Iranians complain about the economy. They always have. I heard these complaints every time I visited Iran between 2004 and 2012, and I heard them from both middle-class people and the working poor. That Iranians complain about the economy was also something economists told me: People complain, they said, because they complain. But the numbers aren’t all that bad.
I never found this assurance very satisfying. The complaints I heard in those days were about missing paychecks, skyrocketing real estate and the price of meat. You could quote numbers about economic growth or declining poverty all you liked. It didn’t change people’s experience. Iranians expected better than they got.
For that matter, Iranians complain about their political system, too. Regional experts will tell you that Iran is not as oppressive or as violent as some of its neighbors. The very fact that Iranians can complain is evidence of this. But Iran is still oppressive, and if you were there, you would instantly know it.
Iran is an uncomfortable country, and the impulse to separate the economic from the political malaise risks missing the point. The problems are intertwined — never more so than when economic outcry is met with violent crackdown, as has been the case since protests began on Dec. 28. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the clerical establishment under the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are the enforcers of political repression as well as the beneficiaries of an economy that has underperformed for everyone else. This fact is surely not lost on demonstrators who object to a budget by calling for an end to the regime.