How can we help Iranians?

The English-language media is full of articles that claim Iranian post-election demonstrations are either a class war or an uprising of rich Iranians against the authority. None of these articles support their offered claim with any strong arguments. The thought process usually involves either the cliche that peasants don’t stand up to elites for sociopolitical justice –they don’t know that they are being exploited– or paint Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a socialist South-American ally who is against the neo-liberal trend of the world and who has helped peasants and working class people in Iran. Consequently they question why working class people should protest against someone who helps them financially.

To test the accuracy of such ideas one can take a look at the record of Ahmadinejad and see how he has treated the working class during his presidency and whether he has done anything for the peasants of Iran beyond his demagogic economic slogans. Some weeks before the election, upon being asked by an Iranian interviewer of his opinion about labor syndicate, Ahmadinajed responded "what is labor syndicate?". Iranian workers who peacefully protested on May Day 2009, almost 42 days before the election, were beaten up by the police and some got arrested. Mansour Osanlo, who is a bus driver, was imprisoned for peacefully protesting for better wages for bus drivers. Teachers who protested peacefully in 2007 got arrested — their income increased, however, two weeks before the election and many believe this to be manipulation on the part of Ahmadinejad. The oil income of the country during Ahmadinejad’s presidency has been equal to the net oil incomes of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami’s presidencies combined; nevertheless, inflation has increased. Food and housing prices are skyrocketing. The unemployment rate is at its highest. Ahmadinejad is in favor of privatization — read, militarization–  of the economy. In the name of privatization, most of Iran’s economy is in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard. Although some money and potatoes (literally!) have been distributed to people in marginalized areas of Iran, the benefits of these handouts pale in comparison to hardships — such as high prices of housing and food — resulting from economic sanctions and Ahmadinejad’s administration’s mismanagement. If members of the working class have a harder time feeding themselves and keeping roofs above their heads, and if the sociopolitical atmosphere has deteriorated under Ahmadinejad’s presidency, why would poor people support Ahmadinejad? Not all poor people are Ahmadinejad’s supporters. While the housing prices and food costs skyrocket (living expenses have doubled or tripled in the past four years), Ahmadinejad’s slogans sound meaningless to many low-income people. These people live the mismanagement of the government; for them, it is not just numbers and graphs, it is their power to buy milk and bread.

There is no unified political view shared among the poor in Iran. Political attitudes can be influenced by several different factors, viz., the level of education, income, locale (rural or urban), religiosity, age and to some extent ethnicity. Those Iranians (young or old) who do not support Ahmadinejad often desire a better job, affordable living and housing, more sociopolitical freedom, a transparent, accountable administration, and a calm leader who does not give excuses to warmongers. Yet Ahmadinejad has supporters among people (not necessarily poor or from rural areas) who still believe in his economic justice slogans, humble way of living, modesty, nationalistic anti-imperialist stance and denouncements of the selective discriminatory behavior of world powers. Among Ahmadinejad’s supporters, you typically see members of ideological militaries (i.e., Basij and the Revolutionary Guard), those who admire his modest way of living and economic justice slogans, and those who endorse his utopian anti-imperialist stance and nationalistic attitudes toward nuclear facilities.

Many people, rural or urban, are disillusioned with Ahmadinejad’s promises of economic justice as a direct result of their experiences during these four years of his presidency. The three weeks before the presidential election the other three candidates made loud accusations about the mismanagement committed by Ahmadinejad’s administration. The presidential debates were important, particularly Ahmadinejad’s misleading graphs during his debate with Karoubi, which he used to proclaim his economic achievements. These graphs were mostly comparisons between the economic conditions of his and previous presidencies (i.e., those of Khatami and Hashemi).  A day after the Ahmadinejad-Karoubi debate, Mousavi showed the true graphs during his debate with Karoubi and compared them with Ahmaidnejad’s version. Mousavi explained that all his data was taken from Central Bank of Iran. Mousavi’s explanation and numbers accorded with people’s financial hardships and frustrations and countered Ahmadinejad’s hollow claims. The other important debate, and the hardest one for Ahmadinejad, was with Rezaie. Ahmadinajed claimed that unemployment rates had decreased during his presidency. Rezaie pointed out that, during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the definition of unemployment has changed (from two days of work per week to two hours of work per week) and therefore Ahmadinejad’s claims are a manipulation at best. Since Ahmadinejad and Rezaei are both principalists (Osoulger), Rezaei’s criticism of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and economic mismanagement are particularly powerful. This caused people to take Mousavi’s words more seriously; it is not simply a fight between a reformist and a principalist.

A friend of mine –who believes the biggest problem in Iran is the disparity between rich and poor, and Ahmadinejad is the one who can decrease or resolve this problem– called me from Nahavand after the presidential debates. She was disillusioned with the demagogic slogans of Ahmadinejad and told me she is not going to vote for him. During these debates, many people, who trusted that Ahmadinejad really cared about low-income and repressed (Mostazafin) Iranians, learned directly from other presidential candidates about his manipulation of numbers and mismanagement of the budget, unemployment rate, inflation, etc. (There was a poll taken three weeks before the election by the Center of Public Opinion that showed significant support for Ahmadinejad, but it was not accurate: the debates decreased Ahmadinejad’s popularity, and the respondents were a relatively small proportion of those who were contacted.)

The Euro-American media has reported that the Iranian president does not have much authority in Iran’s political system and therefore it is not important who will become the president. This idea was promulgated by anti-war activists who feared a war with Iran, which would be justified by demonizing Ahmadinejad — calling him an anti-semite and a threat to Israel’s existence. While it is correct that the Iranian president can not order war or an invasion of another country, he _can_ affect sociopolitical freedoms such as limiting cinema, book, and media access.  The president’s economic policies can also have a direct effect on people’s lives.

A month before the election I was discussing the different candidates’ plans with Iranians . We considered many different aspects of each candidate. Mousavi had the support of Khatami; the alliance between Khatami and Mousavi gave the idea that under Mousavi’s presidency there would be increased sociopolitical freedom. Mousavi also had the support of his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a famous revolutionary feminist who campaigned with him, giving speeches. Zahra Rahnavard gave the idea that women’s rights activists’ demands are more likely to be met if Mousavi becomes president. During his service as the prime minister, Mousavi showed himself to be a socialist in economic policy. His belief in social welfare and social justice caused people to think that he still cares about what most other reformists have abandoned from their political agendas. Unlike Mousavi, however, the other reformists are only focused on sociopolitical freedom. They are pro capitalism and privatization and do not have slogans like Ahmadinejad about poor or repressed (mostazafin) people, albeit Ahmadinejad’s slogans are empty and he is the most pro-privatization president after the revolution. Mousavi appealed to those who seek sociopolitical freedom and to those who care about state welfare. He was a close associate of Khomeini and was once famously told by Khomeini that those who accuse you of not being able to manage the country are themselves not capable of managing a bakery. For many, Khomeini’s support gives Mousavi popularity. Keep in mind that many reformists achieve their legitimacy by mentioning Khomeini’s name in their speeches in order to show commitment to the revolution and its values.

The reforms that many people in Iran seek are unachievable by either reformists or principalists. Khatami, a former reformist president from 1997 to 2005, was limited by the governmental structure and was a disappointment to many Iranians. Under the pressure of the current government, however, it is hard to organize an independent political movement that reflects the sociopolitical aspects of what many Iranians seek to achieve. Many political activists, such as socialists, were imprisoned or killed after the revolution. Given the current circumstances, the best chance for reform is within the system itself, through legal avenues such as elections (consider, e.g., the reform movement and the green movement). As the post-election protests showed us, even a movement within the establishment can cost physical punishment, imprisonment, and even human life. To many Iranian people, reformists like Mousavi who are part of the system and care about socioeconomic justice are the path to real change.

The Euro-American media has been fascinated by Iran’s election. They have been captivated about the domestic shortcomings of the Ahmadinejad administration from the perspective of the Iranian people. The post-election protest itself is an affair that the Euro-American media would not expect from Iranian society — from the same people who have been demonized over the past four years, through their president. People of Iran have always been the passive victims of an "all options on the table, including military" policy. The media is shocked to see the very same Iranian people in the streets, lambasting their president over domestic issues. Now the question the Euro-American media genuinely asks is "how we can help Iranian people". To answer this question, one should examine closely the effect of the US rhetoric on domestic issues of Iran during the last four years.

Audiences in Europe and the US came to realize that Iranian people have real issues with the domestic issues that have intensified during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, including a growing disparity between the poor and the rich, pro-privatization agenda (despite Ahmedinejad’s socioeconomic justice slogans), deteriorating sociopolitical freedom, unsatisfactory response to women’s rights movement, high housing prices and the failure of economic justice (promised in Ahmedinejad’s 2005 campaign). Ahmadinejad’s administration correctly blames economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the US for some of the economic failures. There has also been a cacophony of war threats against Iran. These war threats have been the most important national crisis for all Iranians. People throughout the political spectrum fell silent about domestic issues in order to unify against a possible war. The threat of war, combined with Ahmadinejad’s bombastic nationalistic rhetoric, overshadowed his failed domestic policies for some Iranians. In fact, some people throughout the Middle East who are tired of threats and humiliation consider Ahmadinejad to be a hero. Although Ahmadinejad deserved to be criticized for domestic policy, these shortcomings have been overshadowed by Ahmadinejad’s strong stance in defense of Iran’s right to have nuclear facilities, national dignity, and sovereignty.

So how can Americans help the people of Iran? In order to help Iranians, the obstacles to better life conditions should be recognized. The war threats and economic sanctions hurt Iranians both directly (through economic hardship) and indirectly (by empowering the Iranian government and overshadowing their mismanagements). Furthermore, the economy of Iran is largely based on oil and the government is the distributor of the oil wealth; it can give financial help to those who are faithful to them. This increases the notion of "khodi va gheire khodi" (us vs. them). Iranians bear the cost of the war threats and foreign interventions. They are forced into silence about domestic issues in order to unify against the "enemies," not giving them any excuses. Observe that even the green movement, indigenous to Iran, is accused by the Iranian government of being tainted by a fabricated association with Western enemies. (It should also be mentioned that, in parallel, some English language media offensively label the green movement the "Gucci glasses" movement.) In conclusion, to truly help Iranians, the economic sanctions and all war threats should be removed and in solidarity with demonstrators and people of Iran, their voice should be amplified by the their brothers and sisters all over the globe.

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