How Iran squandered social capital

06 Dec 2022

How Iran squandered social capital

While the Islamic Republic of Iran in its early days focused on lifting its people out of poverty and improving access to services, the current regime has failed to maintain this social capital.

By Bijan Khajehpour

December 6, 2022

https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/11/how-iran-squandered-social-capital

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a state based on the revolutionary ideals of social justice, freedom and independence since it ascended to power in 1979. Throughout the first two decades of its existence, the regime managed to generate considerable social capital by lifting the lower-income classes out of poverty and urbanizing a large section of the country’s rural areas, that it is failing now to sustain.

Data shows that the social capital for Iran's urban population that was below 55% in the mid-1980s reached 76% in 2021. There were a number of socio-economic indicators such as life expectancy, access to health services, literacy and higher education that generated widespread legitimacy for the Islamic Republic among the more conservative segments of the population. Also, the application of a subsidy system that would empower the lower social classes was designed to increase the regime’s legitimacy among the mentioned target groups. Consequently, one argument in assessing the survivability of the regime was the fact that it could rely on a strong minority for its support.   

However, all signs are that the regime has failed miserably in sustaining the mentioned social capital. Though the accumulated legitimacy emerged based on socio-economic indicators, it is clear that expectations have changed as the population has become more modern and educated. From an academic point of view, the factors influencing the level of the government’s social capital are transparency and accountability, quality of governance, rule of law, nonviolence and political stability, and the fight against corruption. All are factors where the regime as a whole and successive governments have failed without paying attention to the shifting popular expectations. 

Interestingly, President Ebrahim Raisi had identified the issue and announced after his election in 2021 that increasing social capital would be his government’s “mega project.” “There is nothing more important than serving the people and maintaining peace and hope in the society,” Raisi said. Experts agree that so far the Raisi administration has failed in “serving the people.” However, the problems started before Raisi’s inauguration as president in 2021.  

During Hassan Rouhani's administration (2013-2021), a number of studies were carried out identifying good governance as the most important element in generating legitimacy and social capital for the government. Instead of promoting good practices, governance realities deteriorated so much that many described corruption and mismanagement as the country’s top national security threats. On top of very visible cases of embezzlement, the entire population was also disappointed in how the COVID-19 pandemic was mismanaged, especially the realization that misguided policies regarding vaccine imports caused many more casualties. In this context, one has to appreciate that contrary to foreign policy decisions or embezzlement cases, issues such as public health and inflation hit every single family in the country. The applied formula of blaming foreign conspiracies for every governance failure has also lost its utility. Society, especially the younger generations, expects accountability, and the current governance structures have failed to promote such accountability. 

Even after the pandemic, there was no genuine attention to public demands. Reformist politician and former city council member of Tehran Gholamreza Ansari believes that the lack of interaction between the Raisi government and members of the elite has led to a gap between social realities and government plans and policies. One example is how the government discontinued its subsidized exchange rate that has led to an unprecedented increase in food prices. A number of media outlets complained extensively about how the unannounced increase in bread prices disillusioned the lower-income classes. The dwindling confidence of the rural population in the regime as a whole is one of the core processes that has undermined the regime’s social capital. For the first few months of the Raisi government, the excuse of the new officials was to blame the Rouhani administration. However, more than 16 months into the Raisi government, it is clear that it is a systemic problem leading to an accumulation of disillusionment and negative sentiments about the regime as a whole. 

Interestingly, the fact that social anger was on the rise was not a secret. Indeed, in December 2021, former Minister of Education and current Majlis deputy Hamidreza Hajibabaei stated that the government should actively promote social capital and “reconcile each and every citizen who is angry with their regime due to economic and social issues.” 

However, the government not only has not reconciled any of the disappointed citizens but has developed a humiliating methodology toward constructive criticism by arresting and harassing anyone who has pointed toward poor governance. Political activist and commentator Abbas Abdi explains the situation as follows: “One reason is to turn a blind eye to reality. In fact, they think that if they don't see the problem, then it does not exist! In other words, they ignore critics and opponents and think that by ignoring or humiliating them, the problem will be solved and critics will disappear. Not only do they ignore them, but they discredit them.” 

This approach by the authorities has not only limited the scope for expert discussions on the current issues with regard to women, youth, environment, social injustice, workers’ rights, etc., but has further disillusioned many segments of the population. 

Clearly, the lack of attention to popular demands and the squandering of social capital has pushed society to a level where social unrest has become the only way to communicate their grievances to the regime. Furthermore, each cycle of social protest in Iran causes tremendous material and immaterial costs, further aggravating grievances. 

If nothing else, the current wave of protests in Iran should compel the regime constituents to revisit their level of support and legitimacy in society without the usual exaggeration and misrepresentation and realize that it has fallen close to zero. Regaining legitimacy and some degree of confidence will require bold reforms and actions that would gain the confidence of different social classes. Comments by top leaders suggest that they view any softening of their aggressive approach as a sign of weakness — not realizing that the social demands won’t disappear. 

While there is much uncertainty about the future of the current wave of protests, one thing is certain: A failure to address the demands of society for improved governance structures will just disappoint the already disillusioned segments of the population, further setting the stage for new forms of protest and confrontation with a regime that has no social capital left to invest in its future.