Iran’s Future

It has become a favourite pastime of those interested in the political situation in Iran to engage in guessing when the Islamic Republic of Iran will lose power and cease to exist. At every mention of demonstrations and student rallies in the news, people are breathless with anticipation that this could be “it”. Each time of course they are disappointing as the demonstrations fizzle out or the rallies are brutally crushed. And so, the waiting game continues.I must admit that the future of Iran is important to Baha’is for more than simply patriotic reasons. We look at Iran as the Cradle of the Faith; where much of the early Babi and Baha’i history played out; where thousands and thousands of Babi and Baha’i martyrs shed their blood and where there are many locations and buildings which we consider sacred and holy. In fact, one of the two pilgrimage sites for Baha’is is in Iran (the house of the Bab in Shiraz – the other site being the house of Baha’u’llah in Baghdad). So it is fair to say that Baha’is may even have a little more vested interest in the future of Iran than the average Iranian.

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The first rays of hope for Iranians wishing for a more open and egalitarian society came with the election of Khatami about 8 years ago. He was brought to power through the devotion of students and women, who believed that he would champion their causes. After two terms, it is clear that he was unable or unwilling to do so. Although there have been some positive changes, it is difficult to credit Khatami. Rather, they have come from the incessant and inevitable seeping of Western cultures (through the modern technologies of satellite tv and internet) and the realization of those who in reality hold power, that it serves their best interest to relax, ever so slightly, the choke-hold of religious restrictions. Recently, the students have become so disillusioned with Khatami that they have changed tactics.

Corresponding with this same new era of relaxed moral and religious codes, the Baha’is of Iran, also saw a dramatic reduction in the level and severity of religious persecution. They began to enjoy freedoms which were once but a dream of a bygone era; they were allowed to go to school, hold meetings, have marriages and births recognized, etc. However, these freedoms are strictly on an individual and case by case basis. As long as individual Baha’is did not and do not call undue attention to themselves, they are pretty much left alone to live their lives. Needless to say, the Baha’i Faith and community as a whole are still considered a pariah and the Iranian government’s policy of exterminating the Baha’is (both inside and outside Iran) has not changed at all. The Iranian government has realized, however, that it can not put this plan into action without severe international consequences. In fact, thankfully, we have not had a Baha’i martyred in some time now.

Instead religious persecution has been concentrated on the community as a whole, rather than on specific individuals. Recent examples, are the desecration of the resting place of Quddus, the destruction house of Baha’u’llah’s father, Mirza Buzurg-i-Nuri and the desecration of a Baha’i cemetery in Yazd. When I wrote about the situation of the Baha’is of Iran in a previous post, I was roundly criticized for not mentioning these events and not considering them relevant.

The fact is they are relevant and yes, they are persecutions. But they are of a different form. They harm all of the Baha’i Faith and its member communities all around the world, collectively. By losing such cherished and sacred holy spots as mentioned above, we all suffer. Humanity, indeed, suffers for the loss of such historically significant places and buildings. But it must be acknowledged that, although it is cruel, unjust and undeserving oppression, it is not the same as what the Baha’i community endured for many years. Years where knocks on the door would mean that a Baha’i would be taken from his house and probably never seen again – except maybe when his body was handed back to his family and they were asked to pay for the replacement cost of the bullets used to kill him. Thankfully, those times are behind us. In fact, Baha’is on an individual level now enjoy a lot of freedom and breathing space. Thankfully, its been a long time since we were saddened with the news of a fellow Baha’i being martyred in Iran.

Now, getting back to Iran and its future, if you’ve been in a cave for the past 1000 years or if you arrived from Mars just yesterday), Iran is situated smack dab in the middle of the Middle East with a very large landmass that just happens to be on top of massive amounts of oil and natural gas. It currently has about 70 million citizens with about 11% of them living in the smog filled, sardine like atmosphere of the capital. In contrast to Europe or Japan, most of Iran’s population is very young (30 year’s old or less).

The economy relies heavily on its chief export – oil. Even with the price of oil so high in recent years, the unemployment stands at 16% officially and somewhere between 20-25% realistically. Around 200,000 residents emigrate every year, either legally or through the porous border between Turkey. Their favourite destinations are North America, and European countries. They don’t just leave because of the smog filled Tehran streets, the astoundingly high real estate prices, nor because of the 17% inflation rate (give or take a few basis points). They leave because of two reasons: a dismal economic outlook and lack of basic human rights and freedoms. Two things which all ‘experts’ are now realizing are intimately intertwined.

About 80% of Iran’s wealth and economy is controlled by the Bonyads. These are religious “foundations” or charities which are anything but charitable. Instead, they are fronts for religious figures (Mullas) who manage huge amounts of capital. Often employed in large factories, real estate development, import companies and monoplistic businesses. In effect, one could argue that Iran is not really a theocracy as much as a kleptocracy. Indeed, some token attempts were made to open up the economy in recent years (like the free trade zones in Kush) but for the most part these cosmetic flourishes can’t hide reality. Effectively, Iran’s economy and fortunes are linked to the price of one commodity: the price of crude oil.

I think those that watch Iran, its political and religious twitches don’t pay enough attention to this fact. It is my humble opinion that if any political or religious change is in the offing it will come as a result of severe economic pressure which itself can only be brought on by a much lower crude price. Why, you ask. We’ll its quite obvious, with the price of oil so high the Mullah’s can afford to just keep running the country the way they have. Keeping enough pressure on society to maintain power while releasing their choking grip just enough to not cause a massive general revolt. Also, the petrol dollars gushing into the economy help to mask over any concerns Iranians may have about such trivial things as a market economy, freedom and human rights, etc.

So basically what I’m saying is if you want to know the future of Iran, just open up your daily newspaper and check the price of oil. At any price above $25 a barrel the Mullah’s are laughing to the bank and the general population of Iran is having to do with the meager crumbs they let fall their way.

Of course, there is not much fun in that. Let’s face it, its not really conducive to discussion. Open up your paper and check the price of oil. Done. But in all seriousness, the future of Iran pivots around this one variable, by far more than any other. Until economic changes shake up the status quo, Iran and Iranians will continue to muddle along, taking one step forward and two steps back in a drunken stumble, revealing no grand design or rhyme for the foreseeable future. All you can expect in trying to analyze it is confusion and frustration.

I don’t particularly like predicting or coming to this conclusion. The reason is that history has shown us that economic turmoil has a funny way of coinciding with religious persecution. All student’s of history have seen this and with respect to Iran’s case there is an article that touches on this topic. It is “Social Change and the Mirrors of Tradition: the Baha’is of Yazd” by Michael M. J. Fischer (p.25-55) and it appears in “The Baha’i Faith and Islam” – proceedings of a symposium at McGill University, March 23-25 1984 [Edited by Heshmat Moayyad] published by the Association for Baha’i Studies. This article mentions the economic and political upheaval which was the backdrop of religious persecution (engulfing Jews, Christians but mostly Baha’is) during several years in late 1800′s and early 1900′s in Iran. As far as I know there is no online version, otherwise I would have put up a link.

So, on the one hand we have the unpleasant possibility of a continuation of the IRI (if the price of oil stays at these levels) and on the other hand we have the unpleasant possibility of a serious bout of religious persecution, which no doubt will possibly target Baha’is once again (if the price of oil falls and causes economic pressure).

My personal observation and analysis regarding this commodity leads me to conclude that it will be either much higher or pretty much at this level in the future, which is why most of my investments for the past 3 years have been related to oil/gas (don’t confuse this with financial advice).