Social justice and political reforms in Iran

A ticking time bomb

While the nuclear agreement with Iran may have opened the gates for oil exports and the import of European goods, the door to greater human rights, a pluralistic political party system and social justice in Iran remains firmly closed. Nevertheless, these central demands, which are made by large swathes of Iranian society, could soon come to the fore again. An analysis by Faraj Sarkohi

The oil and natural gas companies in France and many businesses in Germany and other European countries are already on the starting block, eager to resume trade with Iran. The nations and corporations of Europe are hoping to expand the share of the Iranian market they had before the sanctions were imposed. At best, the human rights situation in Iran is mentioned in formal declarations and at film festivals in order to assuage the consciences of a few confirmed die-hards.

German Vice-Chancellor and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel was the first top-level Western politician to travel to Iran after the nuclear agreement was signed in July. He arrived just a few days later with a business delegation and demanded quite directly that the Islamic Republic officially recognise Israel's right to exist. His frank words at a press conference in Tehran were primarily meant as a message to reassure Israel and its German supporters. However, he evidently saw no opportunity to make clear demands with regard to respect for human rights so soon after getting down to the business of sealing deals worth billions of euros.

The French Foreign Minister also skirted the issue of human rights during his trip to Iran in late July; other European countries are likely to follow suit.

Hassan Rouhani's major trump card in the 2013 presidential elections – his support for a nuclear agreement so that the sanctions against Iran would be lifted – could now prove to be the Achilles heel of the Islamic Republic.

Socio-political opening put on hold

For years, the propaganda spread by the Islamic Republic has laid the blame for the economic crisis, rising inflation, high unemployment and pervasive poverty on the sanctions imposed by the "foreign enemy". Two wings of the government, the religious reformers on the one hand and the major capital owners and the technocrats and bureaucrats of the "Executives of Construction Party" (Kargozaran) allied with Rafsanjani on the other, puffed up this fiction and used it as a propaganda weapon against populist opponents such as Ahmadinejad and the fundamentalist factions. The sanctions were used to justify political and social repression, which ostensibly served to prevent interference by the foreign enemy.

Socio-political opening, the primary demand made by broad sections of society, and an improvement in the economic situation, the main concern of workers and the impoverished and low-income classes, were postponed as long as the nuclear talks continued. But these demands have not been forgotten and will now return to the political agenda.

People queuing for subsidised food in Tehran (photo: Mehr)
Deep social divide: subsidised food is handed out to low-income workers at a distribution centre in Tehran. For years, the propaganda spread by the Islamic Republic has laid the blame for the economic crisis and pervasive poverty on the sanctions imposed by the "foreign enemy"

In the last few months, the pronouncements made by some politicians betrayed growing concern about this. The lifting of sanctions was demanded unanimously by all sections of the population – with the exception of the small group that had profited from them. The divergent factions within the government and the various organs of power were united by the compromise to make concessions in the nuclear programme, a compromise demanded by the people. It was this coalition that allowed Rouhani to win the election.

Rouhani's electoral victory would have been considerably less spectacular, however, had he not made more far-reaching promises: a more open political climate; the right to form political parties; the acceptance of trade unions and non-governmental organisations; more rights for women; doing away with the censorship of books, media, film and theatre; approval of concert events; the suspension of house arrest for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the "Green Movement"; as well as the release of detained activists from the movement.

After the brutal suppression of the "Green Movement", its adherents toned down their demands. They voted for Rouhani – converting from "Green" to "Purple" in the process – in the hope that at least some minimum demands would be met.

Rouhani's neoliberal agenda

After Rouhani was elected, most of the ministries and organisations in charge of economic planning were put under the control of members of the "Executives of Construction Party", which since then has been able to implement its neoliberal agenda for privatising the economy. It is foreseeable that the dissatisfaction of the workers and the poor and low-income members of society will grow and spill over into protests.

A few ministries and organisations also went to religious reformers. Most of the politicians associated with the "Green Movement" – with the exception of those who have been imprisoned and a few opposition figures – are now part of the power structure. Nevertheless, the objectives of the "Green Movement" have been side-lined.

Rouhani's political career, which included many years working for Iran's National Security Council and, in the last three decades, co-responsibility for planning repressive policies, together with the intelligence service history of many of his ministers and confidants, cast a shadow of doubt over his government from the start.

During his election campaign and in the first weeks of his presidency, Rouhani raised hopes of more political, social and cultural freedom. However, he distanced himself from his promises surprisingly quickly.

His first target was the Iranian labour movement. After years in the doldrums, the movement had come back to life and soon turned Iran into a scene of protests and demonstrations, with workers taking to the streets to fight for an improvement in their economic situation and for the establishment of independent trade unions and workers' representation. In response, Rouhani's government had the leaders of the labour movement arrested. When President Rouhani made Ali Rabi'i, who had long held a senior position in the secret service, Minister of Labour, the message to the protesters was crystal clear.

Demonstration by supporters of the "Green Movement" in Tehran, 15 June 2009 (photo: Getty Images)
"After the brutal suppression of the 'Green Movement', its adherents toned down their demands. They voted for Rouhani – converting from 'Green' to 'Purple' in the process – in the hope that at least some minimum demands would be met," writes Faraj Sarkohi. Pictured here: demonstration by supporters of the "Green Movement" in Tehran, 15 June 2009

Censorship as a "government right"

Under Rouhani, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad), whose ministry is officially in charge of the censorship of books, media and cultural and artistic activities, spoke during his first days in office of wanting to end the censorship of books and media as well as abolishing internet filtering. However, only a few weeks later, he explained that censorship is a "government right". And so the censorship continued unabated, sometimes even worse than before.

The country's newspapers and major news websites are mouthpieces of the various wings of the government. The religious reformers and the ''Executives of Construction Party'' close to Rafsanjani monopolise a major portion of the media landscape. Political and cultural associations that are not allied with any government faction are not only banned from engaging in political activities, they are not even allowed to publish newspapers or operate news websites.

Rouhani's government has already shut down several newspapers published by religious reformers and has tightened media censorship. At the same time, the judiciary either jailed critical journalists, cultural figures and trade union activists or placed them under house arrest. In this way, any hope of greater media freedom was quickly nipped in the bud.

While the President continued speaking of the need for cultural and artistic freedom, many films did not even make it into cinemas or were discontinued shortly after opening, even though they had successfully passed through the various stages of the censorship process and received a screening permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad).

A number of concerts that had been approved by "Ershad" were summarily cancelled by security forces, some even during the performance. Solo singing by women are still prohibited in Iran. But in the past few months, even musical performances by women in ensembles have been impeded.

The government recently announced that it would issue a decree allowing women to attend sporting events in a separate area of the stadium from men. Then, only a few days later, the project was shelved out of respect for the clergy, which found the idea offensive.

People show their support for Iranian women who want to be allowed to attend sporting events in stadiums in Iran (photo: Darya Safaei)
Mere empty promises? "The government recently announced that it would issue a decree allowing women to attend sporting events in a separate area of the stadium from men. Then, only a few days later, the project was shelved out of respect for the clergy, which found the idea offensive," writes Faraj Sarkohi. Pictured here: people show their support for women who want to be allowed to attend sporting events in stadiums in Iran

Rouhani: rule by inclusion

The leaders of the "Green Movement", Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest. The hardliners within the fundamentalist bloc are among those who oppose their release. However, the religious reformers and the ''Executives of Construction Party'' are likewise not very interested in seeing them set free, because Rouhani's government might then forfeit a portion of its supporters.

The Iranian President has succeeded in bringing the followers of the "Green Movement", who demonstrated against Ahmadinejad's election fraud in 2009, back into the system that was actually the reason for their protest. This feat would certainly not have been possible had the leaders not been under arrest and had the religious reformers and bureaucrats not stood behind Rouhani.

The end of Rafsanjani's second presidential term was accompanied by riots by workers and impoverished sections of the population in several major cities. The people's anger over increasing poverty and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the country became a marginal issue in the public sphere, but was never completely forgotten. The majority of people who were incensed by the neoliberal privatisation measures is currently witnessing a continuation of this policy.

Iran soon faces elections to both the parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The government is already attempting, through a coalition of religious reformers and moderate politicians from the "Executives of Construction Party'', to bolster those candidates it finds agreeable in order to secure a majority in the future parliament.

Rumours that the 76-year-old Ali Khamenei is seriously ill and might not live much longer are turning the election of the Assembly of Experts into a momentous event, because this is the body that will choose the religious leader's successor or successors. The various wings of the government are thus fighting with particular vehemence to gain the upper hand in the assembly.

Workers protesting during a visit by President Rouhani to Tabriz (photo: ISNA)
According to Sarkohi, the people's anger over increasing poverty and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor may not have been a high-profile issue in recent years, but it has certainly not been forgotten and could well spill over into protests again if improvements do not come

Profiteers of the rentier state

Experts see Iran's economic problems first and foremost as a consequence of the structure of the country's economy. It is based not on production but on the transfer of funds from oil and gas revenues. In a system with firmly entrenched, institutionalised corruption, the large capital owners closest to the apparatus of power benefit the most. Even once the sanctions are lifted, the people of Iran should not expect any miracles; the economic problems will persist.

The political climate in the country is currently being fuelled not only by the upcoming general elections and the appointment of the Assembly of Experts, but also by the resurgence of the deferred demands by the economically disenfranchised populace. This time, it is quite possible that the desire for socio-political openness will be coupled with calls for greater social justice and that the middle class will chime in with the workers and the low-income segments of the population.

Although there is currently no notable left-wing grouping in Iran, the left is one of the main targets for attacks by the state-run and partially state-controlled media. Non-governmental organisations and independent media are still being suppressed.

Nevertheless, the people, who witnessed demonstrations by millions of Iranians during the early days of the "Green Movement", have not given up their dream of freedom. As long as the nuclear negotiations continued, Iranian society was on hold. Now, however, the nuclear deal has opened the barrier that stood between the demands of the people and their government.

Faraj Sarkohi

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Faraj Sarkohi founded the culture magazine "Adineh" (Friday) in 1985 and was its editor-in-chief for 11 years. He was arrested in 1996 as one of the leaders of the writers' initiative against censorship ("Text of the 134"). A year later he was sentenced to death in a secret trial. International protests resulted in the verdict being overturned. He travelled to Frankfurt am Main two years later, where he now makes his home. Sarkohi was awarded the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for politically persecuted writers in 1998 and is an honorary member of the PEN Centre in Germany.

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