Before the 1979 revolution, most teachers, especially primary school teachers, were economically part of Iran’s lower-middle-class, although high school teachers were slightly better situated. Still, teachers’ salaries could make ends meet and one job would cover their monthly expenses. Teachers were highly respected and the job was seen as a privilege.
After the revolution, Khomeini and his mullahs raised religious teaching and sidelined all secular education. In an early speech, Khomeini said universities were more dangerous than a cluster bomb. In 1981, just two years after the revolution and under the pretext of the Cultural Revolution and Islamization, the regime closed all universities on the ground that they were centers of political campaigns and activities.
The regime also began to purge students and professors who did not fit within the mullah’s fundamentalist system. Many professors either opted to retire or left to pursue their careers in other countries.
As years passed by, the budget allocated to education shrank gradually. In the beginning, the share of the education budget was 6% of the country’s GDP; it is 3% now. In 2019, Iran allocated an estimated $340/year for each student, while America spent an average of $12,201/year for each student.
Currently, the salaries for most Iranian teachers do not even reach half of the poverty line so most of the teachers live below the poverty line. They must take second and sometimes third jobs for a living. This financial struggle affects the quality of primary education in Iran.
Unsurprisingly, teachers have a high suicide rate. In just the past three months, three teachers—Hassan Chenarani, Gholamabbas Yahyapour, and Amin Kianpour—committed suicide due to unrelenting poverty.
Recently, there has been a surge in teachers’ gatherings and protest actions aimed at getting better living conditions. Instead of responding to teachers’ needs, the government has hired contract teachers with lower salaries and benefits, who are often deprived of their pensions and insurance. However, some of them have been teaching in this way for more than 10 years.
The regime spends five times as much on religious education as it does on secular schools. Even there, though, there simply isn’t a lot of money for education. Sanctions, of course, have affected the entire government budget. Additionally, the recent pandemic has seriously affected the quality of education in Iran. The schools were closed due to the pandemic. At least 3 million of Iran’s 14 million students lacked access to the government’s online education program during this period because their poverty meant no access to computers, tablets, smartphones, or even the internet.
Because around 50 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line (some say as many as 80%), many families cannot provide books and paper for their children. The Ministry of Education’s statistics show that, even when schools re-opened, an estimated 970,000 students had dropped out. (The Ministry of Education is the only ministry that has not had a minister since President Raisi was elected. A supervisor is managing the ministry so far.)
The current president, Ebrahim Raisi, is known as the Butcher of 1988 because of the prominent role he played in massacring 30,000 political prisoners, something that led to the U.S. sanctioning him for human rights abuses. He also wasn’t really elected, because Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, personally selected Raisi, so massive numbers of Iranians boycotted the election. The most optimistic statistics suggest that less than 10% of the eligible voters cast their votes.
Raisi’s secular education is minimal and his claimed religious education may be a lie. Therefore, Raisi has no role in the current educational situation.
Poverty has driven large numbers of Iranians (possibly 50%) out of the urban areas and into suburbs and rural areas. These are the same areas in which the nationwide uprising in November 2019 began. Although COVID temporarily stopped the big protests, teachers, along with factory workers, truckers, farmers, medical staff (nurses and doctors), and all Iranians other than those affiliated with the mullahs, the security forces, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have continued to protest. All would like to see the regime end.
As well as attending rallies, across Iran, people are burning billboards and posters showing Khamenei and other regime officials. The abundance of resistance units across Iran ensures that the flame of freedom and justice is alive and well across Iran. Occasionally, the regime announces the arrest of these units. They are being sentenced to prison terms for supporting and being affiliated with the People Mujahedin Organization (MEK).
In general, anyone who opposes this regime is at risk of arrest and imprisonment. The regime even tightens control over cyberspace, and many social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are now filtered and out of public access. Those who want to access these sites must install other programs that the regime also often controls and monitors. The regime, like any other dictatorship, does not accept any opposition in any form and shape.
Because people are desperate and still engage in protests, strike actions, and social gatherings, many activists are detained and imprisoned. For example, in September 2021, Aziz Ghasemzadeh, a spokesman for the Guilan educational association, was arrested and taken to prison one day after speaking at a protest rally of employed and retired teachers. This is only one example. Many similar arrests and imprisonments are occurring each month.
The regime’s response to this unrest is to try to make it so that Iranians, especially the youth, are passive and indifferent about what is happening to them. Early in the COVID pandemic, Khamenei encouraged the people not to worry about it and banned importing vaccines. I believe he hoped that the virus would take people’s focus off other social and economic issues such as unemployment, corruption, high inflation, etc. While the government claims only 130,000 Iranians died from COVID, more reliable sources believe more than 475,000 people have died.
Most families have lost one or more of their loved ones, and their time is spent caring for those with COVID. This leaves neither time nor energy to confront the regime for its failure and corruption.
However, even COVID will end. When it does, people will again focus on their daily life challenges and how the regime makes life unbearable for them. More than before COVID, many consider Khamenei to responsible for pandemic deaths and want him to be held accountable. Khamenei has responded by blaming former President Hassan Rouhani and the former Minister of Health.
Students are also made passive through drug abuse. Drugs are available in abundance and cheaper than food. The drugs are distributed through the Revolutionary Guards networks.
The government consistently aims to sideline young people who don’t support the theocratic system. However, the November 2019 protests were popular among young people. Iran’s young people—those the age of my students—seem poised to explode once COVID fully abates. Even former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned that a flood is coming soon that will destroy the regime for good.
Cyrus Yaqubi is a Research Analyst and Iranian Foreign Affairs Commentator investigating the social issues and economy of the Middle East countries in general and Iran in particular.
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