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Iran’s Quiet Counterrevolution

Decades of neoliberalism have reshaped Iranian society — leaving its battered Left in a quandary.

The third day of the 2009 Green Movement protests in Tehran. Hamed Saber / Flickr

It’s become common for American officials to invoke dire economic conditions in Iran as an opportunity to push for the collapse of the Islamic Republic in Tehran, or as leverage to convince it to engage in direct negotiations with the US. And as the start of the latest round of sanctions loom, economic conditions for ordinary Iranians are getting more precarious every day. In fact, large segments of Iranian society have been experiencing hardships for years, and protests have become an everyday routine.

Harsh US sanctions have played a key role in worsening living conditions, and the coming ones will intensify Iranians’ suffering to an unthinkable extent. Yet the Iranian government bears its own share of responsibility for the grievances of Iranian society. That’s why the widespread riots in Iran at the beginning of this year, though they came as a shock to those who were unfamiliar with the situation in Iran, or were in denial about it, had been expected by those who had been monitoring and criticizing the Islamic Republic’s economic policies for years.

The riots that took place in Iran in late December and early January 2018 were hardly unpredictable. Iranian sociologists, economists, and public intellectuals had been warning about the possibility of massive protests for the past few years. The official unemployment rate reached 12.6 percent in the spring of 2017, while youth unemployment reached 26.4 percent. The minimum wage amounts to less than 40 percent of the poverty line, which itself is considered too low by many economists. According to official figures, 12 million people in Iran live in absolute poverty, while one economist estimates that 6 percent of the population go hungry.

Iran is also facing a disastrous environmental crisis, largely due to mismanagement of water resources. Soil erosion is 2.5 times the world average, and there has been talk of banning farming in certain regions in response to inadequate water and soil, even though nearly one in five Iranians is employed in the agriculture sector. Capital flight is estimated to amount to half of annual oil revenue. The temporary lifting of sanctions following the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal — which has been effectively nullified since the US’s recent withdrawal from the deal — though helpful for issues such as medicine imports, has not improved the lives of many ordinary Iranians, as it hasn’t brought greater foreign investment, and many sectors of the economy have remained stagnant. In less than a year, the price of the dollar in terms of Iran’s currency more than tripled, and now with the US withdrawal from the deal one can only expect the situation to worsen.

In addition to the effect of sanctions, some of these problems are undeniably rooted in, or exacerbated by, the neoliberal policies Iran has followed since the 1990s. Following a 2005 constitutional decision by the Supreme Leader, many state-owned enterprises were privatized. In the years since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, governments have systematically weakened workers’ ability to negotiate over wages and working conditions. As a result, more than 90 percent of employment contracts are temporary, and more than four million workers are not covered by social insurance. With the increasing commodification of higher education, 87 percent of students now pay tuition, despite a constitutional stipulation that the state is responsible for ensuring “free higher education to the extent required by the country for attaining self-sufficiency.” Despite much talk about extending social insurance to all citizens, the administration of President Hassan Rouhani has continually removed expensive drugs from coverage, and there are even rumors of shutting down the entire public health insurance system.

Viewed from this angle, the maladies of Iran’s “99%” are not so different from those of many other countries, most of whom receive none of the rhetorical sympathy of people like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, or Paul Ryan — who themselves support policies that imoverish working class and poor families in the United States. Indeed, Iranians’ economic grievances are partly due to the same kinds of policies as those forcefully pushed by the political establishment in the US. Policies that pauperize the working class are objectives shared by elites in both the Islamic Republic and the US. Despite all the differences, what the Iranian case shares with other examples of neoliberalism is the retreat of the state from its duty to provide social services, the systematic weakening of labor in its conflict with capital, and the financialization of the economy.

For months, Iran has seen peaceful protests from Iranian retirees who lost their pensions due to retirement-fund privatization, along with workers subjected to wage theft by employers and those opposing the privatization of factories. They have almost always been faced with violent suppression. Prior to the outbreak of nationwide protests in January, the most recent instance had been the peaceful demonstration of pensioners, workers, and students in response to a December 2017 call from the bus drivers’ union, demanding the release of their leader, Reza Shahabi, who had two strokes in prison and had not been granted furlough to undergo medical treatment. Needless to say, their protest was violently suppressed and many of the participants were beaten and detained. Even in the midst of Iran’s current national crisis, the regime offers nothing better than arrests of leftist students, some of whom hadn’t even participated in the recent demonstrations.

Neoliberalism With Islamic Characteristics

There is of course a peculiarity to Iranian neoliberalism — namely, that in Iran these neoliberal policy shifts have been intertwined with a unique form of Islamic ideology. For example, the proposed austerity budget for the upcoming year that helped trigger recent protests also called for allocating huge sums to religious and ideological institutions — a continuation of past trends, but one that, in the context of the aforementioned conditions, added to popular discontent. To offer one example of the insanity of this system, the proposed budget for a single religious institution, Jame’atol Mustafa Al’Alamia, whose basic functions are unclear to the public, is more than half again as large as the entire budget allocated to the Department of Environment, which is tasked with responding to Iran’s dire environmental conditions.

Neoliberal hegemony in Iran becomes more enigmatic when viewed in the context of the 1979 Revolution, whose demands for a more just society stood in direct contradiction to it. However much at variance with the revolution’s initial ethos, the future course of events made neoliberalism a perfect fit in the eyes of the various political groups who were granted the privilege of pursuing their agendas within the Islamic Republic.

During the first presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1993) following the Iran-Iraq war, the government’s economic advisers promoted “structural adjustment” policies as the most up-to-date achievements of “economic science.” Neoliberalism was held out as postwar Iran’s best route to reconstruction, while those who opposed the new policies were sidelined, including those who argued that borrowing from foreign institutions like the World Bank would undermine the country’s independence. Secular leftists had long been eliminated from Iran’s political scene; now the left wing of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment was also gradually forced to the margins.

Despite the marginalization of secular and Islamic leftists and other dissidents, the implementation of neoliberal policies was not a smooth process. Besides numerous instances of urban riots, documented by the sociologist Asef Bayat in his book Street Politics, there was resistance from some hardliners, especially at the outset. Despite initially endorsing the policies, in the aftermath of the 1992 Mashhad riots, hard-line journalists began discussing the ever-growing class divide, viewing Rafsanjani’s policies as a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. In sometimes exaggerated terms, they juxtaposed the extreme poverty of the lower classes with descriptions of the extravagant and lavish lives of the wealthy, depicting the former as true Muslims and authentic revolutionaries.

The class gap was portrayed by hardliners as a clash between Islamic and revolutionary values, on the one hand, and Western, alien values of consumerism and licentiousness on the other. Although this stark dichotomy was reductionist and at odds with the realities of Iranian society, hardliners managed to transform inequality into a cultural issue, as underscored by the Supreme Leader’s warnings about an imminent “cultural ambush” and mobilizations of Basij paramilitaries against “Western” lifestyles.

Yet, almost none of these hard-line critics offered any alternatives. Nor, aside from warning against the debasement of the lower classes — the true heirs of the “Islamic” revolution — did they offer any substantial socioeconomic critique of the supposedly “scientific” doctrines of neoliberalism. Their critique, therefore, remained purely ideological. The hardliners feared that strengthening the private sector might weaken the Islamic Republic, since there was no guarantee that those active in the private sector would remain loyal to its ideology. Thus, instead of questioning privatization per se, or offering solutions for improving the public sector, the hardliners’ solution was to place the public sector in the hands of private actors who could be trusted — namely the Revolutionary Guard, a solution that ironically was endorsed by Rafsanjani’s administration.

Having succeeded in giving the economic grievances of the lower strata a cultural facade, the regime’s propaganda projected a cultural antagonism between the secular and “Westoxicated” middle and upper class on the one hand, and the “religious” lower strata on the other. This projection accompanied harsh policing of the middle class’s “Westoxicated” lifestyles, which were deemed a manifestation of “cultural ambush.” Those who were allowed to remain active in politics had to agree to accept this imagined matrix of antagonisms as the only game in town. The legal opposition, which won a landslide victory in the 1997 presidential elections, articulated their project as “reformism.” The reformists, who had initially belonged to the left wing of the Islamic Republic and in many cases had been pushed aside in the postwar political system, began embracing the logic of free markets as the latest in “scientific” economics.

By focusing on formal political freedoms and promoting the empowerment of civil society as the key element of their political discourse, the reformists succeeded in establishing themselves in the political arena as spokespeople of the expanding middle class and its demands for social and political freedom. The reformists defended the free market by arguing that the state’s economic power was the enabling condition for the Islamic government’s oppressive interventions in the private and social lives of its citizens. If the state were to lose its grip on the economy and if the private sector gained more strength, they claimed, the Islamic Republic would no longer be able to impose its strict standards on the public. Privatization thus became the mantra of those who sought change. This, in part, is what made the reformists attractive to a segment of Iranian society.

In other words, the Islamist reformists have mainly played the role of neoliberal ideologues in Iran, propagating neoliberalism for a wider secular middle-class audience, who were otherwise unhappy with the oppressive or compulsory Islamic rules imposed by the regime on their lifestyles. This is how the idea of “freedom” became entangled with “free market” in the official discourse of the Islamic Republic’s legal opposition. In this discourse, the free market is thought to be the key to social and political freedom. Thus, the economic policies followed by each consecutive government of the Islamic Republic were seen by large segments of society as bringing more freedom and liberating them from the government’s interference with their lives. Having taken the middle class as their main audience and source of political power, the former Islamic leftists who are today’s reformists adopted and advocated policies that impoverished the working class — most notably through reforms that excluded small-scale factories from the jurisdiction of labor laws.

A Culture of Neoliberalism

These neoliberal policies have had implications for the ideology of the Islamic Republic. While at the start of “structural adjustment,” in the 1990s, some hard-line newspapers reprimanded state TV for airing cooking shows featuring beef recipes, arguing that this was insensitive to those who couldn’t afford meat, today the regime’s TV shows and other ideological and cultural products no longer concern themselves with poverty.

A little over a year ago, for example, TV Plus, an internet channel authorized by the government, featured a report on a burger place in the Tehran suburbs that sold burgers for a price equivalent to $80. State TV is actively propagating an Iranian version of the American Dream, trying to convince audiences that to become “rich,” they need only rely on their own efforts; that if they try hard, nothing can stop them. The cult of the entrepreneur is intensely promoted by the media. Some TV shows glorify entrepreneurs, inviting them on to teach audiences how they, too, can pursue their dream of becoming rich. While this new tendency may not seem to contradict the principles of the Islamic Republic, it distorts the demands of the Revolution, reducing them to a return to Islam and enforcement of Islamic principles. The ideological apparatus of the Islamic Republic has almost totally eradicated demands for building a just society.

The new ideology has thus wedded the American Dream to a form of Islamic utopianism. In a report on state TV news, with Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather playing in the background, a reporter asks a thirty-two-year-old driving a Maserati how a young Iranian could be driving such an expensive car. The response is that Iran’s young people lack for nothing compared to those of other countries, and if they work hard they’ll be able to buy a Maserati, too, or an even more expensive car. Asked why he bought the car, the driver says he imported it to show everyone that Iran is a safe place for investment. And since the values of charity couldn’t be absent from this rosy image, the driver adds that for an upcoming religious holiday he plans to lend his car to a family that can’t afford a luxurious wedding ceremony, so they can use it as their wedding car.

State TV, along with numerous internet channels authorized by the regime, produce programming very similar to American reality shows and sitcoms. Imagine TMZ interviewing celebrities, but instead of Justin Bieber, the “pop stars” being interviewed are religious singers (maddah) known for their elegies for the Shi’ite martyr Imam Hossain. Celebrities, actors, and singers appear on these programs wearing very limited hijab and the kinds of outfits that in the past could lead to arrest; yet in the middle of gossiping about their private lives, they mention in passing the advantages of Islamic laws and Iran’s mandatory hijab for women.

In one recent instance, an Iranian rapper who had been briefly detained by the government appeared with tattoos covering his entire face, neck and hands, and told the host that since he had nothing to do while in solitary confinement, he decided to read the Koran, a book that “from his school years he had been told so many great things about.” He goes on to say that he found it a very “cool” (bahal) book. The new champions of the Islamic Republic bear almost no resemblance to the old ones, the martyrs of the war and the revolution who were always introduced as pious, simple, and usually poor.

Despite these transformations in the regime’s economic orientation, its claim to represent the truth of Islam remains untouched. Yet these changes have not been without consequence for the Islamic Republic. The original revolutionary-era discourse, with its emphasis on the poor and dispossessed, was capable of mobilizing the lower strata, or at least convincing them that the government had their interests in mind. More recently, the regime’s projected antagonism between the “Westoxicated” middle and upper class, on the one hand, and the lower strata on the other, granted the lower strata a form of moral superiority, and at times real power to police what were branded as Western lifestyles.

Yet the material economic outcomes of these ideological shifts — evident, for example, in the construction of mega shopping malls with direct or indirect investments from the Revolutionary Guards and the propagation of luxurious lifestyles in the media – have probably played a role in stirring the current discontent within the lower strata. Today, after forty years of rule by the Islamic Republic, nearly all political factions involved in the formal politics of the Islamic Republic have been discredited at some point or another.

Despite claims to represent and serve the lower classes, and despite earlier successes in establishing a social welfare system, the Islamic Republic, at least in the last twenty-seven years, has systematically weakened the working and lower classes, and the hard facts of economic failure leave no more room for ideological mumbo jumbo. One of the slogans frequently used in the protests since last December was: “Reformists! Conservatives! It’s all over now.” Leading figures from different political factions are constantly criticized on social media, especially those elected to parliament, the administration, and city councils, with the support of the reformists. In many instances, workers, farmers, and other protesters have tried appealing to their local imams, almost always to no avail. In some cases, imams have threatened to no longer allow them into Friday prayers. This represents a direct blow to the cherished theme of the clergy as the supporter of ordinary people, one that has long been promoted by the Islamic Republic.

Dim Prospects

However, the fact that large segments of Iranian society are disillusioned with the regime does not necessarily portend the emergence of an emancipatory politics, and could potentially lead to support for authoritarianism in the form of monarchy or some other chauvinistic ideology.

In the context of the systematic repression of all progressive opposition forces over the decades, the only political group that have recently had the privilege of propagating their ideology are the monarchists — thanks to the European- and American-funded Persian-language TV channels — and their efforts seem to have come to at least partial fruition, considering the pro-monarchist chants heard in some of the recent protests.

And while repression is the main pillar on which the Islamic Republic has relied for decades, some Iranians have seemingly forgotten that the regime inherited that strategy from its pre-revolutionary predecessor, which was backed by the US government. In such an oppressive political climate, and in the context of decades of forceful attempts by the regime to distort Iranian society’s history of more than a century of struggles for freedom and justice, it may not be surprising to find that the nation no longer remembers the 1953 coup or its own struggles against monarchy, dictatorship, and imperialism.

It’s in this context, and amid the regime’s violent repression, that some libertarian expatriates and exiled activists — along with the former Iranian crown prince — call for active support and intervention from the US government. The fact that such a grotesque farce could appear on Fox News and internationally-based, Persian-speaking TV channels during last January’s protests is partly due to the regime’s constant attempts to repress all progressive opposition and eliminate the struggles of leftist and nationalist forces from contemporary history.

Indeed, had the Iranian nation not been severed from its own past, its people would not even need to look to the ongoing nightmares unfolding in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the horrors of foreign intervention. They could simply refer to the 1953 coup, by which the CIA overthrew Mosaddegh’s administration, and recall how the US backed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in various ways, including but not limited to training the torturers of the SAVAK secret police. More importantly, they might then be able to view their current struggles as standing in continuity with that history, and we would not see opportunists daring to ask for the help of one of the most disgraceful presidents in the history of the United States.

Another terrifying prospect is that of the middle class endorsing the repression of the lower classes if their protests grow more militant. The middle class is now the designated audience for the Islamic Republic’s ideological turn and seems to have internalized the messages it receives from the regime, from the cult of the entrepreneur and the American Dream to the chauvinistic glorification of the regime’s military power in the region. Fears that disturbances in Iran might lead to a recurrence of what happened in Syria, though valid to some extent, have been trumpeted by various groups in a one-sided way, in which the Assad regime’s share of responsibility for the catastrophe is almost always absent.

Moreover, the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement has led at least some segments of the Iranian middle class to a condition that, in the language of psychoanalysis, is identification with the aggressor, a tendency reinforced by the ideological shift of the Islamic Republic. This shift is generating a growing convergence between the worldview of the middle class and the ideology of the Islamic Republic, a convergence discernible in recent images of Iranian identity promoted by the government. For example, initially the Islamic Republic highlighted Islam as the most important component of Iranian identity, sidelining the country’s pre-Islamic history; in response, the middle class placed its emphasis on precisely that part of history, glorifying Iran’s historical and literary heritage.

More recently, however, some Islamic Republic propaganda has sought to draw parallels between the mythical figures of ancient Iran and Revolutionary Guard commanders, such as Ghassem Soleimani. As one renowned Iranian sociologist put it a few years ago, in their fear of each other, the Iranian middle class and the government have firmly embraced each other. This makes the current situation more perilous, since the economic and cultural entanglement of the middle class and the regime could potentially align both against the lower classes.

Nevertheless, the middle class’s support for the Islamic Republic is in no way guaranteed. They may potentially view the monarchy as a powerful authority capable of bringing stability and prosperity to Iran, while at the same time granting social freedoms that the Islamic Republic has historically denied and at times militantly opposed.

In this context, the prospect of any form of emancipatory politics in Iran is virtually nil. Ever-increasing tensions are polarizing society, and foreign-backed opposition forces, who are gaining ever more power and media coverage, have little to offer aside from hatred and resentment of whatever the Islamic Republic stood for or pretended to stand for. Glorification of the monarchy is on the rise, signaling deep-rooted reactionary and chauvinistic sentiments. This antagonistic situation has left very little room for politics and has reduced political activity to a rivalry between various groups over funds and resources both inside and outside Iran, rather than a matter of principles and programs. Aside from fairly small groups of organized workers, leftist students, a few principled political activists, and a handful of public intellectuals and social critics, neoliberal ideology is widely embraced and taken for granted.

Although neoliberalism’s adverse effects may make the situation objectively suitable for the Left to intervene and become hegemonic, there are theoretical as well as practical obstacles that it needs to surmount. In addition to the repression that has haunted the Iranian left for decades, its deep mistrust of the middle class — although not without justification — has left it indifferent or even hostile towards that class. Yet the experience of contemporary leftist movements that have been successful in mobilizing broad segments of society in other parts of the world shows the importance of defining a broader audience, a strategy that is also more suited to the realities of a neoliberal order. The proponents of emancipatory politics, including the democratic left in Iran, would need to look to successful contemporary models such as Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in Britain as sources of inspiration.

One of the lessons of these movements could be that any attempt at mobilizing Iranian society for emancipatory politics would have to include both the working class and the middle class in its agenda, and would have to disabuse this latter group of the hollow promises of the American Dream. In any such attempt, the experiences of other countries should be invoked to show the middle class that it will not be the winner from neoliberal policies — that in the end, this is a fight between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.