SPEAKING FREELY Iran's liberalism shifts with oil price
By Amin Shahriar
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Ayatollah Khamenei has expressed allegiance to what he calls "heroic leniency". Apart from the word heroic, which seems to be accompanying any act coming from the Iranian regime, leniency is very much at odds with what we know of the Supreme Leader's political convictions.
His new position could be justified by his tendency to avoid clashes with elected presidents or, more realistically, a sober
realization of what the situation is really like on the ground in Iran. People's intentions are very hard to read, yet a link between this position and Iranian diminished oil revenue is not hard to establish.
If it is only the crippling pressure of sanctions that has pushed Iran to negotiate and put on a friendly gesture, is there any guarantee that Iran would continue to behave this way once its economy is back on track?
In 2006, a year after the rise of former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad to power in Iran, Thomas Friedman wrote his proverbial article in Foreign Policy entitled "The first Law of Petropolitics", which mainly dealt with the negative correlation between political and economic liberty and oil prices.
Prior to this article, there was general consensus among petroleum economists and political scientists that oil-rich countries were less likely to be run democratically. Nevertheless, Friedman was the first to go so far as to claim that oil price fluctuations have immediate effects on foreign and domestic policy.
In his paper, he mainly drew on examples from Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela and Russia. A few years down the line, with the benefit of hindsight, this paper attempts to paint a more clear picture of the situation in Iran. By and large, a chronological study of power equations in Iran appears to meaningfully accord with the pattern presented by Friedman. To put things in better perspective, one must first allude to the 1979 revolution, which, not very coincidentally, occurred at a time when oil prices were at an all time high.
Indeed, the 1979 revolution happened when the country was rolling in the zenith of petroleum wealth. The oil shock had more than trebled the Iranian oil income, allowing the Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi to fuel his modernization program. The government budget increased heightening the expectations of the urban middle class.
The shah also started asserting himself internationally, taking unprecedented harsh stances against the United Kingdom, his vision being that Iran would soon turn into a major economic world power. This, given the global recession following the increase in oil prices, was neither very far-fetched nor very unrealistic.
Alas, more money meant that the shah was also more capable of tightening security internally, through imprisoning political dissidents, controlling the media and spending huge sums on unnecessary royal ceremonies. This despite dire rampant poverty in villages and a widening social gulf between the rich and the poor.
Put differently, rocketing oil prices had given the ruler of Iran the false impression that he was infallible, regardless of what was happening inside and outside the country. Yes, he did come to his senses when engulfed by millions of angry protestors but it was already too late. Later in his book, Reponse a l'histoire, he puts part of the blame for the revolution on the British government, tacitly agreeing that he had gone too far with his statements.
The oil price spike in 2008-2009 appeared to produce the same cocky attitude in then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Iranian regime as a whole. Interestingly, the overall oil revenue produced during the eight years of Ahmadinejad's rule exceeds the total revenue earned since the introduction of oil in Iran more than a hundred years ago.
When reviewing what happened in 2009 to spark the "Green" movement in Iran, it must be noted that the issue of oil prices lay at the core of 2009 election - not least because it was brought up on all live televised debates and people's expectations were extremely high. Most critics of Ahmadinejad, including opposition leaders, openly attacked him because of his failure to make all the extra money flowing to the country translate into better living conditions for people.
On the other hand, with oil prices as high as US$100 per barrel, the country had no fears of sanctions or threats to cut diplomatic or economic ties. This justifies his repetitive degrading of the significance of Security Council resolutions and his denial of the Holocaust. Besides, all this money meant that the government had all the necessary resources to brutally crack down on the opposition and suppress the movement.
At the same time, it should not be surprising then that the most liberal stint after the revolution coincided with very low oil prices in late 1990s and the first five years of the 21st century. When Mohammad Khatami (president 1997-2005) introduced the "Dialogue of Civilizations", a barrel of oil barely fetched $20.
His era was characterized by interaction and amity with the west and increasing social and economic freedoms for Iranians. On the economic policy front, during his presidency, Iran signed by far the largest number of bilateral investment treaties and free-trade agreements with Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. Domestically, the civil society was strengthened and freedom of press improved drastically.
The 2013 June election and the evident shift in Tehran policies could also be explained using this model. On Tuesday, a number Iranian political prisoners, held in captivity since 2009, were exonerated and released; new President Hassan Rouhani is gearing up for some fresh corridor diplomacy; the leader is talking of leniency, and many expelled university students and professors have been summoned back to resume their studies and tenors.
This is a change that directly results from the economic sanctions that have made the regime fall back on its people and the West. Even the election itself - in which the Supreme Leader allowed moderates to take part and ultimately win - would have been unimaginable had it not been for the growing economic pressure from international sanctions.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Amin Shahriar is the pseudonym used by an Iranian lawyer and journalist.