Iran: Corruption, repression, fightback: Yassamine Mather reports on the chaos that is the Islamic Republic
In Iran, presidential elections are looming, the economy is in freefall, the public hanging of small-time criminals is creating an atmosphere of terror, repression is worsening and workers are protesting throughout the country. There are unconfirmed reports of an explosion at the Fordo uranium enrichment plant and the infighting between factions of the regime is shown live on state-owned TV. Meanwhile, Israel has bombed a military facility in Syria, claiming it is used by Iranian Islamic guards, and civil war is breaking out in Iraq, Iran’s main Shia ally. Finally, the country’s aerospace agency has sent a monkey into space! All in all, as far as Iranians are concerned, it has been an eventful start to 2013.
A combination of sanctions and endemic economic mismanagement has resulted in a constant fall of the country’s currency, the rial. The Iranian press and media blamed “leadership confusion at Iran’s Central Bank”1 for the latest drop in the exchange rate. However, this fall is a continuation of a general trend. According to official statistics, the dollar was worth 33,000 rials on January 20, 36,250 rials on January 23 and 40,000 rials on January 31.2 As late as 2006, the exchange rate was 11,000 rials to the dollar.
Iran is failing to extract and sell sufficient amounts of oil, its major export, and sanctions are really beginning to take their toll, but the political elite are engulfed in a bitter internecine struggle, further eroding confidence in the future of the Shia Republic. The pious leaders of the religious state are busy converting their fortunes, often accumulated through corruption, into foreign currency and there is considerable speculative selling by clerics and high-ranking government officials, who see spiralling inflation devaluing their assets. The government has responded to the latest currency crisis by arresting money traders in Tehran and other major cities, but the reality is that senior ayatollahs and government officials - the main culprits, as far as the flight of capital and savings is concerned - do not use small traders: their currency exchanges are via banks and major corporations.
The governor of Iran’s Central Bank, Mahmoud Bahmani, an ally of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed he was investigating such transactions, when news agencies reported on January 20 that he had “resigned with immediate effect”.3 However, Ahmadinejad refused to accept the resignation and the next day Bahmani was sacked for making improper withdrawals from client accounts.4 All this was part of a major power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the ‘principlist conservatives’, both sides accusing each other of massive corruption. Allah’s first Shia government on earth has turned out to be one the most corrupt.
On February 3, German police arrested an Iranian man carrying a cheque issued by a Venezuelan bank worth €54 million. According to the weekly Bild am Sonntag, he was the former head of Iran’s Central Bank, Tahmasb Mazaheri, who was in charge until 2008.5 Only a few days later, and in retaliation for accusations against his appointees, Ahmadinejad used a live broadcast from the majles (Islamic parliament) to show a video allegedly proving the corruption of his arch-rivals, the four Larijani brothers. The Iranian president was trying to prevent the impeachment of the labour minister, claiming the majles speaker, Ali Larijani, was part of a corrupt clique. Despite the president’s efforts, MPs voted by 192 to 56 to impeach the minister for appointing Saeed Mortazavi, an Ahmadinejad supporter, as head of social security.
Mortazavi is a former prosecutor of the Revolutionary Islamic Courts who had been dismissed in 2009 following accusations of torturing prisoners. In 2010 the Iranian parliament published the findings of an investigation into the death of protestors arrested following the 2009 presidential elections. The report identified Mortazavi as responsible for the death of three political prisoners at Kahrizak detention centre and the abuse of dozens of others. By February 5 Mortazavi was in prison awaiting another trial!
While defending his temporarily rehabilitated ally, the Iranian president played a video which “showed Fazel Larijani, a younger brother of the speaker, negotiating with Mr Mortazavi over a deal to benefit from the sale of companies affiliated to the Social Security Organisation, while also asking for a 600 or 700 sq m villa.”6 Larijani senior accused Ahmadinejad of “immorality”, “mafia” behaviour and plotting to “blackmail critics”.7
The Larijani brothers are considered to be the most loyal political allies of the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and, according to rumour, Khamenei would like to see one of them as the next president. Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani is head of Iran’s judiciary, another brother was deputy foreign secretary and a fourth is a diplomat. Ahmadinejad and his supporters often refer to the Larijanis as the “smuggler brothers”.
This latest infighting between the president and the ‘principlists’ is particularly significant in that it indicates the decline in the authority of the supreme leader. Less than two weeks ago he called on both sides to stop insulting each other “at a time when the nation faces serious external threats”. The fact that his advice was so blatantly ignored by the factions of the regime is in itself an indication of the severity of the current political crisis. Khamenei showed his disapproval of Ahmadinejad’s antics by refusing to send his representative to the airport when the president flew to Cairo.
But the week was only ever going to get worse for Ahmadinejad. On February 5 in Cairo, a shoe was flung at him in a mosque and one of Sunni Islam’s most senior clerics, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, publicly criticised Shia Islam, warning the Iranian president not to interfere in the internal affairs of Sunni states. The “spread of Shi’ism in Sunni lands” must be halted.8
As the rival factions squabble about who has stolen what from state coffers, the Iranian working class is suffering unprecedented hardship. Iran imports most of its basic food items and this weekend the price of chicken rose by 23%, while rice and eggs were 37% and 23% higher than last week. There is no doubt that sanctions are biting hard and hitting workers and the poor. The minister of industry, mines and trade, Mehdi Ghazanfari, said the aim was “to paralyse our economy and to put people under pressure and in distress”.9 In early January, MP Gholam Reza Kateb, a leading member of the national planning and budget committee, admitted the whole economy was in trouble, as oil revenues have fallen around 45% in the last nine months because of western sanctions.10 Last month, Iran was forced to stop selling fuel to a number of airlines because of shortages.
This year, those lucky enough to have a full-time job will earn wages ranging between $240 and $320 a month, yet the official poverty line is set at $800. Many economists believe the recent monthly inflation rate is around 70%. So hyperinflation, mass unemployment and low wages for the employed and underemployed have created conditions where a majority of Iranians live in misery and have great difficulty putting food on the table. Iranian officials claim there has been an unprecedented increase in crime.
A recent report by the Majles Research Commission summarises the devastating situation: production fell by 40% between October 2011 and October 2012, while employment fell by 36% in the same period. The commission was set up to investigate the effects of sanctions and found that 566 industrial and service sector companies had closed down since March 2012. According to the executive secretary of Isfahan’s labour office, “Some employers, thinking that difficulties are short-lived and will be resolved in the near future, did wait for several months before cutting down their labour force. But now the continued chaos and fluctuations mean they have to either shut down their facilities completely or decrease their workforce considerably … the rate of lay-offs in production facilities will increase daily and [become] a worrying trend in the whole society.”11
Such an economic climate allows unscrupulous employers to factor in non-payment of wages as part of their economic calculations. Many Iranian workers have not been paid for months, but in several sectors they have started protesting. In January, factory workers in Saveh resumed their strike demanding back-payment of six months wages. Steel workers also went on strike, but ended their protest after management promised to pay one month of what they were owed. The following day, these workers took their protests to the offices of the local governor. In December, thousands of workers at the Fajr Petrochemical factory in Mahshahr were on strike in protest at the lack of job security. Their banner read: “We are hungry. We haven’t been paid for 22 months.” In the same province, hundreds of miners were facing job losses, as the government failed to pay for coal it had purchased.
The government’s response to the protests has been to increase repression. Labour activists arrested in July 2012 have just been handed long prison sentences, while at least 14 journalists were detained last week after security forces raided four newspapers. Several publications based in Tehran were closed down and the homes of individual journalists were searched, as authorities claimed they were working with spies based in the BBC’s Persian service. Leftwing students have also been arrested in Tabriz, while the January 20 public hanging of two petty criminals in a Tehran park was yet another attempt by the regime to impose an atmosphere of fear. The message is clear: no dissent will be tolerated. We don’t care about basic human rights and we care even less what others think. It has not escaped the attention of Iranians that, whereas the two executed men were guilty of stealing goods worth 70,000 tomans (less than £40), the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, who had stolen millions, was free to leave the country with his €54 million cheque.
As plans for immediate military operations against Iran are put on hold, it is clear that the United States and Israel are relying on disintegration from within, in a country gripped by political infighting and facing economic meltdown. While rightwing opponents of the regime base their hopes on imperialist intervention, amongst all this chaos our solidarity remains with all those fighting for regime change from below - the Iranian working class, student and women activists - and with all those held in prison as a result.
In this respect, there is positive news: Fariborz Raisdana, a Marxist economist who has been held in Evin prison since early summer last year, has been sending out valuable material about the living conditions of imprisoned labour activists. He has set up a political economy study group, apparently very popular with young prisoners, much to the fury of ‘reformist’ politicians who are also being held in Evin.
Meanwhile, another working class prisoner, Shahrokh Zamani, a member of the Council of Representatives of Labour Organisations, has sent an optimistic letter from Gohardasht prison, entitled ‘It is now our turn - the turn of democratic governance and workers councils’. The letter explains how, in the face of a major economic crisis, capitalism has launched an attack on workers throughout the world, and Iran is no exception to this rule. Zamani points out that the Iranian working class should have no illusions about ‘reformists’ within the Islamic regime, nor should it seek alliances with ‘liberals’ outside it. Instead workers should rely on their own strength. He ends his letter with the clarion call: “Workers have no alternative but to unite and organise. Long live the political general strike. Long live the revolution.”
Although it is difficult to share Zamani’s optimism at a time when the Iranian working class is far from being politically and organisationally strong enough to fulfil such wishes, one must admire his courage and determination for issuing such a positive call in the midst of the chaos and despair that grips Iran.
It was amidst all this chaos that Iran’s space agency reported sending a monkey into space. The US and Israel were quick to point out that this represented a worrying extension of Iran’s missile technology: “Any space-launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles.”12
However, on the “darker side of the internet” (to quote the phrase of a certain London professor) users noticed that the photo of the monkey launched into space did not match that of the one returning. Some speculated that the rocket had left Earth, but failed to return, while others suggested that the first monkey must have sought political asylum in outer space. Ironically help came from the ‘great Satan’ in the shape of Harvard academic Jonathan McDowell, who identified the first monkey as one who died “during a failed space mission in 2011”.
Just to add to the tragicomic news coming form Iran, Ahmadinejad proposed on February 4 (the day after his humiliating exit from parliament) that he was willing to “risk his life” and become the first human to be sent into space as part of his country’s space programme.13 Returning again to the darker side of the internet, a Facebook page - ‘In support of sending Ahmadinejad into space’ - got over 1,000 ‘likes’ within minutes of being set up. Users have posted encouraging messages, such as: “We will accompany him to the launch platform. We will even pay for the shuttle’s fuel costs”.