WASHINGTON - Iran’s prolonged economic recession and increasing regional isolation as its Islamist rulers mark 42 years in power is largely a result of those rulers maintaining ideological adherence to their 1979 revolution through a discordant power structure, according to some Iranian analysts.
Iranian authorities celebrated the anniversary of the revolution by mobilizing government supporters to stage a series of nationwide vehicle processions on Wednesday, rather than the traditional street rallies of previous anniversaries, due to coronavirus-related health restrictions.
Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics seized power in a months-long Islamic Revolution that culminated in the overthrow of the nation’s monarch, or shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, on Feb. 11, 1979. In a message issued Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani praised the previous day’s processions as showing “lasting scenes of cohesion, solidarity and the vigilance of the great nation of Iran at this critical time.”
“If you look away from Tehran’s official narrative, the picture is very different,” Alex Vatanka, Iran program director at the Middle East Institute, told VOA on Wednesday.
“Iran right now is not doing well in terms of its economy, political situation, and sense of hopelessness that you find across civil society,” Vatanka said. “So for the majority of Iranians who feel their country is on the wrong track, today is not a day to rejoice. In fact, it is a day to regret what happened back in 1979.”
Iran fell into recession in 2018 as toughening U.S. sanctions exacerbated long-standing government mismanagement of the economy. The IMF’s latest world economic outlook published last month estimates that Iran suffered a third consecutive year of recession in 2020, while projecting a return to GDP growth this year.
Islamist-ruled Iran, which has long called for the destruction of its regional foe, Israel, also found itself increasingly isolated from its neighbors last year. With the help of U.S. mediation, Israel signed peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the first such deals between Israel and Gulf Arab nations who have long been wary of Tehran’s support for pro-Iran militias involved in several regional conflicts.
Israel’s peace deals with the UAE and Bahrain expanded its relations to six of the 13 countries in the regions bordering and surrounding Iran. Israel already had relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan, but it still has no official ties with Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In interviews with VOA Persian in recent days, some analysts in the Iranian diaspora blamed Iran’s recent setbacks in part on its Islamist rulers continuing to pursue the ideological goals of their 1979 revolution, including confrontation with the West.
“Animosity toward the U.S. was the essence of the Islamic Republic’s creation,” said Ali Sadrzadeh, a Frankfurt-based analyst of Middle East politics. Washington had been a supporter of the shah ousted by Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Sadrzadeh said the incident that ruptured U.S.-Iran relations, the Khomeini-supported detention of 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Islamist students from November 1979 to January 1981, has been used by Iran’s ruling clerics to inspire attacks on U.S. targets in the region ever since.
The U.S. imposed its toughest-ever sanctions on Iran under the administration of former President Donald Trump, who left office in January. Trump began tightening the sanctions in 2018, calling them part of a campaign of “maximum” pressure on Tehran to end objectionable behavior, including its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran denies having such a goal.
President Joe Biden, who succeeded Trump, has said he will not ease the sanctions until Iran first returns to full compliance with a 2015 deal with world powers to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump withdrew the U.S. from that deal in 2018, saying it was not tough enough on Iran, which retaliated a year later by starting to breach the deal’s nuclear activity limits.
The hostility of Iran’s clerical rulers toward Israel has been another factor in the Islamic Republic’s decline, said Amin Sophiamehr, an Iranian American politics researcher at Indiana University.
“The unintended consequence of the Islamic Republic’s attempts to mobilize the Islamic world against a perceived common enemy, Israel, is that Iran became a threat (not just to Israel but also) to Arab countries and inevitably led to a broad Arab-Israeli alliance,” Sophiamehr said.
Iran’s Islamist rulers have stuck to their anti-Israel and anti-American policies because agitating against external enemies has been crucial for maintaining power in a theocratic country, enabling those rulers to mobilize supporters and suppress opponents, he added.
The analysts who spoke to VOA also blamed Iran’s recession on its complex ruling system, created by an Islamist constitution that grants ultimate power to a supreme leader who oversees a variety of elected and unelected institutions that compete for influence and benefits.
Reza Ghorashi, an economics professor at Stockton College in New Jersey, said Iran’s top military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has fought with the other governmental institutions about who gets access to Iran’s oil revenue, the main national income source that has been hit hard by the U.S. sanctions.
“So instead of pursuing policies to develop the nation’s other resources, oil is the only sector in which Iran has added value by extracting and exporting the commodity,” Ghorashi said.
Djamchid Assadi, a Paris-based professor at the Burgundy School of Business, said another factor in Iran’s economic weakness is the adherence of its Islamist rulers to the revolutionary goal of supporting the downtrodden. He said Iran’s ruling institutions have used that principle to justify taking control over most of the economy and suppressing the property rights of others.
“Given that the institutions of Iran’s market economy have collapsed and the regime does not intend to repair them, I see no prospect of the economy getting better in the future,” Assadi said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.
Editor's note: This article had been updated to correct Amin Sophiamehr's title.