Yesterday the Guardian Council in Iran announced the names of the eight candidates for the upcoming Presidential elections. The Council is a 12-member body of theologians and jurists, appointed by the Supreme Leader and the head of Judiciary, with responsibility for vetting presidential candidates ahead of the elections, scheduled for 14th June.
This time the controversy is not who is being allowed to participate in the race, but who is not. The main figures notable by their absence from the eight-man slate were Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close ally of the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani a former president and a political and economic heavyweight within the regime.
In the days before the announcement a wave of arrests targeted supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei. Their supporters were also barred from running in the local council elections which are to take place at the same time as the Presidential elections.
Presidential elections in Iran have never been conducted in a democratic way. Any potential candidate must be vetted by the Guardian Council, and indirectly by the Supreme Leader Khamenei. But the elections are symptomatic, in that they reveal partially reveal the state of the regime and the ruling class.
The latest events are a direct attempt by the ruling Principalist faction around Khamenei and the top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to concentrate power into their hands and to remove all the other factions of the ruling class. They do not think that they can control Ahmadinejad, who clearly has developed his own interests.
But these moves will only serve to further alienate this ruling clique from the mass of the people who are suffering under the dictatorial nature of the regime, and under the severe economic crisis. The only support mechanism Khamenei has left is the brute force of the state apparatus.
Ahmadinejad in the cold
The dismissal of Mashaei as a presidential candidate represents the final break with Ahmadinejad. This has happened just four years after Ahmadinejad had the full backing of Khamenei and the Guards during the brutal suppression of the uprising that erupted in the wake of the rigged presidential elections of 2009. In fact Ahmadinejad was little known before he became President and had it not been for the backing of Khamenei and the IRGC he would never have got to where he is now.
But immediately after the 2009 elections animosity between these two leading figures in Iran began to surface. Despite objectively achieving victory, the regime failed to strengthen itself as a result of the confrontation with the mass movement. On the contrary, it saw a massive collapse in support. This in turn led to deep and irreparable fissures opening up between the President and the Supreme Leader.
Over the past four years this feud has escalated into an open conflict. Dozens of Ahmandinejad’s supporters have been arrested. On several occasions Khamenei – or Parliament, which is controlled by the Principalists – have threatened to impeach Ahmadinejad or even to remove altogether the post of President. Ahmadinejad on the other hand has allegedly been able to fight back by threatening to reveal compromising documents about top regime officials. These are documents which he is believed to have amassed in April 2011 over three days during which he held the Intelligence Ministry under his direct control (normally the ministry is under the more or less direct control of Khamenei).
In February 2013 the Parliament, which was controlled by the anti-Ahmadinejad Principalists, impeached and later dismissed Ahmadinejad’s Labour Minister Abdolreza Sheikholeslami. While Ahmadinejad was defending his minister during the impeachment session in Parliament, he revealed several recordings of Fazel Larijani – the brother of the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani – involving the whole family (one of the other brothers, Sadeq, heads the judiciary) in massive corruption. At one point on the recording Fazel asks for a 30 billion toman (approximately 25 million dollars) bribe for manipulating judicial proceedings.
While the Principalists have made it clear that they will not allow Mashaei to run for Presidency, as his Presidency would mean the continuation of Ahmadinejad in power, Ahmadinejad has threatened to retaliate by refusing to arrange the elections or to leak more compromising documents. The IRGC on the other hand have stated that they are ready to take any measures to ensure that the elections proceed according to the ‘law’.
Last week, in anticipation of today’s announcement, all websites connected to the Mashaei campaign were blocked by the regime. By way of retaliation, security forces loyal to Ahmadinejad seized control of the Information Technology Research Center (ITRC). In the last few days it seems that the wave of arrests of supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei has taken place across the country to prevent them from intervening to affect the decision of the Guardian Council.
For now it seems that Mashaei and Ahmadinejad have been beaten. It is possible that they will try something desperate, but it is unlikely that they will succeed. They are up against a bigger, more organised and – most importantly – a better armed enemy. They are outnumbered and outgunned.
Crisis of the regime – Crisis of legitimacy
Although Ahmadinejad and Mashaei are eccentric men, their regime and their politics are not completely arbitrary and accidental phenomena. Splits and divisions amongst the rulers is nothing new in capitalist societies, least of all the Islamic Republic. The state bureaucracy, permeated by the bazaari mentality of deceit and conspiracy, is crawling with thousands of small and large of factions, circles and cliques all fighting each other for everything from small change to billions of dollars. But at the end of the day, like good bazaaris, all they are after is a good deal and once that has been agreed all parties withdraw.
But after the 2009 uprising the split between Ahmadinejad’s and Khamenei’s factions gained momentum and each developed a logic of its own. Relentless new attacks and attempts to undermine the other party would occur.
Back then we wrote:
“In "normal" times all ... [the corruption] might have been ignored or even accepted, but in a situation where the regime is trying to keep its base, their constant undermining of the system puts enormous strains on the relationship between its different sectors. They are all forced to attack and reveal each other in order to justify their own existence and defend their legitimacy.” Iran: On the character of the present lull and the tasks of the Marxists
Furthermore a deep economic crisis hit the country in the following years. Not only did this keep tensions brewing at the bottom of society, thus blocking the way for rapprochements by the two camps, but it also intensified competition between the capitalists in each camp. The economic crisis broadened and deepened the political crisis.
The ruling clique was in panic. The need for unity was the only thing it could agree on, but the last thing it could get. The social and economic crisis had resulted in an unbridgeable divide in the ruling class.
While Khamenei and the traditional clergy rulers of the country were losing all credibility Ahmadinejad did manage to secure some support. Especially amongst the poorest layers of society whom he targeted with the introduction of cash hand-outs which were allegedly to reimburse the cuts that he had introduced on subsidised basic goods.
These and other populist policies combined with an increased emphasis on nationalism rather than religion showed that he was pulling the rug from under the feet of Khamenei and the clergy and attempting to build his own social base. The clergy and the Guards had to react.
It was clear that this put Khamenei in a dilemma in relation to the elections. If he accepted Mashaei as a president he would be giving a platform to a bitter enemy who was questioning the religious foundations of the regime and thus Khamenei’s own right to rule.
But if he refused to allow Mashaei to run the chances of a high voter turnout would be very low and thus the legitimacy of the election could be called into question. Here Mr. Rafsanjani came to Khamenei’s assistance. Bringing with him the backing of the Reformists – who still do have a certain base of support in the country - Rafsanjani was offering a way out for Khamenei.
Not only was he offering to legitimise the elections, but he was offering to act as a safety valve for all the anger and frustration that has been built up over the past few years and channel it safely away from a revolutionary path.
Rafsanjani has been a key player in the Islamic Republic since its inception. Besides being de facto commander in chief during the Iraq war, he was also President between 1989 and 1997. In that period, after the death of Khomeini, he also conspired to appoint then-President Khamenei to the position of Supreme Leader. Just like Ahmadinejad, Khamenei was initially put in his position, by Rafsanjani, because he was weak and thus easy to control.
During his years in power Rafsanjani amassed enormous wealth through his control over the state apparatus. This was partially through the vast privatisation programme that he began. Besides controlling Azad University – the largest chain of paid-for universities in the world worth around $250 billion – he owned the second largest airlines, controlled the important pistachio trade, owned several oil trading companies, and was involved in the import and export of industrial goods, telecommunication and much more.
He is undoubtedly one of the biggest capitalists in Iran which also makes him a competitor of the IRGC which is the largest economic entity in the country today - they have pushed Rafsanjani aside in many areas. At the same time he is closely linked to many of the most brutal atrocities of the regime, including the famous Chain Murders of the 90’s where hundreds of oppositionist intellectuals were assassinated as well as the execution of thousands of left-wing and opposition activists in 1988.
Therefore Rafsanjani is not a pole of attraction for the people. But after the 2009 movement he cautiously gave support to the green movement and in turn tried to lean on it to support him. Together with the support that Reformist leaders have given him recently, he could have drawn a layer of people, many of them young, with him into the elections.
But for Khamenei and the Guards this was not an acceptable prospect. They could not run the risk of Rafsanjani setting in motion a new mass movement that he could not control and so they chose to block him out.
The upshot is that all eight of the accepted presidential candidates are more or less fully loyal to Khamenei. But by barring the “opposition” and thus lowering the importance of the presidency as a real reflection of popular support, Khamenei has managed to isolate himself. From now on all responsibility will fall on him and that will have an effect on the consciousness and mood of the masses in the future when a new movement arises. By concentrating power in his own hands , Khamenei has far from secured the unity in the regime that he is seeking. In fact new splits are implicit in the situation because the underlying social and economic crisis has not been solved.
The only tool that seems to be left in his hands is to use of the threat of imperialism and the threat of a military attack by Israel to divert the attention of the masses away from the problems at home. Khamenei’s favourite candidate to win the election appears to be Saeed Jalili, who is presently the head of the Supreme National Security Council and thus Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. But the logic of backing Jalili as a candidate is very short-sighted.
By only leaving one stick upon which the regime can support itself, Khamenei has even less room for manoeuvring and is forced to deliberately increase the tensions that exist in the Middle East. This might be able to stave off revolutionary developments inside Iran temporarily, but only at the cost of risking military confrontation from which the regime would suffer and which would undoubtedly lead to its overthrow in the long run.
No Voice For the Masses
In the next days and weeks some of the questions that remain will be answered. For the masses of Iran these elections never had anything to offer. They are suffering under immense pressures. Unemployment has skyrocketed, inflation is close to 100 per cent and whole industries are shutting down.
Despite this the minimum wage this year was only raised 25% to 487 thousand tomans a month (Around $400), well below the 1 million five hundred thousand toman ($1200) poverty line. In any case the real wages for most workers in small companies is around 350 thousand tomans ($285).
In April alone meat prices jumped 60% and the overall food price inflation of the past four years have been 400%. In April the price of a litre of cooking oil has jumped from 60,000 Rials ($5) to 100,000 Rials ($8) – that is, a bit less than the average daily wage of a worker. Dairy products display similar price increases and in fact dairy goods are disappearing altogether from the fridges of most Iranians.
Desperation is filling the streets and the whole fabric of society is disintegrating. But the masses do not have a genuine political voice to air these grievances and lead them out of this crisis.
The Reformists who claimed to champion the cause of democracy had no problem putting their weight behind the same system that is now shutting them out. They had no scruples about leading the thousands of young men and women who fought on the streets in 2009 with their lives at stake, to the same butchers against which they were fighting.
No Room for Manoeuvring
But although the masses cannot be heard it does not mean that they are not there or that they will not fight. The manoeuvring of the regime is a sign of its weakness. Khamenei does not have anything left to lean on except for his army, but even an army has to eat and soldiers have family and friends.
The economic perspectives do not leave room for manoeuvre by Khamenei. Last year the some officials claim that GDP fell by 4%. Car production has more than halved over the last year and all the major export markets of Iran (Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, India) are either in a deep recession or experiencing an economic slowdown. At the same time oil prices are falling because of the slowdown in the Chinese economy, which was the only hope the Iranian economy seemed to have.
The the on-going sanctions imposed by American and European imperialism also mean that the oil production is halved. The sanctions have also caused severe damage to the oil infrastructure which would require tens of billions of dollars in investment if production is to get back up to previous levels.
The country is experiencing a deep slump that has no end in sight. In fact everything points to a deepening of the economic crisis which would also further deepen the social and political crisis. The same centrifugal forces that caused the open split with Ahmadinejad will continue to work and new splits and crises are inherent in the situation. Khamenei is desperate to escape the crisis and create unity within the regime. This is a utopian dream. The Iranian bourgeois are particularly vicious and particularly stupid. They are conspirators themselves and they only see conspiracies. In the best bazaari tradition they do not see further than to the next deal or the immediate next step. They cannot understand the underlying processes in motion.
The crisis in Iran is not caused by Ahmadinejad or any other individual for that matter. It is a reflection of the general world crisis of capitalism which is amplified by the backward nature of Iranian capitalism. The crisis will not disappear because its causes cannot be dealt with within the framework of this system.
The development of a new mass revolutionary movement is implicit in the situation. Pressure is rising throughout society. Sooner or later something has to give. Whether it is through an accident or with a known regime “oppositionist” like in 2009 is not clear. But the masses will find their way and rise again and when they do the same state apparatus that seems so mighty today will fall like a house of cards.