Iran: Election blow to pro-capitalist wing of ruling elite and imperialism

The rich defeated but Ahmadinejad is no alternative

The sweeping victory of Tehran’s mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the first ever second round vote in an Iranian presidential election, has opened a new period for the country. Now the conservative religious elements control all three power centres, the ayatollahs in the Council of Guardians, the presidency, and the majlis (parliament).

Ahmadinejad’s defeat of Rafsanjani, previously president between 1989 and 1997, is not only a victory for the more conservative elements within the religious elite. It is also a defeat for those looking towards a closer accommodation with Western imperialism. At the same time, it is an extremely distorted glimpse of the anti-capitalist potential that lies within the Iranian working masses.

The jump in Ahmadinejad’s vote from his first round 5,710,000 to 17,348,000 was a combination of a mobilisation of conservative forces, the Revolutionary Guards and Basij voluntary militia, plus a popular rejection of Rafsanjani as a prime representative of those who have enriched themselves since the 1979 revolution.

Ahmadinejad’s populist attacks on the rich, his calls for renationalisation of oil, his emphasis on his own poor background and modest lifestyle, plus his evocation of the working and poor masses’ 1979 hopes that the Islamic republic would be a “republic of the poor” contrasted with the wealthy Rafsanjani’s talk of subsidy cuts and helped to mobilise support. In many ways, his victory was a vote of the poor against the rich. However, many Iranians felt that they had no choice in this election. Also the potential opposition to come to Ahmadinejad’s rule was shown by the fall in turnout from the first round’s 63% to 60%. This was way down on the 88% participation in 1997 when there was a big turnout to secure the election of the then “reformist” candidate Khatami.

Wealth and poverty

Rafsanjani, seen as coming from one of the families that has accumulated vast wealth since the 1979 revolution, openly campaigned for privatisation of the still large state owned economic sector and for policies that moved in a neo-liberal direction. He argued for ending all subsidies, currently costing $8 to $9bn, on petrol, bread, electricity, water, and many other items within two years, and instead introducing means tested social security payments. Against this background, Rafsanjani’s attempt, just before the voting, to sweeten a wide ranging privatisation programme by promising every family of 100m rials ($11,230) worth of shares in the privatised companies, fell on deaf ears and probably mobilised more votes for Ahamadinejad.

The shock with which imperialism reacted to Ahamadinejad’s election was a reflection both of fears at possible confrontation over Iran’s nuclear development and that Ahmadinejad’s anti-rich slogans could have an impact in other neighbouring countries. This was one reason why this election result was the occasion for another outburst of the ruling classes’ vicious propaganda that attempts to equate workers’ resistance to neo-liberalism as reactionary, which, in Iran’s case, is tied to the ruling theocratic elite. On the contrary, it was only the complete absence of an independent workers’ alternative that meant the Iranian masses’ undoubted deep hostility to neo-liberalism, imperialism, and their own ruling elite was, in a very distorted manner, partially reflected in Ahmadinejad’s final vote.

Bush’s attacks on the conduct and results of the Iranian elections are completely hypocritical. In reality, Bush’s own elections were hardly more democratic than those in Iran. In Iran, it is the religious leaders who repeatedly disqualify candidates in both parliamentary and presidential elections. In the US, the process is a little subtler, as the millionaires and billionaires have for decades effectively limited the contests to a choice between their two parties. When there are other candidates, like the radical Ralph Nader, in 2000 and 2004, they are squeezed from the media and kept out of public debate.

While Bush’s administration now tries to distance itself from past US governments’ support for Middle East dictatorships and criticises the Iranian elections as not fully democratic, it was, as was to be expected, playing with words. Washington criticised these elections, for amongst other reasons, because women are not allowed by the ayatollahs to stand for the Iranian presidency. But, only a few days earlier, Condoleezza Rice explained that she had refused to say anything at all about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia because “It’s just a line I’ve not wanted to cross”. At least in Iran, unlike Saudi, women have the vote!

Rejection of pro-capitalist wing of ruling elite

Ahmadinejad’s sweeping victory, 17,348,000 to 10,046,000, was a decisive rejection of Rafsanjani’s openly pro-capitalist position. For Ahmadinejad the vote was a massive improvement on his 2003 election to Mayor of Tehran, when only 12% bothered to vote. But still, his vote was way below the 21,656,000 votes outgoing president Khatami won in 2001. Ahmadinejad won the support of only about 37% of the 46,700,000 eligible voters.

At the time of his re-election in 2001, Khatami won a second chance to fight for the democratic changes that millions had hoped he would implement when he was first elected president in 1997. But Khatami, who is part of the ruling elite, effectively capitulated to the conservatives, as he feared that the alternative of mobilising the masses could threaten the entire system.

Khatami’s retreat, and the absence of a workers’ alternative that could have led a struggle both for democratic rights and against capitalism, produced a further drop in the numbers voting this time. Millions felt that there was no point in casting a ballot. They were hostile to the conservatives but felt the “reformers” were incapable of doing anything. In 1997, when Khatami first stood, 88% voted, by 2001 alienation from the political process saw this drop to 67% (although Khatami’s vote rose from 20,078,000 to 21,656,000).

Millions feel disenfranchised, increasingly alienated from the regime that has failed to deliver on the promises made when it was created in 1979. This has led to different struggles by workers, students and, earlier this year, unrest amongst Iranian Arabs, one of Iran’s non-Farsi minorities.

The 70 million plus population of Iran are living with 15% inflation and an official (in reality, much higher) 12% unemployment rate that particularly hits the urban poor and the very large numbers of young people (over half the population were born since 1979).

Oil wealth

Most candidates in this election supported further privatisation and joining the Wold Trade Organisation (WTO), as a way out of this economic situation. Ahmadinejad, however, seemed to stand against this, although in his two years in office as Teheran Mayor he has taken out international loans and worked with foreign multinationals.

In a country that is the second biggest OPEC oil exporter – with 10% of the world’s oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves – there is a widespread demand that the increased income from the current high price of oil is used to benefit the mass of the population. The rise in the price of oil has meant that Iran’s foreign exchange reserves now stand at $40bn compared with a foreign debt of $15bn. This is a complete transformation of the position from seven years ago, when Iran’s reserves of $1bn were dwarfed by a total debt of $25bn debt. This is fuelling popular demands that the wealth is used to benefit the mass of the population and not the local elite or imperialism.

Prior to the election, the efforts of the parliament’s conservative majority to freeze electricity, water, and other prices, was criticised by the out-going “reformist” president Khatami for increasing the budget deficit and pushing up the losses of state owned industry losses to IR17, 000bn. This stance further weakened the popular appeal of the “reformers” to the working class and poor. Now it is likely that the conservatives in control of the all the centres of power will use some of this extra income to alleviate some of the social pressures. If they do not grant concessions then they are likely to sooner rather than later face an explosion of anger from below.

This election result had been prepared by the almost complete capitulation of the “reformers” in the face of a determined counter-offensive by the conservatives, combined with political impact of the reformers moving towards neo-liberal economic and social policies.

Nevertheless, this election showed that the conservatives do not have a majority in society – certainly not a majority for their reactionary social policies. But, again and again, during the last eight years, the leading “reformists” backed down. They refused to challenge last year’s mass disqualification of over 2,000 candidates for the majlis (parliamentary) elections. This clearly emboldened the Council of Guardians to disqualify nearly all the candidates wishing to stand in the presidential election. But then, fearful the Council had overreached itself, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who appoints the Council, called on it to allow two of the more prominent “reformist” candidates to stand.

Now the conservatives are faced with a new dilemma: they control all the centres of power, they have the responsibility for what occurs and, as the Financial Times (London, 27/06/05), commented this “removes any room for excuses if they fail. Mr. Ahmadinejad has offered millions of Iranians tangible improvements in their lives, and they will expect him to deliver.”

Any opposition that develops will be opposition to the conservatives’ rule.

A continuation of high oil prices may allow some concessions to be made and reforms to be granted, for some time, but the increasing oil revenues could provoke more widespread demands for fundamental improvements in the lives of the working masses.

Ahmadinejad has indicated that he will be selective in which measures he will implement. It is one thing to ban adverts featuring the footballer David Beckham, it will be another thing if the new President attempts to clamp down on women and, especially, the very large numbers of youth. But it cannot be ruled out that in the future Ahmadinejad will bend in the face of pressure from below and try to maintain his “equalitarian” image by making some attacks on the rich and prosecuting some of people for corruption.

Illusions in West

There clearly are some illusions, especially amongst the Iranian middle class, in the US. This, in particular, concerns the US’s current standards of living. But there is even the idea, amongst some, that perhaps the US is the only force that can end the rule of the religious elite. At the same time, it is very noticeable that there is widespread support for the continued development of Iran’s nuclear industry, which is seen as a defensive measure against US imperialism and its two local nuclear-armed allies, Israel and Pakistan. This is why an aggressive US policy towards Iran’s nuclear programme could actually rally the vast bulk of the population behind the regime, something that the European imperialists are afraid of.

Clearly, the Bush administration is already preparing to try to take advantage of any mass movement that may develop in Iran. Since the late 1980s, we have seen the way in which imperialism helped pro-capitalist illusions and leaders to dominate the different mass movements that unfolded in the former Soviet Union, central and eastern Europe, the Balkans and, most recently, in the Ukraine and Lebanon. The Washington neo-cons hope to be able to use the Iranian masses as a lever to get a pliant regime in Tehran.

For some time now, there have been “training workshops” taking place in Washington, in the hope of preparing pro-capitalist activists to be used to exploit illusions, especially in the US, to try to dominate any mass movement that develops in Iran. There is a continuing discussion within the Bush Administration about whether it would be possible to use Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah, as a possible figurehead for a pro-capitalist, pro-western government.

The key question as to whether imperialism will be able to carry out this strategy depends on how the Iranian working class movement develops its own independent trade unions and a socialist workers’ party that would place no trust in any imperialist power or section of the local ruling class. Iranian workers have a long and magnificent history of struggle, especially, but not only, in the revolution that overthrew the Shah’s dictatorship.

In this election, workers and youth had no real choice: hence the high level of abstention. Some may have reluctantly voted for Ahmadinejad to strike a blow against the rich elite represented by Rafsanjani, while others could have voted grudgingly for Rafsanjani, to try to halt the reactionary conservative fundamentalists behind Ahmadinejad. But neither candidate was an alternative.

The experience of the failures of the “reformists”, and the now the victory of the conservatives, has already provoked discussion amongst Iranian activists. Increasing numbers will come to the conclusion that it is necessary build a socialist alternative that has roots in the working class.

Workers’ independent organisation

The struggle to build independent workers’ organisations, including factory committees, genuine trade unions, and genuine community organisations, will be linked to demands that Iran’s wealth is used to provide a living wage, work, and higher living standards, for all. The demands for genuine democratic rights will be of critical importance, not only for the working class and youth, but also for different national minorities within Iran. Socialists will defend the right to self-determination for all these minorities, as a key part of working to prevent the development of any national or sectarian tensions.

In building the workers’ movement, socialists will need to warn against any illusions in either the conservatives or the “reformists”, both of whom are pro-capitalist and really represent different wings of the ruling theocratic elite. The conservatives’ grip on the state machine, and the helplessness of the “reformists”, will mean that the question of mass action breaking this grip of the entire religious elite will come ever more onto the agenda.

Socialists will oppose the inevitable attempts, both by local capitalists and imperialism, to divert the coming movement of the Iranian workers and youth into capitalist channels. Instead, as a key part of opposition to the ayatollahs’ constitution and state, socialists call for mass struggle to convene a revolutionary, democratic constituent assembly, to allow the working class, the urban poor, and the poor peasantry to decide Iran’s character and future. But, unless this is linked to the creation of a workers and poor peasants’ government that can break with capitalism and start to implement socialist measures, there will be no fundamental, lasting improvement in the situation facing the Iranian working masses.

Imperialism is right to fear future developments in Iran. This election saw the rejection of neo-liberalism and a vote against the rich. In the absence of an alternative, the conservatives were able to exploit this opposition. But the mass of workers and youth have yet to speak. When they do, it could create a mighty movement that can challenge the Iranian ruling class, and set an international example of opposition to capitalism and imperialism. Then, as in 1979, the challenge will be to win that movement to socialist policies.

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July 2005