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40 years after the Iranian revolution, where are we?

In 1979, Iran faced an Islamic Revolution that changed its government, constitution, and policies. In a time when the country was living with corruption, poverty, and an undemocratic governance, the population was asking for change to enable Iran’s economic, social, and political development. Has the country succeeded at achieving this ?

The 1979 Revolution, Michel Lipchitz, AP

In the years after the revolution, Iran’s leaders attempted to shift from the initial conservative reforms to more progressive ones to respond to the population’s demand for development. While in the past thirty years Iran has implemented successful development strategies allowing it to improve the population’s health, women’s access to education, and provided aid to the poorest, these development strategies have also deeply undermined the country’s environment, and failed to provide Iran with gender equality and a stable economy, mainly due to remaining conservative beliefs, miscalculations, and to the country’s controversial position internationally.

One of Iran’s most successful development strategies regards health. Indeed, the country has implemented new policies and partnered with international organizations to raise awareness on the prevention of common diseases and given greater access to healthcare to the population. For instance, it has partnered with the UNDP and the GFATM (Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria) in 2005 in order to give universal access to HIV and tuberculosis prevention programs as well as intensified malaria control in high burden provinces. Through $80 million worth of grants, there has been a decrease in the number of local malaria cases from 14,710 in 2006 to 734 in 2012. According to the UNDP, between the 1990 and 2014, Iran’s HDI value increased by 35 per cent, or at an average annual increase of about 1.26 per cent. The UNDP’s report also says that Iran achieved the second highest reduction in HDI shortfall among developing countries. Lastly, during the period the 1980’s, Iran increase its life expectancy at birth from 54.1 years to 75.4 years. Therefore, by asking for foreign aid, Iran’s development strategy in the health sector has been successful.

Regarding women’s access to education, Iran has implemented successful development strategies. While in the following years after the 1979 Revolution there has been a considerable regression in this sector, Iran’s successive leaders have created policies that have improved the situation. For instance, in the 1990’s, quotas of the number of women who could study a particular field or major were banned. As of early 2007, nearly 70 percent of Iran's science and engineering students were women. In 2012, Iran had more engineering students that any other country in the world. While the only Iranian women that studied at university were from a small urban elite, Iranian women are now less hesitant to study at university through political campaigns lead by the government. This has resulted in the number of female graduates increasing from 122,753 in 1976 to 5,023,992 in 2011. Furthermore, improvement in women’s education at the primary level is also a success thanks to these political campaigns. According to the UNESCO, Iran has the highest female to male ratio in the world at primary enrollment, with a girl to boy ratio of 1.22 : 1.00. Iran’s leaders have also decided to allocate a greater portion of its GDP to education. Each year, 20% of government spending and 5% of GDP goes to education, a higher rate than in most other developing countries. Therefore, the banning of quotas, the political campaigns, and the reform of the educational budget have all been successful development strategies that have enabled Iran to improve women’s access to education.

Economically, Iran has tried to implement innovative policies to develop this sector which have proven to be successful. Indeed, as the country faces high rates of poverty and is against capitalist reforms, it has tried new development strategies to give more purchasing power to its population. For instance, it provides a basic income for the population with the most modest salaries. This did not result in a decrease in labor participation. On the contrary, by granting 29% of median household income monthly to each household, service workers such as housekeepers, teachers, and deliverymen, increased their weekly hours by around 36 minutes. The reason for this is that some of these workers have used this grant to expand their business while others have increased their consumer spending. Therefore, this reform has been a successful development strategy allowing Iran’s poorest part of the population to develop economically.

Nevertheless, Iran’s main development strategies regarding its economy have also deeply affected its environment, thus underlying the fact that Iran failed to develop sustainably. Indeed, the international sanctions imposed on Iran pushed it to rapidly develop economically in order to become self sufficient while disregarding the consequences it had on the environment, thus making Iran’s development strategy a failure. For instance, as it was banned from importing petrol in 2010, Iran decided to aggressively develop its own refineries instead of trying to turn to new energies. This rapid development did not take into account environmental factors resulting in Iran’s petrol containing ten times the level of contaminants of imported petrol and its diesel 800 times the international standard for sulphur. This has lead to high air pollution. In the World Health Organization’s ranking of the ten most polluted cities in the world, four are Iranian. In in the Iranian capital of Tehran, air pollution is responsible for 25% of the deaths. The government has not succeeded at implementing strategies to decrease the amount of pollution produced each year, and in fact, parliamentarians have discussed relocating the capital because of the high rates of air pollution. Therefore, while Iran did manage to become self sufficient economically, the development strategies used where not sustainable and damaged its environment, thus making this development a failure.

Picture of Tehran, Iran's capital, from

While Iran’s strategies have successfully improved access to education, these cannot be considered a success as they did not take into account the demands of the job market. In other words, Iran’s development strategies have not been in par with the demands of the Ministry of Labor and Industry, resulting in higher rates of unemployment among the youth (24.1%). Furthermore, while the number of universities increased from 40 in 1979 to more than a thousand today, Iranian university graduates tend to not be equipped with the necessary skills to find a job. In fact, Iran’s development strategy regarding education is often criticized for having sacrificed quantity over quality. Therefore, Iran’s development strategies in education have failed to improve the country’s current situation, and are due to miscalculation and miscommunication within the government.

The failure of Iran’s social and economical development strategies can be linked to persistent conservative beliefs and to its geopolitical situation which have blocked the implementation of new strategies. Indeed, conservatives within the government have refused to implement reformist development strategies which aimed at attracting foreign investments within the country to create new businesses, especially when these investments came from the US. Furthermore, the islamic constitution has banned individuals and institutions from charging interest on loans and limits financial speculation. This development strategy has failed as it has prevented Iran from participating in international markets while the country was not yet self sufficient enough to fully depend on local markets, leading to harsh financial conditions. Furthermore, while the government has provided funds to the research and development sector, it has failed to develop due to a lack of access to Western markets. In a country where 60% of the population is under 30, Iran has had the potential to develop startups to create innovative technologies, however innovation has not been able to materialize without economic and social liberation. Lastly, women’s emancipation has also been blocked by persistent conservative beliefs. For instance, while significant improvements have been made regarding divorce rights, the social development strategies offered by some of Iran’s strongest advocates of women’s rights were blocked as these advocates were banned from running for the parliament’s election by the all-male Council of Guardians. Therefore, Iran’s development strategies have failed to be implemented by being in conflict with persistent conservative beliefs and international sanctions.

100,00 Iranian women protesting just days after the Islamic Revolution against being forced to wear the hijab, picture taken from rarehistoricalphotos.coml

In conclusion, in the past 30 years, Iran has developed economically and socially through foreign aid, reforms, and innovative strategies. Nevertheless, while these development strategies have increased the population’s health, women’s access to education, and the poorest part of the population’s consumer spending, Iran’s political choices have lead to an overall failure of its development strategies, which have damaged its environment, raised the unemployment rate, and prevented economic and social liberation.


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