No bombs please

Civil Society Workshop on Political Pluralism/ Electoral Processes, sponsored by “No Peace without Justice”, European Inter-University Center for Human Rights and Democratization, Monastery of San Nicolo, Venice, Italy. 21-24 July 2005.

The Human Rights issue is inherently an integral element of basic common values and a decisive part of the broader spectrum of eminent domain — and as such — it is the responsibility of all concerned people to address the issue worldwide. But, ignoring the underlying historical socio-economic and political complexities will hinder rather than help the intended cause. The current American military presence in the Middle East may be detrimental to the evolving, albeit incremental, development of political pluralism in the region. This is particularly true about Iran.

 “American policy toward the Middle East and Iran in particular, is often couched in the language of promoting human rights. No one would deny the importance of that goal. But for human rights defenders in Iran, the possibility of a foreign military attack on their country represents an utter disaster for their cause.” — Shirin Ebadi, 2003 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and Founder of Center for Defense of Human Rights in Tehran  

Shirin Ebadi’s words resonate across the region. A Recent Fact Finding Mission of the Middle East Citizens Assembly composed of representatives from Morocco, Iran. Palestine, France and the Netherlands visiting Syria and Lebanon discovered that identical views dominate the entire political landscape. In fact, 23 of the 24 activists from all walks of political life randomly interviewed conveyed exactly the same message.

Ironically, the very same people who have been struggling throughout their lives in pursuit of freedom all oppose “forced democratization” and military intervention. True, that segments of populations prefer to see a regime change no matter what the consequences might be, but serious defenders of Human Rights and life-long freedom seekers believe differently. What is the underlying reason for this near unanimous consent among freedom seekers against the American military presence?  

The reason seems relatively simple. It stems from the basic concept that: socio-economic diversity is pre-requisite to the emergence of any meaningful and sustainable political pluralism. Although, it might be argued that the correlation between economic and political pluralism is not an inevitability, yet, the Chinese and South Korean experiences,  testify that economic pluralism precede political pluralism. 

Efforts to introduce political and economic pluralism simultaneously have resulted in cataclysmic change. The post Gorbachev experiences in the ex-Soviet regions, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus, are manifestations of such practices. Therefore, it logically follows that: forced democratization through military intervention by outside forces will ultimately result in a chaotic milieu conducive to intensified despotism

The nations of the Middle East region have experienced treacherous political upheavals in contemporary times, especially, during the post World War II period.  Some nations have been more vocal in the process and, in many instances; have paved the way for the rest. The Arab, Persian and Turkish heritage have played important roles in this process. 

Egypt, Iran and Turkey – the three historical dominant cultures – have taken turns in assuming the leading role. Cairo, Tehran and Istanbul have constituted the three main centers of change corresponding to the Arab, Persian and Turkic socio-economic and political corridors.  Although, in recent times, Saudi Arabia has become an active player, the Cairo core, however, potentially remains the main focal point of political change in much of the Arab World.

The Islamic movement of the late 19th century, the constitutional movement in Iran and Turkey at the turn of the 20th century, the autocratic modernization efforts by Ataturk and Reza Shah, the nationalist movement led Mossadegh in Iran and by Nasser in Egypt. Pan-Arabism, pan-Turkism and pan-Iranism, socialist movements and finally the Islamic revival are just few examples. In short, whatever takes place in one of these centers will echo in the other two centers and then spreads all over the region.

The political democratization efforts emanating from these centers during the century have all failed. The ‘foreign” interventions and “the invisible hands” have always been blamed for these failures. In case of Iran, the United Kingdom and the USA had the main shares. This is particularly true about the CIA led Coup of 1953 toppling the popular nationalist leader Premier Mosadegh followed by the autocratic rule of the Shah. This has been viewed as the final blow to the democratization process in the whole Middle East and the Iranians are not ready to forgive and forget this tragedy.

In recent times, the Turkish Secular Model and the Iranian Islamic Model have been dominating forces at play in the entire political landscape of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucuses and North Africa.  While the former model, for the most part, corresponds to the elite’s preferences, the latter appears to be more in tune with the will of the masses.  The result of the latest presidential election in Iran is an obvious manifestation of the strong popular support for the latter model. 

Once again, the results of the presidential elections in Iran surprised everyone.  This was also the case eight years ago when President Khatami was handed a landslide victory.  The irony is that the outgoing President Khatami and the President-elect Ahmadi Nejad belong to two opposing political thoughts. More intriguing, is the fact that almost all top contenders supported the powerful Hashemi Rafsangi who lost with a large margin in the run off elections.  What does this political pendulum suggest?

Granted, that all presidential contenders who surfaced after the pre-qualification screening were in full conformity with the “Islamic Requirements”; nonetheless, they represented a wide range of socio-economic and political alternatives resembling various political parties in the western democracies. In fact, one could argue that the election choices were even more diverse and more real than those witnessed in much of the world democracies. 

No realistic mind could argue that the choices offered by the main presidential candidates in Iran were any less pronounced than those offered by the presidential candidates in, lets say, the USA. No third party, independent, woman, black or minority candidate has been able to enter the American presidential race to date. Yet, Ahmadi Nejad came out of nowhere and won a landslide election against all odds in Iran.  How can we explain this other than attributing it to a deep undercurrent shaping the political infrastructure in Iran? 

Much of the outside world, and most of the Iranian analysts for that matter, seem to be either unwilling or unable to recognize the complexities of the political development processes in Iran.  Almost all political analysts have proven wrong time and again by the turn of events for nearly three decades. This time too, the quick reactions from abroad, particularly from Washington, seem to reflect the same erroneous conclusions.

 One of the main reasons for these misinterpretations or misunderstandings lies in the fact that the underpinning economic development factors have been for the most part discarded or ignored. Consequently, the simple categorization of “fundamentalist”vs.“reformist” or  “conservative” vs. “radical” branding continue ubiquitously in the political literature on Iran.  Yet, it seems relatively easy to see the fault lines in most arguments. What they mostly fail to realize is that many “political conservatives” happen to have a quite “radical economic” view and vice versa.  To understand the political rollercoaster, one needs to examine the economic restructuring of the last two decades in Iran.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the consequent restructuring of the economic system during the last two decades have created three distinct and competing economic components. – the state, the cooperatives and the private sector economies.  These may be further subdivided into Urban and Rural or Industrial/Services vs. Agricultural based economies. Formal and informal sectors can also be considered. Each having its own varying constituencies and pressure groups.

The ups and downs of the political rollercoaster, in most cases, are direct manifestations of the forces exerted by these pressure groups. The failure of the analysts in the last three decades to explain, let alone to predict, the direction of political events in Iran emanates from overlooking these determining currents.  The current political discourse is in direct correlation with the emerging economic pluralism.

The state owned industries such as oil and gas, heavy industries, transportation, railroads, power, water, communications, television, urban transit, airlines, postal system, insurance, banking and alike combined with the military, security, health, tourism and education comprise the foundation upon which the state political infrastructure is constructed.  Majority of the urban population is directly linked to these industries as a primary source of income.

On the other hand, housing construction, textiles, food, consumer goods, publications, transportation, trades, and retail is primarily held by the private sector.  The retail sector is the biggest job creating component with an estimated six million small shops in the country. Many housing construction projects and consumer goods distributions as well as the agriculture belong to the cooperatives.   The competing forces at play in these sectors manifest themselves in the political arena.  The election results, in most cases, are largely direct reflections of these economic interests. 

The forces that inherited the state owned industries after the revolution and took control of the military, security and media during the war, gradually constructed a vast political army with many of the war veterans and revolutionary corps serving as its foot soldiers.  During the post war “constructive stage” of Hashemi Rafsanjani, new economic elite emerged.

The upper middle class experienced rapid growth. Those benefiting from the privatization schemes joined this upper echelon. Together, they constituted a formidable power house with its own socio-economic and political institutions. On the other hand, the revolutionaries, the war veterans and the masses were left behind. Growing disparities threatened to destabilize the conditions. Hence, the call for “the rule of law” and what emerged to be termed “the reform movement” of the Khatami’s era.

The notions of civil society, pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law entered the political lexicon by the elite mainly to serve the interests of the newly emerged upper echelon.  It was primarily intended to counter the destabilizing threats posed by those left behind. Meaning, to preserve the status quo, or by its very definition, a “conservative” move. Certainly, no deprived, nor any disadvantaged felt any pressing need or immediate urge for pluralism, tolerance and alike.  

The “reformists” enjoying substantial global moral support managed to take control of the legislative as well as the executive branches of the government. The movement, however, did not fulfill its campaign rhetoric.  Instead, it resulted in increased privatization, intensified class stratification, widespread corruption, uncontrolled quasi-private airports and sea ports, drug smuggling, and an unprecedented concentration wealth in the hands of few. In contrast, real income of the less fortunate decreased sharply. The economic justice slogan of Ahmadi Nejad that swept throughout the land could not have been raised at a better time.

From the outset of the revolution, economic restructuring of the country has transformed into a continuing political discourse. Many of the more than 5000 active NGOs, thousands of newspapers, hundreds of professional organizations, trade unions and vested interest groups take part in this discourse.  These diversities inevitably manifest themselves in the larger social forum.  As subsets of different economic sectors take shape, so will the political implications of these changes.  At each turn, a new subset is added and with the addition of each new player, the forum expands further.  As economic diversity develops, a corresponding political pluralism evolves with it. 

Early in July, the “Congress of Community Based Participatory Research” opened in the northern city of Ardabil. Hundreds of academics, civil society activists, politicians, officials and community based volunteers were present. Lively panelists from India, Turkey, Japan, etc. shared their experiences with the Iranian counterparts.  Many officials expressed dissenting views on Government misconducts.  Almost every political position without inhibitions, limitations or self-censoring was reflected.  

A genuine ambiance of “political pluralism” was felt.  True, the current state leaves much to be desired, and a long way remains to the point of total inclusion, yet, considering the past history of Iran and the present situation in the region, much has been achieved. The foundations for a strong democracy are being built day by day. The great social work is in progress.  The last thing needed to enhance this constructive stage would be a bomb drop in the name of promoting democracy.  Pluralism is under construction, please do not disturb.

Ali R. Rabi, PhD International University of Iran.

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