SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Iran: the reformist safety-valve has gone

The fraudulent parliamentary elections in Iran on February 20 mark the end of the ‘reform-wing’ within the clerical ruling elite of the Islamic Republic. But the election sweep of the hard-line faction will not stabilise the mullahs’ regime. On the contrary, it will open the way for a more radical and uncontrollable protest movement against the theocracy, argues MAHMOUD BERSANI, who recently visited the country.

‘A FARCE WITHOUT freedom’. This is how Mohammad Resa Khatami, the president’s brother and leader of the biggest reform-party, Moschakerat, called the election to the majlis, the Iranian parliament. Of the original 8,157 candidates, 3,605 were rejected by the Guardians’ Council – an unelected body which examines the candidates concerning their faith in Islam and the Islamic Republic, their loyalty to the Islamic constitution, and ‘velajate faghieh’, the absolute rule of the mullahs.

As in all unelected institutions, the Council is dominated by the regime’s hard-line-faction. In the capital, Teheran, it rejected more than half of the original 2,050 candidates. Among those not allowed to stand were 83 sitting MPs. One candidate explained that he was rejected simply because he had shaved off his beard, taken by the Guardians’ Council as proof of his lack of faith in Islam. In reaction to these exclusions another 1,000 reformers withdrew their candidacies and 130 MPs, after a spectacular 26-day-sit-in strike in the parliament building, resigned from the majlis.

‘Too little, too late’ was the attitude of the people towards these protest actions of the reform faction. During the four years they held the majority in the majlis, not one of the more than 50 reform projects was accepted as law by the Guardians’ Council. In spite of having the presidency and a clear majority in parliament, the reformers were unable to prevent critical intellectuals, politicians and journalists from being thrown in jail or even murdered by the hardliners’ paramilitary groups and secret service organisations. They were unable to check the judiciary, another bastion of the conservatives. More than 100 reform-oriented newspapers and magazines had been banned since 2000, the last two just before the election for publishing a protest letter against the Guardian Council’s actions.

Because of this inability of the reformers to make a real difference, to challenge the hard-line faction, the masses remained passive when the reformers did move. This allowed the conservatives to ignore the reformers’ demand to postpone the election. In the end, the Guardians’ Council only reversed 1,160 rejections: more than 2,000 candidates remained excluded. The reformers split on how to react. Most groups decided to call for a boycott of this fraudulent election. Moschakerat declared: "we do not regard these elections as being free, fair and legal and therefore see no reason to take part in them". Even president Khatami said "my government will only hold elections which take place in the spirit of competition and freedom". But the president’s by now famous hesitancy, which is the subject of jokes in the streets of Teheran, got the upper hand of him again. Despite saying the elections were unfair and undemocratic, he called on the people to cast their vote.

The election results were as had been widely expected. According to the interior ministry, 190 of the 290 seats were practically reserved to the conservatives as a result of candidate exclusions: in 202 constituencies there was only one candidate. Overall, the hardliners ‘won’ 156 seats and the reformers only 39, compared to 190 in 1990. Others were mostly taken by conservative ‘independents’. In the Bam region, which was hit by a terrible earthquake during which 41,000 people died, the ballot was postponed.

Low turnout

ACCORDING TO THE interior ministry, 50.6% of voters took part in the election. That is more than was expected by the reformers but, nevertheless, it is the lowest poll in the 25-year-history of the Islamic Republic and 17% less than at the last majlis election in 2000. This was in spite of the fact that the organs of the clerical elite did all they could to mobilise for the poll. For two weeks, television and radio programmes permanently hammered one message to the people: ‘vote’. In almost all Friday prayers, held in every corner of the country, participation in the election was declared a ‘religious duty’. Rumours were put in circulation that students without an election stamp in their passports would not be admitted to university and that state employees who boycotted the election would face problems. It is therefore probable that many went to the ballot box out of fear of sanctions. The reformist MP Fatemeh Haghighatdju claimed in parliament that 17% of the votes cast were invalid. But in the big cities, most people nevertheless openly abstained from the election.

Abstentions were especially high in the former bastions of the reformers, the big cities of Isfahan and Teheran, as well as the Kurdish areas. In the capital only 28% of the six million eligible voters went to the polls. In Isfahan participation was also less than a third. In the province of Kurdistan, the turnout more than halved from 70% to 32%. As a result of the abstention of their former voters, the reformers even lost their former strongholds. The conservatives won all five seats in Isfahan. In the capital, the new conservative group ‘Developers of Islamic Iran’ took the biggest share of the votes. Its head, Ghulam Ali Haddad Adel, is connected through the marriage of his daughter to the ‘religious head’, Ali Khamenei, formally the most powerful man in the country. Haddad Adel had previously only captured a seat in the majlis through obvious manipulation. In this year’s election, not even the well known reform politician and president of the majlis, Mehdi Karrubi, won one of the 30 mandates in Teheran.

Although before and during the election the masses remained largely passive towards the power struggle at the top, on election day itself, anger about the blatant manipulation erupted in some instances. In the southern city of Firuzabad and in Iseh in the south-western province of Khusistan violent clashes between angry voters and state forces took place. Eight people died as a result and many were injured.

‘Teheran spring’ ends

MOSTAFE TADJSADEH, A leading member of the reform-oriented Islamic Iranian Participation Front, told the AFP news agency that, in "free elections we would have won a majority of seats". That is very doubtful. The people of Iran, who in their great majority desperately want change, have lost faith in Khatami and his supporters. Young people and women especially had set their hopes on Khatami after his election to the presidency in 1997 and again after the reformist sweep of the parliamentary election in 2000. But these forces did not deliver. The so-called ‘Teheran spring’, the attempt to reform the Islamist regime from above, is over. "The reformists are dead", a 23-year old medical student from northeast Iran told AFP. "They were dead already, but now they are even deader". A young member of the reform-oriented Student Islamic Association said: "The reforms have been dead for years and they were finished by these kind of elections". "Even if the reformist candidates had been approved, I would not have participated", another young female student said. A journalist and former supporter of Khatami, who had spent two years in jail, explained: "We have risked our necks for him [Khatami]. But except for words of consolation he has done nothing, although he had 20 million voters behind him". At the universities especially, the attitude towards Khatami is marked by extreme bitterness. When the students took to the streets in 1999 to protest for democracy and freedom and against the repression of independent thought, Khatami not only failed to support them, but on TV even called the students, who carried his picture, "troublemakers and hooligans". The student movement has radicalised since then. During protests in 2003 the students openly demanded an end to the absolute religious system, the ‘velajate faghieh’. They also called on Khatami to resign.

The students have recognised that Khatami and his supporters do not want a general change in Iranian society. The reformers accept the ‘velajate faghieh’ and the Islamic constitution, which is structurally undemocratic. It gives absolute power and a right to veto all decisions to the ‘revolutionary leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "The power of the revolutionary leader is given to him by God", Khamenei himself recently explained. "God gives this power to people who are just and morally incontestable and who are accepted by the people". The latter is clearly not the case any more. A dictatorial system, which rests on these kind of preconditions, cannot be fundamentally ‘reformed’. It can only be swept away by a mass movement. Khatami and his supporters want the contrary: their aim is to prevent a revolutionary mass movement from below by conceding reforms from above. This faction of the clerical elite recognises the enormous anger existing within broad layers of Iranian society. By allowing certain limited freedoms and using a softer and ‘democratic’ kind of language, Khatami wants to provide a safety-valve for the pressure building up. But in contrast to the hopes that focussed on him, he never wanted to achieve fundamental change. Khatami himself is part of the clerical elite which took away power from the masses during the revolutionary uprising in 1979. Otherwise he would have never even had the chance to be elected: in 1997 the Guardians’ Council only accepted four of the 238 candidates for the presidency – one of them being Khatami, himself a mullah, of course. What Khatami fears most is a mass movement from below, which will not be controllable by any of the regime’s factions. This explains Khatami’s famous – or infamous – hesitancy. He does not have a power-base within the structures of the Islamist state. His only source of power is, or rather was, the support of the masses. But he never dared to play this card, for fear of losing control over his supporters. In the end, he always gave in to the pressure of his conservative opponents.

The different wings of the political establishment represent different, and partly contradictory, interests within Iranian society. Both factions are far from homogenous but in general the reformers rest on more modern bourgeois elements while the hardliners represent powerful groups who control big parts of the economy and most of the state apparatus. Important sections of the reform camp favour economic development and modernisation through the use of foreign technology. The conservatives on the other hand have traditionally close ties with the bazaar traders but are also connected to mafia-type organisations which profit from smuggling all the goods – from alcohol and other drugs to pornography – usually called ‘western evils’ by these same leaders. They also rest on the ‘foundations’, powerful financial institutions that started off as charity organisations but now control wide sections of the economy. Politically, the conservatives rest on the most backward elements in the villages while the reformers, until recently, received the support of the intelligentsia and the youth.

Political and social crisis

THE VICTORY OF the hardline-faction in the internal power-struggle does not at all indicate a stabilisation and consolidation of the regime. On the contrary: the rule of the clerical elite is in a deep crisis of legitimacy, and it has lost its safety-valve. Its more sensible and flexible elements have been pushed out of the state-apparatus. It is probable that, at the presidential elections next year, in which Khatami cannot stand a third time, the reformers will loose the presidency as well. This means that all resistance to established politics from now on has to take the form of fundamental opposition to the theocratic system itself. While the students and other progressive elements have lost hope in Khatami, they have not become apolitical. Iranian society remains deeply politicised. And wide layers are still enormously dissatisfied with the political and economic situation. According to a poll, conducted by the interior ministry in June 2002, about 90% of the population is not satisfied with the Islamic Republic. Nearly half of those questioned complained about the lack of individual and collective legal security while 32% said they did not see any perspective for their future in Iran.

The reason for this is not just the lack of democratic rights and individual freedom. It is also reflects the deep social crisis of the country. Officially, unemployment stands at 11.2% and inflation at 16.5%, but the real figures are much worse. Millions of Iranians survive by selling goods in the streets of the big cities or by depending on their families. Over half of Iranian families live at or below the poverty-line. 800,000 young people enter the job-market every year, many of them after finishing university. Their expectation of a respectable livelihood is not fulfilled: 13% of physicians are unemployed. Four out of five teachers live below the poverty-line. A consequence of this is an enormous ‘brain drain’: between 150,000 and 180,000 Iranians try to leave the country every year. In this respect Iran is first on a list of 91 underdeveloped countries, says the World Bank. The Economist estimates that the Iranian economy has contracted by 30% since the revolution 25 years ago. Starting this summer, fuel will be rationed for at least four years. Because of the lack of refineries, Iran has to import 27m barrels of fuel per day, though it is one of the major oil-producing countries of the world!

The lack of basic necessities, the delay of wage payments, job insecurity, lay-offs, and other issues, occasionally lead to resistance and strikes by groups of workers. The most recent instance was a strike of workers in a copper-smelting plant in the southern province of Kerman against management plans to lay off part of the workforce. As in many of these cases, special police forces brutally attacked the workers and killed four of them. Strikes and independent unions are banned in Iran. Instead, ‘Islamic workers’ councils’ are supposed to mediate between workers and employers in the case of conflicts. In spite of this lack of basic workers’ rights, the number of strikes and protests seems to be on the increase.

Neo-liberal policies

THE REFORMERS OFFER as a cure for the social and economic crisis the same neo-liberal recipe that has failed in the rest of the world. Khatami, speaking in parliament about the aims of the fourth five-year-plan, said: "The finances and the budget of the state have to be put in order… the private economy has to be massively supported, and the administration has to be reorganised". He continued: "The state monopolies have to be wound up or brought under control, economic advantages and privileges have to be scrapped". In recent years, the reformers have pursued a policy of privatisations and cutting down subsidies on basic consumer goods. Furthermore, Khatami demanded intensified co-operation with international companies and the entry of Iran into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In February the latter was rejected, for the 15th time since 1996.

According to a recent study, Iran is one of the least internationally integrated economies worldwide. To break this international isolation was one of the main aims of the reformist faction. Partly because of the uncompromising line of the hawks in Washington, this has failed so far. The outcome of the election will mean a stiffening of the hardliners on both sides, in Iran and the US and Europe. Richard Boucher, spokesman of the US State Department, said the election process did not fit ‘international standards’ (no doubt set by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq?). The election was a setback mainly for the EU, which had followed a strategy of ‘constructive dialogue’ with the Iranian regime’s reform camp over recent years. This policy had achieved some remarkable results for the European powers, especially for Germany. German exports to Iran have grown by an annual rate of 20% in the last three years. With $270m of assets, Germany also holds most direct investments in this "very, very important country" (German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer). But other countries – like Russia, Japan, France and Austria – have also recently intensified their economic cooperation with Iran.

Paradoxically, the victory of the Iranian conservatives could lead to an improved relationship with the ‘Great Satan’, the USA. Neither side is as dogmatic on the issue as their rhetoric might suggest. It is significant that it was the hard-line faction itself that struck the deal with the US-dominated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to allow them to investigate Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The situation has opened up, especially since the US-led war against neighbouring Iraq. This was reflected in the fact that both sides used the tragic Bam earthquake to send diplomatic signals of reconciliation. In the aftermath of the election, Boucher also spoke of engaging "Iran on specific issues of mutual concern and in an appropriate manner, if we decide it is in our interest to do so". An important field of ‘mutual concern’ might be Iraq. For the US occupation forces there, it is of vital importance to include the leaders of the Iraqi Shiites – closely connected to the Iranian regime – in any new order. Concessions by Teheran on the question of Iraq, or Afghanistan where it has great influence in the western regions, could put the mullahs back into the international game. But such a rapprochement of the two arch-enemies is most probably not likely to take place until after the presidential elections in both countries.

Concerning internal politics, too, the victorious conservatives may proceed on an unexpected path. It is possible that they will not dare to attack the individual freedoms won in the recent period. Although the Guardians’ Council, immediately after the election, announced that the majlis would "in the future concentrate on the strengthening of Islam… and push through belief and morals in public life", there were also other signals. The conservative leader, Ghulam Ali Haddad Adel, emphasised at a news conference that the winners would not use violence to enforce the strict Islamic social rules, which have been loosened during Khatami’s presidency.

A lot has changed in the life of Iranians since his election victory in 1997. The atmosphere in the streets of Teheran, Shiraz and other big cities has changed radically. Men and women openly stroll in the many parks or at the grave of Hafiz or other poets. Women with heavy make-up wear well-fitting coats instead of wide, dark capes. Western influenced pop music is played without fear. All of this was unimaginable just a couple of years ago. Life in Iran has changed not because of Khatami’s actual policies but because people have lost fear. In 1997 it became clear to everyone that a huge majority wants change. Khatami’s election therefore served to enhance the self-confidence of the masses towards the organs of the state and the reactionary groups. If the conservatives now want to turn the clock backwards, they will meet massive resistance, of the youth in particular. Almost 30 million young people, around 40% of the population, were born after the 1979 revolution. These youth, who see their desired path blocked by old mullahs with white beards, represent the great potential for a mass movement for change in Iran.


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