Yesterday, the Iranian government stepped up its crackdown of popular protest over the allegedly fraudulent June 12 elections. Pro reform newspaper “Yas No” – originally banned six years ago – was suddenly relaunched and appeared on news-stands in Tehran, only to be immediately shut down by authorities. This follows on from the temporary closure of universities, the arrests of over 1,000 dissidents, and at least 20 people confirmed dead during the Iranian government’s ruthless repression of the election protests over the last 20 days. But was the election actually stolen?
Hard facts are difficult to come by in a vast and complicated nation like Iran, where information is tightly controlled, and where the 70 million strong population covers the entire socio-economic spectrum, with all of the conflicting outlooks and opinions this would entail. Respected Middle Eastern scholar, Juan Cole, certainly believes the protesters have a valid case. It was Cole who shed a little clarity on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged threats to “wipe Israel from the face of the map” – exposing his comments as being rather less sensational than they were reported to be throughout the Western media. Cole’s view of the current situation, then, as expressed in his Informed Comment blog, is certainly worth taking a look at.
However, it’s equally worthy of consideration that no actual, concrete evidence of fraud has emerged at this point. There is merely the suspicion of fraud, but suspicion in itself, of course, does not constitute proof. It could just as well be said that the depth of support for Ahmadinejad in Iran has simply been drastically underestimated in the West, and that his sweeping victory is not especially unusual, given consideration of one or two crucial factors.
It’s important to realise that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Admadinejad’s election rival, is not necessarily representative of Iran’s population as a whole. As the supposed “reform” candidate, what Mousavi represents is Iran’s more affluent urban middle class. This is a significant and ever burgeoning segment of Iran’s vast population, but by no means a majority at this point. Following the precedent set elsewhere in the world’s developing nations, Iran’s middle class is straining at the leash. They resent the archly conservative authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic, and they want to enjoy the fruits of liberalised reform.
But is this what the rest of Iran’s population – i.e. the majority – really wants? Is liberal reform first among priorities for Iran’s ordinary poor and working class citizens? We often assume that this must be the case in the West, but a little perspective on the situation suggests otherwise. An impoverished street vendor in Tehran or a farm labourer out in the provinces might be much less concerned about whether or not his wife has to wear a burka in the street as he is about where his family’s next meal is going to come from.
Let’s be clear: Ahmadinejad could never be mistaken for a liberal reformer. He’s allied more or less directly with some of the more hardline elements in the Islamic Republic. If he’s anything, he’s a reactionary. But what is often overlooked about Ahmadinejad, at least in the West, is that he has used Iran’s oil revenue to improve living conditions among the nation’s under classes. Culturally, he favours the suppression of freedom and expression that is traditional to the Islamic Republic. But economically, he’s more than prepared to engage in reform that benefits Iran’s more impoverished citizens, and has in fact been very active in this area.
Ahmadinejad is not an especially likable figure to outsiders. He uses fiery, jumped up rhetoric. He has a rather sinister history in the security apparatus of Iran’s post revolutionary government. He courts international ire and allies himself with the hardline elements of the Islamic Republic. But he has at least taken positive steps to improve the economic condition of the Iranian population. This is the basis of his widespread support.
Mousavi has campaigned on a ticket of liberal reform, but many Iranians could surely fail to forget his previous tenure in the (now discontinued) post of Prime Minister during the eighties, which was hardly characterised by tolerance or freedom of expression. Mousavi’s actual capability to introduce genuine reform would be restricted in any case, since ultimate authority in Iran rests not with the elected President, but with the Supreme Leader, who is chosen by a Council of Guardians based on his credentials as an Islamic conservative. How much could Mousavi actually accomplish, given the strictures of Iran’s Islamic Republic as it stands today?
Nonetheless, Mousavi was the favoured candidate of the West. He declared himself open to discourse with the international community, which of course entails toeing the line when it comes to diplomacy with the US. The West wanted Mousavi to win, and perhaps even expected him to win. And now that he hasn’t, it’s rather a case of sour grapes. But not every election can be expected to swing in the direction that Western interests would like it to go. And when they don’t, are we really justified in crying foul?
All of which is becoming rather besides the point at the moment, since, regardless of the election’s validity, a substantial element of Iran’s population is calling foul and they are engaging in sustained protest over it. And the Iranian government, all too predictably, is responding with brutal measures. But what courage in the Iranian population? Rightly or wrongly, they have demonstrated a willingness to stand up and defy the authorities when they feel that their rights are being impinged upon, understanding fully well that they face the gravest of consequences in doing so. Compare with the situation in the US in the aftermath of the Presidential election of 2000. Now there was compelling evidence to suggest fraud in this particular case, yet the public response was largely apathetic, despite the fact that there is little risk posed by public demonstration in the US.