Last Thursday, on Christmas Eve of all days, the New York Times ran a longish (1500 words) article by Alan Kuperman calling for a military attack on Iran by the United states. Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard, warns on his blog “against believing that Obama’s election and the evident bankruptcy of the neoconservative approach to foreign policy had ended the prospect of a war with Iran. …[if you think there is no danger] the incoherent, war-mongering op-ed by Alan Kuperman in last Thursday’s New York Times should encourage you to reconsider. As Jim Lobe points out on his own blog, the fact that the Times accepted this piece in the first place is not an apolitical act, and it may herald a tilting of the public debate in a way designed to legitimate a subsequent U.S. attack.”
As Walt argues “Kuperman’s arguments in favor of war merely rehearse the same sort mixture of paranoia and over-confidence that was used to buffalo the country into attacking Iraq. In particular, Kuperman assumes that a decision not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities will yield a series of Very Bad Results (though at least he doesn’t claim that Iran would immediately bomb Tel Aviv), yet he also assumes that our launching an attack won’t have any serious consequences.”
Personally, I am still quite sceptical about the prospects of overt military action by the USA against Iran in the foreseeable future, but the perception of Iran as being a strategic obstacle to US interests certainly prevails. There have of course been concerted efforts by American newspapers, particularly the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to misrepresent and exaggerate Iran’s alleged non-complaince with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to create a hysterical narrative about Iran achieving nuclear weapons.
There has even been speculation of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear reactors. However, according to Haaretz, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke in the Knesset this week to say that Iran’s civil nuclear facility near Qom can withstand conventional bombs. Chinese news agency Xinhua has also cast doubt over whether Israel has sufficient air power to bomb Iran, which has substantial air defence capability enhanced during 2009, and who would probably receive early warning from Russian or Chinese sattelites, and points out that Israel would need to refuel their aircraft in air for the return flight and to have adequate combat time over Iran, and the Israelis would require direct US assistance in overcoming the diplomatic hurdles to gain a flight path to Iran
This is the context in which the recent reporting of the civil disturbances and political violence in Iran has been shaped in the Western media. Whereas reporting of political violence in Bolivia, or Honduras or Haiti, or the recent spectacular militant protests by Maoists in Nepal, have been largely unreported in Britain and the USA, the internal political situation in Iran intersects directly with American interests in the region; and as such is newsworthy.
Cyrus Safdari lists no less than 28 lurid articles from respected American newspapers over the last ten years all of which report whatever latest blip in Iranian politics as heralding the immanent end of the Islamic regime.
We also need to understand the current economic and political situation in Iran. Inflation reached 30% earlier this year, and now runs at around 15%. It is remarkable how orthodox the response of the government was to the recession; despite a substantial state owned economic sector, and an income from oil exports, the Iranian government sought to deflate the economy to control inflation instead of boosting demand. The result has been a fall in domestic expenditure. These domestic economic policies reveal the divergence of views within the Iranian government, as Ahmadinejad himself favours a more interventionist approach, but does not control economic policy.
It is in this context, of many people feeling the pinch financially that the government is seeking to remove subsidies on energy. This is actually not entirely straight forward, as the energy subsidies are a regressive social measure that disproportionately benefit the well off, by selling fuel for cars below the cost of production. So the removal of subsidies has been opposed by some economic liberals, but supported by Ahmadinejad’s followers, as the president is fighting to use the money saved for more targeted assistance for the poor.
As Professor Djavad explains
General subsidies have been a big part of the welfare state in post-revolution Iran. They grew out of the rationing system during the war and the government’s committment to the poor, and over time increased in volume, especially for energy products as world energy prices increased while consumer prices in Iran stayed low. The results have been both good and bad. Food and medicine subsidies have played an important role in increasing child nutrition, lowering child mortality, both of which contributed to lower fertility (and hence the modernization of the average Iranian family). The important role of subsidies in these transformations becomes evident when we note that they started in the mid 1980s when the economy was still in a very bad shape –that is, they are not the consequence of economic growth as in other countries.
So as the reform of subsidies has progressed through the Iranian parliament, (majlis) , and on to the Guardian Council for enactment, there is a political battle over who decides where the money saved will be deployed. The subsidies amount to US$ 60 billion per year, and the current bill shaves 15% off of that. Ahmadinijad seeks to use this fund for populist redistribution to the poor.
However, we need to understand that the reduction of subsidies affects everyone, so there is a loss of a universal benefit in exchange for a targeted one to those below median income. But it is those below median income who have suffered most during the recession. So despite the potential progressive aspect it will still be immediately perceived by many on low incomes as a blow to their welfare.
It is not surprising that these economic and political battles have poured fuel onto the fire lit by the disputed June 12th election. Indeed the social conditions that produced the post-election protests have not been resolved, despite the defeat for the Mousavi faction, and the protests themselves have left a legacy of acrimony that means that further protests have a lower threshold before both sides turn to violence. The much greater potential for violence by supporters of the government, and their legal impunity, is reflected in the tragic outcomes. This relative autonomy of violence in politics once unleashed has been a long remarked upon phenomenon.
The election of Ahmadinejad in June almost certainly reflected the will of the Iranian people, and Cyrus Safdari does a fantastic job of systematically dismantling the claims of widespread electoral fraud here and here
So the disturbances that followed the election are symptomatic of the fact that deep political and social tensions were not sufficiently reflected in or resolved by the Iranian political system, and where the Mousavi opposition considered the stakes to be so high that they were prepared to resort to extra-constitutional means to attempt to overthrow the result of the election, despite Iran having a system of democracy, that while deeply flawed is sufficiently mature to allow transfer of power between rival parties.
At the time Alistair Crooke in the Los Angeles Times summed up the differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi as follows:
“What we are witnessing is not a frustrated East European-style “color revolution”; nor is presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s movement an uprising of liberal, Westernized sympathizers against the principles of the Iranian Revolution. It was Ahmadinejad who campaigned against the wealth and self-interest of some of the clerical elite. Mousavi was more closely allied to those interests.”
By this analysis Ahmadinejad is more of a reformer than Mousavi. There are also generational issues with a layer of state officials and army officers who were young men at the time of the Iraq war, and have now reached a level of influence, and resent the level of corruption and self-interest among the older generation of clerics who came to power in the revolution; as I understand it this social layer are broadly supportive of Ahmadinijad, and his populist stance. There is also the inherent division within shia Islam in the religious scholar class: where there are educated, university based scholars who serve the ideological needs of the state, and there are also more modestly educated populist preachers, equivalent to the Sufis of the Sunni religion, with a mass audience, again this social layer are broadly supportive of the president. Ahmadinejad has a wide constituency of support, including many of the poor who benefit from the welfare system.
The language of “reform” in Iran, (and in particular in the well heeled end of the Iranian exile diaspora) exhibits a confusion between political social liberalism and democratic civil rights as if this is the same thing as economic liberalism and laissez faire deregulation. Of course a similar phenomenon has long obtained in China, and in Zimbabwe, which means that progressives need to avoid a simplistic polarisation between different strands of elite opinion both of which are disadvantageous to the mass of the population, but in different ways
As a result those protesting against the clerical government represent a confluence of differing political interests. There is a section of the Iranian middle class who resent Iran’s diplomatic isolation from the West, and who are ashamed of some of Iran’s social policies; there are others who believe that the Iranian economy needs to be deregulated and privatised to fit in with the Washington consensus, this is a common view among Iranian exiles who have some influence upon the Iranian opposition; there are economically conservative figures who wish to clip Ahmadinejad’s wings and oppose his populist and redistributive social welfare policies; there are others who genuinely oppose repressive aspects of Iran’s socially restrictive policies for progressive reasons; and there are people who have been economically disadvantaged. There are also trade unionists and other progressives who hope that they can exploit divisions among the country’s rulers to win improvements in the condition of ordinary working people.
I don’t think that Alistair Crooke is entirely correct in dismissing the analogy with the colour revolutions, but his position is a useful corrective in pointing out the relative bankruptcy of any analysis based upon reformers and conservatives, where Ahmadinejad is cast only as a conservative. These categories don’t easily transpose from the West into Iran’s different political context.
The point about the colour revolutions, (and although not usually recognised as one, I think that Helmut Kohl’s destabilisation of the former East German DDR after the wall had come down and in the lead up to the 1990 election is the classic exemplar) is not that the social causes of the protests are a confection, but that legitimate protests are channelled towards outcomes that favour not the ordinary protesters, but the interests of the rich elite.
In so far as the Iranians protesting on the streets wish to remove the more oppressive aspects of Iranian society, then they are to be applauded. In so far as organised labour wins the right to prosecute trade union struggles to benefit ordinary working people then they are to be completely supported.
But it is not true that the best outcome of these protests is for the current Iranian government to be overthrown. Overt Western support for the protestors for oportunist reasons entrenches and polarises attitudues within Iran, and makes the dialogue and compromise required for a peaceful win-win resolution less and not more likely
Firstly, we need to recognise that Ahmadinejad did win the election, and that even where this is disputed we should recognise that he commands substantial and determined support from around half the population, and especially among the armed forces. Revolution might mean civil war, more bloodshed, and more disruption. But secondly, within the confines of Iranian domestic politics, an overthrow of the government is highly unlikely to lead to a left wing and progressive alternative.
The politics among the opposition on the streets seems to be highly diverse, and were they to prevail the most likely outcome would be victory for those who wish to further the deregulation of the economy, to make cuts in progressive welfare and food subsidies, and to worsen the social conditions for many Iranians along the neo-liberal consensus. Nor would this necessarily even mean any substantial improvement in regressive social attitudes. Despite the wishes projected upon Mousavi by Western liberals, there is little evidence that he or his supporters are any more supportive of, for example, womens’ equality, than Ahmadinijad.
And it is this question of projection that worries me most about the trite cheerleading from the West. The opposition on the streets of Iran seems to represent all things to all (wo)men. The last thing that Iran needs is outside interference in its affairs, and a narrative of plucky “democracy demonstrators” defying “evil mullahs” is one that encourages the same instincts that we saw with Iraq and Afghanistan of liberals drawn to the simplistic options of sanctions and war.