New Internationalist

Iran - the facts

Issue 398

Human development on the up

Life has been improving for Iranians since the Revolution in 1979, according to the UN Human Development Index, which covers life expectancy, education and income – though not civil and political rights. The highest possible score would be 1.0; the highest score in the world in 2004 was achieved by Norway with 0.965 and the lowest by Niger with 0.311.

Human development index^1^

The improvement in Iran’s HDI is the more remarkable because per-capita income has barely grown over this period (see Oil struggles, below). The improvement in health indicators has been dramatic. Life expectancy increased from 59 years in 19802 to 71 years in 20053. Infant mortality decreased from 59 per 1,000 live births in 19802 to 31 in 20053.

Literacy has also improved, from 50% in 19802 to 77% in 2004. There is still a large gap between male literacy at 83.5% and female at 70.4%,1 but whereas in 1975 90% of rural women were illiterate, only 3% of women aged 15 to 24 are illiterate now.

Impenetrable politics

Iran’s ‘Islamic Republic’ is a strange amalgam of theocracy and democracy. It has an elected parliament and president but both are tightly controlled by an unelected religious establishment headed by the Vali-e Faqih or Supreme Leader.

Plummeting birth rates

The Revolution prompted a boost in birth rates, which were already high. Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime presented it as a moral duty for good Muslims to have children and expand the population. By the late 1980s they had realized their mistake and embarked on an even more effective campaign to slow down the breakneck growth – contraception was made freely available, couples were required to attend family planning classes before marriage, maternity benefits were not offered beyond three children. The result has been one of the most dramatic declines in a birth rate anywhere in the world.

Fertility rate (children per woman)^4^

The population was 69.5 million in 2005 – up from 39.3 million in 1980, but well short of the 110 million Iranians there would have been by now had fertility rates not decreased. Some 66% now live in cities, compared with under 50% in 1980.4

Oil struggles

Gross national income per capita has been stagnant for much of the time since the Revolution, having grown from $2,160 in 19815 to just $2,770 in 20053 (compare the UK’s growth over the same period, from $9,110 in 1981 to $37,600 in 2005). Between 1970 and 1990 the average annual growth rate in GDP per capita was minus 3.5%. Since 1990 it has increased, with an average annual growth rate between 1990 and 2005 of 2.5%.3

• Oil is the lifeblood of the Iranian economy, traditionally accounting for more than 80% of exports. There are still vast reserves – an estimated 137 billion barrels, which puts the country second only to Saudi Arabia.

• Since the Revolution, Iran has consistently struggled to make the most of its resources. It currently produces just 3.9 million barrels a day – failing to meet the quota allocated to it by OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries).

• The malaise is partly due to lack of investment in new facilities – the $3 billion a year that Iran currently allocates is estimated to be a third of what would be needed to boost production.

• But it is also down to giveaway fuel prices – gasoline sells in Iran at just 8 cents a litre (35 cents a gallon). To meet the spiralling domestic demand, Iran now imports 40% of its oil needs.

• Iran is also a net importer of natural gas, having failed to develop the vast offshore gas field it shares with Qatar.

• Oil revenues have been channelled into social programmes. President Ahmadinejad has increased spending by 25% in an attempt to meet his election promises and has already plundered more than half of a fund set up by his predecessor to tide the country over if future oil prices dip.

• Inflation is officially estimated at around 12% but unofficial estimates put it at twice that. Unemployment is in excess of 11%.

• Around 85% of the economy is state-owned and Ahmadinejad is strongly opposed to privatization. This, together with high external tariffs, price controls and subsidies, makes the Iranian economy anathema to the Washington economic orthodoxy preached by the US Government, the World Bank and the IMF.6

Human rights

• Iran has executed more juvenile offenders in the last five years than any other nation. It is known to have executed 14 juveniles since 2001, including 8 in 2005. About 30 are still on death row. The United States, China and Pakistan are the only other countries known to have put juvenile offenders to death since 2001.7

• At least 94 people were executed in 2005, including at least 8 aged under 18 at the time of the crime. Scores more were sentenced to death, including at least 11 who were under 18 at the time of the offence. The true figures were probably much higher. Death sentences continued to be imposed for vaguely worded offences such as ‘corruption on earth’.8

• According to Amnesty International, scores of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, continued to serve prison sentences imposed following unfair trials. Hundreds more were arrested during 2005. Internet journalists and human rights defenders were among those detained arbitrarily without access to family or legal representation, often initially in secret detention centres. Intimidation of the families of those arrested persisted. Torture remained commonplace.8 • On 19 July 2006, campaigners around the world marked the anniversary of the execution of two Iranian teenagers simply for having gay sex. The Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization, an exile group, estimates that 4,000 lesbians and gay men have been executed since the 1979 Revolution. According to Human Rights Watch, surveillance of gay meeting places and raids on private homes are common, with the internet and phone wiretaps used to entrap homosexual men. Torture is common for those arrested.9

• In 2006, President Ahmadinejad’s Government banned several thousand new and previously published works, including dozens of literary masterpieces and international bestsellers. The clampdown was headed by culture minister Mohammed Hossein Saffar Harandi, who said a tougher line was needed to stop publishers from serving a ‘poisoned dish to the young generation’ and ‘acting as assistants for evil’.10 • In September, the reformist newspaper Shargh (see right) was closed after publishing a cartoon depicting President Bush, disguised as a horse, debating with a donkey under a halo, widely seen as representing President Ahmadinejad. The publishers launched a replacement newspaper, Rouzegar, but it was ordered to close after five days.10

  1. UNDP, Human Development Report 2006.
  2. World Bank World Development Report 1982.
  3. UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 2007.
  4. All population statistics from UN Population Division tables, 2005 revision.
  5. UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 1984.
  6. Stanley Reed, with Babak Pirouz, ‘Surprise: Oil Woes in Iran’, Global Business, 11 December 2006.
  7. Human Rights Watch, ‘Iran: Juvenile offenders face the hangman’s noose’,, 23 September 2006.
  8. Amnesty International Report 2006.
  9. ILGA, ‘Activists mark anniversary of gay executions with a call for human rights’, 20 July 2006.
  10. Robert Tait, ‘Bestsellers banned in new Iranian censorship purge’, The Guardian, 17 November 2006.

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This article was originally published in issue 398

New Internationalist Magazine issue 398
Issue 398

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