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A class analysis of the crisis in Iran

Eyewitness to protests discusses the forces at play

The post-election developments in Iran can only be understood in the context of the nature of the Islamic Republic, its class character and contradictions. The 1979 revolution was led by religious, nationalist forces, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. These were the main forces that mobilized millions of people against the Shah, the U.S. client installed in the 1953 coup. A quarter century of severe repression had decimated the left and the secular national forces to the point that they did not have a chance at leading the revolution.

Iranian revolution, 1979
The 1979 Iranian revolution left the country
organized along capitalist lines, yet it freed Iran
from imperialist domination.

The Khomeini-led force was strongly anti-imperialist but pro-capitalist. Typical of the national bourgeoisie, this force stood for the country’s independence, but organized along capitalist lines. Despite having many competing factions and forces within it, no faction of the Islamic Republic was, or is, in any way a socialist force representing the working class. The Islamic Republic, from the very beginning, was strongly opposed to forces representing the working class. Within a few years, the regime severely repressed leftists and arrested, tortured and executed tens of thousands of them. Additionally, the Islamic Republic has pursued a reactionary set of social policies based on its ideology, a strict interpretation of Shiite Islam.

Bourgeois national forces are progressive insofar as they defend the resources of their country against imperialism. Historically, the main cause of underdevelopment in oppressed countries has been the colonial plunder of their resources. By standing for the country’s independence and stopping imperialism from extracting its resources, the national bourgeoisie can facilitate development—a development that would not have been possible had the resources disappeared into the hands of imperialist capital. But bourgeois national forces are, at the same time, reactionary insofar as they stand against the political ascension of the working class.

Many "left" forces make no distinction between the capitalist class of imperialist countries and that of oppressed ones, referring to the national bourgeoisie as just another capitalist class. Despite its revolutionary appearance, this approach leads to right-wing positions. The reality is that anti-colonial, national liberation movements have not always been led by working-class forces. In fact, more often than not, they have been led by the national bourgeoisie.

If we have no room in our analysis for bourgeois-led anti-imperialist movements and states, every time imperialism targets an independent capitalist state for military attack, occupation or a destabilization campaign, or every time imperialism props up one of its client states fighting off a non-socialist-led independence movement, we will either side with imperialism or take a neutral stance.

With this outlook, why defend Iraq against U.S. invasion when pre-occupation Iraq was a capitalist state? Why stand with India’s struggle against British colonialism when India’s independence movement was led by bourgeois forces? Why even defend South Africa’s struggle against apartheid when post-apartheid South Africa would still be capitalist? This "all capitalists are the same" approach means that, short of the emergence of a workers’ struggle for socialism, we would in effect stand on the sidelines as imperialist forces carry out the most severe oppression of other nationalities.

But the failure on the part of these "left" forces to make this distinction has less to do with a theoretical error than with an inclination to side with the moderate factions of the imperialist ruling class. This approach provides a "left" cover for political forces that shed the challenge of defending a state targeted by imperialism, particularly in the midst of a demonization campaign, when such defense is difficult.

But any real socialist force has the responsibility of standing with bourgeois nationalist forces against imperialist intervention, whatever forms that intervention may take. Imperialism is the enemy of working people everywhere, including within the imperialist countries. This forms the basis of the PSL’s approach towards the Islamic Republic of Iran and other bourgeois national states and forces.

A brief overview of past Iranian governments

Through its 30 years, the Islamic Republic has gone through several phases, during which different factions have taken over state power. After the tumultuous first three years, Khamenei, the current supreme leader, became president. Mousavi, the main challenger in the 2009 elections, became prime minister.

Mir Hossein Mousavi
Mousavi, whose past tenure as prime minister was
characterized by violent repression, is an unlikely
candidate to advance "freedom" in Iran.
During this period, when the Iran-Iraq war was being waged, there was strong state control over the economy. In this period of scarcity, the state provided subsidies for many basic necessities. It issued coupons for basic food items that could be bought at heavily subsidized prices, which ensured a somewhat equitable distribution.

At the same time, strong social, political and cultural restrictions were implemented. Ironically, Mousavi, who in this year’s elections ran on the campaign slogans of democratic freedoms and sound economic management based on market principles, ran against his own record on both counts. His tenure as prime minister was actually marked by a strong state, a severely restricted market economy and the implementation of strong social controls along with severe and violent repression of dissent.

In 1989, Rafsanjani was elected president, serving two terms through 1997. The hallmarks of Rafsanjani’s tenure—what he calls the "constructivist" period—were privatizations and the reversal of some of the progressive economic policies implemented in the first decade of the revolution. Most food item coupons were removed and price controls were lifted, allowing prices to be determined by the market. Of course, Rafsanjani’s privatizations were still distinct from the typical neoliberal privatizations in U.S. client states. With the severe restrictions imposed on foreign capital, privatizations in Iran remained domestic, with multinational capital effectively locked out.

Rafsanjani’s years marked the widening of the class divide, and the formation of a new capitalist class, many of its ranks with close connections to the political establishment. This period also marked a slight easing of cultural restrictions. Rafsanjani, the key figure in the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, made conciliatory overtures to the United States and western imperialism.

From 1997 to 2005, President Khatami continued the privatizations and free market reforms. Khatami’s tenure marked a significant easing of social and political restrictions. A much wider range of political and social views were allowed in the media, and restrictions on individual freedoms were eased significantly. What became the reform movement attracted a significant following among students, the highly educated and the upper strata of society.

Khatami also attempted to reach accommodations with Washington and other imperialists in a variety of ways. He launched his much publicized "dialogue of civilizations," voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment as a good-will gesture, and even collaborated with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. But there was little reciprocity on the part of the Bush administration.

In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, easily defeating Rafsanjani, the symbol of corruption and free-market reforms. After 16 years of such reforms, Iran’s economy still remained heavily state-owned—estimates range from 60 to 70 percent state ownership. Ahmadinejad introduced a particular style of privatization: He started breaking up firms and giving what were called "justice shares" to sectors of the population with the least income. He then gave profits on these shares to the shareholders, the poor.

For these policies, Ahmadinejad earned the wrath of much of the establishment, from the conservative elements of his fellow "principlists" to the reformists. The bulk of university-educated economists and experts, schooled in the internationally dominant monetarist school of capitalist economics, also joined the attack on Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, labeling it as vulgar and non-expert. Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy has been unabashedly anti-imperialist, strongly defending liberation movements in Palestine and Lebanon, and forging alliances with progressive states in Latin America and elsewhere.

The role of bourgeois elections

In a capitalist society, fundamental change is not made through elections. In bourgeois elections, the citizenry is offered a choice between candidates who are acceptable to ruling-class interests.

In Iran’s June 12 elections, the candidates running for president were all acceptable options to the ruling class. All four had long histories of holding key positions. Ahmadinejad was the incumbent president; Mousavi was the prime minister in the early years of the revolution; Mahdi Karroubi was a two-term head of Majliss, Iran’s parliament; and Mohsen Reza’i was a long-serving former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In the United States, through the primaries, the ruling class narrows the field of candidates by funding those that best serve its interests. In Iran, the field of candidates is narrowed overtly by the Council of Guardians. Only the aforementioned four candidates made the final list in 2009.

Despite their appearance of fairness, fraud is built into bourgeois elections. Their legal framework cheats the vast majority of the people from a political voice even in the absence of illegal stratagems to rig the vote.

Were the elections stolen?

But in the case of the Iranian elections, whether or not there was actual fraud is an important question. The premise of the opposition movement is that there was election fraud. But if the election results are valid, then the demand of the opposition for annulment is inherently undemocratic. It is a demand to overturn the vote of the majority.

Iranians cast ballots for presidential election, 06-12-09
Though election results were consistent with earlier
polls, the opposition has demanded annulment
without presenting any evidence of fraud.

Therefore, it is important to discuss some specifics about the elections, particularly in view of the fact that the vote tallying process was quite open and transparent.

The turnout was nearly 85 percent of the electorate, 40 million ballots. According to the official election results, Ahmadinejad received approximately 63 percent of the vote, compared to 34 percent for Mousavi. The difference was a whopping 11.3 million votes. Any fraud that could have impacted the election results must have been committed on a truly massive scale. Incidentally, Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 percent in 2009 is consistent with his 2005 vote of 61.7 percent.

A few days before the elections, Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, made the statement: "The only way that Ahmadinejad can win is by fraud." While the polls were still open on June 12, Moussavi made a startling announcement: "In line with the information we have received, I am the winner of this election by a substantial margin. We expect to celebrate with people soon."

With all the lip service that Western sources and "pro-democracy" activists give to democracy, they do not question or condemn these inherently undemocratic statements. Instead of awaiting the results, how would a candidate announce with such certainty, even before the polls close, that he has won the election?

Even though imperialist leaders, the corporate media and Iranian opposition leaders expressed amazement at Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory and immediately called the elections stolen, the results actually conformed to the only international poll conducted prior to the election. An op-ed piece by Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty published in the June 15 Washington Post states: "Our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin—greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election."

The survey of 1,001 respondents, conducted by phone between May 11 and May 20, had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. The study was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Neither the fund nor the Washington Post could be accused of having a pro-Ahmadinejad bias.

Earlier, we wrote that we were in no position to tell whether there had actually been fraud or not. But now, nearly two months after the elections, it must be said that the elections appear to have been clean. No real evidence of fraud has emerged.

There were approximately 45,000 polling locations with ballot boxes. All the ballots were counted in the presence of local people. Fourteen people worked at each polling place, along with an observer representing each candidate. In more than 40,000 of the 45,000 polling stations, Mousavi had a representative. In the 4,000-5,000 stations where he did not have a representative, there were representatives from the other candidates.

The ballots were counted in the presence of the 14 people plus the candidates’ representatives. All of them signed five documents specifying the vote totals. One of the documents was dropped into the ballot box.

The vote totals were then sent to a local center that also had candidates’ representatives. They added up the figures from the ballot boxes, and then sent them to the Interior Ministry. All the local ballot counts were eventually reported on the Interior Ministry’s Web site.

Mousavi and the other losing candidates had over two weeks to compile a list of complaints of alleged violations—the time was actually extended. Instead of filing specific complaints, Mousavi wrote several letters to the Guardian Council devoid of any specific allegations of fraud.

Mousavi has consistently demanded annulment—not a recount of the votes. And all he would have to do was to document discrepancies between what his representatives reported and the announced numbers, if such a discrepancy existed.

Instead of specific cases of fraud, various sources raised a number of points as anecdotal evidence of fraud. It is instructive to go over some of the main ones.

It was charged that the results were announced too quickly. One protest sign read, "40 million votes cannot be counted in 12 hours." This would be true had all 40 million votes been thrown in one pile. But there were fewer than 860 ballots per box and the counting was done at each polling station. How long does it take to count 860 ballots per poll when the only thing on the ballot is the names of four candidates? If the Islamic Republic had taken longer, that might well have been used as evidence of cooking the numbers.

It has been reported that the Guardian Council admitted to 3 million fraudulent votes. The New York Times wrote, "According to the Guardian Council, ‘the number of votes recorded in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters there by three million.’" This is true, but that was not an admission of fraudulent votes. The Guardian Council said: "The total number of votes in these 50 cities or towns is something close to three million; therefore, even if we were to throw away all of these votes, it would not change the result."

Iranians can vote wherever they want, unlike in the United States, where they must vote at their local polling place. Explaining why there could be more votes than the number of eligible voters, the Guardian Council pointed out: "Some towns are weekend or vacation destinations, some voters are commuters, some districts are not demographically distinct entities." Iranian elections are always held on Fridays, when most people have the day off from work.

With voters free to vote wherever they want, as opposed to being bound to a specific district, it is logical that there might be discrepancies between the number of eligible voters and actual votes in many polling stations. If this discrepancy were evidence of fraud, one would expect Ahmadinejad to have won all these cities and towns. In fact, in some of these areas, such as Yazd, Mousavi received more votes than Ahmadinejad.

It was asserted that, had the elections been legitimate, Mousavi should have received a majority in Azerbaijan, because he is Azeri. But Iranians do not necessarily vote along ethnic lines, as past elections indicate. Of the three Azeri provinces, Mousavi won one, Western Azerbaijan. Additionally, Mousavi really has no connections with Azerbaijan as he has not lived or worked there in decades. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, was a governor in the region for years and speaks Azeri fluently.

One of the pieces of "evidence" of election fraud was a study by Chatham House—funded by the British government—that analyzed the election results statistically and concluded that the results must have been fraudulent.

Any statistical study is only as valid as the assumptions on which it is based and the manner in which it is designed. The Chatham House study was founded on a fundamental fallacy of dividing the electorate into pro-principlists and pro-reformists. By comparing the number of votes in each camp in past and present elections, it then concluded that the election results could not have been valid.

Iranian people, however, do not necessarily define themselves as principlists and reformists. The percentage of people who voted for Ahmadinejad, a principlist, in 2005 was close to the percentage who voted for Khatami, a reformist, in 2001. There were far more issues to this year’s elections than the level of commitment of a given candidate to Islamic principles or reform. Within the principlist camp, for example, there are profound differences, as evident by Ahmadinejad’s attack on Nateq Noori, a fellow principlist.

On June 20, as a confidence-building measure, the Council of Guardians announced that there would be a recount of a randomly selected 10 percent of the ballots. This recount was carried out by the Interior Ministry and the results were consistent with the original count.

If one were to call election results in another country fraudulent, a country that was not targeted by imperialism for regime change, one would be required to provide evidence. Documented cases of mismatching numbers, voting place anomalies, testimonies of poll workers, specific instances of ballot stuffing or changing votes, would have to be presented. With hundreds of thousands of poll-workers involved, teachers, civil servants and others, this would have been quite feasible. But in the case of Iran, the mere accusation is sufficient. Imperialist media outlets take the accusation as fact and liberal commentators and analysts follow suit.

Post-election developments

In the week after the elections, there were hundreds of thousands, some reports say millions, of people protesting in the streets of Tehran, and a few much smaller demonstrations in other major cities.

The demonstrators were not all peaceful. Some demonstrators burned buses and buildings, broke windows and threw rocks at the police. In one instance, demonstrators tried to set fire to a building stationing basiji militia, resulting in shootings and deaths. During that whole week, the Islamic Republic generally tolerated the unpermitted demonstrations, with riot police largely standing by. It goes without saying that no U.S. police departments would have tolerated a week of street protests that included breaking windows, setting buildings on fire and throwing rocks at their officers.

Of course, supporters of Ahmadinejad also demonstrated in Tehran and other cities in large numbers, but opposition demonstrations were larger and more frequent.

On June 19, Ayatollah Khamenei, the central leader, made an important speech at the Friday prayers, attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters. Khamenei announced that the specific complaints of the three losing candidates would be fully reviewed and the ballots of the disputed boxes recounted. Khamenei also warned that unpermitted demonstrations would now be dealt with legally and forcefully.

On the next day, anti-government protesters attempted to demonstrate in central Tehran. Western sources put the number of people at 3,000. But this time, the police in riot gear and the basiji militia met would-be demonstrators with force, using water cannons, tear gas and batons. There were violent confrontations, where shots were fired and people killed.

Iranian TV showed police being beaten by demonstrators. Voice of America broadcast footage of the police attacking the demonstrators. The street clashes caused at least 10 deaths, bringing the total number of people killed since the elections to 17. Some reports have put the number higher.

The character of the opposition

What is the political character of the opposition movement? Does it have an anti-capitalist character? Is it a pro-working class movement? Does the opposition represent a deepening of the anti-imperialist movement for Iran’s independence? What class interests does the opposition movement represent?

Mousavi supporters in violent protest in Iran
By positioning itself against the nationalist forces
that have opposed U.S. domination, the Iranian
opposition has earned the support of Washington.
This is a question not asked by those "left" forces taking up the support of the opposition movement. Some have even called this a revolutionary movement. But street demonstrations do not constitute revolutionary movements. Whether or not a movement is revolutionary depends on its political class character. Evaluating the political character of a movement is exactly what imperialism does to determine whether or not it will support it.

Imperialist support for the opposition is not just a side note, or an irrelevant coincidence. The imperialist establishment has some of the best and brightest analysts and planners working for it. Their task is to determine what set of developments serve imperialist interests and what runs counter to those interests. Imperialists provide material support to those movements that are likely to open up markets and resources to them and oppose those movements that are likely to limit their access to resources and markets. It is a rational, goal-oriented, approach.

In the case of Iran, it is clear that all the imperialist countries, with no dissenters, agree that the opposition movement serves their interests. Why? Because what is developing in Iran is not a revolutionary movement seeking to deepen and extend the 1979 revolution. To the contrary, it is a movement that seeks to reverse some of its progressive gains.

Within the Islamic Republic establishment, Mousavi is to the right of Ahmadinejad, favoring rapid privatization and a more conciliatory approach to the United States. Though Mousavi is not an imperialist pawn, the demonstrations were never really about Mousavi. Most demonstrators really wanted regime change, and the regime they wanted was not a revolutionary one.

This writer, who was in Iran for the elections and their aftermath, talked to dozens, maybe hundreds of demonstrators about many issues. Their various grievances were rooted in many problems, including high unemployment and inflation. But it is clear that this is not a movement of predominantly progressive or revolutionary demands.

On domestic issues, the only progressive demand articulated by demonstrators was a demand for more freedom. This, of course, is a valid demand, but almost every opposition in the world puts forth this demand. It is questionable that either a Mousavi administration or a regime replacing the Islamic Republic would grant more freedoms.

Most of the demonstrators have nothing but contempt for the poor and working class. They openly criticize Ahmadinejad’s economic policies as "geda-parvary" ("nurturing beggars"). Many of them refer to working-class people as beggars, illiterates and villagers.

Among the opposition demonstrators, the common view on the Shah, the U.S. client who ruled Iran for 25 years after the 1953 coup, was that he was modernizing Iran, had upset the mullahs and was a lot better than the Islamic Republic.

A sizeable minority among opposition supporters even favor a U.S. bombing of Iran, assuming that the Pentagon would strictly target the Shiite clerics and not the rest of the people. The primary source of their information and political views was Voice of America and BBC Farsi. In fact, most rarely watched the Iranian state’s news programs.

On Palestine, the common view was that Iran should not give any aid to the people of Gaza as long as there are needs at home. On Iran’s relations with Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia, what one often heard was that Iran should not support governments that could be overthrown with a simple coup. Instead, it should try to join the "international community"—those governments deemed acceptable by the imperialist club.

On Iraq, the common view was that Iraq is doing much better under U.S. occupation than under Saddam Hussein. Things would only get better if Iran stopped interfering.

Is there one ‘people of Iran?’

The support offered by liberal/left forces in the United States is cloaked in the phrase "defending the people of Iran." The factual problem with this statement is that the people of Iran are far from united on this issue. In fact, Iranian society is highly polarized. And if we use the results of the elections as an indication, nearly two-thirds of the population does not support the opposition; they support Ahmadinejad.

A strong, nearly unanimous majority of people living in the more affluent northern part of Tehran supports the opposition. Most of these privileged people are convinced that theirs is the only point of view. Many of them do not personally know anyone who voted for Ahmadinejad, and are hence convinced that the elections must have been stolen.

To interact with Ahmadinejad supporters, one would have to talk to people in the working-class south of Tehran and in the provinces. In the post-election period, this writer traveled to parts of the provinces of Azarbaijan and Gilan. The difference between the prevailing attitudes among different parts of the population was striking.

Many U.S. corporate news reports have pointed out the differences in the class composition and the regional patterns in where the support lies for the two sides. Etemadeh Melli, a daily newspaper loyal to Karroubi, an opposition candidate who has charged election fraud, printed an editorial acknowledging the class difference between Ahmadinejad supporters and those backing the opposition. The editorial lamented what it called an "uptown/downtown divide" between supporters of the two camps.

Ahmadinejad supporters are predominantly poor, working class, and/or from the provinces. Mousavi supporters are mostly privileged, highly educated, living in northern or central Tehran or in the high-income neighborhoods of a few other large cities.

In south Tehran, support for Ahmadinejad is strong, although not unanimous. In many provinces—outside of Tehran and other big cities—support for Ahmadinejad is near unanimous.

A group of people in a town near Talesh, Gilan, said that everybody in their town had voted for Ahmadinejad except for two people who were relatives of Karroubi. A 70-year-old domestic worker in Tehran said that she had prayed for weeks for Ahmadinejad to win. She said that none of the other politicians ever considered poor people as human beings, "but Ahmadinejad came to us, visited our neighborhoods, gave us ‘justice shares’ and wanted to help us." A young cab driver said, "People in northern Tehran are upset because they wanted all the oil money spent there, not in the provinces."

Robert Fisk, the well-known progressive journalist who has long reported from the Middle East, was in Iran during the elections. Fisk first wrote that there must have been election fraud. But a few days later, on June 20, Fisk wrote:

"Most visiting Western journalists stay in hotels in the wealthy, north Tehran suburbs, where tens of thousands of Mousavi supporters live, where it’s easy to find educated translators who love Mousavi, where interviewees speak fluent English and readily denounce the spiritual and cultural and social stagnation of Iran’s—let us speak frankly—semi-dictatorship.

"But few news organisations have the facilities or the time or the money to travel around this 659,278 square-mile country—seven times the size of Britain—and interview even the tiniest fraction of its 71 million people. When I visited the slums of south Tehran on Friday, for example, I found that the number of Ahmadinejad supporters grew as Mousavi’s support dribbled away. And I wondered whether, across the huge cities and vast deserts of Iran, a similar phenomenon might be discovered. A Channel 4 television crew, to its great credit, went down to Isfahan and the villages around that beautiful city and came back with a suspicion—unprovable, of course, anecdotal, but real—that Ahmadinejad just might have won the election."

Another color revolution

What would have happened had the street demonstrations overthrown the Islamic Republic regime? Would we now have a more independent, a more anti-imperialist, a left-leaning government with more benefits for the working class? There is a reason that "left" forces supporting the opposition do not ask this question. There is not the slightest bit of evidence to think this "revolutionary" movement would result in a leftward shift in the Iranian state and every reason to think the contrary.

If the opposition had toppled the Islamic Republic, this would have been another example of a U.S. sponsored color revolution—this time, green. It would likely have resulted in the overthrow of a nationalist regime in favor of a client state implementing neoliberal policies.

How has the international community reacted to Iran’s elections? Imperialists have unanimously supported the opposition. Progressive governments have been generally supportive of Ahmadinejad’s victory. Venezuela’s revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez was one of the first foreign leaders to support Ahmadinejad. In his weekly television program, Chávez said: "Ahmadinejad’s triumph is a total victory. They’re trying to stain Ahmadinejad’s victory, and by doing so they aim to weaken the government and the Islamic revolution. I know they won’t be able to do it."

On July 25, supporters of Iran’s opposition held rallies around the world, some attended by thousands of demonstrators. Refusing to recognize the right-wing character of Iran’s opposition movement, many "left" U.S. forces attended in support. In many of the rallies, demonstrators waved the Iranian flag bearing the icon of the lion—the pre-1979 flag of counter-revolutionary monarchists who wish to return Iran to the days of the Shah, when Iran was a U.S. client state. The flags left little doubt about the dominant political character of the demonstrators.

There are many complicated issues involved, on many of which the typical progressive activist in the U.S. may not have sufficient background information. But if we look at the line up of forces, the issue is not all that complicated. On the one side, we have all the imperialist states, Israel and the corporate media aligned with the mostly privileged sectors of Iranian society. On the other side, we have the majority of working-class and poor Iranians, aligned with revolutionary and progressive forces internationally.

Whatever our analysis of the opposition, it is not the task of progressives in the United States to make revolution in Iran or take sides in an internal dispute. Our task is to oppose U.S. intervention in Iran and defend the right of self-determination for Iranian people.

U.S. hands off Iran!

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