Kevan Harris gets behind the headlines for the new journal Muftah, concluding, "In the end, the fate of the Iranian economy likely hinges more on the country’s fractured political situation, deteriorating social welfare institutions, and inadequate policy outcomes than on the [Revolutionary Guard] bogeyman so many would have us fear":
When discussing the current state of Iran’s economy, commentators, activists, politicians, and the U.S. government all seem to agree on the massive role played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Stanford University Professor Abbas Milani told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington D.C. in June 2010 that this “military junta” controls “minimally about 60% of the economy”. Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have lamented the IRGC’s economic takeover in their perennial letters and interviews. Even many conservatives in Iran’s narrowed but still fractious political elite have protested the transferring of state-owned enterprises and land to military-linked companies. Among the general population, the influence of the IRGC has become so well-known that any cab driver in Tehran can identify the highways and tunnels being built by the organization or its affiliates.
Common knowledge, however, has a tendency to steamroll over nuances, especially in the echo chamber that public discussions on Iran resemble today. While it is certainly true that Iran is undergoing a major economic transformation, in which the IRGC is playing a substantial role, there are other developments that remain largely unaddressed, particularly within the opaque process known to Iranians as pseudo-privatization.
Regardless of their partisan political affiliations, few current Iranian politicians have expressed opposition to privatizing the economy. Indeed, these actors often describe the privatization of Iran’s state assets as a veritable panacea for the country’s economic woes. Yet in the wake of numerous scandals in 2009, notably the sales of Tehran’s International Exposition Center and Iran’s telecommunications network to government-linked conglomerates, the Islamic Republic’s (IRI) privatization efforts have come under public scrutiny to a greater degree than ever before. What has become clear is that it is not just the IRGC that is emerging as an economic actor, but rather that a whole host of para-governmental entities, including banks, government-linked investment and holding companies, religious foundations, and pension funds, are becoming the main recipient of state asset transfers.
Despite growing rumors of an impending IRGC monopoly over the economy, the reality of the situation seems to be quite different. The Iranian regime appears to be decentralizing its social and economic responsibilities, resembling a “subcontractor state.” Instead of a bureaucratic takeover, we are witnessing a bureaucratic disintegration. While this may not be the government’s intent, this transformation reveals a breakdown of its administrative capacity, as it becomes more willing to accept ad hoc, temporary solutions to the country’s social and economic problems. Hardly a militant monolith, Iran’s economic transformation is also a legacy of a war-forged but stagnating social compact that promises a wide array of welfare benefits to citizens within various social classes, and recalcitrant political warring between factions that use the language of economics to mask their attacks against each other.
Privatizing the Islamic Republic: A Brief Overview
Iran has planned to privatize state-owned enterprises, in some form or another, since the late 1980s. In July of 2006, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a decree to accelerate the implementation of the country’s privatization law (known as Article 44) and called for 80% of state-owned assets to be transferred out of the public sector. His intervention was seen as an implicit critique of the slow pace of privatization within the country, a process which had barely begun during the tenure of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and which had ground to a halt in the first year of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. The absence of effective privatization was generally attributed to the prevalence of cronyism and patronage within Iranian politics, but these factors alone do not provide an adequate explanation. For example, corruption was also commonplace in Latin American and African countries during their push to privatize in the 1990s, but it did not impede these governments’ ability to shift their economies to the private sector.
To understand Iran’s stunted efforts to move away from a state-controlled economy, two parallel transformations that have occurred in the country since the 1980s need to be understood. First, many of Iran’s Islamic leftists from the revolutionary period have gradually turned into economic liberals. Whereas in the 1980s it was the political right that called for minimalist state intervention in the economy, by the time Khatami assumed the presidency in 1997 a large part of Iran’s Islamic left had also become convinced that the state should disengage from most economic activities. This created a rare consensus among Iran’s oft-bickering factions, which favored the discourse of privatization. This was further strengthened during Ahmadinejad’s first term, when he put his own spin on the sale of state assets via his “justice shares” program. These developments have produced a seemingly genuine commitment on the part of the political elite to reduce the state’s role in the economy.
Second, the expansion of Iran’s para-governmental sector, which is mistakenly associated only with Iran’s revolutionary foundations (bonyads) and military organizations, has continued unabated since the late 1980s. While the bonyads and the IRGC have a burgeoning presence in the economy, the roles of other institutions, such as large pension funds belonging to Iran’s “non-governmental” sector, are equally important. These institutions are not simply corrupt networks of patronage that redirect funds back to state officials. In some cases, they boast large memberships among ordinary Iranians and even compete with one another in obtaining state assets.
These two factors have culminated to create a “pseudo-privatized” Iranian economy, one in which the Iranian government is decreasingly the main player, but where private and public organizations with substantial state ties have come to control the economic heart of the country.
Ahmadinejad, Iran’s Conservatives and the Cause of Privatization
In Iran, just as in other developing countries in the late 1980s and the 1990s, advocating privatization of state assets became the thing to do. The source of contemporary social problems, many leaders in Latin America and Eastern Europe were arguing, was precisely the state itself, which had become so central to everyday life in the Third World. It was not surprising, then, that most of Khomeini’s left-leaning supporters in the 1980s – Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami among them – found themselves praising the magic of the market in the 1990s. The conservatives were the only faction that remained outside this growing embrace of privatization. Although they took a relatively laissez-faire position on private ownership in the 1980s, arguing that an Islamic state should not interfere in the private sector, the conservatives had never presented this stance as essential for the country’s development. After the election of Ahmadinejad, this changed.
Ahmadinejad represented a new brand of Iranian conservatism. Running on a platform of pious competence, his image as an educated, technocratic engineer was strategically cultivated to resonate with Iranians tired of a seemingly useless state apparatus. Once elected, Ahmadinejad lost little time in promising to bring the benefits of privatization to the Iranian people, via a program known as “justice shares.” All Iranian citizens could apply to participate in the program, through which dividend-paying shares of state-owned companies would be given to the poorest strata of the population, including villagers and nomads. In the first round, 5.5 million individuals received shares, which paid a reported $80 each in 2007/8. Subsequently, the government claimed that a total of 41 million people had received justice shares through the second round of distribution, receiving a reported $40 each in 2008/9....