What Do the Iranians Want?

The priority of the Iranian people, according to the Zogby poll released on 13 July 2006,1 is economy: 41% say economy should be Iran’s top priority, a far larger proportion than those who regard nuclear capability (27%) or freedom (23%) as the most important.  The correct priority if you ask me, as the Supreme Leader of Iran — wishing to check the growing popularity of the President of Iran2 by allying more with the Shark (aka Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) — plots the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization and hopes for a grand bargain with the United States a la Nixon in China.3  In reality, the economically disenfranchised in Iran face struggles on two fronts: to defend Iran’s sovereignty against Western imperialism (first economic sanctions and then war and “regime change”) and to fight for an economy that serves their needs, rather than the interests of what Tariq Ali called the mullah-bazaari nexus.4

To be more precise, struggles over Iran’s economy and sovereignty are inseparable.  It is no secret that the West’s ire against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad originates in part in his economic program: among others, wage increases, lower interests for the poor, investment in education, subsidies for the newly wed, and redistribution that favors rural areas: “In recent weeks, he has proposed a $4 billion national school-renovation program and has raised not only salaries for workers in Iran’s vast, government-controlled industrial sector but also the minimum wage for everyone else.  He doubled government grants for newlyweds and forced banks to lower interest rates by several percentage points”;5 and “expenditures in rural areas increased by as much as 180 percent in his first year as president.”6  Above all, his opposition to privatization has irked the rulers of the multinational empire: “‘I have ordered the economy and industry ministers to stop all privatisations, where people’s rights have been trampled,’ Ahmadinejad said on June 8.  ‘This government does not allow some people to plunder public property.'”7  Ali Khamenei’s aforementioned gambits8 are designed to kill two birds at the same time, placating the bazaari interests spooked by the expansive fiscal and monetary policy that favors the poor9 and making overtures to the West, whose rulers covet Iran’s assets and no doubt want to put the Iranians on a diet of austerity.

How does gender figure in this two-front struggle?  More men (43%) than women (33%) prioritize economy, and “[w]omen were more likely than men to say they wanted a more liberal, secular society.”10  What’s the implication of Iranian men and women’s opinions about economy and freedom?  A movement that seeks to advance women’s rights11 strictly on the liberal grounds of equal rights, divorced from the struggle for economic justice for both men and women, is likely to appeal to only a minority of Iranians who can afford to prioritize freedom over economy (which is why voters rejected neoliberal reformists in the last presidential election in Iran12), thus doing a disservice to women who need and want equality.

Here, the twin success of liberal feminism (prevailing over working-class feminism envisioned by socialist women) — whose goal is the equal right to exploit or get exploited — and economic neoliberalism — which restored profitability by busting unions and eliminating union jobs in the male-dominated manufacturing sector, exploiting women and undocumented immigrants in the low-wage service sector, and getting rid of or radically contracting social welfare programs — in the United States should serve as a cautionary tale for Iranian women.  The feminism that is in the interest of all Iranian women (rather than benefiting rich women at the expense of poor women)13 is not the kind that fits into the ethos of economic neoliberalism, whose results are the feminization of poverty and the criminalization of the poorest working-class men in the United States, but the kind that empowers women as equal partners to men in their joint struggle for political and economic democracy and republicanism,14 i.e. the vision of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.

What else do we learn from the Zobgy poll?  The poll also deflates the wishful thinking that has the Western media portray Iran as divided between the youth who love America and yearn for freedom and older conservatives who hate both, between a largely secular civil society and the religious power elite.  In terms of age-divided public opinion, Iran is far more complex than the West imagines: “[o]lder Iranians were much more likely to admire the American people and society than younger Iranians”; and “[y]ounger and older Iranians would favor a more conservative, religious society, while those aged 30-49 said they would favor a more liberal, secular culture.”15  About religion, 36% of Iranians want their country to be “more religious and conservative,” and 31% of them, “more secular and liberal.”  The country, in short, is more or less evenly divided on the matter, though the religious still outnumber the secular liberals.

What will Iranians do if they come under economic sanctions?  Will they blame the Iranian government and fight for a “regime change” of the sort that neo-conservatives salivate for (i.e., a “regime change” that installs a thoroughly neoliberal and unabashedly pro-Tel Aviv government)?  Most won’t: “A majority said they would be willing to suffer through a bad economy if that were the price the country had to pay to develop its nuclear program. . . . Only one in six would blame Iran’s own government,” whereas 25% would blame Washington and the rest are not sure whom to blame.16  The only potential allies of Washington in Iran are those who are rich enough to have access to the Internet and satellite TV:

Iranians with access to the Internet or satellite TV were significantly more likely than their ‘unconnected’ compatriots to identify the United States as the country they admire the most.  They were also significantly less likely to pick the U.S. government as the one they admire the least: one in three Iranians without Internet access (34%) chose the United States as least admired, compared with fewer than one in five Iranians with Internet access (18%).17

The problem for Washington is that its Iranian supporters are only a tiny elite: “Even in cities, a minority of Iranians are wired.  Only 2 million out of Iran’s 70 million people — about 3 percent — have Internet access.”18

Besides, the Iranian people aren’t a passive target of Washington’s geopolitical maneuvers.  56% of Iranians say Iran ought to be a regional leader “diplomatically and militarily,” whereas 12% say it shouldn’t.  And contrary to what the Western media said, which suggested that most Iranians, unlike Ahmadinejad, didn’t care about the Palestinians, “On one question, Iranians showed almost total agreement, regardless of age or gender.  When asked if the state of Israel is illegitimate and should not exist, 67% agreed and only 9% disagreed.”19  That is good news — and not just for the Palestinians.  To live in freedom and democracy, the peoples of the Middle East — Arabs, Jews, and others — need to replace the corrupt pro-Washington regimes — especially in Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, as well as in Israel, the cornerstones of American hegemony — that oppress them by democratic ones that promote their wellbeing, and the region must be integrated on a basis other than neoliberal capitalism.  Venezuela has taken the leading role in the struggle to integrate Latin America — resuming the unfinished project of Simón Bolívar — on the basis of popular democracy; Iran ought to play the same role in the Middle East.20  History demands a Bolívar in Tehran,21 and the Iranians are ready for a leader who, like Bolívar and Hugo Chávez, has an ambition to remake not just their country but the whole region.22



1  “Inside Iran — Exclusive Reader’s Digest / Zogby International Poll of Iranians Reveals a Society in Flux,” Zogby.com, 13 July 2006.

2  “Asked about the overall path their country is taking, 71 percent [of the respondents] think Iran is ‘headed in the right direction’ — 18 points higher than in 2005 — while 12 percent disagree with this assessment” (InterMedia, “New Survey Finds Polarizing, Hardening of Iranian Attitudes over Nuclear Program,” 23 May 2006).  See, also, Meir Javedanfar, “At Home, Ahmadinejad Admired,” Baltimore Sun 25 June 2006.

3  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei created the Strategic Council for Foreign Relations, a new organ that directly answers to him and that is “chaired by Mr. Kamal Kharrazi, the reformist Foreign Affairs minister of the former moderate president Mohammad Khatami,” and issued a directive to privatize 80% of major state enterprises, “suggested by the Assembly for Discerning the Interests of the State (ADIS, or the Expediency Council) chaired by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani” (“Iran Enters The Liberalism Era,” Iran Press Service, 3 July 2006).  See, also, Karl Vick, “Ayatollah’s Moves Hint Iran Wants To Engage: Supreme Leader Sets Course for WTO Membership,” Washington Post, 5 July 2006: A10.  As Iran Press Service and the Washington Post correctly observe, both moves are meant to check Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has come to overshadow Khamenei and other clerical gerontocrats and representatives of bazaari interests in the minds of the economically disenfranchised in Iran.

The drive toward privatization in Iran is not new.  The first decade of the Islamic Republic set up what might be called an Islamic welfare state, but the welfare state has been steadily chipped away since the beginning of the Rafsanjani years (see, for instance, Roksana Bahramitash, “Market Fundamentalism versus Religious Fundamentalism: Women’s Employment in Iran,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 13.1, Spring 2004: 33-46), and the ascendancy of neoliberal reformists during the Khatami era accelerated the attack on it (so much so that The Economist all but kissed the hands of the ruling clerics in 2004: Stanley Reed, “Iran: The Mideast’s Model Economy?” 24 May 2004), which culminated in the Iranian parliament’s amendments of Articles 43 and 44 of the Iranian Constitution in 2004.  It is true that, in contrast to the most radical neoliberals in Iran and the West, Khamenei and his allied clerics were a little more wary of destroying the welfare state (without which, after all, support for the clerical rule may completely melt down) too rapidly, but the neolibeal reforms during the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations, as well as the constitutional amendments, would not have happened without Khamenei’s support for them.

One of the looming struggles on the economic front concerns what to do with Iran’s dependence on gasoline imports (a strategic liability and a development problem that must be solved) and subsidies for gasoline consumption (desirable for many Iranian workers in the short term, but undoubtedly wasteful economically and environmentally in the long term).  This is a tough one for the populist President to handle.  Iran’s oil minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, who wasn’t Ahmadinejad’s choice, is a leftover from the Khatami era (a deputy oil minister at that time), and he, as well as his backers, is likely to exploit this issue to put Iran once again on the path toward neoliberalism.  Watch out for Washington seeking to reemploy the Solidarity Center — one of the National Endowment for Democracy’s core institutions — for “regime change” if any significant segment of the Iranian working class — especially in the transportation sector where the Solidarity Center already has a foothold among bus drivers — becomes restless.

About the hope for an Iranian version of the “Nixon in China” scenario that exists in high places in Iran, see Jackson Diehl, “Iran’s China Syndrome,” Washington Post, 5 June 2006: A15.

4  Tariq Ali, “Mid-point in the Middle East?” New Left Review 38, March-April 2006.

5  Bill Spindle, “Burning Oil — Behind Rise of Iran’s President: A Populist Economic Agenda; Ahmadinejad Wins Power Promising Lavish Outlays; Inflation Is a Major Worry; Crunch Time at Biscuit Factory,” Wall Street Journal, Eastern ed., 22 June 2006, A.1

6  Javedanfar, op. cit.

7  “Iran’s Inflation Risk,” 7Days 25 June, 2006.

8  Khamenei’s WTO dream may not come about.  After all, when it comes to the Middle East, Washington tends to prioritize ideology and geopolitics over economy (in contrast to its flexible approach toward China), so Washington’s agenda is unlikely to change significantly in response to Khamenei’s overtures.

9  See the bazaari ideologues complain about inflation: “Ahmadinejad critiqué par 50 économistes,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 15 June 2006.  They complain too much.  The International Monetary Fund says that average CPI inflation was “hovering above 15 percent” in 2004/05 and that “[r]eflecting the impact of improved weather conditions on food prices, the price freeze on certain goods and services — including on highly-subsidized petroleum products — and some exchange rate appreciation, average inflation is expected to decline to 13 percent in 2005/06,” though it expects the decline to be temporary and exhorts the government — you guessed it! — to bring it down into the single-digit range (“Islamic Republic of Iran: 2005 Article IV Consultation — Staff Report; Staff Statement; Public Information Notice on the Executive Board Discussion; and Statement by the Executive Director for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” April 2006, p. 8).  Take a look at Figure 2 on page 9, and you’ll see that today’s inflation rate in Iran compares, if anything, favorably to what it has been over the last eight years:

Islamic Republic of Iran: Inflation Rate

10  “Inside Iran,” op. cit.

11  While few Western leftists (whose utter ignorance makes them believe that the situation of women in Iran is similar to that of such allies of Washington as Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia) have paid attention, the position of women in Iran has not been static.  While the faction led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini initially sought to inculcate domesticity in women in Iran, the exigency of the Iran-Iraq war, which diminished male manpower in the workforce, soon compelled reversal: consult Roksana Bahramitash (op. cit.) and Valentine M. Moghadam (“Women, Work, and Ideology in the Islamic Republic,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 20.2, May 1988: 221-243; “Revolution, the State, Islam, and Women: Gender Politics in Iran and Afghanistan, Social Text 22, Spring 1989: 40-61; and “Gender and Revolutionary Transformation: Iran 1979 and East Central Europe 1989,” Gender and Society 9.3, June 1995: 328-358).

Beyond the question of labor participation, “The average marriage age for women has increased from 18 years of age before the Revolution to 21” (William O. Beeman, “The New Islamic Woman Flourishes in Iran,” Pacific News Service,” 27 February 2001), and the fertility rate has dramatically declined, to the benefit of women: “Having dropped from around 5 to just under 3 between 1989 and 1996, Iran’s total fertility rate has again plunged — this time to 2. Iran, an Islamic country, has followed a unique and rapid path to replacement-level fertility.  The speedy fertility decline, which has surpassed demographers’ projections, coincided with the revival in late 1989 of government efforts to slow population growth through a national family planning program” (Allison Tarmann, “Iran Achieves Replacement-Level Fertility,” Population Today, May/June 2002):

Changes in Iran's Total Fertility Rate and Use of Modern Contraception

As for education, women now comprise “60 percent of all university students” in Iran (Golnaz Esfandiari, “Iran: Number Of Female University Students Rising Dramatically,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 19 November 2003), in keeping with the trend of women educationally outperforming men observed in many industrialized nations in recent years

Even on the question of sexual rights, Iran, to the surprise of many, has come to implement a very progressive AIDS policy, “among the world’s most progressive,” in fact:

It still doles out floggings to Iranians caught with alcohol, but it gives clean syringes and methadone treatment to heroin addicts. Health workers pass out condoms to prostitutes. Government clinics in every region offer free HIV testing, counseling and treatment. A state-backed magazine just began a monthly column that profiles HIV-positive Iranians, and last year the postal service unveiled a stamp emblazoned with a red ribbon for AIDS awareness. This year the government will devote an estimated $30 million to the program.

One of Iran’s most acclaimed advances comes from its notoriously secretive network of prisons, where hundreds of drug-addicted inmates sometimes share the same makeshift syringe to inject heroin smuggled in by guards or visiting relatives. In a startling acknowledgment of sex and drugs even in its most closely guarded quarters, the Tehran administration has made condoms and needles available in detention centers across the country.

“Iran now has one of the best prison programs for HIV in not just the region, but in the world,” said Dr. Hamid Setayesh, the coordinator for the U.N. AIDS office in Tehran. “They’re passing out condoms and syringes in prisons. This is unbelievable. In the whole world, there aren’t more than six or seven countries doing that.” (Hannah Allam, “Iran’s AIDS-Prevention Program among World’s Most Progressive,” Knight Ridder, 14 April 2006).

One might say that, while the personal liberties of women of the ruling class, the petit-bourgeoisie, and the upper strata of the working class in urban areas were curtailed by the Iranian Revolution, especially in its early years, the welfare of women below them, in both urban and rural areas, has on the whole improved a great deal in comparison to the pre-revolutionary years.

12  Rostam Pourzal, “Market Fundamentalists Lose in Iran (For Now),” MRZine, 3 August 2005.

13  There are various schools of feminists in Iran, though the sort that the Western media are wont to feature are only those who are wedded to the ideology of secular liberalism, as it is politically useful to create a simple dichotomy of secular liberal feminists versus the Islamic Republic.  There are many feminists who are religious in Iran, just as there are in the West: Valentine M. Moghadam, “Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate,” Signs 27.4, Summer 2002: 1135-1171.

14  What do I mean by republicanism?  The legacy of Machiavelli.  According to Quentin Skinner (Liberty before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, 1998), the essence of republican thought on freedom is that “it is only possible to enjoy civil liberty to the full if you live as the citizen of a free state” (68).  In contrast, the liberal notion of freedom is simply defined by “the Silence of the Law”: “In cases where the Soveraign has prescribed no rule, there the Subject hath the Liberty to do, or forebeare, according to his own discretion” (Hobbes, Leviathan).  Skinner says that the Hobbesian notion of negative liberty eventually came to eclipse the republican one, dominating our modern sense of freedom.  When one holds the liberal, as opposed to republican, notion of negative freedom, one may as well conclude, as Hobbes, Henry Sidgwick, Isaiah Berlin, etc. did, that “individual freedom has no necessary connection with forms of government, since it is perfectly possible for a representative legislature to ‘interfere with the free action of individuals more than an absolute monarch'” (Skinner 98-9).  In this liberal view, liberty depends “not on who wields authority but merely on how much authority is placed in anyone’s hands” (Skinner 115).  What has been lost to us with the eclipse of the republican thought on freedom?  Two intertwined concepts have waned: (a) the idea that a state (i.e., a civic association) must be free — i.e. free from dependence on another state’s power, governed only by laws of its own making — for citizens to enjoy freedom; and (b) citizens must actively exercise an equal right in the making of laws, submitting only to “such Laws as our selves shall choose” (John Milton, qtd. in Skinner 30).  It is this twofold sense of self-government — citizens governing themselves in a nation governing itself — that defined republican freedom bequeathed by Machiavelli.

15  “Inside Iran,” op. cit.

16  “Inside Iran,” op. cit.

17  “Inside Iran,” op. cit.

18  Associated Press, “Iranian Village Gets Wired for the Web,” 6 July 2002.

19  “Inside Iran,” op. cit.

20  Iran’s political economy is similar to Venezuela’s: both are oil producer nations and price hawks, both have relatively well educated populations, both have managed to industrialize, and their per capita incomes are in the same league (Venezuela’s GDP Per Capita is $5,800, and Iran’s, $7,700).

21  As it happens, there is a statue of Bolívar in Tehran, unveiled while Ahmadinejad was its mayor and Chávez was visiting it: IRNA, “Statue of Venezuela’s Founding Father Unveiled in Tehran in Presence of Chavez,” 28 November 2004.

22  The Shiite-Sunni divide in Islam makes it more difficult for Iran to play the role comparable to Venezuela’s in the Middle East.  However, the revolutionary liberation theology developed in Iran — chiefly the heritage of Ali Shariati, a lay man who sharply criticized the clerical elite and taught the masses a history of popular revolts “against foreign domination, internal deceit, the power of the feudal lords and wealthy capitalists” (Ali Shariati, “Red Shi’ism [the Religion of Martyrdom] vs. Black Shi’ism [the Religion of Mourning]”) — can appeal to not just Shiites but other Muslims elsewhere, even beyond the Middle East.  (For instance, Shariati is popular among religious leftists of Indonesia, which explains the enthusiastic welcome that Ahmadinejad received in that country.)  Note, in particular, that the oil-rich Gulf states, which need change more than any other part of the Middle East, have large Shiite populations, with Bahrain having a Shiite majority.  About Shariati’s creative synthesis of Shiism and Marxism, see Ervand Abrahamian, Iran between Two Revolutions, Princeton University Press, 1982.

Yoshie Furuhashi is editor of MRZine.