Pro-democracy protests in Iran have continued despite a bloody crackdown by the authorities.
Tens of thousands gathered at Teheran University on July 17 to hear former prime minister Rafsanjani question the legitimacy of the election result. After his speech there were renewed clashes on the streets between protesters and government security forces.
The protests following the presidential election on June 12 were the largest to shake Iran since the 1979 revolution. The official election results gave the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 63 percent of votes, compared to 34 percent for his main rival, the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, who then accused the government of vote-rigging. In the following days millions took to the streets of major cities, defying the riot police and shouting, “Where is my vote?”
The ensuing crackdown by the Basiji milita and police saw protesters shot, beaten and thousands arrested. Up to 2000 people are still being detained. In the face of this the reformist election candidates have retreated from calling for further protests. Mousavi declared that from now on he would only support “licensed” protests that have permission from the government.
But discontent continues to simmer below the surface. Small scale acts of defiance such as chants from the rooftops of houses of “Allah Akbar” and “Marg bar diktator!”, a chant from the 1979 revolution which means death to the dictator, continue.
There is deep anger at rampant corruption amongst the political elite. A review led by Abbas Palizdar, was authorised by the Iranian parliament, uncovered a system of bribes and kickbacks reaching to the highest levels. One scandal involved $100 million that went missing during the privatisation of Almakaseb, a state-run trading company under the control of the son of a leading cleric.
Iran has a huge young population that suffers from unemployment, low pay and exploitation. Around 65 per cent of the population is under the age of 25. As a result millions leaving school and university cannot find work. Inflation has been running at 25 per cent.
Splits at the top
The crisis has also shown that these problems have created a serious division within the ruling elite. Those around Mousavi are worried that corruption and international isolation are damaging the Islamic state.
This year’s election campaign was the liveliest since the early days of the revolution. Supporters of the four candidates actively campaigned on the streets. Students organised “free zones” for discussions in universities. Newspapers wrote critical articles that circulated on the internet.
As the election campaign intensified it opened up an unprecedented political space. Thousands of young people threw themselves into political activity and almost 40 million cast their votes. At 85 percent the turnout was much higher than in 2005. Mousavi’s campaign gained momentum and the huge “green” movement emerged on the streets and the internet in support. Mousavi’s rallies in Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz drew tens of thousands.
The selection of Mousavi as the candidate of the reformists was a conscious choice. The leaders of the reformist movement decided to tap into the disgruntlement of the working class. Saeed Hajjarian, the strategic brain of the reformists, admitted in 2004 that the reformists had represented the interests of the middle class. After their defeat by Ahmadinejad’s populism in 2005 the reformists understood they had to change.
Mosavi, who had served as prime minister in the 1980s and was widely associated with egalitarian politics, seemed the perfect man for the task. He held his first meeting as a presidential candidate in March in Tehran’s Nazi Abad—a working class neighbourhood. He was greeted with the chant “Mir Hossein ghareman – hamiye mostazafan” (“Mir Hossein hero—supporter of the downtrodden”).
During his campaign he promised a “future without poverty”.
In reality Mousavi is an establishment figure—he was the country’s prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war. Mousavi is known to favour a neo-liberal opening up of the economy—which could only squeeze living standards further.
But the election has turned the tensions within the political elite into an open war between the contending factions.
The election and its aftermath have shown that the divisions inside Iran’s ruling elite have become unmanageable and will lead to new and bigger political crises in the near future.
More importantly, the future depends on what happens on the streets. The movement in Iran today needs to widen into a challenge led by Iran’s working class like that which toppled the repressive regime of the Shah in 1979.