Muhammad al-Arabi – A realist’s view of the protests in Iran

21 June, 2009 – Palestine Think Tank

Muhammad-al-Arabi.jpgWhat is happening in Iran and what do I think about it?

There is much talk about the presidential election having been rigged in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favour, but where is the evidence?

Opponents of Ahmadinejad find it incredible that, according to the official election results, the other candidates did not do well in their home provinces. Others say that the results were too quick to come out, and others still claim that the results of the ballot were too similar across the country to be true.

All this may constitute reasonable grounds for some suspicion but it does not amount to evidence, neither circumstantial nor hard evidence.

So what is going on in Iran? I think a number of factors are at play there.

First, clearly, the ruling theocratic establishment is deeply divided, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i and President Ahmadinejad on one side, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mir Hussein Mousavi on the other. But there are also others occupying various positions in between, posturing, manoeuvring, politicking and hoping to ease themselves into power, one way or another

Second, there is a lot of pent-up frustration in Iranian society. About half the country’s population of 71 million people are under 25, and nearly two-thirds are under 30. Many of these youths yearn for what they don’t have or don’t have in abundance: a Western life style, the freedom to wear what they like, to drink alcohol freely, to  go to discotheques, etc. Also, as with many other peoples in the Third World, they believe in what they see in Western, especially Hollywood movies, and they want to be part of it – the big houses, the flash cars, the huge incomes, the cloud cuckoo land.

Third, and related to this, is the fact that, although Iran has one of the strongest-performing economies of the major oil-producing countries in the Middle East, the general economic indicators are not good: unemployment stands at 9.6 per cent, rising to 20.3 per cent among people under 24, and annual inflation is 25.3 per cent.

Fourth, there is the Iranians who have never come to terms with the demise of the shah and have never accepted the Islamic Republic. They see the large crowds in the streets, the fiery speeches of the erstwhile stalwarts of the Islamic Republic talking about reform – or is it revolution disguised as reform? – their expectations are raised and, in turn, they do their bit to raise the expectations of other dissatisfied citizens.

Put these together and you’ll get the convulsions Iran has been experiencing for the past week.

How events will unfold from here is difficult to say. But the signs are not good. It would seem that defeated presidential candidate Mousavi and his backers are getting carried away by the huge numbers of “supporters” on the streets, to the point where they appear to be losing touch with reality and edging towards irresponsibility, the irresponsibility of leading thousands of civilians into the abyss.

As a progressive Arab nationalist, my instinct is to side with the people on the street, to stand alongside those opposed to theocracy and for democracy, equality and social justice.

However, I am also a realist and, as such, my realism overrides my instinct. First, I do not know precisely what the people on the street in Tehran and other Iranian cities want. I do not even know if they really believe that the presidential election was rigged or whether they are using this as a pretext to destabilize the system. They have failed to come up with any convincing evidence of rigging. And it is not enough to be against the system; they must also be in favour of a coherent, attractive alternative.

Second, is it realistic – or even desirable – to demand a rerun of the election just because it did not yield a particular result? What if the election was rerun and Mousavi lost again? Would they keep on demanding reruns until he won?

Third, from a geopolitical point of view, I do not believe it is in the interest of the downtrodden peoples of the Middle East to destabilize the Islamic Republic. A strong Iran, with a potential nuclear capability and a courageous, “hard-line” leadership is a vital potential counterweight to US-Israeli hegemony in the region and a challenge to America’s Arab lickspittles.

Finally, as a realist and as an Arab I have a deep aversion to something the Iranians seem to have in common with us Arabs: the inability to accept defeat in a free and fair election. Could it be that, as with Fatah in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, Mousavi and his supporters simply cannot accept defeat?

For all these reasons, I cannot side with the demonstrators in Iran. I hope their leaders – if that’s what Mousavi and Rafsanjani are – see sense and act with responsibility, for the sake of Iran and the rest of the Middle East.

Muhammad al-Arabi is a social and political blogger based in London, UK. This article originally appeared on his blog, Painful Truths.

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