Monday, June 15, 2009

Iran vote and protests

I think it's a consensus on the liberal-left in the US and UK that the Iranian elections were fixed. If they are right, we are watching a bloodless coup turn into a bloody one, as protesters have been beaten and are now being shot at and killed by cops. One of Mousavi's supporters alleges he was told that a coup was coming. If they are not right, we are still faced with a state busily beating and killing the opposition. The Iranian state is still detaining 'reformist' MPs, censoring newspapers, shutting down access to social networking sites (although people are still finding ways to Twitter), and behaving as if for all the world it had every reason to act guiltily. It is not inherently implausible that Ahmadinejad got 63% of the vote, and it has to be shown that there was a fix. The fact that Ahmadinejad used state oil revenues to fund programmes for the poor can be approved or derided, but it arguably gave large numbers of people an interest in voting for Ahmadinejad against his more explicitly neoliberal rival. It gave him a base among some of the working class and bazaaris. Still, it is hardly implausible either that some vote-rigging went on, if only to make the win decisive enough to avoid a run-off.

So, the first question that occurs is, why should the ballots be rigged? This is skated over in a lot of the commentary as if the answer were obvious - Mousavi advocated reform, duh! However, Mousavi is hardly a dangerous candidate for the Iranian ruling class: rather, he represents a powerful faction of it. True, he was once on the 'Islamic Left' back in the 1980s, and it was due to the support of the left-leaning majles that he was made prime minister against Khomeini's preferences. Today, however, he is a centrist allied to the 'Modern Right'. His solutions to Iran's problems of accumulation and development are impeccably neoliberal. This is why he got the backing of the old crook, cynic, capitalist and Iran-Contra arms dealer, Hashem Rafsanjani. He supports privatization, and wants to reform Article 44 to assist the process. He supports strong counter-inflationary policies. Of course, he would like to take a slightly less 'hard line' with respect to the US. Indeed, like other would-be 'reform' candidates, his campaign tried to channel Obama - with some success since his wife, who spearheaded some important reforms in the late 1980s, was cast as the Michelle Obama of the campaign. Still, he isn't an outsider by any means. His candidacy wasn't struck off, while those that offend the Council of Guardians usually are. He wasn't excluded from the debates, as far as I can find out. He wasn't excluded from the polls, some of which put him ahead, and some behind. Why should he have suddenly become so dangerous that the Iranian state, or powerful sectors within it, would risk a stupid fix? The answer could only be that by tapping a popular demands for reforms, the candidacy might have unleashed a movement that seriously frightened some factions in the ruling class.

The next question is, what can come of the protests? Whatever the motivations of Mousavi, we have an enormous number of people on the streets, with a clear demand for political reform. They took to those streets, reportedly ignoring warnings that the police were carrying live ammunition. This means they are brave, certainly, and also confident in their numbers. Already, Khamenei has ceded the question of investigating the elections, which it seems clear he didn't want to do. The Iranian state may kill people, but these protesters are already starting to win. They can make gains far beyond the very limited promises that Mousavi made in order to excite progressive layers. (As far as I can tell, Mousavi was mildly critical of some state repression of television channels, and promised to 'review' legislation that could be harmful to women - hardly a tribune of the oppressed). So, whatever the truth about the claims of a fix, these protests can do nothing but good. They may, in addition to getting rid of some particularly onerous forms of oppression, open up a space in which the left can operate more freely, and in which the labour movement can assert itself more forcefully.