Amid sanctions, the greatest threat to Iran's nuclear program may be the price of chicken
Haaretz analyst Avi Issacharoff says rising food prices and growing unemployment, when combined with the price of ongoing uranium enrichment, may shake the ground under the Ayatollahs' feet.
The latest major protest in Iran took place in the city of Nishapur, about 800 km northeast of Tehran. While the size of the rally wasn't apparently clear, since, among other reasons, information coming out of Iran is under tight supervision, reports indicate that it wasn't sparked over human rights abuses or a demand to free political prisoners, but mainly because of the spike in the price of chicken.
In the last year, the price of chicken rose by about 300 percent: from 22,000 rial to more than 60,000, doubling in the last two months alone. These initial signs of protest brought on a panic of sorts within Iran's security establishment, who didn’t take too many chances: the chief of Iran's national police Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam instructed Iranian television outlets to avoid screening images of people eating chicken, whether in TV series or in films. And so, viewers of one 90s movie had to watch the film without a scene in which one of the actors was happily devouring a piece of chicken. It almost sounds anecdotal. But, during Ramadan of all months, the Iranian public is coming face to face with the harsh realities of their rampant inflation, when citizens can't even buy a chicken, or even watch people eating it on TV.
The Iranian chief's order led to a wave of jests at the regime's expense. Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur, from Tel Aviv University's Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, who has been monitoring Iran's social media networks, said that the Ayatollahs' control over those networks makes it impossible to find cases of direct criticism against the regime. However, she said, the current wave of chicken-themed jokes was certainly an indication that Iran was in the midst of a popular unrest.
In one example, an opposition website displayed a caricature of a father and son watching television showing a man and a woman having sex right next to a chicken. The father chastises his son for daring to watch the chicken. In another image, Apple's Steve Jobs presents the iPhone, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presents a frozen chicken. Hendelman-Baavur also remarked on a rise in Iranian vegetarian cooking shows.
And here is some more data the Iranian authorities aren't eager to publish, as opposed to, perhaps, an upgrade of the latest ballistic missile. The price of milk and meat rose by 30-80 percent in the last year, with prices taking completing an especially steep hike in the last month and a half, ever since new EU sanctions on Iranian oil went into effect. The drop in the value of the Iranian currency isn't taking a break either, with the rial worth some 12,600 rial to the dollar. However, last Monday its value dropped five percent, with trade professionals putting the updated rate at 21,450 to the dollar. That decrease led the governor of Iran's national bank to announce that a new exchange rate of 15,500 rial to the dollar would soon be set.
The Iranian regime has spent significant efforts over the last few months to hide these figures as well as the effect of economic sanctions on the country. Time and again, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can be heard saying that not only will sanctions fail in breaking Iran's resolve, the country was in fact 100 times stronger than it had been in the past. And yet, the deepening economic distress is taking its toll with surprising swiftness, stirring unrest among the lower classes, as well as among the upper echelons of society, including the country's rich, members of its business sector, and of Khamenei's inner circle, such as the heads of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. One of the more prominent examples of the distress the regime has found itself in is the hit one of the regime's cornerstones has taken – the support it provides to the country's poor. In fact, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the regime founded several trusts meant to aid the families of soldiers killed in action. Now, Ahmadinejad is initiating a move that would force those eligible to support from these funds to pay taxes for welfare receive from the state.
Meir Javedanfar, an analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya who specializes in contemporary Iranian politics, said that the immense costs the Iranian nuclear project, coupled with the effect of economic sanctions, poses a greater threat to the regime than an Israeli or U.S. attack. "Uranium enrichment in Iran has become the most expensive chemical process in the world," he said, adding that the "reason was simple: Continued enrichment has brought on sanctions that have caused a drop of 50 percent in Iranian oil exports."
"Every rial that is put into enriching uranium is a waste because of the ramifications of that actions. Ali Khamenei is hardly an Ayatollah, and sure isn’t an alchemist, and he won't be able to convert the uranium into the gold or silver that people need so much. The immense costs Iran is investing in the nuclear project, into Syria, the massive amounts of money being lost over a corrupt mechanism, is hurting the average Iranian. Khamenei needs the people on his side in these a trying time, but after the mass killing of civilians in June 2009 [during protests that erupted following controversial elections] who will want to go with him?"
The inflation in Iran doesn't end with chickens, meat, or milk. The official consumer price index is at 22.4 percent, but is likelier almost at 30 percent. In addition, the country's oil-related income, Iran's main source of income, dropped almost 50 percent. And among all these, another storm is brewing – the rising unemployment among the country's young. All those are supposed to turn the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, and other cities to a powder keg that could go off any moment. However, a recent inspection of the actions of the Iranian opposition in times reveals that there's hardly any. The leaders of the so called Green Revolution Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have vanished into thin air. In the last year and a half several protest movements across the Middle East managed to lead actual revolutions, even without a clear leadership. And yet, protest in Iran, at least for the time being, simply isn't there. But, despite the fact that no real opposition can be found, the regime has already undertaken several steps to thwart any that could arise.
For example, Iranian security forces closed down ten Tehran cafes last month, saying they were "immoral." According to Hendelman-Baavur, the actual reason is that the regime sees those establishments as threats. "It's a place for young people to come together, where there's free access to the web. The regime is currently pressing social activists, people who publish online, and is enforcing self-censorship. All of the information the reaches the web does so after being filtered and monitored."
In the past, there was some optimism as to the success of a new wave of Iranian protests. "In 2009 the protest was led by urban youths. But once there's rise in food prices and subsidies take a hit, it can lead people in rural areas to the streets too. We mustn't forget the inspiration the Arab Spring presents," Hendelman-Baavur said.
Javedanfar, however, sounds more cautious. According to him, the danger to Khamenei's future won't come from the public, where fear is too great, and where the Supreme Leader has bought peace and stability by buying political forces and groups throughout the years. Now that the money has ran out "he has something to worry about."
"Iran's problems are leading to more and more examples of disunity from within the Iranian regime. One factor chases the other. Once it's criticism of president Ahmadinejad, another time it's of parliament speaker Alrijani, It's an all-out battle. And moreover, Khamenei's greatest challenge is officials in Iran's Revolutionary Guard who have been safekeeping the revolution for mainly economical and political motivations, and who would be hurt by the sanctions. If that injury continues, they could well demand that Khamenei changes his nuclear policy," Javedanfar added.
In ten months, Iran's presidential elections are due to take place. Ahmadinejad, who found himself in an almost public faceoff with Khamenei, isn't expected to be one of the candidates. And while the list of prospective presidents isn't yet known, the results are clear – one of the Supreme Leader's aides will be likely chosen for the position. However, despite that, just like the latest round of protests was sparked by the 2009 elections, it's possible that this time too the opposition will spring back to life.