The “Iranian people” have not spoken.
What’s happening in Iran today is a developing conflict between two forces that each represent millions of people. There are good people on both sides and the issues are complicated. So before U.S. progressives decide to weigh in, supporting one side and condemning the other, let’s take a little closer look.
Who Won the Election?
On June 12, 2009, nearly 40 million Iranians, some 85 percent of the electorate, cast votes for one of four presidential candidates. The following day, the government announced that the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had won 62.63 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a run-off with his leading rival, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was said to have received 33.75 percent of the vote (CNN, June 13, 2009).
“Before the vote count ended, Moussavi [sic] issued a sharply worded letter urging the counting to stop because of ‘blatant violations’ and lashed out at what he indicated was an unfair process” (CNN, June 13, 2009).
Mousavi denounced the results as a fraud and hundreds of thousands of his supporters poured into the streets of Tehran and other major cities to protest the election results.
Was the election fair, or was it rigged?
In the West, we have been conditioned to think of President Ahmadinejad as a kind of crackpot dictator who is now the target of an angry and aroused citizenry. Mousavi supporters are projected as “the Iranian people,” while Ahmadinejad is seen as being supported by little more than the military, the Revolutionary Guards, and the volunteer Basij organization.
This is a misconception, one result of the fact that few Western observers of Iran are interested in the issue of class.
Of Iran’s nearly 71 million people, about 40 percent live in the countryside. For the most part, these are lower-income Iranians. Add to them the urban poor and working class, and you have about two-thirds of the population — the section that economically has benefited the most from the 1979 Revolution.
Ahmadinejad himself comes from the rural poor — a blacksmith’s son and the fourth of seven children, born in the village of Arādān near Garmsar, about 40 miles southeast of Tehran. His family moved to Tehran when he was one year old. Before becoming president, he was the mayor of Tehran, with his main base of support in southern Tehran, the much poorer part of the capital. Despite economic difficulties due in large part to the sharp drop in world oil prices, Ahmadinejad has retained this class support through his promotion of services and subsidies to the poor — programs which depend on the continued state ownership and control of the oil and gas industries.
So, just from the demographics, it seems reasonable that Ahmadinejad could have won two-thirds of the vote.
That view is supported by a major voter survey, funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, conducted three weeks before the election by an organization called Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion. TFT isn’t exactly a leftist group: its advisory board includes Arizona senator and former presidential candidate John McCain; Lee H. Hamilton and Thomas Keen, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission; and former Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist.
Here’s what the survey report’s authors, Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, had to say about the election, in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post just after the election:
Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin — greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election.
But in Iran, two-thirds of the population is under the age of 35, and Mousavi carried the youth vote, right?
Again, from Ballen and Doherty:
Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youth and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, while 18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups. The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. (emphasis added)
So people voted their wallets, not their age or ethnicity — and there are a lot more poor people in Iran than there are those from the middle class.
But the voters use paper ballots, which are counted by hand. How could 40 million ballots be counted in a matter of hours?
First of all, the results were announced the day after the election (CNN, June 13, 2009), not after a few hours, as had been widely reported.
Secondly, there are 60,000 voting stations in Iran. That works out to an average of less than 700 votes per station. Counting that many ballots would take hours, not days. Each station then reported its votes electronically to the Interior Ministry, which added them up and announced the results. So it’s perfectly possible that the votes were counted locally and those results compiled centrally and then announced on Saturday, June 13.
Is that how quickly election results are normally announced? No, it usually takes about three days, not one. However (and I haven’t seen this reported anywhere in the Western media), this was the first year in which the local tallies were electronically relayed to the center, which could well explain why the national total was available so quickly.1
But couldn’t the votes have been deliberately miscounted, either at the local polling stations or at the Interior Ministry?
By law, each candidate is allowed to have observers at the local polling stations, to watch over the voting and the counting of ballots. As for compiling the local returns at the Interior Ministry, an Iranian-American friend who was in Iran at the time of the election told me:
Over 200,000 young and college students and graduates (almost all pro-Mousavi) took part in the computerized data entry and data transfers. To claim — beyond a reasonable doubt — that a grand theft or a massive fraud had taken place, it implies that most or all of these people must have been active players in this mega conspiracy.
It also should be remembered that the “reformist” candidate, Mohammad Khatami, won the presidential election in 1997 when the Interior Ministry was controlled by “conservatives,” and that Ahmadinejad, a “hardliner,” won in 2005 when that ministry was controlled by “reformists.”
What about reports that some voting stations reported more votes than registered voters?
First of all, Iran doesn’t register voters. Voting eligibility is determined by one’s birth certificate. And because voters aren’t required to vote at their local polling station, there might well be more votes recorded than eligible voters at any one station. That’s not proof of fraud.
How about the fact that some of the candidates lost in their own home districts? Wouldn’t they at least be able to count on a “favorite son” vote?
It’s true that Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, didn’t even win the majority of that voting sector. But here’s what Ballen and Doherty had to say about that:
The breadth of Ahmadinejad’s support was apparent in our preelection survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.
So did the vote break down between progressive “pro-democracy” forces and backward, uneducated traditionalists?
The vote broke down between the educated middle class and the poor and working class. On the other hand, the voting survey referred to above found that “nearly four in five Iranians — including most Ahmadinejad supporters — said they wanted to change the political system to give them the right to elect Iran’s supreme leader, who is not currently subject to popular vote. Similarly, Iranians chose free elections and a free press as their most important priorities for their government, virtually tied with improving the national economy.” (By the way, those responses don’t sound typical of a people afraid of questioning their government.)
So it’s not like all the “democrats” are lined up on one side of the struggle, and all the “hardliners” on the other. It’s class prejudice to think that working people are not capable of figuring out their own interests and that bread-and-butter issues might be more important to them than to the better-off middle class.
Mousavi has called for new elections. If it has nothing to hide, why won’t the government agree, to settle the dispute once and for all?
On June 19, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced that specific complaints by the three losing candidates would be fully reviewed and the ballots of disputed boxes recounted. The Guardian Council, the 12-member religious body that oversees elections, announced it would conduct a partial recount of the votes, despite the fact that the deadline for complaints had already passed. Council spokesman Abbasali Khadkhodaei had already said it had received 646 complaints from the three candidates. On June 20, it was announced that a randomly selected 10 percent of the ballots would be recounted. And the Interior Ministry has posted the box-by-box and precinct-by-precinct tallies on its Web site.
But Mousavi continues to demand a whole new election.
Who Started the Violence?
In some ways, the June 12 presidential election was unique for Iran. In the past, some Iranians who oppose the government, both in Iran and in diaspora enclaves like Los Angeles, have urged voters to boycott the elections, hoping to deny the government legitimacy. In the last presidential election, in 2005, the turnout was 62 percent — substantial (the U.S. turnout in 2008 was 61 percent), but not overwhelming.
This year, for the first time, the Iranian government organized televised debates, which seem to have had a big effect on the public. This is from BBC News on June 10: “The campaign at first appeared to be relatively dull, our correspondent says, but there has been an amazing surge of enthusiasm since the first of several TV debates.”
The debates weren’t just lively, they were downright confrontational — at times even nasty. And the campaign crowds grew: “Huge crowds have been out on the streets, as the rival candidates held their last election rallies. . . . The BBC’s Jon Leyne in Tehran says the crowds gathering in the capital in support of rival candidates sound more like boisterous football crowds than election campaigners” (BBC, June 10, 2009).
At that time, the government had a hands-off approach to the large crowds of rival supporters squaring off in the streets:
“For at least 10 days before the elections, the streets of Tehran were the scene of mass rallies by supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, and the government tolerated them,” reports Rostam Pourzal, who was there. “The rallies were really inconveniencing the public in a big way, by arraying against each other at very strategic intersections and public squares in Tehran. They were very peaceful, very nonviolent, but a public nuisance, and the security forces just stood around in small numbers and watched.”
Both Ahmadinejad’s and Mousavi’s rallies were large, but Mousavi and his supporters were confident of victory. Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a former university chancellor, publicly declared that the only way Ahmadinejad could win would be through fraud.
So when the Interior Ministry announced the next day that Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide, Mousavi’s supporters poured out into the streets, outraged over what they charged was a stolen election.
While it’s now unquestioned wisdom to talk about how the Iranian government ruthlessly repressed peaceful demonstrators, Western media at first reported that it actually was the protesters who initiated the violence. Lots of violence.
This is from the New York Times on June 13, 2009, the day the protests began (emphasis and an endnote added);
“Death to the coup d’état!” chanted a surging crowd of several thousand protesters, many of whom wore Mr. Moussavi’s signature bright green campaign colors, as they marched in central Tehran on Saturday afternoon. “Death to the dictator!”2
Farther down the street, clusters of young men hurled rocks at a phalanx of riot police officers, and the police used their batons to beat back protesters. . . . As night settled in, the streets in northern Tehran that recently had been the scene of pre-election euphoria were lit by the flames of trash fires and blocked by tipped trash bins and at least one charred bus. Young men ran through the streets throwing paving stones at shop windows, and the police pursued them.
Interestingly, that story also reported that “… the working-class areas of southern Tehran where Mr. Ahmadinejad is popular were largely quiet, despite rumors of wild victory celebrations.”
Then there’s this report from the Associated Press, also on June 13:
Opponents of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clashed with police in the heart of Iran’s capital Saturday, pelting them with rocks and setting fires in the worst unrest in Tehran in a decade. . . . The brazen and angry confrontations — including stunning scenes of masked rioters tangling with black-clad police — pushed the self-styled reformist movement closer to a possible moment of truth: Whether to continue defying Iran’s powerful security forces or, as they often have before, retreat into quiet dismay and frustration over losing more ground to the Islamic establishment. (emphasis added)
That report continued with barely disguised glee at the aggressiveness of the protesters:
But for at least one day, the tone and tactics were more combative than at any time since authorities put down student-led protests in 1999. Young men hurled stones and bottles at anti-riot units and mocked Ahmadinejad as an illegitimate leader. . . . Thousands of protesters — mostly young men — roamed through Tehran looking for a fight with police and setting trash bins and tires ablaze. Pillars of black smoke rose among the mustard-colored apartment blocks and office buildings in central Tehran. In one side road, an empty bus was engulfed in flames. Police fought back with clubs, including mobile squads on motorcycles swinging truncheons. (emphasis added)
The Iranian police’s conduct has been criticized, as it should be. However, one may ask: would other governments have handled similar protests better? For instance, the U.S. government, whose police forces in recent years have killed Sean Bell and Oscar Grant, who were certainly not “looking for a fight with police”?
CNN, also on June 13, had this description of the street battles:
In the aftermath of the vote, street protesters and riot police engaged in running battles, with stones thrown, garbage cans set on fire and people shouting ‘death to the dictatorship.’ . . . Later in the evening, an agitated and angry crowd emerged in Tehran’s Moseni Square, with people breaking into shops, starting fires and tearing down signs. (emphasis added)
Then, on June 16, there were the first official confirmations of protest-related deaths. This is from the Associated Press:
Iran state radio reported Tuesday [June 16 – P.W.] that clashes in the Iranian capital the previous day left seven people dead during an ‘unauthorized gathering’ at a mass rally over alleged election fraud — the first official confirmation of deaths linked to the wave of protests and street battles after the elections. The report said the deaths occurred after protesters ‘tried to attack a military location.’ It gave no further details, but it was a clear reference to crowds who came under gunfire Monday after trying to storm a compound for volunteer militia linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. . . . The deaths Monday occurred on the edge of Tehran’s Azadi Square. An Associated Press photographer saw gunmen, standing on a roof, opening fire on a group of demonstrators who tried to storm the militia compound. (emphasis added)
While many U.S. activists talk about the attack on student dormitories by members of the Basij, few bring up the protester attack on the Basij compound the following day. Here’s how the Associated Press on June 19 described both incidents:
So far, the Basij has refrained from widespread attacks on demonstrators. But witnesses say the militiamen took part in a police raid on Tehran University dormitories on Sunday night after students hurled stones, bricks and firebombs at police — one of the few violent episodes during this week’s rallies. Basij members used axes, sticks and daggers to ransack student rooms and smash computers and furniture, wounding many students, according to witnesses.
A day later, students attacked a compound used by the Basij and tried to set it on fire. Gunmen on the roof fired on the crowd and killed seven people, according to state media. (emphasis added)
Remember, these aren’t anonymous Twitter reports or photos from someone’s cell phone. These descriptions come from some of the most establishment of U.S. corporate media, before their reporters were banned from covering the street clashes.
However, the media coverage changed noticeably after June 19, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution stating it
supports all Iranian citizens who embrace the values of freedom, human rights, civil liberties, and rule of law; condemns the ongoing violence against demonstrators by the Government of Iran and pro-government militias, as well as the ongoing government suppression of independent electronic communication through interference with the Internet and cellphones; and affirms the universality of individual rights and the importance of democratic and fair elections.
The unsually contentious representatives passed the resolution by a vote of 405 to 1. The Senate quickly followed suit.
Neither resolution, of course, mentioned any violence by protesters.
Having been properly politically oriented to portray the protesters only as victims of government repression, the AP and other corporate media largely stopped reporting on protester violence.
Also on June 19, Ayatollah Khamenei announced that unpermitted demonstrations would no longer be allowed, as they had been in the week following the elections.
Asked for his response, President Barack Obama told CBS News:
I’m very concerned, based on some of the tenor and tone of the statements that have been made, that the government of Iran recognize that the world is watching. And how they approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard will, I think, send a pretty clear signal to the international community about what Iran is — and is not.
The next day, June 20, somebody signaled again that not all the anti-government forces were committed to peaceful methods. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that a bomb had been set off near the shrine of Iran’s revolutionary icon, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, just south of Tehran, killing one person and wounding two. Iran’s English-language satellite channel Press TV reported that the bomber was the sole fatality, but that three other people were wounded.
That day, Mousavi supporters staged an unpermitted demonstration in Tehran. This is from a CNN report on June 21:
Thousands of defiant protesters swept again Saturday into the streets of the Iranian capital, where they clashed with police armed with batons, tear gas and water cannons. . . . At midnight, a stretch of a main avenue near Revolution Square was littered with rocks, street signs and burned tires and trash, witnesses said. Windows were shattered and hundreds of uniformed riot police lined the streets.
Official reports put the number of dead at 10, bringing the total number of protester deaths, according to the government, to 17 — seven shot June 15 while storming the Basij office and 10 killed during the June 20 protests. (I’m not sure if this latter number includes 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death was videotaped and broadcast around the world. She was reportedly shot by an unknown assailant as she got out of her car, headed for a nearby protest.)
Many others were injured, a fact that the government wasn’t trying to hide. Acting Police Chief Brigadier Gen. Ahmad-Reza Radan told Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency that “Families of those killed or injured in the events since June 12 have filed 2,000 complaints so far.” Also, Press TV quoted Iran’s deputy police commander as asserting that 400 police personnel had been wounded in the opposition rallies. And “there were reports that members of the volunteer Basijs were raiding homes in wealthy neighborhoods” (CNN, June 21, 2009).
Anyone who truly cares about Iran and its people has to feel sick at heart over these developments. But if the Iranian government were not so justifiably worried about a “velvet revolution” being fomented by outside forces, would it be responding in the way it is to the protests? We don’t know — but for sure, it hasn’t been given much of a choice.
In Washington, President Obama issued a written statement saying, “The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. . . . We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”
Actually, some of the world has been doing much more than simply watching.
On June 18, six days after the election, the British government froze $1.6 billion of Iranian money in the UK, under the guise of international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy called the elections a fraud. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a recount of the votes under the international auspices.
But in terms of interference, it’s the U.S. that’s been way out in front.
This is from a June 25 story in USA Today: “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 [George W.] Bush.”
That story, published 13 days after the Iranian elections, explains that the U.S. Agency for International Development, which reports to the U.S. secretary of state, had for the last year been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran.”
Pretty clearly, that’s internal interference. After all, imagine how Americans would have reacted if Iran had allocated millions of dollars to “promote democracy” in Florida after George W. Bush stole the 2000 presidential election?
But U.S. interference in Iran is nothing new. To his credit, President Obama admitted in his June 4 Cairo speech that the CIA was behind the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossedegh. That coup, the agency’s first, reinstalled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah, the U.S. puppet who for the next 26 years ruled Iran with an iron hand, setting the stage for the 1979 Revolution.
Dr. Mossadegh’s crime was that he led the nationalization of Iranian oil, which had been under British control since the early 20th century. What Obama didn’t mention in his Cairo speech was that, as a result of the CIA coup, U.S. and British oil companies each received 40 percent control of Iran’s oil, with the other 20 percent divided up among other European companies. The 1979 revolution returned those Iranian resources back to the Iranian people — a development that, in my opinion, is the real reason for official U.S. hostility toward Iran.
Then there were 30 years of U.S. sanctions; three sets of U.N. sanctions pushed by the U.S.; U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war with Iran; the 1988 downing by a U.S. warship of a civilian Iranian airbus, resulting in the deaths of nearly 300 men, women and children; and an ongoing and coordinated campaign of demonizaton of Iran and its government.
And much more.
On May 22, 2007, ABC News reported that
The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert “black” operation to destabilize the Iranian government, [according to] current and former officials in the intelligence community. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, say President Bush has signed a “nonlethal presidential finding” that puts into motion a CIA plan that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran’s currency and international financial transactions.
Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter for the New Yorker magazine who first broke the story about the Abu Graib prison in Iraq, later reported that the Democrat-controlled Congress had approved up to $400 million to fund this CIA destabilization campaign.
The “nonlethal” aspect of the presidential finding means that CIA agents aren’t authorized to use deadly force while carrying out secret operations against Iran. But they don’t have to. They use proxies.
The ABC report quoted above states “the United States has supported and encouraged an Iranian militant group, Jundullah, that has conducted deadly raids inside Iran from bases on the rugged Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan ‘tri-border region.'”
In his New Yorker articles, Hersh reported that U.S. Special Operations military personnel are on the ground in Iran, attempting to foment armed anti-government rebellions among the Baluchi ethnic minority. Jundallah is one of the Baluchi groups to which Hersh was referring.
Then there’s the MEK, an Iranian anti-government, politico-military organization that’s classifed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group, but which is allowed to conduct cross-border operations against Iran from bases in Iraq.
So, let’s think. With large and violent anti-government protests following the June 12 election, is it possible that this vast array of U.S. government efforts — all of which are dedicated to promoting the overthrow or at least the undermining of the Iranian government — wouldn’t have been cranked into high gear to try and influence events in some way? Wouldn’t it try to steer street protests into violent uprisings? Wouldn’t it be easy to promote “propaganda, disinformation” through anonymous means like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter?
That’s not to say that the protests were initiated by outside forces. In my opinion, they represent emerging divisions in Iranian society that are the result of long-standing internal grievances, some legitimate, some not, based largely on class differences that were never resolved by the 1979 Revolution.
But it would be incredibly naive to think that outside forces weren’t now involved in some way. Which is why it would be good not to put too much stock in anonymous bloggers, YouTube videos, or Tweets.
How else has the U.S. intervened?
It’s well known that, to coordinate their protests, Iranian organizers have been using the latest in electronic communication tools. One of these, the social networking Twitter service, had been planning a regular upgrade, just a few days after the protests began. When the U.S. State Department realized that that would have cut off at least a day’s service in Iran, it contacted the California-based company and urged it to postpone the upgrade. “We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication,” said a State Department official. Twitter executives agreed to postpone the upgrade, noting the role of its service as an “important communication tool in Iran” (Reuters, June 16, 2009).
A few days later, Google, the world’s largest search engine, also based in California, unveiled a Farsi translation service. “Google Translate is one more tool that Persian speakers can use to communicate directly to the world, and vice versa — increasing everyone’s access to information,” said Google’s principal scientist, Franz Och.
At the same time, Facebook, the world’s largest Internet social networking service, also based in California, launched a Farsi version of its site. “Since the Iranian election last week, people around the world have increasingly been sharing news and information on Facebook about the results and its aftermath,” said Facebook engineer Eric Kwan (AFP, June 20, 2009).
Speaking of interference, let’s not overlook Dennis B. Ross, Obama’s point man on Iran.
A fellow at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Ross supported the advocacy efforts of the Project for the New American Century, which played a key role advocating invading Iraq in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also has promoted aggressive Mideast policies in his writings and congressional testimony, and teamed up with scholars from organizations like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to craft policy approaches toward Tehran’s nuclear program and other issues in the region.
If nothing else, Ross has longevity. During the Carter administration, he worked at the Pentagon under Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and noted neocon Paul Wolfowitz. Under Reagan, he served as director of Near East and South Asian affairs in the National Security Council. Under George H.W. Bush, he was the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning. During the Clinton years, he was special Middle East coordinator. Now, in the Obama administration, he’s special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, which includes Iran. (Goes to show that, when it comes to the Middle East, there’s not much daylight between the Democrats and Republicans.)
On June 15, Obama officials announced that Ross would be moving to the White House “with what appears to be an expanded portfolio” (Washington Post, June 16, 2009).
What are Iranians outside Iran saying about the protests and the government’s response?
I’m a board member of the Campaign Against Sanctions & Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII), an organization started in 2005 by Iranian expatriates with chapters in the U.S. and Europe. And I can tell you that there is a broad range of positions in that network, from fierce supporters of Mousavi to others much more suspicious about who might be behind the protests and where they might be leading.
But in trying to keep up with the myriad of Iranian-American and Iranian-European commentators, it’s clear that the media is overlooking Iranian voices attempting to offer a more critical view of the protest movement, in favor of those who offer unqualified support.
Take, for example, Roya Hakakian, a poet and the author of Journey from the Land of No, an account of growing up Jewish in post-revolutionary Iran. Hakakian was interviewed July 2 on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program to offer an “Iranian-American perspective” on the current crisis. She was introduced as a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (which, according to SourceWatch.org, is partially funded by the U.S. State Department Human Rights and Democracy Fund.)
The show’s host, Terry Gross, neglected to point out that Hakakian also is a “term member” at the Council on Foreign Relations. Term members are “promising young leaders” recruited to “interact with seasoned foreign-policy experts.”
Hakakian comes from a very narrow layer of Iranian society, one she attempts to present as representative of the country as a whole. In an interview on the Iranian-oriented Web site ParsTimes, she reflected on the Iran she knew before emigrating in 1984: “I left behind a modern society with a strong secular tradition: parties, miniskirts, jazz and blues bands, foreign film festivals. . . . We followed the West closely, especially America — so closely that arriving here in 1985 was no shock to me.”
OK, that layer is part of Iran. It’s the part that Western journalists feel most comfortable interviewing. But while traveling around Iran with a group of peace activists in 2007, visiting five cites and touring 1,350 miles of countryside, I saw other layers of society: construction workers building homes in 100-degree heat along the highway to Yazd; goat herders who shared their tea with us high in the Zagros mountains; the city of Qom with its 100,000 theology students; a young college co-ed in Shiraz who preferred the traditional full-length chador; retail clerks, cab drivers, hotel staffers, restaurant waiters, street sweepers, nursing home attendants, street vendors.
Aren’t they all Iranians too? Or don’t they count? Educated, Western-oriented, middle-class youth protesting in the streets of Tehran are part of Iranian society, but they are not representative of that society as whole.
Moreover, some of these “pro-democracy” commentators making the talk show rounds are actually bought-and-paid intellectual mercenaries promoted by neoconservative institutions in the U.S.
For example, there’s Azar Nafisi, frequently inteviewed about her views on the election and its aftermath.
Dr. Nafisi, a native Iranian,is the author of the best-selling book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which paints an entirely negative picture of post-revolutionary Iranian society. I won’t go into a whole critique of the book here (the better part of a chapter is devoted to it in my book, In Defense of Iran), but it’s important and illustrative to know who Dr. Nafisi is — and who finances her efforts.
Dr. Nafisi is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Founded in 1943, SAIS has long been a bastion of Cold War thinking. From 1994 to 2001, its dean was none other than Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush’s neocon deputy secretary of defense and a major architect of the second Gulf War.
In her acknowledgements for Reading Lolita, Nafisi credits the Smith Richardson Foundation for its “generous grant” that “provided me with the opportunity to work on this book as well as pursue my projects at SAIS.”
Smith Ricahrdson is one of the 15 or so major right-wing foundations in the U.S. and one that has a special focus of demonizing Iran. From 1998 to 2004, according to its annual reports, the foundation gave Nafisi six grants totalling $675,500.
In 1996, Nafisi also recieved $25,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation “to support a series of workshops in Tehran, Iran, under the direction of Dr. Azar Nafisi” (Bradley annual report, 1996). That “series of workshops” was the private book discussion club that formed the basis of Reading Lolita.
Milwaukee-based Bradley is the premier right-wing foundation in the U.S. It’s the outfit that funded the notoriously racist book The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, as well as the early welfare “reform” programs in Milwaukee, the pilot school voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and the overturn of state affirmative action programs in Texas and California. What’s interesting is that Dr. Nafisi, living in Tehran, even knew about Bradley.
In their interviews, both Nafisi and Hakakian misrepresent their own narrow layer as the real revolutionaries of 1979, who overthrew the Shah only to have their heroic victory highjacked by reactionary religious fanatics. And they insist that the anti-government protesters of today’s Iran represent a resurgence of that same revolutionary movement.
Nonsense. The vast majority of the many millions of people who made the Iranian Revolution were working class, religious, and traditional — and who saw the Western-oriented middle class as an offensive symbol of the Western oppression of their country, supportive of the hated, U.S.-installed Shah.
Then there are the hard-line organizations, foremost of which is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Founded in 1953, AIPAC now claims 100,000 members and is, according to the New York Times, “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel.” On its Web site, the organization takes credit for “passing more than a dozen bills and resolutions condemning and imposing tough sanctions on Iran.”
(A cautionary word here: AIPAC is often described as the richest and most powerful lobby in the U.S. That may be true, but it doesn’t call the shots on US. policy in the Middle East. That function is reserved for the oil companies, whose most powerful executives are almost all white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The fact that AIPAC’s goals happen to coincide with those of the oil companies only means that the companies can save a few dollars on lobbying costs. The day that Israel ceases to be useful to these corporate giants is the day the U.S. government abandons Israel. The tail does not wag the dog.)
Another influential organization often quoted in the corporate media as an expert source is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. According to its Web site, WINEP was founded in 1985 by “a small group of visionary Americans committed to advancing U.S. interests in the Middle East.”
Principal among those “visionaries” were Executive Director Martin Indyk, AIPAC’s former deputy director of research, and President Barbi Weinberg, a former AIPAC vice president and founder of Citizens Organized PAC, a pro-Israel political action committee. Weinberg’s husband, Lawrence Weinberg, is AIPAC’s chairman of the board emeritus.
WINEP’s board of advisors include former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger,Warren Christopher, Lawrence S. Eagleburger and, before he died, Alexander Haig, as well as former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle — all thoroughly right-wing politicians committed to U.S. domination of the Middle East (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 1991).
Is the Iranian Government the Enemy?
We’re not dealing here with Venezuela, Cuba, or Bolivia. The Iranian government doesn’t empower the country’s working class. But it doesn’t ruthlessly exploit it either. It’s not a fascist dictatorship. Rather, it’s an authoritarian government that holds a paternalistic but sympathetic view toward the working class and the poor.
It administers a mixed economy in which important sectors, like oil and gas, are owned and controlled by the state. What would be profits in a purely capitalist economy are instead used to fund the majority of the state budget. This is the source of the government’s ability to provide an array of social services for the poor. Not handouts, but a guarantee of medical care, regardless of ability to pay. Free education up to and including the university level. Rural electrification. Subsidies for food, housing, gas, public transportation, airline seats, movies, arts, books, fertilizers, vacations, and sex change operations. (That’s right. Iran has the highest number of sex changes operations of any country except Thailand. Subsidized by the government.)
There are those, such as Azar Nafisi and Roya Hakakian, who maintain that the protests are driven by women fighting against the politics of a misogynist government.
Yes, there are restrictions on women in Iran. All women must adhere to the Islamic dress code, called the hejab. It’s not the “veil,” as Hakakian falsely described in her NPR interview. And it’s not the full chador, or burka, like in Afghanistan. At a minimum, it’s a scarf, jacket, and trousers or skirt, in any colors. Or, if a woman prefers — and many do, especially outside the larger cities — the full-length chador, in black or colors. (This I know firsthand from our journey through Iran.)
At the same time, it’s also true that the social status and economic opportunities for Iranian women have much improved as a result of the Revolution and far surpass those in almost every other Middle Eastern society. In Saudi Arabia, the U.S.’s closest ally in the region after Israel, women can’t run for public office or can’t even vote. They’re not allowed to drive or even leave their homes without their husband or a male relative. They’re barred from many types of jobs.
But in Iran, women leave their homes, alone, any hour of the day or night. They’re truck drivers and film directors, retail clerks and race car drivers, university professors, business executives, and star athletes. They make up 30 percent of doctors and 60 to 70 percent of all college students. And they belong to all classes, they are urban and rural, and no one woman or group of women can claim to speak for all of them.
Women in Iran enjoy access to all forms of contraception. Iran was the first country in the Middle East to have a state-run condom factory. It was the first Muslim country to promote male sterilization as a form of birth control. It’s the only country in the region where couples have to go to family planning classes before they can marry. As a result, the average birth rate is now two children per woman, down from seven shortly after the Revolution. And the average age of marriage for women has risen from 18 in 1966 to 23.7 in 2007(Country Profile, Library of Congress).
Want more? Unlike in the U.S., working women in Iran are entitled to 90 days maternity leave — at two-thirds pay — with the right to return to their previous jobs. All business enterprises above a certain size are required to have on-site day care. Working women with children under the age of two get a paid, half-hour nursing break every three hours.
So it’s small wonder that working-class women tend to support the government, while it’s the more secular and affluent middle class that is the major source of anti-government resentment.
What’s at Stake in the Present Crisis?
The Obama administration is still saying it wants to “engage” Iran in discussions over Iran’s nuclear program. And President Obama told the BBC June 2 that Iran may have some right to develop nuclear power for peaceful energy purposes, so long as it isn’t trying to develop nuclear weapons. A month earlier, in Prague, he said his administration would “support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections” if Iran can prove it isn’t developing nuclear weapons (Associated Press, June 3, 2009).
As a signer of the U.N.’s principal non-proliferation treaty, Iran has every right to develop nuclear power for peaceful energy purposes, since it’s pledged not to pursue nuclear weapons. And there’s no evidence that it is trying to develop such weapons — not from U.S. intelligence agencies nor from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, a fact repeated July 3 by the IAEA’s incoming director, Yukiya Amano (Reuters, July 3, 2009).
On the other hand, Obama also says he’ll seek stiffer international sanctions against Iran if it doesn’t respond positively — and quickly — to his offer to talk. “Although I don’t want to put artificial time tables on that process,” he said, “we do want to make sure that, by the end of this year, we’ve actually seen a serious process move forward” (Associated Press, June 3, 2009).
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel will respect Obama’s attempt to negotiate with Iran. During his May 18 meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu “made a commitment that Israel would not attack Iran at least until the end of the year. . .” (Jerusalem Post, May 19, 2009).
Then, on July 5, Vice President Joe Biden told ABC News that the U.S. wouldn’t try and prevent Israel from attacking Iran. “Israel can determine for itself as a sovereign nation what is in its best interest,” Biden said. “If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.”
So this is an increasingly dangerous situation. On July 4, the Times of India reported that, in June, for the first time in four years, an Israeli submarine had crossed through the Suez Canal as a part of a military training exercise. “The move is believed to have been made as a warning to Iran of the Jewish state’s capabilities and to show that Israel and Egypt are cooperating against a shared threat.” The article stated that Israel has three submarines capable of carrying nuclear warheads. “By using the Suez, an Israeli submarine could reach the Persian Gulf off Iran in a matter of days,” the article stated.
On July 5, the (UK) Sunday Times reported that “The head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites. . . . The Israeli air force has been training for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear site at Natanz in the centre of the country and other locations for four years.”
The same day, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli Air Force “plans to participate in aerial exercises in the US and Europe in the coming months with the aim of training its pilots for long-range flights.” The newspaper’s online version reported that F-16C fighter jets would be sent to participate in exercises at the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, while “several of the IAF’s C-130 Hercules transport aircraft will participate in the Rodeo 2009 competition at the McChord Air Force Base in Washington state.” The paper noted that, last summer, “more than 100 IAF jets flew over Greece in what was viewed as a test-run for a potential strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.”
Aside from war, what else is at stake? Iran could descend into civil war. It could, under outside pressure, be dismembered, like the West did to the former Yugoslavia.
So yes, this is a dangerous situation. And a bad time to be adding to the tensions by attempting to further isolate Iran’s government, which happens to be the only entity capable of defending the Iranian people — all Iranian people — from a military attack.
But there’s even more at stake in Iran’s internal struggle — the very future of Iran itself.
Which Way for Iran?
The current division in Iranian society isn’t just about elections or demands to loosen social restrictions. It’s also about the economy — who owns it, who controls it, who benefits from it.
A big issue in Iran — virtually never discussed in the U.S. media — is how to interpret Article 44 of the country’s constitution. That article states that the economy must consist of three sectors: state-owned, cooperative, and private and that “all large-scale and mother industries” are to be entirely owned by the state.
This includes the oil and gas industries, which provide the government with the majority of its revenue. This is what enables the government, in partnership with the large charity foundations, to fund the vast social safety net that allows the country’s poor to live much better lives than they did under the U.S.-installed Shah. It’s why overall poverty has been slashed to one-eighth today of what it was under the Shah (see Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “Revolution and Redistribution in Iran: Poverty and Inequality 25 Years Later”).
In 2004, Article 44 was amended to allow for some privatization. Just how much, and how swiftly that process should proceed, is a fundamental dividing line in Iranian politics. Mousavi, a tea merchant’s son who became an architect and prime minister, had promised to speed up the privatization process. When he first announced he would run for the presidency, he called for moving away from an “alms-based” economy (Press TV, March 19, 2009), an obvious reference to Ahmadinejad’s policies of providing services and benefits to the poor.
Then there’s Mousavi’s powerful backer, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
“One of Iran’s wealthiest and most powerful men, a former right-hand man to the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mr. Rafsanjani was an outspoken critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the campaign and a supporter of the opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi” (New York Times, June 21, 2009).
Rafsanjani is a businessman who, according to the Times article quoted above, supports “privatizing parts of the economy.” Forbes magazine includes him in its list of the world’s richest people. He’s also an outspoken critic of the social programs associated with Ahmadinejad, deriding them in terms very similar to U.S. neocons. And he’s a former president who lost his bid to regain that office in the 2005 election, which was won by Ahmadinejad.
Does Rafsanjani identify with or seek to speak for the poor? Does Mousavi?
What kind of Iran are the Mousavi forces really hoping to create? And why is Washington — whose preference for “democracy” is trumped every time by its insatiable appetite for raw materials, cheap labor, new markets, and endless profits — so sympathetic to the “reform” movements in Iran and in every other country whose people have nationalized their own resources?
In addition to their different class bases and approaches to the economy, Ahmadinejad presents an uncompromising front against the West, and especially against the U.S. government. This is a source of great national pride, and has won Ahmadinejad the admiration of both Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Middle East — as well as the enmity of their pro-U.S., internally repressive governments.
How Should the U.S. Anti-war Movement React?
First of all, it’s interesting that U.S. peace activists feel they have to react — to events in Iran.
On July 5, there were bloody clashes in the capital city between government forces and anti-government protesters. The next day, “soldiers opened fire on a crowd marching towards the airport, killing at least two. . . . Hospitals admitted many more people with gunshot wounds and staff told reporters there was an increasing number of victims shot by the military during the nightly curfew” (Guardian, July 6, 2009).
No, that wasn’t in Tehran — it was in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, in Central America. On June 28, the military staged a coup against populist President Manuel Zelaya, shooting up his house and carrying him off into exile.
By the way, class was also the issue there — but this time, it was the workers who were protesting: “The impoverished coffee-exporter of 7 million people has become dangerously polarised between the poor and working class, who tend to support Zelaya for his social programmes, and the middle class and institutions such as congress, the Catholic church and the military who consider him a dangerous radical who wanted to perpetuate himself in power” (Guardian, July 6, 2009).
This May, the government of Sri Lanka brutally crushed a 25-year-old insurgency by guerrilla organizations fighting on behalf of the minority Tamils, who charge discrimination and ill treatment at the hands of the island’s Sinhalese majority. The International Committee of the Red Cross called the scene of the final fighting “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.” Some 7,000 civilians were reported to have died since late January (Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 2009).
In Somalia, thousands of people have died in fighting between insurgents and a government that only survives because of the millions of dollars being pumped in by the U.N. and Western governments. U.S. warships off the coast have actually bombed Somali villages, under the pretext of fighting “Islamic extremists.”
Speaking of Africa, the U.S. is rapidly extending its military presence across the continent, setting up an African Command — AFRICOM — structure to train militaries so it can later influence them, just as it has in Latin America, through Fort Benning’s School of the Americas.
But these aren’t the burning issues facing the U.S. anti-war movement, are they? No, the overriding issue now is Iran.
Why? Of course, we’re more aware of it, since we’ve been getting nothing but a 24/7 barrage about an allegedly rigged election, brave and peaceful protesters, and brutal repression.
I find this interesting, because I’ve spent the last three years trying to get U.S. peace activists interested in Iran.
In July 2007, I organized a five-person People’s Peace Delegation to Iran, which toured the country for 11 days. Combined with two years of research, that project was the basis for the book In Defense of Iran. Since the trip, I’ve made more than 30 presentations to peace, community, religious, and university audiences, trying to put the various charges against Iran into a historical, political, and cultural context. Is Iran trying to develop the Bomb? Does it support terrorism? Do its leaders really want to destroy Israel? What’s the real status of Iranian women?
After doing all this outreach — and working with many dedicated activists on the same issue — I was deeply disappointed this spring to see that, of the four major coalitions organizing Iraq War anniversary protests, only the smallest, the National Assembly, raised Iran in its general outreach leaflet.
But here we are today, and Iran is front and center on the movement’s crowded agenda.
OK, so we’re concerned. Now, what should we do?
There’s at least been some discussion of how respect for the principle of self-determination applies to the situation in Iran.
Of course, it’s not true that progressives never interfere in the internal affairs of other countries — even progressives who live in the United States. We protested against the apartheid regime of South Africa. We defend the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia against pro-U.S. reactionaries masquerading as pro-democracy movements.
But the situation in Iran isn’t the same thing. It’s far more complex. The split in the electorate wasn’t a simple clash between good guys and bad guys.
The protesters represent a sizable minority of the population — overwhelmingly young, urban, educated and somewhat oriented to Western culture. They seem idealistic, the women wear make-up, their protest signs are lettered in English, they’re using Twitter and Facebook, demanding more Western-style civil and social freedoms. It’s easy to see why Western activists relate to them — especially white, middle-class activists.
On another level, with or without its consent or even knowledge, this movement is being promoted by pro-privatization forces, particularly those associated with billionaire and free-market advocate Rafsanjani.
Meanwhile, the “pro-democracy” movement as a whole is being looked at by Western powers as the potential start of a “velvet revolution” that could overthrow or at least severely undermine the government led by President Ahmadinejad and backed by the Ayatollah Khamenei, who are seen as obstacles to U.S. domination of the region because of their opposition to U.S. expansionist aims, their support for the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples and the anti-occupation Hamas and Hezbollah forces, and their increasingly close ties with leftist governments in Latin America.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the protesters are all reactionaries or dupes, or that they don’t have any legitimate grievances, or that we need to offer a blanket endorsement for everything the Iranian government is now doing internally.
But it does mean that those who are calling for support for the pro-Mousavi protesters aren’t even doing favor to young urban Iranians who want more democratic rights if they obscure the pro-privatization goals of Mousavi’s powerful backers — the antithesis of democracy.
And they aren’t just opposing the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — they’re also opposing millions of working-class Iranians who are trying to defend the social programs that have greatly improved their standard of living, programs that depend on the state ownership of the oil and gas industries.
You can’t divorce a “human rights” issue from its political context. The pro-protest resolutions and open letters to the Iranian government now circulating in the U.S. and UK peace movements can become a factor in further isolating Iran, which will lead to more sanctions and the increased possibility of a military attack by the U.S. or Israel.
The political struggle taking place in Iran today is not like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, in which outside progressives correctly intervened. It’s unfolding within a country whose government is opposed to U.S. imperialism and so is targeted by it. The protesters represent one important section of the Iranian people — but it’s one section, not the whole country, and certainly not the majority. It’s a largely middle-class movement backed by the richest pro-“free market” forces in Iran, who themselves are far less concerned about “democracy” than promoting the full privatization of the economy.
At the same time, there is widespread support, even among Ahmadinejad supporters, for greater personal freedoms. So these are complex issues — ones that only the Iranian people have the right to decide.
Given all these contradictions, it’s not correct for non-Iranians to pick sides — particularly those of us who live in the very country that is both targeting the Iranian government and cheering on the anti-government movement.
Our responsibility is to strongly reiterate and demonstrate our opposition to any military attacks, sanctions, or any outside interference in the internal affairs of Iran — including by the peace movement.
If we are successful in reaching that goal, the Iranian people will prove perfectly capable of working out their own destiny for themselves.
1 This information is from Rostam Pourzal, former president of the U.S. chapter of the Campaign Against Sanctions & Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII), who was in Tehran before, during and just after the election.
2 In Farsi, “Death to. . .” is closer to “Down with. . .” than an actual call for someone’s death — something to remember when you hear the slogans “Death to America” or “Death to Israel.”
Phil Wilayto is an activist based in Richmond, Va. A civilian organizer in the Vietnam-era GI Movement, he is a co-founder of the Richmond-based Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, the Virginia Anti-War Network and the Virginia People’s Assembly; a board member of the Campaign Against Sanctions & Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII); editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper; and author of In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S. Peace Delegation’s Journey through the Islamic Republic (available from Defenders Publications, Inc. at www.DefendersFJE.org/dpi). Wilayto can be reached at <DefendersFJE@hotmail.com>.