We often have a tendency to reduce complex social situations to simplistic scenarios, where there is only black or white and no shades of gray, only heroes or villains and nothing in between. Such seems to be the attitude of many Iran analysts, particularly those on the progressive side, toward the recent election in Iran and the turmoil that followed it. The analysts can be divided mostly into two groups. The first sees the “reformist” candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as the undisputed winner of the Iranian election and points to irregularities during the election, statistical discrepancies and the biased nature of those in charge of the election to vindicate its position. The second sees exactly the opposite. It views Mahmood Ahmadinejad, the “conservative” candidate, as the winner of the election, even if there were some irregularities and fraud, and points to the pre-election polls to prove its point. For the first camp, Mousavi is nearly a hero and Ahmadinejad a villain. For the second, it is perhaps the opposite. Also, the first sees the violence that followed the election as inspired largely by internal forces and, the second views it as orchestrated or manipulated mostly by forces outside of Iran.
The different responses to the Iranian election and its aftermath seem to reflect the complex nature of the “Islamic Republic.” From its inception the Islamic Republic presented a dichotomy. At home it suppressed all oppositions to its theocratic, anachronistic form of government. It dealt brutally with its critics and trampled upon the rights of distinct and identifiable groups within the society, including women and students. Abroad, however, it took a stance against such brutal regimes as those in apartheid South Africa and Israel. Of course, the opposition to Israel was, and remains to this day, often shrouded in religious thinking and language. The stance was later expanded to include the US and some other Western powers, even though the seemingly “anti-imperialist” stance was, once again, mixed with religious metaphors and rhetoric. Thus the Iranian regime’s policies were regressive at home and seemingly progressive abroad.
The dichotomous nature of the Islamic Republic has continued to this day and Ahmadinejad represents it well. He is obviously not a popular figure among the masses that appeared at the rallies of his opponents and have repeatedly taken to the streets, shouting “Allah-o-Akabr” and “death to the dictator.” Under Ahmadinejad’s rule these alienated and unrepresented masses have felt more repressed than before, particularly in comparison to life under Ahamdinejad’s predecessor, President Khatami.
Added to this feeling is the dissatisfaction with the near hyperinflation and chronic unemployment that, rightly or wrongly, is being blamed on Ahmadinejad’s policies or his continuous meddling in the economic decision making. Even some of Ahmadinejad’s populist rhetoric, such as giving the country’s poor a share of Iran’s oil wealth, have been viewed by many as cynical gimmicks that at best would heighten Iran’s economic plight. Further added to the disdain for Ahmadinejad are some of his personal characteristics. He appears, perhaps purposefully, shabby and un-diplomatic, a look which is probably intended to show him as the man of the people. He also tries to appear excessively religious and pious, which might also be intended to appeal to some of his supporters. Indeed, his religious beliefs have been so excessive—for example, seeing light surrounding him during his 2005 UN speech—that at times he has become the object of ridicule, particularly at home. Also, even though not very knowledgeable and enlightened, Ahmadinejad often appears pompous, bombastic and prone to exaggeration, characteristics which were visible during his presidential debates against his opponents or in his recent comments that the Iranian election was the most “beautiful,” “healthy” and “free in the world.” Such characteristics do not appeal to many people, especially those living in Iran.
Added to these is the continuous attempt by the US and Israel to demonize the man. From the beginning of his presidency Ahmadinejad was accused of many crimes. For example, immediately after his election in 2005, he was falsely accused of being one of the 1979 US Embassy hostage-takers, as well as being involved in an assassination of some Kurdish leaders in Vienna. Subsequently, many of his statements were either mistranslated or taken out of context to make him appear as a dangerous and ruthless anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, a new Hitler who is out to “wipe Israel off the map.” Ahmadinejad became, especially for those who don’t read his speeches in Farsi, a loathsome character who many would love to hate.
Yet, when it comes to foreign policy, Ahmadinejad seems to be admired by many people around the world for his uncompromising stance against the West, particularly the US and Israel. For example, early on he reversed the Paris Agreement of 2004 that asked Iran to suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. The agreement was viewed by many as capitulation to the whims and wishes of the US, Israel and their allies. Its reversal brought Ahmadinejad some measure of popularity at home as well. Against all odds, he pushed for the right of Iran to enrich uranium under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Even though at times reckless, the policy seemed to work and the West appeared unable, despite all the threats of military attacks and sanctions against Iran, to reverse it. Ahmadinejad also kept up a relentless rhetoric against Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine. The rhetoric resonated among some Iranian as well as Arab masses. For such stances, some progressive elements in the West, particularly in the US, seem to view Ahmadinejad as a nationalist and “anti-imperialist” fellow.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi is also a product of the Islamic Republic. He, too, represents the dichotomy of the Islamic Republic, but not as much as Ahmadinejad does. As the Prime Minister of Iran from 1981-1989 he surely does not have the clean bill of health that his massive support in Iran seems to indicate. Looking at his past and some of the events that took place during his premiership, one has to conclude, as many Iran analysts have already done so, that he was the “accidental hero” of Iran’s last election, the man who was “anyone-but-Ahmadinejad.” Yet, it would be wrong to assume, as some progressive elements outside of Iran, particularly in the US, have done that Mousavi is the agent of the “US imperialism” and a potential friend of Israel. Not only did his policies during his long premiership not support these contentions, his stances prior to the election on such issues as protecting Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, show that the US and Israel could have had as much trouble, if not more, with Mousavi as with Ahmadinejad. Indeed, if one followed very closely the US, Israel and the Israeli lobby groups’ attitude toward the Iranian presidential candidates prior to the election, one could see clearly that they preferred Ahmadinejad over Mousavi. Why? Because Ahmadinejad, as someone already demonized, was easier to deal with than Mousavi. Daniel Pipes famously summed up the attitude of the “neoconservatives” when he stated that if he were “enfranchised” in the Iranian election, he would have voted for Ahmadinejad since he would “prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and obvious, who wakes people up with his outlandish statements.”
It was Ahmadinejad, the perfect “enemy,” who entered the calculation of the US and Israeli policy makers when planning for the next step in the containment of Iran. As I will explain in the post-script to my book, The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment, after 30 years of trying to contain Iran and not succeeding, the Obama Administration, under the leadership of Dennis Ross, had come up with what they thought to be a workable policy of containment. The main thrust of the policy was that the US would go through the motions of engagement with Iran in order to implement crippling sanctions against her, followed by a possible military attack if Iran does not capitulate. In this scheme, even the deadline for the “engagement” with Iran was set, particularly after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Obama in May 2009. Given this plan, the Obama Administration, like most other observers of Iran, as well as polls conducted prior to the election, had calculated that Ahmadinejad would be the winner of the Iranian election and the one who, along with Khamenei, the “supreme leader” of Iran, would enter the “engagement.” An unknown entity, such as Mousavi, did not enter into the equation. Thus the rapid rise of Mousavi in the last few days of the electoral campaign, his subsequent claim that he actually won the election, and the violence that followed and shook the foundation of the Islamic Republic, caught both the American and Israeli politicians off guard. Not knowing exactly what to do, some initially remained quiet, some made cautious remarks and some resorted to sheer opportunism, throwing their support behind Mousavi and “democracy” in Iran. The latter in particular, smelled blood, and thought that the illusive, 30 year old containment of Iran suddenly had fallen from the sky into their lap. To them, when it comes to containment, chaos, mayhem and destruction are as good as any.
It might, however, be too early for the containment gang to pop the champagne cork. Iran has a long history of fighting tyrannical rule and, at the same time, trying to preserve its independence and national sovereignty. When and how Iranian upheavals begin, and what their outcomes would be, have often been too difficult to predict. The last time that the President of the United States called Iran an “island of stability” a revolution ensued that overthrew an old and well-entrenched dictator. The US President was, of course, not the only one who had a hard time predicting what would happen in Iran, not even the best Iran analysts saw the final outcome. This time, too, there is no way of telling how the current situation would develop. But until the dust settles, it might be best not to reduce a complicated social situation to a simplistic scenario, to see things as simply black or white, and to create heroes or villains.
SASAN FAYAZMANESH is Professor of Economics at
California State University, Fresno. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org