During a recent interview with the Hurriyet Daily News, a Turkish newspaper, Iran’s Culture Minister Ali Jannati made an unexpected admission: “In the past, through pressuring the media or guiding the information, we could direct public news and take control of it.” Although a surprising admission, Ali Jannati pressed on candidly: “today the scene has changed dramatically. Controlling the media is no longer possible technically or geographically.” Undoubtedly, Iran is at an important juncture in its history, where it faces a most critical question: As Iran’s youth gain increasing access to Western media and culture, it seems unlikely that its leaders will be able to continue to apply their radically theocratic constitution to control the economy and media.
All eyes are on Iran following the recent tentative nuclear agreement between the United States, five world powers, and Iran. President Rouhani’s administration is charged with the difficult task of convincing the Iranian people that a nuclear program described by Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group as an important source of national pride and unity, is inhibiting economic growth. Tehran’s desire to come to the negotiating table with their bitter enemy, the United States, conveys the Iranian’s urgency to address these economic concerns. This comes on the heels of its Cultural Minister Ali Jannati’s blunt acknowledgement that Tehran will struggle in the future to guide the narrative internally.
To the Western observer, it is difficult to tell whether Ali Jannati’s comments and the urgency for a nuclear deal are a sign of true liberalization in Iran. A careful study of Iran’s constitution makes it clear that President Rouhani and the Ayatollah Khamenei are endowed through the constitution with the specific powers to control internal media output and the economy. Below are a few examples.
Article 3 of the Iranian Constitution states that the primary goal of the government is to create a “fair and just economic system, in accordance with Islamic criteria.” Prior to the revolution, Iran suffered from cyclical high poverty rates (some statistics place it at levels around those of the U.S. Great Depression) and massive income disparity. Energy resources were controlled by multi-national corporations and a small pro-western elite, with little economic benefit reaching the greater Iranian population. No doubt language that focuses on ‘fairness’ was appealing to a disenfranchised Iranian populous that felt first hand the worst of corporate corruption under the Shah. However, the Ayatollah’s definition of ‘fairness’ has been used to justify a nearly complete nationalization of the Iranian economy with little mandate from the Iranian people.
This policy has funneled most of Iran’s $250 billion in annual oil revenues into state programs and the $170 billion nuclear energy program. One might expect these massive revenues to lead to improving infrastructure and projects to harness economic growth, as it has in Jordan and neighboring Turkey. To the contrary, in the 2013 World Economic Forum Infrastructure rating, Iran ranked 83rd, behind states such as Rwanda, Guatemala and the Philippines.
The Iranian economy boasted a 13% decrease in income disparity in the years after the revolution, one of the central objectives of the government and expressed through the “fairness” clause. However, according to Hossein Askari, a scholar and Middle East analyst, “over the long haul there has been insignificant growth in real per capita incomes over the past 30 years since the revolution.” In other words, the economy is fairer only in that most of Iran’s significant capital holders have fled. The underclasses, which have represented the Ayatollah’s strongest support, have seen little economic benefit in the post-revolution decades. No doubt the clock is ticking on Iran’s ability to justify economic isolation and stagnation to millennials surfing the worldwide web who were not yet born when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran in February of 1979.
Furthermore, the Iranian Constitution sets forth a goal to raise “the level of public awareness in all areas, through the proper use of the press, mass media, and other means.” Tehran uses this clause to justify its control over mainstream media in Iran. Only the Ayatollah, a man endowed with final say on all policy areas, can clarify what is considered ‘proper.’ As a result, the only legal media outlet in all of Iran, Press TV, is a state-owned entity with a director hand-picked by the Ayatollah. In countless cases, Press TV has been used to push government agendas, most notably in conflicts with the Gulf States, Israel, and the United States. For Iran, the “proper use of the press” has merely meant pushing its anti-Western agenda.
Careful analysis of the Iranian Constitution further reveals the government’s authoritarian desires. In nearly every article, the diction is crafted in a way that can be exploited for manipulation in policy making. Article 40, for example, states “No one is entitled to exercise his rights in a way injurious to others or detrimental to public interests.” In other words, the Iranian Government grants itself free-reign to use this clause to incriminate those that act in ways outside of its policy interest. The public interest has been used to justify the imprisonment of people like Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American who was building an orphanage in Tehran at the time of his arrest, for allegedly assisting Iranian youth to stray from Islam.
Culture Minister Ali Jannati as much as admits the corruptive power of Iranian state control in his comments on pressuring the media. Additionally, it was his statements that followed which may be the most telling for the future of Iran. As he explained, “Today the scene has changed dramatically. Controlling the media is no longer possible technically or geographically.” By paying lip service to democracy, the state has gained internal legitimacy, permitting it to pursue hegemonic goals at the expense of individual liberty and economic growth. However, it remains to be seen whether the radically ideological Iranian constitution can continue to create religious justification for a state that only creates economic stagnation, growing isolationism and restricted civil liberties. Tehran’s ability to maintain public support for the nuclear accords is the first test.