Iranians in the Streets

More than a hundred years ago now, Iranians were as loudly as now present in the streets demanding constitutional governance, freedom from random harassment by the state and a legitimate representational system.

In 1906, as a result of that national surge, demanding true legitimacy from the rulers, Iran established the first parliament on the Asian continent, and forced an absolutist monarchy into accepting a constitutional rule by a parliament chosen by the people.

That parliamentary system, by 1920, had been overthrown by Reza Shah, and an absolutist dictatorship was reestablished, which in turn was overturned by the people by the close of 1940’s, and by 1951 the people had regained their relative sovereignty. In 1953, that too was overthrown by a coup carried out by CIA against our popularly elected prime minister, Dr. Mossadegh, and the second phase of the Palhavi dictatorship ensued, which lasted until 1978.

Ever since the establishment of theocracy in 1979, we have witnessed repeated occurrences of mass uprisings in Iran. The last major wave was in 1999, led by university students, and swiftly crushed by the government (at the time headed by a ‘reformist’, Khatami).

So, throughout the twentieth century, as a nation we did not stop grappling with the hugely complex social problem of legitimacy of the state, as different dictatorships arose and established themselves as newer, more effective machineries of oppression, and as we struggled against them. That fight continues today.

When reality happens in equally painful and delightful leaps, such as we are witnessing now, and as it speeds right past rigid minds standing by with gaping mouths, mouthing knee-jerk, reflexive thoughts not considered at all, we salute reality!

And hope we can keep up.

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One left-seeming analysis being presented about the election results in Iran is the ‘class analysis’, epitomized by a few articles that have appeared in recent days (no names necessary, since that makes things personal, and I’m trying to keep it political here). I even heard the ‘class analysis’ (sic.) used on BBC! BBC’s approach was actually not too different from those presented by some on the U.S. left.

Real class analysis looks for and explains historical and materialist trends in a society (‘materialist’ meaning here, containing real-social substance); all else is superficial journalism.

Not taking into account Iran’s complex social history at all, and amazingly enough not even considering the very context of a theocratic setup as relevant, superficial journalism’s entire argument is constructed on a presupposition never examined: that Iran is just another regular country, with a generally democratic-looking system, with its own peculiar way of holding elections, which we must respect, run as best as they can (of course, they have problems, but who doesn’t?); but, all in all, there’s regular opportunity for people to express their choices, just like in the U.S. (and God know they have deep problems of their own with democracy). So, no matter how disappointed the losers in the Iranian elections, they simply ‘should bite the bullet’, and move on.

At least eight people (some reports from inside Iran, claim 32) have indeed taken bullets. These are peaceful, unarmed demonstrators, shot dead (and there are video clips to prove this, thanks to the resourcefulness of our people) by sharp shooters from windows overlooking streets where peaceful demonstrations were being attacked by plain-clothes government vigilantes breaking up massive spontaneous, again, peaceful demonstrations expressing outrage at an excessively oppressive machine that had just stolen their votes in broad daylight.

Why the need for attacking peaceful demonstrations, if the elections were truly won cleanly? Why the need to arrest and detain hundreds of people, of political leaders and intellectuals of the reformist camp? Why the need to disrupt communications?

But, I am digressing.

Along with the  ‘bite the bullet’ attitude, some analysis must be presented, of course, since we are writing a political piece. So, let’s see what it is. It is claimed that, first of all, Ahmadinejad got exactly the same proportion of votes as he did last time, in 2005, when he beat Hashemi Rafsanjani. But, since that’s the only historical reference looked up by lazy journalism, all the social changes that have happened between then and now lose their significance in the accounts of superficial observers.

A crucial thing missed here is that back then too there were loud claims of vote rigging against Ahmadinejad, who had been greatly helped by the Revolutionary Guards’ and the Basijs’ disciplined mobilization for vote getting. Those complaints died out eventually. But, from right after the 2005 elections, it became clear to Iran observers that major political maneuvering had begun between, on the one hand, the elite siding with the powerful Hashemi Rafsanjani and, on the other, those siding with the conservatives aligned with Khamenei, whose front man is Ahmadinejad. In this year’s elections, Hashemi Rafsanjani lent his political weight to the reformists, who (just like the Democrats in the U.S.) are the only ones with realistic, if not the best, chances of inspiring large participation in the elections.

It was for these very reasons that the reformist factions knew very well that major vote rigging would be tried again. If it could be done twice in the U.S., it sure as hell could be done twice in Iran. And for these very reasons, for months before the election day, the reformists had studied well the procedures in place, looking for flaws, had found plenty, and had proposed remedies aplenty, all of which had been turned down. So, going into the ring, they knew they were stepping into a fixed match.

Ahmadinejad’s camp, sure enough, was prepared, both for the ballot-casting day, and for the lead-up. They used the first-ever, live TV debates between presidential candidates in Iran the same way a sensationalist lawyer would in some courtroom scene in a TV series. Picture a closing presented in a case looking bleakly headed south; lawyer strikes out by throwing a complete and utter Hail Mary pass; espousing the most astonishing stories, filled with accusations and innuendoes, muddying the water to the nth degree, making it all sound like he really didn’t want to say any of this, but was forced to reveal the truth, no matter how rude, for justice must be served. Amen!

And we saw how they conducted the actual ‘elections’. (For those interested in facts: even Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the most senior cleric in Iran, a huge, lifelong fan of theocracy, came out in defense of the opposition, stating that nobody in their right mind would believe the announced results.)

To get back to the class analysis thing … For the ‘class’ part of the analysis, it is stated that Ahmadinejad’s constituency, beyond the ideological armed forces of Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji’s, consists of the working class, the peasantry and the poor; in short, the way more numerous classes. In other words, in this highly simplistic picture, ALL the Iranian working classes, all the peasants, and all the poor were unanimously behind Ahmadinejad.

This is a very improbable claim. Its TV version was backed by repeated loops of reportage by CNN and BBC type of news agencies, right before the elections, when their film crews were sent to a few rural spots that had benefited from the Ahmadinejad government’s handouts, displaying enthusiasm for him. These scenes from a handful of villages, in a country whose rural population adds up to about 33% of 70 million people, are definitely not representative of the larger picture of rural Iran.

The real rural Iran is beset by desperation, more than anything else, and most likely can’t be bothered with any such niceties as ‘elections’ (Iran’s rural population has historically been very deeply apolitical). Due to government mismanagement, consistent over the thirty years of this regime’s existence, farming infrastructure has been deteriorating steadily, leading to a huge migration from the country to the city. In the past 30-year period, the urban-to-rural ratios have exactly reversed.

During the same period, the population of Iran has grown very rapidly also; it literally doubled from 35 million to 70 million. Yet, another factor: all these demographic transformations were occurring in a country, whose government relies on the sale of oil as a main source of revenue (more than 50% of its income; I’ll explain why this is important, below).

Add another historical-transformational trend: with the rise of theocracy by 1979, and considering that the mullahs are tightly allied with the merchant (bazaari) classes, the overall stewardship of the national economy was transferred from the hands of the industrial to that of the commercial bourgeoisie. Consequently, commerce, buying and selling, instead of production, has become the more significant economic activity.

Except for military (and related) industries, of course. There, successive governments have consistently invested well. But, just about all other branches of industrial capital, mostly private, have not had an easy time of developing; definitely not nearly as rapidly as the population growth coupled with rural-urban migration would require, in order to maintain a stable employment level and to have some, even if modest, economic growth rate.

Remember that oil, as an industry, is not labor intensive at all; it is highly capital intensive. So, though it brings in the dough for the state, as an industry it doesn’t employ a significant workforce. (In any event, most oil workers in Iran enjoy a very healthy tradition of leftist thinking and have proven their progressive mettle in many historical battles. You can bet they are not deluded on a mass scale.)

The socio-historical trends mentioned above (the doubling of the population, plus the mass migration from rural to urban areas, plus a much lowered rate of development of labor-employing industries)- all add up to a huge number of buyers and sellers of lots of things, haggling constantly, hustling endlessly; and, much more importantly, this has led to endemically excessive rates of part-employment and underemployment, creating a situation in which millions of people must weave at least two, three (at times more) jobs, just to keep their head above water, just to make a living. All of which becomes much more painful under hellish inflation rates, which shot up rapidly during Ahmadinejad’s rule.

Now add to that already socially heady mix the insults thrown in by a highly intrusive dictatorship that claims to hold power and authority over your most private acts even, and what you get is a lot of very hard working people who can get really pissed off very easily, and very quickly.  Do you see where this is going?

Now, let’s bring it back to the elections. The situation in Iran has changed dramatically in the four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The world in general has changed dramatically in four years. The economic situation in Iran has gotten far worse, not only because of Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement (which has no doubt had its effects), but also intensified by all the above-mentioned trends, plus the effects of the sanctions, and all of these within a worldwide depression of the last two years.

But, and this is important, the economic deterioration during Ahmadinejad’s first term occurred in a time of very high oil income for the government, making it more difficult to explain away the economic troubles as general results of the world depression. In the four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iranian state income was nearly twice as much (in oil revenues) as it was during Khatami’s eight years.

So, a majority of the Iranians were quite rightly very disillusioned with Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement. No amount of radical sounding rhetoric can hide these things. No wonder then that he felt compelled to hand out potatoes to the abject poor, to avert starvation. But his sacks of potato, or insurance for the rural poor, as welcome and necessary and popular as they are (even if they didn’t cover everybody in need), are mere Band-Aids on a shotgun wound after the horse was dead.

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We come to the final element to be considered, when providing a ‘class analysis’ of the Iranian political life: The most class-conscious, the most politically active of the Iranian working classes, are by far the most anti-government. How do we know this? We know this because they invariably end up in jail.

It is interesting that articles claiming to be presenting a ‘class analysis’ completely ignore the significance of all the jailed labor leaders in Iran, and ignore the anti-labor posture consistently displayed by all governments in Iran’s modern history: that the current government is structurally anti-labor is well understood by those segments of Iran’s working classes not ideologically in the service of the regime.

Why else would the government bother imprisoning a mere bus driver, Mansoor Osanloo? (for his and others’ info, see here) How much of a political threat can a bus driver be? Them be shaky foundations, indeed, that tremble at the sight of organized bus drivers. Osanloo is the head of the bus drivers’ union in Tehran, and has been a political prisoner, in and out of jail (currently in) for the past five years. That’s just one example. There are lots more (and you can read about some of them (in Farsi) here, and here; if you can’t read Farsi, find an Iranian friend).

The most organized of the working classes represent a significant portion of the class of people affected most deeply and painfully by a badly managed capitalist economy. This has political consequences. Vast numbers of Iranian working people have turned apathetic, and simply do not participate in the political machinations of the system. When they do participate in significant numbers, as was the case in these last elections, it is because they see a realistic chance for using the differences between the rulers, for opposing the establishment candidate, and perhaps winning some concessions from this oppressive system; demands that are likely to inspire participation among the lower middle classes and the middle classes.

Incidentally, the so-called ‘middle classes’ are working classes. They are simply more likely to be the better educated, better paid part of the working classes. That’s all. The fact that the word ‘middle class’ was invented by Americans to suppress the perception of actual existence of classes in North America is something to be studied in its own place, but, as somebody said once, “A rose is a rose by any name.”

So the most fundamental distinction to bear in mind is that those segments of the working classes who do participate in the electoral process in Iran are by no means representatives of a homogenized class, and thankfully cannot automatically be assumed as representing all the working classes, all the peasants and all the poor.

Just like all other classes in Iran, the working classes are also divided in many ways: between believers (in theocracy) and secularists, between supporters of the system and opponents of the system, between the different camps of the system, and our working classes too contain large segments of non-participants and non-believers who occasionally like to show up and cast protest votes.

And another thing. Just because somebody is from the working class (in any country) does not mean they are universal angels, and whatever they exhale is divine. Remember that the European fascists’ most numerous support-base was among the working classes. And the American leftists should be well familiar with the phenomenon known as ‘Reagan Democrats’; i.e., white working class people who voted against their class interest.

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The one crucial thing to bear in mind is that these ‘elections’ would not be called elections by anybody in the American left, if those exact electoral procedures – complete with the allegiance to the Bible as the requirement to participate – were replicated in the U.S., overseen by a government run by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (yes, back from dead) and their amalgamated gang of the American televangelists, and their social support networks and vigilantes. If you can do the mental switch and still find that you have no problem participating in such Christian evangelist-conducted ‘elections’, then go ahead and call the Iranian ‘elections’ elections. Call it a horse, for all I care.

The reality is that the situation in Iran has by now moved beyond the technicalities of the electoral procedures; people’s move has forced the situation into one of a crisis of legitimacy for the regime.

The Iranian people sensed a deep fracture within the ruling establishment – something that was clearly expressed in astonishing language and tone, in the televised-for-the-first time live debates between the candidates – and they have ceased their chance to use the divide between their rulers to their own advantage.

The people may have taken to the streets under the excuse of the elections, and may have been encouraged by the rhetoric of the ‘reformist’ camp in favor of some breathing room in the suffocating political and cultural atmosphere imposed on them, but they have forced the debate further. They are openly, and in millions across the country, questioning the legitimacy of the establishment, represented at the moment by Ahmadinejad. The people, in short, have moved beyond Mousavi and the reformists, but are still willing to go along with the tactics formulated by reformist leaders; for the moment.

We will see how things unfold. Most likely, a heavy hand is just around the corner, trying on some spiked gloves. For the time being, though, hundreds of thousands of people in Iran are opting not to ‘bite the bullet’ and move on, but to make a movement and, even, take bullets. A much more courageous stand that generates a lot more inspiration!


REZA FIYOUZAT can be reached at:
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