Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cole on Iran: It's About Culture, not Class

On various blogs discussing the Iranian situation right now, there's been an argument over whether or not the west has, perhaps, been "snowed" by wealthy people in North Tehran. Maybe Ahmadinejad really did as well as he seemed thanks to his support by the poor and religious, and this response is just the wealthy and their children acting out in frustration.

Juan Cole knocks that one down:
Some comentators have suggested that the reason Western reporters were shocked when Ahmadinejad won was that they are based in opulent North Tehran, whereas the farmers and workers of Iran, the majority, are enthusiastic for Ahmadinejad. That is, we fell victim once again to upper middle class reporting and expectations in a working class country of the global south.

While such dynamics may have existed, this analysis is flawed in the case of Iran because it pays too much attention to class and material factors and not enough to Iranian culture wars. We have already seen, in 1997 and 2001, that Iranian women and youth swung behind an obscure former minister of culture named Mohammad Khatami and his 2nd of Khordad movement, capturing not only the presidency but also, in 2000, parliament.

Khatami received 70 percent of the vote in 1997. He then got 78% of the vote in 2001, despite a crowded field. In 2000, his reform movement captured 65% of the seats in parliament. He is a nice man, but you couldn't exactly categorize him as a union man or a special hit with farmers.

The evidence is that in the past little over a decade, Iran's voters had become especially interested in expanding personal liberties, in expanding women's rights, and in a wider field of legitimate expression for culture (not just high culture but even just things like Iranian rock music). The extreme puritanism of the hardliners grated on people.

The problem for the reformers of the late 1990s and early 2000s was that they did not actually control much, despite holding elected office. Important government policy and regulation was in the hands of the unelected, clerical side of the government. The hard line clerics just shut down reformist newspapers, struck down reformist legislation, and blocked social and economic reform. The Bush administration was determined to hang Khatami out to dry, ensuring that the reformers could never bring home any tangible success in foreign policy or foreign investment. Thus, in the 2004 parliamentary elections, literally thousands of reformers were simply struck off the ballot and not allowed to run. This application of a hard line litmus test in deciding who could run for office produced a hard line parliament, naturally enough.

But in 2000, it was clear that the hard liners only had about 20% of the electorate on their side.

By 2005, the hard liners had rolled back all the reforms and the reform camp was sullen and defeated. They did not come out in large numbers for the reformist candidate, Karoubi, who only got 17 percent of the vote. They nevertheless were able to force a run-off between hard line populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative billionaire. Ahmadinejad won.

But Ahmadinejad's 2005 victory was made possible by the widespread boycott of the vote or just disillusionment in the reformist camp, meaning that fewer youth and women bothered to come out.

So to believe that the 20% hard line support of 2001 has become 63% in 2009, we would have to posit that Iran is less urban, less literate and less interested in cultural issues today than 8 years ago. We would have to posit that the reformist camp once again boycotted the election and stayed home in droves.

No, this is not a north Tehran/ south Tehran issue. Khatami won by big margins despite being favored by north Tehran.

So observers who want to lay a guilt trip on us about falling for Mousavi's smooth upper middle class schtick are simply ignoring the last 12 years of Iranian history. It was about culture wars, not class. It is simply not true that the typical Iranian voter votes conservative and religious when he or she gets the chance. In fact, Mousavi is substantially more conservative than the typical winning politician in 2000. Given the enormous turnout of some 80 percent, and given the growth of Iran's urban sector, the spread of literacy, and the obvious yearning for ways around the puritanism of the hard liners, Mousavi should have won in the ongoing culture war.

And just because Ahmadinejad poses as a champion of the little people does not mean that his policies are actually good for workers or farmers or for working class women (they are not, and many people in that social class know that they are not).

So let that be an end to the guilt trip. The Second of Khordad Movement was a winning coalition for the better part of a decade. Its supporters are 8 years older than the last time they won, but it was a young movement. Did they all do a 180 and defect from Khatami to Ahmadinejad? Unlikely. The Iranian women who voted in droves for Khatami haven't gone anywhere.
Bolding mine, and it pretty much sums it up. There's no way that these results make sense, even without looking at Karoubi's comically low vote count. It was always possible that Ahmadinejad was going to win, and I honestly believe he could have.

But we don't know who won. That fact is all we do know. And for the people of Iran, that was more than enough to stop supporting this regime.

Edit: And what the HELL is going on in his comment thread? There's endless ranting about "Obamabots" and obvious spinning for Ahmadinejad and Iran. I'd buy it if it seemed to come from honest Ahmadinejad supporters, but it seems like it's coming from this bizarre mindset where Ahmadinejad MUST be popular since he takes potshots at the U.S and affects a populist image. It's quite possible to enjoy popular success and take shots at the U.S. Hugo Chavez does it, and his elections are routinely verified as legitimate by international observers. But that's simply not what happened here.

There's also a lot of wanking on about how "America shouldn't lecture them until it cleans its own house". Maybe. But people like Cole aren't telling Iranians what to do. They're explaining why Iranians are reacting as they are, and why the spin is unlikely at best. Americans shouldn't dictate what Iranians do, but that's not what's happing here, either.

You're allowed to be against both Iranian election fraud and the excesses of the American right, folks. They aren't mutually exclusive.

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