IRAN: A vote against neoliberalism

July 6, 2005

Doug Lorimer

In a result that has stunned most Western and Iranian political commentators, on June 24 Iranian voters decisively rejected business-backed candidate Ayallotah Hashemi Rafsanjani, an advocate of neoliberal "free-market" economic policies and resumption of diplomatic relations with the US. Instead, Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former Revolutionary Guard and civil engineer, came out ahead in the second round of Iran's presidential elections.

Ahmadinejad won 62% of the 22 million votes cast, giving him a landside victory over the Rafsanjani, the country's richest politician, second-highest-ranked cleric and Iran's president from 1989-91.

Of the seven candidates allowed by the unelected, Muslim cleric-dominated, ruling Council of Guardians to contest the first round of the presidential election, held on June 17, the 70-year-old Rafsanjani scraped in as front-runner, with 21% of the 29 million votes cast. However, according to a June 20 Associated Press report, this was "barely half the 40% most political analysts had predicted he would get". Ahmadinejad came in an unexpected second, with 19.5%.

Since none of the seven candidates scored the necessary 51% to become an outright winner, a run-off election — the first Iran's history — had to be held between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad.

The big losers in the first round were the so-called reformers aligned with out-going President Mohammad Khatami. The reformers want to weaken the clergy's control over Iran's political and cultural life, accelerate the privatisation of Iran's heavily nationalised industries — a product of the popular revolution that ousted the US-backed absolutist monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Palhavi in 1979 — and resume diplomatic and business relations with the US.

The most strongly identified reformer candidate, Mustafa Mion, scored only 13% of the vote, trailing fifth behind moderate reformer and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi (17%) and the conservative former national police chief Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf (14%).

When Khatami ends his term in August, the reformers will lose their only prominent position in Iran's political system, having won only a small minority of seats in last year's parliamentary elections.

After the first round of the presidential election, most of the reformer political parties and media commentators urged their supporters to vote for Rafsanjani in the run-off poll. The June 25 Beirut Daily Star reported that Rafsanjani "has received a flood of support from progressive and business groups seeking to protect the liberalising [economic] reforms since the late 1990s...

"Rafsanjani backers believe he will continue the Western-friendly reforms of Khatami, in business and cultural openings, and youth-supported freedoms such as dating, music and colourful head-scarves for women."

Ahmadinejad's election platform

While affirming his support for Iran's post-1979 cleric-dominated capitalist political system, Ahmadinejad's "list of promises" focussed on 'higher wages, more rural development funds, expanded health insurance and more social benefits for women", the June 25 Daily Star reported.

During the election campaign, Ahmadinejad dismissed claims made by the reformers that he would introduce a "Taliban-style" government, with strict gender segregation and making women wear the head-to-toe chador. "The country's true problems are unemployment and housing, not what to wear", he told state television on June 22.

In the same TV interview he claimed the country's vast oil wealth was controlled by one powerful family — a reference to Rafsanjani, who is alleged to have enriched himself through his son's management of the country's nationalised oil industry. The Rafsanjanis also have investments worth US1 billion in pistachio farming, real estate, automobile manufacture and a private airline.

"The whole Iranian economy is set up to benefit the privileged few", Ray Takeyh, a professor and director of studies at the US National Defense University's Near East and South Asia Center in Washington, told the Bloomberg news agency last December. "Rafsanjani is the most adept, the most notorious and the most privileged."

Describing Ahmadinejad as an "an Islamic nationalist suspicious of outsiders, capitalists and technocrats", the June 27 US BusinessWeek magazine reported that he "campaigned on a populist platform, blaming the emergence of private banks and Iran's very modest privatization program for the increasing income divide between the Tehran elite and the rural and urban poor. The politician also displayed isolationist tendencies, criticizing Iran's acceptance of World Bank loans and urging reliance on local capabilities.

"While Ahmadinejad is close to some of the top clerics, the landslide for him was in part a protest against the clubby religious establishment, which the portly Rafsanjani epitomized, that has run Iran since the 1979 revolution and is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective."

Rafsanjani, BusinessWeek added, "put most of his effort into cultivating businesses and the elite, ignoring poor and rural voters" who "overwhelmingly rejected his arguments that the way to ease poverty and unemployment of 15-20% was to accelerate privatization and encourage more foreign investment. Instead, they went for Ahmadinejad's promises to end corruption and protect workers and small-business owners."

Ahmadinejad "was the only candidate who actually talked about my problems" a Tehran taxi driver told the UN's IRIN news agency on the day after the run-off poll. "Democracy is all very well but what good is it if you can't put food on the table?" he asked.

During the election campaign, Ahmadinejad was also outspoken in his opposition to any resumption of diplomatic relations with the US. "Iran does not need imposed ties with the United States", the June 21 Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online quoted him as saying. "When the world formed a united front to fight Iran [during the US-backed 1980-88 war waged by Saddam Hussein's Iraq], our oil could not sell on the international markets and our economy was paralysed, the nation did not extend its hand [to outsiders] for help. Now that we have managed to build the infrastructure [for development] and the country has progressed, we do not need to accept any imposed relationship with America. The US severed its ties with the Islamic Republic to harm the Iranian nation and so do those [Iranians] who favour resumption of ties with the US."

US threats

On the day before the first round of the presidential election, US President George Bush publicly denounced it. "Today, Iran is ruled by men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror across the world", Bush declared. "Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy. The June 17 presidential elections are sadly consistent with this oppressive record."

Bush's barely veiled call for Iranians to boycott the election backfired. A record 62.7% of the eligible 47 million voters participated — 5.6 million more than in Iran's last parliamentary elections, held in February 2004.

Iranian officials revelled in the high voter turnout. "A political tsunami in Iran has taken its enemies by surprise and has caused a loss of face for Bush and showed the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran", General Alireza Afshar, deputy head of the Iranian armed forces, said in a statement carried by the official Islamic Republic New Agency (IRNA) on June 18.

Earlier this year, widely respected investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed that Bush had ordered the Pentagon to update its plans for an invasion of oil-rich Iran.

"Strategists at the headquarters of the US Central Command, in Tampa, Florida, have been asked to revise the military's war plan, providing for a maximum ground and air invasion of Iran", Hersh reported in the January 16 New Yorker magazine.

Hersh added that the decision to update the Pentagon's Iran invasion plan "makes sense, whether or not the administration intends to act, because the geopolitics of the region have changed dramatically in the last three years. Previously, an American invasion force would have had to enter Iran by sea, by way of the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman; now troops could move in on the ground, from Afghanistan or Iraq. Commando units and other assets could be introduced through new bases in the Central Asian republics."

While Iran is undoubtedly Washington's next strategic target for Iraq-style "regime change", invading and occupying Iran — a country with almost four times the territorial area and three times the population size of Iraq — would require a much larger occupation force than the US has been able to deploy in Iraq. And with the US military strained to breaking point waging a counterinsurgency war in Iraq, Washington at present simply does not have the available ground troops. As Ahmadinejad stated in a June 9 interview with IRNA: "These threats have been with us for a long time... They do not take action, because they can't."

From Green Left Weekly, July 6, 2005.

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