Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during his first press conference in Tehran on June 21, 2021. He has a tough economic task ahead. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

Across Khuzestan province, the oil-rich yet ironically impoverished and underprivileged heart of Iran’s economy, resentful protesters have been dominating the streets for nearly a week, trying to voice their anger at the power outages and water-supply cuts that have traumatized their daily lives. The government has responded, expectedly, with Internet shutdowns and the use of force.

Nationally, the progress of the Covid-19 inoculation program has been a failure, and while much of the world races back toward normalcy, only 2.6% of a population of 85 million have been fully vaccinated. In what construes as a national embarrassment, Iranians are flocking to neighboring Armenia, where they are offered free immunization by a government moving to impart a more favorable image of itself to the global public.

As cryptocurrency mining farms mushroom in Iranian cities to swallow the country’s cheap electricity and produce wealth for a cash-strapped government forced to put up with perennial economic sanctions by the United States, homes, offices, factories and hospitals are running out of power, and lengthy blackouts in a scorching summer torment a people at the end of their tether because further disruptions to their work and lives are simply untenable.

After six rounds of intensive negotiations to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the diplomatic squad of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani has thrown in the towel, admitting a deadlock has emerged. They now say it is incumbent on the administration of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, who is to take office in early August, to pick up where the work was left unfinished and see if it can bring the atrophying nuclear deal around.

The national currency, the rial, is only nominally retaining any purchasing power, as since 2018, it has been eviscerated of 70% of its value, crumbling under the sanctions introduced by then-US president Donald Trump. Iranians have been converting their monetary wealth into US dollars, land and gold, while many others have packed their bags to depart a crisis-stricken homeland and start new lives in destinations that only need to be somewhere other than Iran.

Iran is not short of challenges and hardships, and the society looks like a keg of gunpowder, saturated with international isolation, economic pressures and government mismanagement and corruption, ready for an apocalyptic explosion.

More Iranians are these days talking about the principles of good governance. They are perplexed that a country like theirs, blessed with natural resources, bountiful energy reserves, a rich history, a young population and intelligent minds and innovators, is swamped with social crises and economic imbroglios, and the perplexity spirals when they see their government has sat back and is watching apathetically, or rather incompetently, as the nation suffers and its assets shrink.

The 1979 revolution was certainly a hiccup detouring how the nation was moving forward, regardless of how morally justifiable that direction was, and how congruent with the national interest that trajectory could be assessed to be. Revolutions are about slowing down or smothering certain processes, and kickstarting and energizing certain other quests.

For more than four decades, the Islamic Republic has had enough time to nation-build, give its exclusive brands of institutions the chance to flourish and its mode of governance to coalesce into a project with concrete outcomes.

It has been in control of resources every government needs to serve its citizens, and has been entitled to the wherewithal to proselytize its ideology and claim its distinct place in the global politics.

Above all, on the grassroots level, it has been ruling a constituency that has always been ambitious, but similarly ready to make sacrifices and shield the sovereignty of the nation. And the world afforded this newly born revolution multiple opportunities to be an integrated and accepted member of the international community.

I am not here to score how successful the Islamic Republic has been in decoupling itself from ideology and welcoming transition to statehood and nationhood. Rather, the bottom line of my argument is that misplaced priorities and misguided investments on behalf of the government have left the public with an introspective dilemma, persuading them to ask if the sort of statecraft they live under bears any resemblance to good governance values.

Different definitions have been purveyed about what constitutes good governance, and scholars and organizations have given varied readings of what the concept means. The Council of Europe, for example, boils it down to 12 principles, mostly revolving around the rule of law, effectiveness, transparency, human rights and accountability.

To say a given government, including Iran’s, has failed all tests of good governance and has not taken any steps to roll out these standards, and to say so with unconditional certainty, is synonymous with tabloid journalism. This sort of absolutism does not work when analyzing the track record of a nation.

But in a nuanced assessment, it can be concluded that Iran has not been one of the nations enshrining and standing by the maxims of good governance scrupulously, and that is why its people are crying in despair, asking for water, electricity, Covid-19 vaccines and other rudiments of a dignified life. And Iran is not an impoverished country that should be reliant on loans and foreign aid to sustain itself.

Iran’s leadership has not prioritized such things as sustainable development, climate policy, poverty alleviation, education, cultural heritage, diversity, tolerance, gender equality and health care.

This doesn’t mean the government’s track record in these domains has been totally blank. There are government agencies and ministries, with thousands of bureaucrats and hundreds of rules, regulations and legislations, tasked with responding to the social needs in every sector.

The problem is the imbalance in upholding these agenda items as urgencies that the public discourse should pay attention to and the investment they receive, as opposed to the discursive consecration of ideologies such as anti-Western, anti-US hostility, proxy conflict with Israel, supporting militias in the Arab world and cobbling together a nuclear deterrence.

In the years that have rolled by since the 1979 uprising, lavish government-sanctioned funding has gone to fuel ideological rivalries that have scarcely, if ever, benefited the Iranian people.

The costs of the government’s nuclear brinkmanship are estimated to have exceeded US$500 billion, and sane, impartial observers still wonder what results this extravagant expenditure, claimed by the authorities to be undertaken for electricity production, has produced, other than submerging Iran in a self-inflicted crisis and producing no electricity.

In the age of digital connectivity, people are quick to compare, and approach their analogies critically. More young Iranians are finding opportunities to travel and discover the world, and upon return to their home country, are gripped by disillusionment and cynicism: Why is their country constantly in the headlines but not for its progresses, achievements and constructive role in the region?

Why is it that Iran owns the second-largest natural-gas reserves in the world, sits on the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves and thrives on a plethora of other assets in the form of mines, forests, hydropower, arable land and educated human capital, and yet still lags behind in providing its people with the basics?  

Fulfilling the criteria of good governance, including stamping out corruption, distributing national wealth evenly, embracing transparency and respecting democratic ideals is not a long haul, even for a theocracy like Iran.

Although there are few countries that replicate the religious identity of the Iranian government, the world has seen the experience of Muslim-majority states such as Turkey and Malaysia that have not dumped their ideological foundations, but have subsidized the welfare and prosperity of their citizens and also preserved a robust role in international politics.

It seems inexorable that Iranian people, particularly its dynamic young population, ask questions about the commitment of their government to good governance credos and demand that their interests in the real world, rather than their aspirations in a parallel world, are prioritized.

The Iranian government should find viable answers and remedy this crisis of confidence, or countenance the widening of gaps between a dissatisfied public and a failed state – and certainly gear up for new flights of human capital.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. Kourosh was named a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism.