It’s the economy, stupid, says Iran’s shrinking middle class ahead of vote
Beaten by a double whammy from the Covid-19 pandemic and crushing sanctions after the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, the Iranian economy is the main concern as voters go to the polls in the presidential election of June 18.
Shortly after the first wave of Covid-19 hit Iran last year, Mahsa * suffered double losses in his country. The 40-year-old Iranian mother lost her job at a Tehran travel agency that was forced to downsize amid the combined onslaught of a tax free fall triggered by crushing US sanctions and a pandemic that has exacerbated the country’s economic misery.
As Iran heads to the polls for the June 18 presidential election, the economy is a major concern for citizens, including members of the middle class like Mahsa.
“We thought we were going through the worst a year ago, but the limits have been pushed even further. Our currency has fallen further, my rent has increased by 40% and each trip to the supermarket is costing me more and more. It is a bottomless pit. , she explained in a telephone interview with FRANCE 24.
In recent months, many Iranian businesses have had to either downsize or shut down due to the health crisis. “Also, due to the sanctions, some drugs for epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease patients are no longer available. One by one, my friends are leaving the country,” Mahsa said.
In previous elections, Mahsa has consistently voted for reformist candidates, citing civil liberties and individual freedoms as his main electoral issues. This year, the economy has replaced human rights as its main concern, but Mahsa is not sure she will vote in the 2021 election.
“We live under pressure, we are tired and the Covid has finished us, I don’t even know if I will vote,” she said.
This is a concern shared by Mohsen *, a 45-year-old Iranian musician. “Until the economy improves, I don’t really care about politics,” he said. “I was part of the middle class who could still travel across the country, eat out, and enroll my children in hobbies. Today, as far as I’m concerned, it’s over. I no longer have the means. The hardest part is not being able to enroll my daughter in sports or music lessons, or even replace her skateboard which has been broken for months. “
Meat is now a treat as middle class sinks into poverty
Eight years ago, reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani was elected to power with the support of a middle class keen on a nuclear deal with the United States, which would allow the Iranians to engage with the West. Today, the middle class is shrinking rapidly.
Blocked from selling its oil under the “maximum pressure” sanctions of former US President Donald Trump, Iran has seen its poverty rate drop from 11% to 16% in the past two years, adding 3, 7 million more people in the country poverty roll of 83. million.
“This serious crisis is plunging part of the middle class into poverty,” said Thierry Coville of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).
Iran has been in recession for three years, inflation has climbed to 41% and unemployment is hovering around 11% – an official rate that experts say is vastly underestimated. The real unemployment figure is probably closer to 20 percent of the population, according to Coville.
The picture is even darker for the working class, for whom meat becomes a treat.
For an Iranian worker who earns the equivalent of around 60 euros per month, the price of a single kilo of chicken now represents around 10% of his monthly salary. “Some people are negotiating credit agreements with their grocers and traders, others have removed meat from their plates or have drastically reduced their rations,” said Coville.
A company awaiting an agreement
“People have other worries than going to vote, they are disillusioned,” said Azadeh Kian from Paris Diderot University. On the eve of the 2021 presidential election, Kian believes that Iranian society is not in the campaign, but in “standby” mode.
Expectations center on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, under which Tehran accepted limits on its nuclear program in return for relief from international sanctions. But those hopes were dashed in 2018 when Trump tore up the deal and imposed sanctions aimed at Iran’s diplomatic isolation and economic strangulation.
In the midst of the election campaign for the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden promised to act quickly to join the Iran nuclear deal. But that promise turned out to be easier said than done.
Talks to revive the deal began in Vienna in May and are now in their sixth round, with Tehran pushing for the lifting of sanctions and the possibility of keeping equipment installed after Trump’s withdrawal while the United States seeks further restrict Iran’s missile capabilities.
In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica on Wednesday, the head of the UN Nuclear Observatory said a deal will have to await the results of the June 18 elections. “Everyone knows that at this stage, we will have to wait for the new Iranian government,” said Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Given the economic stakes and the direct impact on their daily lives, Iranians in the middle class seem more focused on the nuclear deal than on the presidential election. “The US exit from the nuclear deal is affecting public morale. The Iranians are more focused on what the negotiations on this issue will deliver than on the outcome of the elections,” Kian said.
The Politics of Distress and Hope
Eight years ago, Rouhani was elected with strong middle class support to negotiate a nuclear deal with the United States. After the deal was signed in 2015, the moderate Iranian leader was re-elected for a new four-year term, backed by the brief easing of sanctions.
His victories then “were not motivated by economic distress but by hope”, wrote Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech and non-resident senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, based in Washington DC.
On the social level, hopes of easing restrictions, which mobilized the voices of young people and women in previous elections, have taken a back seat this year. “Hassan Rouhani was a big disappointment, he couldn’t prevent the imprisonment of human rights, women’s rights and environmental activists. He also failed to keep his promise to create a ministry of human rights. Women’s rights, ”Kian said.
But these concerns have not completely disappeared. And they just might get Mahsa back to the polls this year. “I will probably vote at the last minute out of fear, if I feel like an ultraconservative can win. Then my vote could count.”
* First names have been changed
This article has been translated from the original into French.