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Iran: What lies behind the democracy movement?

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Socialist Worker spoke to Elaheh Rostami Povey about the background to this week's elections in Iran
Issue 1889

Those who control Iranian society have banned many candidates from standing. Why?

This week’s election is the most serious crisis facing Iran’s rulers since the revolution in 1979. The Guardian Council, an unelected constitutional watchdog consisting of conservative clergy, disqualified 3,600 reformist candidates out of 8,200 prospective candidates. Young women and men in Iran reject the idea that modern, progressive attitudes are held exclusively by the West. They also oppose the rigid traditional rules set by the conservative clergy.

The majority of the population are actively trying to construct emancipatory models that derive from their own experiences. The conservative clergy are threatened by the popularity of the democracy movement.

What are groups like workers, women and students doing?

In response to the disqualification of reformist candidates, 80 reformist MPs (14 of them women) held a sit-in in parliament. This was followed by the resignation of 134 out of 290 MPs. Under these pressures, the Guardian Council removed the bar from 1,150 candidates but announced that the other 2,450 will remain barred.

The Participatory Front, the largest reformist party, and other parties who have the support of the democracy movement called for the boycott of the election. The conservatives who control the judiciary, army and the state media could rig the election and undermine the reformist majority in the parliament.

But this will be a shortlived victory, as there will be more radical opposition which will end the legitimacy of the autocratic system. Mehdi Aminzadeh, a student leader, explained, ‘In the short term we will protest on the issue of elections, but in the long term our aim is to change the system.’ Many believe that if the president, Khatami, is unable to choose the movement for democratic change he should withdraw and not get in the way. Among those who have called for Khatami’s resignation is Shirin Ebadi, one of the leading members of the women’s movement, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She spoke against US occupation of Iraq, and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, in the World Social Forum in Mumbai.

Why has the reform movement sprung up?

Since the early 1990s workers, women and students have been demanding changes. They have high expectations-the desire for equality before the law, equal political participation, the right to health, education and employment, and women’s rights to choose whether or not to wear the Islamic hijab.

Many people are disillusioned with the reformists’ conciliatory approach. They believe that President Khatami should have fought the conservatives when they vetoed reforms, when they closed down newspapers and journals, when they arrested students, workers, women and journalists.

How much of a monolithic society is Iran?

The democracy movement is diverse. Some are secular, the majority Muslim. There are also religious minorities (Jews, Armenians, Zoroastrians) and ethnic minorities (Azari Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchs and Turkamans). They have been working together for democracy. They have put aside many issues which divide them and concentrated on issues that unite them. This collaboration has strengthened the democracy movement.

What kind of impact does the revolution still have 25 years on? The 1979 revolution overthrew a vicious dictatorial regime supported by the West. This was achieved by 18 months of demonstrations and strikes, and a general strike led by the oil workers.

The democracy movement, which began in the early 1990s and which today is unstoppable, is deeply rooted in the experiences of the revolutionary struggles of 1978-9.

Do the people who want reform support America?

Iranians judge America through the lens of history. They remember well that during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war America and the West supplied Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons, which burnt and suffocated their families.

Older Iranians have not forgotten that MI6 and the CIA overthrew the popular nationalist government of Mossadeq in 1953 and replaced it with the Shah’s puppet regime, which denied the majority of the population basic human rights, access to health, education and employment.

Today women exercise more rights in Iran than in neighbouring US-backed states. They have the right to vote, and more gender-balanced family law, education and employment laws. However, the West ignores these achievements, which are the result of 25 years of bitter struggle, and only highlights women’s hijab as a symbol of women’s oppression. Therefore for many in Iran, Bush and Blair’s concept of liberation and democracy is pure hypocrisy.

The neo-conservatives in Washington have formed a ‘coalition for democracy in Iran’ which advocates ‘regime change’. Iranians resent these pressures on their country. People in Iran are patiently struggling for their own idea of democracy that may ultimately have a progressive impact on the region.

People in Britain can support their plight by fighting Blair and Bush’s war against the people of the Middle East.

Elaheh Rostami Povey is the author of Women, Work and Islamism: Ideology and Resistance in Iran (Zed Books), under the pen name of Maryam Poya.

Six key facts about Iran

  • In 1979 a popular revolution, with mass strikes and demonstrations, toppled the Shah of Iran, a dictatorial ruler who was the West’s key ally in the oil-rich region.

  • After almost two more years of upheaval a group of conservative clerics linked to the merchant section of the capitalist class consolidated its grip on power. The figurehead for this group was the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He combined repression at home with opposition to US policy in the Middle East.

  • The new rulers allowed for elections, but also put huge powers in the hands of a Guardian Council, an unelected body of conservative clergy.

  • This regime also repressed workers’ and students’ organisations, and fought to restrict women’s rights.

  • The growing mood for change among the mass of the population was reflected in the landslide victory in 1997 of Mohammad Khatami in presidential elections. He was re-elected with an equally large majority in 2001.

  • Khatami represents a section of Iran’s rulers who wanted some reform, and his supporters are dubbed ‘reformists’, while those who want to stop change and dominate the Guardian Council are dubbed ‘conservatives’.
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