Iran Feature: The Top 10 Stories of 2012 --- A Currency Falls, Sanctions Expand, and Political Prisoners Continue to Resist (Farhi)
Leading analyst Farideh Farhi reviews the Year in Iran for LobeLog:
1. THE CURRENCY'S FREEFALL
The gradual drop in the value of Iranian currency, the rial, begun at the end of 2011 and continued until about September when the bottom literally fell off, registering a 50 percent drop in one month.
The government eventually cracked down on the unofficial market, which as economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani pointed out, is a limited currency market, and created a foreign exchange center for importers and exporters based on a managed floating system. It also continued to maintain a much lower fixed rate for the import of critical goods such as medicine and some foodstuff. By the end of the year, the foreign exchange rate stood a bit below 25,000 rials per dollar (in comparison to about 15,000 rials per dollar in the unofficial market in January 2012 and about 10,000 a year before).
[Editor's Note: The rate of 25000:1 is only for the Central Bank's "trade room" for privileged importers and other customers. The open-market rate has been suspended since October, but reports from Iran indicate that the Rial weakened in December to about 33500:1.]
The cause of the depreciation consumed much public commentary. Some accused the government of cynically manipulating the market in order to sell its dollars at a higher rate and using the generated money to cover its budget deficit. Others lamented the Central Bank’s incompetence while President Ahmadinejad blamed unknown market manipulators as well as US-led measures despite his previous dismissal of sanctions as nothing but “torn paper.” But no matter who or what was at fault, the rial’s drastic drop was the most significant event of the year, not necessarily because of its economic impact, but because all the government’s talk about everything being dandy despite sanctions could no longer be listened to with a straight face.
Of course, many outside observers’ predictions that the rial’s crash would lead to the collapse of the Iranian economy did not materialise either. Ultimately, the rial devaluation showed that the Islamic Republic is hurting, but far from dying.
2. SANCTIONS, SANCTIONS, AND EVEN MORE SANCTIONS
Since its onset, the Islamic Republic of Iran has faced sanctions, including some imposed by the United Nations and unilaterally by various countries. However, 2012 should be marked as the year that the US-led and promoted sanctions regime went after the Iranian economy’s jugular.
In January, US pressures led the European Union to impose an oil embargo on Iran and the freezing of Iran’s Central Bank’s assets. In March 2012, all Iranian banks identified as institutions in breach of EU sanctions were disconnected from the world’s hub of electronic financial transactions, SWIFT. This was followed by the EU placing sanctions on Iran’s best technical university, Sharif, in December.
The EU seems determined to prove Ahmadinejad’s 2007 claim, “In addition to the closure of our country’s nuclear centers, they were after the closure of universities and research centers connected to peaceful nuclear research, including classes in physics and mathematics and they had announced this officially.” At present, both EU and US institutions look like bodies filled with what can only be described as sanction-holic politicians and bureaucrats desperately in need of a 12-step program. Unable or unwilling to offer Iran a nuclear package that it can accept, they act like people who cannot help themselves because they are addicted to just one thing.
In Iran, sanctions began to bite not only because oil exports dropped significantly (by about 40 percent) but more importantly because banking restrictions prevented the transfer of currency into the country. People are complaining that even vital drugs — not on the sanctions list — have become difficult to import because of payment restrictions. There is, meanwhile, little evidence that Tehran is reconsidering its position or that it’s willing to accept a nuclear deal that it previously rejected. Perhaps 2013 will be the year that the Iranian leadership will finally crack and cry uncle, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
3. THE PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Elections for the 9th Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis were held on March 2 with a second round on May 4 in the 65 districts where candidates did not receive 25 percent or more of the votes cast. Stricter qualification criteria saw fewer candidates registering than in previous elections. Still, more than a third were disqualified by the Guardian Council, leaving about 3,400 candidates to run for the 290 seats that represent Iran’s 31 provinces.
This was the first election held since the contested 2009 presidential election and much was made of it being an "eventless event", which nevertheless registered a respectable participation rate for the legitimacy of the Iranian state. Posters exhorted people to vote as a means to prevent military attacks and displayed emphatic declarations by Khamenei that in this “critical” election, high turnout would be a “slap” in the face of the enemy.
Official figures showed a 7 percent increase in voter turnout compared to the last parliamentary election in 2008 — from 57 to 64 percent – but many doubt the veracity of this figure. Participation rates in parliamentary elections have ranged from 51 to 71 percent and, given the disaffection of many voters after what happened in 2009, the likely turnout was probably on the lower end....
Despite the failure of more than 65 percent of sitting MPs to return to the new session (the incumbency rate is historically low in Iran and only between 30 to 35 percent), the election was mostly a competition between conservatives and ultra-conservatives, wherein the latter did not do as well....This outcome assured the re-election of Ali Larijani as Speaker along with deputy speakers who are also traditional conservatives.
Historically, parliamentary elections held right before the president’s second term is over have been harbingers of trends for the next presidential election. So, although Iranian presidential elections have proven unpredictable the last few times, a lackluster election with slim pickings will likely be the name of the game for June 2013. Still, even disgruntled non-voters will probably be hoping for a move away from the radicalism and erratic conduct of the current president....
6. DEATH AND RESISTANCE IN IRAN'S PRISONS
This year forcefully disproved the assumption that imprisoning political and civil society activists and critics silences them and fixes the Islamic Republic’s dissident problem.
Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi remained incarcerated in their homes (the former along with spouse Zahra Rahnavard) without being charged and remained mostly without any kind of access to the outside world. But letters written by political prisoners about prison conditions and solidarity among prisoners — as well as the woeful state of the country’s politics — made it out of the prisons and were sufficiently covered by external news and activist outlets for many inside Iran to become aware of them.
Beyond letters, prisoners also staged hunger strikes. Of particular note was the 49-day hunger strike by Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer serving a sentence for “acting against national security.” She ended her strike after judicial authorities acceded to her demand to lift a travel ban imposed on her 12-year old daughter. Her mistreatment and courage was widely reported outside of Iran (Sotoudeh and filmmaker Jafar Panahi were awarded the EU’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought), but also received publicity inside Iran.
The dynamic between prisoner resistance inside the country and the persistent coverage of government mistreatment by Iran-focused non-governmental organizations outside of Iran — such as the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) — has proven effective in keeping civil rights at the center of the country’s political discourse. Sadly, this did not prevent the death of Sattar Beheshti, a working class blogger who reportedly died soon after he was beaten by members of the cyber police. His mistreatment was immediately reported in a letter written by 41 fellow prisoners that was smuggled out of prison and his death created an uproar leading to the dismissal of the chief of the cyber police and a parliamentary investigation.
In the words of the ICHRI’s Hadi Ghaemi, the Beheshti case marked a milestone in showing that ordinary Iranians risk much harsher treatment by security services than those with name recognition. But the publicity also showed that “the culture of human rights is really taking root in Iran – that they can’t cover it up and run away like they did before.”