IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

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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Progress has been reported in peace talks between US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban, but without the participation of the Afghan government, it seems premature to assume that an agreement will be reached soon. Could Iran play a constructive role in achieving an end to America’s longest war?

Despite their lack of diplomatic relations and enduring hostility, Iran and the United States have kept some channels of dialogue open since the 1979 revolution. These channels facilitated an end to the hostage crisis, the selling of US arms to Tehran in the Iran-Contra affair and preceded the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the George W. Bush administration. Communication became formalized under the Obama administration and continued even under the Trump administration until its unilateral withdrawal last year from a 2015 nuclear agreement.

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The Iranian constitution after the 1979 revolution provides limited freedoms for religious minorities, and it does not recognize the Baha’i community, with more than 300,000 members in the country. Instead, for four decades, the Islamic Republic has routinely harassed, prosecuted, and imprisoned Baha’is solely for practicing their faith. Among other things, the government severely restricts Baha’is right to education, including prohibiting Baha’i students from registering at universities and expelling them if their identities are discovered.

Yet several recent court decisions across the country, that have ended in the acquittal of Baha’is on vaguely defined national security charges, have led some to wonder if this blatant discriminatory behavior might finally be easing up.

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A powerful trend at the international level—led by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia—is trying to sell the idea that Iran’s active regional presence, together with its missile program and location at several of the world’s geostrategic chokepoints, is an attempt to restore the Persian Empire and is a fundamental danger to global security.

In its latest effort to combat Iran’s so-called “destabilizing influence,” the Trump administration has planned a conference on “peace and stability” in the Middle East on February 13 and 14 in Warsaw, hoping to turn it into an anti-Iran gathering.

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The January 20 Israeli attack on an Iranian weapons shipment delivery near the Damascus airport in Syria led to a quick and exceptional succession of events that could have easily brought both sides to the brink of war. 

Iran reacted with a missile launch at the Golan Heights. Israel then responded with an attack on Iranian military targets in the Damascus vicinity. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson’s official statements and briefings that were given to journalists appeared to present a detailed picture of what had occurred on the northern front. However, in spite of the abundance of material published and the unusual openness on the part of Israel, there still remains information gaps and a number of unanswered questions. These require additional examination and interpretation. First and foremost, there is the need to distinguish the background noise from accurate signals. 

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The US announcement that an international summit on the security and stability of the Middle East will be held February 13 and 14 in Warsaw was as shocking as it was unexpected, not only for Iranians but also for Poles.

Poland is an important political and military ally of the United States and Polish energy companies have decided to withdraw from Iran after President Donald Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and re-imposed sanctions. But having a multinational summit about the Middle East in Poland? It is even rumored that Warsaw was taken by surprise when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that such an event would be organized in the Polish capital next month. 

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This week, two well-known political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin prison went on a three-day hunger strike to protest their inability to get urgent medical treatment. 

Narges Mohammadi, a prominent human rights defender serving a ten-year sentence for her peaceful activism, suffers from a serious neurological disease that causes muscular paralysis. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian dual national serving a five-year prison term on vague national security charges in connection with her past work at the BBC Media Action. She urgently needs an examination for “lumps in her breast” and neurological care for her recurring neck pain and numbness in her arms and legs. 

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The Islamic Republic of Iran has no shortage of opposition groups, many with adherents in the large Iranian diaspora. From the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) to secular republicans to ethnic separatist organizations, they are all bent on overthrowing the Iranian regime and replacing it with what they claim will be a more inclusive system.

Despite this common aim, the opposition is notoriously fragmented, with anti-regime groups often fighting among themselves rather than unifying against the regime. This bitter fragmentation partly explains the failure, after four decades of violent and non-violent struggle, to topple the Islamic Republic or even move it in a new direction.

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