Iranians are going to the polls today in presidential elections. President Hassan Rouhani has been leading the polls followed by the main principlist unity candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. Yet the result is not the most important aspect here—the elections have brought forward the enormous contradictions in Iranian society.
A particularly fierce presidential race has ended. During the past weeks the two major factions of the regime have launched attack upon attack against each other. On paper, the opposition to Rouhani was quite harmless. It was composed mainly of Ebrahim Raisi, a relative freshman in politics, and the principlist, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a regular loser in presidential elections.
Raisi, although a principlist candidate, is effectively a hardliner who has been said to be a candidate for taking over as supreme leader, once Khamenei dies—which is likely to happen soon. He has been appointed as caretaker of the Razavi Endowment, an extremely influential and wealthy foundation, which is reported to sit on up to $20 billion worth of assets in the form of land and industrial companies. The endowment does not pay taxes and is exempt from any kind of oversight. Raisi was also involved in the 1988 executions of thousands of Mujahedin, Communists, and other regime oppositionists. He is the representative of the Principlist/Hardline factions of the regime centred around the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards, and a large part of the clergy.
But Raisi’s reactionary credentials did not stop him from trying to present himself as a man of the people. On many occasions he mentioned how he “had tasted real poverty”. His main campaign promise was to triple the cash handouts that a large section of the population receive. Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who withdrew a few days ago in favour of Raisi, claimed that he represents the 96 percent against the parasitical 4%’ers who are currently in government. The two pointed to the corruption in government such as with the recent payslip scandal which revealed the fantastic wages of CEOs while millions of the poorest are living in desperate conditions. They railed against the rich friends of the government who do not pay taxes and who are engaged in smuggling and other dodgy speculative enterprises.
Of course it was easy for Rouhani and other liberal candidates to point out that Raisi—who is a billionaire!—and Qalibaf are not much different. The Revolutionary Guards, which back the two, have been the biggest smuggling network in Iran, and its $100 billion conglomerate is, just like the Razavi Endowment, completely exempt from all supervision and taxation. In fact, throughout the campaign, accusations of corruption, greed, nepotism, and tax-evasion flew between the two camps in an unprecedented scale. All the unspoken public secrets of the regime were aired in an escalating tit-for-tat, which at times seemed to go far beyond the carefully engineered boundaries set by the regime.
Rouhani and his Reformist backers, Mostafa Hashemi Taba and Eshaq Jahangiri, attacked the hardliners for their bullying, violent crackdowns, and suppression of democratic rights. In a publicly televised debate, Rouhani said that, “we are stifling culture by censorship and undemocratic behaviour.” Rouhani went so far as to publicly denounce Raisi for his involvement in the 1988 executions—an unprecedented public critique by a regime insider—although his own role in suppression of dissent, as the representative of Khamenei in the Supreme National Security Council, is murky at best. Jahangiri also revealed how Qalibaf was hosting parties where “$100 ice creams were being served,” during the toughest sanction years. Rouhani also revealed how he had personally stopped the Supreme National Security Council from pursuing a case against Qalibaf, who during his tenure as commander of national police from 2000–05 is believed to have received bribes from narcotraffickers who were transporting drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe via Iran. This says just as much about Rouhani as it does about Qalibaf.
A regime in crisis
"Why is everyone acting like they are in opposition?"—These were the revealing words of a startled Hashemi Taba, during the first televised presidential debate. The simple man was attacking his opponents, but could not see the irony in that he was himself in the camp of the incumbent.
The severe clashes between the two camps reveal a deeper malaise. During the campaigns, all the candidates took an anti-establishment attitude during the campaign, blaming each other for the desperate situation of the masses.
When Hassan Rouhani was elected 4 years ago, it was on the basis of an explosive last surge in support, revealing the tensions within Iranian society. Millions of people from all layers of society rallied around his promises to end the securitised atmosphere, freeing political prisoners, increasing democratic rights, ending Iran’s isolation, and raising living standards. His promise of “not just turning the wheels of centrifuges, but also the livelihood of the people” resonated with millions of workers and poor. But four years later, ordinary people are still struggling.
True, the state of siege that prevailed in the last 4 years of the Ahmadinejad administration has been lifted. The streets are no longer militarised, and arbitrary arrests and harassment have been reduced, albeit not abandoned. State security forces have taken a step back, allowing a certain room for the masses to breathe, yet nothing has fundamentally changed. The two main focal points of the Green Movement, the once-President Mirhossein Mousavi, and the previous MP, Mehdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest, and many political prisoners have not been released. The government has issued more permits for publications, yet censorship, surveillance, and crackdowns on dissent still persist and have led to widespread demoralisation with the government amongst many of its supporters.
Meanwhile, official unemployment has risen to 12.4 percent, up 1.4% for last year. In the cities, the figure was 13.7%. Youth unemployment stands at 25.9%, up 2.6% compared to last year. The real figure is, of course, far higher. The Statistical Centre of Iran puts labour force participation for ages 10 years (!) and above at a mere 39.4%. Poverty figures have risen dramatically over the past years to around 33 percent, according to official figures. In fact, the minimum wage, which is more or less the same as the median income of Iranians, stands at 929,931 toman (approx. $290). This is half or one-third of the official poverty line for an average family. According to survey data, about 40% of wage earners earn below the minimum wage, most of them in rural areas.
Only two years ago the central bank put the necessary income level to sustain an average Iranian family at 2.93 million toman. Over the past 10 years rampant inflation, which at times has stood at almost 100%, has eaten up huge parts of incomes. Yet this year, the minimum wage rise was kept at 14.2 percent, around the same level as official inflation, but far below the rise in prices on products bought by poor families.
Considering that Iran’s official growth rate has been above 6 percent last year, these figures are damning. In an attempt to introduce a better business climate, Rouhani has temporarily tamed inflation, which now stands at around 10 percent. But he did so by raising energy prices by about 50%, which hurt the poor more than the rich, without compensation. Thus, the depression persists and inequality is rising. Even the universal healthcare insurance that the Rouhani government introduced has seen rising tariffs making it more inaccesible as time passes.
The desperate situation amongst the workers came to the fore during the campaign period. When Rouhani was speaking in Tehran’s industrial suburb, Karaj, on the occasion of May Day, his speech was disrupted by the workers who were shouting slogans about their desperate situation. “It's a day of mourning, the lives of workers are heading for ruin,” the workers shouted. Later, when Rouhani visited the site of a mining accident, angry miners attacked him with similar slogans.
May Day Video—see from 16 seconds onwards
At the site of the mine, where more than 40 workers were killed, one worker told Rouhani, “this is not enough anymore [Shout from the crowd to Rouhani: “everything you say is a lie”] . . . I have worked here for 22 years. None of you knows what a miner even means, and now you suddenly remember us and come and visit us? . . . a few years ago we went to the court in Azadshahr to complain. Your colleagues dispersed us with batons. Last year we complained to the police that we had not been paid for 14 months . . . I don’t even have 10,000 [toman] to take my child to the doctor. Mr President, a steelworker gets 1,000,000 tomans in wages. Honestly, with 1,000,000 toman to live with, what can you do?” The attacks continued in an extremely heated and emotional mood. It is a scene worth watching (See video below)
Raisi and Qalibaf are trying demagogically to tap into this mood amongst the workers and the poor. Rouhani, on the other hand, was forced to move sharply to the left during the campaign in order to appeal to the youth and middle layers who are fed up with the dictatorship and the lack of democracy. None of the candidates were trying to present themselves as defenders of the Islamic Republic, but rather as outsiders and underdogs fighting for the people against the status quo.
Two factions, one ruling class
This reveals the deep crisis of the regime, of which all of the main candidates are senior members. They represent two main wings of the same ruling class. In real terms they have full agreement on a whole series of vital issues such as foreign policy and the economy. For instance, Mr Raisi reiterated several times that “of course [there is agreement] on all the economic policies in the long term.” He is in full agreement with privatisations and the creation of a better “business environment.” He also fully agreed with sticking to the US-Iran nuclear deal, which he only mildly criticised. On foreign policy in the region, which is turning increasingly aggressive, the two factions are also in full agreement.
The key differences revolve around two issues: 1. How to preserve the regime; and 2. How to divide the wealth in the country.
The principlist camp claims that a Keynesian economic-benefit regime is needed to stop the workers and poor from rebelling. But Mr Rouhani correctly points out that such concessions to the masses, under the conditions of the crisis of Iranian capitalism, will only lead to inflation and further crises. In fact, the liberal camp wishes to keep wages down in order to attract investments. Of course, in the conditions of the world economic crisis, a sustained turnaround of the economy is hard to imagine. Rouhani warned that “in some country there was a 99% movement, now we [hinting at Qalibaf—HA] are making a 96% movement? . . . We shouldn't do this kind of thing. Divisions in society destroy the security of the society. Whenever we have been united, we have been successful.” This was a message to the ruling class and not the masses. Seeing the dire economic perspectives, Rouhani correctly stated that mobilising the workers and the poor on a class basis could risk escaping their control and threaten the “security” of the regime. Of course, the opposing side make the same claim.
The Rouhani wing proposes instead to ease some of the pressures on the masses by granting them some democratic rights, something the principlists correctly fear could lead to the situation slipping out of control, with revolutionary consequences. On the other hand, the principlists lean towards cracking down harder and tightening control—which Rouhani’s wing correctly claims could lead to an uncontrollable explosion, as during the Arab Spring. The dilemma facing the two factions reveals the enormous pressures which are building beneath the surface.
At the same time, the two factions represent different wings of the capitalist class. The liberals and the moderates are closer to the private enterprises which will benefit greatly from opening up the system and from a deal with the west. The principlists, on the other hand, are based in the semi-statal economy dominated by foundations, endowments, and the revolutionary guards. They have been living off state contracts, and essentially have been milking the money from oil. They have no fundamental problems with a deal with the West, except that the present deal keeps sanctions on their entities such as the Guards. this is the key reason behind talks about a bad deal with the US—because it cuts the principlists out.
No mass alternative
None of the candidates represent the true voice of the downtrodden and oppressed people of Iran. By raising sharp criticism of the system and by raising democratic demands at his mass meetings, Mr Rouhani has managed to demagogically rally the most radical layers of the youth behind him, those who supported the Green Movement in 2009 and later on the semi-outlawed Reformist movement. But Mr Rouhani has repeatedly emphasised himself that he is no Reformist—that is, he does not seek, however gradually, to fundamentally change the system. He is a loyal representative of the regime and has been so for decades.
Meanwhile, the Reformist liberals, who claim to be representing the pro-Democracy movement and the masses that took to the streets in 2009, are clinging harder to the regime than ever before. Like their Cadet cousins from Russia at the turn of the previous century, they are more afraid of the masses than they are of the reactionary theocracy, which they don’t hesitate to curse at when the curtains are down. In the past few months, the most prominent Reformist leader, Mohammad Khatami, has been calling for a “national reconciliation” between “all layers” of society! He has called for the freeing of Mousavi and Karroubi in return for rallying their movement behind Khamenei to face the increasingly aggressive US policies and the reimposition of a sanction regime against Iran.
During the election, Jahangiri, a Reformist who had joined the race to rally the youth and other opposition layers behind Rouhani, continued the call for reconciliation between the regime and the opposition by saying that “by bringing together all of the political factions and all the capacities of the country, [we can] develop a model which secures the future of the country and expel the ominous shadow of war from the region. With this model, by agreeing with national dialogue, we can solve all of the complex and difficult problems facing the people, one by one. My method for the solution of the crisis is confidence building between the pillars of the regime and the use of all capabilities.”
This petty excuse for an opposition voice is pushing for uniting the angry and restless youth with the same people who were butchering them in the streets in 2009. Very democratic, indeed. The Reformists have given up on any idea of an independent position, and have become nothing more than a left cover for the Rouhani (and previously Rafsanjani) business faction.
For the masses there is no real choice in these elections. While the race in itself has been more or less “above board,” one cannot say the elections are democratic in any manner. The suppression of all independent political and workers organisations and the rigid vetting system which narrowed down a list of thousands of candidates to 6 are there to assure that only trusted members of the ruling class are allowed to stand. Thus, “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them.”
A safety valve on a powderkeg
For the regime, the elections are an important safety valve to ease a tiny fragment of the pressure within society and give it a vague aura of democracy. Every four years, for a few weeks, the atmosphere is opened up, gatherings and mobilisations are allowed, political dissent is tolerated (within limits), and room is made for the masses to breathe and vent their mounting sorrows and frustrations. But their frustrations are not channelled towards addressing their real problem, that is, the regime itself, but instead to rally behind one of its proposed candidates and thus behind the regime itself.
But this is a dangerous game. With the rising tensions and the continuous decline of the authority of the regime, elections could become the impulse to a wider movement, such as the one we saw in 2009. Both factions are warning the other of this: “don’t go too far,” they say to each other, but they are not always masters of the situation. At many of the rallies for Rouhani, the slogans from the participants have been far more radical than what Rouhani himself has put forward. The case is the same with the workers who attacked Rouhani on several occasions. There is an explosive mood, which given the lack of a leadership, could find an outlet through the legal channels opened up by the regime.
Without raising illusions in any of the candidates, it would be the the duty of Marxists to participate in the movement on the ground and push it as far as possible and to raise the most consistent economic and democratic demands amongst the masses. In the conditions of Iran today, any spark could lead to a mass movement which, once it starts, will acquire a logic of its own.
Iran is a powder keg waiting to explode. The regime is at a dead end. All of its factions are calling for an end to corruption, in order to save the regime, and yet corruption is at a historical high. Meanwhile, the masses are increasingly angry and desperate. Within a capitalist system their situation will only worsen. For decades they have endured one government after the other, but little has changed. The only way to impose any kind of real change, whether democratic or economic, is by taking matters into their own hands and overthrowing the whole of the rotten capitalist ruling class.