The World Left and the Iranian Elections

The recent elections in Iran, and the subsequent challenges to their legitimacy, have been a matter of enormous internal conflict in Iran, and of seemingly endless debate in the rest of the world — a debate that threatens to linger for some time yet.  One of its most fascinating consequences has been the deep divisions in this worldwide discussion among persons who consider themselves part of the world left.  They have ranged in their views from virtually unconditional supporters of the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei analysis of the situation to virtually unconditional opponents, with multiple positions in-between.  This may be as much a commentary on the state of the world left as it is on the state of Iran.

What has happened in Iran?  There was an election.  It had seemingly a very large turnout of voters.  The government announced a sweeping victory for the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Supporters of the three other candidates have charged that the figures were fraudulent.  The two principal bases for these charges were the rapidity and closed nature of the counting process and the implausibility of some of the vote results when broken down by different areas of the country.  The ultimate authority in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asserted in no uncertain terms that the voting results were essentially correct and that therefore the election was entirely legitimate.  He has insisted that everyone acknowledge the validity of the results and cease contesting them.

Immediately following the elections, large numbers of persons descended into the streets to protest the reported results and to call for a recount or a new election.  As these protests gained steam, Ahmadinejad/Khamenei responded with increasingly severe repressive measures.  The Revolutionary Guards and the so-called Basiji (a sort of popular militia) used considerable force to drive protestors off the streets, killing some, and arresting significant numbers in the process.

As of now, the major figures in the opposition, the presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and two key supporters, ex-presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, continue to argue that the election did not produce a “legitimate” result.  They are supported in this by the other two candidates in the race who received smaller votes.

What do these major figures want?  They all claim to be faithful supporters of the revolution of 1978-79 and devoted to the preservation of the existing Iranian Republic.  In short, they are not calling for regime change.  On the contrary, they insist that they are more faithful adherents of the original spirit of the Iranian Revolution than the group presently in power.

How has the world left interpreted all of this?  The present situation in Iran is by no means unique.  After all, there have been massive popular protests in many countries across the world at one time or another for a very long time.  So, the world left has endless analogies to which to compare the Iranian situation.  There is, to begin with, the Iranian revolution of 1978-79.  But there are also Tienanmen in China in 1989, the revolutions of 1968 in endless countries, the so-called color revolutions of recent vintage in ex-Communist countries, a large number of happenings in different Latin American countries, and the general strikes in France in 1995.  One can go further back to the Russian and French revolutions, if one wishes.

To be sure, the “world left” — whatever that is — has no unified view of most of these popular protests.  Indeed, one might say that one of the principal problems of the contemporary world left is its collective incoherence faced with the panoply and remarkable concrete variety of such popular protests.

The reason for the collective incoherence is threefold.  First, there is the long history of disillusionments with the results of such popular protests, especially in the last fifty years.  Secondly, there is the objective organizational weakness today of traditional left political movements in most countries.  (The principal voices of the world left today tend for the most part to be primarily that either of free-standing intellectuals or of activists who are located in very small organizations.)  Thirdly, there is the fact that so-called left analyses differ fundamentally in what they think one should look at when one analyzes concrete situations.

Some look primarily at interstate relations.  What would be the consequence, geopolitically, of a particular government being either replaced by a different set of leaders, or still more of a regime being changed to a regime of a different kind?  In the case of Iran at the present moment, everyone knows that it is in strong conflict with the United States (and to a lesser degree with western Europe), primarily but not at all exclusively over nuclear issues.  President Ahmadinejad is identified with a strong Iranian position vis-à-vis the United States.  Both he and Khamenei have argued repeatedly that the United States and Great Britain have been behind the popular protests in order to have Ahmadinejad removed in favor of someone more pliable from a U.S. point of view.  Hugo Chavez has offered his total support to Ahmadinejad primarily on these grounds.  This is a plausible but limited way to analyze a situation.  After all, few leftists would support the present regime in Myanmar, which recently brutally suppressed demonstrations by Buddhist monks, on the grounds that the U.S. government would dearly like to see a regime change in Myanmar.

Or one can look rather at class divisions within Iran.  Some self-identified members of the world left argue that the supporters of Mousavi are largely middle-class and wealthy persons, whereas Ahmadinejad draws his supporters from the popular strata.  Therefore, they say, a leftist should support Ahmadinejad.  Some other leftists analyze the situation differently, arguing that this is merely a struggle between two varieties of privileged groups, and that Ahmadinejad’s support in Tehran’s poorer zones is largely the result of top down populism (or worse still, of bread and circuses à la Berlusconi).  Still others point to ethnic realities among the poorer strata, arguing that the non-Farsi-speaking and/or non-Shi’a rural areas are left out of populist distribution, oppressed, and hostile to Ahmadinejad, who represents, they say, merely the dominant ethnic group.

In addition, many leftists are fundamentally anticlerical.  They refuse to recognize the legitimacy of any regime that is based on a central role for the clergy.  They also remind us that the present Iranian regime systematically eliminated all non-Islamic left parties from any role, even those parties that supported the overthrow of the Shah.  Tudeh, the Iranian Communist party, has condemned the results of the election, and has supported the demands of Mousavi despite its reservations about Mousavi.

There are two things to be said about popular uprisings wherever they occur.  The first is that it is never easy for people to go out in the streets to make demands on a government to change its policy.  All governments are ready to use force against such demands, some more speedily than others.  So when people do go out in the streets, it is never simply because “outsiders” are manipulating them.  When the CIA arranged a coup in Iran in 1953, it did not do it by inducing Iranians to go out in the streets.  It did it by working behind the scenes with military officers.  One ought to respect the political autonomy of groups who actually risk going out in the streets.  It is too easy to blame outside agitators.

On the other hand, the second thing to say about popular uprisings is that they are always and inevitably a coalition of many elements.  Some of the demonstrators are those with specific immediate grievances.  Some are aiming to change the personnel in the government but not the regime as such.  And some want to change, that is, overthrow, the regime.  Popular demonstrations have seldom been composed of an ideologically consistent group of persons.  Uprisings normally only succeed when they are such coalitions.  But this always means that the post-uprising outcome is inherently uncertain.  So the world left has to be careful in offering moral and political support to popular uprisings.

We are living in very chaotic times.  A coherent world left strategy is not impossible.  But it will not be easy.  And it has not yet been achieved.  The world consequences of the struggle inside Iran are not crystal clear.  The world left should not be mute, but it should be prudent.

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).  Copyright ©2009 Immanuel Wallerstein — distributed by Agence Global.  This article, first published on the Web site of Agence Global on 1 August 2009, is reproduced here with Agence Global’s permission.  For rights and permissions, contact:, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.212.731.0757