It’s the economy, stupid, says Iran’s shrinking middle class ahead of vote

File photo of Iranians shop at the Grand Bazaar in the capital Tehran. The economy has been the top voter concern ahead of the June 18, 2021 presidential election.
File photo of Iranians shop at the Grand Bazaar in the capital Tehran. The economy has been the top voter concern ahead of the June 18, 2021 presidential election. © Atta Kenare, AFP

Battered by a double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic and crushing sanctions after the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran's economy is the top concern as voters head to the polls in the June 18 presidential election.


Shortly after the first Covid-19 wave struck Iran last year, Mahsa* became a victim of the double casualties that hit her country. The 40-year-old Iranian mother lost her job at a Tehran travel agency that was forced to downsize amid the combined onslaught of a fiscal freefall triggered by crushing US sanctions, and a pandemic that exacerbated the country’s economic misery.

As Iran heads to the polls in the June 18 presidential election, the economy is a major concern for citizens, including members of the middle class such as Mahsa.

"We thought we were living through the worst a year ago, but the limits have been pushed again. Our currency has fallen again, my rent has gone up 40 percent and every trip to the supermarket costs me more and more. It's a bottomless pit," she explained in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.

Over the past few months, many Iranian companies have had to either downsize or shut down due to the health crisis. "In addition, because of the sanctions, certain drugs for epilepsy and Parkinson's patients are no longer available. One by one, my friends are leaving the country," said Mahsa.

In previous elections, Mahsa consistently voted for reformist candidates, citing civil liberties and individual freedoms as her top electoral issues. This year, the economy has replaced human rights as her primary concern, but Mahsa isn’t sure she will vote in the 2021 election.

"We are living under pressure, we are tired and Covid has finished us, I do not even know if I will vote," she said.

It’s a concern shared by Mohsen*, a 45-year-old Iranian musician. "As long as the economy doesn't get better, I don't really care about politics," he said. "I was part of the middle class who could still travel around the country, go to restaurants and enroll my kids for leisure activities. Today, as far as I'm concerned, it's over. I can’t afford it anymore. The hardest thing is not being able to enroll my daughter in sports or music classes, or even replace her skateboard that has been broken for months."

Meat now a treat as middle class slips into poverty

Eight years ago, reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani was voted into power with the support of a middle class eager for a nuclear deal with the US, which would enable Iranians to engage with the West. Today, the middle class is rapidly shrinking.

Blocked from selling its oil under former US president Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions, Iran has seen its poverty rate increase from 11 percent to 16 percent over the past two years, adding another 3.7 million people to the poverty roll in the country of 83 million.

"This serious crisis is plunging part of the middle class into poverty," said Thierry Coville from the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

Iran has been in recession for three years, inflation has soared to 41 percent and unemployment is around 11 percent – an official rate that experts believe is vastly underestimated. The real unemployment figure is probably closer to 20 percent of the population, according to Coville.

The picture is even bleaker for the working class, for whom meat is becoming a special treat.

For an Iranian worker earning the equivalent of around 60 euros per month, the price of just one kilo of chicken is now around 10 percent of his monthly salary. "Some people negotiate credit arrangements with their grocers and shopkeepers, others have removed meat from their plates or have drastically reduced their rations," explained Coville.

A society waiting for a deal

"People have other things to worry about than going to vote, they are disillusioned," said Azadeh Kian from Paris Diderot University. On the eve of the 2021 presidential election, Kian believes Iranian society is not in campaign, but in "expectation" mode.

The expectations are focused on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, under which Tehran accepted limits on its nuclear programme in return for relief from international sanctions. But those hopes were dashed in 2018 when Trump ripped up the deal and imposed sanctions aimed at Iran’s diplomatic isolation and economic strangulation.

On the campaign trail for the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden vowed to move quickly to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. But that promise has proved to be easier said than done.

Talks to revive the deal began in Vienna in May and are currently in their sixth round, with Tehran pushing for a lifting of sanctions and the ability to retain equipment installed after Trump’s withdrawal while the US is seeking further curbs on Iran’s missile capabilities.

In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica on Wednesday, the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog said an accord will have to await the results of the June 18 election. "Everyone knows that, at this point, it will be necessary to wait for the new Iranian government," said Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Given the economic stakes and the direct impact on their daily lives, middle class Iranians appear more focused on the nuclear deal than the presidential election. "The exit of the US from the nuclear agreement affects the public morale. Iranians are more focused on what the negotiations on this issue will yield than the outcome of the elections," said Kian.

The politics of distress and hope

Eight years ago, Rouhani was elected with strong middle-class support to negotiate a nuclear deal with the US. After the deal was signed in 2015, the moderate Iranian leader was re-elected for another four-year term, buoyed by the brief easing of sanctions.

His victories then "were not driven by economic distress but by hope", wrote Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech and non-resident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution.

On the social front, hopes for an easing of restrictions, which mobilised the youth and female votes in previous elections, have taken a back seat this year. "Hassan Rouhani has been a great disappointment, he has not been able to prevent the imprisonment of human rights, women's rights and environmental activists. He has also failed to fulfill his promise to create a Ministry of Women's Rights," said Kian.

But these concerns have not completely disappeared. And they may just draw Mahsa back to the polls this year. "I will probably vote at the last minute out of fear, if I feel that an ultraconservative may win. Then my vote could count."

* First names have been changed

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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