Iran: Walking on One Leg

On the surface, recent developments in Iran have temporarily strengthened the hand of the clerical rulers of the country. The conservative clerics were able to claim a victory in the elections to the Parliament (majlis) this year. And they have been demonstrating a certain flexibility in dealing with imperialism (American imperialism in particular) and the masses themselves. But the underlying reality is radically different. The elections demonstrate a striking weakness in support for the regime; the clerics have found it necessary to make adaptations in order to hold on to their rule; and the regime’s attempt to reform itself is not going to solve the massive problems of Iranian capitalism nor contain the simmering class struggle that threatens to break out.

The Bible recommends that you pluck out one eye if it offends you. In the last parliamentary elections on February 20, the clerical monarchy that rules the “Islamic Republic of Iran” engaged in cultural borrowing and more or less heeded this advice by chopping off one of the two legs it rests on. They eliminated almost all of the so-called reformers who had been a significant part of their government, thus reversing the landslide victory the reformers had won in the last majlis elections. At that time the mass of Iranians seized one of the few legal opportunities to express their growing disgust with and hostility towards the ruling “conservative” faction of the Shi’a clergy which had taken power in the wake of the Iranian revolution of 1979. They elected one of the regime’s leading figures, Mohammad Khatami, a prominent reformer, as President. But the new members of the majlis elected this year almost exclusively belong to the camp of the conservative clerics.

The reformers’ defeat is partly explained by understanding how political power is wielded in Iran. The late Ayatollah Khomeini had once explained that he was forced to establish a “republic” after the revolution rather than the naked theocratic rule that he originally intended. The popular character of the anti-Shah revolution, the continued existence of active radicalized masses and the remaining working-class shoras could not be ignored. Later, with the Iran-Iraq war, he was able to more firmly impose “the line of the imam” on the country.

But it was still impossible for the regime to overtly deny the necessity for popular affirmation of its rule. The potential strength of the masses meant that there had to be a grudgingly tolerated “democratic” side to the Islamic state. It still demanded that there be a president and popular elections. However the Islamic character of the system enshrined in the constitution is based on Khomeini’s idea of the Velayat-e faqih which claims there is no actual sovereignty of the people. Final power belongs to Allah, which means it belongs to those ayatollahs who claim to be entitled to interpret his alleged will. And this means that those clerics who support Khomeini and his followers dominate the state. Many higher ranking ayatollahs, who hold different views from Khomeini and his descendants were and are excluded from real power.

So real power rests with the “leader of the revolution” -- first Khomeini and for about 15 years now, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- and the religious bodies controlled by their faction. Among them is the “Guardian Council,” which can veto the candidacy of any person seeking office, and any decision made by the majlis that it regards as being incompatible with “true” Islam. In the recent elections, about 2000 candidates of the reformist camp, 87 of whom served in the previous parliament, were vetoed before the elections by the Guardian Council. The popular elections in Iran are thus a fraud, which exist because they allow the Islamic state to claim popular allegiance. The elections, like all bourgeois elections, enable the government to maintain that it is the people who renew its mandate periodically. At present the electorate is comprised of every male and female above the age of 15. However, given the Guardians’ frequently used veto power, the elected majlis is a shell.

But it was more than raw suppression that did the reformers in. The fact is the restive masses have finally given up on them. The popular illusions in the reform leaders have now been shattered by bitter practical experience. The reformers -- President Khatami included -- could not deliver. They didn’t have the power, guts or program to bring about any meaningful democratic reforms for which they had been elected in 1997. And the real centerpiece of their program was not democratic gains, but opening up the country more to imperialist exploitation. The few reformist bills that have been endorsed by the parliament have all been nullified by the Guardian Council. Dozens of reform newspapers were closed down by the conservatives, and human rights abuses continued unabated.

The fact that the “pro-democracy” reformers themselves generally claim to support the Velayat-e faqih further testifies to their social helplessness, as well as to their critical role in channeling opposition to the regime into channels protective of capitalism and the regime itself. After protests, some of the reformers were readmitted to the parliament, but this has made little difference. And the fact that many of the reformers got up enough courage to call for a boycott of the stacked elections was correctly interpreted by almost all observers as a pro forma act.

The lack of support for -- and even denunciations of -- the mostly reformist but very militant student movement of 1999 was the beginning of the decline in the popularity of the reformers. Both the ruling conservatives and the masses came to understand the reformers’ pathetic weakness. The reformers were already doomed last year when their former followers refused to turn out for municipal elections. With the parliamentary elections, it seems that the final nail was hammered into their political coffin.

Many speak about their demise in the recent elections as the end of reform in the regime, and it certainly does point to a tightened attempt to stave off the social changes at work amongst the masses. But the conservatives themselves are now in their own way becoming the champions of reforms.

For one, the Iranian ruling class no longer has the illusion that it can go it alone in defiance of the imperialist powers. The reform wing was more open about its desire to openly collaborate with the West, but the conservatives understand the same reality. Like bourgeois national compradors everywhere, the Iranians wish to maximize their own share of the exploited wealth their country produces. However, the reality of the imperialist world market and the balance of military power over the years since the revolution has taught the Iranian compradors that the lion’s share must go to the lions. Further, it has learned that Islam has no magical formula to keep increasingly restive masses in line without the armed might of the imperialists it needs to back it up. As we predicted since the revolution against the “Great Satan,” the Iranian rulers would learn that they must try to re-engage with an insatiable U.S. imperialist threat while retaining as much power at home and in the region as it can salvage in a rapidly deteriorating situation. Its hopes depend upon presenting a unified negotiating front in the face of the West as well as a clenched fist in the face of the masses.

Iran had already given important signs to the U.S. by placing itself on the imperialist side in the Afghanistan invasion. It must keep its hands (and its coffers) active in Afghanistan, where imperialism and its puppet government as well as independent warlords and chaos all reign supreme. But it has far more at stake in neighboring Iraq, with its more immediately explosive problems. U.S. imperialist occupation, extreme religious and national factionalization, increasing mass instability and a potentially powerful and dangerous working class on its border all present the Ayatollahs with an extreme threat.

Iran is faced with having to deal with U.S. power in Iraq when the government of that superpower has labeled it as part of the “axis of evil.” Shi’a Iran must also deal with the problem of the Shi’a majority in Iraq which is, for it, both an asset and a liability. The Iranian regime needs the imperialists to maintain their protective grip in Iraq, yet see to it that the imperialists don’t threaten Iran and its interests. Iran must advance its clout with the Shi’ites, yet restrain the growing hostility to the occupation. These are perilous waters indeed.

The Ayatollah’s regime had made the export of its special brand of revolution to neighboring Iraq a major goal of its decade-long war with Baghdad in the ’80’s. It successfully tried to find and support local surrogates such as the SCIRI to fight against the Baathist regime. Now it supports SCIRI as it plays a role in negotiating with the Americans over the proposed Iraqi puppet government. But the Iranians have not managed to control the majority of Iraq’s Shi’ite forces. The most influential ayatollah, Iranian-born Ali al-Sistani, is not a supporter of the Velayat-e faqih. His radical reactionary opponent, Muqtada al-Sadr, is understood to be too much of an Iraqi nationalist to accept Iran’s leader Khamenei as a leader for all the Shi’ites, but rather sees him as a rival and as the leader of Iran only. And now he is battling the Americans.

Contrary to some allegations made by neo-conservative circles in the U.S., there is absolutely no sign that Iran is behind the deepening anti-colonial upheaval in Iraq. The Iranian regime seems to be primarily interested in eventually paving the way for the U.S. forces to get out of Iraq by helping to foster an Iraqi regime which suits its own as well as American interests.

Iran has also hoped to tamp down its nuclear feud with the U.S. It has already given in to U.S. imperialist demands concerning its nuclear program by signing the additional protocol to the notorious non-proliferation treaty that codifies imperialist domination of nuclear arms. It was signed by one Seyyed Hassan Rohani, hitherto little know outside of Iran, although he is the Secretary of the National Security High Council and could well become Khatami’s successor as president. He has been seen by London’s Financial Times as the “torch-bearer of the realistic conservatives,” and as a “trustworthy” person. The realism describes his stance of opening up Iran’s still largely nationalized economy to imperialist capital.

Another leading proponent of conservative reform is Hajatoleslam Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Khatami’s predecessor as president of the Islamic Republic and now the powerful head of the regime’s Expediency Council. This is no surprise, since he had been rated as something of a reformer when he became president. He was later nicknamed “Ali Akbar Shah” by the Iranian people because he started to open up the country’s economy to the West like the deposed Shah.

This change in Teheran has begun to gain attention in Washington. Despite strong overtures to Washington by the reformers, the Americans played their cards coolly given the reformers’ lack of demonstrated power. Now the reformers seem useless, while the clerical conservatives have overtly made themselves more acceptable than before.

The clerical rulers have also made certain adaptations to mass sentiments. They have sought to maintain, even increase, their political control. But on the level of the everyday life of the masses in Iran, real “reforms” have taken place despite the impotence of the political reformers. The changes that have taken place since the early days of the regime in the 1980’s can easily be seen on the streets of the major cities. The most obvious example is that women nowadays wear the hejab or the chador in such a way that in past years would have been considered improper veiling. It would have resulted in their being beaten or disfigured by acid at the hands of hezbollahi thugs. This dramatic change did not come from acts of the reformists, but with the transformation of the consciousness of the masses and the consequent ruling class fear of their wrath, as well as an inevitable routinization of clerical fanaticism.

Forging more open ties to the West, opening up the economy to greater imperialist penetration, relaxing restrictions on the masses’ social life while maintaining tight political control -- it is clear that the Iranian rulers are attempting a version of a “China solution” in their own country. The Stalinist regime in China utilized these elements to forge an unabashedly imperialist-friendly economic boom while maintaining their unchallenged rule. Its clerical counterpart in Iran would like to repeat the experience in its own fashion.

But, as we pointed out in Proletarian Revolution No. 70, the Stalinists in China cannot achieve stability, a lasting boom or an end to imperialized status through this strategy. They face crisis and rising class struggle. The clerical rulers in Iran have far less cohesion and control than the Stalinists and hold out less promise for imperialist investment.

The election victory is not a demonstration of real strength, but of mass disaffection for Khamenei and Co. He said that 50.5 percent of the eligible voters had turned up and had thus legitimated the regime. Even if this figure was correct, it would still distort reality. In Iran, much effort is exercised by the regime to put pressure on the people to vote. It declares that voting is a religious duty. It threatens those who don’t vote with the withdrawal of state “favors,” such as passports. It can also resort to outright ballot-rigging. Moreover, even the Islamic interior ministry had to concede that about 15 percent -- and in Teheran even 25 percent -- of the voters submitted blank ballots. As well, there is a marked decline in election participation in the cities, where the Iranian revolution was primarily based. In Teheran, the percentage voting this time was just 28 percent (as compared to 47 percent the last time, and 55 percent the time before that). In Isfahan the percentage dropped from 61 percent to 32 percent this time. If the blank votes were subtracted together with the ballot-rigging in the countryside, where about 30 percent of the population live, it becomes quite obvious that the regime now retains only a core voting support of about four to five million people, mostly drawn from the lumpen proletariat.

In part because of the clerical regime’s lack of stability, in part for a host of economic reasons, the hope for a massive imperialist investment in Iran is a forlorn one. The rising mass discontent and changing consciousness inside Iran itself could very well see a social explosion prior to even a serious attempt at economic reform. The masses are fed up with oppression. The misguided idea that the evident and growing hostility to Islamic rule was due to the acts of the reformers was a strong impulse behind the purge, but hardly an answer to the rulers’ problems. The struggle in Iran has enormous potential to ignite the whole region.

At present, as far as we know, there are not yet any revolutionary forces in the country strong enough politically and numerically to take leadership within the ever growing disaffection of the toiling masses. Some discussion circles and various oppositional emigre forces have many illusions in capitalism, and -- at least up to the recent experience in Iraq -- even in U.S. imperialism. The working class movement itself has only shown the first timid signs of a rebirth after the long period of intense oppression. However, we see increasingly militant actions by workers in China despite a well-entrenched, highly disciplined and autocratic Stalinist Communist Party at the helm, in the service of imperialism. The Iranian working class played a heroic and decisive role in the toppling of the Shah’s regime and, despite the absence of a genuinely Trotskyist leadership, launched dual power institutions like the shoras. It has a long history of struggle despite the hijacking of the revolution by the Khomeini obscurantists. That potential rebirth of struggle must be weighed in the scales together with the fact that the Islamic regime, notwithstanding all the purges and efforts to become more monolithic, can never have the internal stability of the Stalinist Chinese regime and its time-tested bureaucracy. Its original Islamic rigor has been inevitably and fatally compromised. The coming struggles will serve to incubate class consciousness and the creation of an authentic Bolshevik working class leadership.

So long as capitalism exists in Iran, real democracy and serious reforms in the interests of the masses are impossible. That, and their own fear of the masses explains the impotence of the reformers. Chopping off the lame reformist leg has not made the regime any weaker. It may for a time even help stabilize it a bit, since the workers do not yet see an alternative. But this effect is bound to be short-lived, given the underlying situation.

Only the proletarian socialist revolution can carry out the mass demands for democratic rights and the freedom to cast off the yoke of clerical reaction.


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