During my time working in Iran over a period of years, I found economist Saeed Laylaz to be hospitable and generous – always ready with a soundbite, never one to shy away from work or commentary. That was his reputation among many in the press corps.
As street protests heated up in Iran after the disputed 2009 elections that ultimately put former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back into power, Laylaz was arrested and spent about a year in jail. When I ask about his mood on the eve of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, he smiles, allowing that he was part of the movement that overthrew the Shah in 1979.
Despite what he has been through, and despite Iran’s current international isolation, he believes the legacy of the Islamic Revolution has been positive – a reduction in income disparity and discrimination in Iran and he adds, the transition “from a rural to an urban” society.
But he admits there is still poverty in Iran and that the poor have been hardest hit by the economic malaise particularly of recent years. So where the dramatic disparities of the ancien regime may be gone, new challenges exist. And let’s not forget the legions of corrupt officials and members of the Revolutionary Guard who have made fortunes off sanctions evasion.
“Frankly speaking, the situation is terrible,” he tells Fox News when I ask about Iran’s economy. “The pressure, especially on poor people, has been huge since three years ago.” Laylaz claims there has been 200% inflation over that period and the poor above all have “borne that on their shoulders.”
Laylaz estimates GDP has shrunk 10% over the past two years and he chalks it up mostly to sanctions and the pandemic. He said the economy is starting to get better, but a lot will depend on what happens with the 2015 nuclear deal called the JCPOA that former President Donald Trump pulled the United States from.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the occasion of the anniversary of the Revolution – a scaled-down celebration this year due to the pandemic, but one that included a parade of ballistic missiles nonetheless – said Iran was ready to return to compliance with the JCPOA if the other countries involved would do the same. And he called a return to this agreement the best way forward for all.
“There is no other path for the world and the region. The way forward is definitely political, it is definitely a path of agreements between the world and Iran and hopefully we will be successful in along this path,” Rouhani said.
Laylaz had a different take on the same thought. He said, essentially, it’s “game over.” Iran understands that the United States can do it great economic harm and Washington understands there is no military solution to its disagreements with Tehran.
Iran hinted Tuesday that if things don’t go its way, it could almost openly revamp what most suspect was once a robust military nuclear program, at least one that was deep into the stages of research and development. Iranian officials have over the past two decades denied the country ever wanted a bomb and cite a fatwa or religious edict from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against having nuclear weapons. But many Iran-watchers say such fatwas are only as good as the paper they’re written on.
On Tuesday, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi was quoted as saying: “Our nuclear program is peaceful and the fatwa by the supreme leader has forbidden nuclear weapons, but if they push Iran in that direction, then it wouldn’t be Iran’s fault but those who pushed it. If a cat is cornered, it may show a kind of behavior that a free cat would not.”
Laylaz says he believes the West is in fact making Iran a caged cat.
“You know in the past two decades, they tried their best to isolate my country, to make huge pressure over the country and you know, every foreign pressure over Iran is or has been or will be in favor of radicals and radicals love atomic Iran,” he said.
He continued: “I absolutely agree with Mr. Alavi because frankly speaking Iran doesn’t like to be a nuclear power in a normal situation but when every day the U.S. is pushing us, threatening us, Saudi Arabia is doing the same, Israel….” Laylaz says Iran does not have a “good air force” and therefore a “potential” nuclear deterrent may be its last option.
The Israel Defence Forces’ Intelligence Directorate estimates that Iran could have a nuclear bomb ready for use in two years.
A lot will happen between now and then and at present next steps from Washington remain a mystery. They are presumably a work in progress.
Laylaz, however, is hopeful even after 42 years of hostilities between the two countries. When I ask if there is a way forward, he replied: “Of course there will be. The U.S. and Iran during 2021 will sit around a table again and try to reduce the problem.”
It’s obviously not one but many. Nevertheless, Laylaz said: “I hope to see you in Tehran soon.”