WHAT REALLY JUST HAPPENED IN IRAN?
By Jack A. Smith
July 12, 2009, Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter
1. QUESTIONS and CONTEXT
What really just happened in Iran? The dramatic demonstrations that followed the June 12 contested reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have raised more questions than they answered.
Three questions in particular stand out: (1) What is the struggle actually about? (2) Was the election rigged, as charged by the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi, and his vocal supporters? (3) Did the U.S. play a role leading up to the protests in quest of an outcome similar to the so-called color revolutions Washington enabled in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan?
The Western mass media have described Iran's contested election and its bitter aftermath as an uprising of the masses to transform the Islamic Republic into a democratic republic, or at least to propel the country into the pro-Western camp. Some publications were already calling it the "Green Revolution" or the "Green Wave," after the color of Mousavi's campaign paraphernalia.
In reality, the struggle is the product of a sharp internal clash between the two conservative coalitions that rule Iran. As Mousavi made clear in a recent public statement: "We are not against our sacred regime and its legal structures; this structure guards our independence, freedom, and Islamic Republic."
As for Ahmadinejad, writer Azmai Bishara described him this way at MRZine June 26: "Ahmadinejad is less a representative of Iranian conservatives than a rebel against them from within their own establishment. He has lashed out against them, including corrupt clergy, using the principles of the Islamic revolution as his weapons. He is a conservative of the fundamentalist stripe and wants to restore the revolution to its youthful vigor and gleam."
At issue in this internal struggle, which is now calming down as the sides reassess their situations, are differences on economic, religious, and social questions, and serious cultural conflicts, which we shall detail below.
The American media and much of the liberal press clearly side with the "good" Mousavi faction against the "evil" Ahmadinejad and seem convinced that the election was a fraud, or a "coup" engineered by the incumbent president involving the theft of millions of votes. As yet there is no concrete evidence of massive electoral malfeasance, a matter we shall discuss later in this article.
Washington insists the U.S. government is innocent of involvement in events leading up to the Iranian election and the social melee that followed. As yet there is only suggestive evidence of an American connection, though this must be coupled with a record of over a half century of interference in Iranian affairs.
Indirect involvement, however, is well documented. For instance, a few years ago the Bush Administration launched a congressionally funded project within Iran to undermine the Teheran government and build an anti-regime opposition within the country — a program that has continued into the Obama Administration. And this is just one of many overt and covert instances of current U.S. actions to destabilize the Iranian government.
President Barack Obama has not specifically accused the Tehran government of stealing the election — either because the U.S. knows Ahmadinejad won, as this writer imagines it does, or doesn't know who won. The extensive American intelligence apparatus has been working overtime to investigate the election. If it found believable evidence of mass fraud, it would hardly conceal the news.
The president did point out June 23, however, that "a sizable percentage of the Iranian people themselves... consider this election illegitimate…. There [are] significant questions about the legitimacy of the election."
As an aside we must note a certain hypocrisy in the U.S. practice of criticizing elections in countries that are considered America's enemies, overlooking obvious illegalities in friendly-country elections (as in Egypt), or the lack of elections for leadership posts (as in Saudi Arabia), and condemning and refusing to recognize winners of democratic elections who attract Washington's wrath (as in Gaza).
The official vote count was 63.3% for Ahmadinejad and 34.2% for Mousavi. The two other candidates were Mohsen Rezaei, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards, with 2%, and Mullah Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of the Parliament, who received less than 1%
Obama has strongly criticized the regime's response to the intense street demonstrations, which press reports said drew millions of people over the two weeks following the voting. He charged that "the violence perpetrated against them is outrageous," as though there was no violence from a sector of the demonstrators in the first days of protest.
Iranian authorities state that there was violence on the part of both the demonstrators (20 were killed) and the security forces (eight died). The regime arrested some 2,500 people in the aftermath of the election, but released 2,000 of them by July 8; the remainder are going to trial. Human Rights Watch charged that a number of detainees had been mistreated.
President Ahmadinejad took exception to Obama's criticism in a speech last week: "Didn't he [Obama] say that he was after change [in relations with Iran]? Why did he interfere? Why did he utter remarks irrespective of [diplomatic] norms and decorum?"
President Obama made it clear this week, despite muted criticism about the elections, that the U.S. remained ready to engage in two-party negotiations with the Iranian government about Teheran's nuclear program and other matters. The Bush Administration was disinclined to participate in direct talks, openly working to undermine the Tehran government and for a time was prepared to attack Iran.
Obama, through his "New Beginning" campaign in the Middle East, is proving to be quite effective so far in presenting a less aggressive and considerably more rational American image than that shot into the region like a cannon ball by his neoconservative predecessor. But there is no doubt he is pursuing similar objectives with different means.
First, Obama desires a nuclear agreement acceptable to the U.S. and Israel, but through the mechanism of improved bilateral relations and conventional coercion, in place of bullying and war cries. In the longer term, the Obama Administration still seeks regime change — though preferably the "softer" version — resulting in the extension of American hegemony into Iran for the first time in the three decades since Washington's underling, the Shah of Iran, was dispatched by the Islamic Revolution.
While Obama embraces diplomacy and calls for friendlier relations between Washington and Tehran, the next two highest administration officials have been making declarations designed to disparage and threaten Iran.
On July 7, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared to a Venezuelan TV network that "We would ask the world to join us in imposing even stricter sanctions on Iran to try to change the behavior of the regime…. We have seen in the last weeks that Iran has not respected its own democracy. It has taken actions against [its] own citizens for peacefully protesting…. I think it is not a very smart position to ally with a regime that is being rejected by so many of their own people."
Clinton was actually undermining two countries on Washington's hit list — Venezuela as well as Iran. She was telling a Venezuelan TV audience (and Latin America in general) to oppose efforts by President Hugo Chavez to establish warm relations with Iran.
On July 5, Vice President Joseph Biden announced that Israel has a right, as a sovereign nation, to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, strongly suggesting that the U.S. would not stand in its way. This has been interpreted as a typical Biden faux pas, but we think it was a warning to Tehran that it best make big concessions at the nuclear talks, or else.
Two days later, while noting that Biden simply "stated a categorical fact," Obama said the White House had "absolutely not" given Israel permission to bomb Iran. He declared, "We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East." Obama has the power to forbid a preemptive Israeli attack, but decided to keep the threat alive by merely not authorizing it.
In June, Clinton declared gratuitously that not only would the U.S. massively retaliate against Iran were it to attack Israel, but warned that one or another unspecified country might launch a preemptive war again Iran. The Teheran government has not threatened war against Israel, but Tel Aviv for the last year has repeatedly suggested it might launch an attack against Iran should it be able to produce a nuclear weapon.
And on June 19, the House of Representatives voted 405-1 to throw its total support to the post-election demonstrators and to demand that Iran "stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people."
2. THE BACKGROUND
Some background will be useful before digging deeper into the election, its aftermath and the question of U.S. involvement. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been on or near the top of Washington's enemies list for 30 years, ever since the Iranian Revolution toppled the oppressive monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The Shah was installed on the Peacock Throne by the U.S. and Great Britain in 1953 after they engineered a successful coup against the democratically elected secular government of progressive Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, which had ended the monarchy and nationalized Iran's petroleum resources. Pahlavi was a servant of U.S. interests in the Middle East for almost 26 years. He saw to it that some 60% of Iranian oil went to American companies.
Washington has never forgiven the Iranian revolutionaries for ousting the dreaded Pahlavi. His value to the U.S. was enormous, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs:
"Under the Shah's leadership, the land bridge between Asia and Europe, so often the hinge of world history, was pro-American and pro-West without any challenge…. Iran's influence was always on our side…. Iran under the Shah, in short, was one of America's best, most important, and most loyal friends in the world." The monarch was, to speak plainly, a U.S. puppet.
In his June 4 Cairo address calling for a New Beginning in U.S. relations with the Muslim world, President Obama noted that "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government." The U.S. continued to lie about its involvement in the bloody coup for 47 years until Secretary of State Madeline Albright finally admitted in 2000 that "the United States played a significant role" in this imperial adventure, noting that "it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."
Neither Obama nor Albright apologized or offered compensation for a deed that smashed Iranian democracy and ushered in over a quarter-century of a vicious monarchy protected by the U.S. followed by three decades of a conservative theocracy. Ahmadinejad earlier this year said that if the U.S. wants to improve relations it should apologize for its "dark history and crimes" against Iran.
The lack of an apology is nothing new in U.S. relations with Iran. On July 3, 1988, the U.S. Navy's guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger airliner off the coast of Iran over the Strait of Hormuz, killing 290 passengers and crew, including 65 children. The Navy claimed it mistook the huge Airbus A300B2 for an incoming jet fighter, which of course has an entirely different configuration.
Vice President George H.W. Bush, then in the midst of his run for the presidency in August of that election year, was asked whether he was going to apologize for the tragedy. He responded: "I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are." The captain of the Vincennes was honored with the Legion of Merit when the cruiser's tour of duty ended.
Washington has sought to isolate and, if possible, overturn the revolutionary regime in Tehran ever since it took power in early 1979, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — a leading Shi'ite cleric in a deeply religious society. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations and imposed economic and trade sanctions against Iran soon after the Shah was deposed. In 1980, Washington secretly backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's aggressive invasion of Iran, a conflict that caused an immense loss of life and material damage before it ended in a stalemate in 1988. Washington supplied Iraq with satellite information about Iran's deployments and materials for chemical-biological warfare.
In 1987 President Ronald Reagan strengthened sanctions against Iran allegedly because it was a "state sponsor of terrorism." In 1995, the Clinton Administration further toughened anti-Iran sanctions after Israel claimed Teheran was building nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration gratuitously identified Iran as a cohort of the "Axis of Evil" in 2002 and a couple of years later came perilously close to subjecting Iran to another of its unjust wars for "democracy," i.e., for oil and hegemony. Had the subjugation of Iraq gone as planned, instead of the military and political disaster that transpired, Iran probably would have been next on the U.S. regime-change agenda.
Operating as usual in tandem with U.S. foreign policy, the corporate mass media have demonized and caricatured President Ahmadinejad, 52, since he was first elected in 2005. As a general rule, extreme caution is required to evaluate foreign political leaders who have been the target of continual White House criticism and disparagement. We think of President Slobodan Miloseviç of Yugoslavia and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq in this regard — both of whom were characterized as beastly incarnations of Hitler as a prelude to Washington's military aggression in 1999 and 2003.
The Bush Administration spent years mocking and "Hitlerising" Ahmadinejad while contemplating if and when to launch a war. It's always a "good war" to fight a Hitler, and the U.S. public is easily fooled every time the old devil is contrived to have reappeared.
Decades of U.S. enmity toward Iraq were concisely captured by journalist Chris Hedges in an article for TruthDig June 22 titled Iran Had Democracy Before we Took it Away:
"I do not remember Iran orchestrating a coup in the United States to replace an elected government with a brutal dictator who for decades persecuted, assassinated and imprisoned democracy activists. I do not remember Iran arming and funding a neighboring state to wage war against our country. Iran never shot down one of our passenger jets as did the USS Vincennes — caustically nicknamed Robocruiser by the crews of other American vessels — when in June 1988 it fired missiles at an Airbus filled with Iranian civilians, killing everyone on board. Iran is not sponsoring terrorism within the United States, as our intelligence services currently do in Iran. The attacks on Iranian soil include suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, sabotage and 'targeted assassinations' of government officials, scientists and other Iranian leaders. What would we do if the situation was reversed? How would we react if Iran carried out these policies against us?"
Most Americans know little if anything about Iran except Washington's negative views, but there have been some interesting social advances in this country of 70 million people.
Since the revolution, writes Professor Ervand Abrahamian of Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, "the Islamic Republic — despite its poor image abroad — has taken significant steps toward fulfilling" promises "to create a full-fledged welfare state — in its proper European, rather than derogatory American, sense…. It has done so by giving priority to social rather than military expenditures, and thus dramatically expanding the Ministries of Education, Health, Agriculture, Labor, Housing, Welfare and Social Security. The military consumed as much as 18% of the gross domestic product in the last years of the Shah. Now it takes up as little as 4%....
"The regime has come close to eliminating illiteracy among the post-revolutionary generations, reducing the overall rate from 53% to 15%. The rate among women has fallen from 65% to 20%. The state has increased the number of students enrolled in primary schools from 4,768,000 to 5,700,000, in secondary schools from 2.1 million to over 7.6 million, in technical schools from 201,000 to 509,000, and in universities from 154,000 to over 1.5 million. The percentage of women in university student populations has gone up from 30% to 62%. Thanks to medical clinics, life expectancy at birth has increased from 56 to 70, and infant mortality has decreased from 104 to 25 per 1,000... [and] the fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime — from 7 to 3. It is expected to fall further to 2 by 2012." (The full article is in the Spring 2009 issue of Middle East Report. It is at http://www.merip.org/mer/mer250/abrahamian.html.)
3. THE POLITICAL PLAYERS
In the election, President Ahmadinejad, a civil engineer and a former mayor of Tehran, was backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a sector of the Shia clergy, nearly all the security forces, a large proportion of the working class, lower middle class and the poor, small business owners, and the "second generation" revolutionaries who fought in the war with Iraq —an important part of his political base. This is a large constituency, capable in our view of producing an electoral majority.
Khamenei, 70, is the most powerful figure in the Iranian state, far more so than President Ahmadinejad. He was president 1981-89, after which he was named supreme leader following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution.
In Iran, the supreme leader, who is always a leading Shi'ite cleric, is the country's principal religious and political authority and is considered the ultimate head of the Islamic Republic, including of the government and the armed forces. A supreme leader, of which there have been two so far, is selected by an Assembly of Experts — a body of 89 Islamic scholars who supervise the leader's work and have the power to remove him. The scholars are elected by the public every eight years from a screened list of candidates. The leader also appoints six of the 12 members of the powerful Guardian Council (which interprets the constitution and supervises elections), the influential Friday prayer leaders, and the heads of radio and TV. He also confirms the election of Iran's presidents.
The losing candidate, Mousavi, 67, served as prime minister (1981-89) before the post was eliminated. He is said to have liberal tendencies within the context of conservative reform. Since leaving politics, he worked as an architect and painter and now is president of the Iranian Academy of Arts. He is backed by such leading political figures as former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (who presided 1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Rafsanjani, a mullah and a billionaire businessman, ran again in 2005 and was beaten by Ahmadinejad, who received 62% of the vote (a shade lower than his official total this June). Mass support for Mousavi comes from political groups characterized by reformism and "pragmatic conservatism," a considerable sector of the clergy, much of the big business and corporate community, the educated urban middle class, upper middle class, college students, and modern women seeking greater gender freedoms.
Rafsanjani, 75, a leading oligarch with powerful connections, is the key figure behind Mousavi and bankrolled his campaign, though he has lately kept a low profile and calls for social calm. He is the big loser in the election. Ahmadinejad was sharply critical of him during the campaign, characterizing the former president as corrupt, which many happen to believe. He is presently the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which puts him in a position to exercise substantial influence in an organization capable of dismissing the supreme leader. Khamenei, however, has recently defended Rafsanjani, even against Ahmadinejad's strong criticism, so the supreme leader is secure in his position. A majority of the Assembly came out on Khamenei's side in late June, declaring that "enemies of Iran" were behind the riots.
4. IRANIAN POLITICS
In discussing the political situation in Iran it is important to understand there's a world of difference between the thrust of Tehran's internal policies and external policies. Internally, Iranian governance is conservative, particularly in the cultural realm, and heavily influenced by the Shi'ite branch of Islam. Externally, in foreign affairs, the policy tends to be radical and anti-imperialist.
Iran may be dominated by conservative clerics but the masses of people do take part in political life and determine the outcome of elections. Government policies frequently derive from a consensus of the differing views of many political parties and organizations, often at the behest of the supreme leader.
A circumscribed form of democracy exists within the country, giving rise to two principal political blocs — conservatism (with a fairly populist economic program, interestingly enough), and reformism (in this instance an essentially conservative tendency seeking modest reforms). The leading religious and secular figures within or supporting these two blocs constitute most of the Iranian ruling class.
The Islamic left, which at one time was considered strong, now exists in reduced circumstances, but its members were at the demonstrations.
The political left was strong, too, but was largely destroyed or exiled — first in the events around the 1953 anti-democratic coup; second throughout the Shah's brutal reign; and third by the Islamic government, especially during the 1980s when it is estimated that 20,000 progressives, socialists, communists and others were slain or executed. At the time the president and prime minister who presided over this slaughter were, respectively, the now Supreme Leader Khamenei and reform leader Mousavi, the losing candidate.
From the point of view of the Iranian Marxist left, underground or in exile, neither of the two principal coalitions represents the interests of the working class. If there was a serious socialist alternative Ahmadinejad's working class base would be far smaller. By and large, it is reported, the workers did not join the protest demonstrations.
There are a number of political parties and organizations in Iran, most of whom ally with one or the other bloc during presidential elections. The Iranian parliament is called the Majlis. According to a June 24 article in Time Magazine online, "Currently, Ahmadinejad's coalition controls 117 of the 290 seats in the Majlis, while the reformists control 46 and pragmatic conservatives aligned with Rafsanjani and Mousavi have 53. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities, and 69 are in the hands of independents, among whom the opposition will presumably be lobbying hard for support against the President."
Complexities abound when discussing Iranian politics because the context and political alliances are quite different in the Islamic Republic compared to America's democratic republic. For example, an important political aspect of the election, unmentioned in most Western press accounts despite its critical importance, was the fact that "Ahmadinejad ran his re-election campaign against the old clerical elite, charging them with corruption, luxurious living and running the state for their own benefit rather than that of the people," according to a June 29 article by Stratfor's George Friedman. "When Ahmadinejad defeated Mousavi on the night of the election, the clerical elite saw themselves in serious danger. The margin of victory Ahmadinejad claimed might have given him the political clout to challenge their position."
This could partly explain why a number of clerics and leading ayatollahs in a country largely ruled by the religious establishment have been criticizing the election results and supporting Mousavi's contention of vast electoral impropriety. A good part of Ahmadinejad's popular support is based on his opposition to clerical privileges and dishonesty, and on his strong stand on national security matters, given that the country has long been in the gun sights of both the U.S. and Israel, and also because Iran suffered tremendously from the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Many millions of Iranians are not principally devoted to one bloc or another but to the existence of the Islamic Republic itself, and they participate in elections to advance the candidate who will insure the health of the state. They are part of the ideological base of the republic and are loyal to Khamenei. Others, from liberals to Marxists, desire extensive political changes that are not on the agenda in today's Iran. We assume many showed up at the demonstrations to press their points and push the struggle forward, regardless of whether the election was rigged or not. It was an opportunity to agitate for change while masses were in motion against the oppressive state.
The struggle between conservative Ahmadinejad and reformist Mousavi — or perhaps more properly between Supreme Leader Khamenei and former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami — is not about changing the essential features of a theocratic state with certain democratic options. They both are committed to the maintenance of the Islamic Republic and to the revolutionary constitution promoted by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
President Obama frankly observed June 16 that "The difference in actual policies between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi… may not be as great as advertised. I think it's important to understand that either way we are going to be dealing with a regime in Iran that is hostile to the U.S." It must be noted here that Iran's "hostility" was hardly generated in a vacuum, but is the product of decades of American threats, punishment and subversion.
Here, in the brief outline, are some of the differences that separate the two ruling blocs, both of which, incidentally, are devoted to capitalism, the development of nuclear energy as a power source, the rights of the Palestinian people, the Islamic state, and opposition to U.S. imperialism.
Ahmadinejad is considered to be on the political right wing but tends to be more attentive to the needs of the working class than the more moderate conservative opposition. He promoted a populist economic policy, including social programs for the masses, easy loans for farmers, food subsidies for low income people, and reductions in bank interest rates, among other measures. His bloc, however, is extremely conservative regarding cultural, religious, and certain civil liberties issues. On the other hand it supports a vigorous anti-imperialist foreign policy, is defiant toward U.S. and Israeli pressure, and stands up to the European Union when it acts against Iranian interests; it is friendly toward countries that treat it fairly, such as Venezuela, Russia, and Syria among many others, and supports (Shi'ite) Hezbollah in Lebanon and (Sunni) Hamas in Palestine. Ahmadinejad wants improved relations with the U.S. but not at the expense of core concessions.
Writing in Antiwar.com June 24, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi — who long warned that the Bush Administration was contemplating an attack on Iran — underscored the popularity of Ahmadinejad's public condemnation of wrongdoing by the clergy when he pointed to "the corrupt Iran of the post-revolutionary period when the country was looted by the senior clerics cooperating with the business class, the bazaaris. Some intelligence sources believe that Ahmadinejad, who has been demonized by the Western media, is actually the reformer in that he has taken on the country's pervasive corruption with the full support of… the supreme leader. Massive corruption has been business as usual in Iran, frequently managed by politicians who have called themselves reformers."
Actually, according to M.K. Bhadrakumar writing in Asia Times June 23, "Ahmadinejad's principal weakness is his failure to bring the rich and corrupt mullahs to justice, as he had promised. His supporters say that would be the priority in his second term."
The Mousavi reform bloc is less populist, and seems to lean toward neoliberalism, integrating the Iranian economy into the world market system and opening to foreign investment. The reformers are critical of Ahmadinejad for what it terms his economic failures, inflation and "handouts" to the workers and the poor. The reformers are liberal on cultural and civil liberties issues — from a more relaxed dress code for women to freer speech. It is critical of the U.S. and Israel, though not with Ahmadinejad's intensity. The group's middle and upper middle class backers seem more attracted to Western society; and its big business supporters, plus a sector of the clergy, wish to integrate far more into the globalized international capitalist economy, which inevitably means making some concessions to end Washington's economic and trade sanctions. Reformists also seek to reduce some of the powers of what has been called "the most influential body in Iran" — the Guardian Council, which has to approve all bills passed by parliament and has the power to veto them if it considers them inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.
Left analyst James Petras summarized the differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi June 18 by examining the voting patterns: "The demography of voting reveals a real class polarization pitting high income, free market oriented, capitalist individualists against working class, low income, community based supporters of a 'moral economy' in which usury and profiteering are limited by religious precepts. The open attacks by opposition economists of the government welfare spending, easy credit and heavy subsidies of basic food staples did little to ingratiate them with the majority of Iranians benefiting from those programs. The state was seen as the protector and benefactor of the poor workers against the 'market', which represented wealth, power, privilege and corruption. The Opposition's attack on the regime's 'intransigent' foreign policy and positions 'alienating' the West only resonated with the liberal university students and import-export business groups. To many Iranians, the regime's military buildup was seen as having prevented a US or Israeli attack."
According to Ervand Abrahamian, cited above, "Most politicians since the revolution have subscribed to varying degrees to economic populism. Some, such as former Presidents Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, were muted populists shy about tampering with social programs. Others, such as President Ahmadinejad, are out-and-out populists promising to 'bring the oil money to peoples' dining room tables' by further expanding social programs. No realist would contemplate drastic cuts in the safety net, though there are limits to the populism: Ahmadinejad, for instance, placed a quota on subsidized gasoline."
The reform tendencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami during their two eight-year presidencies (1989-2005) were frustrated in part by conservative clerical objections and also by not fighting forcefully enough, but certain reforms did take place, including a gradual relaxation of some of the restrictions on women imposed during the first decade of the Islamic revolution. Ahmadinejad reimposed some of these limitations (pressure from the mullahs was a partial factor) and Khamenei was responsible for others during the past four years. According to a pro-Mousavi article in the July 20 issue of The Nation by Robert Dreyfuss:
"University classes were re-segregated by gender. The law banning satellite dishes was enforced vigorously. The morality police resorted to patrolling the streets to ensure that women wore proper Islamic dress, and unmarried couples refrained from holding hands. This was but a part of Ahmadinejad's drive to return society to the early years of the Islamic revolution.
"Little wonder then that, in the run-up to the 2009 presidential election, young voters rallied behind Mir Hussein Mousavi, whose academic wife, the artist Zahra Rahnavard, spoke of the hijab becoming optional for women. Mousavi promised to disband the morality police and appoint women to important government jobs."
Some of these setbacks for women were the responsibility of Khamenei and at least one we know of was opposed by Ahmadinejad — the supreme leader's April 2007 order that the Tehran police harass women with "improper hijab," i.e., without, at minimum, a head cover or "modest dress." According to the BBC, ultra-conservatives had earlier sharply criticized the president because, said a detractor, "Mr Ahmadinejad is not that strict on this issue. He thinks we should not use force when acting on this issue so as a result hijab has become weaker."
On July 7, in his first post-election TV address, Ahmadinejad made overtures to the defeated bloc. The New York Times reported the next day that "using language that appeared aimed at mollifying the opposition, he promised that his new government would respect the youth, improve the economy and address unemployment.
"He also said that he opposed the use of security forces to deal with cultural issues, an indirect reference to the morality police, which the opposition candidates had pledged to dismantle. 'Cultural issues should be dealt with through cultural channels, and I am against security confrontations [police harassment],' he said. 'Social freedom is a principle. We have freedom in our country and need to expand it, although I am against extremism.'"
In the aftermath of a divisive election, Ayatollah Khamenei is making efforts to project a sense of national unity to counter the actions of any country trying to benefit from the nation's travail. In a July 6 speech he said: "If the officials of the Islamic republic have disputes with one another they are unanimous in standing against the enemy and in maintaining the independence of the country, and the enemy should know that it won't be able to create splits between the people of Iran."
5. THE 'STOLEN' ELECTION
Was the election stolen by Ahmadinejad? The Western mass media sure thinks so, even though it has presented no evidence beyond the circumstantial, and that's where most of us get our information.
But the Western media in general excoriates Iran on a daily basis, as it does to virtually every country that stands up to Uncle Sam, and it simply despises Ahmadinejad. Even a number of liberals, progressives and leftists see only the negative side of the Iranian dialectic in both its domestic politics and international perspective.
The Tehran government does not acknowledge widespread malfeasance. It seems probable to us that some votes for Ahmadinejad were padded and some for Mousavi may have been eliminated at one or another level of the counting process.
But we suspect he received enough votes to win the election, just a predicted in the public opinion poll of Iranian sentiment conducted by two respected American organizations three weeks before the voting. It showed Ahmadinejad winning 2-1, as we reported in the Activist Newsletter, June 17.
Mousavi publicly declared himself the winner by a large majority even before all the polling stations closed June 12. When the official vote total showed Ahmadinejad won big, he immediately charged that he was the victim of a colossal vote swindle. He still maintains this today, but doesn't seem to provide evidence to back up his allegation.
Paul Craig Roberts, writing for CounterPunch June 22, argues that Mousavi's premature claim of victory… is clearly a preemptive move, the purpose of which is to discredit any other outcome. There is no other reason to make such a claim."
Middle East correspondent Mahan Abedin, publishing in Asia Times July 9, agrees: "Mousavi's greatest mistake came immediately after the end of polling when he declared himself the outright winner. The implication was clear: a contradictory result would be automatically treated as fraudulent. This was the main trigger for the riots that followed. Mousavi then made one mistake after another by persisting with his fundamental position that the elections had been 'rigged'(without providing any convincing evidence) and refusing the solutions that were offered by mediators."
In a brilliant article for MRZine June 29, Mark Weisbrot — the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington — points out that of the 700,000 people involved in conducting the elections, including poll watchers and other supporters of Mousavi, not one of them has come forward with evidence of fraud.
Weisbrot calculated that nearly 6 million votes had to be stolen from Mousavi and given to Ahmadinejad to deprive the opposition candidate of victory. After describing the thorough voter identification process, including finger prints, he then describes the elaborate electoral procedures he says were in place during the election:
"There are 14 people working at each polling place, in addition to an observer representing each candidate. Most polling places are schools or mosques; if the polling place is a school then the team of 14 people would include teachers. There are 2-4 representatives of the Guardian Council, and 2 from the local police. After the last votes are cast, the ballots are counted in the presence of the 14 people plus the candidates' representatives. All of them sign five documents that contain the vote totals. One of the documents goes into the ballot box; one stays with the leader of the local election team; and the others go to other levels of the electoral administration, including the Guardian Council and the Interior.
"The vote totals are then sent to a local center that also has representatives of the Guardian Council, Interior, and the candidates. They add up the figures from a number of ballot boxes, and then send them to Interior. In this election, the numbers were also sent directly to Interior from the individual polling places, in the presence of the 14-18 witnesses at the ballot box….
"It would appear that large scale fraud is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without creating an extensive trail of evidence. Indeed, if this election was stolen, there must be tens of thousands of witnesses — or perhaps hundreds of thousands — to the theft. Yet there are no media accounts of interviews with such witnesses." (The full article is at mrzine.monthlyreview.org/weisbrot290609.html)
On another matter — the question of the rapidity of the vote count — Weisbrot writes: " How long does it take to count 500-800 ballots at a polling place, with only the presidential candidates on the ballot? It could easily be done within the time that it took, as it was in 2005."
Several commentators have taken issue with the opposition claims that even the Guardian Council declared at least three million votes were stolen. Actually, the Council found that in several score cities and towns it turned out that there were three million more votes than registered voters. Then it explained that in Iran voters may deposit their ballot in any convenient polling location throughout the country, not just in their own local district as in the U.S. Workers voted near their jobs in other towns, vacationers and weekenders voted where they were, and so on.
On June 16, when Iran's leaders offered to conduct a partial recount of the votes, Mousavi rejected the offer, instead demanding a new election. After the opposition continued to reject a recount, the Guardian Council decided to do so anyway. On June 29, in front of TV cameras, randomly selected boxes containing approximately 10% of the vote were opened and counted. The totals were approximately the same as the original count. The Council rejected the charge of fraud and confirmed his victory.
Khamenei actively sought to unify all sides of the dispute throughout the turmoil that followed the election. As July approached most of the key figures seemed to have reconciled their differences. Mousavi continued to claim fraud and insist on a second ballot.
In a decisive development June 28, no less an oppositionist than Rafsanjani declared his support for the supreme leader and stated: "The developments following the presidential vote were a complex conspiracy plotted by suspicious elements with the aim of creating a rift between the people and the Islamic establishment and causing them to lose their trust in the system. Such plots have always been neutralized whenever the people have entered the scene with vigilance."
The next day, June 29, the Expediency Council headed by Rafsanjani instructed the three defeated candidates to "observe the law and resolve conflicts and disputes through legal channels." All the principals, including Mousavi, agreed. From the beginning the government urged Mousavi to take the matter to the courts, not the streets, but he had refused.
This is as close as we can come to putting together the election story on the basis of what is known so far. There are many mysteries and inexplicable behaviors that are yet to be revealed.
6. DID WASHINGTON PLAY A ROLE?
There is no evidence that the United States played a direct role in the events following the Iranian election. The emphasis is upon "direct." We suspect President Obama was as surprised as President Ahmadinejad by the ferocity and size of the two weeks of post-election demonstrations in Tehran and other cities.
Obama's statement after the election that the U.S. is "not at all interfering in Iran's affairs," however, is untrue.
The protests were principally inspired by the belief that gross election irregularities caused Mousavi's defeat — a view that was originated and vigorously promoted by the defeated candidate himself from the moment he heard the verdict, after announcing to the world hours earlier that he had won. It's never been explained how he knew of his victory before all the polls closed. To our knowledge, Iran doesn't provide nationwide exit poll results throughout the voting day.
Disappointed and shocked supporters of the reform bloc took Mousavi at his word, and fought back until push turned into shove, and shove into tear gas, truncheons, and mass arrests.
We found it puzzling that in Farsi-speaking Iran so many of the signs we viewed on TV news were printed in English. We saw "Where's my vote?" all the time, as well as other signs and banners in a language we could read. A multitude of these signs began showing up the morning after the election and were clearly aimed at a foreign audience. We thought this strange.
It sure looked like an uprising for a brief while as the U.S. and British mass media took the international lead in fanning the flames they hoped would consume the "Holocaust-denier" and his "terrorist" accomplices.
Precisely why Mousavi decided to inspire the confrontations and keep them going as long as possible, especially when he didn't try to prove his case, is not yet known. Mousavi is not an American agent in mufti, though the CIA must wish he were.
Does this mean the U.S. has clean hands? Not by a long shot. Washington has been trying to arrange the overthrow of the Iranian government for many years. The constant anti-Iranian rhetoric emanating from the American political system and government leaders is just the visible part of a long-term destabilization program.
We won't begin at the beginning, having covered some of it earlier in this article, but will just concentrate on the last couple of years.
On June 25, as the Iranian protest demonstrations had just reached their peak, USA Today reported the following:
"The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, records and interviews show, continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President Bush.
"The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which reports to the secretary of state, has for the last year been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to 'promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran,' according to documents on the agency's website. The final deadline for grant applications is June 30….
"Although the Obama administration has not sought to continue the Iran-specific grants in its 2010 budget, it wants a $15 million boost for the Near Eastern Regional Democracy Initiative, which has similar aims but does not specify the nations involved. Some of that money will be targeted at Iran, said David Carle, a spokesman for the appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign affairs. Part of it is to expand access to information and communications through the Internet for Iranians," Carle said in an email….
"The State Department and USAID decline to name Iran-related grant recipients for security reasons. After Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a major expansion of the program in 2006… Congress eventually approved $66 million…. 'As the Iranian regime cracks down on its people, I strongly believe that we should be prepared to extend our hand in help and support to any Iranian civil society group that reaches out for it,' [said] Sen. Joseph Lieberman."
Writing for Truthout June 30, Steve Weissman revealed: "Since 2006, the State Department alone spent more than $200 million on the effort [to generate decisive protests within Iran]. The money went to its in-house Iran bashers and 'democracy-promoters,' the Voice of America's (VOA) Farsi language broadcasts, Radio Free Europe's round-the-clock Radio Farda and the secretive National Endowment for Democracy, which funded several other groups. This $200 million came on top of the $400 million that Congress allocated in 2007 for regime change in Iran, some of which went for the CIA's state-supported terrorism inside Iranian borders."
On June 30, CounterPunch produced an article by Esam Al-Amin titled, Has the CIA Been Caught in Iran's Cookie Jar, Again?, reporting:
"After Bush’s second inauguration in January 2005, the National Security Council had an intense internal debate regarding Iran. The conflict did not center on whether there should be a regime change in Iran, but rather, whether to employ soft or hard power to achieve it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld advocated a series of escalating military strikes, while former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for the use of soft power. Eventually, the president’s military advisors ended the debate when they cautioned Bush that with the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, engaging Iran militarily would be highly risky and draining for the U.S. armed forces.
"Between 2005-2009, the U.S. Congress appropriated more than $400 million for State Department programs designed to 'promote democracy,' among other means of employing soft power in Iran. This was implemented, in part, by funding the activities of Iranian dissident groups. By 2008, Congress included money in the budget that would specifically 'go to software programmers to develop programs that thwart internet firewalls erected by the government of Iran,' and for a program to 'provide anti-censorship tools and services for the advancement of information freedom in closed societies.'
"The overt involvement of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other U.S. Government-funded NGOs in supporting many of the groups and dissidents that led the colored and flowering 'revolutions,' is also well documented. The Orange (Ukraine), Rose (Georgia), Tulip (Kyrgyzstan), Cedar (Lebanon), Saffron (Burma) and now Green (Iran) 'revolutions' have involved mostly pro-Western groups or Western-favored individuals against nationalists."
Two days after the June 12 election, Paul Craig Roberts put together for CounterPunch a compilation of brief reports about Washington's anti-Iran activities in recent years:
"On May 16, 2007, the London Telegraph reported that Bush regime official John Bolton told the Telegraph that a U.S. military attack on Iran would 'be a last option after economic sanctions and attempts to foment a popular revolution had failed.'
"We are now witnessing in Tehran U.S. 'attempts to foment a popular revolution' in the guise of another CIA orchestrated 'color revolution.'
"It is possible that splits among the mullahs themselves brought about by their rival ambitions will aid and abet what the Telegraph (May 27, 2007) reported were 'CIA plans for a propaganda and disinformation campaign intended to destabilize, and eventually topple, the theocratic rule of the mullahs.' It is certainly a fact that the secularized youth of Tehran have played into the CIA’s hands….
"On May 23, 2007, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito reported on ABC News: 'The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert black operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell... ABC News."
"On May 27, 2007, the London Telegraph independently reported: 'Mr. Bush has signed an official document endorsing CIA plans for a propaganda and disinformation campaign intended to destabilize, and eventually topple, the theocratic rule of the mullahs….
"On June 29, 2008, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker: 'Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership.'"
There's more about destructive U.S. interference in Iranian affairs but we'll stop here. Suffice to say that the recent Pentagon reports about Iranian support for the Taliban in Afghan and the armed resistance in Iraq are lies aimed at undermining Iran. Tehran despises the Sunni Taliban and supported Bush's Afghan invasion. And, to its discredit, as far as we are concerned, the Iranian government evidently advised Shia Iraqis not to resist the U.S. invaders, as we will mention again below.
7. IRAN, AMERICA, ISRAEL AND THE FUTURE
Before getting into this, and in the interests of "full disclosure," here's some clarity about where our analysis is coming from.
Given our own left political views, we are critical in principle of theocratic regimes and conservative cultural practices as now exist in Iran, and believe that Ahmadinejad has spoken unwisely on several occasions, particularly his comments about the Holocaust and some of his remarks about Israel. We deplore the 30-year repression of the left, and are unaware of any opposition to this practice from the reformers. Our political sympathies lean toward the remaining left, factional and weak as it is.
We supported the overthrow of the U.S.-installed monarchy by the broad forces that fought the revolution led by the Islamic movement headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the removal of Iran from subordination to the United States, and the Tehran government's anti-imperialist policies. Many progressive Americans such as myself would prefer to see a number of social and political changes in Iran, but believe that Tehran's internal affairs are strictly a matter for the Iranian people to determine, certainly not the U.S. imperial superpower and its satellites. Our task in America is to correct our own country's faults and join in the defense of Iran's sovereignty and independence when it is threatened by our own government. Now back to the story:
Iran is not a military danger to America, Israel or any other country. In its modern history, Iran has experienced a long occupation by British colonialism, a political coup organized by U.S. imperialism, decades of painful sanctions, an invasion by neighboring Iraq, and Yankee subversion, but was not the aggressor.
Teheran's development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes is legitimate and within the confines of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel, with some 200 nuclear weapons — protected by America and its entire arsenal — claims Iran is an "existential threat." This is nonsense.
Tel Aviv insists Iran must be stopped by any means necessary from producing a nuclear weapons and delivery system, which it says will take five more years to produce. That possibly means yet another unjust war. The National Intelligence Estimate compiled by the 16 U.S. spy agencies reports Iran does not now have a nuclear weapons program. The new chief of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (who was supported for the post by the U.S.) said July 4 that he had no evidence Iran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Even if the Tehran government ever did produce a nuclear weapon for defensive purposes, an intention it denies, it is well aware that preparing to initiate a nuclear attack would be tantamount to signing its own death warrant.
Iran has several enemies, not just the U.S. and Israel. Some Sunni Arab states within the U.S. orbit are distressed by the presence of a powerful Persian Shi'ite country in the region.
Semi-feudal Saudi Arabia, Washington's oldest satellite in the Middle East, was strongly hoping for the downfall of the Ahmadinejad regime. According to M. K. Bhadrakumar, mentioned earlier, "Riyadh's fond hopes of witnessing the Iranian regime debilitated by a protracted crisis have been dashed." He noted that "the state-controlled Saudi Arabian media launched unprecedented, vicious personal attacks on both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad."
On the other hand, Bhadrakumar wrote, "Meir Dagan, head of Israel's Mossad [spy agency], let it be known that a win by Iranian opposition candidate Mousavi in the presidential election on June 12 would have spelled 'big problems' for Israel. He explained: 'The world, and we, already know Ahmadinejad. If the reformist candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem, because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived in the international arena as a moderate element."
A June 25 article in The New York Times under a Cairo dateline reported: " The rancorous dispute over Iran's presidential election could turn into a win-win for Arab leaders aligned with Washington who in the past have complained bitterly that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was destabilizing the region and meddling in Arab affairs, political analysts and former officials around the region said. The good-news thinking goes like this: With Mr. Ahmadinejad remaining in office, there is less chance of substantially improved relations between Tehran and Washington, something America's Arab allies feared would undermine their interests."
Much of this worry derives from the fact that Washington's unjust invasions of secular and Sunni Ba'athist Iraq and Sunni Taliban-controlled Afghanistan have neutralized Iran's two enemy neighbors, providing Tehran some influence in now Shi'ite-controlled Baghdad.
Obviously, should both these strategically located oil-rich modern states with majority Shia populations bond closely over time they would represent an alliance that could disrupt America's geostrategic intention to extend its hegemony over the entire Persian Gulf region.
The June 24 Christian Science Monitor reported that as U.S. troops leave Iraq, Washington is urging Arab states within its orbit to draw closer to the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, "a Shi'ite whom they have been reluctant to work with because of their perception he's close to Iran but who is, nevertheless, an Arab like them." The paper quotes Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying that "The embrace of Iraq by its fellow Gulf states will help contain the ambitions of Iran."
America's interest now is to restore the balance of power that existed during the rivalry between Iraq and Iran when Saddam Hussein's regime presided in Baghdad, only this time to make sure that the Iraqi regime is controlled by the United States from its colossal new fortress of an embassy in the Green Zone. Recalling the devastation of the 1980-88 war, Tehran justly fears a strong Iraq now dominated by Washington just across its long western border.
The Iranian government is also concerned about the possibility that the Obama Administration will make a deal in Afghanistan that would eventually allow the more "reasonable" wing of the fanatical Taliban to get back into power, reopening the old threat on its eastern border.
Most Americans are unaware that Iran provided help to the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran's main effort was in Iraq where, it is said, Tehran sought to convince the Shi'ite leadership to refrain from joining the national liberation struggle against the American invader. This has allowed the Pentagon, unable to actually defeat the Iraqi resistance, to settle for a stalemate rather than a probable defeat from combined Sunni-Shi'ite urban guerrilla warfare.
Iranian leaders correctly calculated that the invasion would eventually result in the Shi'ite majority finally assuming power in a country historically controlled by a Sunni minority. They also expected that in return for their help, the U.S. would not contest Iranian influence in the new Iraq. On this they were quite wrong.
The U.S. recognizes that a violent regime change is not possible in Iran. Washington evidently has not yet given up on bringing about a pro-U.S. government in Tehran through a "soft" power transition such as the "color" revolutions in countries situated in Russia's "near abroad" — but this, too, may not be viable.
At this point the Obama Administration seems to be settling for a two-track effort to make Tehran more amenable to Washington's diktat, or to increase Iran's isolation if it can't. One track is the New Beginning — less hostility, a little (probably too little) give in return for take, patient negotiations and, in extremis, maybe even an apology for 1953, but that might be going too far. The other track includes continued wooing of dissidents; discouraging other nations from befriending Iran (as Clinton seeks to do in Latin America); putting an off limits sign at the Iraq border; threatening to unleash Israel; and the piece de resistance, if it ever works — building a coalition of U.S. and Sunni Arab nations dedicated to keeping Iran "contained," and weakening it further if possible.
A Tehran preoccupied by internal political controversy that may linger a while may be perceived as an opportune moment for the U.S. to form an anti-Iran axis in the region. This could be one reason why Washington is becoming anxious to resolve the Palestinian conundrum, even if it must bulldoze the far-right Tel Aviv regime kicking and screaming to the conference table. An agreement for a Palestinian state — even if it takes forever to materialize in practice — could kick-start an anti-Iranian coalition possibly composed of such U.S. political dependencies as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, possibly Kuwait and a few lesser Arab nations. And, because of a Palestinian "settlement" of sorts, a suddenly pristine Israel could be invited to join the coalition of the more-than-willing.
This is where President Ahmadinejad returns to the picture. Described as a vulgar bumpkin by the American mass media, the Iranian president is an intelligent, skilled and tough politician and national leader. He knows it may be more challenging to govern during his second term, and is familiar with the danger posed by the U.S. and the possibility of a hostile regional alliance.
Internally, Ahmadinejad has three options: 1. To sharply increase political repression and govern with an iron hand (this is what much of the Western media predicts will happen); 2. to carry on as during his first term; or 3. to make overtures and some concessions to the moderate reformers and the remaining Islamic left. What will he do?
We do not believe Ahmadinejad will select the first option — more repression. He could go for the second option — business as usual. But we think he will either select the third option — concessions — or more likely a combination of two and three. And we think Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will approve.
Externally, Ahmadinejad must be aware that under present political conditions Iran probably will be attacked the day it produces a deliverable nuclear weapon. Iran wants to establish that it has the right to construct nuclear power facilities. Given the fact that Israel is in major violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and harbors hundreds of nuclear weapons of its own, Iran probably feels it has a right to build a bomb as well.
But it may decide, as did Japan, to obtain the knowledge and wherewithal to weaponize through constructing a peaceful nuclear power apparatus as it is now doing, but not to produce weapons. This may in fact be Iran's intention. I could be wrong, but it would be a huge bargaining chip in negotiations, in return for which Tehran would deserve something just as big.
In terms of the U.S., the great majority of the Iranian people — conservative, moderate, and left — want their country to remain completely free of Washington's domination. They will unite and fight for it. At the same time, Iran will benefit a great deal by the removal of American sanctions. While keeping an eye out to prevent U.S. intervention in its affairs, it may be fruitful for the Tehran government to have improved interaction with Washington without conceding its anti-imperialist politics, support for Palestine, or the development of closer relations with Shia Iraq and left countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and others. At this stage it's as obvious as a mastodon on the front lawn that Uncle Sam will demand that Tehran stop aiding Hamas and Hezbollah, which could be the deal-breaker.
There are many pitfalls ahead for Iran as it prepares for either fruitful talks or a tense showdown with U.S.-Israel; it's a toss up which it will be, and we incline toward pessimism. The Obama Administration says it wants constructive talks and to resolve certain problems, so let's see. But all of this is for the future to decide, and for advocates of peace, national independence, and the equality of nations to watch carefully as it unfolds, and to act politically in defense of those three principles should they be violated, as they have been repeatedly by our country for many years.