Although the recent disqualification of two candidates Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from the election, is very significant and further reveals the intense power struggles within the regime, more significant are the defining issues which continue to fuel the grassroots discontent inside Iran. Originally appeared in Iranian Progressives in Translation, May 25, 2013.
As we approach the June 2013 Iranian presidential election, the real frontrunners of the 2009 election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi as well as Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard — all of whom came to be known as the leaders of the reformist Green movement– continue to languish under house arrest. Many young activists, feminists, and ethnic activists who participated in protests against election fraud in 2009 or any activities deemed “seditious” by the regime are also in prison.
Although the recent disqualification of two candidates Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from the election, is very significant and further reveals the intense power struggles within the regime, more significant are the defining issues which continue to fuel the grassroots discontent inside Iran. These issues are the following:
- The demands for freedom of speech, press, religion as well as the separation of religion and state. (1)
- Deep class divisions, growing poverty and lack of labor rights, all of which have also been worsened by severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European nations.
- The demands of an increasingly educated female population for equality before the law. Some specific demands include an optional rather than a compulsory hijab, the right to divorce, custody of children and travel without the permission of a husband or male guardian.
- The demands of national minorities such as the Kurds, Azeris and Arabs for self-determination and federalism, including the use of their own language as the language of administration and instruction.(2)
Let’s look at how these issues are being discussed explicitly or implicitly by several Iranian intellectual analysts:
Philosopher and journalist Mohammad Reza Nikfar, who currently lives in exile in Germany, argues that questions such as capitalist alienation, lack of development of civil society in urban areas, ethnic and religious identity, patriarchy, and gender, ethnic and religious chauvinism have to be seen as the various layers of the problematic of division within Iran. He writes:
” We can still not tell whether in case of the rise of a widespread movement, an individualism demanding liberation will be able to synthesize itself with solidarity and justice-seeking or not . . . Is there a chance for overcoming the tendency toward division? . . . What we can really say is that there is a “chance” that a movement will arise and will organize, move and motivate sectors of the people. Through them, the opposition will gain energy and this energy will create coalitions. A series of actions and reactions, will create centers for organizing the people and the political forces . Along with this trend, the divisions within the regime will be intensified. Part of it will be cut off and will leave its ability to integrate sectors of the people, in the service of the opposition. . . All depends on whether this ability will become the basis for establishing a progressive anti-chauvinist order or not. There is also a real danger that the movement will not be inclusive and that despite its validity, it will in fact play the role of setting off a civil war. . .” (3)
In addressing the possibility of a progressive coalition of forces inside Iran, Mohammad Maljoo, economist and labor activists based in Tehran has been very critical of the leaders of the Green Movement for their failure to address the demands of workers and the poor at the time of the 2009 election and during the post-election protests. In a recent analysis he wrote the following about the creation of a new Green website (avayekar.org) aimed at reaching out to workers:
“Up until 2009, so long as they had access to the political body of the ruling circle and so long as their discursive and organizational domination over the post-election protests gave them the mistaken impression that they could promote their demands with a civil and alleged non-class based movement, the Greens had not set their minds on asking for support from the working class. Their kindness to workers only expressed itself in a sense of sympathy for the poor among figures like Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and not in offering a program for defending the social, economic and and political interests of the working class.”
“Today however, the political defeat of the Green Movement and the danger of the complete elimination of the Greens from the economic and political scene in Iran has been the most important motivation for their late but not untimely kindness toward the forces of labor. Depending on the conditions of this coalition, the forces of labor may also be interested in such a bond. The disorganized nature of the labor forces and therefore the access to necessary resources for preparing the organization of workers with the support of such an alliance might be the most important motivation of the forces of labor.”
” Nevertheless, the needs of both sides– each of which is under attack–only form the necessary condition for the creation of a coalition. In the absence of an effort to provide the sufficient conditions and so long as a neo-liberal discourse dominates such a coalition, the efforts of the Green websites for establishing a link with the labor movement will only be a velvet glove for an iron fist. ” (4)
While both Nikfar and Maljoo base their analyses on the inseparability of politics from economics, Fatemeh Sadeghi, a feminist political scientist in Tehran who was an outspoken critic of the fraud committed during the 2009 election (5), advocates a return to Hannah Arendt’s concept of politics. This concept is defined as collective action or free deliberation among equals in a public sphere. Sadeghi argues that in Iran, the spirit of martyrdom which permeated the Iranian Revolution in 1979 has been replaced by the equally pernicious spirit of selfish individualism which rejects meaning and ideals. Hence, she suggests that “by participating in the public sphere and thinking about the common interests of all with the goal of freedom and ending despotism and authoritarianism, individuals will create a different type of action and will change their fate.”(6)
Following Arendt’s privileging of the realm of political action over the realm of labor and economics, Sadeghi claims that “both neoliberal and Marxist theories which consider economics the foundation for politics and freedom are in fact anti-political and are means for creating governance and the state and not necessarily politics. . .”(7)
While Sadeghi’s fear of the subordination of political freedom to the state is justified, it is not clear how “a collective action that is achieved through participation in the public sphere and thinking about the common good”(8) can be realized without theorizing the relationship between labor, economic justice and political freedom.
The views expressed by Nikfar, Maljoo and Sadeghi reveal that the grassroots opposition movment inside Iran still faces many unresolved questions concerning how it can bring about a democratic alternative to the existing regime.
While in 2009 the leadership of the reformist opposition limited itself to slogans such as free elections and political democracy, today, any democratic opposition platform that hopes to be relevant needs to specifically and concomitantly address three burning questions: economic justice, women’s rights, and self-determination for Iran’s national minorities who want nothing short of federalism.
1. See the statement from a group of prominent Iranian religious reformists which was sent to the leaders of Egypt. “Learn from the Painful Experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran: A Message from Five Muslim Reformist Intellectuals to the Leaders of the Egyptian People.” December 21, 2013.
2. Hassan Shariatmadari, a well-known Azeri intellectual and political activist, who currently lives in exile in Germany, has recently published a proposal for a decentralized system of government which divides Iran into 13 ethnic states, 3 autonomous provinces and one autonomous region, all aimed at creating a federalist system based on democracy and human rights according to the standards of the United Nations. See
- Shariatmadari, Hassan. “Saman yabi-ye aqvam dar Iran: Gami be suye tamarkoz zadayi democratic-e Iran” April 25, 2013.
- See also my translation of a joint statement issued by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan in August, 2012.
3. “Tose’eh, tab’iz va chandparchegi: Dar goftegu ba Mohmmad Reza Nikfar.” Babak Mina. Radio Zamaneh. 10 Ordibehesh 1392 (April 30, 2013). http://www.radiozamaneh.com/64569
4. Maljoo, Mohammad. “Nayamukhtid hanuz.” Naqd-e Eqtesad-e Siasi. April 4, 2013.
5. See my translations of the following articles by Fatemeh Sadeghi:
6. Shirafkan, Ameneh. “Ostureh-e tabaqe-ye motevaset: Goftegu ba Fatemeh Sadeghi.” Shargh Newspaper. 15 Esfand 1391 (March 6, 2013)