Rouhani & Ayat. Khamenei

Iran’s Supreme Leader emphasizes practical—not political—economic aims

Bourse and Bazaar – Two weeks ago, during a high-level meeting with the Islamic Republic’s political elite, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated familiar calls for a “resistance economy,” but also placed new emphasis on the “business environment and increasing the ease of doing business.” While it is not unusual for Ayatollah Khamenei to focus on Iran’s economic challenges in such addresses, the specificity of some of his statements suggests a new appreciation for the importance of practical economic reforms that go beyond political slogans.

Pointing to several chronic “illnesses” of the Iranian economy during the meeting—attended by President Hassan Rouhani, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, and Chief Justice Ibrahim Raeisi— Ayatollah Khamenei declared, “If those illnesses are cured under the current sanctions, Iran’s economy will experience a leap forward.”

Ayatollah Khamenei outlined four main challenges facing the Iranian economy: oil dependence, including the spending of oil revenues on “living expenses” rather than long-term development; unnecessary government interference in the economy, including the failure to fully implement the privatization programs outlined in Article 44 of the constitution; the poor business environment, which is hampered by a cumbersome government bureaucracy; and budgetary reform, which extends to government-led reform of the banking sector.

The supreme leader’s latest speech build on an earlier deadline he set for the Rouhani administration, tasking the government to restructure the its budget and overhaul banking regulations. Ayatollah Khamenei took the opportunity to remind government officials that there remain just “two months left for the task to be accomplished.”

Over the years Ayatollah Khamenei has given his assent to various economic reforms, including privatization and banking reforms. But he has also extolled the virtues of import substitution and the need for Iranian industries to indigenize new technologies to help reduce the Iran’s vulnerability to sanctions. These aims have given his messaging a predominantly political outlook.

Over the last two decades, the slogans chosen by Ayatollah Khamenei to indicate the focus of economic policy for the Iranian new year—“boosting production,” “supporting domestic commodities,” “economy of resistance and job creation” etc.—have offered a general goal towards which government policies ought to be directed. But there is a new specificity in the supreme leader’s recent statements that suggest a growing awareness—perhaps triggered by the economic protests of early 2018—of how economic circumstances have a direct bearing on the perceived legitimacy of the political establishment.

In his recent comments, Ayatollah Khamenei admitted that Iran’s economic struggles are squeezing the poor and the middle class. But he expressed confidence that the country had not reached a “dead-end in the true sense of the word.” While conceding that U.S. sanctions on Iran are “unprecedented,” he insisted that “the Islamic Republic is made up of a strong metal,” and that this strength derives from the Iranian people and their mentality of “resistance.”

The concept of resistance has long been a central motif of Ayatollah Khamenei’s political messaging. In an economic context, the supreme leader uses the word to describe policies that “fortify and lay solid foundations for the economy.” For economic planners and the business community, the concept of the “resistance economy,” has spurred the launch of programs that seek to improve the resilience of the Iranian economy to external shocks, whether fluctuations in the oil price or sanctions.

First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri leads a recently established department responsible for implementation of such programs. Ayatollah Khamenei even offered a few words of rare praise for steps taken by the Rouhani government within Iran’s ambitious self-sufficiency drive, including achievements in wheat production and a recent declaration of gasoline production independence.

Importantly, Ayatollah Khamenei’s latest call to boost industrial production included an acknowledgement that Iran’s industries cannot be fully disconnected from global markets. The supreme leader stated, “At times we may need a certain part or raw material which has to be imported. Financial transactions [for those purchases] are not possible. There are problems. But we need to make a push and produce them indigenously.”

Ayatollah Khamenei also pointed to the phenomenon of Iran’s high interest rates, which are a response in part to chronic high inflation. He relayed an encounter with an industrialist who had told him he “can put his capital in the bank and benefit from the high returns,” but had decided not to do so because “the country needs production.” Ayatollah Khamenei stated that “such people are few” in Iran, and therefore reforms are needed to correct incentives.

Perhaps most remarkably, speaking about the country’s poor business environment, Ayatollah Khamenei stated, “I have heard that in some countries of the world, half the time is needed to launch a new business, but [in Iran] there are many challenges and barriers.” The allusion to “doing business” rankings, which measure the ease of establishing a new business in countries around the world, points to an awareness that successful reform will also require Iran to adopt international best practices, a notion that could have a bearing on the success of key reforms such as those required by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) action plan.

The new specificity in the supreme leader’s comments on the economy may have spurred Rouhani’s speech last week, in which he insisted that he ought to be granted special powers to enable his government to more effectively respond to the “economic war” waged by the United States. Rouhani’s request, which pointed to the provision of such authorities during Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq, was accompanied by a clarification that opening negotiations with the Trump administration is “absolutely” not his government’s preferred policy at this time.

Some critics have accused Ayatollah Khamenei of seeking to distance himself from the nuclear deal and the widespread disappointment brought about by the reimposition of sanctions.  The supreme leader advised political leaders not to explain away Iran’s economic woes by blaming sanctions, nor to expect the lifting of sanctions at any point in the near future. In a veiled criticism of the Rouhani administration’s economic policy thus far, Ayatollah Khamenei suggested it was a mistake for the country’s economic plan to depend on sanctions relief, stating “[This has been] one of our problems from the outset… We should not make our economy conditioned on [sanctions relief].”

But Rouhani may sense an opportunity in the supreme leader’s more practical interest in economic issues. Having been significantly weakened by the turmoil surrounding the nuclear deal, the Rouhani administration nonetheless retains well-respected ministers in key posts. Rouhani appears to be making the case that should supreme leader truly wish to see some progress on economic reforms, his cabinet deserves renewed political capital as it enters a final two years in office.