The crisis between Iran and the US entered a new stage with the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to the presidency of the Islamic Republic last June. Amina Saddiq looks at the background
Who is Ahmedinejad?
As an organiser for the “Organisation of Student Unity”, Ahmedinejad played a key role in the Islamist counter-revolution of 1979-80, establishing control of the universities by purging left-wing and dissident lecturers and students, many of whom were later executed. Following a period as an engineer and military commander in the Iran-Iraq war, he worked in “internal security”, earning notoriety as an interrogator and torturer.
Ahmedinejad was elected mayor of Tehran in May 2003, after a widespread boycott of the city council election brought the ultra-conservative “Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran” to power on a 12% turnout. In office he pioneered the mixture of Islamist, nationalist and populist measures that has since characterised his presidency. He reversed many of the liberalising reforms of the previous period, carried out Islamist demands such as separate entrances and elevators for men and women in municipal offices and argued for the bodies of “martyrs” from the Iran-Iraq war to be buried in the city's squares, while also overseeing the distribution of free soup to the poor.
He quarrelled with the “reformist” then-president Mohammad Khatami, who barred him from attending meetings of Iran's Board of Ministers, as is usual for the mayor of Tehran.
Between 1998 and 2001, the reformist wing of Iran’s Islamist elite occupied almost every elected position within the Iranian state, including the presidency. But in last year’s election, the reformist candidate Mostafa Moeen came fifth. The result was the most viciously right-wing president since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, and the first military leader - as opposed to cleric - to hold the office. Ahmedinejad’s election thus represented a fairly sharp change of direction, an important shift of power within the Iranian ruling class.
Elections in the Islamic Republic
The last few months have heard a lot of idiocy from sections of the British left about “Islamic democracy”, with some claiming that because certain positions in the Iranian state are elected in a secret ballot with multiple candidates, the Islamic Republic is no more undemocratic than other bourgeois regimes. It is important to understand how radically false this analysis is.
In even the most democratic capitalist states, elective democracy is a relatively thin façade over the unelected, bureaucratic core of the state machine; but in the Islamist capitalist state which exists in Iran, most responsible positions are filled neither by elected representatives nor their appointees, but by a hierarchy of shia Muslim clerics and those responsible to them. Thus, for instance, Iran’s much-discussed nuclear policy is controlled by the Supreme National Security Council, a body directly “accountable” to the country’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
At the same time, even for the elected positions, the choice of candidates is severely limited. No candidate is allowed who challenges the basic framework of the theocratic regime. Clerical bodies such as the Guardian Council do a pretty thorough job of weeding out: in last year’s presidential election, over a thousand candidates registered to stand, but the final “choice” was between seven Islamists ranging from Moeen to Ahmedinejad — and in fact Moeen was only included after protests forced the Guardian Council to reconsider his rejection.
No woman has ever been allowed to stand for the presidency, because the Islamic Republic’s constitution includes a phrase on eligibility that can interpreted as either “men” or “famous people”.
This time, however, interference in the election seems to have gone significantly further. There is a general consensus on the Iranian left that the election was rigged. The run-off election was widely expected to be between Moeen and the mainstream conservative candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Many Iranian socialists believe that there was a conscious, orchestrated campaign to put Ahmedinejad in the presidency which transgressed even the limited, loose rule of law which normally functions in the Islamic Republic.
It is difficult to assess these claims, though they are not implausible.
A change of strategy
Ever since it came into existence, the Islamic Republic has been in permanent crisis. Despite a surplus of repression, the Iranian rulers faced continuing working-class militancy, as well as strong protests from other sections of society chafing against theocratic constraints.
At the end of the 1990s, the regime faced an intensification of this state of crisis, in particular through an upsurge of student and other pro-democracy protests. The coming to power of the reformist wing of the elite represented both an expression of discontent by wide layers of the population and an attempt by one section of the rulers to strengthen the Islamist structure by introducing specific reforms designed to relieve discontent and strengthen the regime’s popular legitimacy.
However, this attempt was necessarily self-limiting, coming up at every turn against both the reformists’ unwillingness, as Islamists, to carry out genuine democratic reforms and the resistance of more conservative Islamist interests and groupings at the core of the state to what changes were attempted. The result seems to have been the development of a new wing within the Iranian elite, alarmed by the reformists and dissatisfied with the failure of traditional conservative groups to ensure a secure future for the Islamic Republic.
This group aims to reassert and strengthen Islamic morality and restrictions on personal behaviour while strengthening the repressive capacity of the state through its military, police etc apparatus. Ahmedinejad’s military, as opposed to clerical, past is highly relevant in this regard. These repressive measures, however, are combined with populist ones attempting to appeal to the most dispossessed sections of the Iranian population, angry at the growing poverty and inequality fostered by the regime’s 25 year offensive against the working class. Thus, during the presidential election, Ahmedinejad promised to “put the oil wealth on people’s tables”. Such strategies gain increased effectiveness from the fact that, alongside liberalising social measures, the reformist administrations also carried out numerous “neo-liberalising” economic measures — and, unsurprisingly, were much more serious and successful in the latter than the former.
Lastly, it is important not to underestimate the international dimension. Behind the clash with the US, the nationalist rhetoric, the demand for an independent nuclear programme and so on, is the fact Ahmedinejad and co. aim for the strengthening of Iran’s position as a regional-imperialist power. Increased ambitions have been made possible because one of the main consequences of the US war on terror has been to strengthen Iran’s international position.
The smashing of the hostile Taliban regime in 2002 meant the return of a number of Iran’s warlord allies to power in Afghanistan; and the overthrow of the longstanding enemy in Iraq has not only removed Iran’s main competitor for regional dominance, but brought its shia proxies to power in large parts of the country. Iraq is now run, in effect, through a tacit collusion between the US and Iranian governments.
One factor in the right-wing turn represented by the election of Ahmedinejad seems to have been that, as a result of the US’s adventure, the most hawkish, militarist sections of the Iranian ruling class are simply feeling more confident. Iran is now competing more aggressively with Saudi Arabia, Libya etc for hegemony among Muslim countries in Asia and Africa, for instance presenting itself as the defender of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
Ahmedinejad in power
As president, Ahmedinejad has pursued the same sort of right-wing, nationalist Islamist populism that characterised his rule in Tehran and his election campaign.
1. Populist measures designed to present the president as a champion of the poor. Predictably, these measures have a conservative and paternalistic character, with the aim of social stability rather than social justice. For instance, Ahmedinejad’s government has created a £2 billion “compassion fund” to help young people find jobs and purchase their own homes - in fact intended to lower the rapidly rising average age of marriage (now 25 for women and 28 for men). Meanwhile, the basic framework of neoliberalism — deregulation, privatisation, closures, lay-offs — continues unmodified.
2. The regime has pursued a crackdown on working-class protests (see below).
3. There has also been a crackdown on women, and on “moral” questions generally. Shortly after Ahmedinejad’s election, one of his allies in parliament moved legislation to tighten up the religious police’s power to punish women dressed “inappropriately”. For this purpose, 200 extra police have been drafted in Tehran alone. The move is part of a wider blitz against “anti-social behaviour”, with fines against those who play loud music, walk pets and men who sport “outlandish hairstyles”.
4. Strong support for Iran’s nuclear programme, while claiming that it is purely for peaceful purposes.
5. International manoeuvring for position, through a combination of anti-US rhetoric, a diplomatic offensive (aided by a widely-publicised letter to George W Bush) and attempts to create an anti-US united front, particularly with other Asian powers. At a summit on 14 June, Ahmedinejad called for “Asian unity” and for an alliance between Iran, Russia and China.
6. “Anti-Zionist” and anti-semitic rhetoric, including a flirtation with Holocaust denial.
The US threat
At the start of June, an offer was made to the Iranian government by Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council under which Iran would be allowed to buy spare parts for civilian aircraft made by US manufacturers, provided with light water nuclear reactors and ready-enriched fuel and supported to join the World Trade Organisation — in return for abandoning its own nuclear programme. However, the Iranians rejected the deal.
Nonetheless, all-out war against Iran is probably not on the agenda. Of course, this may change, just as US policy towards Iraq changed with the development of world events. There are certainly those within the US ruling class, and within the Bush administration itself, who favour war. The strongly ideological element in the policy of both governments should not be forgotten. At the same time, the same factors which have made the Iranian ruling class more confident over the last three years have served as a warning to the US rulers. US threats are motivated not, as was the case with Iraq in 2002-3, by boundless confidence, but by the fear that things are getting out of control.
Other medium-term possibilities include economic sanctions, skirmishes and incursions on the border and an intensification of support for internal opposition groups. Our attitude to the last has to be nuanced, particularly when it comes to US sponsorship of revolts by Iran’s oppressed national minorities. Such movements may be manipulated for imperialist purposes, and have reactionary and chauvinist leaderships: but this does not changes the oppressed nations’ right to self-determination, nor mean that socialists should defend the territorial integrity of Iran’s internal empire.
I think it should go without saying that revolutionary socialists oppose all nuclear weapons, including both the US’s giant nuclear arsenal and Iran’s attempt to acquire a miniature one.
Ahmedinejad’s populist programme has not eliminated the basic factors which have driven wide sections of the Iranian people, and in particular the Iranian working class, into struggle against the Islamic Republic over the last quarter century.
In 2001, more than 20% of Iranian households lived below the absolute poverty line. Last year Iran’s central bank estimated unemployment at 16%, but most commentators seem to agree that it is actually much higher. Straightforward non-payment of wages is the cause of many industrial disputes. Meanwhile the dissatisfaction which led to the reformist victories is still present.
As a statement by Workers’ Left Unity-Iran put it in March: “There is no doubt that repression has increased since the beginning of the nuclear debacle”. The statement cites the Tehran bus workers’ struggle, attacks on the Iran’s Dervish community, the crack down on women’s dress and resistance to it in Tehran, newspapers and blogs being closed, massacres in the Kurdish city of Makou and an attack on a women’s demonstration on 8 March. A few more highlights:
• On 12 June, thousands of women gathered in Tehran to demonstrate against polygamy and inequality between men and women in divorce and other rights (see above). Police outnumbered protesters, viciously beating many and using pepper spray. A number of members of the public who objected to this thuggery were also arrested.
• From 21 to 28 May, students at universities across Iran held protests against the forced retirement or jailing of independent-minded lecturers, against official restrictions on student activities, against the burying of Islamic martyrs on university campuses and against interference by the Islamic militia in student elections. At Tehran university 18 students were suspended and five jailed. The regime is acutely aware of the dangers of youth unrest, in a country in which the young are most strongly secular and the median age is 24 (cf 39 in the UK).
• Meanwhile the Tehran bus workers have been battling for months for recognition of their independent union and the right to negotiate wage and conditions. Thousands have been jailed for short periods, many bus workers have been suspended from their jobs and union leader Mansour Ossanlou is imprisoned and very ill.
• There was heavy repression against workers’ demonstrations on May Day, particularly in Tehran and Sanandaj (the provincial capital of Iranian Kurdistan). In Tehran, the bus workers led a demonstration which also included student activists; 20,000 demonstrators defied 2,000 police to shout slogan including “Our hero Ossanlou must be released!”, “Unions are our certain right!” “Strike, demonstration are our certain right!” and “No war, no bomb, but jobs! Greetings on international workers‚ day!”
In these circumstances, the need for solidarity could not be more obvious. Unfortunately large parts of the organised left in Britain are attempting to hitch anti-war sentiment to a pro-Islamic Republic bandwagon through organisations like the SWP’s Action Iran. The challenge for the genuine left is to go beyond one-off statements and initiatives to create a network which opposes war on Iran as part of a broader campaign of solidarity with workers in Iran.