The implications of last year’s victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian presidential elections have already reached beyond the Iranian political landscape. Externally the dispute between Iran and the US-EU on Iran’s nuclear programme has sharply escalated. This escalation has in turn been both distorted and intensified by Ahamdinejad’s recent comments on Israel and Holocaust which the west has spared no time to employ in its political and diplomatic pressure on Iran.
The relative ‘democratic’ openness, which the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami had brought about, is progressively being shut off while the Iranian society is being more militarised. Violent suppression of the internal political and national minorities’ opposition has intensified in recent months. In this regard the less reported development is the harsh treatment of the Iranian workers who in a large number of strikes and demonstrations have demanded the improvement of their work and life conditions. On the same day that a few hundreds basij militia threw stones at British and Danish embassies thousands of Tehran bus drivers were violently harassed and beaten; many more were arrested and many of the strike leaders are still in detention without being charged. In fact in order to break the strike the regime brought its militia from other towns to operate the busses hence effectively countering the impact of one of the greatest strikes in Tehran for years.
All these developments are inter-connected and parts of a larger process in the Iranian politics and society over the last two decades or so. With the end of Iran-Iraq war and death of Khomeini the members of the Islamic-populist faction were rapidly purged from the state organs. This paved the way for Rafsanjani ‘economic reforms’ whose centrepiece was an unprecedented privatisation programme similar to Russia’s shock-therapy of the early 1990s. These reforms entailed a drastic deterioration of life conditions for the large sections of the Iranian population which enjoyed some degree of state-protection under the war-time populist governments. This process in conjunction with the increasing corruption, cronyism and political repression paved the way for the political come back of the former Islamic-populists who in the interim had undergone an ideological metamorphosis in a liberal direction. However the victory of their candidate, Mohamad Khatami, in 1997 presidential elections was not so much the result of the people’s identification with their slogan of founding an ‘Islamic civil society’ as to the deep and widespread discontent with 8 years of continuous pauperisation under Rafsanjani’s government.
Khatami’s 1997 landslide victory on a reformist platform created a lot of hope among large sections of the Iranian society for major changes. However despite two terms of presidency the reformists failed to connect their essentially democratic agenda to the bread and butter issue which mattered most to the majority of the Iranian population. This failure was essentially rooted in the reformists’ brand of liberalism. In fact on the economic issues the reformists differed little from Rafsanjani’s pragmatic-technocratic approach: for both capital and property was sacred. But while the reformists saw the traditional unproductive bazaar’s and merchant capital’s domination of the Iranian economy as the major obstacle to their liberal policies and growth of industrial capital in Iran, Rafsanjani was more prudent in his dealing and relations with the bazaar which still has an enormous economic basis and considerable political power. In short the reformists saw democratic reforms, which given Iran’s constitution could have not gone beyond a certain point, as a pre-condition for economic growth whose benefits then would, they expected, trickle down to the masses; a formula which we find in every liberal economy textbook. This of course was and is an illusion as the real events have demonstrated. Currently more than 30% of the Iranian people live under the poverty line, while a small class of super-rich have emerged which has manifold connections to the centres of power.
But why and how did the reformists’ 20 million-votes mandate disappear? The reason was that the reformists simply never tried or even contemplated the activation of this enormous popular mandate. They did not and could not encourage the people who voted them into the office to get directly involved in the political battles of the day. For this could easily get out of control and end up with a social upheaval which could have swept away them and their conservative rivals alike. The support of the reformists for the ruthless suppression of the student protests by the police and the law enforcement forces under the conservatives’ control in June 1999 was a clear indication of the degree to which the reformists and Khatami administration were afraid of direct political action even if it was against their own rivals. In the event Khatami supported the law enforcement forces’ handling of the disturbances and called the protesters as ‘hoodlums’.
Ahmadinejad’s victory was, therefore, not so surprising after all. Khatami’s liberal policies were generally relevant to and beneficial for the upper middle classes whose size had increased in tandem with Rafsanjani’s privatisation programmes. And entangled in a political and definitional game with the conservatives over the nature of the Islamic republic, the meaning of republic, the source of legitimacy of rule etc. they were increasingly pushed away from the harsh realities of the life of overwhelming majority of the Iranian people. This was the context within which Ahmadinejad entered the race for the presidency on a platform of social justice, wealth redistribution and fight against the corruption and won.
Now how does the nuclear issue relate to these developments? The less acknowledged fact is that there is currently an intense intra-regime struggle between Ahmadinejad’s self-styled ‘fundamentalist’ faction and the conservative-pragmatic faction whose vast economic interests are being threatened by Ahmadinejad’s apparently populist agenda. Sections of this traditional conservative faction are now in the process of forming an alliance with the reformists in order to curb the ‘fundamentalist’ encroachments. Last week there was a series of meetings between the representatives of the Islamic Iran’s Participation Front (the largest reformist grouping in Iran) and a number of traditional conservative organisation and individuals including leading clerics in Qum and Tehran.
However the populist veneer of Ahmadinejad’s faction should not distract us from an important fact: Ahmadinejad represents a new young state-class, (many of its main figures and incumbent cabinet ministers have long military background and served in the Revolutionary Guards Corpses) which no longer is content with its political and economic subordination to the traditional bazaar-ulama alliance and the nouveau riche class produced by Rafsanjani’s privatisation programme. In fact the escalation of tension with the west is in part also a means which Ahamdinejad and his faction are using in their internal power struggle with this politically entrenched alliance; a struggle in which they are greatly aided by the deployment of US forces along all of Iran’s borders; given Iran’s deeply rooted nationalism and a long history of western intervention in Iran, from Anglo-Russian strangling of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 to Anglo-American coup of 1953 against Mohamamd Mossadeq to western support for Saddam Hussein’s during Iraq-Iran war, augments the appeal of Ahmadinejad’s tactful nationalist discourse.
But this is only one side of the story. The other side is that without changing or at least co-opting the Iranian regime the American neo-cons’ greater Middle East strategy will remain incomplete. Without a controlled integration of Iran into the western international circuit of capital Iran will remain a potential headache for the US and its allies. And the Iranian state-class is only too aware of this hence its attempts to solidify its position in any possible future bargaining for a settlement. Such attempts are not incompatible with acquiring nuclear capability. The possession of nuclear weapons by many countries in the region, including most importantly Israel, and the stark contrast between fates of Iraq and North Korea only reinforce Iran’s justification for going a nuclear road.
The importance of this process of controlled integration of Iran into western capital’s circuit can be better appreciated within the context of the American neo-conservatives’ geo-political projects to sharpen America’s competitive edge vis-á-vis America’s new ‘strategic contender’ China and to a lesser extent the EU. And on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, nuclear capability can enable Iran to become a firmer ground for the growth of an ‘Islamic’, or at any rate un-liberal, socio-political alternative whose inevitable magnetism on the Muslim Middle East can be dangerously disturbing to international operation of capital and America’s New World Order. No wonder that the west is so keen and hasty in bringing Ahmadinejad’s Jacobinist revolution to its thermidor.
But the interests of the Iranian people coincide neither with the Islamic Republic’s regional adventures, nor with a possible US-led regime-change which will destroy the very infrastructure of the Iranian society; an eventuality of which Iraq is a vivid example. The Iranian people have to pursue their own independent struggle for freedom and social justice independently and in spite of the western imperialism’s agenda for regime-change in Iran.
KAMRAN MATIN is a doctoral candidate in politics and international relations at the University of Sussex and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
An earlier German version of this piece was published in the online journal of ‘Friedenspolitischer Ratschlag’.