IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

With the advent of another presidential election cycle in the United States, many US and foreign politicians and policy advocates have already begun thinking about recommendations for the next occupant of the White House.

In both domestic and foreign affairs, it will not be sufficient to simply revisit decisions made by President Donald Trump but to come up with a proactive agenda for a new president—or a second Trump administration.

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Among the unalterable “laws of the Medes and the Persians” that have ruled US-Iran relations for decades are the following:

  • Everything takes longer than you think.
  • Everything is harder than you think.
  • Whenever you begin to make progress, some bad fortune or stupidity will screw up everything.

The first two are obvious. In the last two years, with a new American administration, we have seen the third operating at full force.  

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When I moved to Tehran twenty years ago, I wore a black manteau that stretched to my ankles and a headscarf pulled down to my forehead. By the time I graduated high school in 2005, my highlighted fuchsia hair stuck out like tentacles from a white shawl, and a matching manteau barely covered my rear.

Such social changes, as minor as some might seem, were and continue to be a barometer of change in Iran.

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When it comes to women and the Islamic Republic, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

For forty years, women have resisted the Islamic Republic’s attempt to deny them rights previously won. They have waged a war—on the streets, in social media and even in the privacy of their homes—for equality and against the regime’s attempts to impose on them a broad range of controls. 

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June 15, 2009 was a historic day in Iran’s recent history. Some three million people marched in silence on Enghelab (Revolution) Street in the capital of Tehran to convey their anger at the Islamic Republic in the most peaceful manner. 

The regime had disconnected cell phone services in a failed effort to prevent the march, which followed the manipulated “re-election” of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and had announced in advance that any demonstrations would be deemed illegal. When this author reached Enghelab Street at 3 pm, the normal sounds of traffic and yelling vendors had been replaced by silence. Every few minutes, one could hear a “shush” coming from the enormous crowd.

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Forty years have passed since the Iranian Revolution—a revolution that promised to usher in democracy, freedom, and prosperity for all. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, an influential cleric, recently exclaimed that Iran has progressed more in the last “forty years than it had in the 400 years prior.” Has it?

This note offers some perspectives on selected economic and social indicators, and compares Iran’s performance to that of three comparator countries of similar developmental starting points and approximate population sizes in the 1950s. The selected countries include Turkey because of historic and cultural affinities; South Korea because in the 1970s Iran and Korea both strived to become industrial powers; and, Vietnam because, like Iran, its developmental trajectory was overshadowed by a long conflict with the United States and extended periods of economic embargo. Additionally, these countries’ geostrategic location placed them at or near the frontlines of the Cold War and ultimately shaped their internal and external outlook. The review goes back to 1950 because of the availability of consistent cross-country data that would make it possible to observe the trends before and since 1979 in order to assess if Iran has been able to overtake, underperform, or keep pace with its comparators since the revolution.  

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The European Union on January 31 formally announced its long-awaited special purpose vehicle (SPV) for trade with Iran, called the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). 

Predictably, the SPV won’t seek to challenge US sanctions by attempting to conduct sanctionable trade with Iran as had been originally floated, and will instead focus on non-sanctionable trade, including humanitarian goods—food, medicine, and medical devices—exempt from US sanctions. It’s clear from the European announcement that there was no real market in the EU, especially from Europe’s financial institutions, to take on the risk of being sanctioned by the United States. But this doesn’t mean that the SPV will be feckless; instead it will serve an important role in conducting the humanitarian trade that US sanctions policy encourages, but harsh US rhetoric and risk-averse international banks make difficult to conduct.

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Using fixed categories to describe Iranian politics is often a risk. Western readings are frequently imbued with misconceptions and prejudices due to an Orientalist approach. At the same time, the official narrative of the Islamic Republic reflects a self-representation in conscious reaction to Western views of Iran. These two readings clash with each other at the expense of a deep and fair understanding of Iranian politics.

The Western interpretation of Iran’s politics and domestic dynamics is often based on a dichotomous reading that confines spaces and actors within two confronting dimensions. Political debates are described as a constant clash between conservatives and reformists, pragmatists and radicals, or moderates and hardliners. 

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