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Persian Contradictions


 I read the introduction of Iran’s president by Columbia’s president with embarrassment. "You exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,"said Lee Bollinger, after he noted that the Iranian state had executed 210 people in 2007 (till September 24, the date of the lecture). The US state has only executed 42 people in this same time period (1099 since 1976, when the death penalty was reauthorized). In fact, in recent years, over ninety percent of all state executions have taken place in six countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and the USA. Iran’s rate has doubled in the last few years, with the state taking the lives of people proven guilty of what had not previously amounted to capital crimes (including the execution of women, such as Nazarin, who fought off would be rapists with whatever means necessary, in her case with a pocket knife). Neither the US nor Iran has the high moral ground on the death penalty. Both routinely use it in "social" cases, against those whose crimes stem from imbalances of their mental state or their poverty, or else their resistance to sanctioned misogyny or racism.

For those with fewer means or with lesser power, both the US and the Iranian states act like "petty and cruel dictators."

Christopher de Bellaigue, a British writer who lives in Teheran with his Iranian wife and family, writes with the kind of humanistic dispatch that should embarrass Bollinger for his sub-academic introduction. A collection of de Bellaigue’s essays written for the New York Review of Books is now out (The Struggle for Iran, NYRB, 2007), and it provides a useful and well-written counterbalance to the hysteria of the mainstream media. For one, de Bellaigue offers us an Iran that is complex, whose almost seventy one million people are divided by class and region, by political obligation and moral horizon. There are the conservatives (muhafazakaran) who hold the reins of political power. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini, leads the conservative faction. Khamenei is not a well-regarded theologist (he is not a marja, an Object of Emulation), but he was twice elected President with enormous pluralities. Conservative power is not only derived from the state, but the clerics also used their power to insinuate themselves into the economic order (not only through the seminary system in places such as Qom, which is a beneficiary of the religious taxes, but also through the bonyads, or charity organizations that control just less than third of the economy), and through the state, which controls over three quarters of economic activity and which is under the control of the conservatives.

There is not enough economics in de Bellaigue, who is keener to emphasize the outbreak of reformism led, in the late 1990s, by the then president Mohammed Khatami. Politics of the reform kind, in de Bellaigue’s formulation, happens far from its material conditions. The reformers (known as the Dovum Kurdadi after the month when Khatami won the election in 1997) are myriad. They include the well heeled who are de Bellaigue’s neighbors in the northern Teheran district of Elahiyeh (Shemiran), and who drive up and down Fereshteh Avenue in fancy cars. For this section, liberty means not only the end to the social rituals of the conservatives, but also the privatization of the economy. It was this section that backed former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 2005 elections against the relatively obscure mayor of Teheran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the reformers also include an activist section that fights the Islamic Republic on gender rights, human rights, labor rights, free speech rights in other words, from the perspective of the Left. It is an unwieldy alliance, between those who want freedom for hedonism and those who want freedom from autocracy. We hear about the feminists (people such as Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi) and the journalists (people such as Akbar Ganji), but nothing from those who work among the working class (such as Mansour Osanlou, head of the Syndicate of Workers of Teheran and Suburbs, and Mahoud Salehi, head of the Bakery Workers’ Association, both in jail). De Bellaigue is a reformer in the style of his Elahiyeh neighbors, writing longingly for liberalization of the economy. Privatization and liberalization came on the agenda in the Khatami years, but the conservatives have largely endorsed it as a strategy as well.

In October 2006, Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, told the Cabinet, that in order to overcome the "class gap" in the country "the state should decrease its interferences in economy." Two years before this, the leadership had overturned Article 44 of the Iranian constitution, which mandated that the state should run the core infrastructure. The Elahiyeh reformers find succor in this new direction of the Supreme Leader, although they still chaff at the social constraints of the regime.

The 2005 election, which de Bellaigue intimates might have been stolen by the conservatives, did not clarify the social divisions. "Whatever else he is," writes de Bellaigue, Ahmadinejad is "a man of principle." He favors "principle against expediency," which is why he has interpreted privatization in a unique way. At a public event in October 2006, Ahmadinejad announced the idea of the Justice Share, where the state would divide shares to some companies among 4.6 million of the poorest Iranians, who would automatically become stockholders in the nation’s wealth.

Ahmadinejad’s policies are idiosyncratic, buoyed partly by high oil prices (returns of $55 billion this year as opposed to $23 billion in 2002-03) but stretched thin by the easy recourse to anti-Americanism. Washington makes it easy to draw on the Islamic Republic’s stock dogmas, and it is to this that Ahmadinejad retreats when his economic forays falter. "The government’s economic polices are quite transparent and based on planning and reason,"

Ahmadinejad told the press in July, but his own Parliament does not seem to agree. Tehran’s delegate Alireza Mahjub told Parliament, "This crisis is growing worse every day."

De Bellaigue does not seem interested in these economic contradictions, but rather he usefully gives us the view from Tehran of the ongoing cultural wars in Iran and on the indifference of Iranians to the bellicosity from Washington. On the culture wars, de Bellaigue carefully shows us that it was stoked by the immorality of liberalization. "Some of the newly rich drank bootleg booze and held un-Islamic parties," he writes, "They drove expensive cars and wore flashy clothes." The rising economic inequality, the total awareness of the class based sacrifices during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the lack of secular alternatives probably play a significant role in the movement of the poor toward such characters as Ahmadinejad, who displays a personal piety and an antipathy to the nouveau riche, as well as a populism that appeals in the youth-depleted rural areas and in the slums of cities (44% of urban Iranians live in slums). Washington fulminates about autocracy in Iran and the bomb, but, as de Bellaigue writes, "for most Iranians, the price of food, and the government’s failure to lower it, are more important" (this was written in January 2005, but in 2007 inflation in the food and fuel sector continues in Iran). Ahmadinejad’s posture revives Iranian national pride as he stands up to US pressure, at the same time as his own personal lack of ostentation and his economic promises (along with high oil prices) mollifies a large section of the country. If he did not have that support he would not be able to cross the Supreme Leader, as he seems to have done.

Washington and Columbia University have made Ahmadinejad the focus of their ire, trying to convert him into Saddam as Cheneyism moves from Baghdad to Tehran. But, as de Bellaigue writes, on foreign and military policy, the President only has an "advisory role." It is the Supreme Leader, in this case Khamenei, who sets policy. Such may no longer be the case. Khamenei’s man in the nuclear ring was Ali Larijani, and it is clear that when he resigned in October 20 from his post as chief nuclear negotiator, it exposed a feud between the Supreme Leader and the President. To replace Larijani, the government chose Saeed Jalili, a confidant of Ahmadinejad (who might have written the President’s unread letter to Bush). Power struggles at the top and vibrancy below are signs that a new era of reformism might open up in Iran. But Washington is not interested in reformism, keener to speak in the language of force (harf-e zoor meezanam), to tell others what to do.

Bollinger, the sub-Bush, spoke just in that way.

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