A sober view of Iran
By Stephen Gowans
The view of many parts of the Western left on the disputed presidential election in Iran and subsequent upheavals seems to have been influenced by an understandable distaste for the obscurantist and misogynistic elements of Islam and a dislike of theocracy. Romantic illusions about popular uprisings have also figured in the positions Western leftists have taken. But romantic illusions and distaste for Islam have no place in a sober analysis of what has transpired in Iran.
First, we should be clear that there is not a whit of evidence that the main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, won the election or that the outcome was fraudulently manipulated. On the contrary, an opinion poll carried out three weeks before the election, and paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation (hardly an organization inclined to back the president, Mohammed Ahmadinejad), predicted a clear victory for the incumbent. (1)
Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, who conducted the poll, wrote that their survey “showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin – greater than his actual apparent margin of victory.” The pair’s “scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran’s provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.” (2)
Proponents of the idea that the vote was stolen point to Ahmadinejad outpolling Mousavi, an Azeri, in areas where Azeris are in the majority. They contend that in a fair vote Mousavi would have won the Azeri-dominated areas. This rests on an implicit assumption that Iranians vote along ethnic lines. But the Rockefeller-sponsored poll found that “Azeris favoured Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.” (3)
While Western media coverage, which focussed on Iran’s economic troubles and Iranians’ concerns about tensions with the West, may have led Western audiences to believe the Iranian president was headed for defeat, Ballen and Doherty argue that Iranians favored Ahmadinejad because they saw him “as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favourable deal – rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.” (4) It didn’t help either in offering a balanced view of Ahmadinejad’s level of support that Western reporters are based in Tehran, where support for Mousavi is strong. This led to Western news reports painting a distorted picture of Mousavi’s popularity.
Some leftists claim the question of whether the election was stolen is irrelevant. (5) This is an implicit admission that there is no cogent evidence the election was fraudulent and an attempt to side-step a critical weakness in support for pro-Mousavi forces. Far from being irrelevant, the validity of the election is highly pertinent. If a majority of Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad – and the balance of evidence says it did – a movement that aims to overturn the electoral choice of a clear majority cannot be considered either legitimate or electorally democratic.
Second, we should be clear on what policies Mousavi favors, and how they differ from those advocated by Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, like the US State Department, Wall Street, and right-wing groups in the West, leans strongly toward free trade, free markets, and free enterprise. He is aligned with Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who won the approval of Western politicians and the Wall Street Journal for taking the first tentative steps toward dismantling Iran’s largely state-controlled economy. Rafsanjani is among the richest people in Iran.
While hardly a socialist, Ahmadinejad, who is opposed by the US State Department, Wall Street and right-wing groups in the West, has promoted economic policies that clash with the free market, pro-privatization and pro-foreign investment stances taken by the business elite, both in Iran and in the United States.
The commanding heights of Iran’s economy – the oil, gas, transportation, banking and telecommunications sectors – are state controlled. Private sector activity is limited “to small-scale workshops, farming, and services.” (6) This denies US banks and investors — and Iran’s business elite — major investment opportunities. Mousavi wants to dismantle Iran’s state-controlled economy, and the subsidies, tariffs and price controls that go along with it. Ahmadinejad tends to favour their retention, or at least, is in less of a hurry to get rid of them.
US capital despises Ahmadinejad for multiple reasons. He is opposed politically because he asserts Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry. The United States and Europe are willing to allow Iran to have nuclear energy for civilian use, so long as they control Iran’s access to the enriched uranium needed to power it. This would put the West in the position of being able to extract concessions from Iran by threatening to turn off the tap, and provide Western capital with a lucrative investment opportunity. From Iran’s perspective, the offer is unacceptable, because it would place Iran in a dependent position, and because Iran has its own rich sources of uranium it can exploit to its own advantage.
Ahmadinejad is also opposed politically because he backs Hamas and Hezbollah, opponents of Washington’s attack dog in the Middle East, Israel. Both organizations are portrayed as terrorist groups that threaten Israel’s existence, but neither are anywhere near large or strong enough or have sufficient backing to pose an existential military threat to Israel. They do, however, pose the threat of self-defense, which is to say they are capable of inflicting some retaliatory harm on Israel and are therefore seen as impediments to Israel’s free movement in asserting US interests on Washington’s behalf.
Economically, Ahmadinejad earns Wall Street’s disapproval for maintaining Iran’s “high tariff rates and non-tariff barriers,” failing to dismantle “import bans” and leaving “restrictive sanitary and phytosanitary regulations” in place. Neither does his “weak enforcement of intellectual property rights,” “resistance to privatization,” and insistence on keeping the oil sector entirely within state hands, earn him friends among Wall Street investors and bankers. 
In Wall Street’s view, Ahmadinejad’s sins against the profit-making interests of foreign banks and corporations are legion. He “halted tentative efforts to reform the state-dominated economy” — begun by Rafsanjani and favored by Mousavi — “and has greatly expanded government spending.” He maintains an income tax rate that, in Wall Street’s opinion, is too high, and controls “the prices of petroleum products, electricity, water and wheat for the production of bread,” provides “economic subsidies,” and influences “prices through regulation of Iran’s many state-owned enterprises.” 
Equally troubling to Wall Street is that on Ahmadinejad’s watch, foreign investment has faced “considerable hostility.” “The state remains the dominant factor in the economy.” That means US capital is denied profitable investment opportunities. “Foreign investment is restricted or banned in many activities, including banking, telecommunications, transport, oil and gas.” And when foreign investors are allowed in, ceilings are placed on their share of market. 
Banking is another sore spot for Wall Street’s deal-makers. The government keeps banks under tight rein and the insurance sector is dominated by five state-owned companies. Plus, under Ahmadinejad’s administration, Iranian workers have enjoyed considerable rights within their jobs. The state imposes strict limits on the number of hours an employee can work in a single week, and firing a worker isn’t left to the discretion of capital, to meet its profit-making needs. It “requires approval of the Islamic Labor Council.” 
With people like Ahmadinejad in power, how is US capital to roam the globe, fattening its bottom line?
The irony is that state-control of the commanding heights of the economy, price controls, strong workers’ rights, and industrial planning, are distant dreams for the US left. And yet parts of it are sympathetic to the Mousavi campaign, even though its aim is to dismantle the economic structures and policies the US left aspires to create for itself.
Zimbabwe provides a parallel case. The economic program of Zanu-PF, which has governed Zimbabwe since its founding, either alone, or in a coalition, is one that has aimed at advancing the welfare of the indigenous majority at the expense of European settlers and their descendants and foreign investors. The means of accomplishing this goal have been the reclaiming of land expropriated by European settlers and affirmative action measures to favour the development of domestic industry and investors. It is not a socialist program, but it has, except for a brief period in the 1990s, rejected the neo-liberal approach of indulging foreign investors at the expense of social welfare and economic independence. Zimbabwe falls very close to the bottom of the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom, along with Iran, and for the same reasons.
The Movement for Democratic Change, Zanu-PF’s main opposition, has, since its inception, embraced the same free trade, free market, free enterprise policies Mousavi favors in Iran. The MDC stands for private property, privatizing state-owned enterprises and throwing Zimbabwe’s doors open to foreign trade and investment, on terms favourable to foreign banks and corporations. It is, quite unambiguously, a party of compradors. And yet because it bills itself as the party of democracy, freedom and human rights, large parts of the Western left embrace its cause as their own.
Third, we should be clear on the role Washington has tried to play in fomenting a color revolution in Iran. It hasn’t been a secret. Consider the headlines. “Bush plans huge propaganda campaign in Iran. Congress asked for $75m to fund program.”  “US plotting Velvet Revolution in Iran?”  “A bid to foment democracy in Iran. The Bush team unveils a plan to push for Iranian-led reform. Can it really yield a ‘regime change’?”  “US to sharpen focus on Iran. The US State Department is creating a special office to…promote a democratic transition in the Islamic republic.”  “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran.”  “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund”. 
Washington’s regime change funding has been used to broadcast US propaganda into Iran; build dissident networks;  and to train non-violent, pro-democracy activists to lead street demonstrations in the wake of contested elections. 
No one can deny Washington has tried to spark the movement that has rocked Iran. But that hasn’t stopped left supporters of Mousavi from arguing that Washington’s democracy promotion (what a Bush administration official once called “a rubric to get the Europeans behind a more robust policy without calling it ‘regime change’” ) hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. And of course, in principle, this may be true. Just because Washington has spent tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars trying to orchestrate a mass overthrow movement to dump Ahmadinejad and Iran’s theocratic rulers, doesn’t mean it worked. The movement may have arisen organically.
However, the question of whether the uprising has been caused by Washington’s interference in Iran’s internal affairs or has nothing whatever to do with it, is largely meaningless, and if it weren’t meaningless, would be irrelevant.
The question is meaningless because it is impossible to disentangle the internal and external factors that have interacted to produce the street protests that have followed Iran’s contested election. It is absurd to suggest that a phenomenon as complex as prolonged street demonstrations could either be unrelated to internal factors, on the one hand, or external factors, on the other. What’s almost certainly true is that the events surrounding the contested election are the product of internal and external forces and of historical circumstance, intermixed, interacting and incapable of being disentangled. Claiming the uprising is wholly due to internal factors and that external factors played no significant role (or vice-a-versa) is tantamount to saying that what makes an automobile run is its engine and that its wheels, frame, gas tank, and so on, don’t matter.
Second, even if you could show the uprising was caused by Washington’s attempts to orchestrate it, or arose solely from internal factors, what difference would it make? The fact remains that Washington did try to meddle in the internal affairs of Iran, to overthrow the government for reasons related to its politics and economic policies, and that it did, is intolerable.
The parts of the US left that place great weight on “movement building” and non-violent pro-democracy activism, steer clear of examining the outcome of color revolution insurrections. Their focus remains sharply circumscribed, fixed on means, and avoiding the question: to what end? To these leftists, it is process, not outcome, which matters. Indeed, outcome, except insofar as it is process itself, is never questioned. It is enough, for them, that large numbers of people assemble to challenge the state. But we should ask of any movement: what does it aim to accomplish? And importantly, what is it likely to accomplish?
One goal of the popular uprising in Iran is to overturn the outcome of the election, on grounds that it is fraudulent. But what if the election wasn’t fraudulent, as the balance of evidence suggests? A movement that seeks to replace Ahmadinejad with Mousavi, even though the majority of Iranians favour Ahmadinejad, can hardly be considered democratic. This is an important point, for many leftists who rally to the cause of non-violent, pro-democracy, movement building, are professedly motivated by pro-democratic sentiments. After all, they call themselves “pro-democracy” activists. But supporting a movement that seeks to overturn the electoral choice of a majority of Iranians isn’t democratic.
We should be clear, too, that tens of thousands of people do not necessarily represent “the people.” The throngs of Iranians that have massed in the streets of Tehran appear to represent a stratum of “university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians,”  many of whom have studied in the West, picking up pro-imperialist values along the way. They are no more “the people” than the throng of Roman Catholics that mass in front of St. Peter’s Basilica every Easter are “the people,” for being a throng.
Even so, some will say that insofar as the movement seeks to overthrow a theocratic regime (and yet it’s not clear that it wants to do anything more that challenge the state over what is believed to be an electoral fraud) it is progressive in its orientation. But supporting the uprising owing to its progressive content is on the same plane as supporting the regime owing to the progressive content of its economic policies and structures. Which side one supports seems to depend on where one comes down on the question of the state vs. opposition to the state. Because they are philosophically against the state, any state, anarchists predictably come down on the side of the protestors. Hating all states linked to revolutions not aimed at fomenting world socialist revolution (or having departed from such aims), Trotskyites naturally oppose champions of the Iranian revolution and back those who might bring it down. Social democrats and liberals, being incorrigible suckers for any movement that claims fealty to liberal democratic principles, side with the protestors, because the protestors are seen as champions of the best in Western values. They also don’t particularly like Ahmadinejad and are looking for any progressive pretext to vent their spleen over the Iranian president, Iran’s theocratic leadership, and Islam generally. In this, they are great hypocrites, for while they castigate anti-imperialists for negative anti-imperialism (that is, supporting any leader, movement or party opposed by the United States, simply because it is opposed by the United States) they are forever on the look out for seemingly progressive reasons to hook up with State Department crusades against foreign targets. The comforts of being firmly ensconced in the mainstream of public opinion while still getting progressive credits for it is a temptation liberals and social democrats have never been able to resist. That might explain why they’ve been so eager to back the uprising against the Iranian state (action that is well within the mainstream of popular opinion) while failing even to acknowledge the non-violent pro-democracy movement that challenged the Lebanese state (outside the mainstream because the movement was backed by Hezbollah.)
Now, since failing to denounce the Iranian government in unambiguous terms leaves me open to charges of supporting Ahmadinejad, his brand of social democracy, and political Islam generally, I should make a few things plain. I am no supporter of half in-half out economic arrangements. An economy with few restrictions on private capital accumulation and few concessions to social welfare, may, under certain circumstances, be more conducive to economic growth than half in-half out arrangements (of the type Ahmadinejad leans toward), that seek the benefits of socialism without giving up markets and profits. Neither, however, is as responsive to the needs of ordinary people as one based totally on public ownership rather than free enterprise, central planning rather than markets, and rational production for use rather than production for profit. It is this form of society I favour.
As for political Islam, I regard it as a reality, not an ideal. It is, at the moment, the chief anti-imperialist force throughout West and South Asia, having superseded secular, leftist and Marxist movements, which were weakened by political Islam itself. My preference leans to anti-imperialist movements and parties with Marxist orientations, but my preference does not interfere with a sober recognition of reality.
And no, I am not sympathetic to Islam. I am an atheist, and am as much offended by Islam’s misogyny, superstitions and absurd rituals as I am by the equal backwardness of Islam’s siblings, Judaism and Christianity. But at the same time, opposition to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Revolution by Western governments and by supporters of the uprising has nothing whatever to do with Islam and everything to do with politics, economics and class interest. Islam has become in West and South Asia a rallying point, in the absence of strong Marxist movements, for anti-imperialism. Roman Catholicism, as a religious overlay on the anti-imperialism of the Irish Republican movement, never got in the way of support by Western leftists. Strange that Islam interferes with support for the legitimate anti-imperialist struggles of Muslims.
What would the popular uprising achieve, were it successful? It would probably achieve what all other color revolutions have achieved: the replacement of a government that presides over a largely state-owned economy, imposes restrictions on foreign investment, and makes considerable concessions to social welfare, with one oriented toward privatization, removing restrictions on imports and foreign investment, and which makes few concessions to social welfare. The program of parties and movements backed by Western regime change efforts have, in the former Yugoslavia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and now Iran, featured obeisance to free enterprise, free trade, free market and pro-foreign investment principles. Since Western banks, corporations and investors stand to benefit the most from these policies, it’s not surprising that Western governments have funnelled money to parties and their civil society satellites that champion these causes. Nor is it surprising that in the interests of garnering public support, these parties have portrayed themselves, not as the champions of capitalist and imperialist interests they are, but as beacons for democracy and human rights locked in struggle with backward, incompetent, corrupt, dictatorial regimes.
The besieged governments may not, through reasons of history, culture and the necessities of political survival, embrace the liberal ideals Westerners celebrate. None of them are Marxist in orientation, are dominated by the working class or peasantry, or are working toward socialism. But they have taken stands to resist domination by capitalist imperialism, and their only hope to develop internally in a way that isn’t distorted by the profit-making needs of foreign capital, rather than being responsive to the social welfare needs of their own people, is to continue to resist. If they could be brought down by Marxist oriented movements with socialism on their agendas, the overthrow movement would be well worth supporting. But the reality is that the overthrow movement that has arisen in Iran is neither Marxist nor socialist in aspirations, and its success would likely lead to a government willing to collaborate with foreign capital in ways that would see a regression in the position of the ordinary people of Iran.
For the reasons stated above, support for the uprising in Iran by leftist is mistaken. The uprising is not based in legitimate opposition to a genuinely stolen election, for there is no evidence the election was stolen; it can hardly be called democratic, for it seeks to reverse the decision of a clear majority of Iranians; and it is not in the interests of Iran’s ordinary people, for it seeks to bring to power a government that would collaborate with foreign capital against the interests of ordinary Iranians. The beneficiaries of a successful uprising would be Western banks and investors, which is why Western governments have tried to spark the uprising. High-income Iranians educated in tony Western universities would also benefit. They would secure lucrative positions facilitating the plunder of Iran by Western banks and corporations. Small wonder, then, that they have provided the energy (and Western governments the money, training and propaganda) for the uprising.
1. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
5. See for example The Freedom Road Socialist Party June 28, 2009 Statement on Iran. http://freedomroad.org/content/view/656/1/lang,en/
6. 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. http://www.heritage.org/Index/Country/Iran
11. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
12. Press TV (Iran), November 18, 2008.
13. The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2006.
14. CNN, March 2, 2006.
15. Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
16. MRZine, July 15, 2008.
17. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
18. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
19. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
20. Mousavi’s greatest support, according to pollsters Ballen and Doherty, comes from this stratum.