Bahman Baktiari and Nader Habibi
For the first time in more than 30 years, the United States and Iran have engaged in high-level diplomatic talks in the hope of resolving the nuclear impasse. The unprecedented telephone conversation between President Obama and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a positive development after three decades of acrominous dialogue. The stakes for both governments cannot be underestimated. Both presidents face daunting domestic challenges, Obama has to convince Congress and the Israeli government that Rouhani represents the best chance for a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear impasse. Rouhani has to navigate the minefield of the Iranian political system to make sure hardliners do not derail his initiatives.
Yet, the stakes are much higher for the Iranian people. They want these negotiations to succeed, and as much as statements like “recognizing the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy ”is reassuring to political leaders in Iran, what Iranian people need to see is tangible relief from some of the sanctions, reparation of Iran’s international image, and better opportunities for young Iranians who struggle to make a living for themselves and their families.
By their large participation in the June Presidential elections the Iranian voters demonstrated that they are well aware of the high stakes involved in the current nuclear impasse. The financial and oil sanctions have taken a heavy toll on Iranian economy and its young population. GDP growth per capita declined from an average 3.5 percent per year between 1997 and 2004 to 1.5 percent between 2005 and 2010. As a result, Iran is currently experiencing record high unemployment along with very high inflation rates. While the over all unemployment has recently approached 14% for the entire economy the youth unemployment is well above 20%. The economy has sunk into a recession in 2012 with a negative five percent economic growth. Iran’s standing on the 2012 Human Development Index published by the United Nations Development Program has declined in 2012 to 76 out of 186 nations. Between 2010 and 2011, it had already declined by six positions on the UNDP index.
Under such economic conditions, young Iranians do anything in order to move to another country in search of job and a more secure living. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in a ranking of 91 countries with the largest brain drain, Iran is at the top of the list with between 150,000-180,000 of its university graduates leaving the country every year. For the first time in Iranian history, we hear about “Iranian boat people” risking their lives on refugee boats headed to Australia. Instead, they have ended up on an islamd prison created by the Australian government to block refugee boats from entering the country. According to available data, more than 5 million Iranians live abroad today, a staggering number since a majority of them have emigrated since 1979 revolution.
Some critics believe that even a partial lifting of sanctions before the Iranian government agrees to major concessions will send a wrong signal to the Iranian government. The U.S. congress is moving in the direction of imposing new sanctions before the negotiations can get off the ground. However, this will send the wrong signal to the Iranian people. They will perceive such a move as an attempt by the U.S. congress to undermine the negotiations. If it was not for the vote of the Iranian people that resulted in the election of Rouhani, there would not have been a negotiating partner that speaks of moderation, and a determination to resolve the nuclear impasse. Furthermore, maintaining the sanctions will enhance the position of the hardliners and the Supreme Leader who are looking to transform any small set-back into a major failure.
The United States should view the Iranian people as an important stakeholder in the current negotiations. As President Obama stated in his UN speech, “Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world, and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential in commerce andculture, in science and education.” By lifting some of the sanctions and relieving the economic pressure on Iranian people at the start of the nuclear negotiations, the United States will not only demonstrate its good will and credibility to Iranians, and it would also increase their stake in success of the negotiations. This will put more pressure on Iranian government to deliver on its promises and show more flexibility. Otherwise, the Iranian people will blame their own government if the negotiations fail.
Nader Habibi is the Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East, at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.
Bahman Baktiari is the Executive Director of the International Foundation for Civil Society in Salt Lake City, Utah.