Smartphone videos of anti-regime protests in Tehran circulated in global news media this weekend, after the Iranian government admitted it shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner. The latest demonstrations followed a national wave of protests last November in which up to 1,500 demonstrators were killed. Hard information about the origins and extent of the anti-regime protests is difficult to find. But there is a good deal of evidence of extreme dissatisfaction with the regime due to economic stress.
Iran’s average monthly after-tax wage was US$318.53, according to the website Numbeo, which tallies thousands of user inputs to arrive at wage and price data.
Using Numbeo’s prices I constructed a monthly survival budget in US dollar equivalents:
One average salary pays for a small apartment outside the center, utilities, enough calories to keep body and soul together, and bus fare, which is subsidized. Throw in cell phone service, clothing, fruits and vegetables, and one or two meat meals a month, and an Iranian couple will require two average salaries. According to official data, food price inflation was 28% year-on-year as of December.
Medicine is another matter. Some imported items, for example, insulin pens, can’t be found at pharmacies in some provinces, according to a Persian-language report by IRNA. The Chancellor of the University of Isfahan told the national news agency that imported medicine such as chemotherapy drugs was in short supply, but that most other medication was available.
Import controls to spare foreign exchange have put autos outside the range of most Iranians. A VW Golf costs the local-currency equivalent of $48,000, according to Numbeo, or about 14 years’ average pay.
Reduced consumption has taken a toll on Iranian family life. According to the Tehran Times, citing Mohammed Javad Mahmoudi, head of the committee on population studies of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. According to Mahmoudi, the number of babies born in Iran fell by nearly 25% between 2015 and 2019.
That short-term decline in absolute numbers of births is unprecedented outside of wartime. The number of Iranian women of child-bearing age increased slightly over the same period, so the collapsing birth rate clearly reflects decisions not to bear children.
As I have reported in the past, Iran faces a demographic crisis over the next two decades as its population ages rapidly. There are five prime-age Iranians supporting every Iranian over the age of 65, but by mid-century, the ratio will collapse to just 1.6 to one. Strangely, the Iranian authorities have reported an increase in the “total fertility rate,” namely the estimated number of children that the average woman will bear during her lifetime. The increase evidently is due to optimistic assumptions about the future rather than observed behavior in the present.
Iranians face desperate conditions, if not actual hunger, due to the effect of economic sanctions. Add to this the long-term effects of mismanagement of the country’s scarce water resources. Afshin Shahi wrote recently in the Journal of Asian Affairs: “Approximately 97% of the country is experiencing drought conditions. Due to gross water mismanagement and its damaging impact on the country, Iran faces the worst situation in the water resources of any industrialized nation. Tens of thousands of villages have been deserted and most of the major urban centers have passed their limits to absorb new rural migrants. Some officials predict that in less than 25 years, 50 million Iranians would be displaced from their current homes because of the pressing ecological conditions.”
Few countries have endured this level of deprivation outside of full war mobilization, and few have seen such a drastic decline in the number of births. The only modern comparison is Venezuela. Governments with a monopoly of economic resources and the willingness to kill significant numbers of their own citizens can stay in power for quite some time, but there seems no question that Iran’s regime is fragile and prone to destabilization.