Thursday, February 28, 2013

Will the Arab Spring Spread to Iran?

    February 28, 2013   No comments

 by Jacob Havel

The advent of the so called “Arab Spring” in the Middle East and North Africa has come about with incredible velocity and intensity. The world has seen dictators, who had been in power for decades, fall in the blink of an eye in both Tunisia and Egypt.  Consequently, the possibility of revolution in the region has become a topic of discussion. Vital factors that contribute to the onset of these revolutions are widespread and unique to each country, Several factors, however, including a frustrated youth, economic hardship, poverty, and governmental structure, including Western relations, can be seen as a common thread in both Egypt and Tunisia. Does a regional power such as Iran possess these factors in the same way? The possibility of revolution in Iran can be based on a breakdown of these so called “revolutionary ingredients” as they were present in Egypt and Tunisia and how they compare to the Iranian situation.

It is important to explain why the youth, economic hardship, and governmental makeup are the most important factors in these revolutions. The youth are a driving force simply because of the fact that they are young. They are not as jaded to the issues of their country as older generations, many of whom have endured the regimes for their entire lives. Youth in today’s world are connected, through technology, with the rest of the planet, which recognizes them as a medium to move global information and support into these countries. The youth, however, are not only active, they are frustrated. The causes of these frustrations are largely related to economic hardship in the countries. Economic disparity and poverty strip people of their dignity, which is a vital ingredient if they are to overcome the fear of their current regimes. Finally, the structure of the regimes themselves is important. As it will be discussed later, the leaders in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have long held power. They act as a clear enemy and allow the efforts of the youth and all who feel oppressed to focus their efforts on the simple act of ousting these governments. These three factors are the most basic pieces and also the most important to the occurrence of the modern day revolutions.

With the emerging governments in Tunisia and Egypt and the distraction of bureaucracy, it is easy to forget how these revolutions began. It was primarily through the action of the frustrated youth.

In Tunisia, 26 year old Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire, an act that roused the country to act. Bouazizi, a college educated young man,  was forced to sell fruit to make a living. When the government took that away, there was little to stop him from acting out. Over the years the policies of Ben Ali created an educated youth where nearly fifty-seven percent of those entering the job market were college educated. However, people under thirty also experienced an unemployment rate of 30 percent. This created an environment of little opportunity and exacerbated frustrations of the young people like Bouazizi. In Egypt, where 90 percent of the unemployment in the country belongs to people under the age of 30, the unrest was similar. Furthermore, the youth populations in both Tunisia and Egypt are large, nearly 30 percent of the total population, and growing. Therefore, any hardship experienced by the youth individually was equally experienced by a large number of sympathetic peers, creating a sense of unification that was evident at the onset of these revolutions.

In Iran, the youth (under the age of 30) make up nearly sixty percent of the population They also share the Egyptian and Tunisian characteristic of unemployment near thirty percent The Iranian youth, however, also have a vast and reputable education system, as well as, youth organization groups. Universities have long been the stages for protesting the government and particularly the elections of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Youth organizations are split ideologically between those who support the theocratic rule of the Ayatollah and those who oppose the elected government. The use of tear gas and force against peaceful student protest has increased anger among those in the latter. Iranian youth therefore can be seen as unified through unemployment but possibly split and with nuanced ideologies among a highly educated populous.

Unemployed youth in Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran are only part of the economic hardship in these places. In Tunisia, there is economic disparity between the tourist rich coastal regions and the interior. The average income difference between the two regions is approximately seven hundred dollars a month versus one hundred dollars a month. This disparity splits the identities of the Tunisian. Those who make less in the interior were liable to be more frustrated as a result of their low income as well as the disparity in income. In Egypt, a similar disparity took place. While Mubarak’s regime lowered interest rates and expanded the private sector, there was not a trickledown effect to the average Egyptian. In both countries, the fact that opportunity was not shared helped to garner the support of the masses. Furthermore, with Tunisians sustaining themselves on 100 dollars a month as well as the 20 percent of Egyptians that were below the poverty line, the situation was seemingly unlivable. The so called “economic hardships’ in these cases amounted to people having almost nothing. This contributed to revolt in the interest of protecting what they perceived as basic human dignity.

In Iran, the issue of economics is somewhat more complicated. The population below the poverty line is eighteen percent, which is comparable to Egypt. The economic issues of Iran, however, go beyond the existence of poverty. On one side there are the nuclear energy aspirations. Such an endeavor is an economic goal supported by nearly all Iranians, despite the Western opposition to an autonomous nuclear program. However, this has become a double-edged sword for Iran. Sanctions, including a European Union boycott on Iranian oil, have crushed the value of the rial. Additionally, the embargo has contributed to food prices rising even higher than they were after subsidies on many essential goods had been cut by Ahmadinejad in 2010. Pressures such as these may force the Iranian people to choose between nuclear aspirations and the food on their plate.

As we can see clearly in Iran, economics and foreign policy are becoming intertwined. The policies of the West are a vital ingredient in regimes that are already unique because of their longevity. In Tunisia, Ben Ali presided over Tunisians since 1987 (although he was a long time member of Bourguiba’s regime before that). In the most recent election during his reign, he won nearly 90% of the popular vote amid allegations of fraud. Furthermore, his extensive networks of familial appointments within his government lead to a system of bribes and corruption. However unpopular he may actually be with his people, Ben Ali largely enjoyed Western backing as a result of his ties with the CIA as revealed by Wikileaks and many books before. In Egypt, Mubarak has ruled for some 30 years, similarly holding elections where he would pull in 90 percent of the votes. In addition, Mubarak has enjoyed Western support that stems back to President Anwar Sadat and the cold war. Egypt has remained an important ally for the United States by accommodating U.S. political interests in the region, particularly in regard to Israel. As such, it was no surprise that the United States was hesitant to support the removal of these dictators. On the side of the people the United States and the West have always been a part of their struggle. To the people, the Western leaders are, in essence, the men behind the mask that have propped up the oppressive regimes for so many years. The Arab Spring, at least in theory, sought to create political representation for minorities and end the corruption of the democratic process.

In Iran, many are frustrated with the breakdown of democracy. Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2009 was widely protested as a fraud by opponents and citizens alike when he pulled in a reported 65% of the vote. Since then, large scale repression of the reformist opponents to the current conservative regime has created further unrest. Iran is unique however in that they have two term limits on their presidencies. The catch is that they also have a supreme ruler for life in the Ayatollah. The Ayatollah commands absolute authority and therefore keeps whatever elected president in line with his Islamist principles. For example, the opposition to the West has been portrayed repeatedly by the Ayatollah as an ideological struggle and a just cause for Islam. As a religious symbol the Ayatollah commands the respect of many Shiite Muslims but also is afforded political power over those who would disagree.

Now that the differences and similarities between Egypt and Tunisia and Iran have been discussed, the question can be answered: will there be a revolution in Iran?

The existence of the repressed youth in Iran is large. Factors such as unemployment and repression of protests have created anger in the youth. However, the reality is that there seem to be larger issues in Iran than revolution. Despite all of the common factors that Iran shares with Arab Spring nations such as Egypt and Tunisia through youth, economic hardship, and democratic fallacy, it is the nuclear struggle with the West that will continue to prevent a similar revolution in Iran. In essence, the struggle of the Iranians, particularly the youth, against their own repressive government is being undermined by the West who is manifesting itself as a common enemy. As mentioned before, the majority of Iranians support a specifically autonomous nuclear energy program. This is not for ideological reasons such as an inherent hate for the West. Simply seeing a pair of converse tennis shoes on an Iranian student demonstrates their more secular nature and favor towards globalization. However, allowing the Western nations to regulate their nuclear capabilities would not manifest the freedom that Iranians would require to spark a revolution. They will engage in global commerce, but they will not be economic slaves. In addition, the recent embargo and boycott of Iranian oil may put pressure on the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad, but it is deepening the unrest of the people. As he has already recognized, the inflation resulting from the embargo gives Ahmadinejad a way to externalize the cause of Iran’s economic woes. In many ways, the United States and the UN have overstepped their boundaries in the eyes of the Iranians. It is possible that Iranians will now feel even more bullied and victimized by the West, a sentiment that could serve as a rallying call behind the current government.

A further argument against the onset of revolution in Iran is the upcoming elections. The fact that each candidate has to be vetted by an approval committee makes the election of a candidate that would further inflame the youth unlikely. That is the elections themselves will serve as a sort of concession to the people’s outcry. With the violence and protests associated with the 2009 election, the Ayatollah and the approval committees have an opportunity to create the illusion of change. Since political parties in Iran are outlawed, the candidates can always be unique and have new platforms. The mere act of an election, that is giving the people the choice between new candidates, especially ones not affiliated with Ahmadinejad or other hardliners, takes away the source of much of the anger that opposition groups currently feel.

If the tides are to truly turn in Iran, the shroud must be lifted. The distractions of the Western pressure and the evolving nature of the elected governments must be shut down. Instead, the people must put pressure on the deeper powers in Iran such as the Ayatollah and revolutionary guard. This may force Khamenei to make concessions of his political power in order to maintain his support as a religious icon.

The future of Iran is clouded in mystery. It possesses the unrest of the youth, economic hardship and doubt in the government that has led to revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. However, it is factors more unique to Iran such as a more legitimate democratic process and a common Western enemy that will continue to hold the country on the brink of change.


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