What’s next for Iran’s reform movement?

February 26, 2010

More than six months after claiming victory in a fraud-riddled vote, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is systematically cracking down on supporters of the "green movement" led by his main electoral rival, former prime minister Mir Hussein Mousavi.

Arrests, torture and murder, however, haven't succeeded in crushing the opposition. And in recent weeks, economic struggles by workers have flared up, including a highway blockade and occupation of the governor's mansion by workers at Shiraz Iran Telecommunications Industries protesting 13 months of unpaid wages. This action followed a two-day hunger strike over reductions in pay at the Mobarake steel mill in Isfahan.

Kaveh Ehsani, an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul University in Chicago and longtime Iranian-American author and activist, argues that the Iranian opposition must relate to such struggles to move forward. He spoke to Lee Sustar about the state of Iranian politics following the February 11 Revolution Day protests, in which reformers tried to upstage official commemorations of the 30th anniversary.

WHAT'S YOUR evaluation of the strength of the opposition now?

REPRESSION HAS gotten much worse, and that's what this regime is really good at. It adapts. The way it has survived so far is by preventing organized autonomous manifestations of solidarity to take shape. This includes unions, associations or political parties and so forth. It can handle unorganized and dispersed opposition, and riots, and any manifestations of discontent. It's been doing this for 30 years.

The opposition's strength so far has been that it has been non-organized. It's a movement of networks of small groups of three to seven people, and very dispersed. It's really focused on fighting with the regime over claiming these symbolic days of public gathering.

The arena for the opposition and the protests has been the public space, which has always been controlled by the regime. This challenge has come to its limit. It can happen again--it might again in the future--but by now, after six or seven months, the regime has been successful in arresting a lot of the key organizers, shipping in its own supporters to events, and spreading a reign of terror and insecurity.

A protest against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
A protest against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

I'm not sure if public protests in public space as the main way of showing opposition can be successful in the future. It will be successful on occasion. But it can't be the only strategy. So the opposition has to find other ways, including thinking about spreading protest to places of work, thinking about organizing strikes, and especially creating class coalitions.

The main thing that's been missing until now has been the language of class--bringing forward the economic demands of the population as the main demand of the green movement.

But I think that's about to happen. In recent interviews, Mousavi has talked about this. The people who work and actually produce the wealth are being completely left out by the system, and by Ahmadinejad. And they have to be at the center of the green movement. I think we're going to start seeing, hopefully, a lot more attempts to organize unions, create coalitions between working people, teachers, students, and maybe merchants and such.

MOUSAVI SAID on the 31st anniversary of the revolution that the goals of the revolution had not yet been met, and mentioned some of these social issues.

THAT WAS a very important interview. They asked him how he assessed the revolution after three decades, and he said, well, we had some utopias, but we have to admit that we made a lot of mistakes, and also a lot of demands have never been realized--demands for social justice and for equality, including democracy and freedom.

If you go back 30 years, the demands were for freedom, independence and a republic, and Islam also added to it. He was very blatant about that.

IS THERE any differentiation politically among the heavyweights of the opposition--such as Mousavi, the clerics' former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi and the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani? Is Rafsanjani trying to stake out a mediating position, as he usually does?

THERE ARE huge differences. It's a coalition.

Rafsanjani really represents the establishment, and the establishment has always stood for maintaining power by keeping peace between very different sets of interests, from neoliberals to corporate statists. They hold elections and divide power between factions that have very different sets of interests.

Rafsanjani has always embodied that compromise. He wants to maintain the system and bring it back to some kind of a center that would ensure that the nomenklatura [the name for the elite in the old USSR] stays in power.

Karroubi has increasingly become the voice of various liberal demands--of identity politics, of ethnic minorities, and of middle-class liberties. Mousavi has increasingly come to represent social democratic demands for social justice. He uses the language of class, and talks about controlling the market and making sure that there's a welfare state in place.

But at the same time, the opposition figures are unified in that they're unhappy with this state of affairs. They all feel that there's been a coup-like grab for power by the military, the militia and the intelligence community.

WHAT'S THE circle around Ahmadinejad attempting to do right now? Is raising the stakes around the nuclear issue something to keep the U.S. off balance, discipline the opposition, or both?

THE POWER game in Iran is very complicated. It involves multiple actors.

Ahmadinejad represents, basically, a middling array of managers and functionaries in the Islamic Republic, which were either in the technocracy or the intelligence services and the repressive apparatus. Five years ago, [President Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei promoted them because he wanted to have political representatives--somebody in charge of the executive, but who didn't have the same kind of independent power that Rafsanjani had, or [former President Mohammad Khatami] had. They would be his creatures.

So he promoted these mid-ranking operatives who had a lot of grievances, because they felt: "We fought the [1980s Iran-Iraq] war, we've been instrumental in repressing the opposition, but we haven't gotten anything out of this." These were veterans, militia people, people who ran the prison system, the intelligence system, etc. So they wanted a piece of the pie, and Ahmadinejad is representing them.

The dilemma with Ahmadinejad and his people is that so long as there is a permanent state of crisis, they have a chance of survival. But if things get settled--either domestically, with some kind of a compromise reached between the opposition, Khamenei and the regime, or if an international compromise is achieved, there will be no place for people like Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad represents people who live off of crisis. They are the battering ram of the regime. They are the people who beat people up, or live off of scraps from the informal economy--the networks of illicit trade that are being run by the military.

So where would the place for Ahmadinejad be in a compromise--or at least his supporters? He would be very easily pushed aside. I think that's what he fears. He's a creature of convenience for Khamenei. Obviously, the reform movement has a social base that is very hostile to him and everything that he represents.

So he's engaged in a game of survival for himself and for his followers. He wants to keep the situation--domestically and internationally--unstable, so he will be needed by the power establishment to remain as a figurehead.

WHAT WILL the impact be of the U.S. push for sanctions?

I THINK it's very opportunistic. The only thing the U.S. is concerned with is its imperial interests. It wants to turn Iran into a pliable and weak regime--a regime that's not in a position to dictate its interests in the region, that doesn't have leverage over what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that can't dictate economic terms by controlling the flow of oil and gas. If society is weakened as a result, so be it.

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