The United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly is eagerly anticipated each year – A unique gathering at which world leaders verbally spar and exchange varied outlooks on the world. This year was no different, catching the imagination of the international media with strained US-Iran relations at the epicenter of the action. And although it is a high-profile spectacle, it must not be allowed to detract from the real story unfolding back in Iran itself.
The fact that Iran took centre stage at the UN talking shop was hardly a surprise. In her NPR preview of the General Assembly, Ayesha Rascoe correctly outlined the predictable outcome – A sharp attack on Iran from President Trump, followed by a rebuttal by the Tehran leadership. This is precisely what transpired. As Harriet Alexander reported in the Daily Telegraph, Trump condemned Iran as the world’s largest supporter of terrorism, concluding that “A regime with this track record must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.” Iran’s President Rouhani responded in kind. Nick Robins-Early noted in the Huffington Post that the Iranian leader warned “No state can be brought to the negotiating table by force.”
As the protagonists antagonized each other, not only did they generate headlines. They also sparked significant discussion over the future of US-Iran relations. Voice of America quoted Middle East analyst Aziz Alghashian of the University of Essex, who speculated that Trump “is trying to appease the allies that he has in the region.” Meanwhile, writing in the New Yorker, Robin Wright predicted that despite the vitriol between the two sides, there are hints “that the door to diplomacy is not shut.”
And yet, the UN General Assembly was a predictable affair, with Washington and Tehran seemingly at eternal loggerheads. Although the animosity was expected, high politics and diplomacy will always fill columns and air time. Especially when it involves such vocally and diametrically opposed leaderships as those of the United States and Iran. However, the problem with such a focus on what leaders say and do is that it can detract from the reality on the ground.
And when it comes to Iran, on the ground is where the real story is really taking place, not in the hallowed halls of the United Nations. The real story is one of an economy in dire straits and a leadership under fire over gross mismanagement, having brought about increasing financial misery. It is a leadership which has scandalously overseen a 128% increase in military spending during the last four years, while the average Iranian has become 15% poorer over the past ten years.
The national currency has been spiraling downwards towards dangerously low levels. The impact on ordinary Iranians is becoming increasingly extreme. The BBC reported this week that at least 42 people had died in Iran after having drunk contaminated bootleg alcohol. The report noted the particularly high number of casualties, indicating growing bootleg consumption. The article commented tellingly that the economic situation “may be playing a part” in this trend. And with US oil sanctions set to begin in November, things will likely get worse.
The response of the Iranian government is equally noteworthy as the economic collapse itself. There are some commendable correspondents who have correctly highlighted both Iran’s economic reality and the government’s duplicitous behavior. In the UK’s Daily Express, Nicholas Frakes writes an important analysis which notes that not only could Iran “use fraud in order to soften the impact of new US sanctions due to be imposed in the coming weeks,” but that Washington believes “Iranian bankers and officials have previously used methods such as front companies, fraudulent documents as well as other measures in order to make money for the country’s terrorist activities.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders are taking the well-trodden path of every repressive government which finds itself under fire – Find scapegoats or imagined enemies and lash out against them. For example, Golnar Motevalli recently reported in Bloomberg that 3 people had been sentenced for death by the Iranian authorities for corruption. Such so-called ‘justice’ is nothing more than a public blame game, intended to absolve Iran’s government of responsibility for the economic mess.
Meanwhile, as Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan wrote this week in the Wall St Journal, the Kurds have become another convenient target for Tehran. In recent weeks, Iranian forces have fired missiles on a Kurdish opposition base, while Kurds have been hanged in Iran with worrying regularity.
However, in a stand-out comment from the Wall Street Journal report, Kurdish leaders are viewing the recent attacks on them for what they really are – A sign of regime weakness. And it is this palpable sense of vulnerability in Tehran, the reality that one of the world’s most obstinate dictatorships is under increasing pressure, which is the real story.