address at least some of the concerns they voiced during the bloody protests of 2009. With their one-time leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Mousavi facing a fourth year of house arrest, many Green Movement activists now believe that any reform under Rouhani will come in small, moderate doses, if at all.

“When you’re experiencing intense pain, you don’t care about a return to normal – all you want is for the pain to go away,” said Ali, 29. “And that is what this new government is banking on.”

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