Yassamine Mather (chair, Hands Off the People of Iran) is interviewed by Mark Fischer (secretary, Hopi)
Yassamine Mather (chair, Hands Off the People of Iran) is interviewed by Mark Fischer (secretary, Hopi)
Supporters and apologists of Iran’s Islamic Republic in Respect,1 Counterfire2 and the Socialist Workers Party3 have in the past told us that Iran is not a dictatorship. It has democratic elections to determine the president and the composition of its parliament …
The regime’s 11th presidential elections have demonstrated how far removed this is from reality. Having arrested and imprisoned all serious opposition, including the regime’s own ‘reformists’, the remaining factions, despite being at each other’s throats, are all agreed that only those candidates for president who completely uphold the line of the supreme leader may be permitted to stand. So not only has the favourite of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, been barred. So too has the moderate centrist and former president, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The omens were not good from the beginning. The supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had disowned his chosen candidate of 2009. Ahmadinejad, who came to power following a controversial vote in elections many Iranians believed to be rigged, is now considered an enemy. In fact, despite the careful vetting of candidates for this and other elected posts on religious grounds, as determined by the constitution, Iran’s clerical dictators, in the form of two supreme leaders, have ended up falling out with almost everyone who has occupied the presidency, beginning with ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who famously turned his back on the regime’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr.
Rafsanjani, who was Khamenei’s first president, fell out with the supreme leader. So did Mohammad Khatami, a vetted, obedient servant of the regime – he was out of favour by the end of his first term and definitely an enemy by the end of his second. Last but not least, for all his earlier support for Ahmadinejad against leaders of the green ‘reformist’ movement, the supreme leader fell out with his chosen president in the first months of his second term and in the end it could hardly be any worse.
What is different this year is that the entire electoral process has become a joke even before the election campaign has started. Because Khamenei was determined to reduce electioneering from months to only three weeks, it was not until May 21, just 24 days before the polls, that Iranians got to know the final list of candidates. However, Khamenei had apparently been concerned that the absence of any known figure, never mind a controversial one, might lead to a lacklustre campaign and no doubt this played a part in the supreme leader’s quiet encouragement of Rafsanjani to enter the foray.
His candidacy was hailed by both ‘reformists’ and opponents of the regime as a sign of ‘hope’ – the ‘saviour’ had come out of retirement. Even sections of the left believed he was therefore worthy of critical support. No-one was clear about how exactly Rafsanjani would save the nation – except by lengthening the rule of the religious dictatorship, that is – but in the euphoria that followed his registration as a candidate, none of this mattered. In fact it could well be that the unprecedented support for Rafsanjani by sections of the ‘reformist’ opposition convinced the Guardian Council to rule him out of the electoral process.
The Guardian Council is supposed to make its deliberations in private. However, while the vetting process was going on, one of its leading figures, ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, commented: “Iranians do not want to elect a president whose car is a Mercedes Benz” – the model Rafsanjani arrived in to register his candidacy.
Rafsanjani’s supporters hit back by arguing that Jannati’s own modern Peugeot is far more expensive than Rafsanjani’s old Mercedes. BBC Persian service produced a short video of the cars used by several of Iran’s Islamic rulers, which shows Khamenei himself getting out of a bullet-proof BMW. It should be pointed out that Iran’s supreme leader and his family are embroiled in a scandal regarding the BMW dealership in Iran.
The issue of luxury cars is a touchy subject for Shia rulers. When young Iranians were asked in a telephone and internet poll what they associated with the phrase, ‘Islamic clerics’, a considerable number said “Mercedes Benz” or “BMW” (although the sons of the ayatollahs have long since preferred Maseratis and Porsches).
Once the car issue became just too embarrassing, the Guardian Council changed its tactics and focussed instead on the question of age. A candidate over 75 was apparently too old to occupy the presidency and, had the council been aware that a 78-year-old would put himself forward, they would have introduced an age bar.
However, this too was easy to counter by Rafsanjani supporters and others. A TV station listed the age of the Islamic regime’s current and previous leaders, starting with Khomeini, who became head of state aged 81, and the current supreme leader, who is 73. Jannati is 87 – the same age as one of his senior colleagues on the Guardian Council, ayatollah Mahdavi Kani …
Rafsanjani’s daughter has informed the world’s press and media that on May 21 senior figures of the regime had been trying to persuade her father to withdraw his nomination. But he had refused, saying he could not “betray the people’s trust”. However, earlier that day, as the Guardian Council was preparing to make its final announcement, security forces moved into action. Supporters of Mashaei and Ahmadinejad were arrested as a “precautionary measure”, and the offices of a ‘reformist’ youth organisation were ransacked and closed down.
Then the daughter of the founder of the Islamic Republic, ayatollah Khomeini, issued an open letter to Khamenei, declaring that her father had considered Hashemi Rafsanjani to possess all the qualities necessary to be not just president, but supreme leader. This was the first time anyone had quoted Khomeini’s thoughts concerning a possible successor to himself and obviously implied a serious criticism of the current supreme leader.
Once it became clear that Mashaei had been barred, Ahmadinejad absurdly announced he would contest the decision by asking the supreme leader to intervene. Apparently Ahmadinejad was the only person who did not know that it was Khamenei’s decision to bar both Mashaei and Rafsanjani.
There is a big difference between electoral cheating, such as ballot-rigging (as happened in 2009) and barring a very senior cleric like Rafsanjani, the man who is considered alongside Khomeini as a founder of the Islamic regime, the man who played a crucial part in writing the constitution of the clerical state, who has been one of the regime’s most powerful figures. As many have commented in Tweets and on Facebook, the ayatollah who chairs the expediency convention – a body answerable to the supreme leader with supervisory powers over all branches of government – is not considered fit to run for president!
This whole farce says everything about the crisis gripping the Islamic regime. It is true that some of Rafsanjani’s supporters might now switch support to a lesser known ‘reformist’, Mohammad Aref, or the centrist, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, but this is now a doomed electoral process. In many ways the events of the last few days have shown how pinning one’s hopes on the pseudo-dictatorial electoral process in Iran was a disaster.
The US might have considered negotiations with Iran under a Rafsanjani presidency, but the Obama administration is unlikely to take seriously whoever wins from the remaining, vetted candidates, however conciliatory the tone of those candidates may be. Ayatollah Khamenei and his Guardian Council might end up regretting the path they have taken.
As for the Iranian working class, it has two enemies: imperialism and its own rulers. The latter are not only remote from ordinary people, but so very clearly engulfed in personal struggles for wealth and power. When it comes to the presidential elections, any tactic other than a boycott is tantamount to offering support to this retrograde, reactionary regime.
1. George Galloway commends the 2009 Iran elections 2009: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qL3yhzV2wWU
2. Press TV interview with John Rees: www.counterfire.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4198&Itemid=81
3. See report of 2007 Stop the War Coalition conference: ‘Lies cannot stop imperialists’ Weekly Worker November 8 2007.
(First published in the Weekly Worker)
On the last available day, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani arrived at the ministry of the interior to register himself as a presidential candidate. Rafsanjani was the Islamic republic’s fourth president, from 1989 to 1997, and is now once again standing as a ‘reformist’. In reality he is the candidate of capitalism and probably still one of the richest men in Iran. Despite that, the announcement that Rafsanjani had entered the race ‘to save the country’ generated an almost unprecedented hysteria.
There are two main explanations for his timing. The principlists (conservative, hard-line supporters of the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei) are accusing Rafsanjani (also known as the fox because of his political cunning) of holding back before making his dramatic, last-minute move in order to surprise and spread confusion amongst his opponents. There is some truth to this claim: confident of an easy ride, principlists entered the presidential elections with at least seven serious candidates, and another 14 less serious contenders. One assumes that, had they known they would be facing such a figure, they would have tried to rally round a single candidate.
Some of Rafsanjani’s allies have claimed he was waiting for the approval of the supreme leader before putting himself forward. Two weeks ago he said he would only go ahead if Khamenei wanted him to do so, but a few days later there was a slightly different version: he would only put his name forward if the supreme leader did not object to his nomination. His telephone conversation with Khamenei1 or one his close advisers2 (depending on which version you read) only took place at 4.30pm Tehran time on May 11 – less than one and a half hours before the deadline. Rafsanjani’s daughter confirms this.3
Whatever the truth, Rafsanjani, who is now benefiting from the full support of the ‘reformist camp’ led by Mohammad Khatami, is no opponent of the Islamic regime. In fact he does not even claim to be a reformist: he is, in his own words, a “moderate”. Some consider him to be a “pragmatist conservative”4 – someone who tried to mediate between the ‘reformists’ and the conservatives after the debacle of the 2009 elections. Now he has, according to Khatami (Iran’s last ‘reformist’ president) made a “major sacrifice” and come forward to fulfil his duty to the “nation, the Islamic Republic and the faith”.
It is clear then that, far from providing a challenge to Khamenei, Rafsanjani is standing to save the clerical system and with it its supreme leader, who, after all, owes his own position to Rafsanjani. According to a video released in 1989, soon after ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, “Rafsanjani took the lead in a meeting of the assembly of experts”. He described his last encounter at Khomeini’s hospital bedside, as well as an earlier discussion he had had with the Islamic republic’s first supreme leader over his succession. Rafsanjani claimed he had told Khomeini that no-one had “the stature to fill your shoes”, to which Khomeini had replied: “But why not? Mr Khamenei is the one!”5
Rafsanjani’s message to the supreme leader and the conservatives is clear: the regime is facing its most serious crisis ever, sanctions have paralysed the economy, international relations are at an all-time low, and then there are the idiotic holocaust-denial statements that still come from president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies. One needs to “drink the poison” – a reference to Khomeini’s famous statement when he accepted the resolution passed by the United Nations security council in 1987 to end the Iran-Iraq war.6 (Of course, many believe that it was Rafsanjani who, as commander-in-chief of Iran’s military forces during the eight-year war, convinced Khomeini to accept that ceasefire.) Iran’s “moderate” presidential candidate is also in favour of direct talks with the US to resolve the nuclear issue and there is a precedent for this: it is alleged that Rafsanjani was one of many Iranian politicians who got involved in ‘Irangate’, the secret deal with the Reagan administration which saw Iran being sold arms despite an embargo.7
Although it is unlikely that the Council of Guardians – the religious body responsible for vetting election candidates – will find sufficient reason to eliminate Rafsanjani from standing in the June elections, there are no guarantees that he would get sufficient votes, real or ‘engineered’, to win.
Now that his nomination is in, every one of his recent and not so recent statements is being analysed and it is clear that, like every other serious candidate (‘reformist’, ‘moderate’ or principlist conservative), he is advocating a U-turn as far as the nuclear issue is concerned. This is, above all, a victory for the United States, which it will use to demonstrate that sanctions against ‘third-rate rogue states’ work. Although we in Hands Off the People of Iran have always opposed Iran’s nuclear programme, we refuse to join those celebrating the US victory in bringing a country to its knees.
Iranians have paid a heavy price for the foolish policies of their leaders. Sanctions have immiserated the working class, impoverished the middle class, made the already disastrous unemployment situation even worse and caused spiralling inflation, currently estimated at above 32% by the Islamic parliament’s economic commission. As we predicted – in a neoliberal religious dictatorship, where the clergy and Islamic revolutionary guards are the main beneficiaries of privatisation – ‘targeted sanctions’ against the ‘rulers of the country’ are in fact sanctions against the entire population: 70 million Iranians are now facing the consequences of a deliberate, callous policy by a superpower to assert its authority. Yet most Iranians believe worse is yet to come – fear of becoming ‘another Iraq or Syria’ dominates people’s minds and that is one explanation why so many are willing to forget Rafsanjani’s horrific record.
Iran’s richest man is no friend of the Iranian working class. According to an updated biography on the BBC website, “Mr Rafsanjani has close links to Iranian industry and business … He was featured in the ‘Millionaire mullahs’ section of the Forbes Rich List in 2003”.8 Most of this fortune was accumulated after 1979, although he denies the fact that his political connections were in any way used to help him.
So far Rafsanjani has given no clue as to his economic plans, but his record is clear. He implemented the free market, privatisation and deregulation. Since Rafsanjani’s presidency, economic policy has been based on a reduction in government spending, itself fuelling inflation, as successive governments printed money to finance deficits and worsened the imbalance in foreign trade by encouraging imports and overall economic dependence on a single product: oil. It was immediately after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and during Rafsanjani’s presidency that the government started subsidising foreign goods to the benefit of the urban rich, while allocating resources to commerce and finance at the expense of production. So we can expect more of the same if Rafsanjani is returned to power. In other words, for all the promises of saving the economy, the nation and the Islamic republic, the population can expect better times for the rich but even worse times for the poor.
Rafsanjani is a firm supporter of the Islamic regime’s constitution and therefore believes democratic rights should be limited to those who support the current order. In the early 2000s he came in for a lot of criticism from the ‘reformist’ media inside Iran. In a series of articles, later published as a book, former revolutionary guard Akbar Ganji called him the “red eminence”9 – a reference to cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s prime minister, who was supposed to be a ruthless politician more powerful than the king. During Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), Ganji and others in the ‘reformist media’ presented Rafsanjani as the man behind the “serial political murders” of writers and intellectuals.10
In 2009, his lukewarm protest against the incarceration of ‘reformist’ activists and leaders angered the supreme leader and lost him his post as chairman of the powerful assembly of experts. Even then his proclamations were limited to ‘moderate’ statements on the poor state of some of Iran’s jails and the fact that the ‘reformists’ did not deserve quite such harsh treatment.
Let me stress that principlist candidates also want ‘meaningful negotiations’ with the US. In fact, now that the crippling effects of sanctions is recognised by all, it is no surprise that they too are promising a speedy resolution of the nuclear issue.
Sections of the principlist factions have been in discussions to support a common candidate. However, continued ideological disagreements, as well as uncertainty about the calibre of the likely ‘reformist’ opponent, meant that they failed to come up with a single name, or at least just fewer candidates.
There is a Jewish joke about the propensity of Jews to fall out over religious issues, leading to one split after another: if there are two Jews in a village, they will need a synagogue each. Shia Muslims are exactly the same, it seems – the more religious they are, the more inflexible they appear to be regarding both theological and in consequence political matters. In Iran’s parliament we have the Principlist faction (not to be confused with the principlists), the Stability Front of the Islamic Revolution and five other major principlist groups. Since Rafsanjani’s surprise registration, there is talk of the supporters of Mohammad Qalibaf, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Ali Fallahian and Saeed Jalili trying to come up with a name. However, many doubt that all the conservative factions will be prepared to withdraw their candidates.
As for the current president, now totally at odds with the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad has over the last few months made a number of provincial visits accompanied by his relative and ‘heir apparent’, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. These unofficial pre-election occasions were mocked by state press and media loyal to Khamenei, especially when it became clear that very few people were attending. Going for smaller venues did not help much – there were lots of empty seats even when they were held in somewhere less ambitious than Tehran’s Azadi stadium, where the first such meeting was held. MPs in the majles (Islamic parliament) accuse Ahmadinejad of using state funds to pay for what they allege amounts to a countrywide election tour for Mashaei.
Over the last few months principlist/conservative MPs have tried on a number of occasions to dismiss the president or his close allies in the government. Whereas in 2009, at the height of the protest movement, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the full support of the conservative/principlist factions, today less than four years later, he and his supporters are openly called the “deviant faction”, mainly because Ahmadinejad believes Mashaei’s claims to have a special relationship with the 12th Shia Imam (who fell down a well 13 centuries ago and is soon going to be resurrected to save the world). This has led some prominent ayatollahs to call him a heretic – the claim is totally abhorrent to supporters of the supreme leader, who is, after all, the only human being capable of communicating with the imam. But, trying to broaden his appeal, Mashaei also claims to be a nationalist. He and Ahmadinejad have actually been promoting Iranianism over and above Islam – in 2010 Mashaei claimed that without Iran Islam would be lost and other Islamic countries feared Iran, which upheld the only “truthful” version of Islam.
However, like Rafsanjani and the principlists, Mashaei is also keen on improving relations with the US and Israel. In fact he has gone further than anyone else on the subject of Iran-Israel relations, making comments that have angered senior clerics: Iranians are “friends of all people in the world – even Israelis”, he said.11 A phrase that lost him his job as vice-president. In the early years of Ahmadinejad’s second term the conservative factions in parliament and powerful supporters of Khamenei tried their best to convince Ahmadinejad to distance himself from Mashaei, but he refused. This produced a conservative backlash. The head of the revolutionary guards, general Hassan Firouzabadi, branded Mashaei’s comments a “crime against national security”, while a senior ayatollah claimed that “equating the school of Iran and the school of Islam amounts to pagan nationalism”.12
To add insult to injury, on May 11 the Iranian president accompanied Mashaei to the ministry of the interior to register him as a candidate. As they were making their way to the relevant office, a scuffle broke out between Ahmadinejad’s entourage and conservative MP Hassan Ghadiri. The set-to was photographed on a mobile phone and immediately posted on Facebook. Then, to make matters worse, before Mashaei took the microphone to address his first election press conference as a candidate, Ahmadinejad, unaware a microphone was live, could be heard next to him whispering: “Say the president is on leave today”. Of course, Mashaei obliged and started the press conference exactly as instructed. Again this gaffe was filmed on YouTube and made it to most news broadcasts.13 If this was not enough, the guardian council announced on May 12 that it might charge Ahmadinejad with violating electoral rules by accompanying his protégée to the interior ministry.14
A total of 686 candidates have registered. No doubt the guardian council will reduce that to half a dozen or so. However, because of the large number, the council says the process may require more time.
First to be struck off will be the 30 women who have put themselves forward, unless they manage to prove to the guardian council that they have gone through transgender operations in the last few days. Iran’s Islamic constitution is quite clear on this. According to article 115, “The president must be elected from among religious and political male personalities (the Arabic word rejal is used) possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past record; trustworthiness and piety; belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country”.15
As if this vetting process were not enough for the religious rulers, they have other tricks up their sleeve. Following accusations of election- rigging in 2009, the Iranian regime has come up with a new term for state interference in the electoral process, which is now openly talked about as a possibility. In January one of Khamenei’s representatives, Hojat Al-Islam Saeedi, said that it was the responsibility of the revolutionary guards to “rationally and logically engineer the elections”.16
There is considerable enthusiasm for Rafsanjani amongst the reformist left – all his past sins seem to have been forgotten. It is true that the threat of war against Iran persists; sanctions, another form of war, have paralysed the economy; the smell of partition is in the air; and the country is on the edge of a precipice. However, we should remind all those who believe Rafsanjani’s claim that better relations with the US will end the sanctions and the threat of war that there are two sides to this equation. The US and its allies have their own reasons for continued confrontation, especially at a time of severe economic crisis, irrespective of which ayatollah is in control.
Rafsanjani is a class enemy. We have the responsibility to remind everyone that the leaders of the Green movement, including Rafsanjani, acted like the grand old duke of York and there is no reason to believe they will behave differently this time. In fact this time there is a difference: in order to avoid upsetting the supreme leader, Rafsanjani does not want to encourage any mass protests. As one website put it, “Rafsanjani hopes to revive the enthusiasm of the 2009 election … minus the demonstrations!”17
It is not surprising that none of the candidates in Iran’s presidential elections, even before the vetting has weeded out those considered untrustworthy, mentions unemployment, mass non-payment of wages, ‘white contracts’ for temporary jobs and other issues that affect the majority of Iran’s population, the working class and the poor. If you read the various election manifestos issued in the last few days in Tehran, you would think that inflation, sanctions and the terrible economic conditions only affect the middle classes and the wealthy. In an election already known to be prone to “engineering” by revolutionary guards, where only male supporters of an Islamic constitution can become candidates, the genuine left has only one option: to boycott the elections and continue the call for the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime, together with all its myriad factions and tendencies.
For all the claims that these elections will ‘save Iran from the abyss’, improve relations with the outside world and end sanctions, three of the prominent candidates – Rafsanjani, Velayati and Fallahian – were implicated in the Mykonos trials18 of those accused of murdering Kurdish Democratic Party leaders in Berlin in 1982. Rafsanjani was president, Velayati foreign minister and Fallahian intelligence minister. So it is possible that Iran will end up with a president wanted by Interpol and incapable of travelling to many western countries. These factions might be at war with each other now, but let us not forget that were united in crime not that long ago.
Having said all that, it is very likely that protests against the guardian council’s vetting or vote-rigging, as in 2009, will cause anger and protests in Tehran and other large Iranian cities. We should not ignore such protests – boycotting the elections does not mean boycotting those who, in desperation, will try and vote for the ‘least worst’ candidate.