On June 15, 2011, Akbar Ganji published an article,”The Worst Scenario for Iran: A Different Look,” on BBC Persian, examining the economy of Iran and the effects of the international sanctions on it. NIAC’s Ali Tayebi and Sahar Fahimi have translated this article from Ganji’s original pen, Persian, to English. This is the second half of the article; the first half is here.
The worst possible situation
Ayatollah Khamenei will never accept to retreat in Iran nuclear project. His policy in the Middle East and North Africa to support the extremist activities and calling the ongoing changes across the region “Islamic Revolution” soured the anti-Iran atmosphere, and put Persian Gulf countries in an confrontational position with Iran.
In this situation, what option remains for the Western countries other than increasing political and economic sanctions?
Let us assume that the western countries succeed in sanctioning all Iranian banks. Let us assume that this sanction also includes Iran’s fuel, and Iran is put in a situation similar to Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s era. In this case, the unemployment rate in Iran will increase by millions, poverty will be expanded all over the country and the middle class will merge into the lower class. Tens of thousands of children and the elderly will lose their lives.
Would this situation lead to protests or cause a revolution? Thousands of different issues could lead to the collapse of the totalitarian religious regime, however, no one can predict that increasing unemployment and poverty will cause protests or spark a revolution. Consider Iraq, the toughest economic sanctions in ten years destroyed the Iraqi society, but did not hurt Saddam’s regime and at the end he stepped down only by military attack and invasion.
In the same situation, as long as the regime has power and intention to systemically crackdown any protests and critique, it will continue to survive. Decline in any of these two factors is a prerequisite for regime change.
A regime that can and yearns to remain in power by a broad crackdown, will sustain until these factors have changed.
Economy and Collapse
Still, some people believe that economy is a determining factor. They imagine that the economic infrastructure forms political, philosophical, moral, and ideological superstructures. Karl Marx in preface of his book, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, says: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
There are four levels in Marx’s theory: 1) Production forces, 2) production relations, 3) laws and political institutions, 4) consciousness forms. The blue-collar class becomes poorer every day until they reach class-consciousness, and finally, they tear down the Bourgeoisie by a brutal revolution. In Marx’s theory, the economic situation of the blue-collar class must become increasingly worse in order to have a revolutionary evolution and collapse.
Antonio Gramsci tried to correct this model. According to him, superstructures play an important role in creating public awareness. Hegemony and organized satisfaction, as a process that obedience will come without being solicited, are some of the issues that Marx calls superstructure.
Regimes with ideological superstructure are not the only ones who create satisfaction; opposition groups can also use the same formula to create values in superstructures in order to mobilize people against the existing situation.
In a reclining economy, securing their own well being and enduring the tough times become the crucial issues for people. Poor people work day and night to earn enough money to survive. For them, democracy, freedom, and human rights are considered luxury and unnecessary goods.
If we look at regime change experiences, poverty and unemployment do not play an important role; to the contrary, a nation enters a period of fast economic growth and the public’s monetary situation slightly improves, ‘revolution of expectations’ happens. A dictatorship cannot address raising expectations in a fast growing economy. Revolutions happen because of raising expectations in a proper economic growth or in a situation that after a long period of growth a country experiences a short period of setback.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the main theorist of this approach, writes about the French Revolution and mentions that surprisingly this revolution happened when the country was not in economic recession or brutal repression. More importantly, those parts of France that had better quality of life were the centers of emerging revolutionary movements.
According to him, ‘a change happened thirty or forty years prior to the revolution’. Economic growth escalated, no one satisfied with his share, and everyone was looking to improve his/her situation.
In his belief, a decline in the regime’s power and intent on protest crackdowns is a prerequisite in order for a revolution to take place.
After studying the American, French, Russian, and English revolutions, Crane Brinton came to the same conclusion as de Tocqueville. He argues that revolutions “were clearly not born in economically retrograde societies; on the contrary, they took place in economically progressive societies, in spite of short term cyclic variations.”
Many French and Russian protests followed long famine and hunger episodes, but none of them lead to a revolution. James Davies also support this fact, he mentions: “Enduring poverty is far from a revolution motivator, it lead to concern for one’s self and family at best, and resignation or mute despair at worst.”
Iran’s 1979 revolution also confirms this theory. Between 1960 and 1978, Iran had a very proper economic growth rate (5-17 percent). Average economic growth rate in this 17 year period was 10.5 percent. In the year that the revolution happened, Iran experienced 17 percent economic growth rate.
There is another supportive indicator of this theory; the GDP per capita (the approximate value of the total goods and services produced per person in a nation) is an indicator that provides an accurate picture of the welfare of a country’s citizens.
From 1959 to 1976, Iran GDP per capita increased from 2 million Rial to 7.2 million Rial. It means in 17 year, Iran experienced 360 percent increase in its GDP per capita, which shows that Iranians’ welfare substantially improved in this era. The 1979 Revolution happened in this context, and the fact is after 32 years Iran has just reached the same GDP per capita that it had in 1976.
Totalitarian Regime, the Main Problem
The main problem of our society is the existence of a totalitarian regime and the transition to a democratic regime committed to freedom and human rights. If we accept this fact, based on what has been discussed before, an economic crisis will marginalize the process of transition to democracy by wiping out the middle class, as the main player in this process. Humans primarily seek their essential needs such as food, clothes, and shelter, and only in next steps do they chase their ideals. Even if someone is looking for the regime change, he or she should know that poverty does not lead to a revolution and collapse of the regime. Therefore, we should worry about the existing situation becoming increasingly worse.
The worst-case scenario for Iran would be if the crippling sanctions pass. A period of repression and brutal crackdown will follow, if an economy that is already trapped in the hands of domestic insipience and structural problems is faced with disabling sanctions.
In the past three decades, Iran’s society has experienced moral deterioration, especially in terms of trust; and in this situation, we will observe the collapse of its social capital from inside and outside.
Economic sanctions alone, cannot lead to a regime change. If the main goal and idea for some of the supportive political groups is overthrowing the Islamic Republic and a regime change in Iran, the failure of sanctions will lead to welcoming military action.
Similar to Libya, justification for war can be provided, but Iran is not a small country like Libya. Furthermore, nonstop bombing Libya by Western countries has not forced Gaddafi to step down yet. Based on UN reports, both sides of the war, Gaddafi and the oppositions, have committed war crimes. However, the western world has supported one side. If Iran is faced with the same situation, Iran and Iranians will be destroyed. We want democracy and human rights for Iran and Iranians, not ruins for a nation and citizens who are awaiting death.
There is no reason for Iran’s religious dictatorship to withdraw and accept the request for democratization of its political structure and society. If people do not gain strength through multiple diverse organizations, if social mobilization does not happen, if unfair/unethical/immoral laws and regulations are not disputed and publically disobeyed, if balance of power is not forced this way and the officials do not start dialogue with the opposition, if a compromise is not reached and open elections (meaning elections that will transfer the power from the officials to the people) are not held, if the oppressors are not forgiven (forgiven but not forgotten); a peaceful transition to a democratic regime, committed to freedom and human rights, will swiftly become a mirage. Perhaps the words of the mystics who “offer heavens as an excuse” are true, but democracy is given to a “price”, not an “excuse”.