The Raisi Government and Iran’s internal crises
Oct 2, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update reviews the new Iranian cabinet of President Ebrahim Raisi, dominated by ultra-hardliners and full of individuals under international sanctions, and the severe and growing Iranian domestic problems this cabinet will ostensibly be charged with addressing, even as the world attempts to confront Iran’s dash to nuclear weapons capabilities and destabilising regional activities.
We lead with US-based Iran expert Behnam Ben Taleblu’s review of the Iranian cabinet. He notes that it includes 12 sanctioned individuals, who run the most important ministries including defence, interior and petroleum, plus not only Raisi himself but both of his vice-presidents. Taleblu details their alleged crimes, and also notes that this cabinet with 40% sanctioned ministers indicates Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is comfortable with escalating tension with the outside world, despite Iran’s internal crises. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Mohammad Hossein Ziya, a strategic consultant specialising in Iran, who discusses no less than 13 major crises in Iran which the Raisi Government will have to face, and which could well have ramifications beyond the borders of Iran itself. In addition to Iran’s severe economic problems, exacerbated by sanctions, he notes growing religious extremism, increasing control of both the economy and especially politics by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the decline of independent sources of information in Iran, including control over internet access by the government, rampant corruption, growing inequality, and the collapse of secular culture and education. For Ziya’s full analysis of the factors he says are “pushing the country closer to social and economic collapse or even disintegration by the day,” CLICK HERE.
Finally, we offer a New York Times profile of young urban Iranians, in which they make it clear that the situation Ziya outlines is causing them to lose hope for the future and seek to emigrate. The story also notes the severe difficulties Iranians are having in marrying and raising children – causing the birth rate to fall even as the regime tries to incentivise higher fertility. For this peek into the individual human effect of the issues raised above, caused mainly by regime mismanagement, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- An analysis of the implications of Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – the China and Russia-led economic and security intergovernmental body – last week.
- Security analyst Yaakov Lappin on why Iran’s recent hints it will soon be ready to return to nuclear talks are nothing to celebrate.
- Three scholars suggest ways the US Congress can up the pressure on Iran if the Biden Administration is reluctant to do so.
- US foreign policy expert Danielle Pletka argues that, contrary to many analyses out there, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is a boon to Iran.
- Some Israeli comments on Jerusalem’s policy dilemmas in attempting to deal with Iran’s race to nuclear weapons capabilities, from historian Benny Morris and defence analyst Yoav Limor.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC research associate Dr. Ran Porat analyses the worrying details of Iran’s current and escalating conflict with the International Atomic Energy Agency,
- Oved Lobel looks at the recent UN General Assembly speech by Iranian President Raisi – along with those of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Naftali Bennett.
- Naomi Levin on the antisemitic activists tied to Melbourne’s anti-lockdown protests.
- Australian-raised Israeli negotiator Dr. Tal Becker discusses the significance of the Abraham Accords, one year on, in an AIJAC webinar. A short video excerpt, in which Becker notes how the Accords have already weathered major challenges and shown their resilience, is here.
- Plus, an article from Colin Rubenstein discussing the Abraham Accords as a “major historic breakthrough likely to have enduring effects”, which appeared in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald online.
The Sanctioned Cabinet of Ebrahim Raisi
Behnam Ben Taleblu
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
September 30, 2021
The Cabinet1 of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, represents the culmination of a decades-long political project by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to promote ultra-hardline elites to key leadership positions.2 Drawn from an increasingly narrow bench, Raisi’s appointees include several persons who served under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013),3 who also harbored immense hostility to the West and stacked his Cabinet with veterans of Iran’s security forces.4
Reflecting this new constellation of power, Raisi’s Cabinet boasts 12 sanctioned individuals, more than any other in the history of the Islamic Republic. These persons are subject to overlapping international penalties imposed by the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and United Nations due to their role in Khamenei’s networks, support for Iran’s nuclear program, ties to terrorist groups, and human rights abuses. These 12 also hold some of the most important portfolios, including the ministries of defense, interior, and petroleum as well as two vice presidencies.
The Cabinet members under sanctions include eight persons on the U.S. Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List,5 seven persons subject to UK sanctions,6 seven persons subject to EU sanctions,7 and one person on a UN sanctions list.8 The EU and UK lists mirror one another, and both entities will delist the same three persons come October 2023, pursuant to the implementation timeline of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).9 Similarly, UN sanctions will terminate in October 2023 pursuant to the same JCPOA implementation timeline.10 The other four EU and UK designations against members of Raisi’s Cabinet will remain, as they were issued under human rights-related authorities and are separate from each entity’s JCPOA commitments. Three of those four individuals have yet to be sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.11
While Raisi is by now known for serving on a “death commission” in 1988 that led to the execution of several thousand political prisoners, he is subject to U.S. sanctions for having been elevated by Khamenei to a state position.12 Several other Cabinet members have been designated under this broad and unique U.S. sanctions authority, which exposes and penalizes the supreme leader’s network of appointees.13 They include First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber,14 who previously led a multibillion-dollar holding company owned by the supreme leader, known by its acronym, EIKO,15 as well as three others.16
Some cabinet members are subject to multiple sanctions authorities given their myriad crimes. A prime example is Rostam Ghassemi, a brigadier general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an ideological force parallel to the Artesh (national military). The U.S. Treasury Department, using counterproliferation authorities, sanctioned Ghassemi in 2010 for supporting the IRGC’s “engineering arm.” Treasury designated him again in 2019, this time using counterterrorism authorities, for working for the IRGC’s Quds Force and its then-chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani, to illicitly export Iranian oil.17 Ghassemi is also subject to EU and UK nuclear-related sanctions but is slated to be delisted by October 2023 pursuant to the JCPOA.18
Furthermore, two members of Raisi’s Cabinet are subject to Interpol Red Notices — requests to locate wanted criminals — for their involvement in the 1994 terror attack against the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 85 people.19 Both are affiliated with the IRGC.20 Although Raisi’s Cabinet, like his predecessor’s, has an Artesh officer at the helm of the defense ministry,21 there at least three individuals in Raisi’s Cabinet who attained the rank of general in the IRGC. Multiple other Cabinet members have worked with or retain ties to the IRGC. The United States has designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,22 but Iranian official sources allege that Washington will drop this penalty if nuclear negotiations result in a new agreement.23
It is an open secret that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly approves key cabinet positions (Photo: Flickr | License details)
During confirmation proceedings in the Iranian Majlis (parliament), Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf confirmed an open secret: Khamenei personally approved key appointments to the Cabinet for positions related to national security, including but not limited to the minister of intelligence.24 Accordingly, the Majlis approved all but one of Raisi’s Cabinet nominees.25
Per Iranian law, the minister of intelligence must be a Mujtahid (a religious scholar),26 which remains the case for Raisi’s Cabinet. Ahmadinejad unsuccessfully contested the supreme leader’s choice for minister of intelligence in 2011, resulting in a political crisis late in his second presidential term.27
Khamenei’s willingness to have a Cabinet in which almost 40 percent of its members are subject to sanctions reflects his comfort with escalating tensions with the outside world and his confidence in not needing to feign moderation to garner relief from sanctions.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at FDD where he focuses on Iranian security and political issues.
The 13 crises facing Iran
Mohammad Hossein Ziya
Ebrahim Raisi, the eighth president of Iran, has taken over at a time when the Islamic Republic is facing a series of major potential crises. Over the next several decades, these crises could have consequences that will not only affect Iran itself, but may reverberate across the region as well. This article will address the 13 crises facing Raisi’s government and Iranian society more broadly.
The religious community in Iran consists of two different and distinct sectors. The first is “political Islam,” led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the second is “religious and traditional Islam,” led by the grand ayatollahs such as Vahid Khorasani and Seyyed Sadegh Shirazi. Political Islam seeks to build on traditional Islam to implement the notion of the “great Islamic civilization.” The mission is to strengthen Shiite thought and spread it to Shiite countries around the world, such as through various Shiite ceremonies and festivals. This includes the Iranian government’s preparations for millions of Iranians to march in Iraq during Arba’een, which commemorates the martyrdom of the third Shiite imam in Karbala. Iran’s reinforcement and development of this ceremony in Iraq is a way to project power over Saudi Arabia, which hosts the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
There is ample evidence, including the extremism of Shiite ceremonies in Iran, that religion is becoming more radical in the Islamic Republic. Although extremist Shiite ideology is far from extremist Sunni thinking (in terms of terrorist and suicidal acts), the fusion of political Islam with traditional Islam could lead to the rise of a new generation of Shiites that lack clear “red lines” in justifying their thoughts, because the leaders of traditional Islam consider “jihad” as the first means of spreading their thoughts and achieving their goals. Therefore, this path will likely lead to provocation, religious violence, and further tension between the Shiite and Sunni communities in Iran.
The Jameh Mosque in Isfahan: Shi’ism in Iran is increasingly divided between political Islam and traditional Islam, and is becoming more extreme. (Photo: Razak.R, Shutterstock).
Restrictions on access to and control of information
As protests in Iran escalate, the government has repeatedly restricted or completely shut down mobile communication systems, including mobile phones, text messages, and the internet. The first experience of a complete internet blackout in Iran, following the nationwide protests in November 2019, was a shock to the people and the broader economy. The highly restricted and militarized climate across the country, along with the increase in domestic protests, on the one hand, and the support of countries such as China and Russia in restricting the global internet, on the other hand, will raise concerns about the closure of the public information space in Iran. Furthermore, the passage of restrictive laws in the Iranian parliament is a serious threat to freedom of expression in general. This is not the first time this has happened though. In the first years after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and at other times subsequently, Iranian society had similar restrictions and prohibitions on things like VHS video players and satellite dishes and receivers, although the governmental bans and punishment eventually faded away as these items became more widespread.
With the support of the Iranian parliament, Raisi’s cabinet is seeking to launch a domestic intranet so that they can have more control over communication and social media apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The only thin ray of hope for the Iranian people would be SpaceX’s satellite internet project, StarLink, which would bypass the country’s internet censorship regime.
Further militarization of the system
In the years since the Iran-Iraq war, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have moved into Iran’s political sphere, with four of the seven candidates in the 2005 Iranian presidential election (including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) having served in the IRGC. Currently, 24 members of parliament (including the speaker, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf) are former senior commanders of the IRGC and the Basij. This excludes people who have simple membership in or collaborate with the IRGC. In the economy, the IRGC has used its influence to seize control of many oil, gas, and petrochemicals projects and developmental mega-projects in Iran after the U.S. reimposed sanctions. Nearly one-third of the ministers and deputies of Raisi’s cabinet have a history of membership and command in the IRGC. Some experts believe that the unification of Iran’s entire political structure, including the government and parliament, under hardliners close to the IRGC and the supreme leader may actually make it easier to pursue development. In the absence of political rivalries and sabotage, proponents of this line of thinking say, more attention will be directed to development. But previous experience with a uniform political structure under Ahmadinejad’s government suggests otherwise. As happened then, the situation may once again lead to increased corruption, in-group competition and tensions, and the use of wealth and power rents for the benefit of military-security and religious institutions, individuals, and organizations.
Because of both widespread sanctions and the lack of proper investment by governments over the past 40 years, Iran’s infrastructure is experiencing a crisis: It is underdeveloped, scarce, and crumbling. In recent months, Iran, which enjoys large reserves of oil and gas and ample sunlight for renewables, has faced severe shortages of domestic and industrial water and electricity. While Iran has the potential for a larger population, its underdeveloped infrastructure, coupled with drought, poverty, and other crises, have left the current population facing difficulties and lacking resources. Currently, 19 million of Iran’s 85 million people reside on the peripheries of cities, and about 9 million are illiterate. Nonetheless, the Iranian leader has issued an order banning any population control policy and urging Iranians to work to increase the population to 150 million (nearly double the current total).
A severe drought, exacerbated by mismanagement of water resources, has worsened Iran’s economic and welfare crises – and is likely to continue, spurring rural migration to the cities (Photo: Sun_Shine / Shutterstock.com)
Drought and forced migration
Due to the severe exploitation of groundwater resources as well as climate change, parts of Iran will be uncultivable and uninhabitable in the coming years. The issue of access to water is tied to the livelihoods of many in the lower classes in Iranian society.
According to a 2015 report by the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center, two-thirds of the country has become a desert as drought has spread. At the same time, efforts to address this problem through large-scale water transfer projects from the country’s water-rich provinces, such as Khuzestan, to water-poor provinces have sparked protests and ethnic conflicts. This includes, most recently, the July 2021 protests in Khuzestan, where 15 protesters were killed by security forces.
If this trend continues, it will lead to an increased rate of rural migration to cities and peripheralization, a crisis that will affect the lower strata of society.
The Iranian economy is going bankrupt due to the extensive sanctions imposed by the United States. The Iranian Parliamentary Research Center has enumerated the impacts caused by the current sanctions on Iran’s economy in 12 points:
- The impossibility of issuing bank guarantees and transferring money overseas
- Refusal to open letters of credit for Iranian companies and individuals
- The impossibility to issue visas to economic operators in many countries
- Suspension of technology transfer contracts with prominent European and Asian companies
- Non-receipt of revenues from Iran’s electricity exports
- Rendered the bunkering industry uneconomical due to lack of insurance coverage
- Unresolved major contracts such as those with French energy company Total
- Restriction on the export of petroleum, even petroleum products, such as gasoline
- Weakened Iran’s credit rating as assessed by international institutions
- Discontinuation of Iran’s exploitation of credit lines and foreign investments
- Withdrawal of international companies from the Iranian market and cessation of cooperation with domestic partners
- Cessation of the purchase of airplanes agreed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the return of U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s economic growth rates in 2018 and 2019 were negative, at -6% and -6.8%, respectively. Moreover, the unemployment rate was above 11%. In 2020, however, there was a positive growth rate of 3.6%. If the U.S. does not return to the JCPOA, however, the Raisi government will likely face a budget deficit and inflation. The devaluation of the currency and the rise in inflation during the past month was the market’s first reaction to the new government.
Economic and administrative corruption
Transparency International ranks Iran 149th out of 180 countries in terms of administrative and economic corruption. The lack of freedom of information in Iran and power among civil society and non-governmental organizations active in the field of anti-corruption have prevented the country from improving its anti-corruption indicators.
The inability of independent media to reveal corruption and the lack of transparency in the structure of state-owned and semi-state-owned companies, along with the so-called circumvention of sanctions, have made a small group close to the government the main culprits in corruption cases in Iran. Bribery is commonplace in offices and banks, even in small cities.
Raisi has held key judicial positions for more than 22 years. During that time, his performance did not suggest he would create a positive mechanism to deal with the issue of corruption. However, it remains to be seen whether having a judge serve as president can improve Iran’s ranking on this front. Meanwhile, the Iranian leader believes that although there “are cases of corruption; it is not systematic.” Nevertheless, the evidence and statistics certainly suggest otherwise — that corruption in Iran is indeed systematic and widespread.
During Ahmadinejad’s time in office, when Iran was earning huge oil revenues, a new stratum emerged as a result of the circumvention of sanctions, oil brokerage, or rents, benefiting those in power. That is why pro-government economic cartels are now staunch opponents of lifting sanctions. According to a former Iranian official, more than 5,000 children of Iranian officials reside in the United States alone. This proves that the ruling class has more access to resources and opportunities — a point regularly driven home by pictures and videos shared on social media.
Social class differences
According to the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center, the country’s banks pay more than 200,000 billion tomans ($8 billion) in interest to bank depositors annually. However, 85% of these profits are earned by 2.5% of depositors. Also, according to statistics, 30% of Iran’s population is below the “absolute poverty line” and faces problems in meeting their basic needs. Further, according to the latest unofficial reports, “in mid-2020, 78% of Iranians lived below the poverty line.”
Nevertheless, one may find many web pages that display the “luxury” life of some Iranian citizens — many of whom are family members and relatives of government officials. Currently, the price per square meter for a house in the north of Tehran is 55 to 120 million tomans ($2,000 to $4,500), while the minimum wage for workers is between $100 and $150 a month. Put another way, the cost of buying 1 square meter of a house in the north of Tehran is equal to two years of income for an average worker.
The decline of culture
Changes to the content of textbooks to Islamize courses in schools and universities, reliance on religious upbringing, and reduced levels of moral education based on social awareness have all caused concern among social scientists. The government seeks religiously-oriented moral development, while society rebels against such morality as engendered by an unsuccessful and politicized governing system. This is especially because the ruling religious class has not adhered to its own moral slogans and red lines. Poverty has only exacerbated this problem. Last year alone, for instance, over 2 million students dropped out of school.
During the past 15 years, a large part of the intellectual class (students, professors, and elites) has left Iran — between 150,000 and 180,000 people a year. The reduced scientific potential of the country and, conversely, the systematic strengthening of seminaries and religious institutions by the government, will lead to deep cultural and technical poverty in society. This, along with censorship and restrictions imposed on the free flow of information and the internet by the government, will contribute to cultural decline in Iran.
Separatism and ethnic and religious tensions
Baluchestan on the border with Pakistan, the Kurdish regions in the west, the oil-rich areas with an Arab ethnic minority, and more recently, the northwestern provinces (bordering Azerbaijan and Turkey) are all places where separatist groups and activists operate. Demand for teaching mother tongues in schools and universities, ethnic and religious discrimination (especially among Sunnis), underdevelopment (in Sistan and Baluchestan and Kurdistan provinces), exclusion from the power structure (especially among Kurds and Sunnis), transfer of resources (Khuzestan Province), and incitement of neighboring countries (Turkey) are all among the issues contributing to the crisis of separatism in some of Iran’s peripheral provinces. Dissatisfaction with socioeconomic conditions has amplified these demands.
Iran’s changing political structure
Some fundamentalist figures in Iran have spoken of changing the presidential system to a parliamentary one. Iran’s political system during the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a parliamentary one, but it shifted to a presidential system with the change in the constitution in 1989. Over the past 10 years, the issue of Iran’s political structure has been repeatedly raised and assessed. Ayatollah Khamenei, however, said in a speech in 2019 that “the problems of the parliamentary system for the country are more than the presidential system.”
The removal of reformist and moderate forces from power has led to the unification of the country’s political structure. The rise of military, intelligence, and security forces will place the political and economic power of the country in the hands of a specific group with a particular ideology, which is one of the preconditions of an oligarchy.
Up to a third of Iranians are now having trouble meeting their basic needs (Photo: marketa1982 / Shutterstock.com)
Poverty, unemployment, and rising crime
Around a third of Iranians have difficulty meeting their basic needs. Among those 15 and older, 9.6% of the active population are unemployed. Over the past decade it has become clear that there is a direct link between the economic situation and crime rates. In the last 10 years, the theft rate has fallen only temporarily in 2013 (when Rouhani’s government gained power) and in 2016 (just after the JCPOA was signed), while it has risen in other years. The theft rate increased by 30% in 2018, when the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA. Iran’s current economic situation suggests crime rates are likely to rise going forward.
The economic crisis, the closure of domestic and foreign communications, and U.S. sanctions have together led to an increase in the outward migration of Iranian students and investors to foreign countries. Iranian immigration to Turkey has tripled in the past five years. In 2019, nearly 42,000 immigrants with Iranian citizenship entered Turkey. This resulted in $100 billion in capital outflows from Iran between 2017 and 2019. Statistics from the past four years show that “Iranians have established more than 2,700 companies in Turkey and bought more than 13,000 houses and apartments” there.
A critical outlook
Collectively, the factors highlighted above suggest a critical outlook for Iran. Some of these factors, such as sanctions, have external roots that have a significant impact on economic issues. Nonetheless, most of these crises are the outcome of mismanagement within Iran. The involvement of security and military organizations in economic affairs, the lack of independent and powerful civil institutions other than political ones, large-scale and systematic corruption, as well as Iran’s political structure (which is dominated by the military, intelligence organizations, and a clerical elite) are pushing the country closer to social and economic collapse or even disintegration by the day.
To escape this impending crisis, Iran first needs sanctions to be lifted. A number of the crises facing the country are rooted in the economic situation, the level of poverty, and the lack of adequate resources for development, education, and productive infrastructure. These must be addressed next. In the following phase, the country must develop robust civil institutions, ensure freedom of information, carry out the fight against corruption, and implement meritocracy, all of which will help Iran to return to the path of development in the decades to come.
Mohammad Hossein Ziya is a strategic consultant and researcher involved in political and social research, election analysis, and social media campaigns. He has been the chief editor of Saham News since 2010 and is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Iran Program. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
‘I Can’t Imagine a Good Future’: Young Iranians Increasingly Want Out
Divorce is up, fertility rates are down and many from Iran’s younger generation are postponing weddings and searching for ways to leave the country in the face of economic and political stagnation.
By Vivian Yee
New York Times, Sept. 28, 2021
Many young Iranians see little hope for the future, cannot afford children and are looking to emigrate (Photo: Sajedeh Zarei / Shutterstock.com)
TEHRAN — Amir, an engineering master’s student standing outside Tehran University, had thought about going into digital marketing, but worried that Iran’s government would restrict Instagram, as it had other apps. He had considered founding a start-up, but foresaw American sanctions and raging inflation blocking his way.
Every time he tried to plan, it seemed useless, said Amir, who at first would not give his real name. He was afraid of his country, he said, and he wanted to leave after graduation.
“I’m a person who’s 24 years old, and I can’t imagine my life when I’m 45,” he said. “I can’t imagine a good future for myself or for my country. Every day, I’m thinking about leaving. And every day, I’m thinking about, if I leave my country, what will happen to my family?”
This is life now for many educated urbanites in Tehran, the capital, who once pushed for loosening social restrictions and opening Iran to the world, and who saw the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States as a reason for hope.
But three years ago, President Donald J. Trump reneged on the agreement and reimposed harsh economic sanctions, leaving these Iranians feeling burned by the Americans and isolated under a newly elected president at home who is antithetical to their values — a hard-liner vowing further defiance of the West.
After years of sanctions, mismanagement and the pandemic, it is easy to put numbers to Iran’s economic struggles. Since 2018, many prices have more than doubled, living standards have skidded and poverty has spread, especially among rural Iranians. All but the wealthiest have been brought low.
But there is no statistic for middle-class Iranians’ uncertainty and increasingly pinched aspirations. Their darkening mood can best be measured in missed milestones — in the rush to leave the country after graduation, in delayed marriages and declining birthrates.
In conversations around Tehran during a recent visit, Iranians wavered between faith and despair, hope and practicality, wondering how to make the best of a situation beyond their control.
In Tehran for the day to run errands — he needed a phone, she had government paperwork — Bardja Ariafar, 19, and Zahra Saberi, 24, sat on a bench in Daneshjoo Park, exercising one of the subtle social freedoms Iranians have carved out under the strict theocracy in recent years. Despite a ban on gender mixing in public, men and women now sit together in the open.
The friends work at Digikala, the Amazon of Iran, sorting goods in a warehouse in Karaj, a suburb now full of ex-Tehran residents seeking cheaper rents. Mr. Ariafar said he was supplementing his income as a computer programmer. Ms. Saberi, like many overqualified young Iranians, had not found a job that would let her use her Persian literature degree.
If and when Ms. Saberi marries, she and her family will have to pay for their share of everything the couple would need, from household appliances, new clothes and a customary mirror-and-candlesticks set to a house. The groom’s family will supply a gold-and-diamond jewelry set for the wedding.
Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost more than 70% of its value over the last few years. (Photo: Fotokon / Shutterstock.com)
But after Iran’s currency, the rial, lost about 70 percent of its value in just a few years, her family could no longer afford it.
The rial plunged from about 43,000 to the dollar in January 2018 to about 277,000 this week, a decline that forced the government last year to introduce a new unit, the toman, to slash four zeros off the bills. But everything from rents to clothing prices is based on the dollar because most raw materials are imported, so Iranians are spending much more of their incomes on much less.
In 2020, the percentage of Iranians living on the equivalent of less than $5.60 per day had risen to 13 percent from less than 10 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a Virginia Tech economist. It was worse in rural areas, where about a quarter of the population lives in poverty, up from 22 percent in 2019.
Increasingly, Iran’s middle class has felt the pressure. Mr. Ariafar’s new smartphone cost him 70 percent of a month’s wages.
“It’s hard to succeed and develop in Iran,” he said, “so maybe that’s my only choice, to go abroad.”
But for Ms. Saberi, leaving was not an option.
“This is my home, my land, my culture,” she said. “I can’t imagine leaving it. We have to make it better, not flee.”
In July, Iranian authorities unveiled a solution to Iran’s marriage and childbirth crisis: a state-sanctioned dating app. But for the young Iranians the authorities would like to start families, matches may not be the problem.
Standing in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, Zahra slid on a braided gold-and-diamond wedding ring, the jewelry store’s overhead lights glinting off her hot-pink manicure.
“How much?” she asked, holding her finger up for her fiancé’s inspection.
“We’ll give a good discount,” replied Milod, 38, the owner.
“Do you have any fake diamonds?”
“No, but I’ll give you a good discount,” he repeated.
“I don’t want real diamonds,” she said, removing the ring.
With the price of gold up tenfold, by jewelers’ estimates, in the past few years, more couples have opted for costume jewelry. Others marry in small, hurried ceremonies, while saving up to leave. Some postpone marriage into their 30s; others are priced out.
Iran’s fertility rate dropped by nearly 30 percent from 2005 to 2020, to 1.8 children per woman in 2020, prompting a flurry of incentives.
Would-be parents are troubled by the possibility of further unrest, even war. No one knows whether the ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, will curb the few social freedoms that Iranians have carved out like the Western music throbbing through many cafes or even the tattoos snaking up young people’s arms.
And will the economy ever become strong enough to give a child a good life?
Zahra Negarestan, 35, and Maysam Saleh, 38, got lucky — up to a point.
They married six months before Mr. Trump reimposed sanctions. Soon after, everything they were expected to buy before marrying doubled in price.
“It was bad then,” Ms. Negarestan said. “We didn’t think it could get worse.”
The couple, who recently started a business selling pottery wheels, said they have both always wanted children. Yet they keep putting off a decision.
“You can either have a very objective view of things — to have a baby, I need insurance, I need a job with this much income,” said Mr. Saleh, who works for a water treatment company and freelances in video production. “Or you can base it on faith — once you have a baby, God will provide. But on any given day, my practical side is winning.”
Ms. Negarestan has held onto some optimism.
“Maybe,” she said, “he or she will find a better way to live.”
But if they have a baby and the country deteriorates, she said, they will leave.
Between hope and despair, there is compromise.
For some, it involves getting married in fake jewels and a rented dress. For others, it involves smuggling.
Tehran’s rich can still find Dutch coffee filters and baby carrots from California, at a price, thanks to a cottage industry of small-time sanctions-busters. On the capital’s streets, late-model AirPods poke from ears, and any traffic jam might include a shiny Range Rover.
When Fatemeh, 39, started working as an information technology engineer 17 years ago, she said she earned enough to save for a house and support a comfortable life. Three children and a steep economic decline later, however, she needed to pad her income.
After the 2018 sanctions, as foreign clothing stores disappeared or raised prices, she detected opportunity. Soon, she was paying Iranians in Turkey to buy products online and fly or drive them home.
Three years later, business is brisk. Her customers pay a 20 percent markup for foreign brands rather than resign themselves to Iranian ones.
“It’s not like with the sanctions, you say, ‘Goodbye lifestyle, goodbye everything that I wanted,’” she said. “We try to find a way around it.”
Yet even after doubling her income, Fatemeh said she was barely keeping up. Her children’s school costs four times what it did a few years ago, she said, and her grocery bill has quintupled.
With two more years’ hard work, she said, she might just catch up to inflation — longer, if things got worse.