Iran and America: The Will to Change

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.

Yacov Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge, a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context, where this article first appeared. Published in Tel Aviv by Arabs and Jews, Challenge features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. Please visit the Challenge website and support their important work. Read other articles by Yacov, or visit Yacov's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Shabnam said on June 27th, 2009 at 2:27pm #

    This article is written to express Arabs’ hostile view towards Iran. Mr. Jacob: do you think Iranian women have less rights compare to women from Saudi Arabia who cannot even drive their own fucking cars? Do you think workers in Iran have less freedom of assembly than workers in Egypt or Saudi Arabia? How many Arab women do you see active in politics in the Arab world? How many times have you seen a mass demonstration like the one we witnessed after the elections based on phony charge of ‘fraud’? The answer is none. Does Iran have racist policy regarding religious minorities like Israel have? The answer is NO. Why don’t we have a destabilization plan in Saudi Arabia? Israel? Or Egypt?

    Iranian people are struggling for democracy and economic prosperity since the end of 19th century to improve their lives. They have achieved improvement in much area including Sciences, education, health yet the struggle continues. The struggle of the Iranian people has been greatly influenced by the dirty works of British colonial, American imperialism and now Zionism. The imperial west has a dark history in each country of the region including Iran. They have overthrown governments and their leaders whom they found not representing British or American’s interest.

    Qajar dynasty was overthrown to bring a dictator, Reza Shah, to power to set the ‘Westernization’ of Iran like in Turkey in motion. British had control over the Iranian oil and resources. Their own puppet, Reza Shah, was overthrown in 1945, not because of his corruption and autocratic rule rather because he was not obedient enough since he announced Iran’s neutrality in WWII. They kicked him out and installed his young son to the thrown to protect British interest. The west has control over the movements in the region. When nationalism was strong, the West did every dirty trick to destroy it to expand it political and economic interest. During the cold war, ‘communism’, became the target, and then nothing left except the Masque for people to assemble. When the Soviet Union dissolved, nothing but Islamic movement, where majority of them are established by British and American imperialism and now Zionism, left.
    Samir Amin, found Iran different from ‘Islamists’ who were supported by the US for expansion of her interest in the region. He writes:
    “It is Iranian nationalism—powerful and, in my opinion, altogether historically positive—that explains the success of the modernization of scientific, industrial, technological, and military capabilities undertaken by the Shah’s regime and the Khomeinist regime that followed. Iran is one of the few states of the South (with China, India, Korea, Brazil, and maybe a few others, but not many!) to have a national bourgeois project.”

    Mr. Jacob: why don’t we have mass protest where goes on for a week in Saudi Arabia or Egypt? Are they satisfied with their fascist Arab head of States who do the Zionist dirty work against their own people?
    Is there any destabilization plan for Saudi Arabia in motion? We have just seen Obama bent in front of the FASCIST ‘king’ to receive more financial assistant to prevent mass protest against a broken economy and transfer of large amount of money to the Bankers while let people lose their homes to prevent mass protest. Have you thought about 400 million dollars funding for destabilization plan in Iran while you were writing this paper?
    Did you considered the work of Ramin Ahmadi, Roya Hakkakian and Payam Akhavan, who have opened “The Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center” in New Haven, aimed at compiling an authoritative account of human rights violation in Iran since 1979 when you were writing the conclusion?

    Payam Akhavan, a Bahia, is a board member of Canadian “rights and democracy” funded by Canadian government similar to NED beside his involvement as a United Nations Tribunals for war crimes and other responsibilities such as:
    Payam Akhavan is a leading international lawyer and scholar of human rights. He was the first war crimes prosecutor at the United Nations Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and served as counsel in several high profile cases, including the International Criminal Court proceedings against the Lord’s Resistance Army commanders for forced conscription of Ugandan child soldiers.

    He lent his signature to protest his voice against Ontario Wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to pass a resolution” to ban Israeli academics” who have not explicitly condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza from “doing speaking, teaching or research work at Ontario Universities” on January 15, 2009 in Canadian Jewish Congress.
    He sided with Zionist war criminals against Palestinian toddlers who were burnt to death by Israel’s phosphorous bombs along zinofascist such as Bernard Henri Levy.
    When Zionism has biased lawyers like Payam Akhavan the world cannot function according to rule of law, therefore, we should expose these double standard measures which can be found by NGO and those who represent imperialism and Zionism.
    Payam Ekhvan activity support destruction and massacre of Palestinian people, many children, but at the same time he is involved in destabilization of Iran through Human Rights Center that receives funding by US government to document HR violations in Iran. They have received more than a million grants from State Department’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund according to published documents.
    Negar Azimi has published an article in the NYT “Hard Realities of Soft Power,” on June 24, 2007 who reveals the nature of Ramin Ahmadi’s work. She writes:
    “[T]here is a deep awareness of more recent U.S. efforts to destabilize the Islamic government. As Martin Indyk, an assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration, recently told me: “Don’t forget 1996, when Newt Gingrich proposed an $18 million program, a covert program to overthrow the regime. From then the Iranians were convinced we were coming for them.”
    One of the Human Rights activists, Emad Baghi, has told her:

    “All of a sudden, my normal human rights work becomes political. I have one question: Why do I have to suffer when this money is going to pay for someone else’s salary in Washington?”
    Negar Azimi continues:

    [Other institutions have invested the money in Web zines, training sessions, workshops and exchanges. But even such mild activities can bring risks, as can be seen in the case of Ramin Ahmadi.
    A compact man, peripatetic and cordial, Ahmadi is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Yale Medical School, founder of the Griffin Center for Health and Human Rights and a frequent commentator on Iranian affairs. Having left Iran at the age of 17 — “through the hills,” as he often recounts — he has devoted himself to bringing about his particular vision of a democratic Iran. When in his excited presence, you get the impression that Iran is on the verge of a revolution, that disenfranchisement, isolation and desperation have pushed people to the edge. “We are where Poland was in 1981 or 1982,” Ahmadi told me.
    Ahmadi and a group of partners were among the earlier recipients of State Department democracy financing, securing initial grants of $1.6 million in 2004 to start the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Two years later, at least two persons have been arrested in connection with attending the Dubai workshops. To this day, Ahmadi’s name continues to come up in interrogations.

    The nonviolent conflict center, for its part, is no longer running workshops with Iranians. “We don’t want people to get arrested,” Jack DuVall, the organization’s president, told me. Reza Afshari, the professor who had been so worried by the Dubai project, has resigned from the documentation center’s board, and the New Haven center has gone through three successive executive directors. But Ahmadi has carried on. He held another workshop recently following which at least three people were imprisoned in connection with their attendance, though one maintains that he was never there in the first place. Ahmadi, for his part, maintains that all of his workshops are carried out with private funds. (The State Department declined to comment on Ahmadi’s work.) “The question is not whether you will interfere, it is how will you interfere,” he told me. “They need the help now . . . but they can’t possibly publicly say it. They have to say, leave us alone. You have to not listen.”]

    Mr. Jacob: as long as you have left all these factors out, your analysis is not going to be taken seriously because is closer to propaganda than analysis. American people needs a balanced work to be able to know what is going on. They receive zionist propaganda daily by the Media and since Obama took over the so called “Alternative media” like Zmag has jumped on the bandwagon to help the zionist project in the region.
    The phony nature of the ‘left’ in the West has been exposed. Majority are under Zionist influence including Green Party.

    Payman Akhavan’s signature in support of Zionist action against boycotting Israel Academic can be found on May 20, 2008 – at the following link:

  2. lichen said on June 27th, 2009 at 3:35pm #

    Much of this article is very good in that it describes the situation in Iran accurately, without the impetus of americans who think that Iranian’s can’t have their own political movement without the cia being behind it.

  3. brian said on June 27th, 2009 at 11:34pm #

    thre was no vote fraud.and the only schism is that between the haves and have nots:

    Further evidence there was no vote fraud in iran

  4. brian said on June 28th, 2009 at 5:09am #

    ‘Political parties are outlawed, so the choice is among personalitie’

    In the US political parties xist but get to choose the candidates..We know how that worked im 2000!
    Democracy shouldbe about people (‘personalties’)_Not parties. Parties allow demons into power. and prevent people from having any say in government.

  5. bozh said on June 28th, 2009 at 6:40am #

    brian, two party system of rule is OK. Let one be fascist [anywhere from 1-10] and the other socialist [from 1-10] and one wld see enormous changes.
    in US, if one has a strong socialist party, the two parties now extant, but exactly the same in all salient aspects of US policies, wld merge.
    so the problem in US is the one party rule.
    in any case, both wings of one party represent the rich people much more than the rest of the people. tnx

  6. Phil said on June 29th, 2009 at 7:07am #

    [Obama] has overthrown the Bush policy, which created abysmal hatred against America — a hatred well exploited by the Iranian regime and its allies.

    Really, he’s done no such thing. He’s put a fresh coat of paint on the same old policies, that’s all.

    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.


    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.

    Maybe in Iran it is, and more power to them. It won’t happen here in the US anytime soon, though… not until a solid majority of the citizens is able to realize that Obama and his ilk are also part of the problem, not the solution.