Events in the run-up to Ahmadinejad’s formal swearing-in for a second term as Iranian president on 5 August have displayed again the deep splits within the ruling elite which the mass movement after the disputed 12 June election revealed. Significantly, this has been despite only limited street protests taking place recently.
While the ruling group may hope that a combination of increased repression and Ahmadinejad’s confirmation as president will end the turmoil that has gripped that country since mid June, this is by no means assured.
The sudden start of two trials of Ahmadinejad’s opponents is clearly an attempt to suppress opposition. But it is already clear that any thought that the fact that the protests against the official result of June’s election are at a lower ebb will bring stability to Iran has proved unfounded. On the contrary, the events of recent weeks have actually more openly revealed the deepening divisions between the different groupings within the ruling elite.
Ahmadinejad’s first choice of Mashaie as vice-president provoked deep turmoil. For nearly a week, Ahmadinejad hesitated before accepting the demand of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, that Mashaie should not be vice-president. Eventually, Ahmadinejad was publicly forced to back down, although he then appointed Mashaie as his personal chief of staff. This may be one factor in the apparent awkwardness between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad at the Supreme Leader’s endorsement ceremony.
The Mashaie issue provoked a clash in Ahmadinejad’s outgoing cabinet which resulted in the sacking of the Intelligence Minister. The whole Mashaie incident serves as an illustration of the deep tensions even amongst the “winning group” of the ruling circles.
The rushed televised start of the main trial of around 100 opponents is clearly an attempt to intimidate the opponents prior to the inauguration. Just days before the trial opened, the government indicated that around 20 would be in the dock. Instead, it is a much larger affair with apparently no defence lawyers and no independent media access. Clearly it has the character of a “show trial” with state TV later broadcasting the confessions of two of the accused, one a former vice-president and the other a former deputy interior minister.
This trial has again revealed the profound divisions reaching right into the very top of Iranian society with former ministers amongst the accused and opposition leaders openly denouncing the trial and making accusations that torture had been used on the defendants. The family of Abtahi, the former vice-president who was shown on television “confessing”, issued a statement stating that “we do not accept the confession”.
Mass demonstrations in June
Society in ferment
Every part of Iranian society is in ferment; even amongst the religious leaders there are open divisions with, for example, the Association of Scholars and Researchers of Qom Seminary casting doubts on the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s new administration. At the same time, the dispute around Ahmadinejad’s choice of Mashaie revealed divisions amongst the president’s own supporters. There is open discussion about the difficulties Ahmadinejad may face in forming a new government.
The death in prison of Mohsen Rouholamini, an advisor to the conservative former Revolutionary Guard leader Rezai who was one of those standing against Ahmadinejad, showed that being the son of one of Iran’s top scientists, and also a conservative, was no protection from the brutality of Ahmadinejad’s crackdown.
But this situation is not simply a crisis at the top over the future for Iran both internally and internationally.
Fundamentally, this crisis is the result of the impact of the huge struggles of June. Despite the current relative lull in protests, Iran has been completely changed by the first steps of the youth and broader layers into mass activity. Far from the lava of revolt cooling and setting into stone, it is still bubbling and can explode once again.
For many in Iran, Ahmadinejad’s government has no legitimacy and Ayatollah Khamenei’s swift and complete backing for the official result of the June 12 election has made many Iranians question the Supreme Leader’s own position.
The fact that there has been open criticism of the trial from many within the elite illustrates the fact that this crisis will not go away.
Amongst activists and others there will be debate on what is to be done. Many will look to what lessons can be drawn from the 1978/9 revolution, in particular how mass strikes and protests brought down the then Shah’s once brutally efficient repressive apparatus. Amongst activists conclusions will be drawn that a similar struggle will be needed now to win democratic rights, economic and social demands.
But to be successful such a movement would also need to learn from how, tragically, the 1978/9 revolution did not ultimately achieve its popular aims of winning full democratic rights and establishing what was then seen as a “republic of the poor”.
The underlying crisis in Iran is the result of a combination of political, economic and social issues. At the start of this year, before the real impact of world economic crisis struck, Iran was suffering an inflation rate of nearly 30%, 21% general youth unemployment and 25% unemployment amongst graduates.
The high rate of youth unemployment is a particularly sharp issue given the fact that 60% of Iran’s nearly 73 million population are under 30 years old. This can only add to the grievances of the many youth who feel stifled and repressed by the system.
Against this background it is highly unlikely that Ahmadinejad will be able to enjoy a lasting stability. During his first term in office, Ahmadinejad was able to carry out some populist measures that undoubtedly won him support. But now the room for this will be limited in the new period of world economic crisis, particularly as trade, mainly oil, accounts for well over 50% of Iran’s GDP. It is possible that Ahmadinejad may attempt to use foreign policy issues - Israeli or US threats against Iran - or take populist measures to gain support. Action could be taken against rival elements within the elite, but none of these measures will meet a situation where, for example, it is estimated that 1.6 million jobs need to be created annually just to provide jobs for young people looking to start work.
Independent movement of workers and youth needed
Because the fundamental roots of Iran’s crisis lie within the capitalist system the question of building an independent movement of workers and youth is critical. A determined mass struggle can win free elections, democratic rights and other concessions. But limited only to this it would be a political revolution, welcome in making some gains, but leaving control of society in the hands of the capitalists and the elite even if some elements are purged. However, as was seen after 1979, without the establishment of a workers’ and poor peasants’ government that begins the socialist transformation of Iran, the country’s economic and social crisis will not be resolved.
Providing an independent socialist alternative is also necessary to win over those who have been seduced to support Ahmadinejad through his populist polices and thinly veiled anti-corruption attacks on opponents like former president Rafsanjani.
A key propaganda card in Ahmadinejad’s hand is the continuing threat of western imperialism towards the Iranian regime. It is no accident that in the latest mass trial accusations of being agents of foreign powers have been levelled. British imperialism has been signalled out both for historical reasons - its role in bringing the former Shah to power and in the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeq - and to leave some space open for possible future deals with Obama.
There is no doubt that US and British imperialism want to try to help establish an Iranian regime that is more friendly to them. They are seeking both to exploit illusions that may exist in the west and pose as supporters of “democracy”. That is why the western media are giving publicity to the crisis in Iran. But Iranians fighting for democratic rights should have no illusions in the imperialist powers. Just look at Washington’s support for the feudal autocracy in Saudi Arabia and Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, and ballot-rigging, in Egypt.
Organise for socialist change
For socialists the immediate political demands in Iran focus now around the struggle for new elections for a revolutionary Constituent Assembly that can decide Iran’s future and the formation of democratic bodies, like committees or councils, that can both organise the struggle and ensure that elections are genuine and free from rigging. At the same time socialists need to explain that capitalism cannot develop the country or permanently raise living standards and why a workers’ and poor peasants’ government that starts a socialist transformation is necessary.
The huge mass movement against the rigging of June’s election has opened a new period in Iran. Ahmadinejad may enjoy his inauguration, but his second term will be far more stormy than his first. His position is weakened by the open divisions within the ruling elite, his authority is rejected by many Iranians and he fears a renewal of mass protests. These fears are justified; Iran’s overwhelmingly young population will not tolerate the current situation indefinitely. The challenge is to build a movement that goes beyond protest and strives for socialist change.