Two weeks have passed since the Iranian elections of June 12, 2009, and the storm aroused by the putative result refuses to die. What’s happening there is not a democratic disagreement, as the Emir of Qatar described it, but a conflict between two well-defined forces over the country’s future. We cannot know who really won the election, but even supposing it was incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his “victory” has revealed a deep schism. The struggle concerns the nature of government in Iran, and the results of this struggle will extend much farther than the questionable election results.
The huge demonstrations of the first week reflected lack of confidence in Iran’s electoral system, not merely because the regime can easily fabricate the result, but also because, at base, this system is far from reflecting the will of the people. Political parties are outlawed, so the choice is among personalities. In order to prevent the election of anyone who is anti-regime, every candidate must be approved by the “Committee for Preservation of the Constitution,” whose task is to ensure fidelity to Islamic rule.
Among 475 initial candidates this time (including 42 women), only three men were permitted to challenge the incumbent. Thus anyone who wanted to depose Ahmadinejad had to vote for one of these. As it turned out, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had been prime minister under the Ayatollah Khomeini, garnered support from most of those who were fed up with Ahmadinejad and his patron, the supreme religious authority in Iran, Ali Khamenei.
What caused hundreds of thousands to pour into the streets and risk their lives? How did it happen that the Supreme Authority lost his authority? Iran is an enormous exporter of oil, like several other third-world nations, and its economic situation is no better than theirs. It is no accident that the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, came out in support of Ahmadinejad. Both countries produce oil; both suffer from chronic unemployment, rising inflation and poverty that cries to the heavens. Chavez is the idol of the masses. Ahmadinejad too, by his way of dressing and talking, his anti-imperialist positions and his relentless enmity toward the US and Israel, presents himself as a revolutionary and a friend to the poor.
It seems, however, that many Iranians remain unimpressed by Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric. More than anything, they are troubled by the suppression of human freedoms, the cruel subjugation of women, and the imposition of Islamic fundamentalism as a way of life. If we add the economic backwardness of Iran and the religious bureaucracy’s control of its oil revenues, we get a ticking bomb. When the regime uses terror against the Iranian people, this will only speed the moment of explosion.
For the fact is that thirty years since the ousting of the Shah, the Iranian Islamic Republic has not succeeded in providing its people with a decent life. Ahmadinejad plumes himself with the feathers of the poor, but the location of those who vote for him shows Iran’s failure to propel its society beyond the poverty line. According to the meager information we have, it was the urban population — the focus of economic and cultural power in every modern society — that voted against Ahmadinejad. The poor, living in remote villages throughout the country, may form the electoral majority, but their contribution toward building the society is small. What’s more, where there is no freedom of assembly and the regime is all-powerful, nothing is easier than to buy the loyalty of those who live on charity.
The Iranian protest movement is not a foreign import. Nor does it resemble elitist, reactionary protest movements like the orange revolution in Ukraine. Iran’s green movement reflects an authentic will to change an oppressive regime that has impeded the country’s economic, social and cultural development. But this movement has a problem. It lacks leadership. Mousavi has been a channel, to be sure, for expressing revulsion from the regime, but he cannot encompass the unorganized currents that have now begun to flow. For this reason the regime will succeed, temporarily, in suppressing the demonstrations and imposing its will on the people.
Yet the green movement will prove to be a landmark. The division within the regime between the reformists and the conservatives did not first emerge as a result of the demonstrations: rather, it made them possible. That division has existed ever since the death of Khomeini in 1989. It was expressed in the election of reformist candidate Muhammad Khatami to two terms, from 1997 until 2005. But Khatami disappointed his constituents. Against the determined opposition of the Supreme Authority, Ali Khamenei, he failed to implement the reforms he’d promised: to eliminate corruption and bring more democracy.
Within the religious establishment there is division between Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s wealthiest persons, who is considered an important religious authority. Rafsanjani is influenced by the disappointment of the people, especially the urban middle class. By continuing to alienate them, he knows, Khamenei courts disaster. Rafsanjani holds that the government must express the will of the classes that constitute the society’s economic and cultural base. The conservatives, on the other hand, see any departure from religious law as dangerously corrosive.
All the democratic forces in Iran, including the Communist Party (which is underground), called on the people to support Mousavi in the recent elections. They accurately gauged the mood of the masses: that behind Mousavi a broad movement has gathered, whose strategic aim is to topple the totalitarian regime. This internal division opens a new horizon for the Iranian people after thirty years of arrests and assassinations directed against the leaders and parties that deposed the Shah. Iranians may hope at last to rebuild their parties and trade unions toward the creation of a democratic Iran.
The hesitant support of US President Barack Obama, the cynical pronouncements of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (who broadcasts his shock at the firing on protesters in far-off Tehran but never in nearby Bil’in), the crocodile tears of the Shah’s son in Washington – need not mislead us. The Iranian people have no wish to sit again on Uncle Sam’s lap, lining up against the Arab world. The Iranian people have no wish to exchange the present dictator for a new Shah. The Iranian opposition knows what colonialism means. It sees what goes on in the occupied Palestinian territories. It sees what globalization has wrought among the peoples of the world. It will not move backward. Its whole will is to bring the Iranians, schooled in struggle and disappointment, as a free people into the family of peoples.
The revolution of 1979 against the Shah was never intended to usher in a Shiite dictatorship, but the Ayatollahs co-opted it. The lesson has been learned, and the new Iranian movement will know how to guard basic rights and freedoms.
There is a direct connection between what is happening in Iran and what is happening in the US. Until recently, who dreamed that Americans would elect an Afro-American president? The Obama Effect reverberates through the Middle East. He has overthrown the Bush policy, which created abysmal hatred against America — a hatred well exploited by the Iranian regime and its allies.
We should bear in mind, though, that Obama was not elected to make peace in our region, rather to rescue America from the worst economic crisis in eighty years. The American people seek liberation from the free-market fundamentalism of the neo-cons, while the Iranian people seek liberation from religious fundamentalism. The concurrence of these two movements is no coincidence. One process feeds the other and is fed in return. George W. Bush used Iran to frighten Americans, while Ahmadinejad used Bush’s America to strengthen his hold on Iranians. Now both societies have exhausted their political-economic systems. Obama’s election expresses the American will for change, and the outcome of the Iranian election brings hundreds of thousands into the streets. In America the crisis is more purely economic. In Iran it is political and economic. Yet these two very different processes, in two very different societies, belong nonetheless to the same historical moment: it is a moment of systemic change, with societies converging toward democracy and social justice.
The events in Iran are not foreign imports, just as the events in America are anchored in deep internal change. The world is going through a process that will alter an entire system, where predatory capitalism has lived in friction with an Islamic fundamentalism bent on correcting “the evils of the West.” It is not just the free-market system that has reached a dead end. The Islamic “resistance” too has exhausted itself, in Lebanon and Palestine as well as Iran. Events in Iran send shock waves through all the Arab regimes that deny basic rights to their citizens. Iranian women are an example for Arab women, and Iranian workers are an example for Arab workers whose right to form unions is denied. This is the real “Iranian bomb.” Israel must fear it, and America too — for Obama is counting on the old alliances with Arab dictators. The development of this “bomb” will take time, no doubt, but Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Tzippi Livni ought to read the writing on the wall: the years of the Occupation are numbered; it will become increasingly anachronistic as Arab masses take to the streets, challenging their regimes in the name of democracy and human rights. Thirty years ago the Iranian revolution changed the face of the Middle East toward fundamentalism. Today, on the streets of Tehran, appear the first glimmers of real democracy.