Iran: 'The regime's legitimacy has disappeared'


Iranian activist Parveen Ardalan recently accepted the Olof Palme prize in Sweden for championing women's rights. She was awarded the prize two years ago, but travel restrictions prevented her from accepting it. Swedish-based socialistFarooq Sulehria spoke with Ardalan about the situation in Iran.

Why have the demonstrations we saw in June disappeared?

These demonstrations were a reaction to the cheating in elections. This cheating was not new. Even in the previous presidential elections, there were allegations of cheating. Mehdi Karobi, for instance, raised this last time.

He claimed to have got more votes. But his voice was not that strong and nobody took to the streets.

Ahead of the present election, the regime, in order to legitimise itself, encouraged as many people as possible to cast their vote.

The candidates contesting the elections against President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad were approved by the Guardian Council. They were the opposition, but not the secular opposition. Some of these opposition candidates, like Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Karobi, also thought that a high turn-out would lead to their victory.

They also wanted as many people as possible to vote as they thought a high turn-out would make cheating difficult.

But in my view, a high turn-out also meant the time for a coup d'etat was drawing closer. The regime does not want to lose power, even in an election, and is ready to use the military to stay in power.

The election also became a civil action for social rights. People came out to vote as a way of exercising their political rights.

The regime did not expect as big a participation as occurred and reacted with fraud, which was met with demonstrations.

The regime tried to frighten people through arrests and repression. The regime appears to have succeeded in doing that. But in the longer run, it will be different.

Something has happened. The regime's power is decreasing. The legitimacy of the regime has disappeared. This is important.

The movement continues. We will see little by little, things happening.

If there were allegations of cheating even in 2005, why did people not protest back then?

People were not happy with the reformists. The reformists did not meet their expectations.

The reformists promised that all voices would be heard, but they did not allow it. They promised that secular voices would not be stifled, but they were.

Also, Karobi was not very well known and, on top of that, had been a cleric.

Ahmedinejad was not very well known either. He was a mayor who wore a suit and tie instead of clerical robes. He invoked a populist image, appearing as a man of the poor.

When he won, nobody cared. But this time, we had seen Ahmedinejad in power for four years.

This time, people followed the reformists. Also, Mousavi was not running last time. He was seen as somebody who has been away from power for a long time [having been prime minister in the 1980s].

Ahmedinejad cultivated an image of the "poor man's president". Even some left intellectuals around the world bought this propaganda. But did the poor really benefit under his first term?

Ahmedinejad proved very clever. He played with the psychology of the people.

It was good that he went to many small cities ahead of elections and met people. Talking to people and listening them was good. But it was merely a propaganda tactic, not to solve their problems.

He handed out money to the poor as if they were beggars, but this did not eliminate poverty.

True, it has an impact when people see that Ahmedinejad is giving them something and listening to them. But in the long run, this does not benefit the poor.

In general, prices have gone up. Renting a house is becoming impossible. Food items such as milk, rice, meat and bread are cheaper in Stockholm than Tehran. A kilo of meat in Tehran costs US$15.

The agricultural inputs for peasants have become too expensive. Rice growers, for instance, can't afford them and are turning to other crops.

This propaganda that the poor supported Ahmedinejad is not true.

Also, the complexion of the bazaris (small shopkeepers and merchants) and the poor have changed. The poor are not necessarily uneducated. Similarly, defining the middle-class is not that simple any more. There are bazaris who support Ahmedinejad.

Ahmedinejad does enjoy popularity in small towns. He cultivated that in a populist way. True, many people voted for him, but that does not mean he won.

He uses his conflict with the US to build his image abroad. His supporters try to use this to build him up, but if you talk to people on the street, nobody cares. Also, every time the regime starts violating human rights, at the same time it invokes its dispute with the West over nuclear power.

Right now, the regime is threatening journalists and arresting activists. But internationally, it is engaged in negotiations with international powers on the nuclear question.

There is also an impression that the Mohammad Khatami regime (1979-2005) wanted to privatise state industry, but Ahmedinejad is opposed to privatisation. What's the truth?

Both support privatisation. However, Ahmedinejad says one thing and does the other. The telecommunications industry, for instance, has now been handed over to the military. The military and the militia are taking over the economy.

Therefore, we can say that Ahmedinejad is privatising (and militarising) the economy.

How big are the secular forces inside the opposition?

It is hard to say, as everything is happening very quickly. But little by little, secular forces are becoming big.

In past 30 years, we have seen fundamentalists become reformists or liberals, some even became secular. There have been people who were part the Islamic republic authorities, but became part of the opposition.

I think the future voice in Iran should be secular. I am optimistic, but it is an uphill task.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become an international symbol of anti-imperialism and is playing a progressive role in his country and region. But he is publicly supportive of Ahmedinejad. How does this affect progressives and their struggle in Iran?

The first time, it was then-Cuban president Fidel Castro who shocked us. Ten years ago, when Ayotollah Khomeni died, Castro came to pay his tributes. Then, Chavez came time and again. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega came too. Many leftists came.

Even Che Guevara's children have paid a visit too.

Some leftists in Iran defended these left visitors, saying they need Ahmedinejad's support against the US. Some leftists in Iran said Chavez did not know about the human rights violations. There is a debate among leftists in Iran on the issue.

But this regime is also improving relations with Arab countries, not just with left-wing governments. In my view, it is attempting to become a big power in the Middle East.

There are some who say Iran is against the US and therefore it is good if Iran becomes strong. But then what is the meaning of democracy and human rights?