Iran’s new rebellion

by Jul 3, 2009All Articles

by Peyman Jafari, Jul 2009

Iranians have taken to the streets as the divisions in the ruling class have sharpened into open conflict, writes Peyman Jafari.

The fallout from the presidential election on 12 June precipitated the biggest political crisis in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The official results gave the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 63 percent of votes, compared to 34 percent for his main rival, the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, who then accused the government of vote-rigging. In the following days hundreds of thousands took to the streets of major cities, defying the riot police and shouting, “Where is my vote?”

The crisis has also shown that the conflict between opposing forces within the ruling elite is coming to a head. Both elements have consequences that go far beyond the elections and mark a watershed in the history of the Islamic Republic.

This year’s election campaign was the liveliest since the early days of the revolution. Supporters of the four candidates actively campaigned on the streets. Students organised “free zones” for discussions in universities. Newspapers wrote critical articles that circulated on the internet. For the first time candidates debated with each other live on national television. Ahmadinejad called the other candidates henchmen of the powerful ex-president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who he describes as corrupt. Moussavi argued that Ahmadinejad had ruined the economy, created poverty and isolated Iran internationally. He also accused him of taking the country towards dictatorship. Moussavi promised political freedoms and rights for women and minorities.

As the election campaign intensified it opened up an unprecedented political space. Thousands of young people threw themselves into political activity and almost 40 million cast their votes. At 85 percent the turnout was much higher than in 2005 (63 percent in the first round and 48 percent in the second round). Moussavi’s campaign gained momentum and the huge “green” movement emerged on the streets and the internet in support. Moussavi’s rallies in Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz drew tens of thousands.

While Ahmadinejad’s supporters were less visible in the media, their numbers should not be underestimated. In 2005 he was elected on a populist platform, with a promise to fight poverty and to put “the oil money on the tables of the people”. Over the following two years he visited 350 towns and villages, received nine million letters and handed out approximately $10 million in cash.

Some sections of the urban and rural poor benefited but many others suffered the consequences of a dwindling economy at a time when oil revenue was at a record high. When Ahmadinejad took office inflation was at 16 percent. Now it is around 25 percent. According to Iran’s central bank, the living costs for an urban family almost doubled over the past four years – exceeding wage rises. The estimated monthly wage for a worker is $223, which is well below the poverty line. Unemployment went up, officially nearing 13 percent – in reality it is somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. Inequality remained high – the richest 20 percent of the population receives half of the national income. Various surveys among Iranian youth have shown that they view economic hardship as their biggest problem and are worried about the growing gap between rich and poor.

Workers’ discontent has regularly spilled over into strikes. From February to May of this year thousands of school teachers went on strike to demand wage parity with other public sector workers. One of the strike leaders explained, “Our pay is ridiculously low. A school teacher with a masters degree takes home less than $300. In a city like Tehran, any family of four with an income less than $500 a month is living under the poverty line.” At least 100 of the teachers were arrested after they staged a protest in front of the parliament.

Another wave of arrests occurred on International Workers’ Day, which has become a rallying point for labour activists. This symbolises the modest revival of a labour movement across the country.

The selection of Moussavi as the candidate of the reformists was a conscious choice. The leaders of the reformist movement decided to tap into the disgruntlement of the working class. Saeed Hajjarian, the strategic brain of the reformists, admitted in 2004 that the reformists had represented the interests of the middle class. After their defeat by Ahmadinejad’s populism in 2005 the reformists understood they had to change.

Moussavi, who had served as prime minister in the 1980s and was widely associated with egalitarian politics, seemed the perfect man for the task. He held his first meeting as a presidential candidate in March in Tehran’s Nazi Abad – a working class neighbourhood. He was greeted with the chant “Mir Hossein ghareman – hamiye mostazafan” (“Mir Hossein hero – supporter of the downtrodden”).

During his campaign he promised a “future without poverty”. Just before the elections the Iranian Labour News Agency conducted a survey that predicted a 54 percent victory for Moussavi. Among the participants 71 percent of professionals, 69 percent of workers and 62 percent of students supported the reformist candidate. It is not unreasonable to assume that the working class vote was split between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

Rupture at the top
The election was the catalyst that turned the tensions within the political elite into an open war between the contending factions.

These tensions have existed since the 1980s. Moussavi was a leading member of the “left” faction that promoted a state capitalist economy and protection for the poor. The right – with which current Supreme Leader and then president Ali Khamenei, was associated – defended the interests of the merchants (bazaaris). Rafsanjani, then the chairman of Majlis (Iran’s parliament), cunningly manoeuvred between both, earning him the nickname of “the shark”.

The 1980-8 Iran-Iraq war and the authority of Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini held these factions together. In the early 1990s business circles and the bazaar became more vocal in their opposition to state intervention in the economy. As the populists were losing ground due to economic problems, a new faction inside the regime emerged around Rafsanjani, who had become president in 1989.

This faction became to be known as the “modern right” or the “pragmatists” and sidelined the “left” by aligning itself with the “traditional right”. Having enriched himself and his family by dominating foreign trade in carpets and pistachios, Rafsanjani represented the interests of the new industrial capitalists.

Rafsanjani’s economic liberalisation backfired when inflation approached 50 percent and inequality grew, leading to riots in 1992 and 1995. Realising the lower classes had become increasingly alienated from the state, Khamenei blamed “cultural decay” and enforced “Islamic norms”. This only increased people’s alienation as important changes in society were taking place: the increasing participation of women in education and the labour market, the growing proportion of young people (70 percent of the population is under the age of 30) and changing ideas about the role of religion.

In 1997 the “reformist” Mohammad Khatami was elected president. Khatami’s faction was largely made up of middle class professionals, intellectuals and bureaucrats. It came to power by reacting to the pressures from below with the promise of political reforms. Rafsanjani first supported Khatami, who continued with economic liberalisation, but distanced himself later, fearing that the protests of students, women and workers would grow out of control. For the same reason Khatami allowed the right to suppress the movement. The disillusionment from this experience laid the ground for the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Khamenei, who lacked the authority of Khomeini among the clergy, aligned himself with Ahmadinejad to strengthen his own position as Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad represents the interests of the state bureaucracy, and the Revolutionary Guard, who have developed their own economic interests. Around 80 percent of the economy is owned by the state, and the Revolutionary Guards control more than 1,500 economic projects. It is no surprise that the majority of the members of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet in 2005 came from their ranks.

From its inception the Islamic Republic has contained a contradiction between elected institutions such as the parliament and the president, and unelected institutions such as the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. The recent conduct of Khamenei suggests an attempt to dramatically shift the balance in favour of the latter. This explains not only why Moussavi has challenged the election outcome but has sided – at least for the time being – with the street protests, which give the reformists leverage. Rafsanjani’s support for Moussavi stemmed from his desire to open up oil revenues and channels for profit-making to Iran’s capitalist class, but he wouldn’t hesitate if a deal with Khamenei would achieve the same result.

The election and its aftermath have shown that the divisions inside Iran’s ruling elite have become unmanageable and will lead to new and bigger political crises in the near future.

More importantly, the future depends on what happens on the streets. Speculation about vote rigging is less useful than realising that a significant number of Iranians, represented by millions who protested and put their lives on the line, did not trust the election outcome and demanded its annulment.

The movement that erupted on the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, Mashad, Babol, Rasht and Orumiyeh was semi-spontaneous. The first protests occurred immediately after the election result was announced. On Monday 15 June more than a million people responded to a call by Moussavi’s party for a march, even though it hadn’t received permission. In fact, Moussavi only showed up to give a speech after his advisers told him hundreds of thousands had gathered.

In the following days the movement demanded leadership from Moussavi, yet still marched when he discouraged them. They courageously stood firm against state repression, chanting “Tanks, guns, Basiji, have no effect any more” and continued into the night with chants of “God is great” from the roofs – reviving the slogans of the 1979 revolution.

Those participating were not just “the trendy, young, sunglassed ladies of northern Tehran. The poor were here, too, the street workers and middle-aged ladies in full chador,” reported Robert Fisk. Other journalists and participants have corroborated Fisk’s observation. Sahar, a student from Tehran University, said people were shouting “With chador and without chador, down with the dictator.” Nurses and street cleaners walked side by side. A group of young socialists, who have started to print a newspaper called The Street, reported that the marchers shouted “Ministry of work, so many without work!” as they walked past the ministry of labour.

This movement brought together people from different classes around a set of democratic demands, most importantly free and fair elections, freedom of organisation and the end of repression. While throwing themselves unreservedly into the struggle to win these demands, socialists in Iran have to argue that Rafsanjani and Moussavi have different interests to those of the working class. However, the best way to challenge the middle class leaders is not to publish abstract manifestos, but to become part and parcel of the movement to achieve its immediate goals.

Finally, it is important to note that the protests in Iran are not demanding foreign intervention or economic sanctions. “What happens in Iran regards the people themselves, and it is up to them to make their voices heard,” said Nobel Peace Prize winning Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi. Imperialist powers are already trying to take advantage of the situation in Iran. “After Ahmadinejad’s re-election, the international community must continue to act uncompromisingly to prevent the nuclearisation of Iran, and to halt its activity in support of terror organisations and undermining stability in the Middle East,” said Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s extremist right wing foreign minister. His deputy, Danny Ayalon, made it clear, however, that even if Moussavi had been declared the winner, Iran would still be “a threat”.

This poses a particular task for socialists in the West. At the same time as we support and organise solidarity with the movement in Iran we have to challenge our own governments’ imperialist interference in the region.

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