NEWS & LETTERS, July-August 2005

Our Life and Times by Kevin A. Barry

Reactionary gains presidency in Iran

The election of an arch reactionary fundamentalist, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, to Iran's presidency on June 23 stunned the world. It is important to view this election in context and to not lose sight of the current situation in Iran as a whole.

During the first round of the presidential election on June 12, seven candidates approved by the Council of Guardians led by the Supreme Religious Leader, Ali Khamenei, had been allowed to participate. Only one reformist candidate, Moin, a follower of president Khatami, was allowed to participate after being disqualified.

Given the undemocractic character of the election, a movement to boycott voting had gained ground among millions and had been supported by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and other dissident intellectuals. Thus it is estimated that 30-50% of the 48 million eligible voters did not vote. This figure stood in contrast to the 80% who did vote in 1997 when there was much hope in Ahmad Khatami's reformist campaign.

The government, in turn, engaged in extensive fraud by issuing false and pictureless identity documents. In addition, there was a campaign by the military to order the Basijis and Pasdaran (Morality Police) to force others to vote for Ahmadinejad.

Once the Council of Guardians announced former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the two run-off candidates, even government insiders such as Ayatollah Karubi, who claimed that he was one of the two candidates with the highest number of votes, protested the fraud.

During the second round of election, the government claimed that 60% of voters voted, of which 60% voted for Ahmadinejad and 35% for Rafsanjani. Even if these figures are correct, that leaves Ahmadinejad with 36% of eligible voters. That is not a landslide victory.

Many analysts have written about Ahmadinejad's appeal to conservative sectors of the poor among residents of south Tehran and the rural population. His fundamentalist credentials go back to the time of the 1979 revolution when he organized Islamist students on campuses to attack leftists and feminists. In addition to being an army commander during the Iran-Iraq war, he had gained a reputation for personally carrying out Khomeini's orders to execute Mujahedeen (dissident Islamic activists) political prisoners in 1988. Most recently, as mayor of Tehran, he has spoken out against the meagre freedoms that women have informally gained to wear a looser Hijab, and has boasted that he would not have a woman in his cabinet.

There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad's support for government subsidies and his misogyny did attract a sector of Iranian voters. It is also true that Rafsanjani, one of the richest men in the world who is notorious for his corrupt and murderous practices as former president, could not take votes away from Ahmadinejad.

What needs to be confronted, however, is that for the reformist followers of President Khatami as well as the growing opposition which had called for boycotting the election, the only projected alternative was free market capitalism. In his "Second Manifesto on Republicanism," Akbar Ganji, an imprisoned journalist who is currently on a hunger strike at the Evin prison, and is one of the theorists of the independent opposition movement as well as the boycott campaign, presents a model of democracy based on the ideas of Karl Popper, Richard Rorty and Gandhi. He advocates a velvet revolution like in the former Czechoslovakia against totalitarian Communism, based on democratic free market capitalism.

Thus at the moment no opposition platform inside Iran is theorizing an alternative to both free market capitalism and totalitarian state capitalism. Movements opposed to fundamentalism, misogyny and Persian chauvinism, however, are alive among large sectors of women, youth and ethnic minorities.

On June 12, hundreds of women participated in a demonstration at Tehran University to oppose the Iranian constitution for discriminating against women. Many more women as well as male supporters who wished to join them were barred by police and forced to stand on the other side of the street. The demonstrators chanted: "We are women, We are citizens but we have no rights." This was the first demonstration of women against sexual discrimination in the constitution since the 1979 revolution.

An ongoing sit-in in defense of political prisoners who are on a hunger strike is being supported by organizations of youth and intellectuals. Youth under the age of 25 constitute half of Iran's population of 70 million. The majority of them do not defend Ahmadinejad.

There is fear that further repression under Ahmadinejad's rule would lead to mass arrests of dissident intellectuals, and women who do not observe the strict dress code of the Islamic Republic.

--Sheila Sahar, July 3, 2005

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