Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Iran—a split in the ruling class

The elections in Iran have revealed the deep divisions at the heart of Iran’s ruling class.

The country is internationally isolated, faces a growing economic crisis and is ruled by a faction associated with the “hardliners” that want to be the main beneficiaries of privatisation of state-owned companies.

This faction has coalesced around the incumbent president Mahmud Ahmadinijad. They see his populist appeal as an important bulwark against the deep discontent that is sweeping the country.

A second section fears that the widespread corruption at the heart of the system is undermining popular support for the republic. They want the economy opened up and strip from power those they see as lining their pockets.

This faction, that includes many senior figures in the religious establishment, has put its hopes in Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Mousavi is an establishment figure. He was prime minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and played key role in the rise of the Islamic movement following the 1979 revolution.

He is respected for keeping the economy afloat during the war, and is considered a safe pair of hands.

Mousavi lost power in 1989 when the post of prime minister was abolished. Throughout the 1990s he became associated with the rising reform movement that wanted to limit the power of Iran’s new elite. His goal was always to steer Iran towards neoliberal “opening up” of the economy.

Mousavi was widely tipped to run for the president in the landmark elections in 1997. He gave way to Mohammad Khatami, then a little known cleric.

Despite winning 80 percent of the vote, and re-election in 2001, Khatami was unable to deliver reform, leaving the movement that brought him to power disappointed and demoralised.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the subsequent elections on a promise to root out corruption and ease the growing poverty among the mass of Iranian people.

Once in power Ahmadinejad presided over huge windfall from the spike in oil price. He used this money to widen his base among the urban and rural poor—even distributing free potatoes during the election campaign.

But sections of the establishment accused him of squandering the oil wealth and failing to plan for the subsequent collapse in prices.

Meanwhile many of his supporters were disappointed when reneged on his promise to tackle corruption.

Ahmadinejad was certain of victory in the elections. All the early polls showed him polling double the number of votes than his nearest rival. But the trends also showed the gap narrowing as Mousavi campaign grew in strength.

Like Khatami, Mousavi promised widespread reform, but also to limit their scope. His key promise was to make public the finances of the government—a threat to sections of the elite who have been creaming off Iran’s resources.

His advocates sweeping neoliberal economic policies as part of making the state-owned sector more “efficient”. But these policies have little popular appeal. So Mousavi also promised sweeping social reforms.

Mousavi pledged to declaw the much feared morality police that enforce strict rules on dress and behaviour. He promised to open the top posts in government to women and “review” the laws that limit their rights.

He said who would bring the police under presidential control. At present the security forces are answerable only to unelected supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

Mousavi and other reformers want to harness the growing disquiet in the country to oust one faction of the ruling class from power. They want Ahmadinejad and the hardliners removed, but also limit the scope of popular anger.

The danger is that this movement could quickly run out of their control.

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