New data on poverty in Iran provides an opportunity for the United States to underscore the mounting cost of the regime’s corruption and mismanagement for tens of millions of Iranians. The data comes from a new study by the Research Center of the Iranian parliament, which shows more and more Iranians slipping into poverty as the cost of living rises. The study sheds new light on the economic pressures that have bolstered the nationwide wave of protests that began in December 2017 and continue to this day.
The Research Center’s new work improves on earlier studies by showing in detail how the poverty threshold has varied over time and across regions. The study defines the poverty threshold by measuring the cost of basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare. It finds that the cost of meeting those needs rose from 22 to 26 percent in urban areas from the summer of 2017 through the summer of 2018, while the cost rose from 25 to as much as 30 percent in rural areas.
The study concludes that in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, 14.9 percent of the urban population and 11.6 percent of the rural population were below the absolute poverty line. The study does not report the poverty rate for fiscal year 2017-2018, so it is not clear how much worse poverty has become. However, the cost of living has increased so sharply over the last year that one can safely assume many Iranians have fallen below the poverty line.
The Research Center found that the poverty rate in 2016-2017 rose as high as 38 percent in the provinces of Sistan and Balouchistan, compared to only 12 percent in Tehran. Still, the data challenges the common assumption that the country’s central provinces prosper while its border and minority provinces suffer. For example, two of the four provinces with the highest poverty rate – Kerman at 33 percent and Qom at 30 percent – are not border provinces and do not have high concentrations of ethnic minorities. The unusually high rate of poverty in Qom sheds light on why it was a center of protest even though it is home to the seminaries that educated most of the Islamic Republic’s clerical elite.
The Research Center’s study may enable the regime to reform its welfare system to better target clusters of high poverty. From an internal security point of view, the regime has an incentive to inject resources into the areas with a correlation between significant political unrest and extreme poverty rates. The regime should also be anxious about the rising cost of living in rural areas combined with growing water shortages, which may lead to an increasing rate of migration to urban centers, potentially fueling political chaos.
The new data also presents the U.S. with an opportunity to emphasize the material sacrifices that the regime has imposed on its long-suffering people. The U.S. should employ the findings of the new study to refine the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Persian-language radio and television broadcasts and the State Department’s grant-making initiatives, which can raise awareness of the deprivation that the clerical regime seeks to obscure. Specifically, the BBG and State Department should ensure that their programs address the concerns of poorer, less-educated rural audiences, not just the relatively well-off and better-educated urban residents they usually target. Whereas Tehran was the epicenter of protests during the Green Revolution of 2009, the current wave of protests has surprised observers who presume that dissent will always be strongest in the capital. The U.S. should adjust its strategy accordingly.
Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior advisor on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @SGhasseminejad. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.