Ahmadinejad: Anti-Imperialist Or Deceptive Populist?

[This presentation was given at a debate organized by the Iranian Human Rights Society at York University, Toronto, Nov. 25, 2010.]

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 with its original demands for national independence, democracy, political freedom and social justice, was one of the most important events of the twentieth century.

It was initiated by secular intellectuals, men and women, writers, artists, academics, students, civil servants and workers. Yet, paradoxically it gave rise to a repressive and religious obscurantist regime.

Years of suppression by the Shah’s regime had left a vacuum which was effectively used by the clergy. We were fooled by Khomeini’s rhetoric from exile that the clergy would be engaged only in religious and spiritual matters and that the democratic demands of the Iranian people would be respected. The takeover of the American Embassy by his followers and the Iraqi invasion created an illusion that the clerical oligarchy was progressive and anti-imperialist.

In the incredible and lengthy three decades of Islamist rule in Iran, the country regressed on all aspects of life — politically, socially, culturally, and economically — and the Islamic regime itself went through various phases of transformation.

In the first phase that coincided with the Iran-Iraq war and the increasing influence of Islamist militarists, the regime consolidated its power by co-opting or eliminating all opposition.

The second phase, following Khomeini’s death, was eight years of neo-liberal policies of Rafsanjani — himself a billionaire cleric — under whose leadership a new class of capitalists emerged, consisting of clerics, their family members and military/Islamic Guard officers, and the gap between the rich and the poor widened extensively. Many Islamists who were waiting to go to heaven, discovered heaven on earth in north Tehran!

The third phase was eight years of another cleric, Khatami, with the promise of reform. Although no major reform took place, the relatively lax political atmosphere revitalized the civil society, on the one hand, and angered the fundamentalists and the far right on the other.

The fourth phase started in 2005, and a military-clerical alliance pushed back the “traditional right” clerics and established the most obscurantist version of Islamic fundamentalism in post-revolutionary Iran with the election of Ahmadinejad to the presidency. With the collapse of Khatami’s reformist agenda, the marginalized masses had rallied around the crude populism of Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad and his associates, among other things, are firm believers in their mission to expedite the return of the Shi’i messiah, Mahdi, who they believe resides in a well in the village of Chamkaran near Qum. A cabinet member regularly drops a copy of Ahmadinejad’s policies in the well to get his approval! (This is not a joke.)

Each of these phases attracted attention of different individuals and groups in the West. Rafsanjani attracted the neo-liberal right and those interested in investing in Iran. Khatami attracted the liberal intellectuals in the West and those Iranians who had the illusion of the regime reforming itself. Ahmadinejad, with his anti-Israeli, anti-American rhetoric, gained the support of a part (not all) of the left intellectuals in the West.

Focusing on the present, I want to decode and discuss the illusions that lead certain individuals in the face of American and Israeli threats to implicitly or explicitly support Ahmadinejad and the regime. What are these illusions?

1. The first illusion is that the regime is democratic

One of the main demands of the revolution of 1979 was democracy, and Khomeini and his supporters, who believed in the “absolute sovereignty of the jurist,” could not openly ignore this. That’s why there is an elected Parliament in Iran. But all candidates must be verified by an un-elected 12-member ultra-conservative religious council (the Guardianship Council), that decides who can or cannot run, without any explanation.

The same body which is appointed by the Supreme Leader acts as an upper house and can reject or accept any bill passed by the Parliament. The same body also chooses who can run for the Presidency. It usually selects several trusted candidates from within the establishment, and let’s the public pick one. Even in this process they cheat, as they did in the last election in June 2009.

The most important position is the Supreme Leader, who is selected by an all-Mullah Assembly of Experts for life. He controls the armed forces and the Islamic guards and militia, foreign policy, and state media. He also controls massive religious endowments, receives a share of oil revenues to be spent at his discretion, and oversees a most dreadful network of parallel security and intelligence establishments and an incredible repressive apparatus.

A crucial aspect of democracy and democratic rights relates to gender. Islamists’ gender politics is openly and unapologetically against gender equality. Had it not been for the brave women of Iran and their loosely organized groups most of them would have by now been pushed back from the public sphere.

The youth of Iran cannot even decide what dress to wear. University students lack any freedom and their demands are brutally suppressed. Through a bizarre star or negative point system student activists are easily expelled from the university.

Another major aspect of democracy relates to the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. Kurdish, Baluchi, Turkmen and other national minorities have been brutally suppressed. Under the regime of the Mullahs, Iran is being depleted of its religious minorities. Here I just give you the latest figures extracted from the government’s own statistics. In the period 1996-2006, Iran’s Jewish population — the largest in the Middle East after Israel — was reduced by 25%, from 12.7 thousand to 9.2 thousand. Zoroastrians, the original religion of Iran, were reduced from 27.9 thousand to 19.8 thousand during the same period. Those not identifying their religion increased from about 89 thousand to over 205 thousand (these include Bahai’s, atheists, etc.). Only the number of Christians has increased, which is another story, partly related to conversions.

As we speak, leaders of the women’s movement, the labour movement and the students’ movements, and of religious minorities are in jail. So much for the democracy illusion!

2. The second illusion is that the regime is anti-Imperialist

Some call Ahmadinejad “the anti-imperialist President.” The bases of their claim are nothing but Ahmadinejad’s anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rhetoric. Anti-imperialism is a progressive attribute, and does not apply to a reactionary regime which itself has dreams of expanding its influence beyond its borders.

Ahmadinejad shrewdly uses his anti-American/anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rhetoric to attract attention and gain support from the people who are actually suffering from wrong and oppressive policies of the US, Israel, and other powers in the Middle East. The plight of the Palestinian people is very real, but what has the Iranian regime done in their support, other than empty words and supporting like-minded Islamists in the region?

Ironically, Ahmadinejad has played anti-imperialism in reverse, by providing ammunition to the most hawkish and reactionary fundamentalist factions of Israel. Ysrael Beitenu of Avigdoor Liberman owes much of its 15 seats in the Knesset to Ahmadinejad. A right-wing Israeli analyst said it rightly: Ahmadinejad is god-given!

Had it not been for the misguided American foreign policy, from the time of Reagan to G.W. Bush, this same regime would have been much closer to the Americans. The Mullahs are very pragmatic; they got help from Reagan and Israel during the Iran-Iraq war. Israel was among the main providers of arms, such as Katyusha shells, anti-tank missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and crucial spare parts for Phantom jets to Iran, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Iranian regime collaborated with the Americans in the Bonn Agreement, and since then has continuously supported Hamid Karzai. Iran also implicitly supported the American invasion of Iraq.

Anti-imperialism should also be reflected in a state’s economic policies. Ahmadinejad has been very pragmatic in relation to foreign capital. While FDI, foreign direct investment, has remained limited after the revolution and has declined in recent years (now as low as $1.5 bn), Ahmadinejad has lifted some of the original restrictions on FDI, and for portfolio investments has even allowed for the first time foreign companies to buy shares of Iranian companies on the TSE (not Toronto, but Tehran Stock Exchange).

Amazingly Ahmadinejad signed a colonial-type oil concession agreement with Chinese companies (Sinopac and later China Petroleum). The conditions of the concession offered by the Chinese were so outrageous that the former President, Khatami, did not sign it, but Ahmadinejad did and even added to the concessions. (A 35-year concession on the basis of 55/45 revenue share — the lesser figure for Iran — for one million barrels per day, for which the costs of explorations are based on 40/60 — the bigger share of the costs for Iran. Iran can only sell 30% of the extracted oil from fields assigned independently. And Iran has to use 45% of its revenues for purchasing goods from China. Many rightly compare this to the 1906 D’Arcy and later BP concession.)

3. The third illusion is that the regime is for the poor and the oppressed

On the basis of a crude class analysis, some have argued that the conflict within the Islamic regime reveals a class polarization pitting capitalists against the working class. The fact is that all Ayatollahs of both Islamic factions are “market-oriented capitalists,” and each faction has its own share of middle class and working class support.

As part of his crude populist strategy, Ahmadinejad moved around the country, virtually with sacks of money. He was lucky that his presidency coincided with amazing increases in oil prices (oil provides over 50% of government revenues). This gave him much popularity among the poor and in rural areas, although with rising unemployment and inflation, the working poor have more and more become disillusioned.

Millions of people are on the allowance list of the religious foundations and the regime uses them at the polling stations and in street demonstrations.

Through a so-called privatization program Ahmadinejad has transferred many of the profit-making industries under the control of the government to his cronies, to the top clerics and top Islamic guard generals and their families. A well-known case involves one of his closest friends, Sadeq Mahsooli, an unemployed youth at the time of the revolution, who is now worth over $160 million as was disclosed during a parliamentary review. In many cases ayatollahs have gotten loans from government banks, bought factories way below the market value, did not even pay back the loan, and then sold the factory in the TSE. There are well-known cases of Ayatollah Yazdi, Emami Kashani, and others.

Thus a class of nouveau-riche that emerged from the time of Rafsanjani expanded under Ahmadinejad. One of the most intriguing comments I have heard on this is that Ahmadinejad is creating a “national bourgeoisie.” This is baseless. Even if the notion of “national” bourgeoisie made any sense in the age of globalization, some of the individuals who were historically considered as part of Iran’s national bourgeoisie have either been driven out of their industries or are in jail.

To check the claim that this is the government of the oppressed we should look at poverty and also income inequality figures. Based on a study by an Iranian economist, Javad Salehi-Isfahani, the latest poverty rate based on the ‘half the mean’ calculation (whereby anyone with per capita expenditures lower than 50% of the national mean is poor), shows that 33.9% live below the poverty line. This calculation based on the ‘half the median’ is 18.7%, or 14 million people.

In terms of income distribution, which was one of Ahmadinejad’s promises, the Gini coefficient of inequality (a measure of dispersion between 0 and 1, zero being most equal, and 1 most unequal) the figure for Iran is .445. This is among the worst in the whole Middle East, worse than Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc. (the figures for the Arab Sheikhdoms are not available — they better hide the data!). It is interesting to note that in the first 2 years of Ahmadinejad, this figure increased from .435 to .445.

A better measure for income inequality is the deciles distribution. On the basis of Household Expenditures, the lowest decile (poorest) per capita per day expenditure was about $8 dollars, and the top (richest) decile was 17 times higher. More interesting is the fact that compared to a year earlier, the lowest decile’s increase was 2.7 percent, while the highest deciles increased by 7.9 percent. The rich got richer, and the poor became poorer under Ahmadinejad!

His most recent policy relates to government subsidies, which apart from its economic merits that I discuss later, is also political, as he wants to change subsidies to handouts for particular groups of people to keep them dependent and loyal.

4-The fourth illusion is that the regime’s economy is based on a “moral” “Islamic Economics”

The Iranian economy is under the control of four interwoven sub-sectors: the government, the Pasdaran, or the Islamic Corps, the Bonyads or the religious foundations, and the bazaar and private sector. Each sub-sector has its own industrial complexes. In three decades, the regime was transformed from a clerical oligarchy, to military-clerical, and to military-industrial-clerical oligarchy. Six religious Foundations control over 20% of the GDP, almost as big as the oil sector. The Mostazaafan Foundation alone has 172 major manufacturing industries. The Islamic Guard Corps is involved in all sectors of economy.

One of the most amusing perceptions about the present regime in Iran is that its economic system is different from a market economy. The so-called interest-free banking in Iran began by a decree of Khomeini and was implemented on the same day! You may ask how they could introduce such a big change so quickly. Well, it is simple. In Farsi we have an expression called “kolah-e shar’i” (Shati’a hat). Anytime a conduct is perceived to be against the religious edicts, you put a religious hat on it and the problem is solved! So our banks instead of charging “bahreh” (interest), charge “kar-mozd” (fee), more or less the equivalent of bahreh.

The Iranian economy is marred by corruption, mismanagement and embezzlement, and there is nothing moral about it. The reason why the regime is moving towards removing the subsidies on all major commodities and face enormous price hikes and the ensuing political unrest, is that they cannot afford it any longer. Subsidies are estimated to be $100 bn, almost one-forth of the GDP. Of course they want also to tackle the decades-long stagflation and economic crisis that has remained from the time of the revolution.


All in all, we can argue that the Islamic regime in Iran does not fit the paradigm promoted by its propaganda machine and repeated by some misinformed intellectuals in the West.

I would like to argue that even if we assume that these claims were right, can supporters of the Islamic Republic justify the brutal and barbarian system of governance and suppression? How can the working class improve its lot without trade unions which are banned by the regime and many of the workers’ leaders are in jail? Should Iranian women embrace pre-medieval misogynist policies of the regime, because it is ‘anti-imperialist? Should Iranian students, intellectuals and artists abandon their demand of freedom of expression because the government gives handouts to some of the poor?

The Iranian people are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they are suffering under this brutal, archaic regime, and, on the other hand, their country is surrounded by imperialist powers occupying the neighbouring countries, and is in danger of being invaded and bombed.

The right and the far-right led by American and Israeli hawks now want to bomb and invade Iran and are naive enough not to understand the terrible consequences of such action. Ahmadinejad uses this same threat to strengthen his status. Both sides have used the nuclear enrichment issue as a main excuse for confrontation.

Iranians have not forgotten that it was the American and British imperialists that toppled the democratically elected government of Dr. Mossadeq about 60 years ago, re-installing their own man in power. Islamic fundamentalism is a by-product of that same politics.

If we learned one lesson from the revolution, it is that it is wrong to choose the lesser of two evils. We must confront both. Thank you.

Saeed Rahnema is Professor of Political Science at York University, Canada. He has served as an officer of the UNDP, and as a Director of the Middle East Economic Association (MEEA). In his homeland, Iran, he was a member of the Industrial Management Institute in Tehran, and during the revolution was a founder of the Union of Work Councils of IDRO, the largest industrial conglomerate of the country. He is the author of several books and numerous articles in English and Farsi, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian and international media on the Middle East and Islam, the Left, and Labour movements. He has won several major awards, including the Government of Ontario Leadership in Faculty Teaching (LIFT) Award in 2007.

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