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President-elect Will Defer to Supreme Leader on Foreign Policy
President-elect Will Defer to Supreme Leader on Foreign Policy
The Middle-Class Women of Iran Are Disappearing
The Middle-Class Women of Iran Are Disappearing

President-elect Will Defer to Supreme Leader on Foreign Policy

Originally published in Council on Foreign Relations

Karim Sadjadpour, the representative in Iran for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit group that works to prevent and resolve conflicts, says Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in Iran's presidential runoff was the result of a widespread feeling that "he was the candidate who could offer a certain economic deliverance and do away with a lot of corruption and economic stagnation that had marked Iranian politics and economics for the last eight years."

Sadjadpour says Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, is a foreign-affairs neophyte and will defer to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad's election won't signal an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations, "because the supreme leader is very skeptical of Washington and the Bush administration," he says. Things might have turned out differently if Ahmadinejad's rival, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had won. "He might have been able to make progress" on improving Iranian-U.S. relations, "if the Americans were amenable," Sadjadpour says.

Sadjadpour was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of CFR.

CFR: Were you surprised by the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Karim Sadjadpour: I think everyone was surprised at the results of the first round of the election held June 17. Just a few days prior to the election, Mr. Ahmadinejad was posting in the single digits in opinion polls. Anecdotally, not that many were talking about him. But in the second round, on June 24, [his showing] was less of a surprise. His campaign really picked up steam, and there was a sense among many that he was the candidate who could offer a certain economic deliverance and do away with a lot of corruption and economic stagnation that had marked Iranian politics and economics for the last eight years. Rafsanjani epitomized a lot of the problems people had with the economy.

Ahmadinejad had his first news conference as president-elect yesterday. What is your read of that?

Basically, they talked about the implications [of his election] for foreign policy; they talked about the nuclear issue, about human rights, and about social and cultural reforms, and whether he would reverse some of the social reforms of recent years. On one hand, I think he took a very typical establishment line: He intends to continue with uranium enrichment and project Iran as a model Islamic society for the rest of the world. At the same time, he attempted to set some of his critics at ease by saying that he's going to pursue a modern republic, not a radical or fundamentalist one.

In Washington, he seems to be regarded as a classic conservative. But in Iranian terms, he's considered a kind of social reformer, is that right?

I would compare him to some of the populist politicians of Latin America like Lula [President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] of Brazil or Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. I think his mandate was definitely an economic one. There's a sense that he did a very effective job of marketing himself as a man of the people--a guy with a very simple lifestyle and background--and I think people were taken by this.

What kind of relationship will he have with Khamenei?

I expect that this is not going to be an independent-minded presidency. I think that, in many ways, this has been a consolidation of power by the supreme leader. I would expect that they will have a cordial relationship and I think Khamenei will have a lot of influence. They have a similar vision of what the Islamic republic should be--what it should be politically, socially, and even economically.

What about Ahmadinejad's view of foreign affairs, on relations with the European Union and the United States, particularly in regard to the ongoing nuclear talks?

We'll have to wait to see who he chooses as his foreign minister or who, perhaps, the supreme leader chooses as the foreign minister. That will be a good indicator. We won't see a huge departure in the foreign policy. It will be more of the same. But Ahmadinejad's election doesn't signal any improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, because the supreme leader is very skeptical of Washington and the Bush administration. And Ahmadinejad has made it clear that relations with the United States aren't really a priority for Iran.

Do you expect stepped-up Iranian support for extremist groups in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East?

I think we might see increases in funding for religious and social welfare programs in Iraq, like funding for a mosque or other religious institutions. But I don't see dramatic changes in Iranian foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel-Palestine or Iraq.

Do you think Rafsanjani would have tried to improve relations with the United States, or was that American wishful thinking?

Rafsanjani's advisers made it clear it was a major priority for him, that Iran is now a different country than it was 26 years ago [when the revolution occurred] and that it is time to end the feud with the United States. I think Rafsanjani is one of the few, if not the only, politician in Iran whose word carries as much weight as the supreme leader's. So he might have been able to make progress on this issue if the Americans were amenable. But as I said, foreign policy is not a priority for Mr. Ahmadinejad. He doesn't have much experience in the foreign-policy realm, and the supreme leader is going to be making those decisions. And the supreme leader these days is looking much more toward Asia, especially to China and India, than to the United States

In other words, Iran sees its oil exports going to the East and not necessarily to the West.

Exactly. There's a sense--and you get this also from Mr. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric--that Iran is not dependent on the United States. The Iranians have been going on without relations with the United States for 26 years, and now, with China's and India's growing energy demands, they could look to Asia for a partnership, rather than the West.

You live in Tehran. What kind of mayor was Ahmadinejad?

He was very popular among the lower income classes. He championed subsidies to lower income classes, forgave loans, offered loans to newlywed couples. There's a sense among lower income classes that "he's one of us and looks out for our interests." Among the middle classes and upper classes in the north end of the city, his social politics weren't well received. There was a consensus that he was a close-minded, religious ideologue and that he changed cultural institutions into religious institutions. [Voters in the middle and upper classes] were wary that if he became president he would do this on a larger scale.

So there's gloom among the Westernized Iranians? Are young people in the universities upset at the results?

There are mixed feelings. On one hand, some are concerned that he intends to reverse the progress made in the social realm of the [outgoing President Mohammed] Khatemi era. There's a lot of rumors, but a lot of others say, "Give the guy a chance. He's yet to take power.' They kind of feel they need a new face. The first priority of the youth is economic improvement. So a lot of the youth, even those who disagree strongly with Ahmadinejad's social views, are hoping he can improve their economic lives.

In what kind of shape is Iran's economy?

The Iranian economy is very interesting right now, because when you look at it from abroad, GDP [gross domestic product] has been growing strongly for the last five years and oil prices are soaring; oil revenue has tripled since the late 1990s. But when you come here, you notice that it doesn't translate anecdotally. People are constantly complaining that they're just working morning and night and they can't make ends meet. The Iranian economy has two major problems: high inflation and high unemployment. They both hover slightly below 20 percent. This has been a product of the demographic bulge as much as anything. At the beginning of the revolution, Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini issued an edict saying people should have children in order to produce a robust Islamic society. Now these children of the revolution need to be fed, educated, and employed. By its own statistics, the regime can provide only about half the jobs that it needs every year to accommodate the burgeoning labor force.

One of the concessions the United States recently made as part of the nuclear negotiations was to promise support for Iran's membership in the World Trade Organization [WTO]. Does the new president care about such things?

I don't know if he's commented on the WTO, but basically he's a man who looks internally. He doesn't have a very international outlook. So I would imagine that something like the WTO is not a huge priority for him, because he's looking at internal ways to improve the economy and he's pushing a populist agenda, trying to help out the lower income classes. I don't think that he would see WTO accession as a huge priority for Iran.

Are rumors swirling about who he might pick to run the foreign ministry?

There are a few rumors, but it's just speculation. It will be interesting to see whether there will be new faces, likeminded individuals from his own party, or older men essentially chosen by the supreme leader.

I think what's surprising to most people is how young the new president is--he's 48--in a society in which a lot of the leadership is quite old. He was very young when the revolution occurred. What does that signal?

You do have this group of firebrand conservatives, who were in their late teens and early twenties when the revolution happened. They were very taken by the revolution; they were very taken by Ayatollah Khomeini. They fought bravely in the Iraq-Iran War, and afterward they served the country as Revolutionary Guards. Many of them became disillusioned with the revolution and they turned into reformists. A lot of these reformists are like Abbas Abdi, leaders in the [1979-81] hostage-taking crisis [when U.S. Embassy employees were held by Iranian extremists] who turned to social, political, and cultural issues.

Now, Ahmadinejad's group also became somewhat disillusioned with the path that the revolution took, but more from an economic and religious standpoint. They felt that the economic injustices, which the revolution was supposed to solve, had in fact been, in many cases, exacerbated as a result of the revolution. And rather than moving toward the left on social and religious issues, they moved toward the right.

The Middle-Class Women of Iran Are Disappearing

Originally published in The New York Times

A few weeks after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned “brutal men of the regime” in Tehran for oppressing Iranian women who were demanding their rights.

“As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms that the men of Iran possess,” Mr. Pompeo said.

But the Trump administration then dealt a tremendous blow to Iranian women by reimposing sanctions on Iran, restricting oil sales and access to the global banking system, and pushing the economy into a deep recession.

Since the spring of 2018, the Iranian rial has lost 68 percent of its value. In March 2020, inflation hit around 41 percent; today it hovers around 30 percent. In the same period, the gross domestic product shrank by 6.5 percent, and unemployment stood at 10.8 percent. The sanctions scuppered one of the nuclear deal’s key dividends: the foreign investment and job creation that was set to accompany the opening of Iran’s markets to the world.

The decimation of Iran’s economy is unfolding in the lives of the very constituency that has been working for reform and liberalization, and in whose name Mr. Pompeo and other leading American officials speak: middle-class Iranian women. The slump is tearing away at their fragile gains in employment, upper management positions and leadership roles in the arts and higher education, while reducing their capacity to seek legal reforms and protections.

When the sanctions hit, Mahsa Mohammadi, a 45-year-old editor and language teacher in Tehran, was saving to pay for a graduate degree in education at a university in Istanbul. Her rent in Tehran doubled because of inflation, and she was forced to move with her young son to a small city with no cultural life.

Inflation continued rising; the rents doubled again. Ms. Mohammadi lost most of her income from English tutoring. No one could afford language classes anymore. She could then no longer afford even the small city. She moved to a cheaper, conservative hamlet near the Caspian Sea where people look down on divorced mothers. Studying abroad is now an increasingly elusive dream.

“All our demands and hopes have whittled away,” she said. “The pressure is unbearable.”

As the Biden administration explores re-engaging with Iran, some of those who oppose an American return to the nuclear deal, even as a basis for negotiating an expanded agreement, are also vocal in their support of Iranian women’s rights. In Congress, the argument that women’s rights should inform U.S. policy has particular traction. Yet members of Congress have on occasion spoken at events organized by the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a controversial Iranian opposition group that has hardly been a champion for women’s rights, even those of its own female members.

For many women in Iran, hard-line American arguments for regime change and perpetual pressure fail to capture the complexities they have to grapple with. Cries to support human rights from champions of sanctions sound hollow when those sanctions dismantle a country’s economy and the livelihood of its people.

The Biden administration should acknowledge this reality as it battles domestic and congressional ambivalence toward renewed diplomacy with Iran.

Iranian women have been agitating for more rights and democracy for decades, and their triumphs against the establishment’s most doctrinaire restrictions have been led by middle-class activists. Often viewed as the primary engine of social change, middle-class women have seen their lives and hopes crushed by the Trump administration’s sanctions, and it is hard to see what the United States gains by this devastation.

Today, the “middle-class woman” in Iran is a disappearing category. Although women outnumber men in university enrollment, they often graduate to find that employers prefer to hire men.

Women’s employment rates had increased in recent years, despite these barriers, but the layered shock to the Iranian economy from sanctions and Covid-19 has made them lose ground disproportionately.

From March to September 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, men lost 637,000 jobs while women, whose work force participation is a mere 17.5 percent, lost 717,000. As Iranians resumed work in the fall, the job losses by men were reversed, while women’s employment rates continued to decline.

While lost aspiration is hard to measure with data points, women’s lagging production and representation in a number of sectors, including a cultural sphere dominated by men, has worsened since Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

A case in point is a publisher in Tehran who specializes in historical nonfiction. One of her more successful releases recently was a book titled “The Etiquette of Disciplining Men,” originally written in the late 19th century by an unknown woman. (This book was a rejoinder to an anonymously written patriarchal treatise called “Disciplining Women.”) In the past two years, the publisher’s list has shrunk every season, and she has halved every book’s first print run.

The cost of paper has always bedeviled Iranian publishers, but sanctions-fueled inflation has pushed prices up and limited stock. The publisher has stopped using sparkly paper for the covers to control prices, but still fewer people are buying books. “People are moving closer to the poverty line, they’re spending on meat and diapers,” said the publisher, who asked not to be identified. “We’re trying to lower prices, but we also can’t give books out for free.”

During President Hassan Rouhani’s tenure, the state censors had been granting publishing permits more liberally. Many of these books were translated by female translators working from home. Some translators, who could once earn $700 to $3,000 per book and produced two books a year, now have no orders at all.

Even in movies, the one industry that has flourished in Iran whatever the national currents, women are now faring poorly. Independent female filmmakers have long struggled to cobble together financing and to get approval from state censors for their work, especially when it deals with social taboos and legal injustices. Many of them relied on European cultural institutions for financing.

“These days, even if they manage to get official permission, sanctions block the transfer of funds from abroad,” explained Fery Malek-Madani, a curator and filmmaker whose 2018 film, “The Girls,” is a journey through girls’ primary-school classrooms across Iran.

The isolation of Iran’s movie industry has forced filmmakers to reorient themselves around national television broadcasters. These networks churn out ideological products in line with the state’s unenlightened gender norms, with women cast in subservient roles and deferential to men, their guardians and protectors. Some even promote child marriage and polygamy, practices that are rejected by the majority of Iranians.

Amid the intensified conflict with the United States, Iran’s security establishment has emerged as a major producer of blockbuster television and film centering on the prowess of the Revolutionary Guards and its intelligence services. Iran is awash in sophisticated domestic versions of “Homeland,” and deprived of the self-interrogating, subversive cinema that once allowed society to have a public conversation with itself about gender, culture, marriage and power.

The economic downturn has caused a generational shock to women’s lives and political prospects. Fatemeh, who works with survivors of domestic violence, explained that disappearing incomes and rising expenditures have pushed women back into abusive living conditions. Fatemeh, who asked to identified by her given name, also said that many of her young and single colleagues who had persuaded their families to let them live independently, have been forced to move back home by shrinking, unstable incomes and soaring rents.

Trying to stem their slide into poverty, Iranian women can’t pay the same attention to advancing legal rights and deeper political change. “Activists are struggling to survive,” explained Shiva Nazarahari, a prominent activist, who left Iran two years ago. “If they do end up with a bit of time at the end of the day for their activism, they are often too exhausted and preoccupied with economic survival to be effective.”

In recent years, authoritarian forces in Iran that are keen to suppress civil society through arrests and intimidation have become stronger. And the Trump administration’s tainting embrace of Iranian women’s rights has also cast greater suspicion on women’s activism. Hoda Amid, a lawyer, was sentenced to eight years in prison for conducting a workshop on the rights of women in marriage. Ms. Nazarahari notes such sentences have become far worse than they tended to be in the past.

With Washington and Tehran caught in a diplomatic standoff, the Iranian people await relief. A sequestered and choked off Iran is functioning effectively as a state at war, dimming the prospects for its women.

“The pressure on women, on the middle class, is utterly oppressive. I just don’t find the justifications for sanctions at all persuasive, certainly not from a feminist perspective,” said Faezeh Tavakoli, a historian with the Institute of Humanities and Cultural Studies in Tehran. “You can’t tell people, ‘Starve and then seek freedom.’”


Project Director, Gender
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Sussan Tahmasebi
Founder of FEMENA and Iranian women’s rights activist.