Rare labor petition in Iran shows economic alarm

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TEHRAN — For weeks, a manifesto complaining about Iran’s stumbling economy circulated in secret among factories and workshops. Organizers asked for signatures and the pages began to fill up.

In the end, some 10,000 names were attached to the petition addressed to Iran’s labor minister in one of the most wide-reaching public outcries over the state of the country’s economy, which has received a double pounding from tightening Western sanctions and alleged mismanagement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

The rare protest document — described to The Associated Press this week by labor activists and others — suggests growing anxiety among Iran’s vast and potentially powerful working class as the ruling system struggles with the latest sanctions, which have targeted critical oil exports and blackballed Iran from international banking networks.

It also appears to reinforce the U.S. and European assertions that the economic squeeze is bringing increasing pressures on Iranian authorities. U.S. President Barack Obama and others argue that sanctions and diplomacy are the best way to wring concessions over Iran’s nuclear program even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushes for a “red line” declaration that could trigger military action.

While Iran’s leadership still has broad-based public support in the nuclear standoff with the West, the petition and sporadic street demonstrations over the slumping economy suggest a growing distinction between the national pride of nuclear technology and the economic hardships from Tehran’s defiance. The Iranian currency, the rial, hit another all-time low against the dollar Monday, which is certain to further drive up prices of imported goods.

Jafar Azimzadeh, a labor rights activist and gas-pipe fitter, warned of stronger fallout if the government does not find ways to prop up salaries and rein in prices. “Workers would not stay at the level of writing petitions,” he said. “They would go toward street gatherings and other actions.”

Iranian officials have repeatedly said Iran can ride out the sanctions through measures such as keeping oil flowing to Asian markets that include China and India. But Ahmadinejad last month acknowledged that Iran faces “barriers” to sell oil and make international banking transfers critical to keep commerce flowing.

In May, Ahmadinejad was cheered in the northeastern city of Mashhad as he promised to create 2.5 million new jobs and boost worker benefits. It was a welcome reception after facing mounting criticism for policies that include scattershot privatizations and allowing inflation to surge.

But the petition sent to his labor minister, Abdolreza Sheikholeslami, offered a far more bleak assessment of a country burdened by rising prices and increasing economic isolation.

“A staggering increase in prices has been biting over the past year as wages of workers have only increased 13 percent this year,” said the petition, whose full text was not made available to the AP, although selected parts were viewed. It added: “Millions of workers cannot afford their monthly housing costs.”

Unskilled factory workers in Iran make an average monthly wage of 3 million to 7 million rials, or about $95 to $220 at Monday’s exchange rate. The official poverty line is about 10 million rials, or about $315, a month.

Meanwhile, prices keep rising — partly due to sanctions — and the rial keeps falling. A 1.5-kilogram (52-ounce) container of yoghurt has doubled to about 24,000 rials (75 cents) since early September. Various meats and rice, both staples of Iranian kitchens, have risen 48 percent and 34 percent, respectively, since last year.

Official reports put Iran’s inflation rate at 23 percent, but Iran’s parliament speaker last week estimated it was close to 29 percent. The unemployment rate is officially 12 percent, but some economists place it nearly three times higher.

“It’s not ideology that is the weakest link for Iran’s ruling system,” said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “It’s the economy. This, of course, was an important element of the Arab Spring, and that fact is definitely not lost on Iran.”

Iran’s factory workers and laborers have provided the tipping points at pivotal moments. They gave vital populist backing to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and generally sided with the ruling clerics when they were under threat by riots after Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.

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