Iran boils over

June 15, 2009

Lee Sustar looks at the dynamics driving mass protests and repression in Iran following the rigged presidential election.

IRAN WAS in uncharted political territory following mass protests against what was almost certainly a rigged presidential election victory for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The long-festering divisions in the Iranian ruling class have become wide-open splits as the result of mass support for the reformist presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi.

A vicious police crackdown on demonstrations in the capital city of Tehran was accompanied by the arrest of more than 130 prominent Mousavi supporters--including Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of former President Mahmoud Khatami, a former speaker of the parliament, and the son-in-law of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a leader of the 1979 Islamist revolution.

Other figures rounded up by police include Mostafa Tajzadeh, a minister of the interior under Khatami; Behzad Nabavi, a former minister of industry; and Mohsen Mirdamadi, organizer of the 1979 occupation of the U.S. Embassy.

In the past, such crackdowns were aimed mostly at liberal newspaper editors, human rights activists and labor union organizers. Now major politicians are getting the same treatment from Ahmadinejad, who the street protesters call a dictator and liken to the former Shah of Iran, the U.S.-backed strongman who was toppled in 1979.

Anger over dubious election results has fueled mass protests in Tehran and other cities
Anger over dubious election results has fueled mass protests in Tehran and other cities

This struggle at the top of Iranian society may lead to more rebellion from below. Unlike previous elections, where even victims of election fraud swallowed the results, Mousavi has refused to do so. Instead, he called on his supporters to remain on the streets, and formally requested that the authorities grant permission to hold further protests.

Hard-fought presidential elections--including vote stealing to boost the tally by one or two percentage points--are nothing new in post-revolution Iran. But Ahmadinejad's claim of more than 62 percent of the vote isn't credible.

While it's possible that the president's support among the poor, particularly in rural areas, could have made him the top vote getter among five rivals, it's highly unlikely that he could have captured an outright majority to avoid a second-round election between the top two candidates.

The most obvious sign of fraud is that the losing candidates failed to win even their own hometowns and regions, according to election authorities--which is practically unheard of in Iran. For example, Mousavi, according to the official results, did badly in the province of Azerbaijan, even though he is an Azeri who is popular there.

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As Middle East expert Juan Cole wrote:

It is claimed that cleric Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformist candidate, received 320,000 votes, and that he did poorly in Iran's western provinces, even losing in Luristan. He is a Lur and is popular in the west, including in Kurdistan. Karroubi received 17 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections in 2005. While it is possible that his support has substantially declined since then, it is hard to believe that he would get less than 1 percent of the vote.

The question is: Why would Ahmadinejad risk such an obvious and crude manipulation of the voting results?

Any answer at this point is speculation. But there is a logic to stealing the election, and by an overwhelming margin--by claiming an outright majority of the vote, Ahmadinejad could avoid a second-round runoff election against Mousavi, his main competitor.

In the last days before the June 12 vote, Mousavi's backers mobilized demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, not just in the capital city of Tehran, but in provincial cities as well. Ahmadinejad likely feared that even bigger protests would unfold in a second round, and give Mousavi a victory. The apparent calculation was that it would be safer to declare a first-round victory to put a decisive end to any challenge. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed the election results in the hopes of restoring order.

NATURALLY, THE election results spurred more protests. So far, the demonstrations have withstood violent attacks by police and paramilitary groups known as basij, who patrol the streets for supposedly un-Islamic behavior such as immodest dress by women.

And by hardening the divisions in the Iranian ruling class, the election fraud has ushered in a new era in Iranian politics, in which rival groupings may finally crystallize into something like permanent political parties--a development that has until now been blocked by the Shia Islamist clerical establishment at the core of Iranian politics.

So what comes next is anybody's guess. But to better understand Iran's political dynamics, it's helpful to look at the social base of the leading candidates.

Ahmadinejad, as a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the armed forces' Revolutionary Guard, is the representative of the hard right within the clergy and Iran's national security apparatus.

Relatively unknown when he ran as a candidate in the 2005 elections, he was able--thanks to what were likely stolen votes--to get into a runoff election. His opponent was another conservative, the former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. By campaigning as a populist, Ahmadinejad handily defeated Rafsanjani, one of the richest men in Iran and the representative of big capital.

Upon taking office, Ahmadinejad aimed to roll back the liberal policies of the previous administration of reformer Mahmoud Khatami. In his eight years in office, Khatami had taken a more liberal stance on social issues in order to cultivate the educated middle class, while forging economic ties with Western European capital.

But Khatami failed to stand up to hard-liners' attacks on liberal students and the media, and had little to offer the working class or the poor. Ahmadinejad could thus benefit from the cynicism of the middle class intelligentsia toward the reformers, while promising a better day for the working-class majority.

Once in office, Ahmadinejad tapped into record-high state oil revenues in an attempt to consolidate his political base. Handouts to the poor, bonuses to government employees and local development projects were central to his economic policy. And by boosting consumption of workers and the poor, this state spending boosted the income of the bazaar--the small business interests that are the backbone of the Iranian hard right.

Other factions in the Iranian ruling class viewed these policies with growing alarm. In the view of figures like Rafsanjani, spending on scattershot social programs and Latin American-style clientelism was robbing the economy of money needed for investment--in particular to modernize the oil and gas industry. Many were leery of Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach to the West over Iran's nuclear program, arguing that it wasn't worth the cost of sanctions on Iran's economy.

Meanwhile, the educated middle class and professionals increasingly chafed at Ahmadinejad's heavy-handed attempts to re-impose the social norms of the Islamist revolution. Furthermore, the working class saw its income constantly eroded by inflation, and efforts to organize unions were met with harsh repression under Ahmadinejad. The president even attempted to roll back price subsidies for staple goods for the poor, and corruption, long a feature of Iranian government, continued.

FOR THESE reasons, Mousavi and his supporters saw an opportunity to unseat Ahmadinejad.

The effort brought together some unlikely allies. One of Mousavi's main backers is Rafsanjani, even though it was Rafsanjani who, two decades ago, pushed through the abolition of the office of prime minister in order to oust Mousavi, who then held the post. Back then, Mousavi was a proponent of a state capitalist economic policy that advocated restrictions on imports and government control of key industries. Rafsanjani, a champion of private property rights, was determined to isolate him, and largely succeeded.

Today, however, Mousavi's economic program is closer to that of Rafsanjani. "He advocated economic liberalization, and pledged to control inflation through monetary policies and make life easier for private business," British journalist Robert Fisk wrote.

While Mousavi's calls for women's rights and greater political freedom inspired student activists and the middle class, he made no real outreach to workers and the poor, leaving the field open to Ahmadinejad. Thus, the Iranian president accused Rafsanjani of being corrupt during a televised presidential debate. (The reformist presidential candidate, Karroubi, also failed to put economic issues at the center of his campaign.)

In the post-election crisis, the limitations of the reformers' social base have been exposed. A struggle to oust Ahmadinejad would require far more militant mass action than anything yet seen. But it seems doubtful, to say the least, that Mousavi, who has spent the last three decades in the political hierarchy, would call for workers' strikes or insurrections.

He'll be tempted to play an inside-outside game, appealing for street actions while counting on Rafsanjani--the head of the clerics' Expediency Council and a consummate powerbroker--to cut some kind of deal with Ahmadinejad.

It may be too late for that, however. Continued protests and repression may compel Mousavi and his allies to build some sort of underground opposition. In fact, Ahmadinejad has already accused Mousavi of trying to mount a "velvet revolution," styled after the 1989 demonstrations that overthrew the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia.

Certainly, the U.S. will try to use Iran's power struggle to its own advantage by ratcheting up diplomatic pressure and increasing the usual CIA efforts to try to co-opt sections of the opposition. This will be a gift to Ahmadinejad, who will use any such efforts as a pretext to denounce, if not smash, the opposition.

Real democratic change in Iran won't come from U.S. intervention, but from a broadening and deepening of the protest movement.

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