The Political Economy Causes of 21st Century Iranian Coup
I. 1. “I Will Not Surrender To This Dangerous Charade”
“Nobody will show up.” My coworker told me while I stayed behind my office’s window and looked down on the street. “Everybody will come,” I told her. “You are naïve,” she said and then laughed. She was right. I was a naïve person; like Job when he said: “not confidence in yourself, but confidence in God.” I could not believe her; I did not want to believe her. I wanted to turn back to her and say: “not confidence in yourself, but faith in people.”
In that day, I had an address – Revolution Square, Tehran, Iran, a date – June 15,2009, and a time – 5:00 in the afternoon. I went to work just three or four hours before that. My office was close to Revolution Square. I felt the clock hands were running fast and there was no time for me. I believed this would be the last chance. “Everybody has to come to the meeting place if we want to resist against the coup,” I said to myself.
Everything had begun on June 12, 2009. The 10th Iran’s presidential election was done on that day, but the major reformist candidate, who had been one of the major candidates as well, was contesting the results. “This is a dangerous scene,” Mir-Hossein Mousavi said right after the election’s results were published. “I will not surrender to this dangerous charade.” He announced himself as the winner. “The information that my campaign has collected from across the country shows that I will win the election,” he said on the election’s night. Nevertheless, the official results showed something else: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election by 63% of the votes. Mousavi believed the outcome was a fraud and the majority of Iranians agreed. The people came to the streets across the country as groups of protesters, but sporadic groups. However, the significant number people were ready for this time. The possibility of a fraud had been apparent since May 2009 because of the involvement of the Iranian armed forces. “The armed forces are allowed to be active in politics,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ commander said on May 9, 2009. Two days before the election, as reported by the Guardian, “The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued and ominous warning that any attempt at a popular ‘Revolution’ would be crushed.” Apprehensive observers warned that the armed forces activity in the political field could make the election meaningless, and they were right – Iranians were now face to face with a coup.
I, as a witness who was living in Tehran in those days, remember the feeling of the city. Tehran became a garrison after the election. Even breathing could be a crime. The security service’s agents attacked and arrested journalists and political activists. No one even knew where to hide them. Also, everything was horrible in the capital. Shocked people were walking in the streets while riot police lined up around. No one even could pull out a phone and took a picture. I remember a young man on the second day after the election. He was capturing a video of a column of riot police that were settled in Tehran’s downtown. The man was on a moving bus and was capturing the scene from behind the bus’s door glass. A policeman saw him. A group of the police stopped the bus, pulled out the young man, and insulted him and beat him in public before arresting him. I remember the look of fear in his eyes as two police officers carried him away.
According to The New Yorker’s report, Tehran’s streets were occupied by the police and security guards. “To announce the result this importable, and to do it while locking down the Interior Ministry, sending squads and Revolutionary Guards into the streets, blacking out Internet and cell-phone communication, and shuttering the headquarters of the rival candidates,” Laura Secor wrote about the Tehran’s atmosphere right after Iran’s 2009 election. The Guardian’s reporters, Ian Black and Saeed Kamali Dehghan, narrated some stories about the confrontation between riot police and demonstrators in Tehran. Also, Robert Dreyfuss’ observations were part of these chain of events. “Last night, after the polls closed, heavily armed troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were in evidence in the street,” Robert Dreyfuss reported for NPR. “I saw a convoy of at least fifteen military vehicles with armed guards idling along the side of the road.”
The election’s results were ridiculous. Academics demonstrated the fraud by analyzing the results. According to Professor Ali Ansari’s article “Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election,” in two Iran’s province “Mazandaran and Yazd, a turnout of more than 100% was recorded.” Also, he claims that the “official results” show that “in a third of all provinces” Ahmadinejad (as a conservative candidate) took 44% of traditional reformist’s votes – those who had voted for reformist candidates since 1994. As Mehran Kamrava ironically wrote in his article “The 2009 Elections and Iran’s Changing Political Landscape” it would be an historic result if an incumbent president won every single province (Ahmadinejad was starting the second term of his presidential in 2009).
All the evidence indicates that Ahmadinejad claimed a second term through a coup. On June 15, 2009, I was one of the folks who believed this. I watched the streets and waited for people. It was 5 PM sharp when I left the office. The street was silent, and the people were absent. No one showed up yet. I was reminded of Federico Garcia Lorca description of “groups of silence in the corners / at five in the afternoon.” My friend came feeling the same disappointment. “Every corner has been occupied by zombies,” he told me with a nervous smile. It was true. The zombies were around – with their masks, with their shields. They scared people with their guns, and batons. They were coming to perform a social cleansing – with their black military boots, with their black armor. As I was thinking this and looking out at these zombies, these prophets of terror, something happened: a crowd of people came to me from a distance. I saw them. I saw them marching in silence, and growing in size as others joined them from every corner of the street. “The people are coming,” I told my friend. His smile – his nervous smile – changed. He smiled was one of happiness this time.
More than three and a half million people showed up on that day. We were marching a long distance in silence – an absolute silence. “The spirit of liberty finally arrived at Tehran’s Freedom Square,” The Washington Times described the march. The march was the beginning of a nonviolent movement in my birth country that is known as Iran’s Green Movement – a resistance movement against the coup. The march was a miracle; it was the resurrection.
2. The Resurrection: The Specter of Iran’s 1979 Revolution
Nine years have passed since that day. Mir-Hossein Mousavi – a man who his supporters call him by his first name – drove to Iran’s interior ministry on May 8, 2009. He was one of Iran’s presidential candidates in that election year. According to his statement – which he read loud and clear in front of the reporters and their cameras on the day – he announced his mission with these words: “I have come to be a defender of poor people, who are living in difficulty and suffering from the economic policies.” He talked about poor people’s afflictions. He reminded them of those values that had been forgotten in the past two decades in Iran: social and economic justice. He was straight, decisive, and promising when he explained his idea. “We have to be alarmed when we live in a society that a minority of individuals build palaces for themselves and waste money for their own celebrations,” he said on May 5, 2009.
Mir-Hossein had had a simple middle-class lifestyle. Unlike the other 2009 presidential candidates, he went to the interior ministry by a simple car – without any retinue; without any ceremony. His wife was the only person who accompanied him. This act had been the new attitude in official politics in Iran since the Islamic Republic was established. Indeed, the Islamic culture wants women to be more submissive than in any of the conservative cultures that exist in the west. Bernard Lewis in his book, “The Muslim Discovery of Europe,” argued that the first generations of Muslims blamed European men, and called them dishonored, because of the relative freedom of European women. Even today, this opinion about the culture of the West exists among some in Muslim culture. So by this view, Mir-Hossein’s wife accompanying him in his campaign was an innovation. “No prime minister or president in the Islamic Republic has ever done that,” Shadi Sadr – a secular Iranian women’s rights activist – said to The Guardian about this Mir-Hossein’s figure. Actually, he was showing his identification with the modern Iranian middle-class through this act.
In the age of political correctness, the face of Mir-Hossein is looked upon favorably by liberal reformists in Iran. They always try to portray him as a polite middle-class politician who cares about morality more than politics. They claim through subtle and explicit that he could challenge Ahmadinejad through reference to his fundamental ethics. From their point of view, the people accepted his message when he talked to uncivil politician like Ahmadinejad and said: “the men’s civility is more valuable than his wealth,” not when he talked to people and said: “This is a kind of social oppression when the riches are marching by their fancy cars before the poor people.”
In fact, Mir-Hossein has never been a liberal reformist. According to PBS’s article “The Political Evolution of Mousavi” Mir-Hossein was a member of the “Islamist Leftists” – a sub-culture of educated Iranians who believe in Islam as well as social and economic justice. The members of this sub-culture are not considered liberals. Although they have never had a coherent political theory, they borrow social and economic justice from Marxism and try to fuse these ideas with Islamic doctrine. Also, Mir-Hossein has often identified himself with 1979 Iran’s revolution. “I was a villager,” he said to Time’s reporters on June 12, 2009. “When the revolution happened, it pulled me forward.” The 1979 Iran’s revolution was under the influence of Marxism. Even religious political forces at that time could not be the adherents of capitalism. In 1979, right after the revolution victory, an Ayatollah named Ahmad Azari Qomi said: “Islam has never put any limitation on individual wealth.” Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani – an honorable person who was respected by Iranian Islamist leftists – in response to Qomi said: “you are making the youth pessimist to Islam by these kinds of comments.”
However, anti-capitalism was the prevailing sentiment of the 1979 revolution. Even Iran’s current ruling class – as the revolution’s usurpers – had accepted Neo-liberalism principles since a decade after the revolution. So, when Mir-Hossein had said: “We are going to bring to life some of the revolution’s slogans about social and economic justice” in 2009, he was summoning the specter of Iran’s 1979 revolution – a specter that the Islamic Republic has tried to forget since the 1990s. In fact, 2009 Iran’s coup was a bloody reaction to this summons from Iranian neo-liberal Muslims.
3. Flashback: Primitive Accumulation of Capital
A long time Iranian journalist and writer, Mohammad Ghaed, has several times described the atmosphere between Jan 1979 to June 1980 in Iran through reference to the famous Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, “A Tales of Two Cities”. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens wrote. “It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” So, Ghaed has claimed, “the revolution” had two levels in that time. “One level was led by the intellectuals, writers, lawyers, and collegians – those who worried about the people’s rights. At the bright side of the cities, the educated class had discussions about the media law or necessity of progressive amendments in the Iran’s new constitution,” Ghaed wrote on October 2010. “But on the dark side of the city, far from the political activists and Medias’ visibility, a massive plunder was happening.” Indeed, Mohammad Ghaed mentions the first period of capital accumulation after the 1979 revolution in Iran. The economic power foundation of the Iran’s new ruling class was shaped by confiscation. This plunder was happening step by step over the next 10 years. The nascent government targeted the social groups and confiscated their properties. First they started with the more vulnerable groups and, when the other social groups became weak, they attacked them as well.
The dependents of the former regime were the first targeted group. On September 1, 1980, Mohammad Beheshti – the head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary system at that time – said: “the Islamic revolutionary courts have to consider those properties that their owners have gained by Haram paths as soon as possible.” Among the former ruling class, those who had a chance to leave the country at the right time could be alive, but their properties were confiscated by the Islamic regime. But many of them were not as lucky as their former co-workers. They lost their property, and in some cases, their lives. Former politicians, capitalists, industrialists, landowners, and army commanders were arrested. The new courts sentenced them to death based on Islamic law, not the secular law. Those accused had no lawyers. There were no juries. In many cases, trials were not longer than a couple of minutes. There were no appeal courts for the victims. The death penalties were carried out right after the trials. Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, for instance, was a most famous member of this group of casualties. Hoveyda was the prime minister of Iran from Jan 1965 to August 1977. His trial was in 1979. The Islamic Revolutionary Court condemned him to death. He was murdered a couple minutes after the trial. Habib Elghanian was another victim – a wealthy Jewish businessman who was arrested in winter of 1979 and was executed on May 1979. The Plasco building was one of his properties that the Islamic regime took for itself – according to the latest estimates the value of Plasco was $49 million. The scale of this capital accumulation is apparent in the wealth of Sadegh Khalkhali the most famous executioner of the Islamic Republic. It was KhalKhali – who sentenced both Hoveyda and Elghanian to death. According to his letter to Mohammad Beheshti on November 1980, Khalkhali cheated his victims out of $8.3 million since 1979. Mohammad Ghaed in his article about Khalkhali, “Hanging Judge,” claimed that the value of $8.3 million in 1979 is equal to $23 million in Jan 2011. Khalkhali never turned this amount back over to the state, and it became his personal wealth.
The former Iranian ruling class was not the only target group. Adherents of the Bahai Faith were targeted as well. The Arjmand’s properties was a case between the hundreds Bahais’ families’ cases in that age. Before 1979, this family was the owner of a factory named Arj. After 1979, the Islamic Republic escheated Arjmand’s properties because of their religion. According to the latest official statements, the value of the factory’s lands alone is around $350,000.
|Mojahedin's Rally, June 1981|
After June 19, 1981, the Islamic regime started a war against vast numbers of Iran’s population: the Iranian Leftist parties, organizations, and groups. Iraj Mesdaghi – a writer and political activist who had been in jail during the 1980s – claims that the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran , for example, had had more than 500,000 members, militia and supporters across the country in 1981. “In 1981, Mojahed’s magazine was published by People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran every day and its circulation was five hundred thousand for each day,” Mesdaghi told me. This bloody war had gone until the summer of 1988. As Mesdaghi says, almost 20,000 of leftists were killed by Islamic regime during the 1980s. He also estimates the Islamic Republic had had tens of thousands of political prisoners in its prisons at that time. A significant portion of the looting happened during this war – Islamic regime escheated these groups’ members and supporters’ properties.
There are no exact statistics about how much property the leftist opposition lost in the aftermath of the revolution, but many facts show these political organizations had had many properties across the country. For example, Masoud Rajavi – the leader of Mojahedin in that time – had weekly speeches in 1979 for his supporters. According to Mesdaghi’s claim, the written text of each speech was published by the Mojahedin’s printing office as a book within a maximum of 10 days, which means this organization had to have a series, and professional, publishers and printing offices. “All Mojahedin’s printing offices were seized by the Islamic Republic,” Mesdaghi said. “Also, all the buildings that People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran had were seized.”
All the facts show that the first period of capital accumulation in Iran happened through the confiscation of social group’s properties. However, the accumulation repeats. The second period of accumulation in Iran began on May 22, 2005 – when the ruling class began to target public properties for themselves.
4. The Shadow of The last leftist
|Mir-Hossein Mousavi, June 2009|
According to Article 44 of the Iran’s constitution, the ownership of vast areas of Iran’s economy, like “major industries, banks, insurance companies, the post, telegraph and telephone offices,” are public, and the state has to take care of these parts of Iran’s economy. However, this section of Iran’s constitution was violated by the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei. On May 22, 2005, he issued an executive order allowing the privatization of these parts of Iran’s economy. As Khamenei claimed, this executive order was issued because of “Iran’s economic growth, expanding the private property to all the people, and social justice for them.” Indeed, Khamenei argued if the state sells itself, all the people can be the new owner of those parts of the state that have been sold. So, by this point of view, social justice emerges from the privatization. The whole Idea was a fault-free plan for this new kind of looting. The supreme leader of the Islamic Republic – as a delegate of whole the Iranian new class – was playing a trick on the people.
First of all, based on Article 44 of Iran’s constitution, Iranians already were the owners of the state’s properties. There was no connection between privatization and social justice. The executive order was a bitter joke. This idea was to make the ruling class the owners, not the people – only a minority of individuals have become wealthy by the 1980s’ confiscations, and only these kinds of individuals could spend money to buy the state’s properties. The executive order would implement classic neo-liberal policies, but justify them with Islamic revolutionary language. And without a strong leftist voice in the country to make the connection between this executive order and neoliberal policies being implemented in other countries, the Iranian people could not see the negative effect these kinds of policies have had around the world. But this explanation is the leftists’ job, and there was no leftists group in Iran. As I mentioned before, the Iranian leftist groups had been victims of political genocide by the Islamic Republic during the 1980s – just in the interval of July to September 1988, almost 5,000 of leftist groups’ supporters had been hanged by the government in the prisons. Also, the security services had slaughtered the leftist intellectuals during the 1990s. Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari, for instance, were two Marxist intellectuals who were warned about Iran’s new economic policies during the 1990s. Both of them had been murdered on December 1998 by Iran’s security service.
At the same time, the Islamic Republic purged itself of the Islamist Leftists after 1988. Mir-Hossein had been the Islamic Republic’s prime minister until 1988. But after that time he and his supporters were fired from the government. According to his first election speech on television in May 2009, he claimed that the government censored him from the public during the past two decades. After the 2005 executive order he was the only person in Iran’s official political field that criticized this order. In 2009, Mir-Hossein was challenging this sensitive issue during his campaign. Indeed, he believed that Iran’s Islamic regime was changing the constitution by executive order, an unacceptable shift. During his third debate, Mir Hossein pointed this out explicitly: “When the government wants to change a part of the constitution, it should happen by a referendum.”
Mir-Hossein’s demand about the referendum was impossible. Iran’s ruling class has never accepted this offer. Naomi Klein in her book “The Shock Doctrine” argued that structural adjustment programs have never been implemented by a democratic process because most voters understand that these programs will make them poorer than they are. So, when Mir-Hossein began criticizing this program and claimed that this program has to be implemented by a referendum, indeed, he was threatening all of Iran’s ruling class’s advantages. In fact, Mir-Hossein’s economic policies made an obstacle for The Islamic Republic’s economy programs. According to executive order, all the state’s economic sectors , including social benefits, should be privatized by 2021. However, Mir-Hossein beleieved something opposite. “Some politicians explain subsidies to people as something harmful, but this is not true,” Mir-Hossein said on November 2009. “Many of the developed countries have had subsidies, and we need to follow them.” His campaign was a shadow of the last leftist.
5. The Fate of The March
|The Rich Kids of Tehran|
In Iran’s 2009 election, the people chose Mir-Hossein, but Iran’s ruling class could not co-opt him or his leftist ideas about the economy. This was the reason for Iran’s 2009 coup. However, Iranian’s liberal reformists do not like this face of Mir-Hossein. They portrayed him as a moderate politician who had liberal ideas about culture and was trying to rebuild the political relationship between Iran and the west. They claim that the Islamic Regime had no tolerance for Mir-Hossein’s liberal ideas. They are entirely wrong. After Iran’s 2009 election, The Islamic Republic started to give some freedom to a minority of the people. A part of liberal’s Iranian reformist group has its own private television station. They have their newspapers, and many of them have their “secure island.” According to Vice News article “What the Rich Kids of Tehran Instagram Tells us about Iranian Youth Culture” there is a minority of people who can dance, drink alcoholic beverages, and have pool parties, the kind of activities that have been forbidden in Iran since 1979.
On the other hand, The Islamic Regime not only has never accepted Iranian leftists’ economic demands, but Iran’s ruling class has continued to privatize industries, cut social benefits, and suppress the working-class. In these days, the state is selling Iran’s oil industries, and Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 20 million Iranians are suburbanite – they are 25% of Iran’s population. More than 12 million exist in absolute hunger – they are more than 15% of the population. Two poor young men were hanged in Tehran’s Streets on June 2013 – They were executed for stealing just $23. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, there have been 35 strikes around the country every day in the 4 past years. Ali Rabiei has been the head of Iran’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs sine 2013 – he is a veteran political police. In 2013, 5000 workers of a mine in the center of Iran were on strike against the privatization of their mine. 17 leaders of the workers were whipped on June 2016 because of their responsibility in organizing the strike. This is terrorism. These social groups have had no voice in the political field. Some Iranian sociologists argue that the working-class in Iran has had no social capital. Iran’s government has confiscated their social capital through bloody crackdowns. Which means that no leader nor political group represents the working class’ demands. “Since 1988, when the government ran the structural adjustment programs in Iran, something has collapsed between the state and the poor people, [and] that is known as social capital,” Javid Sobhani – a sociologist in Tehran – said once to an Iranian newspaper on December 31, 2016. “The new generation of the Iranian poor people is scared of the state and the market at the same time. They have no idea what is the state’s next plan or how the market wants to make a ghastly future for them?”
|The poor kids of Tehran|
Even nature is not safe from this kind of terrorism. The Iran’s northern forests, for instance, are bombed by garbage. Mahyar Isazade – a regional planner from Iran – claims that 450 to 500 tons garbage bury in Saravan’s Jungles at the north of Iran every day. “This much garbage make 10 liters dirty latex every single second – which means 315 million liters in a year,” Isazade said to me. He also believes deforestation is an important crisis for the environment of north of Iran. “18 million hectare of Iran lands had been forest in 1979,” Isazade said. “Today Iran has had just 9 million hectare of those jungles.”
Iran has been in a long-dark night. The majority of people are surrounded by darkness. This night could end if the march could win, but it did not happen. Ali Khamenei gave a speech and rejected the protesters claim about the fraud in the election. “Perhaps 100,000 votes, or 500,000 votes, but how can anyone tamper with 11 million votes?” he said on June 19, 2009. “If the political elite ignore the law – whether they want it or not – they would be responsible for the bloodshed and chaos.” In this speech, Khamenei was giving an order to kill the Green movement’s supporters in public. A day after his speech – known as Black Saturday in Iran – the revolutionary guards and riot police chased the protesters in the streets. They beat people. They killed people. I, as a witness, saw at least six dead bodies of the protesters in the west side of Tehran. Some resources estimated that 19 people were killed on Black Saturday – Neda Agha-Soltan was one of those martyrs on June 20, 2009.
After Black Saturday, the resistance continued. The protesters were in the streets until 2010. But the suppression was ultimately too much. According to unofficial reports, 78 protesters were killed in the streets through 8 months. Lots of the protesters had also been raped in the prisons. “I will say it clearly: they [Iran’s security forces] raped people in detention in the early days of the movement,” Mehdi Karroubi – one of the two opposing candidates in 2009 and Mir-Hossein’s ally – said to The New Yorker on October 12, 2010. “And they continue to torture dissidents in brutal ways in prisons.” In June 2011, a victim of these tortures gave an interview with PBS as an unknown person and mentioned the rape as a kind of torture. “I don’t know how many times a day I was raped. It wasn’t just one person. There were different people,” she claimed. Also, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran claims that “rape was routinely practiced as a matter of policy to intimidate young ordinary people from ever coming out to protest again.” After all these repressions, Mir-Hossein, his wife and Mehdi Karroubi were arrested by Islamic government and they have been in house arrest since 2011.
One would be wrong to think that all of this oppression happened only because of the Islamic government’s intolerance. Economic interests were sleeping on behind this long wall of oppressions for the looters; for the neo-liberal Muslims. 50% of Telecommunication Company of Iran was sold by the state on October 2009. It was the biggest privatization in Iran’s history: $1.9 billion. The buyer was one of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ companies – an armed organization whose members killed protesters in the streets and raped them in the jails. Iran’s Green Movement was not a local political movement, but it was a logical revolt against Neo-liberalism. From the United States to Iran, the 99 percent are playing chess with a universal system known as Neo-Liberalism around the world. If a nation will checkmate this system in a specific country, it would be a global victory. So, every single question about fate of the Green Movement would be a universal question: how can we make the march again?