Iranian elections: Last chance for the "reformers"

The Iranian elections on February 18th 2000 returned a massive majority for the so-called "reformers" around the president Mohammed Khatami in the new Majlis (Parliament). This article looks at the results of the elections and reports the growing movement of the workers.

The Iranian elections on February 18th returned a massive majority for the so-called "reformers" around the president Mohammed Khatami in the new Majlis (Parliament). One of the main factors was the high turnout (around 80%). In big cities like Teheran, Isfaban, Shiraz and Tabriz, the polling stations had to stay open for 2 extra hours to allow everyone to vote and extra ballot papers had to be dispatched to some polling stations. According to The Guardian "many voters, even those in districts that are traditionally conservative, said they were casting ballots for the first time since the 1979 revolution because they felt, for once, that their vote counted" (Guardian 19/2/00).

There was also a massive participation of women and youth, many of whom were voting for the first time. The discontent of these sections of the population with the present regime was a key factor in a country where 65% of the population is under 25 years of age and the voting age is 16.

The so-called "reformists" around the "2nd Khordad" alliance (named after the date in which Khatami won the presidential elections in 1997) took 170 seats in the 290-seat parliament, the "conservatives" took 45 and the independents 10. Another 65 seats will be decided in run-offs in April as no candidate got the necessary minimum 25% of the votes. The defeat of the "conservatives" was particularly strong in Teheran where they only got 1 seat out of the 30 in the constituency. Only former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected for the "conservatives" and there are serious doubts as to whether his election was fair as he got 25.6% of the votes (only narrowly above the required minimum). Rafsanjani was seen as a compromise figure between "reformers" and "conservatives" just a few months ago, and had the support of one of the "reformist" groupings. However he became very unpopular when he started to attack the most radical wing of the "reformers". This is a big change from the previous Parliament where the "conservatives" had 2/3 of the seats in the capital.

However, it is also important to underline that these elections were far from free. All the candidates had to show their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and swear allegiance to the system. The candidates are vetted by the "Guardian Council" which in these elections banned more than 700 candidates from standing. Most of them were linked to the camp of the reformers" and some are even in jail for "offences against the faith". For instance at the top of the poll in Teheran were Jamileh Kavidar, the sister of an imprisoned reformist cleric, and Alireza Nouri, the brother of another prominent "reformist" who was jailed on charges of heresy.

So, who are the "reformists"? They are a section of the ruling clerics that has become increasingly aware that the old way of ruling is not working and who feel that capitalist development in Iran needs participation in the world market and the privatisation of state-owned companies. The massive corruption as a result of the dictatorial rule of the clerics has become an obstacle for the development of the economy and the accumulation of profits in private hands. At the same time, the economic crisis has created a deep feeling of discontent in society and the "reformers" think that the only way to prevent a violent social explosion from below is by making a few reforms from above. They have said this clearly. Hossein Valleh, one of the main advisors to president Khatami explained to The New York Times that "the Islamic Republic will remain, but its content will change broadly".

This explains the position taken by Khatami during the mass protests last July. While the students who supported him were fighting in the streets and being repressed and killed by the security forces he appealed for calm and disassociated himself from the protests. As always is the case with those who try to reform from within, their fear of a movement of the masses is greater than their desire for change.

The "conservatives" represent that section of the ruling class which is more closely linked to the state apparatus and the state bureaucracy, and which benefits from the massive corruption and privileges they get from their position. They think that the reforms will open the way to a movement of the masses which will get out of hand and therefore they want to maintain their regime through repression. The "conservatives" are losing ground even amongst their traditional supporters. They lost the elections in the holy city of Qom and even in Teheran's bazaars, the financial and trade centre, there was massive support for the "reformers". According to Die Presse (Vienna): "Discussions with the dealers in the bazaar point to the fact that for the first time a large part of the Bazaaris did not support the conservatives in these elections. Employing 300,000 and enjoying substantial financial means, the bazaar dating back to the 1960s was a crucial force behind Khomeini and his followers".

But it is also clear that the "conservative" clerics are not prepared to let go of power, and above all their privileges, without a fight. On March 12, only a few weeks after the elections, there was an attempt to assassinate Saeed Hajjarian, one of the top advisers in the "reformist" camp. Witnesses described how the attackers fled on a 1000cc motorcycle. Motorbikes of this size are banned for public use, but they are licensed to security personnel in the intelligence ministry and the police, so everything points to a politically motivated attack. The tensions between "reformists" and "conservatives" erupted in a full scale clash between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (aligned with the country's supreme leader Khamenei) and members of the Iranian air force (aligned with president Khatami) on February 22, just after the elections. According to the Iranian paper Emrooz, the clash resulted in the killing of one airman and the wounding of another 11.

US openings to Tehran

The US and other Western powers welcomed the results of the elections, as could be expected. The victory of the Khatami camp in Parliament will mean an opening up of the economy to foreign capital and the continuation and deepening of the policies of privatisation carried out in the last few years. In line with recent moves in US foreign policy, Madeleine Albright announced on March 17 the partial lifting of sanctions against Iran. American companies, especially the oil companies, are afraid of losing ground in new investment possibilities because of the sanctions. The European Union has already taken advantage of the opening up of the Iranian regime to step up business deals.

Already back in 1995 substantial sections of the Iranian regime started to discuss the need for foreign investment and the partial privatisation of the oil industry and a contract was signed with the French oil company Total. At the end of October last year, during president Khatami's visit to France, a number of deals were signed including the sale of 100 locomotives from French manufacturer Alsthom and the purchasing of four European Airbus passenger planes. At the beginning of February this year the Iranian parliament passed a law allowing 49% foreign ownership of oil refineries and the government signed a contract worth $1 billion with the French Elf Aquitane and the Italian ENI to modernise some of the Gulf oil fields. On February 11th, the Financial Times reported that both Fiat and Volkswagen were considering "significant investment in Pars Khodro, an Iranian state-owned carmaker to be privatised next month".

But there is another, geostrategic, reason for the thawing of relations between the US and Iran and this is related to the struggle for natural resources in Central Asia. The gaining of independence of the Central Asian republics after the fall of the Soviet Union and the discovery of oil reserves in some of these has unleashed an all out fight between the different regional powers (see our article The New World Disorder). Russia, China, Turkey (as an ally of the US) and the American oil companies are all competing for these natural resources and are considering the different options for getting them out of the region. It is in the interests of the US to keep Iran (another regional power bordering this oil-rich region) on their side as much as they can. This realignment would also benefit Iran as Russia is moving to build closer links with former cold war allies Iraq and Syria.

Economic crisis

The main problem which will face the new "reformist" administration will be the economic crisis of the country which is burdened with a $20 billion debt, high budget deficits and inflation at 30%. Unemployment now stands at 16% (up from 9% in 1992) according to official statistics, or double that figure according to international observers, and the Iranian economy is completely unable to absorb the youth which enters the labour market at a rate of 800,000 a year. The International Monetary Fund estimates the number of unemployed jumped from 1.6 million in 1996 to 2.7 million in 1998.

One of the key causes (but not the only one) for the problems of the Iranian economy was the steep fall in oil prices in 1998 in the aftermath of the collapse of the South East Asian economies. Last year's recovery of the price of oil (from $10 a barrel to nearly $30) alleviated somewhat the dire situation of the economy, but now it is under threat again. Many OPEC countries are already talking about breaking the production quotas (Iran recently held talks with Nigeria along these lines) and in any case OPEC itself is under strong pressure from the US to bring down prices significantly. This will create even more contradictions for Iran since 85% of its export revenues come from oil sales.

The election victory for the reformers has raised a lot of expectations among the population and Khatami and his followers are painfully aware of it. The correspondent of the German paper Die Welt was astonished. "The day after the election" he reported, "silence reigned at the headquarters of the reform-oriented Iranian Islamic Participation Party." In a very perceptive way he also remarked how "the people are also behaving very cautiously, no loud honking of car horns as two and a half years ago, when Khatami achieved a surprising election victory, no triumphant marches. Although the youth still pin their hopes on Khatami they are remarkably reserved".

The reason for this lack of joy is clear. We already explained last year (see The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution) that after the July student demonstrations many students had already lost any confidence in Khatami and the other "reformers" because of the treacherous role they played at that time. After initial vacillation, Khatami sided openly with the "conservatives" condemning the students and helping the regime regain control of the situation. They have now voted for him as against the "conservatives", but the most advanced sections of the students and workers already have no confidence in the ability of these so-called "reformers" to deliver any of their promises.

Haid Semati, a professor of politics at Tehran University described it thus: "The economy is in pretty bad shape. People are going to expect this parliament to organise itself and deal with the economic issue. So far, it's been all politics. The reformists are going to be in a majority, people are going to start asking them to do a serious job. President Khatami will be in a difficult position in the sense of having actually to deliver on some of the campaign promises that have been made. The honeymoon period is going to start eroding." (BBC News Online, 24/2/00).

The aspirations of millions of people who voted for Khatami's Alliance for Democratic Rights are closely linked to their aspirations for jobs. Morteza Abedi, an 18-year-old tailor supporting his family in a working class neighbourhood was quoted by Newsweek as saying that: "Young people should have more freedom and young people should be able to get jobs".

Khatami will also have trouble holding together his own followers in the new Parliament. His "2nd Khordad" alliance is a loose coalition of different groups and factions with conflicting interests. While his own Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIP), which is the main group in the coalition with about 70 seats, supports his economic "reforms" and his social policies (the easing of Islamic policies against women, a little more freedom of press, etc.). But the other main component of the alliance, the Servants of Construction Party, which won about 50 seats, while supporting the same economic policies is opposed to liberalisation in the social field. The rest of the "reformist" alliance is composed of a mixture of different forces, including the Islamic Labour Party, some self-confessed social democrats and a few former Stalinists, many of whom would oppose privatisation while supporting more democratic freedoms.

Capitalist analysts at Stratfor warn that "masses of unemployed youth, who have been taught the virtue of revolution, pose a serious threat to Iran's internal stability. President Khatami's government has attempted to reform the economy, but cannot solve the problem by itself and is desperately trying to attract foreign investment". The same report continues by saying that if Khatami's reforms fail to create an economic recovery "Great masses of the population will still be unemployed and disenchanted with the clerical regime's repression. Demands for jobs, reforms and Westernization will develop into criticism and rebellion against the government. This will be a much more intense version of the current "culture wars" as the elite attempt to hold onto power and justify the regime at the same time. The potential intensity of the conflict ranges from street protests and repression to near civil war." (Stratfor's "Iran's strategic focus", March 7, 2000)

Workers on the move

The movement of the masses went into a certain lull after the brutal repression of last July's demonstrations. We said last year that "after the first upheavals, it appears that reaction is once again firmly in the saddle. But such a conclusion would be erroneous. The masses are pausing to take stock of the situation. The victory of the regime is extremely fragile, its base is narrower than ever before". (The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution). Since then not everything has been quiet. On December 13 some 10,000 students demonstrated at Tehran university to support jailed reformist Abdollah Nouri, after president Khatami had declared in a question and answer session with students that they had the right to protest. In early March, students at the Azad University of Shahr-e Ray in southern Tehran clashed with security forces in a protest against repression and the harrassment of women.

And even more important, the working class is increasingly entering into the scene with protests, strikes and demonstrations. On Monday 17 January 2000 about 2,000 workers at the Abadan oil refinery in the South of the country went on strike. According to a report from an opposition group the strike "created an atmosphere of agitation and struggle amongst oil workers in the South of Iran". One of the main reasons for the strike was to protest against the "Reform of Oil Structure" plan which includes making redundant 40,000 of the 140,000 oil workers. The strike of the Abadan oil workers lasted for a week and after receiving some guarantees from the management they went back to work but warned that they would give the authorities a one month period to consider some of the other demands. At the same time there was another protest of the Ahvaz oil workers which forced the Oil Minister to travel to the Ahvaz, address the workers' assembly and promise that "the reform of the oil structure does not mean workers will be made redundant." The Financial Times of March 2 also reported how "Iranian security forces on Friday took control of the small southern oil-town of Haftgel, ending a two-month stand-off that followed a revolt by residents demanding a greater share of oil revenues". In a separate incident in early March, 400 workers at a wood factory in Saveh staged a demonstration to protest against the non-payment of their wages.

A new set of laws passed by the Iranian parliament just before the elections has also sparked labour demonstrations. The new laws will exempt small businesses (those with less than five employees) from the Islamic Labour Law, affecting some 2.8 million workers. Thousands of workers demonstrated outside Parliament on March 8th against this new law which will mean that workers affected will lose a wide range of rights: maternity leave, maximum length of the working day, the use of nurseries and other child-care facilities, bonuses, pension rights, medical care, severance payments and compensation for workplace accidents. This is the second time that Parliament has tried to pass this law. The first time, in June last year it was only aimed at businesses with less than 3 employees. At that time strong labour protests prevented the passing of the law. Now, the official news agency IRNA reports that many groups of workers have threatened to go out on strike if the new bill is not revoked.

The movement of the powerful Iranian working class is the key to the situation. The masses having voted for change will be bitterly disappointed with the new government and this time the "reformers" will not have the excuse of their lack of power, now they have the presidency and a clear majority in Parliament. The students and the labour movement will not wait quietly for the "reformers" to deliver but will take matters into their own hands, against repression, for democratic rights, for jobs and better conditions at work, and this will inevitably bring them into conflict with the liberals. Democracy for the masses also means jobs, housing, education, etc. For the liberals it is just their democratic right to exploit the workers without restrictions. In this process, the Iranian masses will learn the need for a socialist programme, one which links the struggle against repression with the struggle for jobs, housing and decent living conditions.

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