Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Iran

I have not commented here about Iran, because I was out of the region and because this blog is primarily about food and farming. I got news of what was going on when I was in France, and then heard more from the US where Twitter is definitely the next Pulitzer winner. European or US mainstream press does not constitute reliable sources of information on Iran for this blogger.

But then I had a long chat with my brother who has lived in Iran until recently, who speaks Farsi and whose partner is Iranian and still lives in Iran. Here's what he thinks of the situation, as a bona-fide Iranian.

On one level, what we are seeing is the unfolding of an old rivalry between two poles within the Mullahs group: Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on one side and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the other. Rafsanjani is the richest man in Iran (and that’s beaucoup) and he controls the pistachio trade (hence the food and farming connection to this blog) as well as the oil contracts. He is the head of the Assembly of Experts which has the constitutional power to appoint (and depose) Khamenei. Rafsanjani never digested his defeat in the 2005 elections when Khamanei brought an unknown Revolutionary Guard leader, Ahmedinajad, to the post of President through a combination of (probable) rigging and en masse voting at the last minute by the Baseej (the youth incubator for the Revolutionary Guards) and the Revolutionary Guards. Rafsanjani was humiliated as much by the defeat as by the "quality" of the winner (read "class"). He vowed revenge, and championned Musawi, not wanting to risk another humiliation. I gather he figured it would give him more freedom of movement should "The People" decide to reject the outcome of the elections, as has happened.

But "The People" are apparently not players in this power game. Most are genuinely seeking Change, but many differ on the nature of this Change. While the 2005 elections were met by populat apathy, with a turn out of around 50%, these elections had a reported turn out of 85%. Clearly, many were fed up with Ahmadinejad and sought something else. This explains in part the general feeling of frustration that drove them into the streets.

But one has to cautiously qualify "The People". Iran is a country where 60% of the population is under 30 years old. Contestation is common, even under the regime of the Mullahs. My brother told me of incidents he witnessed where young people would argue with policemen in the street about right of way and then beat the policeman, the symbol of the State's authority. It is also a country where many youth are very branché on the West and where there are 30 million internet users (about half the population). After high school in Iran, you can go generally in one of 2 directions: to the free University where the programs are excellent and very Westernized, or to the Baseej. I am told the bright go to University.

So the protesters are a heteroclite assemblage of small groups and individuals ranging from bourgeois who would like to see Iran join NATO, to extreme leftists. But many if not most of them are not demanding the overthrow of the regime. According to my bro, what they would settle for is better economic policies to address unemployment and to stop the Ahmadinejad's demagogic disaster, and the removal of dress restrictions for women: veil and coat. Basically people want to live better. Austerity is not the modern youth's favored mode.

The Baseej, of course, are on the other side. They support Ahmedinejad and they also form a significantly large group of young people. There are regional differences in the distribution of the relative importance of the two groups, but, unlike what has been implied, not one group has the monopole of the rural or the urban fabric, or of the provincial cities versus Teheran. There is everything everywhere.

An issue of relevance to Palestine and Lebanon is that dislike (not to say repugnance) of Ahmedinejad and of his policies is spilling over on what he is seen as political choices he has imposed, especially in regional politics: Palestine and Lebanon. So while it was Musawi who had institutionalized the Iran-Hizbullah relationship when he was president (and this was during Hizbullah’s darkest days), support to Palestine and to the Lebanese group is now being seriously criticized by those who are contesting the results of the elections. This is where support to the protests gains increased importance for the US-Israel agenda in the region. A nuclear Iran wouldn’t be that bad if it was chummy with Israel. Remember the Shah?


Anonymous said...

I am wondering about the thirty million internet users, and what that means.

Fifteen million Iranians are fourteen or younger. Of those over fourteen, twenty three percent are illiterate. By my rough calculation that brings the number of possible users to 38 million who are fifteen and older. Twenty five percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture. The country is huge. What is the digital infrastructure outside the cities? Its hard enough to use the internet meaningfully - beyond email - in the rural US.

Somehow 'half the population' doesn't sound quite right, under these circumstances. Are the numbers correct? And if correct, what do they really mean? Do the numbers include twelve year olds gaming at internet cafes? Does this or any access exist in the provincial towns?

it seems to me that, like everything else in the news about Iran, on a closer look the significance of the 'thirty million' is unclear.

Rami Zurayk said...


Internet users in Iran, 2009: 23 million. That's more than 50% of the total Middle East including Israel. Check this

or just google Iran internet use

Thanks for pointing this out. The 30 million came from someone who was looking into e-business in Iran and they must have padded the data for future projections. Although after the current crisis, net usage will certainly climb as it was very effective for information sharing and other uses