Behind the liberal facade of Rowhani

Despite the easing of sanctions and the mixed messages in Tehran, writes Yassamine Mather, the Islamic regime is thoroughly committed to the capitalist free market, not the welfare of the masses

Revolutionary Guards: guardians of counter-revolution
Revolutionary Guards: guardians of counter-revolution

In the early hours of Monday January 19, centrifuges used for the enrichment of uranium up to 20% were switched off in Natanz nuclear plant as part of Iran’s agreement to halt enrichment of uranium above 5% purity, and the ‘neutralising’ of its stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium was begun. These were the first steps towards disposing of all the country’s stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium within six months.

By the afternoon of the same day, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Iran’s compliance with these initial steps and have continued to monitor various sites. It is assumed that they will have daily access to the Fordo uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom. In return, the 5+1 world powers agreed to suspend certain sanctions on the trade in gold and precious metals, penalties on companies supplying or working with Iran’s automotive sector and its petrochemical industry. Indeed, by mid-afternoon on January 19 a number of sanctions were lifted – first by countries in the European Union and later by others.

Of course, inside Iran and beyond, there was opposition to the deal – one daily headline in a religious conservative daily read: “Condolences to the nation”. Last weekend, as it became clear that the nuclear enrichment programme was being ‘revised’, a number of conservative members in Iran’s Islamic parliament started expressing their opposition to the deal. One MP was quoted by the national press as saying that in private conversations Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had said: “As a senior cleric I have read the documents signed by the Iranian government and nowhere do I see any reference to Iran’s right to enrich uranium to any level.” Of course, it could be that the MP is misquoting Khamenei, but the fact that his office has neither confirmed nor denied the claim shows he is keeping his options open.

The absence of a clear position from Iran’s supreme leader regarding this important episode in the country’s foreign relations is not because he has no opinion on this subject. No, the ambiguity in his position is a deliberate attempt to stay in control of the situation – if sanctions are lifted and negotiations progress he will claim credit; and if obstacles appear along the way, including the possible approval of new sanctions proposed by supporters of Israel and the Saudi rulers in Washington, he can say: ‘I was always cynical about this deal and deep down I knew it wasn’t going to work’ …


The other major news about Iran focuses on expectations that its new president, Hassan Rowhani, will be the first since Mohammad Khatami to attend the world economic forum in Davos, and in many ways that trip reveals quite a lot about the economic policies of the new government. As the promise of the alleviation of some sanctions starts to materialise, some industries will start functioning properly again, amongst them Iran’s embattled car industry. Yet it is clear that the government has no intention of improving the plight of the working class in terms of ending mass unemployment and the systematic delay in the payment of wages by factory owners in the private sector and managers in the state sector. There will be no reduction of ‘white contracts’, where workers sign a blank sheet of paper and the managers add the conditions of employment as it suits them.

In other words, the state has made it clear that the main beneficiaries of the lifting of sanctions will be the capitalists. Rowhani’s ministers have only two buzz words: ‘foreign’ and ‘investment’. It appears as if this, and this alone, will solve all the country’s problems. In the meantime, western delegations are queuing up to travel to Tehran, including the one led by the UK’s former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, which included Lord Lamont, chair of Iran-British chamber of commerce, and anti-war Labour left MP Jeremy Corbyn. These delegations, as well as those present in Davos, will be reassured by Iran’s new administration that foreign investors can benefit from cheap skilled and semi-skilled workers, while UK and European goods should be able to find a new market amongst Iran’s nouveaux riches – the elite sons and associates of senior clerics, who have accumulated astronomic wealth through sanction-busting, profiteering from black markets and corruption.

However, it is not surprising that the open support for more neoliberal economic policies is generating opposition. When Rowhani flew to Ahvaz on January 14, workers from the sugar factory there lined the streets adjacent to the airport to protest against the appalling conditions they have to endure. Meanwhile 1,000 contract workers from the Imam Khomeini provincial petrochemical plant were demanding that the president visits their workplace, so that he can witness their anger at the results of his administration’s economic policies.

Nevertheless, the trip to Davos will prove beyond doubt that this president and his government are very much on the side of international capital. In this they are no different from the governments of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era. All of them are pro-capitalist, but the difference is that Iran’s last president attempted to disguise his pursuit of neoliberal economic policies with gimmicks and slogans about supporting the poor and the disinherited (while his close allies and friends were profiteering from sanctions, accumulating billions of dollars). By contrast, the new president and his administration proudly announce they are on the side of neoliberal, international capital and will not tolerate dissent regarding this issue. Last week Mahmoud Alavi, Rowhani’s minister of information, complained of the “persistence of socialist ideas” in the country, resulting in a “hatred of capitalists”. And one of Rowhani’s senior advisors has apparently told the journal, Andisheh Pouya, that the new president’s project is to “erase leftwing ideas”.

Both Alavi and Rowhani’s advisor forget that 35 years ago it was the Iranian working class, espousing socialist ideas, that was central in the downfall of the shah’s regime. They forget that many Iranians still maintain respect and admiration for the aspirations of the young Marxist men and women of the left who, however misguided their tactics and politics might have been, played a crucial role in the destruction of sections of the state apparatus, the army and the secret police. However, history is written by the victors, and ministers of every Islamic government since 1979 have done their best to rewrite history, employing the grossest misrepresentation of the facts. The latest amongst efforts aimed at discrediting the left is the attempt at a character assassination of the founding members of the Fedayeen: in particular Amir Parviz Pouyan and Massoud Ahmadzadeh, both killed in a gun battle in northern Iran by the shah’s army.

Andisheh Pouya recently went to great lengths to attack the founding members of the Fedayeen, with comments based entirely on reports produced by the shah’s secret service, Savak, prompting strong repudiations by a number of prominent authors and leftwing activists.

Clearly this concerted attack on the radical left is part and parcel of Rowhani’s plans to erase memories of the revolutionary aspects of the February uprising, in order to cosy up to international capital. Attacking the working class and the left is an important part of the new government’s zealous neoliberal economic strategy. However, all this has had the opposite effect: suddenly the left is getting more attention and prominence than at any time in the last few years, attention that is disproportionate to its role in the current political situation.

When it comes to the economy, veteran socialist Fariborz Raisdana, who was sentenced to a year in prison last year for speaking out against the regime, is absolutely right when he says that governments in the Islamic republic have all been “capitalist administrations with semi-governmental monopolies”. They have all been opposed to any effective form of welfare, and committed to generating profit by relying heavily on oil revenue and investment in trade and real estate. The fact that the Rowhani administration is ‘moderate’ and neoliberal, just like Hashemi’s was, that Ahmadinejad’s administration was conservative-populist and used radical policies against internal and external opposition groups, or that Khatami’s administration was also neoliberal while also tending towards more planning and central organisation, does not take away their common denominator.

There are ideologues on all sides who are supposedly concerned about religious and ideological issues. However, in reality, the rivalry between the different factions is an economic rivalry over sources of wealth, production, trade, opportunities for investment and rents. Hashemi counted on foreign loans, Khatami had the support of the naive class, while Ahmadinejad relied on oil revenue. None of these factions are interested in the people’s democratic rights or those of the workers and union members.

Ahmadinejad supported semi-governmental capitalism – meaning corporations and semi-governmental military and non-military institutions – against a governmental, clerical and bureaucratic economy. All these factions existed before, but Ahmadinejad’s government, a conservative administration with radical, rightwing economic policies, was trying to strengthen this new faction and create a new layer of capitalists. This layer established itself and took over as “the main agent for investments, civil projects, extraction of natural resources, civil-military projects and developmental contracts.”1

Remain vigilant

When it comes to democratic rights and freedom for political prisoners, Rowhani made many promises before coming to power. But he has not delivered. Supporters of the ‘reformist’ movement, like other ideologues of the capitalist free market, claim that their economic policies go hand in hand with ‘democratisation’. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Adam Hanieh and others have pointed out, the recent history of the entire region is proof that authoritarian regimes are the ideal form of government for the imposition of unpopular, divisive, pro-free market economic policies and the new administration in Tehran is no exception to this rule.2 Forty prisoners were publicly executed in the first two weeks of 2014 and, although I am not aware of any political prisoners among them, in December 2013 a number of leftwing activists were hanged. However, the plan is clear: public hangings are designed to instil terror in the population.

This week, ahead of the resumption of nuclear negotiations, Iran’s supreme leader responded to a call by the conservative leader of the Islamic parliament, Ali Larijani, to release 800 prisoners under an amnesty. So far there are no signs that any political prisoners are on this list and anyone who expects a genuine relaxation of repressive measures or a commitment to the democratic rights of the Iranian people under this government will be disappointed. Despite the mixed messages – the release of some prisoners and the public hanging of others; Rowhani’s meetings with selected actors and writers, while attacking anyone left of centre – it is clear where the new government is heading.

But the threat of war still has not gone away. As John Kerry and Barack Obama keep insisting, all options, including military attack, are still on the cards. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has not given up, while Republican and Democratic senators are still canvassing for more signatures for new sanctions against Iran, conscious that such measures will provoke a harsh reaction from conservatives in Tehran and jeopardise the current deal.

That is why we must remain vigilant. We must maintain our anti-war, anti-sanctions stance, while stepping up campaigns in defence of the Iranian working class, for the release of all political prisoners, in defence of women’s rights and in solidarity with the oppressed national and religious minorities.



2. Adam Hanieh, referring to protest in Arab countries, writes: “The popular movements that erupted in 2011 represented much more than the overthrow of despised dictators. Of course, the protestors were centrally united around demands for authoritarian regimes to end … But to concentrate on the surface appearances of these demonstrations obscures their real content. These mobilisations indicate that ‘politics’ and ‘economics’, which are typically conceived as separate spheres, are fused and part of the same struggle. The battle against political despotism is inevitably intertwined with the dynamic of class struggle. These uprisings reflected not just a crisis of regime legitimacy or a concern with political freedom, but were – at their root – confronting the outcomes of capitalist development itself” (A Hanieh Lineages of revolt Chicago 2013, p164).

Originally published in the Weekly Worker.

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