The ayatollah’s unkept promises

It’s been a long, cold winter for Iranians who fell for Khomeini’s lofty promises of a better future 35 years ago.

In 1979, thousands of Iranians dreaming of a better future chanted "Death to the Shah" [AFP]

They were promised free electricity and a share of the country’s oil revenues every month. They expected to sleep snug in their warm beds at home in the winter, to stay cool in the sultry summers and to do nothing except spend their oil revenues and eat “chelo kebab”! So, they joined the fray and chanted, “Death to the Shah!” and “Death to America!

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had indeed promised his followers free electricity and cash from oil revenues.

I was six years old when the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979 and I remember how in the following years when I was at school, most nights we didn’t have electricity and I had to do my homework by candle-light, or a small generator-powered lamp.

In the chilly winters, on our way home from school, we had to stop in front of oil shops to hold a spot in the queue for our parents. People needed oil for the heaters to warm their homes. Cold schools and stationary shortages were the harsh realities of this Islamic revolution which turned the entire world against Iran and marked the start of US sanctions and a war with neighbouring Iraq.

Now, poverty, unemployment, inflation and a high cost of living are all what most people, I’ve spoken to, believe the revolution has brought them. According to Iran’s Central Bank, the inflation rate by end of January was 38.4 percent. Recently, 15 million people have been classified by the government as living below the poverty line, and therefore entitled to receive charity baskets that include basic goods, such as rice, cooking oil and cheese. 

During the popular protests that erupted after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, when people were crushed by the regime’s forces, the opposition leader, Mahdi Karoubi, remarked that even the Shah had not treated his people with such brutality.

The notions of equality, justice and democracy cannot justify a revolution when 35 years later, under the new order, countless “dissident” politicians and journalists are sitting in prison.

The notions of equality, justice and democracy cannot justify a revolution when 35 years later, under the new order, countless ‘dissident’ politicians and journalists are sitting in prison.

Not only are electricity and water not free as per the promises of revolutionary leaders, but the charges are so high, many people cannot afford to pay their bills. Today, gas has replaced oil as household fuel but it is expensive and people limit their usage even during bone-chillingly cold winters.

The government pays subsidies for fuel but this, we hear, will soon stop. A few days ago, on Radio BBC Persian service, a listener from Iran called in and almost broke down in tears over her fears that the fuel subsidies may stop. She was saying how difficult life was for her even after she has received the monthly cash subsidies for low-income families. If the fuel subsidies are stopped, she said she wouldn’t be able to cover her basic expenses anymore.

The Islamic Republic of Iran will soon mark its 35th anniversary. Iran’s disputed nuclear programme has become one of the world’s most controversial issues and it is widely viewed as a matter of global security. During the past 10 years, as Iran was slapped with “crippling” international sanctions in order to curtail its nuclear programme, the government has always denied harbouring any intentions of building a nuclear arsenal. It has always maintained that Iran’s nuclear programme is solely for peaceful, civilian purposes. Whatever the case, this programme has cost the country billions of dollars, let alone the brunt of the sanctions which has forced both the government and the people to procure their needs from black markets at a much higher price.

This astronomical cost of living has, in recent months, left the regime with no other option but to finally open up to the West and agree to limit its nuclear programme. Still, the agreement is temporary and none of the parties are certain if the deal will become permanent after six months.

Reason to be jubilant

Perhaps on two occasions since the revolution, Iranians found reason to be jubilant. Once when Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the revolution, accepted UN resolution 598 and agreed to a ceasefire with Iraq, bringing an end to the eight-year war, and finally last November when the threat of a possible war with the US over the disputed nuclear programme was alleviated.

For many in Iran, the signing of this document has further implications. After 35 long years, they view this agreement as a sign that Western powers have recognised the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of Iran.

The public’s excitement was so great that it kept people up until the early hours of the morning of November 24 to hear whether the nation should prepare for peace or war. Apparently Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the green light to Iran’s negotiators to accept the terms and conditions to limit their nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of the sanctions and the release of Iran’s properties in Western banks.

Under the international sanctions, Iran’s oil exports were reduced to a third of its production. OPEC increased Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s quota to fill the shortage in the market.

Once a powerful and progressive oil-rich country with an ambitious king who sought to make Iran one of the world’s leading industrialised nations, Iranians are relegated to rejoicing over the lifting of some sanctions. 

At present, Iranians have so many problems to deal with on a daily basis, from feeding their families to paying the rent and bills. It is nothing short of a travesty that the people of a country, which has the world’s second largest gas reserves after Russia and the world’s third largest oil reserves, should suffer such conditions.

Today, Tehran is one of the most polluted cities in the world but the other big cities like Isfahan, Ahvaz, Hamadan and Arak are not doing any better. A member of the Iranian parliamentary committee on environment, Mehrdad Lakhuti, was recently quoted by ISNA[Pr] news agency as saying that over 4,000 people die each year in the capital from diseases caused by air pollution. 

Moreover, a 2009 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicated that Iran tops the list of countries suffering from brain drain, with an annual loss of 150,000 to 180,000 specialists – that’s equivalent to a capital loss of $50bn.   

The population has doubled since the time of the revolution and more than half of the nation has no real memories of life under the Shah’s reign. For the new generation, those who were not yet born in 1979, or too young to remember, pre-revolution Iran seems like a utopia, an implausibly perfect society in which they misguidedly believe their parents and grandparents lived a life of comfort and blissAs day-to-day living conditions grow more difficult in the country, an increasing number of Iranians – especially among the middle classes – look back on the days of the Shah through rose-tinted glasses. 

But as the clocks cannot be turned back, what the people want above all is a change in the way their leaders think and act, placing the needs of their people above anything else.

If November 24 was the starting point of this change in the leadership’s mindset, then no doubt the 35th anniversary of the revolution marks an important year for Iran: An improvement in relations with the US and perhaps a more palpaple presence on the international political scene.

For the sanctions-weary people of Iran, 35 years after the revolution, it marks the beginning of a time when they can go to bed worrying only about bread, and not war. 

Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian journalist, TV commentator and author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth – a Memoir of Iran. She tweets @CameliaFard