The portal Strajk talks with Vladimir Mitev, a Bulgarian Iranist, editor of the left-wing portal Barikada on why the Iranians elected a conservative president, on the record low attendance, and on what in Iranian realities escape the attention of Western commentators.
This article was published on 22 June 2021 at the Polish site Strajk.
Mr. Mitev, why there is such a low, record low voter presence in Iran? The first, intuitive thought, however, would suggest that society is very disappointed by something (or someone).
A few days ago, local elections took place in France. Attendance was very low. Does anyone claim on this basis that French society is disillusioned with republican or secular government?
Yes, the turnout in the Iranian elections was low, but it still exceeded expectations. One of the leaders of the reformers, Mir Hoseyn Musawi, under house arrest, urged his supporters not to vote. In turn, another influential reformer, Mehdi Karubi, urged them to go to ballot boxes.
I would rather pay attention to another aspect – about 10 percent of those who came to vote cast invalid votes. Iranian analyst Mehdi Motaharnia stated that the society has divided into those who see the sense of going to the polls and expressing their opinion there, and those who voted “against” the ballot boxes.
It does not change the fact that the Iranians with whom I have personal contact are actually disappointed with what is happening in the country. Some even look for the possibility of emigration. In previous elections, there were inspiring candidates and people voted for them en masse. But now there competition was not strong at all.
Ebrahim Raisi, head of the Iranian judiciary, won decisively. He had over 60% of the votes. Was he not an inspiring candidate? The candidate of the conservative wing in the Iranian ruling elite did not give a chance to moderates or reformers who had their man in the presidential chair for the last two terms.
I would point out several factors that contributed to such a result. First, there was no real competition in these elections. The incumbent President Hasan Rouhani could no longer run, and the technocrat Abdolnaser Hemmati, put up by reformers, represented the faults of the current administration. He is a man without political experience and influence, but with enormous baggage: he was easily accused of being complicit in the worsening of the country’s economic situation under sanctions as a member of the outgoing administration.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, when the Iranian state is under threat, the political elite usually gets homogenized. The conservatives won the 2020 parliamentary elections, most reformists have remained outside the parliament. And it cannot be denied that the public, when subsequent sanctions are imposed or maintained, feels threatened, attacked.
Trump’s anti-Iranian policies made Iranian conservatives take wind in their sails?
Of course! Recall how Rouhani was attacked both by the opposition inside (conservatives) and outside (by Trump). What many people don’t realize is that Hasan Rouhani’s first cabinet had more ministers with US Ph.D. degrees than the then Barack Obama government! I have no doubt that the Rouhani government had the most sincere intentions in its dealings with the West. He wanted to open up and normalize relations. The withdrawal from the nuclear treaty and the re-imposition of sanctions has shown the Iranian public that the Americans are not worth believing. And maybe that meant that not the Americans, but also those who wanted to bargain with them are not worthy of being supported.
But that’s not all. The influence of the economy and the class struggle on the result of the presidential election must not be overlooked. Rouhani is considered a neoliberal, a man who takes the side of the middle class and business. But now a large part of Iranian society lives in poverty. In the campaign, Ebrahim Raisi, and not only he, made promises to meet the most basic needs of these people. Again, it is worth comparing Iran with European democracies in this regard – after the rule of technocrats, the pendulum usually swings to the so-called populists (as it is fashionable to say today), because part of the society feels excluded. On the pages of Euronews or France 24 valuable material was published on the social consequences of the economic downturn. Inflation, unemployment, young families who cannot buy a flat / house or decide responsibly to have a child …
Is the new president able to fix it at all? After all, the main cause of the collapse of the Iranian economy are the American sanctions.
We will need to see what solutions Raisi will propose and implement. In fact, the lion’s share of Iran’s economic problems relate to international sanctions. Iran is one of only two countries blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force – a global organization that monitors money laundering and sponsorship of terrorism. To improve its economy, Iran would have to return to normal economic relations with other countries, and this will not happen without improving political relations …
And in this regard, it is really hard to expect a breakthrough, even if Donald Trump is no longer the US president. However, is there any, even minimal chance?
Talks are currently underway in Vienna between Iran and the 5 + 1 group on a nuclear deal. Ebrahim Raisi claims that he will be able to implement his provisions better than Rouhani; he is clearly in favor of the rebirth of the treaty. The only question is whether the Americans will agree to Iranian terms or will only demand their own terms to be respected. Here the interests are divergent and it will be difficult to reach an agreement.
The US wants to extend the scope of the agreement so that Iran is even more closely controlled. Iran wants to build relations with foreign partners on the basis of reciprocity. So what do I expect? That some sanctions will be lifted, but certainly not all.
And internal politics? What will President Raisi change here?
As already mentioned, there is an opinion that the departing Rouhani to be a neoliberal. One who cared about the business, not the masses of poor, pauperized voters. The effect was that during the pre-election debates, the direction of economic policy was not so much argued as it was outdone in promises: who will eventually give something to people and who will give more, what should state support programs look like? I am sure Raisi will not leave it behind and will in fact make efforts to give financial support to the poorest, those who suffered the most during the crisis.
At the same time, I would like to be wrong, but I fear worse times are coming for Iranian intellectuals. Raisi is a conservative figure.
And will the Iranian society, which, contrary to stereotypes, is multi-colored and with contradictions, agree to this?
Every society changes. Technology, the structure of the economy, international relations, changes in culture or, finally, a simple intergenerational change – it happens everywhere. In Iran too. The Green Movement of 2009 showed that within this society there are alternative visions of change in the country. Only that in Iran, the issues of change are inextricably linked with matters of state security. Anyone who wants change is under suspicion: isn’t he inspired from outside? Does he really care about the good of the country? This factor prevents the Islamic Republic from evolutionary changes that would be natural and expected by society.
Iran is not only the Supreme Leader and the security institutions. The Iranians want change for the better and could bring it about themselves, but they will not let it be imposed on them. And thinking of the Islamic republic only as a bad state makes the other side think exactly the same.
I recommend a novel by the outstanding twentieth-century Iranian writer Simin Daneshvar, Savushun (lit. Mourners of Siavush, no Polish translation, Persian Requiem in English – note MKF) set in southern Iran under British occupation during World War II. It shows how the progressive layers of Iranian society undertake cooperation and dialogue with the progressive representatives of the West, and the retrograde layers … they find partners among Western retrograde forces. The author’s message is clear: no one should be cancelled. Dialogue always makes sense, but it must be approached with a positive attitude, with a willingness to achieve progress and mutual benefit. Otherwise, it will only result in suffering. Hasan Rouhani wanted to talk to the West – he hit the wall in the form of Donald Trump. Now we are seeing the results.
Photo: Vladimir Mitev (source: Vladimir Mitev)
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