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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Iranian leaders are out of step and seem incapable of regeneration

The clerics' mismanagement has created stark divisions with billions burnt in a bonfire of their own power games

Iranians gather to protest the high cost of living in Tehran / Getty
Iranians gather to protest the high cost of living in Tehran / Getty

The seminal Iranian novel My Uncle Napoleon is about a father figure in an extended family who develops an obsession with the French emperor as he seeks to blame the English for every malady and insurrection under his roof.

It is not hard to draw parallels with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the ageing cohort of mullahs in Tehran, as youthful and disadvantaged citizens of the country rise up against the leadership.

When Iran's supreme leader lashed out last week against the "foreign meddling" he claimed was provoking protests, there was a visual backdrop of the children of war casualties playing in the meeting room.

When his hardline ally Ahmad Khatami spoke at Tehran’s Friday prayers, he blamed cyberspace for “kindling” the fire of the protestors.

The tools of repression available to the regime are formidable. It has additionally put its own supporters on the streets to crowd out the opposition. That is a dangerous game placing it deep in unknown territory.

Participants in the turn-of-the-year outbreak openly acknowledged the surge to the streets was leaderless. The reasons for protesting were not always clear, even to themselves. A crackdown that starves them of the ability to communicate could effectively kill the movement.

Ongoing organisation of what started as spontaneous displays of anger is an immense challenge. The bloodshed that has already greeted the demonstrators has been a sobering warning. The appearance of regime militias like the Basij and Revolutionary Guard sent a chilling message.

None of this means that Iranians should abandon basic demands for better politics and, above all, the opportunity for a prosperous life.

Iran under the clerics is run as a patriarch – one who is dictatorial and self-seeking – would run his family. It is telling that new technology advances since the last protests in 2009 aided the demonstrators, catching out the officials who had lost sight of advancing threats.

An examination of the basic structure of Iranian society leads to the conclusion that the pressures behind the protests will grow over time.

The demographic bulge in the last years of the Shah has long since collapsed. The children who grew up in its aftermath have aspirations centred around individual goals and the achievement of material benefit.

Yet the age profile of Iranian leaders pushes into the 70s and 80s. They are out of step with their own people and seem incapable of regeneration. Iran and its clerics can no more defy time than the Uncle Napoleon character could evade family rows by spotting the hand of the perfidious English.

An alternative argument is that mismanagement of expectations has seen Iranians ride a rollercoaster of dashed expectations in recent years.

This is an excessively narrow case. Protests are not just down to disappointment over the failure to translate both the 2015 nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions into actual economic growth.

Since the turn of the century, the mismanagement of the clerics has created stark divisions. Unemployment is more than 12 per cent while underemployment and patronage is a dead weight on the economy. The currency has collapsed from less than 10,000 rials to the US dollar to more than 40,000. The policy of domestic production and high trade barriers means that consumers are forced to accept shoddy local goods when they want iPhones and modern wares.

The recent budget revealed US$8 billion was going to the Revolutionary Guard every year. The diversion of state resources to fighting battles in Syria and elsewhere adds salt to the wound.

It is telling that the propaganda of Iran’s growing regional hegemony cuts no ice with its own people.

What kind of regime pursues an agenda like Tehran’s and the response is resentment at home?

Iranians suffered under sanctions but still refuse to be cut off from the world. It is evident the same sort of trends exist in their society that have come to the fore elsewhere.

There is a shared frustration with static political systems prioritising long-standing ideological battle lines.

As the reformist agenda pursued in Saudi Arabia has shown, what is needed and welcomed is clear direction and a willingness to make transformative decisions.

From Donald Trump’s America to Emmanuel Macron’s France, people are telling leaders to get on their side. Iran is no different. People will not accept stagnation or permanently low growth as a kind of managerial exercise.

Hundreds of billions of dollars were released by the removal of sanctions on Iran but burnt in a bonfire of the regime’s own power games.

For centuries Iranian rulers made the mistake of losing touch with the people. Some rulers were too Turkic. Others took on absurd Greco-Persian imperial dreams. Now there is a sectarian obsession. The people are lost to them.