Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Simmering discontent in Iran?

On this anniversary of last year's election, one thing to remember about analysis like this one in The New York Times is that foreign reporters are most likely to talk to educated, English-speaking Iranians. And who is most likely to be alienated from the regime and the government? The educated, English-speaking Iranians. That doesn't mean that Will Yong and Michael Slackman are wrong.

Jon Leyne's analysis for the BBC is based more on empirical evidence, but his assumptions about politics in Iran show through his recitation of facts. (He was expelled from Iran after the demonstrations last year.)

These articles all repeat the journalists' preferred narrative about events in Iran a year after a flawed election. At times like this it's good to remember that journalists' narrative for recent primary elections in the USA was about opposition to incumbents. But last Tuesday 82 of 84 incumbents won elections.

Across Iran, Anger Lies Behind Face of Calm
One year after Iran’s disputed presidential election, the familiar rhythms of life have returned here…

But the veneer of calm masks what many here call the “fire under the ashes,” a low-grade burn of cynicism and distrust. The major demonstrations and protests are gone, but the hard feelings remain, coursing through the routine of daily life…

In scores of interviews conducted over the past several months with Iranians from all strata of society, inside and outside the country, a clear picture emerged of a more politically aware public, with widened divisions between the middle class and the poor and — for the first time in the Islamic republic’s three-decade history — a determined core of dissenters who were opposed to the republic itself…

Mr. Ahmadinejad and his patron, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are stronger today than they were a year ago, political experts say, although their base of support has narrowed.
They are relying heavily on force and intimidation, arrests, prison terms, censorship, even execution, to maintain authority. They have closed newspapers, banned political parties and effectively silenced all but the most like-minded people. Thousands of their opponents have fled the country, fearing imprisonment.

As a formal political organization, the reform movement is dead…

The crisis accelerated and institutionalized a transfer of power that began with the first election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005. The shift was from the old revolutionaries to a generation that came of age during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, hard-liners who deeply resented the relatively liberal reforms promoted by former President Mohammad Khatami.

The vanguard of the new political elite is now the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which oversees Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and has extended its control over the economy and the machinery of state. It has improved its ability to control the street, to monitor electronic communications and keep tabs on university campuses, and its alumni head the government’s security organs…

“The people are more aware than before, but they stay quiet on fear of death,” said an 80-year-old woman as she sat in her kitchen frying onions for a rice dish. “They have killed so many of the young and the well intentioned. Even the shah did not kill like this. They rule the people at the tip of a spear, but the people don’t want them anymore.”...


Why time is against Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The opposition protests that brought millions out on to the streets have petered out. Opposition supporters seem disillusioned…

The government continues to insist that all the trouble was caused by a tiny handful of foreign-inspired rioters and troublemakers.

But they betray their sense of insecurity by their endless succession of warnings and triumphant declarations about how they have vanquished the enemy…

Many Iranians have fallen into a sullen acquiescence, frustrated that their hopes for change have slipped away.

But in the longer term, trends may be against President Ahmadinejad and those around him…

[M]any key establishment figures are giving only very reluctant support to President Ahmadinejad…

As a result, a weakened president has had to compromise over a key plank of his domestic policy, subsidy reform, and has lacked the authority to negotiate freely over the nuclear programme.

Even more seriously, the economic trends are not good. Through a combination of mismanagement and international pressure, oil production is going down fairly rapidly…

At the same time, vast swathes of the economy have been virtually handed over to the Revolutionary Guards, part of their hugely increased power since the election.

They are not famed for their skills at economic management…

The government seems unable to reverse the big increase in spending made by President Ahmadinejad when oil prices were at record levels. Again, it lacks the authority to make the tough decisions that might have to be made.

There is much discussion if or when an economic "crunch" could come. The main symptom could be a crisis over the exchange rate and foreign currency reserves.

The political significance could be enormous if the government begins to run out of money to pay its loyal supporters in the security forces, not to mention the many millions of Iranians now employed in state-owned enterprises…

During last summer's protests, the missing element was widespread labour unrest…

But the labour issue also illustrates a weakness of the Green movement. Despite the unpopularity of President Ahmadinejad, they have been unable to broaden their core support into the working classes…

Despite the misleading talk about Mr Ahmadinejad's rural base, the vast majority now live in the cities. And more and more Iranians would think of themselves as middle class, with aspirations to lead a freer, more secular lifestyle…

It is hard to see an Iranian government surviving indefinitely while it is so divided within, and so bitterly opposed by large numbers of ordinary Iranians.


See also:
Force, fear keep Iran together from The Globe and Mail
Iran's defiant Green movement vows to fight on from The Guardian (UK)
Iran opposition leader vows to continue struggle from The Boston Globe

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