The Annals of Chicken Politics, Iran Edition

The country's recent protests over poultry shortages suggest sanctions might be working.

Iran is in a chicken crisis. Sanctions against the regime have crashed Iran's currency, tripling the price of chicken (a staple food). As a result, many poor and middle income Iranians simply cannot afford to eat chicken as often as they used to. The chicken crisis is so bad that the government of Iran is importing dozens of shipping containers filled with chicken to try to placate demand. 

It's not enough. The Guardian reports that in Nishapur, a city in the northeast, people are now protesting in the streets over the exorbitant cost of chickens. There's even video, embedded above.

During the Cold War, westerners would often refer to the Soviet Union's near-ubiquitous breadlines as an indication of the USSR's economic malaise. Breadlines often indicate a crashed or failing economy -- even in the U.S., which experienced them during the Great Depression.

In Iran, now there are chicken lines, where residents of all economic levels in Tehran wait in line for upwards of six hours to buy some chicken. What does this mean?

A few months ago, I wrote about how the international politics of frozen chickens can tell us a lot about how countries are relating to one other and are performing economically, using Russia and Uzbekistan as examples. This is just as true in Iran as well, where it seems the sudden spike in chicken prices, and not necessarily the currency crash, is sparking some protests and social disorder.

So does this mean the sanctions against Iran are working? Maybe. It's rare that direct sanctions on a regime prompts it to change its behavior. But sanctions that directly affect the regime's quality of life, that go after the "palace economy" that sustains power can have consequences.

From 2005 to 2007, the Bush administration discovered that harsh, targeted sanctions against North Korea's palace economy -- restricting their access to financial institutions, mostly, though also limiting the import of luxury goods -- helped bring the regime back to negotiations on nuclear issues. 

The sanctions against Iran are clearly having an effect -- not just on the regime but on the attitudes of normal Iranians who are angry and frustrated at being priced out of chicken. Going after the availability of staple foodstuffs can be problematic if its done too broadly (think of how the oil-for-food sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s affected more than just the Saddam Hussein regime and led to massive corruption). But sanctions, done properly, can be effective at eroding support for a rogue regime and bringing them closer to an agreement with the international community.

The chicken protests starting up across Iran might just be about chicken. But they might also be about something more important: Tehran finally feeling the pressure of the international community's opposition to its nuclear program.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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