Once again Iran has captured world attention. The 10th presidential election period has presented a new element in Iran’s politics not seen in the previous exercise of universal suffrage in the country: massive mobilisation of the people. This became evident throughout the election period in the larger than usual gatherings at election rallies in support of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his main challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi. All social strata were drawn into this process to one degree or another. The election turnout reportedly surpassed 80%.
The electoral process in Iran set the people in motion on divergent paths. Live TV political debates among the candidates became heated, but absent from the debate was any substance with regard to empowering the people to deal with social, economic and political problems. The televised election debates did not have any national or international focal points. Each candidate challenged the other’s statistical numbers and figures with regard to inflation or this or that economic indicator. Credentials of various known personalities and the validity of university degrees of others were questioned or defended. There were personal attacks and finger pointing before TV audiences, estimated at one point as high as 50 million in a country of nearly 70 million.
The debates occurred in a political atmosphere already charged by widespread discontent among the population over economic, social, political and cultural shortcomings; economic shortcomings that have been exacerbated by the impact of the current financial crash and the recession of the advanced economies – the biggest since the 1930s Great Depression – as well as cultural shortcomings which are resented by many as the enforcement of cultural values of one section of the population over the others for the last 30 years.
With the people set into motion, the momentum gained during the election campaigns by all of the opposing camps did not stop at the ballot count of the June 12 election. The main challenger, Mousavi, claimed victory prior, during, and after the ballot count. Cries of election fraud, and even a “coup d’etat”, were raised even before Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a landslide. The stage was thus set for a confrontation of unprecedented magnitude between different sectors of the capitalist ruling class.
During the current round of factional struggle within the ruling class, all central clerical and non-clerical leaders of the Islamic Republic have lined up with opposing factions. The power struggle is out in the open. Popular entry into the factional disputes has reinforced the need to revive the gains of the 1979 revolution with regard to freedom of press and assembly and the right of independent revolutionary nationalist and working-class tendencies to organize on the same level as those ruling-class factions that are tied to capitalism. Without independent mobilisations and organisations of working people of the city and countryside, along with their allies among the youth, students, women and ethnic-national minorities, the maintenance and extension of the historic fight for national sovereignty will be at serious peril. Left to its own logic, this factional dispute does not promise any better ending than the previous ones.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 was born from the rallies of millions that confronted the Shah and US-backed shoot-to-kill orders of the Shah’s army with flowers that led to a fraternization of the army and the air force ranks with the demonstrators and strikers. This paved the way for the victory of the insurrection on February 20 and 21, 1979. The Iranian population’s willingness to unite around a common platform for strengthening national sovereignty, political liberties and social justice, far outweighs the significance of current divisions among the ruling class.
A chorus of exile Iranian pro-monarchy, right-wing, liberal and sectarian leftist tendencies have proclaimed that a new Iranian “revolution” has begun. Royalists, prize winning “human rights” advocates and a spectrum of pseudo-Marxist tendencies are now advocating the reactionary stance of imposing or tightening sanctions against Iran by imperialism.
Washington’s campaign against Iran
It is common knowledge that Iran is despised by Washington, by the Zionist colonial settler state of Israel, and by the other imperialist centers. This hatred is rooted in the revolution of 1979, which stands as one of the most massive popular mobilizations of modern history. Washington’s hatred of Iran expresses the opposition of world imperialism towards this revolution. It is hatred that has been on display for three decades. It has had the opposite effect in the Middle East and in south-west Asia, however, where Iran is currently admired by large populations. Iran’s “controversial” quest for nuclear technology to diversify and increase its electric output is supported by the absolute majority of humanity, as represented by the Non-Aligned Movement and beyond.
With the revolution of 1979, for the first time in its modern history, Iran’s ruling politics changed track from Mashrooteh (parliamentary government after the Western model) to Mashrooa (religious law or rule). No wonder the imperialist ire at Iran has included racist hysteria against Islam, portraying Iran’s historical advance by its revolution as a regressive return to the darkness of the Middle Ages. This hatred is further compounded by the fact that the rise of an Islamic movement in Iran has been replicated in Lebanon during the last two decades. The traditional political leaderships were bypassed by Islamic forces willing to stand up to Israeli occupation in that country. Hezbollah is a force of considerable magnitude in the regional calculus.
That is also true of Palestine. The disintegration of traditional revolutionary leadership in the Palestinian movement provided an opening for Islamic forces to continue on the path of resistance to Israel and to vie for leadership. The result has been a strengthening of Hamas and its winning leadership in Gaza and widespread support for its agenda among the Palestinian and Arab populations.
The increasing weight and influence of Iran in the region is a fact of major importance. Prior to the revolution, Iran was the central and strategic partner of Washington in the region. The passage of three decades since the revolution has placed Iran, this time opposed by the US, into a strategic position once again. This occurs at a time when Washington has failed to convince the populations of the US and the world at large of the merits of its wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, now extending to Pakistan. Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza have had similar regional and international repercussions.
The campaign against Iran for the last 30 years by the US rulers – which have broken off diplomatic relations, frozen Iranian assets in the US, imposed various rounds of UN sanctions and which, from late 2007, included allocating $400 million for covert destabilisation operations – has not stopped Iran from moving forward.
The Iranian revolution of 1979, due to special circumstances of its development, became the spring board for something that was most unexpected: the greatest development of capitalism in the country’s history, which meant more people than ever before in the history of Iran were getting rich – even super rich. But the profits amassed by the rich in Iran created an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
In a country that needs development in every conceivable area of health, education, urban and rural development, industry, agriculture and defence, the Iranian state advocated policies that revived the old capitalist state apparatus after the revolution. Oil income was apportioned to various projects among the ruling group during the Iran-Iraq war and the hand of economic development was extended to the private sector by the government after the war. These policies, having failed to produce the desirable results expected by the broad populace, forced the rulers to initiate direct allowances from oil money to the needy in the forms of handouts which some labelled as “loans”.
During this period, the pre-revolution anatomy of the Iranian capitalist class has undergone significant mutations. Currently, economic enterprises tied to the 125,000 strong Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) and to bonyads (charitable foundations) have risen above the other capitalist businesses and claim more efficient models of capitalist management. At times these entities have their own ports for import and export, creating a new schism of economic policy among the ruling class factions.
Meanwhile, Iran escaped from the dark, torturous dungeons of the Shah and a suffocated self-identity into a moment of national consciousness, awareness, and pride. Peasants were transformed into farmers. Villages gained electricity, bathhouses, libraries and access to health care. Roads and travel by automobile expanded. Internal air travel became a common option. Magazines and books appeared in the languages of national minorities. Schools and universities multiplied. Women came to represent 62% of university students. Farsi became the fourth most utilised language on the internet for bloggers. All of this meant a great leap forward in culture.
The impact on women was most pronounced. Compulsory wearing of the veil was issued as an imperative that had resulted from factional disputes in the government. But it did not go without unintended consequences. While the leadership in the beginning of the revolution only saw women’s potential to become good mothers, teachers or maybe nurses, veiled women were technically free to go anywhere in society – and that is precisely what they did. They became doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers, artists, writers, salespeople and yes, even taxi drivers. More and more women joined the paid workforce.
Veiled women opened the flood gates of access to a society traditionally closed to them, now able to move beyond the confines of their homes. And while they are currently the most unemployed section of society in a country that has chronic double-digit unemployment, they have become one with their country and its historical battle to gain the right to self-determination. The latter is a historical battle that acts as the stepping stone for them to gain full unity, equality and liberation in society.
Mashrooteh v Mashrooa
The current divisions within the Iranian ruling class and the subsequent power struggle have not appeared suddenly from thin air. Nor are they simply the result of novel conjuncture. They are deeply rooted and woven into the very fabric of the capitalist politics of the country, much like a permanent political inflammation that never goes away, and now and then produces acute flare-ups. The deep division of Mashrooteh and Mashrooa is a hallmark of Iranian capitalist politics: a sharp division rooted, in the final analysis, in the historical inability of imperialist-constrained Iranian capitalism to consistently support, achieve, and secure Iran’s national independence and freedom.
The revolution of 1979 became an occasion for the main political track of the country to switch, for the first time, from Mashrooteh to Mashrooa, which for the first time in the country’s history, had sided with the popular masses to overthrow the US-backed monarchy. The depth and breadth of mass movements galvanised by the revolutionary strikes of oil workers caught US imperialism off guard. Once the political track of the country switched from Mashrooteh to Mashrooa the rest was history: the Islamic Republic was born as the new government of Iran.
Mashrooteh politics never recovered from this loss, determined by its rival’s siding with the popular masses. Nor did it change its core politics, practiced during the past seven decades up to its moment of defeat at the hand of its historical rival. But under the post-Iran-Iraq war presidency of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, oil bonuses, previously awarded to members of the ruling group under the various auspices of business or cultural activity, were offered to the private sector, which was suddenly brought back into focus. Banks, insurance and many other industries that had been nationalised in the first year of the revolution began to be sold back to the private sector. Bridges were built to collaborate with those sections of the capitalist class that had escaped from the country due to the revolution.
Having shut down the literature of the working-class movement during the crackdown carried out by the Mousavi government in the early 1980s, the Rafsanjani government now promoted the consumption of independent journals committed to the revival of the Mashrooteh outlook and policies. The Mashrooa leadership thus sparked the inevitable revival of its opposition, Mashrooteh politics. This culminated in the presidential victory of Mohammad Khatami in August 1997.
The Khatami period was viewed by Mashrooteh political supporters among the intelligentsia as marking a “revolution” topping the 1979 revolution. His government continued the process of strengthening the capitalist employers at the expense of working classes. Emboldened by their success, Mashrooteh politicians engaged in open diplomacy to gain the trust of imperialist powers.
But in the 2005 presidential election, politics in Iran took a huge turn back toward Mashrooa. In the absence of any orientation for empowering the working class and the mass organisation of its allies among the population, this political victory by Mashrooa brought about unforeseen grotesque positions, such as the raising of the banner of anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial as government policy. This policy had no roots in Iran’s history and was imported from right-wing movements abroad.
Thirty years of capitalist development in Iran and the many factional disputes, both open and hidden, of Mashrooteh and Mashrooa have paved the way for the current explosion of these disputes in Iran. The one sure thing amidst all of these ups and downs is that the current actors of these tiredly predictable factional disputes will not be able to move Iranian society forward. With the current crisis, Iran’s imperialist foes fervently hope that these events will snowball and eventually break the back of this peaceful and oppressed nation. Iran’s friends, who have learned to admire the Iranian people for singly and empty-handedly overcoming the brutal, armed-to-the-teeth dictatorship of the Washington-installed Shah, once again need to look to the Iranian people to overcome this crisis.
Mashrooteh politics does not have an affinity with the popular masses’ movement. It has constantly been limited to posing as better statesmen and better international negotiators. At the same time, it has committed itself to various “human rights” and other campaigns, at each instance counter-posing its demands to the right of Iranian national self-determination. In this election campaign its representatives have been quick to call for “international” observers to judge Iran’s election process!
Struggle for national liberation
The kernel of development and progress for a national liberation movement of an oppressed country in the imperialist epoch depends upon the right of independent nationalist and working-class revolutionary tendencies to organise. To protect this kernel there is no option other than providing working-class people with rights equal to those of the capitalists in all affairs of society. That is the ultimate guarantee for the national heart-beat to function regularly. That is the sole guarantee by which the blocking of social arteries can be avoided and political liberties and mass organisations safeguarded. To attain this goal, there must be consistency within the fight for the right of Iran to national self-determination.
Iran requires a proper international campaign around the demands of “Hands Off of Iran!” and “Let the Iranian people decide their Destiny; the right to self-determination for Iran”. This is the only way to counter the regressive tendencies inherent in Iranian diasporic politics abroad and to combat imperialism nationally and internationally.
The dispute within the Iranian ruling class underlines the need of workers for independent working-class organisations, be it trade unions or shoras (grassroots action committees). There is need of a national effort of working people to organise on the local and national level, thereby cementing the firm unity of people with all their persuasions and removing the monopoly of capitalist politicians in politics.
Currently Iranian society is gripped with a major dispute over who should be the president. Society has lived long enough under the current system for the majority to know instinctively that having this manager or that manager in this or that office does not matter so much. By the same token, deciding which personality is the president does not change matters fundamentally. One centimetre of progress in the independent organisation of working people is worth more than hundreds of metres in the appointment of managers and presidents who do not represent or support the independent mobilisation and organization of broad populations.
The current crisis can be overcome by promoting the idea of covering Iran with shoras; from neighbourhood to neighbourhood; from university to university; from factory to factory; and to have the united population empowered to develop solutions at the local and national level. Removing the restrictions on independent revolutionary nationalist and working class political tendencies in Iran is a big step for achieving unity of popular masses committed to defense of the right of self-determination of Iran.
[This is an edited and abridged version of a longer article available at http://babakzahraie.blogspot.com. Babak Zahraie was editor of the socialist weekly Kargar (Worker), published from 1979 to 1982 in Tehran, for which he was imprisoned from 1983 to 1989. On April 11, 1979, he debated Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr (first president of the Islamic Republic) before a live TV audience on the topic of Islamic economics v socialist economics. The debate was viewed by 22 million people.]