Saeed Rahnema on Sanctions, Elections, and Refugees

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22 May, 2013
By: OpenCanada Staff

Saeed Rahnema is a professor of political science and public policy at York University, author, and frequent commentator on the Middle East. Below, Professor Rahnema answers questions on the impact of economic sanctions, Iran’s upcoming elections, and Canada’s approach to Iranian refugees.

How have international sanctions impacted the lives of ordinary Iranians? How would you describe their effect on the Iranian economy?

Sanctions, as other cases have shown, always end up hurting the people more than the regime and those associated with it. The clearest example was Iraq after the 1991 war, when punishing and ultimately decade-long sanctions led to death and suffering for millions of Iraqis. Children were particularly affected, and while they suffered and often died from disease and malnourishment, Saddam Hussein was able to continue to siphon funds from the state to build yet another palace for himself.

The Iranian regime has survived under the sanctions that followed the 1979 revolution for over three decades. But the more recent, multi-layered UN and EU-mandated sanctions and those initiated by individual countries, are proving harder to bear.  Sanctioning oil exports along with shipping insurance has significantly limited the regime’s ability to sell oil to a global market, and therefore its ability to grow or even sustain national revenues. The impacts of these sanctions are being exacerbated by similarly heavy ones on the banking sector – including the Central Bank of Iran – and the country’s disconnection from the global SWIFT network for interbank financial transactions, both of which make it very difficult to repatriate oil revenues. Evidence of the impacts of sanctions is everywhere: in the past year, the Iranian rial took a nosedive, losing up to 70 per cent of its values; inflation has soared to almost 40 per cent; many industries have cut back on production or closed down entirely owing to shortages of imported materials and components, adding to already-soaring levels of unemployment and creating shortages of drugs and pharmaceuticals that put the lives of many Iranians at risk. 

The effects of these sanctions, despite how extreme they feel to ordinary Iranians, have not been enough to cripple the regime. The relatively large size of the Iranian economy, when combined with massive oil revenues, provides some protection. More importantly, the regime’s close ties with Russia, China, and India, allow it to bypass and circumvent some sanctions – smuggling routes through neighbouring countries, particularly the regime-friendly state of Iraq, has ensured a constant flow of a wide variety of goods, ranging from basic necessities to Scotch whisky.

The outright mismanagement of the economy, an anarchic political situation, and infighting among different factions of the regime – each of which controls a different part of the economy – and widespread corruption, are doing as much to hurt the economy as international sanctions.  Ahmadinejad’s disastrous policy of replacing subsidies on food, energy, and utilities with monthly cash handouts to almost the entire population has nearly bankrupted the government, and has made millions of families in the rural and urban areas dependent on the government for survival. This has of course made Ahmadinejad increasingly popular in rural areas and among low-income families in the cities.  To help his candidate as the presidential elections of June 2013 approach, he has promised to double the handouts, creating serious problems for other candidates within the regime.

Corruption is so widespread that different factions of the regime openly threaten each other to disclose their opponent’s illegal and corrupt dealings. In one case, Ahmadinejad appeared before the parliament and played part of a tape exposing Fazel Larijani, the younger brother of both the parliament speaker and the head of the judiciary. (It is interesting to note that this fellow was the Cultural Attaché of the Iranian Embassy in Canada, and that he started some fake institutions, including a “Center for Iranian Studies” which was exposed by the Iranian diaspora community and some of the Canadian media, and eventually closed down.)

Ordinary Iranians are clearly suffering as a result of sanctions and mismanagement, but contrary to the expectations of Western governments, the Iranian people are not in a position to confront the regime. The unimaginable brutality used to suppress the 2009 uprising during the electoral coup of the previous presidential election is still fresh in their minds. The regime has massively repressive, ideological and economic apparatuses. Repression has increased inside and outside of the prisons that hold many journalists, lawyers, women’s rights activists, workers, and student leaders. Sanctions by no means have limited violations of human rights. On the contrary, the more the confrontation with the West deepens, the easier it is for the regime to accuse its domestic opponents to be foreign agents, and punish them accordingly.

The Green Movement reached an impasse after the last election. What different strategies do you think leftist and pro-democratic groups will use, if any, to engage the support of the international community in their efforts during and after the elections? Do you think the elections will usefully turn the spotlight on human rights in Iran?

The mass uprising after the electoral coup of 2009, which came to be known as the Green Movement, involved a wide-ranging array of secular, left, liberal, and moderate religious elements. It was defeated mainly because of the unbelievably brutal suppression of the activists, which included killing, maiming, and raping arrested protesters. But the movement’s leadership also played a role. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoobi were both establishment figures; while they sought reforms, they did not want to challenge the regime in its totality. And the fact that the members of movement in the streets failed to link up with workers and employees who had the power to shut down factories and other institutions as they had done during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, also contributed to the uprising’s failure.

The situation is much worse for the democratic forces in Iran now than was the case in 2009. This is true despite the fact that the ruling cliques’ infighting has reached an unprecedented level, and different groups of the “Principlists” (ultra-right religious fundamentalists) who were united against the Islamist reformists during the last elections, are now openly fighting each other. The leadership hopes to prevent the election of any candidate that would not be loyal and subservient to the Supreme Leader. The manipulation of the electoral process in the Islamic Republic is now a long-standing tradition that takes place in two stages. Firstly, candidates must be approved by the twelve member Guardianship Council (appointed by the Supreme Leader). Secondly, when the electoral process starts, they mobilize a sophisticated machinery to ensure their favoured candidates’ emerge as victors when the polls close, either by actual or fabricated votes.

Currently, both Islamist reformist candidates of the last presidential elections, Moussavi and Karroobi, are still under house arrest, so different groups of Islamist reformists tried to convince Khatami or Rafsanjani, both former presidents, to run. Khatami declined in favour of Rafsanjani, who declared that he will run provided the Supreme Leader agrees. The Supreme Leader and the gangs around him are adamantly opposed to Rafsanjani, but they had to reconsider because of what happened with Ahmadinejad’s camp.

Ahmadinejad, a Principlist himself, was a true obedient servant of the Supreme Leader in his first presidency and during the early part of his second, owing to his rigged election victory and the Supreme Leader’s sanctioning of the results. Since then, Ahmadinejad has increasingly distanced himself from the Supreme Leader, and has even brazenly confronted him on several occasions. Ahmadinejad had his own preferred candidate: his Chief of Staff, and his son’s father-in law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. In the last day of registration in an unprecedented move, Ahmadinejad accompanied him to the Interior Ministry for registration as a candidate. Ahmadinejad evidently hoped that if one of his own takes office, this will allow the former president to remain safe and influential for four years, at which point he can then reclaim the presidency a la Russian President Putin. All the other Principlists and the Supreme Leader himself are against Ahmadinejad’s plan.

According to an interview with one of Rafsanjani’s confidants, on the afternoon of the same day that Mashaei registered, Rafsanjani, despite continued pressure from his supporters to nominate himself, ordered a communiqué explaining his decision not to run. Later that same afternoon, he, along with his entourage, rushed to the Ministry of the Interior with only a few minutes remaining for registration. He had received a positive message from the Supreme Leader’s office regarding his candidacy.

The situation had become very complicated for the Supreme Leader. He was facing serious dilemmas: The Guardianship Council could not easily refuse the candidacy of Rafsanjani, the most senior figure and symbol of the post-revolutionary period. But rejecting Mashaei’s candidacy, despite Ahmadinejad’s threating against this, would be easier. This, however, would make Rafsanjani a stronger contender. The leadership had to choose either one side, or allow both sides – which are each other’s archenemies – to run, in the hope that they would severely weaken each other during the three week long campaign. (Needless to mention that non-religious secular candidates have never been allowed to run for any office in the post-revolutionary period.) In the end they came up with the drastic decision of eliminating both, fearing that the vast number of disgruntled Iranians would strategically vote for Rafsanjani and force the regime to resort to yet another electoral coup like last time.

To eliminate all the major undesirable contenders of the presidency, the Supreme Leader had to rely more on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. He therefore had to support one of their military/security candidates, such as Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf who is also the Mayor of Tehran, or Mohsen Rezaie the former commander of the Guards, or a civilian Principlist candidate that is accepted by them, like Saeed Jalili, presently the chief negotiator in nuclear disputes and the Supreme Leader’s representative in the National Security Council, or Ali-akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and present head of international affairs in the office of the Supreme Leader. In the end the Guardianship Council ratified eight candidates, the four above-mentioned plus another staunch Principlist, Haddad Adel, a top advisor of the Supreme Leader and a member of the parliament. To pretend that the election is not limited to the Principlist candidates, they also ratified three lower-profile Muslim Reformists. Although still there is a possibility of strategic voting in favour of one these three, it still seems more likely that the regime will bring out its own favoured candidate from the ballot boxes.

The key questions on the minds of the Iranians who want to vote strategically are: which candidate will be in a better position to possibly weaken the Supreme Leader? Which will be less detrimental in terms of economic mismanagement? And more importantly, which candidate will be less dangerous than the others in terms of brazen violations of human rights and civil liberties?

 An intriguing aspect of the current presidential elections is that many of the original candidates were involved in cases being heard in the courts of foreign countries. These cases are considering the direct involvement of these individuals in the assassinations of Iranian dissidents abroad, and in terrorist activities. The early assassinations or “chain-killings” of Iranian dissidents inside and outside the country are well known, as is the Mykonos Restaurant assassination in 1992 in Berlin, when the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and his aides were assassinated. A German court has issued an international arrest warrant for the then Minister of Intelligence, Ali Falahian. The warrant declares that he organized the Berlin plot by direct order of the top leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The killings were ordered by a special council consisting of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, and Ali Falahian, all three of whom were among the present presidential candidates.

Another candidate, Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf, was secretly taped in a recent closed meeting, and the footage was leaked to Iranian websites. In the audio tape, he brags about the brutal tactics he used to suppress the student movement when he was the Police Commander. He also proudly reminds his audience that as a commander of the air force of the Islamic Guard, he was the person who picked up a club and jumped on the back of a motorcycle and started “cleaning up” the streets of protesters. He also masterminded the creation of the Kahrizak detention center, where many of those arrested following the 2009 protests against rigged presidential elections were brutally tortured and raped. It is from among these and other candidates that Iranian voters have to choose their next leader. 

Meanwhile the regime is preparing for a major crackdown to suppress any sort of protests around the elections, including the imposition of stricter controls over the media. The Cultural Deputy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been appointed as the head of the Fars News Agency, and a notorious interrogator of the 2009 prisoners has been appointed as the head of the University Basij which controls student movements. Islamic Basij (militia), regular police, and if needed, the Islamic Guards, along with multi-functional neighbourhood mosques that use the “rent-a-mob” strategy – keeping thugs equipped with motorcycles and cell-phones on standby – will be ready to crush any actions to protest the results.

Unfortunately, the Iranian opposition both inside and outside Iran cannot respond with a similarly cohesive effort, as they remain divided and incapable of forming a united front against the regime. The “liberal versus left” and “secular versus religious” divides are deep rooted, which is another point of advantage for the regime.

How do you think the outcome of the election may impact Iran’s relations with the West, particularly the United States? Do you think the hardline Principlists would follow a more radical policy towards the West?

Ironically the reverse might be true. The Islamic regime feels seriously threatened internally and externally. Already there are rumors that serious secret negotiations between the representatives of the Supreme Leader and the Americans are underway. Obama had mentioned earlier that he is prepared to negotiate directly with Iran if the Supreme Leader is involved. One reason that the Principlists so boldly eliminated other candidates who favoured rapprochement with the West might be that they are doing it themselves. If they come up with some sort of agreement on the nuclear issue and on Syria, they know that they will be in a better position to deal with internal issues and extend their repression of the Iranian people. They know from experience that Americans and the West will eventually stop nagging about human rights violations in Iran.

Canada has implicitly supported human rights in the Middle East by granting high numbers of refugee and immigration claims in the wake of uprisings and crackdowns. Should Canada be doing more to support Iranian refugees?

No doubt Canadian support for human rights in the Middle East has the potential to be very important. However, since Canada’s advocacy for human rights has been one-sided – on Israeli-Palestinian issues, for example, or the Iranian nuclear program – its pronouncements are not taken seriously in the greater Middle East, or by the diaspora in Canada.

Increased Canadian support would be taken seriously if that translated into providing asylum to those fleeing Iran. It is essential that Canada accept more political refugees. But Canada has been keener on economic immigrants. Ironically, it has therefore allowed many nouveau riche associated with the Islamic regime to come to Canada, invest, and profit, including those involved in embezzling funds from the Iranian economy.

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Also in the series

Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

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Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran’s painful past to get to a democratic future.

Why Iranian Women Can’t Have Any of It

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Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime’s apparatus of repression.

Nationalism & Human Rights in Iran in Historical Context

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Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran’s push for human rights.

The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

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Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran’s religious minorities won’t be respected until those of the majority are as well.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran


Minister John Baird on Canada’s advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.