Sunday Times, 14 June 2009
Times, 10 June 2009
by Phil Wilayto, June 13, 2009
As this is being written, official announcements in Iran today of a landslide victory by incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are being met with cries of “fraud” by supporters of his principal challenger, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
The New York Times is reporting that “at least one person had been shot dead in clashes with the police in Vanak Square in Tehran. Smoke from burning vehicles and tires hung over the city late Saturday.”
It seems clear which side has started the violence. From today's Times:
“'Death to the coup d’état!' chanted a surging crowd of several thousand protesters, many of whom wore Mr. Moussavi’s [sic] signature bright green campaign colors, as they marched in central Tehran on Saturday afternoon. 'Death to the dictator!' Farther down the street, clusters of young men hurled rocks at a phalanx of riot police officers, and the police used their batons to beat back protesters. There were reports of demonstrations in other major Iranian cities as well. ... As night settled in, the streets in northern Tehran that recently had been the scene of pre-election euphoria were lit by the flames of trash fires and blocked by tipped trash bins and at least one charred bus. Young men ran through the streets throwing paving stones at shop windows, and the police pursued them.”
(Note: Northern Tehran is the more affluent part of the city. There were no reports of protest in the much poorer southern part of the capital.)
While there's still time to rationally look at the elections, I'd like to offer a few observations.
The dominant view among Western commentators, as well as some progressive members of the Iranian diaspora, is that Mousavi is a “reformer” who favors loosening restrictions on civil liberties within Iran, while being more open to a less hostile relationship with the West. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, is described as a “hardliner” who demagogically appeals to the poor, while making deliberately provocative statements about the United States and Israel in order to bolster his standing in the Islamic world.
In my opinion, both of the above characterizations are superficial. The fundamental contradiction between the two leading candidates has to do with their respective bases of support and, more importantly, their different approaches to the economy.
Ahmadinejad, himself born into rural poverty, clearly has the support of the poorer classes, especially in the countryside, where nearly half the population lives. Why? In part because he pays attention to them, makes sure they receive some benefits from the government and treats them and their religious views and traditions with respect. Mousavi, on the other hand, the son of an urban merchant, clearly appeals more to the urban middle classes, especially the college-educated youth. This being so, why would anyone be surprised that Ahmadinejad carried the vote by a clear majority? Are there now more yuppies in Iran than poor people?
Why is there so little discussion of the issue of class in this election? Is it because so many professional and semi-professional commentators on Iran are themselves from the same class as Mousavi's supporters, and so instinctively identify with them? Myself, I'm a worker, and a former union organizer. When I watched the videos and viewed the photos of the pro-Mousavi rallies in Tehran and other cities, I didn't feel elated – I felt a chill. To me, this didn't look like a liberal reform movement, it felt like a movement whose real target is a government that exercises a “preferential option for the poor,” to use the words of Christian liberation theology.
How about the economy?
A big issue in Iran – virtually never discussed in the U.S. media – is how to interpret Article 44 of the country's constitution. That article states that the economy must consist of three sectors: state-owned, cooperative and private, and that “all large-scale and mother industries” are to be entirely owned by the state. This includes the oil and gas industries, which provide the government with the majority of its revenue. This is what enables the government, in partnership with the large charity foundations, to fund the vast social safety net that allows the country's poor to live much better lives than they did under the U.S.-installed Shah.
In 2004, Article 44 was amended to allow for some privatization. Just how much, and how swiftly that process should proceed, is a fundamental dividing line in Iranian politics. Mousavi has promised to speed up the privatization process. And when he first announced he would run for the presidency, he called for moving away from an “alms-based “ economy (PressTV, 4/13/09), an obvious reference to Ahmadinejad's policies of providing services and benefits to the poor.
In addition to their different class bases and approaches to the economy, Ahmadinejad presents an uncompromising front against the West, and especially against the U.S. government. This is a source of great national pride, and has produced some positive results. For example, President Obama has now actually admitted, at least in part, that it was the U.S. that in 1953 overthrew the democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.
The whole idea that tossing Ahmadinejad out of office would make it easier to change U.S. policy toward Iran is, in my opinion, very naive. Was Dr. Mossadegh a crazy demagogue? No, but he did lead the movement to nationalize Iran's oil industry. If Mousavi, as president, were to strongly state that he would refuse to consider any surrender of Iran's sovereign right to develop nuclear power for peaceful energy purposes, that he would continue to support the resistance organizations Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, that he would continue to try and increase Iran's political role in the Middle East, and that he would defend state ownership of the oil and gas industries, would the Western media portray him as a reasonable man?
Further, there's the nature of Mousavi's election campaign. Obama called it a “robust” debate, which it certainly was, and a good refutation of the lie that Iran has no democracy. But it is also a political movement, one capable of drawing large crowds out into the streets, ready to engage in street battles with the president's supporters and now the police.
Is it possible that the U.S. government, its military and its 16 intelligence agencies are piously standing on the sidelines of this developing conflict, respecting Iran's right to work out its internal differences on its own? Could we expect that approach from the same government that still maintains its own 30-year sanctions against Iran, is responsible for three sets of U.N.-imposed sanctions, annually spends $70-90 million to fund “dissident” organizations within Iran and, according to the respected investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, actually has U.S. military personnel on the ground within Iran, supporting terrorist organizations like the Jundallah and trying to foment armed rebellions against the government?
The point has been made that U.S. neocons were hoping for an Ahmadinejad victory, on the theory that he makes a convenient target for Iran-bashers. But the neocons are no longer in power in Washington. They got voted out of office and are back to writing position papers for right-wing think tanks. We now have a “pragmatic” administration, one that would like to first dialog with the countries it seeks to control.
I think what is important to realize is that Washington wasn't just hoping for a “reform” candidate to win the election – it's been hoping for an anti-government movement that looks to the West for its political and economic inspiration. Mousavi backer and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is a free-market advocate and businessman whom Forbes magazine includes in its list of the world's richest people. Does Rafsanjani identify with or seek to speak for the poor? Does Mousavi?
What kind of Iran are the Mousavi forces really hoping to create? And why is Washington – whose preference for “democracy” is trumped every time by its insatiable appetite for raw materials, cheap labor, new markets and endless profits – so sympathetic to the “reform” movements in Iran and in every other country whose people have nationalized its own resources?
Would Iran be better off with a president who, instead of qualifying everything he says about the Holocaust, just came out directly and said, “Look, there's no question that millions of Jewish people were murdered in a campaign of genocide, but how does that justify creating a Jewish state on land that is the ancestral home of the Palestinians?” That would certainly make the job of anti-war activists much easier - and if you look hard enough, you can find something close to those words in Ahmadinejad's statements.
But it wouldn't be enough. The U.S. government and its complementary news media would just find another hook on which to hang their demonization of Iran and its government.
The days ahead promise to be challenging ones for all those who oppose war, sanctions and interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As we pursue that work, it would be good not to get caught up in what is sure to be a tsunami of criticism of a government trying to resolve a crisis that in all likelihood is not entirely homegrown.
* Phil Wilayto is the editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper and author of “In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S. Peace Delegation's Journey through the Islamic Republic.” He can be reached: DefendersFJE@hotmail.com