The Iranian political scene took a turn for the sour, when in the run-off presidential elections held on June 24 of this year, Iran’s number one favorite butt of mafia jokes, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, faced Tehran’s ‘hard line’ mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Well, as you all know by now, the mafia lost. Or so they like to say.
Of the 47 million eligible voters, about 27 million went to the polls (about 55% turnout), and of the votes cast, 61.6% went to Ahmadinejad, and 35.9% to the ‘moderate pragmatist reformer’ candidate at hand, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had previously served as president for two terms from 1989 to 1997.
This is indeed a moment of great significance in the life of Iran’s modern history. Not, mind you, because hack journalists and knee-jerk ‘experts’ have been completely and utterly routed, and their stupidity exposed thoroughly, but because the Islamic Republic itself is in something of a slight shock, if Karrubi’s earlier protestations (due to irregularities of the first round held on June 17) now topped by Rafsanjani’s even louder expressions of disbelief (at the irregularities of the second round) are any indication. The unusually loud complaints of these two men indicate that something significant has happened.
A major shift has indeed taken place. Just about all the major (Iranian and international) news organizations have had to admit in their headlines that class had something to do with it. And just about everybody has been sent a rude wake up call from the working classes and the poor from the Iranian poor neighborhoods and districts, regarding the economic justice that still is missing, after 27 years of sacrifices for the ‘Islamic Revolution’. And the message is: you better do something about economic justice!
How Rigged Was It? To begin, much has been made of the ‘legitimacy issue’ regarding these elections, so let us begin with the question, “Were the results fixed?”
At the risk of sounding Clinton-like, we must pause a little over the definition of ‘fixed’. First, the constitution of the Islamic Republic forbids the participation of women, non-Shiite Muslims, as well as members of other religions from running as a candidate for president. Further, of those Shiite Muslim men who wish to run, any who does not explicitly and sufficiently express support for the Constitution of the Islamic Republic regime, is automatically disqualified. In all, well over one thousand candidates were barred from participating as candidates. This, within the context of a constitution that dictates a particular separation of powers that entrusts very little authority in the institution of the presidency, in the first place.
So, structurally speaking, the elections have been ‘fixed’ in a very systematic fashion to begin with, from the inception of the Islamic Republic regime. It is mostly because of this that the loud protests by Karrubi and Rafsanjani regarding irregularities during the voting process mostly fall on unsympathetic ears, since both men had been beneficiaries of this rigged voting system which they themselves created.
To put things in another and larger context, though, we can do a historical comparison with another country, and point to the fact that throughout the nineteenth century and all the way until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the voting system in the United States of American too was rigorously rigged. Further, we can remember clearly that as late as 2000 tens of thousands of ballots belonging to black Americans were willfully destroyed in the US presidential elections to ensure a Republican victory. As well, we can remember the irregularities resultant from using balloting machines that leave no trace of their actions (which machines were produced by Republican partisan entrepreneurs who had made deals with Republican governors and state legislatures to make their machines mandatory_ all well documented by Greg Palast).
Further, throughout the nineteenth century and well into the early decades of the twentieth century, the U.S. ruling classes (besides using racism codified into law, which had always been a constant factor limiting the franchise) introduced various obstacles to enfranchisement such as ownership of property, poll taxes, English literacy tests and other measures, specifically designed to limit participation in the voting process; either as a candidate or a voter.
This historical-comparative parallel is mentioned so as to put things in some relative world-historical framework and dispel any illusions that the US itself is some ideal model for all humanity to follow. Far from it! As well, it is meant to dismiss the disgusting noises of arrogant war-mongers such as Condi Rice, Vice-president Cheney and President Bush, or their newly acquired poodles such as Christopher Hitchens, or their older barking dogs like Daniel Pipes.
So, terms such as ‘fixed’ or ‘rigged’ are relative terms. In the case of Iran, this writer personally cannot consider the voting system existing there as a sign of any democracy, just as I do not consider the representational system that exists in the US as democratic. Proof of democracy is when people’s will, though mediated, is still implemented without being subjected to ideological, economic, or other litmus tests by those controlling the state, and is translated into measures over which people exercise real control at all times, not merely at the point of casting an occasional ballot.
Nevertheless, from the formal point of view, i.e. the degree of participation by the people in any elections held anywhere, we can reach some understanding about what proportion of members of any society believe in their system enough; specifically, believe in their system in the sense that they consider it possible and realistic to bring about a political change to their own benefit by going to the ballot boxes.
Looked at within this framework, the mullahs can actually claim that a higher percentage of Iranian people believe in their system than people in the U.S. believe in theirs. The 55% turnout in Iran’s run-off elections is a drop from about 61% of the electorate that voted in the first round; both better than the roughly 49-51% of the population that on average votes in the US general elections these days.
This is to illustrate to the reader how easily a system of voting can be set up, and how easy it is to have the people go through the ritual, without any of it ever translating into any democracy, which is, again, the exercise of real power over the decisions that shape the real conditions of our lives.
What Happened to ‘Reformers’? With that context in mind, let us go back to the 2005 Iranian Presidential Elections.
First, why did the reformers do so badly? If, as imagined by so many commentators in the west as well as in Iran, there were such high hopes for the reform candidates, what explains the exact opposite that did materialize? From superficial to the substantive, the ‘reformists’ candidate was so blah (excuse the lack of scientific terminology, but certain things are not complicated enough to require scientific precision) and uninspiring that to have been presented with Moin as the ‘reformist’ candidate was worse than an insult.
The man was responsible for one of the earliest rounds of inquisition in Iran, when he was in charge of the wholesale purging of the academics from universities, including the university in one this writer’s former residences in Iran, Shiraz, where the joke was that people could get purged for drinking coffee (an obvious sign of a ‘westernized’ mind). The purpose of those early academic purges was not to merely purge dissidents; the actual goal was to leave nobody but the willing zealots. Nothing but total capitulation was an option. So, ahem, yeah, well; there you go. That was the ‘reformist’ candidate.
So, after the not-so-reformist-looking Moin was roasted in the first round, the ‘reformist’ camp scampered to the side of Iran’s godfather mullah, Hashemi Rafsanjani!!
In case some have forgotten (or never knew) about the numerous assassinations of Iranian opposition activists and dissident intellectuals inside and outside Iran, and Hashemi Rafsanjani’s connection to those assassinations, here is something from Congressional records of the United States:
“Four members of an Iranian Kurdish opposition group were gunned down at the Mikonos restaurant in Berlin, Germany on September 17, 1992. The subsequent trial of the members of the “hit squad” who committed the killing helped unveil the organization of the Iranian regime’s terrorist services, specifically the part pertaining to Europe. The Berlin court issued its ruling in April 1997.
Presiding Judge Frithjof Kubsch said the order to kill the Kurdish opposition figures came from the very highest levels of the Iranian government. He said the court found the Iranian government had a special committee to direct assassinations called the “Committee for Secret Operations,” whose members included President Hashemi Rafsanjani, [former] Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, and Intelligence chief Ali Fallahian,” (from, Testimony of Steven Emerson Before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East and South Asian Affairs; Tehran and Terrorism: Iran under President Muhammad Khatami, May 14, 1998).
So, this is the character that the hapless ‘reformists’ in Iran turned to in their hour of desperation, in an electoral act based on an extreme form of ‘Lesser Evil’ political un-thinking.
But the broader bankruptcy of the ideas and practices of ‘reformers’ has been best exposed by the women’s movement’s decisive turn away from such illusions as trusting those who want to keep the constitution intact yet call themselves reformers. Women have known better than anybody that real reform must start with a fundamental constitutional change, which gives them legal equality in all spheres of life. Women’s movement’s current slogan of choice (among others): Legal Equality is the Minimum!
It is true that women came out in droves to support and vote for Khatami, especially during his first run for office in 1997. Back then the ‘reform movement’ was something of a new sensation. Even a lot of people on the Iranian ‘left’ were hypnotized for a while. But, soon enough it became clear that no such fantasies were possible within the Iranian constitution as it stands, and the constitution being most consistently discriminatory against women, they were naturally the first to read the lie written in large boldface block letters on the wall.
Iranian women have been at the forefront of a long and protracted social struggle that has been ongoing in different spheres of society, from the first months of the Islamic Republic. This struggle has had its ups and downs, but it has been constant, since women’s oppression has been consistently pursued. Last year, for example, protests were organized against the Islamic Republic’s state-run TV programming which amounted to a campaign to promote polygamy. There were several reports of an overt and angry protest against the state’s promotion of polygamy in April 2004 in Tehran, in front of the offices of the national TV.
But during these ninth presidential elections women have particularly been active, seizing the hour and coming out in force to voice their grievances, since they have learned that during the elections, candidates _mostly men representing the system_ are busy making all manner of sweet promises, and are not very likely to suppress a population that is also engaging in political activities.
There were constant social agitations by women regarding the constitutional ban on their right to run for president. Sporadic protest were held throughout the campaign season, using the tiny space opened up by the relaxation of regulations on public assembly during the campaign season. One such protest was held on June 1, by members of Iran’s Women Activists Movement, who rallied in front of the Presidential Office. The biggest protest rally by women was held in front of Tehran University on June 12 (five days before the first round of the elections), where the gathered women read out a resolution calling for fundamental changes in the constitution.
Enter the Economic Dimension If these elections prove anything at all, it is the re-assertion of the bottom line importance of economic justice that was forgotten by all the ‘culture’ wars, all the postmodernist academic blah, and all those willingly hiding their heads in the sand regarding the class issues when talking about the Iranian politics.
Mr. Rafsanjani, the candidate whom the reformists after being routed in the first round had to settle for as the “lesser evil” candidate of choice, in his previous two terms in office had rendered services diligently to the world capitalist system in the form of passage of fiscal/monetary legislation rationalizing the exchange rate, and effectively pegging all the prices in Iran to the dollar. As well, he had passed legislation that loosened the rules allowing for ‘privatization’, meaning mostly allowing foreign investment into key national markets as well as opening up certain key industries coveted by western capitalists, and even allowing for majority share holding by a foreign company in joint ventures, even in industries traditionally kept well away from foreign ownership. All these measures, the stuff of western capitalists’ wet dreams.
Unemployment numbers that are reported are not very reliable; yet, the official figures stand around 15% (and can realistically and safely be assumed to be well over 30%). Production capacity of the nation (whose population has doubled since) has not achieved, proportionally, its 1977 levels. As a result a full half of the population lives in poverty.
The de facto pegging of prices as well as the value of rial (the national currency) to the dollar has meant an incredible depreciation of the real buying power of the population. Everyday stories of families not being able to afford a single meat-filled dish a week, or months, are abundantly heard. Increasing numbers of what formerly constituted a safe middle class have now lost enough buying power as to not be able to afford a single meat dish in a given week (just to judge the really existing situation by a very simple parameter that everybody understands; no fancy concepts needed!).
The economic chokehold, as huge a burden as it is, is only one factor suffocating the people and creating an endless supply of social frustrations. There is rampant prostitution and an epidemic of drug addiction, in a situation where opium consumption is as accepted as getting a beer at a western party, and where heroin costs the same as sugar. Another, just to make sure that insult is added to the daily slap in the face, is the overt corruption that exists in the fabric of the official society.
Not needing any exaggeration, in the millions are the reports of bribes overtly demanded by officials (whose wages are meager indeed) working in various state bureaucratic institutions of the state in charge of various functions that bring the citizens of any republic face to face with a state bureaucrat for any number of reasons. Be it renewing or getting a driver’s license, paying or protesting a parking ticket, be it an application for building an addition to your house, or getting the builders next door to get off your plot, be it the renewing of your plumber’s license or street sweeper’s permit; whatever the reason, you will eventually have to deal with one functionary or another.
Now, when it comes to bribing, certain classes can afford it more easily than others [hence the social demands of the middle and upper classes who supported the ‘reformists’ were mostly to do with ‘cultural’ factors, since they did not have the employment/economic and the bribing factors to worry about].
The ‘reformists’ have always made sure to focus the public’s attention on the ‘cultural issues’ such as a relaxation of the dress code for women, or the lifting of the ban on music, movies, etc., while presenting the ‘free market’ economics as that cure-all key to everything on earth (and in this Rafsanjani is actually correct in stating that he was the ‘original reformer’).
By ‘free’ they meant free for themselves primarily; free, after establishing their own monopoly over all the confiscated and expropriated property and companies from Shah and his family and former cronies as well as tons of ordinary citizens very distantly and vaguely possibly connected to the ruling cliques; after nationalizing some foreign assets and likewise bringing them under their own possession; and basically after stealing a huge accumulation of wealth created by previous generations. As well, after fighting it out amongst themselves and establishing the rules of sharing the loot. Only after all that, they were ready to open up to the foreign looters to come and enjoy the party. Such was their plan for bringing about stability and gaining a permanent membership in the world’s status quo. “Hey,” they were saying, “we can play ball! See? We like ‘privatization’, wink, wink, baraboom barabim; let’s do it!”
Enter the Working Poor But, the poor, given the chance, were inspired to bust the party, when they heard somebody looking as poor as they, declaring unambiguously that economic justice was one of the main original slogans of people’s revolutionary demands when they arose and took to the streets in 1977-78 to shake off an arrogant, leech-like CIA-imposed ‘king’. This time they instead took it to the ballots and voted for the only candidate who was addressing their needs.
This time, they just had to thumb their noses at their fashionable upper class distant cousins and relatives who were passing out fliers printed in English in support of Rafsanjani, and just had to teach a lesson to those very fashionable boys and girls wearing thousand dollar sunglasses, in tight-fitting mini-coats and designer jeans, decked out in everything screaming “Western-Supported”. We know that International Crisis Group, the outfit created by George Soros, was a big fan of Rafasanjani and we can’t but wonder how much of their Hollywood-retarded thinking may have gone into all those ‘smart’ advertising antics!
Of course, Rafsanjani’s ‘slick’ political campaign simply piled higher the insults. He was already the most despicable symbol of all that can be wrong with a leader. He is notorious for bribe mongering, for looting the national resources to benefit himself and his family [no wonder that all Ahmadinejad had to do to call attention to this, was to merely say in passing that the oil wealth of the nation was being bagged by a mafia of a single family. Not a single Iranian missed the point. Point being, that family is Rafsanjani’s.] And he is arrogant to the point of being ridiculous.
His arrogance came out in a seminal moment in the run up to the run-off elections. Rafsanjani’s first utterances regarding his rival, upon learning the results of the first round, was, “He [Ahmadinejad] wears Islam’s cloak backwards, and he’s hypocritically pulling pious tricks, while insisting on pushing on others his demented ideas as if they were pure Islamic wisdom.” Smug to the core, therefore, Rafsanjani had thought it such a ‘slam dunk’ against his peasant-looking upstart rival, that he had decided he needed not to make public appearances anymore.
Of course his western handlers as well as the local ones, meanwhile, were busy doing real-time polling on the streets, and the news was brought home quickly enough that their man was about to receive a whacking over the head.
So, Rafsanjani reluctantly decided to show up, choosing as his place of choice (among others) one of reformists’ safe havens, Tehran University. In a scene reminiscent of Monty Pythons’ Life of Brian, the students in the packed hall ridiculed and laughed at the wretched candidate openly and with glee.
Some moments were caught by a piece in International Herald Tribune, June 23, 2005. “As Rafsanjani, the front-runner in the race to be this country’s next president, sat almost regally before a packed auditorium Tuesday, the students alternately booed, laughed at him and, at times, even mocked him. ‘Answer the questions!’ shouted students seated in the crowd. ‘This is not the question, you’re not answering the questions,’ other students shouted. At one point, Rafsanjani, a former two-term president, said he was one of the country’s first reformers, and the room burst into laughter.”
Show me a singular such moment of significant rebellion against any of the presidential candidates’ in the United States!
In contrast to all of Rafsanjani’s pomp and no substance (beyond shamelessly asking for the key to the public treasury), Ahmadinejad has been speaking of holding the officials to account, for eradication of corruption, for the eradication of arrogance, for public accounting on how oil deals are made and how this most precious of national sources of wealth is being looted by foreigners and nationals alike; in short, he has been insisting on some measure of more equitable redistribution of national wealth, as well as on transparency (which should be a desirable thing for the capitalists western and eastern who need transparency more than stability itself, to be able to predict market conditions, profit margins, opportunity costs, etc.).
Much is made of Ahmadinejad’s background in the basij and pasdaran security forces (meaning he comes from a humble background), and allegations have been well circulated (at least in the Farsi language press) that he used to deliver the finishing shot at the execution of political prisoners. Much has also been made of his ‘hard line’ approach to the negotiations over Iran’s plans for exploiting nuclear energy for civilian use.
In the context of today’s world, where a single superpower, whose military expenditure is greater than all other states’ expenditures combined; in a world where that superpower is now raping freely and without any culpability, a small goon such as Ahmadinejad can hardly be considered a major threat to the United States’ security; and in the internal context of Iran, his status as the delivery boy of the last bullet merely proves the fact that he was merely a lowly functionary of plans drawn up in the highest echelons of society by, ahem, Rafasanjani (among others).
In closing, however, we must be clear that simply because Ahmadinejad who spoke clearly and (to all ears that voted for him) honestly and simply because he was elected on a promise of cleaning the house, it does not follow automatically that he can actually clean the house, even if he meant all he said. We come back to the structural issues. Structurally, the president cannot do much. Beyond a re-introduction of some basic subsidies, so that the great masses of the working poor may not go chronically hungry, the structures allowing capitalist investment (by anybody) in Iran are such that they cannot expand the employment market considerably. So, coupled with the political struggles of women and civil rights activists, the struggle for economic justice will play a more pronounced role in the Iranian social conflicts to come.
All of this, of course, under the hanging axe of an imperialist invasion, which should keep things in constant flux for the foreseeable future. A fact of which the ruling mullahs are well aware, and which means that whatever extra rigging was brought upon the presidential elections of 2005 was done so in the spirit of rounding the wagons, i.e. paying attention to the urgent need for addressing the basic requirements of the very people whose enormous sacrifices may become necessary, and whose patient tolerance of the system is a permanent requirement for the survival of this clerical capitalist order. So, with or without the imperialists’ overt military attack, the economic dimension, which had previously simmered only among the people and had been expressed merely in frustrated conversations in domiciles and in the streets, has now forced its way back into the national political discourse in a major way.