(My friend John Wight, in his usual eloquent and well-reasoned way, takes a differing view from mine on Iran. – Bob. Update: 5:47pm John sent a revised version)
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 dealt a severe setback to the strategic and geopolitical interests of the West, in particular the United States and Israel. Indeed, ever since a nationalist government led by Mohammad Mossadegh was removed from power in a coup orchestrated by the US and British governments in 1953, Iran had been a vital strategic asset in maintaining control of the region, both in terms of its location within striking distance of the Soviet Union and its vast reserves of oil.
In this part of the world the experience of the vast majority of people with regard to the West and so-called western values since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has been one of occupation, colonisation, expropriation, humiliation, and puppet dictatorships. The emergence of political Islam in recent years as the dominant ideology in resistance to the aforementioned is a reflection of the fear in which the West held Soviet influence in the region during the height of the Cold War, a fear responsible for western intelligence services actively aiding and abetting the purging of the left in the region by its various client regimes, including Iran under the Shah.
With the destruction of leftist resistance movements throughout the Middle East, political Islam emerged to fill the vacuum, providing not just organised resistance, but also an alternative set of social and cultural values to those associated with their oppressor. In effect, the emergence of political Islam was a reflex against modernity, combining religious doctrine with anti-imperialism in a heady mix which has wrought much confusion among leftists and progressives in the West over how to relate to and engage with it.
To be sure, the tragedy of the 1979 revolution in Iran was the purging and near total destruction of the Iranian left in its aftermath by the clerics and their supporters. This was an especially cruel fate given the significant role it played alongside followers of the ayatollah in toppling the hated Shah.
Thirty years on, then, is it any wonder that voices emanating from the left in Iran are calling for support for the opposition, led by former prime minister, Houssein Mousavi, against Ahamdinejad in the aftermath of the disputed election result which returned the current incumbent to power?
As with most seismic events and political upheavals, however, history provides us with a parallel. Just after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a section of the Iraqi Communist Party decided to cooperate with the US-led occupation. They took up seats in the organ of the interim colonial administration, the Coalition Provisional Authority. After decades of repression suffered under Saddam, perhaps it is no surprise that they would do so. Nevertheless, it was a gargantuan blunder, one which effectively ruined their credibility forevermore among the vast majority of Iraqi people.
Likewise, in the West, whenever we find ourselves on the same side as the US State Department and the British Foreign Office when positioning ourselves on the internal affairs of a nation lying in the crosshairs of military intervention, alarm bells should automatically be set ringing.
Thus far no hard evidence has been produced proving that electoral fraud on anything like the scale suggested took place in Iran. Combined with a distinct lack of analysis of the social forces involved on either side of this dispute, this has led to many voices on the left being raised in support of an opposition movement led by a section of the Iranian establishment motivated by sectional economic interests. It is a movement driven by students and Iran’s more affluent middle class.
That such a powerful and determined movement has erupted should come as no surprise. After all, history teaches us that the more privileged layers of a given society are every bit as capable of taking to the streets to struggle for their interests as the working class and the poor, especially in the wake of an election that doesn’t go their way. In this regard the examples of Chile in 1973 and Venezuela in 2002 spring to mind.
Moreover, however much we might wish it weren’t so the geopolitical context in which this crisis is unfolding cannot be cast aside or derided as naivety on the part of those who choose to factor it into their analysis.
The regime led by Ahmadinejad is neither socialist nor even progressive in many of its aspects. But in its resistance to US hegemony, in its material aid to the Arab resistance against Israeli expansionism, it certainly plays a progressive role both regionally and globally
Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s first port of call after the election was a regional summit in Russia, where the heads of state of Russia, China, and four ex-Soviet republics met to push forward plans to forge closer ties under the rubric of a rival trade, security, and energy bloc to the current monolithic US and NATO led equivalent. It is such actions that have ensured him the undying enmity of the West.
Internally, since coming to power in 2005, the Iranian president has oriented towards the rural and urban poor and the lowest strata of the Iranian working class, attempting to bolster their meagre position with state subsidies in the form of cheap food, fuel, and other necessities. He’s also increased public sector wages, pensions and provided cheap loans in an attempt to stimulate the Iranian economy from below. The aforementioned must be viewed in the context of a national economy which is made up of the state ownership of an advanced energy and a smaller manufacturing sector, alongside a private sector which has suffered in recent years due primarily but not exclusively to a lack of private investment. Such a state of affairs is largely a consequence of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the West.
Interestingly, that bible of international capital, Forbes magazine, recently had this to say about Ahmadinejad’s economic policies: ‘Ahmadinejad has not shown many signs of economic skill during his four-year term, plowing money into food and fuel subsidies to please his support base of rural voters, and using gimmicky hand-outs like free shares of privatized companies to redistribute wealth.”
The use of the word ‘gimmicky’ to describe an attempt at wealth redistribution is certainly apropos in the pages of Forbes magazine.
Economically, Iran has a GDP of $842 million (July 2008 est), which spread over a population of just under 70 million translates to a per capita GDP of $12,800. The only export commodity of note is oil, hence the need to manufacture nuclear power for domestic consumption in order to maximise the nation’s ability to obtain hard currency. That Iran may also be harnessing its development of nuclear power for military means has seen it exist under the very real threat of military attack from the US and Israel over recent years. With the example of the devastation visited on Iraq next door still fresh, the external pressure this has placed on the Iranian government and Iranian society cannot be underestimated when taking stock of recent events.
As for the opposition, its figurehead is Hossein Mousavi, who represents the moderate wing of the Iranian ruling elite. He’s former prime minister and a member of Iran’s Expediency Council, which arbitrates in disputes between the government and the theocratic Guardian Council. Though a declared supporter of Iran’s nuclear programme, Mousavi has also voiced support for what he describes as ‘more pragmatic relations with the West’, in the hope of lifting the sanctions and increasing foreign investment. This, along with his proposed reduction of the public sector and an increase in privatisation, is designed to reduce inflation, which currently stands at around 15 percent.
Such differences in economic policy between the rival candidates reflects a schism within the Iran’s ruling elite, split between those who represent the middle class and the more affluent sectors of society, the so-called reformers, and those, personified by Ahmadinejad, which represents the interests of the poorer sectors, particularly in rural areas. Of course, in a social and political crisis no such division between the sides involved is ever black and white or simplistic. There will be supporters of Mousavi and the opposition among the rural poor and urban working class, and vice versa. But in general terms the analysis holds.
Too, not all of the protesters who’ve been on the streets confronting the state in recent days have been motivated by economic factors – or at least not solely by economic factors – or indeed support for Mousavi Within their ranks are undoubtedly many who see this as the opportunity to challenge the very foundations of the Islamic Republic, determined to end the political, social, and cultural restrictions which are part of daily life in Iran, ushering in a new system of government altogether.
Women’s rights in particular have come under the microscope within the Islamic Republic. In the Iranian Constitution, the passage on the role of women reads thus:
‘Through the creation of Islamic social infrastructures, all the elements of humanity that served the multifaceted foreign exploitation shall regain their true identity and human rights. As a part of this process, it is only natural that women should benefit from a particularly large augmentation of their rights, because of the greater oppression that they suffered under the old regime.
The family is the fundamental unit of society and the main center for the growth and edification of human being. Compatibility with respect to belief and ideal, which provides the primary basis for man’s development and growth, is the main consideration in the establishment of a family. It is the duty of the Islamic government to provide the necessary facilities for the attainment of this goal. This view of the family unit delivers woman from being regarded as an object or instrument in the service of promoting consumerism and exploitation. Not only does woman recover thereby her momentous and precious function of motherhood, rearing of ideologically committed human beings, she also assumes a pioneering social role and becomes the fellow struggler of man in all vital areas of life. Given the weighty responsibilities that woman thus assumes, she is accorded in Islam great value and nobility.’
Women were active participants in the Revolution that toppled the Shah. Most activists were professional women of the secular middle classes, from among whom political antagonists to the regime had long been recruited. Like their male counterparts, these women had nationalist aspirations and were in opposition to the Shah as a puppet of the United States. Some women also participated in the guerrilla groups, especially the Mujahedin and the Fadayan. More significant were the large numbers of lower class women in the cities who participated in street demonstrations during the latter half of 1978 and early 1979. They responded to the call of Khomeini that it was necessary for all Muslims to demonstrate their opposition to tyranny.
Following the Revolution the status of women changed. The main social group to inherit political power–the traditional middle class–valued most highly the traditional role of women in a segregated society. Accordingly, laws were enacted to restrict the role of women in public life; these laws affected primarily women of the secularized middle and upper classes. The attire of women became a major issue. Although it was not mandated that women who had never worn a chador would have to wear this garment, it was required that whenever women appeared in public they had to have their hair and skin covered, except for the face and hands. The law has been controversial among secularised women, although for the majority of women, who had worn the chador even before the Revolution, the law had only a negligible impact.
No democracy is without its imperfections. Under the Islamic Republic Iranians, no matter where they happen to live throughout the world, have the right to vote in elections. Women are debarred from standing for office, which is certainly regressive in itself. However, this differs from democratic elections in the West only in the sense that debarment here is based on economic status rather than gender. In effect this ensures that only the wealthy within western societies have any meaningful chance of holding high office.
Furthermore, while women in the US and Britain can stand for election, even sit at the heads of their respective governments, the reality is that both of the aforementioned nations have been responsible for depriving women throughout the Middle East and beyond of a far more fundamental right – namely the right not to be slaughtered or see their families slaughtered in the cause of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.
The opposition movement in Iran is not supported by the vast majority of the population. Evidence for this is the fact that there have been no sustained mass rallies across the entire country, no strike action in solidarity with the protesters, nor has there been any obvious split within the armed forces between pro-regime and anti-regime elements.
Significantly, a strong voice in support of the President Ahmadinejad has been that of Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, who understands very well the realities involved in resisting the crushing hegemony of US imperialism. He also has hard experience of dealing with a determined domestic opposition backed by the western media, which is able to mobilise thousands of people to take to the streets.
Destabilisation efforts by the US government must also be factored into the equation, specifically the $400 million dollars passed by Congress back in 2007 to fund various initiatives in this regard. Reports of cross border operations into Iran from Iraq and Turkey by US Special Forces, in addition to the funding of internal opposition groups, have emerged in recent years. And surely the decision by the BBC to augment its world service with programming in Farsi back in January is worthy of more than passing interest.
Taken altogether then – the geopolitical context in which this political crisis is unfolding, the economic divisions within the ruling elite and their echo within Iranian society, and Ahmadinejad’s role in countering US hegemony – it is undeniable that the main beneficiaries of what is currently taking place in Iran are presently sitting in Washington, Tel Aviv and London.
Iran indeed is sitting the crosshairs.