A pivotal and unpredictable process of events are taking place in Iran that have serious implications, not only for the lives of Iranians, but for the future of political Islam.
What the courageous protests and the violent repression on the streets represent is a struggle over the true legacy of the Iranian revolution which established the Islamic Republic 30 years ago. To understand the complexity of the current situation, we need to address a number of important questions.
Sunday’s Chatham House report has answered key questions over vote-rigging. It found a turnout of more than 100% was recorded in conservative provinces Mazandaran and Yazd. But putting the election result to one side, if the protests have demonstrated one thing it is the breadth and scale of Mousavi’s “green wave”. Not limited to the middle-class, northern Tehran ‘elite’ the movement has shown its deep social roots.
Of course millions of Iranians did vote for Ahmadinejad and for valid reasons - in support of his populist hand outs, pension rises and state subsidies. For example, he introduced a law that provided insurance to three million female domestic carpet-weavers. He cleverly grouped Mousavi with the corrupt political powerhouse ex-President Rafsanjani whose family had funded the reformist campaign.
However this tactic was far more effective in 2005 - when he could pit himself against the likes of Rafsanjani as the unknown blacksmith’s son ready to ‘cut the hands of the oil mafia’. He could revive the economic populism of the 80s, which benefited the poor, in stark contrast to Rafsanjani’s 90s economic liberalization which increased inflation and inequality. In 2009, as a President who has failed to deliver on promises of reducing corruption and inequality (both have increased) and against an ‘establishment’ candidate like Mousavi - whose term as Prime Minister in the 80s associates him precisely with those populist policies - it just didn’t wash.
More importantly, with 70-80% of Iranian industry still state owned, organisations that were set-up in the 80s to provide social and welfare programmes have now become massive capitalist enterprises owned and controlled by the state bureaucracy including the military. The Revolutionary Guard, for example, controls 30% of the Iranian economy. In power, Ahmadinejad has shown to defend and represent the interests of this bureaucracy.
Hence during the election campaign it was in fact Mousavi who was greeted as the ‘man of the mostazafin (oppressed)’ even in Ahmadinejad strongholds like the eastern town of Birjand.
Mousavi’s mix of revolutionary credentials and call for greater social and political freedoms, in which his wife Zahra Rahnavard played a decisive role in representing the grievances of women, gathered greater momentum than the campaign which saw the election of reformist President Khatami in 1997.
We cannot underestimate how deep the crisis goes. Twenty years ago, it was Rafsanjani and Khamenei’s conservative alliance that wrestled control of power over the ‘leftists’ (like Mousavi) at the top. Now Rafsanjani’s daughter has been arrested and he himself is in the religious city of Qom (where Khamenei is already unpopular) trying to convince the clergy to move against Khamenei. Five senior clerics have already protested but as Iranian academic Ali Ansari argues a serious intervention from an essentially quietest clergy ‘could be decisive’
What’s behind all this? One factor is Khamenei himself. Lacking the political charisma, popularity and authority of Khomeini, he has relied on constitutional changes and an alliance with radical conservative elements to maintain and strengthen his position as Supreme Leader. Another is the reformist demise. Despite being a formidable force in the 1990s the Presidency and parliament majority, by 2005 they had lost all centres of power to conservatives.
There were reasons for this. Khatami held the movement back at its peak, condemning university students in 1999 who had risen up to defend the banning of a reformist newspaper. A demoralised movement then boycotted the Presidential election in 2005 - another reason behind Ahmadinejad’s victory (interestingly he only just beat Karoubi to second place in the first round).
This time round the reformist voters turned out in huge numbers knowing a high-turnout would benefit them (with 70% of Iranians living in the cities). This explains the explosion of anger over the election result and refusal to halt demonstrations.
But a far more important consequence of conservative control was the debate it precipitated in the movement which questioned the very theoretical foundation of the Islamic Republic - velaayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist). It has now reached a point where the majority opinion in the reformist movement believes the only solution for Iran is a separation of religion from the state.
This does not, as some suggest, spell the end of political Islam. Rooftop chants of “Allahu Akbar” late into the evening (reminiscent of the Iranian revolution) and Mousavi’s ‘green’ (representing Islam and peace) movement is a reminder that religion still plays an important ideological framework. But the call for secularization of the state by an Islamist reform movement is undoubtedly a turning point. So important is this, that Mousavi was ‘ready for martyrdom’ and calling for a general strike if arrested. Indeed, the stakes are high for both the leadership and the demonstrators.
This raises huge questions for the movement in Iran. It’s a no brainer that the interests of a powerful capitalist like Rafsanjani or Mousavi conflict sharply with the office worker throwing rocks at police and putting his life in danger. After all, the maior factor of Khatami’s demise was the continuation of Rafsanjani’s privitisation and neoliberal reforms, which alienated the poor. Unfortunately Mousavi in power is likely to follow a similar path.
So whilst working with them, the left must form a critique of its reformist leaders. It should challenge their ties to neo-liberalism and raise the struggle of the poor and the working class.
It must also try to win over Ahmadinejad supporters. There is evidence of this with slogans like “Baseej why kill your brothers?” (the Baseej come from the poor) and reports that some Baseeji are refusing to attack protestors. This is not to say that the Baseej have stopped attacking or killing protesters (as a daily stream of amateur video footage proves) but that crisis goes deep into even the armed conservative elements defending the regime.
A further challenge is to organise separately from the leadership. The demoralization with Khatami stemmed from resting too much hope in his promises of reform. Mousavi is after all a key figure in the regime during some of its most horrific excesses.
Crucially there’s the question of western powers wanting to use this movement as a way of undermining the obstacle Iran presents to their plans for the region.
Under Khatami the government’s opportunist support for the US invasion of Afghanistan provided a valuable lesson. As a consequence, Iran found itself in the ‘axis of evil’, surrounded by US military bases in neighbouring countries Iraq and Afghanistan and a massive American naval fleet in the Persian Gulf. Ahmadinejad’s victory and popularity (in Iran and the region) relied heavily on his fiery antagonism towards the US and Israel.
Mousavi is, in fact, not the ideal candidate for the US. He does not recognise Israel, has vowed to continue with uranium enrichment and openly committed to the ideals of the revolution - that’s why he is popular with Iranians. Though Obama’s administration is likely to deal with any Iranian leader. As activists in Egypt and Saudi Arabia will attest, the struggle for democracy will be a lot harder in Iran with a government backed by the US.
Despite Obama’s talk of ‘not meddling’ in Iran’s affairs, the conservatives can still point to the $400 million dollar budget allocated to ‘covert operations’ in Iran, especially with the bombing of a mosque in Shiraz last month.
Given the Iranian government’s monopoly on anti-imperialism, this is the hardest of challenges for the movement in Iran, but a critical one which must be taken up.
But for now the main priority is to be at the forefront of the democratic struggle. Because if this movement is crushed, life for Iranians (and the left) will be a lot worse off.
As activists in the West, we must throw our full support behind those who have taken to the streets in Iran against their rulers.
At the same time we must also highlight the hypocrisy of our own governments and media organisations. Their support for democracy stands in stark contrast with their refusal to recognize the democratic election of Hamas in Palestine or the vote-rigging of Mobarak’s dictatorship in Egypt.
So whilst expressing solidarity with Iranians, we must warn against the dangers of imperialist powers abusing the situation by continuing to our campaign against the existing suffocating sanctions and any catastrophic plans for war. That way, we allow the Iranian democracy movement to continue without foreign intervention or interference.