By Phil Wilayto
June 13, 2009
As the world watches, massive demonstrations in Iran – some say
the largest since the 1979 Revolution – are denouncing the results
of the June 12 presidential election. Official announcements that incumbent
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad garnered nearly 63 percent of the vote are being
met with cries of “fraud” by supporters of his principal
challenger, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein.
While there's still time to rationally look at the elections, I'd
like to offer a few observations.
The dominant view among Western commentators, as well as some progressive
members of the Iranian diaspora, is that Mousavi is a
“reformer” who favors loosening restrictions on civil
liberties within Iran, while being more open to a less hostile relationship
with the West. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, is described as a
“hardliner” who demagogically appeals to the poor, while making
deliberately provocative statements about the United States and Israel in order
to bolster his standing in the Islamic world.
In my opinion, both of the above characterizations are superficial. The
fundamental contradiction between the two leading candidates has to do with
their respective bases of support and, more importantly, their different
approaches to the economy.
Ahmadinejad, himself born into rural poverty, clearly has the support of the
poorer classes, especially in the countryside, where nearly half the population
lives. Why? In part because he pays attention to them, makes sure they receive
some benefits from the government and treats them and their religious views and
traditions with respect. Mousavi, on the other hand, the son of an urban
merchant, clearly appeals more to the urban middle classes, especially the
college-educated youth. This being so, why would anyone be surprised that
Ahmadinejad carried the vote by a clear majority? Are there now more yuppies in
Iran than poor people?
Why is there so little discussion of the issue of class in this election? Is
it because so many professional and semi-professional commentators on Iran are
themselves from the same class as Mousavi's supporters, and so
instinctively identify with them? Myself, I'm a worker, and a former union
organizer. When I watched the videos and viewed the photos of the pro-Mousavi
rallies in Tehran and other cities, I didn't feel elated – I felt a
chill. To me, this didn't look like a liberal reform movement, it felt like
a movement whose real target is a government that exercises a
“preferential option for the poor,” to use the words of Christian
How about the economy?
A big issue in Iran – virtually never discussed in the U.S.
media – is how to interpret Article 44 of the country's
constitution. That article states that the economy must consist of three
sectors: state-owned, cooperative and private, and that “all large-scale
and mother industries” are to be entirely owned by the state. This
includes the oil and gas industries, which provide the government with the
majority of its revenue. This is what enables the government, in partnership
with the large charity foundations, to fund the vast social safety net that
allows the country's poor to live much better lives than they did under the
In 2004, Article 44 was amended to allow for some privatization. Just how
much, and how swiftly that process should proceed, is a fundamental dividing
line in Iranian politics. Mousavi has promised to speed up the privatization
process. And when he first announced he would run for the presidency, he called
for moving away from an “alms-based “ economy (PressTV, 4/13/09),
an obvious reference to Ahmadinejad's policies of providing services and
benefits to the poor.
In addition to their different class bases and approaches to the economy,
Ahmadinejad presents an uncompromising front against the West, and especially
against the U.S. government. This is a source of great national pride, and has
produced some positive results. For example, President Obama has now actually
admitted, at least in part, that it was the U.S. that in 1953 overthrew the
democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.
The whole idea that tossing Ahmadinejad out of office would make it easier
to change U.S. policy toward Iran is, in my opinion, very naive. Was Dr.
Mossadegh a crazy demagogue? No, but he did lead the movement to nationalize
Iran's oil industry. If Mousavi, as president, were to strongly state that
he would refuse to consider any surrender of Iran's sovereign right to
develop nuclear power for peaceful energy purposes, that he would continue to
support the resistance organizations Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza,
that he would continue to try and increase Iran's political role in the
Middle East, and that he would defend state ownership of the oil and gas
industries, would the Western media portray him as a reasonable man?
Further, there's the nature of Mousavi's election campaign. Obama
called it a “robust” debate, which it certainly was, and a
good refutation of the lie that Iran has no democracy. But it is also a
political movement, one capable of drawing large crowds out into the streets,
ready to engage in street battles with the president's supporters and now
Is it possible that the U.S. government, its military and its 16
intelligence agencies are piously standing on the sidelines of this developing
conflict, respecting Iran's right to work out its internal differences on
its own? Could we expect that approach from the same government that still
maintains its own 30-year sanctions against Iran, is responsible for three sets
of U.N.-imposed sanctions, annually spends $70-90 million to fund
“dissident” organizations within Iran and, according to the
respected investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, actually has U.S. military
personnel on the ground within Iran, supporting terrorist organizations like
the Jundallah and trying to foment armed rebellions against the
The point has been made that U.S. neocons were hoping for an Ahmadinejad
victory, on the theory that he makes a convenient target for Iran-bashers. But
the neocons are no longer in power in Washington. They got voted out of office
and are back to writing position papers for right-wing think tanks. We now have
a “pragmatic” administration, one that would like to first dialog
with the countries it seeks to control.
I think what is important to realize is that Washington wasn't just
hoping for a “reform” candidate to win the election
– it's been hoping for an anti-government movement that looks to
the West for its political and economic inspiration. Mousavi backer and former
President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is a free-market advocate and businessman
whom Forbes magazine includes in its list of the world's richest people.
Does Rafsanjani identify with or seek to speak for the poor? Does Mousavi?
What kind of Iran are the Mousavi forces really hoping to create? And why is
Washington – whose preference for “democracy” is
trumped every time by its insatiable appetite for raw materials, cheap labor,
new markets and endless profits – so sympathetic to the
“reform” movements in Iran and in every other country whose people
have nationalized its own resources?
Would Iran be better off with a president who, instead of qualifying
everything he says about the Holocaust, just came out directly and said,
“Look, there's no question that millions of Jewish people were
murdered in a campaign of genocide, but how does that justify creating a Jewish
state on land that is the ancestral home of the Palestinians?” That would
certainly make the job of anti-war activists much easier – and if you
look hard enough, you can find something close to those words in
But it wouldn't be enough. The U.S. government and its complementary
news media would just find another hook on which to hang their demonization of
Iran and its government.
The days ahead promise to be challenging ones for all those who oppose war,
sanctions and interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of
Iran. As we pursue that work, it would be good not to get caught up in what is
sure to be a tsunami of criticism of a government trying to resolve a crisis
that in all likelihood is not entirely homegrown.
Phil Wilayto is the editor of The Virginia
Defender newspaper and author of “In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S.
Peace Delegation's Journey through the Islamic Republic.” (See
www.DefendersFJE.org/dpi) He can be reached at:
© 2009 by Phil Wilayto – Permission granted for
republication, with attribution.