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Friday, January 26, 2018

Iranians Want Free Speech and Free Trade

Iranians are asking for human rights and economic freedom. That sounds like liberty.

A dangerous combination of economic stagnation and a lack of civil liberties has led thousands of Iranians to swarm the streets in protest this past month. The underlying sentiment shows no signs of relenting until meaningful change occurs, leaving many of us asking: is Iran finally ripe for liberty?

The protests — which left 20 tragically dead — were spurred by Iran’s struggling economy. The country’s poor standard of living is illustrated by their high unemployment rate of about 40 percent for young people, who make up half of the population. Despite sanctions being lifted in January 2016, Iran’s economy has been slow to improve, angering most of the population — especially educated millennials.

These mass protests have sparked a sense of excitement for true revolutionary change in Iran, with many embodying anti-government sentiment. Desires from the Iranian people to end government corruption, respect individual liberties, and foster free market prosperity suggests that they are thirsty for liberty, peace, and prosperity.

Economic Turmoil

The relationship between the Iranian government and the country’s religious institutions is similar to that of secular crony capitalism in the US. There has been some, albeit limited, economic improvement as of late. Inflation has decreased over 20 percent and the economy is projected to grow over four percent by March 2018. However, despite these encouraging economic improvements, a severe lack of job opportunities mixed with government corruption has left a foul taste in many Iranians’ mouths. 

A budget recently proposed by President Rouhani cuts subsidies for the poor and implements an aggressive fuel tax, all while protecting the economic interests of the theocratic establishment. The influence of religious institutions on business is a deep-rooted structural issue in Iran. Economists estimate these particular institutions control almost 60 percent of the country’s assets. These theocratic institutions are exempt from paying taxes, and therefore stifle competition from small businesses and entrepreneurs and ultimately suppress prosperity.

The long-standing and intertwining relationship between the Iranian government and the country’s religious institutions is eerily similar to that of secular crony capitalism in the United States. This is the notion that many hard-working citizens who struggle to make ends meet get sold the short end of the stick as a result of the government favoring certain industry sectors because of their connections to bureaucrats.

Supporting Individual Rights

The suppression of free speech has continued during the most recent protests, Iran is infamously known for their abundant human rights violations. Basic civil and political rights have deteriorated since 1979, after the Islamic Revolution successfully implemented the current regime. A notably tragic example from 1988 — the state-performed executions of over 30,000 Iranians, including women and children — sheds light on the wrath faced by those who oppose the Islamic Republic. 

Despite government promises to create a freer society, Iran’s violent history sadly continues to repeat itself as executions of Iranians for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses increase at an alarming rate. In 2015, Iran tragically hit a new high in the number of executions since 1988, averaging at least four a day. That number has doubled since 2010.

The suppression of free speech has continued during the most recent protests, making it difficult for Iranians to shed light on critical issues. Whether it is the infamous 1979 law dictating that women must have their hair covered by a veil in public, authorities restricting access to most social media and messaging apps, or hundreds of protesters being arbitrarily arrested, Iranians are no stranger to being denied the basic right of individual expression.

Despite heavy restrictions, the regime’s best attempts to suppress communications failed to stop the inspiring video of an Iranian woman removing her hijab from going viral. The woman silently waives her hijab in defiance during anti-government protests in the capital of Tehran.

It’s clear that Iranians are ready for a freer future.

Creating Prosperity and Moving Forward

Now is the time for Iran to embody the principles of free trade and a free society. Instead of protecting their outdated theocratic institutions, the Iranian government should focus on creating job opportunities for energized young people.

They’re telling the regime: give us free speech and free trade. Oil is, of course, a big part of Iran’s economy, but the country would greatly benefit from investing in other industries as well. Years of sanctions on Iran’s ability to export oil were economically devastating and caused significant inflation and worsened living standards. In light of the nuclear deal and sanctions being lifted, Iran’s oil industry took off, pulling their economy out of recession. However, other non-oil sectors that don’t receive the same crony favors continue to struggle.

Many countries are still wary of trading with and investing in Iran due to political uncertainty. In addition to diversifying Iran’s exports, the country’s economy would improve if the regime didn’t constantly provoke unrest from the masses.

If Iran broke free from their stone-age social and economic policies, their younger population could stay in Iran to build, innovate, and ultimately increase the country’s prosperity.

At the end of the day, the Iranian people just want to be heard. And they’re telling the regime: give us free speech and free trade. That sounds like a thirst for liberty to me.

  • Elizabeth Hayes is the North American Leadership Manager with Students For Liberty (SFL). Follow her on Twitter @liz_hayes