Political satire and jokes have always been part of a quiet, yet widespread reaction to repression in Iran. The latest: A south-bound highway in Tehran is jammed with traffic and no car is moving. A driver asks someone passing "What's going on?" He responds, "Terrorists down the road have kidnapped Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani. They're demanding a $100 million ransom, otherwise they're going to pour gasoline on them and set them on fire. We're going from car to car taking up a collection." The driver asks, "How much are people giving, on average?" He responds, "so far, most people have given about a liter!"
The joke reflects the sentiment of a large section of Iranians who are fed-up with three decades of a regressive and repressive Islamic regime.
Much has happened in these long years: first, the eight year war with Iraq, then eight years of Rafsanjani's neo-liberal policies and corruption, followed by eight years of Khatami's failed promises for reforms and now over two years of the populist para-military administration of Ahmadinejad. The Iran-Iraq war tightened the clerics' grip on power, created a strong military class, with the double-decker armed forces of the Sepah Pasdaran (Islamic Guards) and a purged regular military. The neo-liberal policies of the Rafsanjani era created a new capitalist class comprised of senior military and clerics and their families. It also expanded the new middle classes, while at the same time widening the gap between the rich and the poor, vastly increasing the number of the deprived and marginalized. Following the failures of the Khatami reformists, these masses rallied around the populist slogans of Ahmadinejad who promised to uproot the corruption of those who had turned their backs on the radical goals of the revolution.
The Pasdaran's influence had increased in the Rafsanjani and Khatami periods, but they were not directly involved in the political process. Unhappy with many policies, they eventually decided to directly intervene in politics. In the last Presidential elections, two of the few approved candidates, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohamad Baqer Ghalibaf, were Pasdaran commanders. In the Parliamentary elections of 2004, the Pasdaran managed to have 80 of their members elected. For the forthcoming elections on March 14, 2008, they have announced an additional 50 senior officers as candidates.
Throughout these years, the Pasdaran have also become major players in Iran's economy, establishing new industries and corporations and winning lucrative contracts in infrastructure and construction. They now control the executive branch and are a most influential voice in Parliament; Pasdaran commanders are now city councilors, mayors, provincial governors, ambassadors, and university presidents. In addition to being a 120,000 strong 'army', they now have their own intelligence units, and also control the 300.000 Basij (militia) force, whose principal aim is to counter any opposition or critical social movement.
All these should not suggest that the military is going to be at the core of political power in Iran. The attention focused on Ahmadinejad's presidency and the outrageous remarks he makes from time to time, obscures the fact that the poles of power are elsewhere. The stronger than ever clerical oligarchy, and at its helm the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, control, among others, the military, the security establishment, foreign policy and state media. In fact, he handpicked Ahmadinejad in the very last few days of the last Presidential elections, leading to the complex web of religious networks and the votes of the marginalized that put him in the Presidency.
There is a very close working relationship between the Pasdaran and the Leader's office and other top conservative clerics, and both sides depend on one another. The present alliance has not only kept the non-clerical opposition in check, it has also eliminated the possibility of reformers creeping back into power.
The President's office, under Ahmadinejad, also acts in full harmony with the Supreme Leader. Although the latter has become weary of the failures of Ahmadinejad internally and internationally, it still considers him a good agent for implementing the conservative clerical agenda.
This, however, will change as internal disgruntlement with Ahmadinejad surfaces.
Iran's economy is in shambles. Oil revenues during the two and a half years of Ahmadinejad's presidency, which coincides with enormous increases in the price of crude oil, surpass the total revenues during the eight years of previous presidencies. Yet, instead of investing in strategic development projects, he has wasted over $140bn of the revenues, by spending on small populists projects and arbitrarily distributing money among his followers. He has also dismantled the "Foreign Exchange Reserve Account", the Norwegian model of cushioning fluctuations in oil revenues, spending its remaining $14bn. His promises of narrowing the gap between the poor and the rich, fighting corruption and other populist promises have gone nowhere.
The relative easing of tensions between Iran and the US administration and the diminished possibility of US or Israeli attacks on Iran have also weakened Ahmadinejad's position. The clerical establishment is already considering a less radical and more presentable candidate, Mohamad Baqer Ghalibaf, another Pasdaran commander currently the Mayor of Tehran. Ghalibaf being sent to the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos was not insignificant.
But for now the focus of the establishment is on the upcoming Parliamentary elections. Khamenei and the top conservative clerics were rudely embarrassed when in 1997 the electorate overwhelmingly rejected their candidate for Presidency, voting for, Khatami and subsequently electing a majority reformist parliament. The top clerics and their military allies do not want another embarrassment, and have fully prepared the ground to prevent their opponents entering the legislative assembly.
The central bureau of elections is also run by a Pasdaran commander, and so far over 3,000 candidates, among them many senior reformists, have been rejected by the Guardian Council which oversees the nominations. Many have called for a boycott of the elections. The next parliament seems to be under the full control of the military-clerical establishment, and only a minority of low-ranking reformers may get elected.
bracing for tougher times. However, despite a serious deterioration of human
rights and continued suppression, a vibrant civil society continues to challenge
the establishment. The women's movement, student unrest and workers strikes are
on the rise, and if there are no foreign interventions, they may have a chance
to confront the failing Islamic republic.
About the author: Saeed
Rahnema is Professor of Political Science at York University.
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