Is Iran about to Implode?
On the surface, the recent turmoil in Teheran looks like a case of the clerical elite, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, slapping down an independent minded President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though the battle is couched in vocabulary that does more to obscure than to reveal: accusations of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” get equal billing with charges of corruption and violations of the constitution. But if the language can at times seem odd, the players and the stakes are hardy abstruse.
There is, indeed, a struggle between Ahmadinejad and the clerics around Khamenei, and while it may play out in arguments over obscure religious issues—one critic of the President accused him of recruiting an army of genies—at its heart the fight is over political and economic power: who wields it and to what purpose? Some of the players, like the President and the Supreme Leader, perform in the spotlight. Others, like the powerful Revolutionary Guard and an increasingly restive population hammered by economic difficulties, maneuver in the wings.
residential confidant and advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, currently under fire and accused of “deviancy,” once remarked, “the era of sovereignty of religion is over,” and that “An Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran.” Mashaei, a former intelligence officer in the Revolutionary Guard, has a strong nationalist streak in him—“Iran first” as opposed to “Islam first””—and word is that Ahmadinejad was maneuvering to pass on the presidency to him or another non-cleric in 2013, thus marginalizing the religious establishment.
The clerics are also suspicious that the President’s prediction that the “hidden Iman,” who disappeared in the ninth century AD, would soon emerge was actually an effort to sideline them and shift power to Ahmadinejad’s clique of ultra-nationalist veterans from the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Certainly removing a mullah from control of the Oil Ministry would have amounted to a public slap-down of a cleric at a time of unprecedented tension between the President and the clerical establishment. While Ahmadinejad was eventually forced to give back the ministry, he ended up appointing an ally, Mohammad Aliabadi, the former head of Iran’s Olympic Committee….
The sanctions have taken a bite, but the main cause of economic turmoil are the policies of the Ahmadinejad government, which has systematically cut up to $100 billion in yearly subsidies for everything from gasoline, food, and water, to education and electricity. Many Iranians see half their paychecks go to pay utility and gas bills.
Coupled with the austerity drive has been the brutal suppression of the trade union movement and the shift from a stabilized workforce to temporary, contract labor. The percentage of workers with benefits has gone from 70 percent of the workforce to 30 percent over the past 15 years. The law provides for unemployment benefits, but only for permanent employees.
While suppression is a major reason for the lack of widespread strike activity, the 14.5 percent unemployment rate also plays a role. Apparently, according to one eye witness “last year was the worst year for the working class since World War II.”
So far, the government has managed to drive a wedge between the more affluent and middle class Green opposition and the urban and rural poor. But if the economy worsens and living standards continue to plummet, that wedge may give way, as it did in 2009 when the urban working class made common cause with Teheran’s middle class.
It is important to remember that Iran is the only country in the Middle East that changed its ruling class through mass demonstrations. It may end up that Egypt and Tunisia will do so as well, but so far both countries have simply deposed their rulers.
Iran’s government has enormous repressive powers at its fingertips, from the million-member Basij militia to the powerful Revolutionary Guard and the secret police. But its centers of power are hardly united, and it harbors a large population with a memory of what it accomplished in 1979 by taking to the streets.
You can read the entire article at The Berkeley Daily Planet.