Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The pitfalls of premature eloquence

The dilemma faced by commentators of all kinds, not just bloggers, on the Iranian protests can be summarised by a single, annoying portmanteau word: instapunditry. The pressure to take a view prematurely in such a situation can only produce a series of stock responses, either based on CNN filtered news, or speculation from various samizdat-style websites, or material provided by the Iranian media itself. And after all, while these protests had precedent in previous student and workers rebellions, the sheer scale of upheaval had no precedent in the entire history of Islamic Republic. How to relate to that?

It has been possible to be both eloquent and consistent only be relying on an analysis made for a different situation that seems to fit. Thus, right-wing bloggers have tended to interpret the events in terms of the 'colour revolution', involving a relatively smooth transfer of power from a weakened, no longer hegemonic ruling bloc, to a pro-US faction. symbolised by a striking advertising symbol - the purple finger, the green fingers, etc. A few left-wing commentators look at it the same way, but simply reverse the value significations. It is a handy ready-made template, and if it were an accurate reading, then the protesters would have been little more than useful idiots for a comprador elite. But there is little evidence that anything like this is happening. The most we have seen is some bizarre rumours about Israel trying to promote a 'twitter revolution' (probably put about by Twitter, you know). Similarly, prefabricated ideas about Ahmadinejad representing the uneducated poor and Mousavi representing the articulate middle class, have been ubiquitous on all sides. And just the same, they have turned out to be wrong.

The difficulty is amplified by the fact that there doesn't appear to be a clear left-wing pole in this conflict. To try and find that pole, there has been a tendency to feed stereotypes about Ahmadinejad being a firm anti-imperialist and populist, neither of which really bear scrutiny. On the other hand, some have interpreted the reformists and Mousavi in particular as having far more left-wing credentials than they really do. Thus, in a typically interesting and fruitful discussion, Hamid Dabashi claims that Mousavi is universally known as a "hardcore socialist". He is not a socialist, of course. Even when he was on the 'Islamic Left', it would have been a stretch to call him a socialist. Then, he favoured nationalisation and redistribution of wealth, neither of which he supports now. (Of course, back then Mousavi was also co-responsible for quite brutal purges of the left from the government and public institutions, which he may now regret.) But this background is important for mapping out one dimension of the dispute. Since the early 1990s, the 'Islamic Left' that Mousavi represented has tended to retreat to various forms of social liberalism. The catastrophic experience of the Iran-Iraq war, followed by the collapse of the USSR, formed the background to this shift. They also faced increasing difficulty as many of their candidates were struck off the elections lists, and they lost control of the majles to a conservative-centrist coalition. As such, they drifted into the 'reformist' camp, de-emphasised economic statism, and focused more on questions of human rights and democracy. What remains of the Iranian left is almost certainly in the reform movement today.

Another problem with interpretation is that domestic social conflicts interact in a very complex way with imperialist pressure. Thus, even during Rafsanjani's 'pragmatic' reign which sought to improve relations with Europe and the US and expand international trade, Clinton imposed an economic embargo, starting with partial sanctions in 1993, and then a full embargo including on oil production in 1995. Why did he do this? It seems it was partly due to pressure from the pro-Israeli right, which wanted a much more aggresive response to, eg, Iran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas. This strengthened the position of the Iranian hard right who, because of their basis in the bazaar merchants, weren't particularly interested in opening up to international trade anyway. Even Khatami couldn't get the sanctions released, despite overtures to the US. Not because there weren't forces in American ruling circles interested in talking, but because the stubborn fact is that Iran is not about to abandon its geopolitical interests and those matter far more to the US than any internal liberalisation in Iran.

None of the current elite factions are going to deliver Iran to the US as a client regime, and there would be no popular basis for it - this, by the way, is one reason why they haven't been able to impose a 'colour revolution', and why Bush had to resort to violent forms of interference, sponsoring terror groups and bombings and so on. So, it can't just be assumed that a reformist success would necessarily be in the interests of the US - it depends how those interests are construed, and what the reigning strategy is. For example, it really seems at this point as if both the US right-wing and the Israeli leadership would much rather deal with Ahmadinejad, the better to expedite the case for war. This suggests, not that Ahmadinejad is an effective anti-imperialist, but that he and the conservative leadership backing him are actually rather poor defenders of the country. For the realpolitikers around Obama, I suspect regional stability is more important at the moment than either candidate.

In short, just as the neocons and their 'decent' allies are likely to be disappointed by the result of these protests, especially if they manage a decisive win, so there's no reason for leftists to panic at the prospect of the CIA taking control of the situation and engineering another client-state.