The Shades of Grey in Iran
SUMMARY: There is no justification for killing unarmed demonstrators, vote rigging, torture or jailing people without trial – and many Iranians justifiably want greater democracy and an end to political abuse of the law by Khameini and Ahmadinejad’s government. However it’s impossible to be certain that Ahmadinejad couldn’t have won without the rigging, though he would have been unlikely to win by so much or in the first round. Iranians may be as divided in their views as Americans were in 2004. Ahmadinejad certainly has much support among the poor, especially the rural poor, but it’s not clear that Ahmadinejad and Khameini are less free market in their policies or more likely to protect the interests of the poor than Mousavi. The current government's claims that they are financially clean while their opponents are not are dubious given the government's close links with wealthy ‘bazaari’ merchants and persecution of those who tax them. While the divisions in Iran make another 1979 style revolution less likely they may yet lead to progress towards democracy and a reduction in political killings and torture. They may also show that Muslim countries and democracy are not necessarily incompatible, as senior dissident Ayatollahs such as Montazeri have said; and that peaceful reform from within may be far superior to ‘regime change’ by force with hundreds of thousands of deaths and continuing civil war, as found in Iraq.
It's pretty obvious that Ahmadinejad does have a lot of support in poor rural areas, among the working class and the unemployed and among hard-line nationalists and fundamentalists. Ahmadinejad is popular among these groups because he has campaigned on a theme of economic and social justice and a fair distribution of wealth, as well as food and money subsidies for the poorest. The economy may not grow as much under such policies, but the poorest will be guaranteed enough to live on, while under a less regulated, more free market, system the economy might grow and benefit many people while the poor get worse off. It’s also pointed out that many of Mousavi’s supporters are from the wealthiest tier of Iranian society, who would benefit more from a more free trade economic policy. One pre-election poll found the only groups Mousavi had as much or more support in than Ahmadinejad in were “university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians” with Ahmadinejad having a two to one lead among others (1), (2).
However Mousavi himself has often clashed with Khameini in the past because he is for more regulation of the economy and a larger public sector than Khameini – actually being to the left of Khameini’s (and previously) Khomeini’s relatively free market policies (which benefit the bazaar merchants – more on them later). In fact Khomeini sacked Mousavi and abolished the post of Prime Minister over a dispute with Mousavi’s more left-wing economic policy. Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who is now backing Mousavi, has actually been closer to Khameini on economic policy in the past. (3)
However in more recent statements during the election campaign Mousavi has suggested a greater role for the private sector and controlling inflation partly through monetary policies and making subsidies “targeted” (a euphemism for scrapping many of them?) (4), (5). This could suggest he has become a free marketer, but his past record makes it possible he would have a balanced economic policy with a regulated private sector and public services and some nationalised industries.
Another of Ahmadinejad’s challengers, former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, campaigned on a platform of privatising Iran’s nationalised oil industry (6).
Even if Ahmadinejad’s policies were better for the poor it certainly couldn’t justify manipulating election results or killing unarmed demonstrators, or torture, or killing dissidents - but the large section of Iranians backing Ahmadinejad makes a 1979 style revolution much less likely.
Ahmadinejad’s opponents also claim that his hand-outs to the poor are mere token charity and election bribes that don’t really reduce poverty, while inflation and unemployment are both high an rising, neither one benefitting the poor.
Ahmadinejad is far from the only person to accuse Ayatollah Rafsanjani and some of the other ‘moderate’ clerics of financial corruption. Rafsanjani’s wealth and the rumours of his means of acquiring it through his political connections are notorious in Iran. Rafsanjani is also very influential though, so his support for Mousavi is both a benefit and a potential vote loser for him.
The polls taken before the election don't prove anything either way but suggest Ahmadinejad could, possibly, have been on track to win heavily. Ahmadinejad had twice the percentage Mousavi did in them, but on the other hand more people were either undecided or refused to answer than chose a preference for any candidate (7).
If it's true that turnout exceeded the number of registered voters in a lot of towns, but people like the brave and honest Robert Fisk who suggest that it might have gone to a second round without rigging but Ahmadinejad may well have won anyway even if there hadn’t been election rigging may be right (8). (Fisk, despite his detractors, is scrupulously even-handed in his analysis of all sides and actually reports from the middle of the most dangerous situations, rather than repeating his own governments’ press releases or press briefings. This does not, of course, mean that this is certain or that vote rigging is acceptable or that it should not be challenged)
The fact also remains though that the current system of government in Iran is basically similar to that under the Shah with a different ideology and different economic and social policies. Khameini’s powers and his brutal methods of securing his power are much like Khomeini’s and the Shah’s before him. In that respect he’s little more than a Shah in a turban. (He also lacked even the learning in Islamic texts to become an Ayatollah, having to be given that as an honorary title on succeeding Khomeini).
The major difference is that the ‘Islamic Republic’ provides for the poor of Iran and don’t squander the whole country’s wealth on a vast military as the Shah did. This does not justify a brutality similar to the Shahs against the opposition – and though there was probably greater corruption under the Shah it is not unknown among the Ayatollahs, nor in their favour for the Bazaari market traders – with many families sending one son to the religious schools and another to the bazaar so one can provide political connections for the other (9). When the Mayor of Teheran introduced a tax on rich bazaaris he was arrested and jailed by the Khameini government (10). So perhaps Khameini and his allies are not such great protectors of the poor and social justice as they claim to be.
Some senior Iranian Shia clerics, such as Grand Ayatollah Montazeri and intellectuals appointed to committees by Khomeini – such as Hussein Dabbagh (or Abdel Karim Soroush) have criticised the excessive powers of and even the position of the ‘Leader’ established by Khomeini and Khomeini doctrine of ‘velayat e faqih’ (‘rule of the jurisprudent’), saying it has no precedent and no justification for a single man or even all senior Shia clerics to have absolute power. They say clerics should merely advise other Shia Muslims with every Iranian having an equal say in the government of the country, rather than one or a few clerics ruling with absolute power. Montazeri was initially Khomeini’s favoured successor, but on expressing these views he was replaced by Khameini and later placed under house arrest for over a decade. He has now come out in favour of Mousavi and the demonstrators, saying no person with a “sound mind” could believe the election results were valid (11), (12), (13), (14), (15).
Mousavi, as Prime Minister under Khomeini in the 1980s, was a member of a government with a lot of Iranian dissidents’ blood on it’s hands, just as Khameini and Ahmadinejad are now.
So this is not a simple good versus evil or democrats versus dictators or people power versus theocrats, still less western democracy versus the Ayatollahs . However the fact remains that so far it’s Khameini and Ahmadinejad who have killed protesters using the Basij militia and Iranian Hezbollah (a separate group from Lebanese Hezbollah) to make direct responsibility for the deaths more easily deniable.
What can we do about this? Not a great deal, since any support from the countries which backed the Shah’s dictatorship in the 60s and 70s, armed Saddam as he launched an unprovoked invasion of Iran in the 80s and threatened to invade Iran from 2001 on risks allowing the regime to paint all its opponents as the agents or allies of foreign powers and ‘traitors’ to their country. However we can call on the Iranian government, as our governments and Amnesty International have, not to allow unarmed demonstrators to be attacked, killed, jailed without trial or tortured (see this blog post and sources for it.
While the 1979 revolution may not be recreated in exactly the same form it’s possible that this crisis could still lead to significant progress towards democracy in Iran and show that Islam and democracy are not incompatible; that allowing other countries own people to progress towards democracy by peaceful means may be a better and less bloody way than ‘regime change’ by force (compare the eight dead in Iran so far to the hundreds of thousands in Iraq); and that the attempt to link democratisation and free trade as if it benefits the poor as much as the wealthy (when it clearly doesn’t) may make democratisation less rather than more likely.
We should resist any calls for “regime change” by force which would kill hundreds of thousands and could lead to ongoing civil war as in Iraq. Henry Kissinger suggested in a recent BBC Newsnight interview that “regime change” in Iran “from outside” through unspecified but not “visible” means could become US government policy if Ahmadinejad is not replaced by Mousavi (16). Does Kissinger perhaps mean covert actions by US Special Forces as begun under Bush in Iran, much like those that preceded the US invasion of Vietnam and the Vietnam war? ABC News and Seymour Hersh have reported on Bush administration and Saudi co-operation to aid Sunni extremist groups similar in ideology to Al Qa’ida and oppressed Arab separatists to carry out attacks on Iranian officials and soldiers (17), (18), 19), (20). Kissinger, however, may mean something else and might well not speak for Obama. Obama has reportedly sent Kissinger on low key diplomatic missions before, but has never suggested war on Iran (21) .
copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2009
(1) = BBC News 16 Jun 2009 ‘Profile: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4107270.stm
(2) = Washington Post 15 Jun 2009 ‘The Iranian People Speak’, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/14/AR2009061401757.html
(3) = Hiro, Dilip (2005) ‘The Iranian Labyrinth’, Nation Books/Avalon NY, 2005; chapter 6, esp p169
(4) = Financial Times 13 April 2009 ‘FT Interview: Mir-Hossein Moussavi’,
(5) = Reuters 11 Jun 2009 ‘Iran's Mousavi seen as main threat to Ahmadinejad’,
(6) = BBC News 03 Jun 2009 ‘Iranian poll rivals clash on live TV’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8080999.stm
(7) Times 18 Jun 2009 ‘The evidence that points to Ahmadinejad stealing Iranian election’,
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6523563.ece#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=797093 ; Also see (2) above
(8) = ABC News ‘Extraordinary scenes: Robert Fisk in Iran’, http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/06/17/2600571.htm
(9) = Hiro, Dilip (2005) ‘The Iranian Labyrinth’, Nation Books/Avalon NY, 2005; chapter 1, pages 1-23
(10) = Wright, Robin (2001) ‘The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran’ (2nd edition) , Vintage Books/Random House, NY, 2001,chapter 3, pages 104-106
(11) = Wright, Robin (2001) ‘The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran’ (2nd edition) , Vintage Books/Random House, NY, 2001, chapters 1-2, pages 35-6 & 49-52
(12) = Hiro, Dilip (2005) ‘The Iranian Labyrinth’, Nation Books/Avalon NY, 2005; chapter 6, pages 160-162
(13) = Guardian 13 Jan 2000 ‘Iran's banned cleric breaks silence’,
(14) = Guardian 31 Jan 2003 ‘Freed Iranian cleric refuses to be cowed’,
(15) = Guardian news blog 16 Jun 2009 ‘Iran's post-election unrest: live’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2009/jun/16/iran-uprising
(16) = BBC Newsnight 18 Jun 2009 ‘Kissinger: 'Iran at turning point'’,
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8107256.stm and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6k6FO9gah8
(17) = Young, Marilyn B. (1991) ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990’, Harper Perennial, London & N.Y, 1991
(18) = New Yorker Magazine 5 Mar 2007
, ‘Annals of National Security : The Redirection’, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/03/05/070305fa_fact_hersh
(19) = ABC News 03 Apr 2007
, ‘ABC News Exclusive: The Secret War Against Iran’, http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/04/abc_news_exclus.html
(20) = Telegraph 17 Jan 2006
, ‘'We will cut them until Iran asks for mercy'
(21) = Telegraph 05 Feb 2009 ‘Cold warrior Henry Kissinger woos Russia for Barack Obama’,
copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2009