Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’ve spent a little time pondering what Dave said about the left’s responses to Iran. Now, bear with me, because this may be a little bit of an unstructured ramble. Where I thought Dave hit the nail on the head was that, where the left usually has an instant blueprint for what should be done in the most obscure struggles in the most remote parts of the globe, there’s been rather a lot of bet-hedging going on. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When even someone as impeccably well-informed as Bob Fisk is hedging his bets, it’s probably very sensible.
Maybe it’s because we don’t know enough. Maybe, to put it differently, we’ve a surfeit of information, much of it of dubious reliability (although, in the nature of things, we can’t tell how much), and we have trouble sifting it. Maybe it’s because this isn’t a simplistic struggle of workers against bosses – there are plenty of dividing lines in terms of class, culture, religion and so on, but they don’t really help you discriminate easily between Black Hat and White Hat. It’s just our bad luck that Islamic populism won out over socialism thirty years ago, because it muddies the waters no end.
Not, of course, that you can’t see the old schemata being dusted off. I think immediately of Alan Woods, who seems to reckon that it’s 1905 all over again, with Mousavi in the Father Gapon role. Less melodramatically, there’s been a strong feeling of sympathy with the mass movement, combined with warning against illusions in Mousavi. Sometimes there’s a little bit of the spontaneist politics of “Never mind the politics, look at those demos!”, while I personally would be a little more cautious before leaping to endorse anything in Iran, but the sentiment may well be correct.
But as a rule, I think it’s good that there isn’t as much of the instant blueprint politics as there often is, because too many times the left has fallen on its face making detailed pronouncements about foreign events based on little more than an hour’s background reading, and shoehorning the facts into a pre-existing ideological framework. I remember a large Amnesty meeting on Burma at Queens a couple of years ago, where members of the Socialist Party turned up with a leaflet urging the usual SP policies, like a new mass party of the workers and peasants, a socialist federation of South-East Asia, and the nationalisation of the oil and gas industries. It was unfortunate, then, that the Burmese speaker specifically said that sanctions wouldn’t work because the junta had nationalised the oil and gas industries – in fact, if memory serves, they did that in the 1960s, which is when Ted Grant proclaimed Burma a workers’ state. Still, you have to give them a thumbs up for trying.
So, a little bit of modesty goes a long way. I’ve enjoyed reading Richard this last week, not least because his position is evolving – or, maybe more accurately, he’s been developing a nuanced position by looking at different aspects of the problem.
On the other hand, liberals have a whole different set of triggers from Marxists. And it has to be said, the phenomenology of the left-liberal mind is a never-ending source of fascination. One of the things that always takes me to the fair is how much in thrall they are to the fear of Lord Denning’s Appalling Vista, and the tortuous and self-serving narratives of events – one might even call them voodoo histories – they will concoct to avoid facing the Appalling Vista. The other is that they’re great fans of the idea of democracy in the abstract, always provided that democracy ends up in liberal outcomes; when it leads to illiberal outcomes, they go buck mad, call it “populism”, and denounce the way democracy allows the great unwashed to influence events.
Apropos of elections in the Middle East, we got a little taste of this the other week in Lebanon, when the Hezbollah-led bloc failed to dislodge the Hariri bloc from its parliamentary majority. There were essentially two reasons for this – firstly, the sectarian voting system which seriously underrepresents the Shia, and just as importantly meant that Aoun couldn’t convert his support amongst the Maronites into seats; secondly, that Saudi agents were running around Lebanon like blue-arsed flies buying votes. And yet, the western media not only accepted the results as bona fide (Christopher Hitchens specifically praising them), but argued almost unanimously that this was a spontaneous favourable reaction from the Lebanese masses to Barack O’Bama’s speech in Cairo, in which the man from Offaly made some conciliatory noises to Muslims. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
So, what about Iran? Well, there are some disjunct points that are probably not worth a post on their own, and where my views aren’t necessarily fixed, but are worth flagging up, in no particular order.
Firstly, the nature of the Islamic Republican government. It’s been commonplace to hear talk about a dictatorship, or specifically Ahmadinejad as a dictator, or even explicit parallels with the old party-states of the Soviet Bloc. This is wrong. It’s probably more correct to adopt the modern Russian concept of “managed democracy”, something that even Moscow correspondents have trouble grasping. How, for example, do elections work in present-day Russia? The blatant vote-rigging that characterised the Yeltsin administration still exists in a few areas, specifically the warlord republics of the North Caucasus. But this is the exception rather than the rule. In Russia, the count isn’t the issue – the fix goes in beforehand, when only six or seven parties are allowed to stand, then administrative resources are deployed on behalf of the incumbents. It’s interesting, in geographical terms, that the Red Belt of CPRF strongholds have a much more pluralistic political culture than the regions run by thrusting young technocrats. It doesn’t surprise me, but a lot of western analysts can’t process it.
You have something similar in Iran, with the way the Guardian Council disqualifies most candidates before a vote is cast. In fact, Iran is much less managed than Russia, thanks to its multiple centres of power. (This is inherent in Shia culture, where you pick which ayatollah you want to follow, the same way that Hasidic Jews pledge themselves to a particular rebbe and accept his rulings.) What’s also notable is that the president’s main role is to be a human shield for the Supreme Leader – he has very little power of his own. On the other hand, Mr Ahmadinejad has in the last four years overstepped the usual limited remit of the president, which is important to bear in mind.
This is a crucial point, because what we’re talking about here is a split between different sectors of the Islamic Republican leadership. There’s a school of thought in the clerical establishment that has resisted having a non-clerical president as such, an antipathy that’s been strengthened by the way Ahmadinejad has been visibly increasing the political clout of the Pasdaran at the expense of the clergy. This overlaps with the antipathy of the bazaari class, who are not only sceptical about Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, but more importantly have been targeted by his (largely ineffectual but very popular) anti-corruption campaign. In particular this has greatly annoyed Rafsanjani, and it’s plain to see that the official opposition is essentially bankrolled by Rafsanjani. The open question is how far Rafsanjani and Mousavi, deeply reactionary figures both, are prepared to go in their challenge to Ahmadinejad, especially now that Supreme Leader Khamenei has got involved. In the meantime, there are plenty of people, from pro-American “student revolutionary” types to the Tudeh Party, who are using the split as cover to push their own agendas. It would be nice if the left could make some headway, though I’m not holding my breath.
Secondly, the question of what possibilities are opened up by the mass movement. If it was just a matter of the two different camps, there wouldn’t be anyone you could support. Nobody has yet convinced me that a government led by the corrupt plutocrat Rafsanjani and his proxy, the mass murderer Mousavi, would be any better than a continuation of the Ahmadinejad government. Arguably, it would be worse. If we’re going to endorse anything, it would be the possibility of the mass movement bypassing Rafsanjani-Mousavi altogether and going straight to something better.
The question will be largely one of class. What I’d like to see is the working class moving into action, but as things stand – at least if Hopi reports are anything to go by – the working-class movement in Iran is desperately weak, and there are good reasons – which I’ll get to – why working-class Iranians may find Ahamdinejad an attractive candidate.
Thirdly, the western media, which has been more or less openly campaigning for regime change. I know the BBC got caught out using a photo of a pro-Ahmadinejad rally and billing it as an opposition rally, but there’s more to it than that. There is the sampling issue, whereby journalists are most likely to talk to people they feel comfortable with, and that means prosperous Anglophone people rather than illiterate slum-dwellers – and one can tell just from looking at the way Mousavi supporters are dressed that they tend to come from the more well-heeled social strata. It can’t be pointed out often enough that north Tehran is not Iran, any more than vox pops taken in south Dublin can be taken as representative of Ireland. (And we, too, have plenty of experience of journalists relying on those local people who tell them what they want to hear.)
There are also, as I’ve pointed out, the often misleading dichotomies between “pro-Western” and “anti-Western”, or “hardliner” and “reformist”. It’s quite ironic that, if anyone in the Iranian political class stands for Enlightenment values, it’s Ali Larejani, who’s an acknowledged authority on Immanuel Kant. But Larejani long since had his card marked as a “hardliner”. You might wonder how it is that Mousavi gets to be hailed as a “reformist”, but that makes sense if you understand “reformist” to simply signify that the candidate meets the approval of those applying the label.
There’s also been lots of wishful thinking bordering at times on cognitive dissonance, like last year’s Georgian war only more so. (And if Mikheil Saakashvili can be a “democrat”, why can’t Mir Hossein Mousavi be a “reformist”?) Certainly, the BBC news seemed for four or five days to go into pure Berlin Wall mode. And the most likely outcome of this situation is a reshuffling of the power players within the regime, but that doesn’t provide the required drama.
Also, there’s no doubt that Iranian oppositionists have been playing up to this. This isn’t necessarily dishonest. You don’t have to scratch an Iranian Shia very deeply to find the Zoroastrian underneath – Iranians have a very strong belief in the tangibility of good and evil, which fits in very nicely to the media requirement for well-defined good guys and bad guys. Beyond that, the raising of slogans in English rather than Persian is obviously consciously designed for foreign TV consumption. One doesn’t blame Iranian oppositionists for doing this – it makes sense from their point of view – but the job of the journalist is to bring some critical faculties to bear.
Fourthly, the issue of the involvement of foreign powers. Nebojša makes an important point, which is worth quoting at some length:
You see, it looks very much like a “color revolution” scenario: the US-favored candidate contests election results, claims victory, and his supporters riot till the government caves in. But then, couldn’t the incumbent actually steal the election knowing full well that he can paint the resulting opposition protests as a CIA/NED coup attempt, whether that is actually true or not?
I freely admit that I haven’t a clue what’s actually true in the reports coming from Iran, whether Ahmadinejad or Mousavi actually won the vote, who stole what (or not). Given the track record of the mainstream Western media when it comes to the Balkans (as a rule, their reports are almost entirely false), why should I believe anything they say about Iran? Especially since the Empire is so determined to have a war with Tehran, one way or another.
The fact remains, however, that the technique of “democratic coup” pioneered by the Empire in Serbia – and applied elsewhere since – has made it effectively impossible to judge whether any election, anywhere, is actually legitimate. Even if we somehow possessed the knowledge to make an informed decision, there is still the matter of the Empire insisting that democracy is whatever it says it is. As a consequence, “democracy” has become just about meaningless. And that, regardless of what happens in Iran, is something definitely worth thinking about…
Iranians will of course remember that the original colour revolution was Operation Ajax, the CIA’s plot to overthrow Mossadeq in 1953, which began with “spontaneous” mass demonstrations calling for the return of the Shah.
But is this a colour revolution, like we’ve seen rolled out in Eastern Europe? One might say that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. The Guardian is in no doubt – with the exception of token leftie Seumas Milne, they love their colour revolutions, and they’ve been virtually orgasmic over the “Green Revolution”. But I’m not sure. The Yanks may have raised the colour revolution or soft coup to a fine art, but they don’t hold any copyright on the tactic. If the Russians decided to get rid of some of the useless governments in the Near Abroad, in Georgia, Azerbaijan or even Latvia, there’s no reason they couldn’t deploy the same tactics. And there’s no reason Rafsanjani couldn’t do the same.
On the other hand, one can’t simply regard this as purely domestic. It’s safe to assume that certain foreign powers have been running interference – the CIA may not have much on the ground, but it’s very well documented that Mossad, the Pakistani ISI and Saudi intelligence have been seriously involved in trying to destabilise Iran since the Revolution. Furthermore, American forces in Iraq have been involved in providing material support to the MKO, which is no longer designated by them as a terrorist organisation. These are things worth bearing in mind.
Publicly, though, the O’Bama administration has been playing it very cautiously. This is despite Joe Biden running his yap, pressure from those folks on the Hill who think passing abominations like the “Belarus Democracy Act” is the sort of thing the US Congress should be spending its time on, drum-banging from the commentariat, and intense lobbying from Iranian exile groups with links to the State Department. Young Mr O’Bama would be well advised to be cautious of the latter. As an opponent of the Iraq war, he will know how the Bush administration was led up the garden path by Ahmed Chalabi; there’s also the consideration that, in good KGB style, the Iranian secret service runs much of the foreign-based opposition, as an insurance policy against regime change. (Parenthetically, Decents might like to note how both the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan have welcomed Ahmadinejad’s election.)
Finally, I want to consider Juan Cole’s polemic against what he terms the North Tehran Fallacy. Juan knows a good deal more about Iran than I do, but while I defer to his knowledge of detail, I’m not convinced by his categories. And, as noted, the north Tehran factor has certainly been present in media coverage, although I’m not suggesting that Juan is personally in thrall to it.
Juan musters a fair bit of circumstantial evidence suggesting that there’s been something dodgy about the election. He may be correct about that. What he doesn’t convince me about is his thesis that there’s no way Ahmadinejad could have a majority, unless there was a mass boycott from the reform camp.
Juan’s thesis, as I read it, is based on taking the Khatami victories of 1997 and 2001 as paradigmatic. He is unmoved by claims that, as Ahmadinejad’s appeal is to the poor and religious, and the majority of the population is poor and religious, Ahmadinejad might plausibly win a majority. As against this, Juan draws the line of demarcation between the forces of modernity and the forces of fundamentalism. He points to the involvement of women and youth in the Khatami landslides, and on the basis that women and youth are a majority of the population, there should be an unstoppable demographic advantage to the reform camp, as long as a reformist candidate is allowed to stand.
I don’t find this entirely persuasive, because it relies on a more or less static concept of people’s allegiances. People’s identities are complex and not simply defined by one factor such as class, language, culture or religion – all these factors are present, and different ones may come to the fore at different times. And, while I appreciate the investment Juan made in the Khatami movement, things have changed quite a lot since then. I’m not a great fan of Mr Ahmadinejad, but there are legitimate reasons why he might have a mass popular base, which are worth enumerating.
The most important of these have to do with, yes, class. The president hasn’t spent four years in office without cultivating his constituency. And Iran is not Tehran: it has thirty provinces, all of which have been visited by Ahmadinejad, disbursing goodies as he went. The Mousavi camp’s attacks on handouts to the poor could almost be designed to deter support from the poor. Specifically, we could mention attacks on inefficiency and overmanning in the bonyad, the religious foundations that dominate the non-energy economy. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s maybe not the cleverest electoral stance, considering the enormous numbers working in the bonyad sector.
On the other hand, Ahmadinejad’s man-of-the-people pose, epitomised by his crumpled wardrobe and his small house, may grate on north Tehran sophisticates, but it’s his electoral USP. It’s how he got elected mayor of Tehran in the first place. Against that, Rafsanjani is virtually a byword in Iran for political corruption, and Ahmadinejad’s attacks on him would appeal to the base. Rafsanjani, of course, is constitutionally barred from standing again for the presidency, which is why he dragged Mousavi out of retirement to act as his proxy.
And the other thing Ahmadinejad has going for him is his aggressive nationalist stance. Khatami spent his two terms being emollient to the Americans, and not only failed to get a normalisation of relations, but ended up with the Americans in military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, while categorising Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”. Not much of a return for his effort. Ahmadinejad’s denunciations of the US and Israel might cause more Americocentric Iranians to cringe, but why should you suck up to relentlessly hostile foreign powers? Not to mention that his naval humiliation of Britain wouldn’t have hurt, nor his cultivation of relations with Russia, Venezuela and other countries.
As I say, Juan may well be right that there’s something dodgy afoot. But I don’t agree that a result that goes against Juan’s expectations is inherently implausible.