Over recent months, Iran has become the largest source of asylum seekers arriving in Australia, with more than 5,000 having arrived this year, amounting to about one-third of the total. While the debate about stopping the boats continues in the lead up to the federal election, there has been little or no discussion about why people are fleeing and whether there is anything Australians can do to address the problem at its source.
There are two main reasons why people are leaving Iran. One is a deep economic crisis, largely provoked by the sanctions imposed since 2008 by the United Nations and vigorously supported by Australia. The second is the effects of more than three decades of trauma associated with social upheaval and conflict, a catastrophic war, internal division and violence, degradation of the role of women, profound loss of faith in the political processes, and international diplomatic isolation.
Although Iran is potentially one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with the largest and third-largest reserves of natural gas and oil respectively, over the last three years oil revenues have fallen by half, unemployment has risen to more than 30%, inflation to 42% and the proportion of the population living in poverty, on some estimates, to an astounding 55%. These changes have led to a sharp deterioration in health, including a rise in maternal and infant death.
There is no doubt that Australia has to abide by the sanctions as part of its international obligations. However, this does not absolve it of responsibility for the effects of the policy it is supporting or of finding ways to help Iran address its problems, to the extent that it is able to so.
Such an opportunity has arisen with the election of the reformist president Hassan Rouhani, who was inaugurated on Sunday, creating a mood of optimism and hope in the country that has not been experienced for many years. Australia is in a unique position to support the process of change there and should do so, if only to stem the flow of asylum seekers to its shores.
Major obstacles to change in Iran undoubtedly exist. Under the constitution, ultimate power vests with the Supreme Leader and the Assembly of Experts, which are unaffected by the election. Rouhani himself is a long-term member of the regime, and much work has to be done to resolve the problem of the nuclear program. Previous attempts at change during the Khatami presidency from 1997 to 2005 were ultimately unsuccessful.
However, there are reasons also to think that this time things will be different. There is a deep and widespread sense of despair at the social and economic crisis that has developed in a proud and formerly prosperous nation, with a strong abiding sense of its identity and great cultural richness.
Despite the challenges, the educational and health systems continue to function well. Rouhani, in the past, has supported a conciliatory position on nuclear policy, which has increasingly been recognised as culturally, economically and politically unsustainable.
More important still are features of the election itself. The fact that a free and fair vote was permitted – instead of the vote-rigging that marred the outcome of the 2009 election, leading to violent protests and a loss of government legitimacy – no doubt reflects a recognition by the regime that the people would not abide interference with the electoral process a second time.
The campaign involved mass mobilisation of people from all sectors of society demanding change. A new generation of activists, largely comprised of the children of those who carried out the 1979 revolution against the Shah, not previously involved in political action, engaged in a vigorous dialogue that produced a resounding call for personal and social healing. The widespread involvement of women, who now predominate in higher education, is a new and encouraging phenomenon.
Rouhani has repeatedly signalled his intention to restore civil rights, free political prisoners, negotiate on the nuclear program and pursue reconciliation with the West. Above all else, whatever his personal motivations, all the alternatives appear to have been exhausted.
The new president will need both internal and outside support if he is to succeed, and Australia should do whatever it can to help.
Australia is able to play an important role as a non-aligned middle power, drawing on its own connections with Iran – which includes the 40,000 people of Iranian origin living here, many of whom occupy prominent positions in society and business, whose suffering also nonetheless needs to be recognised. It can help test the resolve of the new government and reward the process of change as it takes shape.
Importantly, Australia can help dismantle the isolation of Iran that has become so oppressive to its people. People-to-people connections can be established through cultural, educational and sporting exchanges. Direct support can be provided for groups working for progressive change within the country.
The stimulation of trade with Iran – now running fifteen to one in Australia’s favour – can be encouraged as a further way of extending mutual ties.
We have to continue to comply meticulously with our international obligations under the sanctions and watch closely to ensure that any international thaw is accompanied by internal progress. But we should respond to the signals being sent out and show that the process of healing is both acknowledged and rewarded, knowing that such responses will be crucial in determining the steps that follow.
Although we should have no illusions that reform in Iran is unstoppable it would be counterproductive for Australia and the world community to ignore this opportunity. For Australia, the cultural and economic long-term benefits could be substantial.
The suffering of the Iranian people – like the asylum seeker debate in general – is simultaneously a moral and an economic issue. Australia has a responsibility to support solutions to a problem it has helped to create.