Power struggle emerges in Iran

In recent months a simmering power struggle has erupted within the ruling circles of the Islamic Republic of Iran, between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Under Iran’s 1979 constitution, the supreme leader, who is not elected by popular vote but by the Council of Experts made up of 86 Islamic scholars, is the highest political and religious authority.

On April 17, the official news agencies published the resignation letter of the intelligence services minister, Heidar Moslehi. This was accepted by Ahmadinejad, but was rejected by Khamenei. On April 20, the 290-member parliament became involved in the conflict. It sent a letter to Ahmadinejad stating that it continued to recognise Moslehi as the minister. This dramatically escalated the conflict. However, Khamenei denied there was any conflict.

Ahmadinejad decided to replace Moslehi with Abbas Amirifar, the head of the Cultural Council in the president’s office, on April 30. But on the night of May 1, the judiciary had Amirifar arrested. Then, in mid-May, a number of other officials closely associated with the president’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, were also arrested, reportedly on corruption charges. The arrests came as ultra-conservatives, who accuse Mashaie of exerting too much influence over Ahmadinejad, have stepped up pressure on the president to dismiss his controversial confidant, accusing him of leading a “deviationist” current aimed at undermining the Islamic regime. On June 29, Ahmadinejad told reporters that the arrests were aimed at putting political pressure on his government.

Doctrine and poverty

Artin Afkhami, an Iran researcher for both the New York Times and Princeton University, writing on July 1 for the website iranian.com, argued, “All organised conservative factions have abandoned” Ahmadinejad, “as have conservative media outlets such as Fars News, Raja News, and others”. Afkhami wrote that Ahmadinejad’s “supporters believe they can enlarge his base by reaching out to secular moderates and shoring up support amongst the poor, something his aide Mashaie has been faithfully attempting to do” by advocating an “Iranian school” of Islam. This, according to Afkhami, is “a concept that has stirred much controversy amongst conservative traditionalists who adhere to strict interpretations of Shi’ite doctrine”.

Mashaie has promoted the messianic idea of the imminent return of the Mahdi (according to Shi’ism, the 12th and final rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed) and that in his absence Shi’ite Muslims have a personal connection to the Mahdi that implicitly makes clerical interlocutors such as ayatollahs unnecessary.

This attempt to strengthen Ahmadinejad’s base among the poor is undercut by the fact that, despite his anti-imperialist rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has presided over one of the most conservative and pro-capitalist governments Iran has had since 1988.

Enter the IMF

Since that year, when the Islamic Republic began to accept loans from the International Monetary Fund, every northern spring the IMF has sent a mission to Tehran to verify the country’s compliance with global capital’s requirements. Every year by mid-summer, Iran’s central bank and the government have proposed further privatisations in the industrial, banking and service sectors, bringing further misery to tens of thousand of workers, victims of subsequent job losses and casualisation.

In 2009 the government issued a model individual employment contract, which contained some basic labour rights, such as minimum wages and sickness and annual leave provisions. But this model has been ignored by employers, and the government has done nothing to make them comply. Many employers force workers to sign blank employment contracts on which the employer later fills in the details. With an official unemployment rate of 13.5% and with unemployment benefits available only to permanent employees, few workers can refuse to sign.

According to the leader of the pro-regime union of contract workers, Fathollah Bayat, at least 80% of Iranian workers are on individual temporary, usually one-month, employment contracts dictated by the employers. This means that the vast majority are deprived of the most basic rights such as sickness and annual leave, as well as the legal minimum wage.

In 2006 the Majles, Iran’s parliament, considered a proposal that workers who had more than 10 years’ experience in same job should be become permanent, but in July 2010 this proposal was rejected. In March, 1800 temporary contract workers at the Tabriz Petrochemical Complex demanded that they be hired directly by the company, rather than via labour-hire firms, in order to receive the benefits and job security provisions to which permanent employees are entitled. In April, 1500 striking workers at the Imam Khomeini Port Petrochemical Company in the south-western province of Khuzestan  made similar demands.

Subsidies cut

Beginning last December, Ahmadinejad’s government has also systematically cut the equivalent of US$60 billion in yearly subsidies for food and utilities. In a May 1 article in the British Independent, Patrick Cockburn reported from Tehran that Western “sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear programme are having an impact, but their seriousness is limited compared with the United Nations sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s. The withdrawal of state funding for food and utilities … affects day-to-day life more than any embargo … Once one of the cheapest cities in the world, Tehran is now becoming much more costly. Prices have risen steeply as subsidies disappear for everything from electricity, gas and water to foodstuffs such as flour and cooking oil. People are shocked to find that their utility bills have quadrupled.”

The subsidy cuts, which the IMF estimates have amounted to the equivalent of US$4000 per year for the average family, are part of what the government calls the “economic transformation plan”, which will also include banking reform, sweeping changes in Iran’s tax and customs system and more privatisation of state-owned industries.

Some of the financial blow to consumers was softened by cash payments of around $40 a month, which the government says it has paid to 60 million Iranians. The first two months’ payments were deposited in bank accounts in late October, but the money was not available for withdrawal until the middle of December. The cuts in domestic subsidies on oil and natural gas, long advocated by the IMF, are aimed at making more oil and gas available for export, thus boosting export revenues.

During its May 28-June 9 visit to Tehran, the IMF mission praised the subsidy cuts for “improving living standards”.