20 June 2009
26 June 2009: Shooting of Neda Soltani.
5 July 2009: Position of the Green Party of Aotearoa.
12 July 2009: Who are the Iranian opposition?
The republican normally has little to say about the domestic politics of foreign states. However I make an exception for the "disputed" Iranian election both for personal reasons (I spent a couple of months seconded to the Iranian Jihad e Sazandegi in 1998) and because the fate of the Islamic Republic of Iran has implications for republicanism everywhere.
The first, and most obvious point to note is that the Iranian regime is in deep trouble if it is unable to maintain a consensus across all social classes, religious groups and ethnic minorities in that deeply divided country. To date, the regime has been remarkably successful. Now it seems to be losing its hold on the social consensus. That is not to say that the present crisis is anything new. The size of the demonstrations against incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is remarkable but not unprecedented. During my own time in Iran I attended an anti-government demonstration at Tehran University which would have been of a similar order of magnitude to those taking place in recent weeks. So the conflict that has erupted over the presidential election is just one more chapter in a long standing political conflict. Since the end of the Second World War, Iran has been caught in a struggle between an affluent, westernised, secular and liberal middle class, and the religious, morally conservative and nationalist industrial and agricultural working classes. In practice, the divisions are not that simple, or that clear cut. But that in essence is the line of division between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi.
The supporters of Mousavi are mostly middle class and they tend towards secularism. Their political programme is for "freedom" and "democracy". Such demands seem straightforward, except for the fact that Iran is already democratic. In some respects the Islamic Republic is a more vibrant and robust democracy than New Zealand. The participation rate is much higher, and the news media more diverse than its New Zealand counterpart. At the same time, Iranian society is more restrictive, with bans upon a whole range of social ills such as the production and consumption of alcohol, prostitution, adultery and usury (there are a host of Islamic banks, but "finance companies" of the sort seen in New Zealand are strictly prohibited).
Despite the dissenters attempts to depict the words "freedom" and "democracy" as synonymous, the conflict is more about freedom than democracy. The middle class opposition want the same social freedoms that are enjoyed by all classes in the west, and they want to attain the same material standard of living as the affluent classes in western nations. To achieve those goals they need political power. But if they do achieve political power, their social and material gains will come at a cost to the lower classes who generally support the Islamic Republic.
Middle classes the world over feel that they have a natural right to control the affairs of state. If they cannot obtain or maintain that right by democratic means, they will resort to popular movements and revolutions of the sort that overthrew the Spanish Republic in 1936, the government of Chile in 1973, and the government of Thailand last year. Democracy is the natural political vehicle of the middle classes, so much so that even when they set about the task of overthrowing democratically elected governments, they do so in the name of democracy. The Thai revolution is a classic case. There the "democratic" programme of the westernised and urban middle classes organised in the Peoples Alliance for Democracy involved removing the voting rights of the masses of rural poor on the grounds that the poor lack the education and understanding necessary to assume the full responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society. The middle classes believe (with some justification) that they are the natural owners of a democratic society, and they resent any intrusion upon that right by a alliance of the lower classes and maverick plutocrats (as in Thailand) or a coalition between the working classes, the rural poor, and a religious hierarchy (as in Iran).
"Was the election rigged?" My own view, and the view of most informed observers, is that the result was bona fide. There has been no real evidence of electoral malpractice. Ahmadinejad's victory was consistent with previous election results, and with his known base of support. If the vote was rigged, then one could confidently predict that Ahmadinejad's administration will not survive. If the clerics manage to maintain the integrity of the political system, the Islamic Republic will have good prospects. The Shia religious hierarchy can retain its role in Iranian society regardless of whether the left or the right, conservative or liberal, Ahmadinejad or Mousavi triumphed in the elections. But it could not survive if it became tainted with electoral fraud on the one hand, or yielded to violence aimed at overturning the election result on the other.
Claims of fraud are largely a beat-up by the Iranian opposition, and the western media. (Look carefully at the staged photograph of "Tehran street demonstrations" in the New Zealand Herald, June 16, Page A12). They are simply an expression of the middle class conviction that it deserves to win every electoral contest, and has a right to take the law into its own hands if for some reason it fails to prevail at the polls. The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, may not be such an easy target. The standing army, the natural ally of the middle classes, is not such a powerful force in Iran as it was in Spain, Chile and Thailand, and without an army capable of doing its bidding, the middle classes in Iran may fail to wrest back control of the state from the mullahs, the social conservatives, the nationalists and the working class populists.
"Can the regime survive in the longer term?". Only, I suggest,
on the condition that it does more to meet the aspirations of the
westernised and secular middle classes. The opposition does not constitute
a majority outside of Tehran. But it is a very large, potent and
committed force. If they cannot be converted, the opposition must
be accommodated and placated for the Islamic Republic to survive through
the next decade.
26 June 2009
The western media is not a neutral reporter or an unbiassed commentator on the events in Iran. It is a party to the conflict, and as such is unwilling to provide truthful, objective coverage of the events in Tehran, just as it has been totally incapable of providing truthful, objective coverage of the wars in Iraq and Aghanistan.
There has been no serious discussion of the Iranian election results. No examination of the allegations of electoral fraud. No explanation of the programme of the opposition. No analysis of who initiated the violence, or who has died as a result. Instead, the western media have made it their business to publish nothing much more than staged photographs and black propaganda, exactly as they did during the Iraq war.
The western media's tour de force has been the "assassination of Neda Soltani", allegedly by an Iranian "government sniper". Yet there is absolutely no evidence that any "government sniper" was involved.
The media want the western public to simply take it on trust that Neda Soltani was killed by a government sniper. They don't want anyone to ask what should be very obvious questions. For example:
"Why would the Iranian government choose to single out and kill an innocent young woman in the most public way possible in a time of political turmoil?" The leaders of the Islamic Republic may be tough, they may be inflexible, but they are not crazy. The only beneficiary of such a blatantly murderous act would be the political opposition in Tehran, and their supporters among western governments.
Then again we could ask "How realistic is it to suppose that someone in a street demonstration that had come under sniper fire would react by filming the death of the first person to be shot?". A person with military training (which includes virtually all Iranian males over the age of 20) would immediately seek cover. A compassionate person would try to assist the wounded. Any one else would instinctively look around for the source of the shot, and then try to flee to a position of safety. But in this case it appears that the cameraman does not act instinctively, does not act humanely, and does not act as trained to act when coming under fire. Instead he decides to film the death of Neda Soltani. It is not impossible. But it is highly improbable.
The Neda Soltani story doesn't look right. And probably is not right. The death of Neda Soltani may prove to be just another piece war propaganda along the same lines as the fabricated story of the "liberation" of Jessica Lynch during the invasion of Iraq. Or it could be something a good deal more sinister.
The history of the Iraq war showed that "democratic" western governments
will deliberately and blatantly lie to the public both about their reasons
for going to war, and their conduct of war. It also showed
that the press and broadcasting organisations exist to aid and abet, or
even take the lead in, this programme of deception. In
the shape of the coverage of and reaction to the Iranian presidential election
we are being offered a refresher course in the mendacity of western governments
and the western media.
5 July 2009
I have posted below the text of a public statement by the Green Party of Aotearoa on the events in Iran:
The New Zealand Parliament today joined other nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union in supporting Iranian citizens calling for an impartial examination of their recent election.
Green Party MP Keith Locke’s Notice of Motion supporting the rights of Iranian citizens to peacefully protest was passed unanimously in the New Zealand Parliament just prior to Question Time.
The crackdown by Iranian police and militia groups who are loyal to the regime has seen widespread violence on the streets of Iran that has shocked the world.
“It is good to see our Parliament joining other nations in condemning the crackdown on the democratic movement in Iran,” said Green Party Foreign Affairs spokesperson Keith Locke.
“The shocking footage of a young female student, Neda Soltani, gunned down while peacefully attending a protest has brought home to everyone just how committed to a free and democratic society are those Iranians who continue to risk their lives protesting.
“New Zealand today sends those brave protestors a message that we support their call for a fair and impartial investigation of the recent Iranian presidential elections,” said Mr Locke.
Keith Locke’s Notice of Motion passed 24 June 2009 by the New Zealand Parliament:
That this House expresses its support for all Iranian citizens who strive for a free and democratic society; asks the Iranian government not to use force against peaceful demonstrators; calls for an end to government restrictions on the media; and supports an impartial examination of the recent Iranian election result in the light of widespread concerns.
The Green Party statement is a carefully worded, yet clear endorsement of the Iranian opposition. It seems to accept uncritically the claim that Neda Soltani was gunned down by a "government sniper" (the first version) or a "government thug" (the current BBC version of events).
When young Halatau Naitoko, going about his legitimate business on the streets of Auckland, was shot by a government sniper, there were no protestations of outrage by the Green Party over the death of one of their own people, albeit in an apparent case of mistaken identity. Naitoko's death was passed off as the unfortunate result of his being "in the wrong place at the wrong time". Such a casual explanation would not, and should not, be accepted from the Iranian regime. But neither should the Green Party preempt the outcome of a proper enquiry into the Neda Soltani shooting claims. I suggest that they chose to stay silent in the case of Naitoko, in which the circumstances were pretty clear, and to speak out in the case of Soltani, in which the circumstances are quite murky, for reasons of political expediency.
The Green Party parliamentarians enthuse about “how committed to a free and democratic society” the Iranian protesters are, and praise them for their bravery. The bravery and commitment of the Iranian opposition to a "free society" is not in question. But the Green Party itself has shown no such commitment. Their parliamentarians cravenly succumbed to the state’s demand for an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, the person who is hereditary monarch of the colonial power and Commander in Chief of the British military forces. The Green Party is therefore not in a position to bask in the reflected glory of those Iranians who display bravery and commitment to a "free and democratic society”.
The Green Party blames the violence in Iran on "The crackdown by Iranian police and militia groups who are loyal to the regime" without providing any evidence that the violence was in fact initiated by the police and the workers militia, the basij. It implies that the Iranian election was rigged, when there is a lack of evidence to support such allegations. Meanwhile the partisan western media declines to represent the position of the Iranian government, and Iranian government websites have been blocked by "denial of service attacks", leaving a vacuum of knowledge of the situation.
The Green Party would be better advised to ask why a monopolistic foreign controlled media is able to restrict the New Zealand public's assess to real information about what is going on in Iran and elsewhere in the world, including New Zealand.
By condemning the "crackdown on the democratic movement" in Iran, the Green Party implies that it accepts the Iranian opposition's claim to constitute the "democratic movement", and that the opposition has the mandate of the people despite the official outcome of the election. In the circumstances that is an extraordinary rush to judgement.
I have been criticised for asking whether there is a link between the
Green Party stand on Iran, and the fact that co-Leader Russell Norman is
currently on a US State Department funded trip to Washington DC.
While there is obviously no simple, direct or crude link, even the most
cursory observation of Green Party politics indicates that the party is
moving towards a rapprochement with the United States and Britain on the
international scene, just as has been the case with the European Green
parties. For example Green MP Keith Locke implicitly supports
the presence of New Zealand troops in Afghanistan, describing them as "doing
a good job". The Green Party statement on Iran explicitly
states at the outset that the Green position is consistent with that of
the "United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union". This
is not unexpected. The Green Party could never hope to find
a stable political niche within the regime while it remained true to its
anti-imperialist origins. But they will only be politically
successful within the overall context of a failing system.
6 July 2009
"BJ Chip" of the Green Party in defence of the Green Party position on Iran suggests “perhaps you might pay attention to the fact that the news media in IRAN is completely locked down and controlled by the state?”
My response is:
The situation is not that simple. There is more state regulation of the press in Iran than in New Zealand, but there is also a much broader range of political expression in Iran than is the case in New Zealand.
In New Zealand effective control of political expression is exercised by the foreign duopoly which has legal possession of virtually all the nation’s mass media. APN and Fairfax claim to exercise their almost absolute media power fairly, with propriety and in the national interest. Others, myself included, would dispute that claim. The state, for its part, has learnt (since the fiasco of the Electoral Finance Act if not before) that far from being able to control the media, in all essential matters it must submit to the dictates of the media. Effectively, the state and the political parties in New Zealand have become clients of the mass media organisations, and so the question of state control of the media simply does not arise. The pressing issue in New Zealand is media control of the state, not state control of the media.
The situation in Iran is quite different. There the ownership of the media is widely distributed. There are literally dozens of newspapers in Tehran alone, and all newspapers tend to have their own political line. Leaving aside the regulatory role of the state, the Iranian media is in rude good health. There is no western society that could even come close to the diversity and vibrance of the Iranian print media. But the Iranian state’s political power derives largely from social structures (populist, religious, and para-military) which are independent of the media. Consequently the Iranian state feels that it can exert some level of control over the media. And for ideological reasons it believes that it should exercise some control. But its efforts in that direction remain largely ineffectual. There is simply no comparison with the highly effective forms of control over media content which apply in the more evolved free market states of the west.
In Britain, the preeminent broadcaster (the BBC) functions as an instrument of British foreign policy, at least with respect to Iran. The beeb’s Iranian activities are funded directly by the Foreign Office. Hence the BBC does not act as a news gathering and dissemination organisation per se. Its brief is to advance British foreign policy, and since British foreign policy is directly hostile to the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the BBC’s coverage is inevitably biassed and lacking in objectivity.
I don’t need to go into how the function of the western media has been subverted by the Iraq war, and the practice of “embedding” reporters with the military, or how the whole relationship between the people, the media, and the state has changed in western society. The media no longer “mediates” the political process. It has become the dominant political force in western democracy, truly a "fourth estate". It dictates the political process, because the masses themselves (aside from perhaps 2% of the population) have no active engagement in politics.
That is not the case in Iran, where, as recent events demonstrate, there is still mass involvement in politics, still a highly diverse range of print media, and where neither the state nor the media organisations on their own can control the political discourse.
BJ Chip goes on to say "I don’t LIKE our news media, but blaming the Greens for this is a bit rich"
Do I “blame the Greens” for this the degradation of the state and private media in the west to the point where they have surrendered the role of objective news gathering, analysis, and dissemination to become nothing more than propaganda instruments of the regime? Of course I don’t.
But I would have liked to see a little more circumspection from the Greens before they decided to line up with “the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union” by sticking their oar into the political process in Iran. They should not have rushed to judgement on the validity of the Iranian election and the death of Neda Soltani on the basis of what the BBC was saying.
Most of the Green Party leaders can remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident which was headlines in all our newspapers, which never happened, and which became the pretext for war with Vietnam. They can remember the My Lai massacre, which New Zealand newspapers only admitted to a year after the event, when further concealment became impossible. They can certainly remember the Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction”, which never existed, and which provided the pretext for war with Iraq. They can remember the “Jessica Lynch” story which was contrived to demonise Iraqi medical professionals who had acted in accordance with the highest professional and humanitarian ethics.
I find it extraordinary that knowing what they know, the leaders of the Green Party of Aotearoa decided to line up with “the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union” in supporting a highly biassed, and arguably false version of the political crisis in Iran.
For that I do blame them.
8 July 2009
Who are the Iranian opposition?
John Simpson, the BBC Iran correspondent, writes "For reasons best not explained (why not? GF), I've come to know a former member of the Revolutionary Guards really well. He's done some pretty dreadful things in his life, from attacking women in the streets for not wearing the full Islamic gear to fighting alongside Islamic revolutionaries in countries abroad. And yet now, in the tumult that has gripped Iran since its elections last week, he's had a change of heart. He's become a backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate who alleges fraud in the elections. He's saved up the money to send his son to a private school abroad, and he loathes President Ahmadinejad"
By Simpson's own account, this "former Revolutionary Guard" is just the sort of person that the Islamic revolution does not need. And, I would suggest, just the sort of person that the opposition could do without as well. Attacking women in the streets (or anywhere for that matter) is a violation of Islamic principles. And "saving up money to send his son to a private school abroad" is not what one would expect of anyone committed to the progress of the Iranian nation, which has an excellent system of universal secondary education and merit-based tertiary education.
Simpson went on to record a statement from a younger man who argued that the young protesters "want girlfriend and boyfriend to be able to hold hands in the street; they want to dress in the western manner; and they want to be allowed to party". It is a statement which carries an echo of the summer of love, and the counter-culture revolution which swept through western society in the nineteen sixties. It is also misleading. Iranians, even those of a fundamentalist persuasion, do party. They do "dress in the western manner" and they do occasionally "hold hands in the street". But there are limits. Drugs and alcohol are not considered an essential element of a good party. "Western clothing" is not allowed to be provocative or immodest. And couples are expected to conduct themselves with a measure of social decorum in public. Most such limitations on social behaviour are not set in concrete - they tend to shift over time, generally in the direction of greater liberality. But they are still considered necessary to the retention of a stable social order.
The APN publication "New Zealand Listener" also carries an account of the Iranian opposition by "Iranian New Zealander" Shabnam Dastgheib (July 4-10 2009) in which she deplores the "revolution that took away the fabled Iran of saffron and pomegranates, pistachios and silk carpets". On one level Dastgheib's comments are just middle class romanticism. On another they are indicative of the profound ignorance of privileged ex-patriate Iranians about the social reality of their home country. Millions of Iranians toil long hours in harvesting saffron from the crocus flowers, gathering pistachios across vast tracts of semi-arid wildlands, and hand weaving silk carpets which take months or even years to complete. But very few are able to indulge a taste for such luxuries. And it is the working poor who must provide it for them.
Dastgheib goes on to say that "young Iranians hold drug and alcohol fuelled parties at which they wear the latest designer fashions, and alcohol and western music and movies bought on the black market can be found in most homes". That, of course is an exaggeration. Most Iranian homes could not afford such luxuries, and in any case most reject such questionable manifestations of western culture.
"Sex, drugs and rock n roll", "free love and free markets" seem to have worked for the west, but only because the true cost of our excesses never appear on the social balance sheet. For Iran they would be a disaster. Even if they wanted to, the working classes could not afford to "party" in the sense of adopting a western lifestyle and western social values. Under the late Shah's regime, Iran had staged what was reputed to be the most lavish party in history, attended by the great and good of Britain, the United States, and Europe. But it was the working people of Iran who bore the cost of the Shah's passion for luxury, and it was the working people of Iran who subsequently rose up, overthrew his regime, and replaced it with an Islamic Republic.
The same working classes will be reluctant to see the affluent middle classes once again given free rein to engage in conspicuous consumption and a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. Some would decry this as the "politics of envy". In reality, it is the perfectly reasonable reaction of working classes the world over. They know that they are the ones who pay for the excesses of the affluent classes, and they won't let it happen without a fight.
However, it would be wrong to suppose that all of those in the opposition
movement are selfish, frivolous, or indifferent to the circumstances of
their less privileged compatriots. I suspect that many of those
in the ranks of Mousavi supporters will be young men and women who were
my companions in the Jihad-e-Sazandegi. They want careers,
modest homes of their own, and the means to marry and have children.
It is not a lot to ask, but it is more than many young people in Iran can
achieve in the present social conditions. Unless the regime
can address the legitimate aspirations of a vast number of young Iranian
men and women, there will be continuing social discontent and political
An Islamist critique of democracy
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