Would MLK Back Iran’s Protesters?

Combine Iran’s post-election turmoil with the controversy over the nation’s nuclear advances, and few Americans are likely to be unsympathetic toward the opposition movement there. Some bloggers have even suggested that the reformist-led protests are inspired by the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Several commentators have referred to the wave of anti-theocracy rallies as Iran’s “civil rights movement, perhaps implying that the social conservatives who rule the country resemble Mississippi fundamentalists.

Reese Erlich and others have reported that the insurrection now sweeping Iran spans class divisions. Middle East expert Stephen Zunes, in supporting the Iranian opposition, has written that “[h]istorically individuals and groups with experience in effective mass nonviolent mobilization tend to come from the left.”

But the Iranian reformist minority’s proudly argued definition of anti-poverty action is a Reaganesque, business-friendly policy presumed to “lift all boats.” Accordingly, the movement openly aims to overturn affirmative action programs and other “unfair benefits” enjoyed by less privileged Iranians. Judging by its literature, the opposition defends primarily the interests of Iranians who either aim for or already enjoy white-collar status. More often than not, this constituency has felt betrayed by the Islamic Republic for three decades.

Since Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005, Iran’s investor, academic, and professional interest groups, including numerous clerics, have complained bitterly that the president has bypassed them to go straight to the grassroots on his wildly popular monthly provincial tours. Ahmadinejad’s first provocation after he took office was to auction the luxury presidential jet ordered by his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

Entitlements and Perceptions

Testimony that the current unrest is, among other things, a backlash against government services to have-nots comes from none other than the opposition’s iconic leader himself. In gleeful remarks carried on July 5 online by the pro-reform daily Emruz, Mir Hossein Mousavi told a gathering of sympathetic academics, “Our society is quite different from what it was six months ago…The middle class has achieved a consciousness that, if channeled properly, is very constructive…The current [Ahmadinejad] administration has no plans for this class and the situation is hopeless.”

In an opinion survey, funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund three weeks before the recent elections, pollsters Ballen and Doherty found that the “only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians.” Mousavi’s most influential backer is industrialist and former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is best known for pushing privatization and deregulation packaged as “citizen empowerment.” Rafsanjani ran against Ahmadinejad and lost by a wide margin four years ago. Mousavi has not distanced himself from Rafsanjani’s overt hostility to government spending on subsidies and social welfare, which is expressed in a language similar to right-wing denunciations of “welfare queens” in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. would not likely approve of such a position.

Ervand Abrahamian, a world authority on modern Iranian history and known critic of the theocracy, recently attributed the longevity of the Islamic Republic to its constituent services and subsidies. In an article in Middle East Report, Abrahamian examined and dismissed other common explanations, including intimidation and the use of force against government opponents. If Abrahamian’s analysis is accurate, it can explain the reluctance of a large sector of the Iranian society to throw away the baby (social programs) with the bathwater (morality police). Nevertheless, another candidate among the three who challenged Ahmadinejad this spring, Mohsen Rezaei, denounces the incumbent’s spending on the infrastructure needs of common folks as “communism” and calls for “radical surgery” on the economy so as to please investors.

The solution offered by a third candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, for the ever-growing cost of college education is only slightly less cold-hearted. Noting that tuition at private institutions is burdensome for most families, he promised student loans for all if elected. He could have instead called for an expansion of Iran’s superior state university system, which costs students nothing. But that would have been politically unfeasible, because the opposition’s patron saint, Rafsanjani, is a cofounder and fiercest defender of the country’s largest chain of private colleges.

The opposition’s insensitivity toward less affluent Iranians has gone unnoticed in the Western media, including the left-leaning press. They often prefer characterizations like “fundamentalist” and “enlightened” in describing the candidates. That leaves our pundits free to describe the opposition as a civil rights movement.

The stereotypes are pervasive as much as they are misleading. A major achievement of the U.S. civil rights movement was to teach African Americans that they were intelligent and “black is beautiful.” King and his associates worked tirelessly to persuade people of color to believe in themselves as equals to whites. In Iran, the public hears this message of equality (with the West) over and over from the Ahmadinejad camp, as it celebrates Iran’s industrial achievements and independent foreign policy. By contrast, the Iranian youth who notoriously opt by the thousands for aesthetic nose surgery for a Hollywood look are predominantly from the ranks of Mousavi supporters. In hundreds of conversations with this constituency, which includes virtually all of my Iranian friends, I consistently hear contempt for the blue-collar and rural voters courted by Ahmadinejad.

Reformist leaders deserve credit for promoting equal opportunity for women. Mousavi has even distinguished himself by calling for cultural rights for Iran’s numerous ethnic minorities. But since they don’t target poverty and elite corruption and cost next to nothing, these sincere “civil society” initiatives are poor substitutes for Iran’s welfare state. A true civil rights movement would demand expanded affirmative action for all marginalized Iranians.

Local Bully, Global Aggressors

The Iranians who risk arrest and worse to challenge social restrictions and the apparent re-election of President Ahmadinejad deserve praise for their dissent. The abuse they suffer has drawn support from Bon Jovi, U2, and Joan Baez. But they do not speak for the truly voiceless, as a civil rights movement by definition should. From a real counter-cultural perspective, Iran’s jubilant “Green Wave” has deeply conformist values that do not portend liberation for all.

I contend this not because tens of millions of oppressed Muslims, even in Sunni-majority nations like Egypt, regard Ahmadinejad as a beacon of hope and freedom. Nor do I describe Iran’s opposition as conformist only because Mousavi’s declared vision is a return to the unremarkable times preceding Ahmadinejad. Rather, Iran’s protest movement should be considered unenlightened because it affirms, more than it contradicts, the worst aspects of globalization and global domination.

Those of us who struggled unsuccessfully throughout the Bush years to draw Iranian Americans to antiwar protests are shocked to suddenly see thousands of them, bedecked in Mousavi green, protesting the Iranian elections on the streets of major U.S. cities. It is, of course, gratifying that Western peace and justice activists are finally able to connect with the expatriate Iranian community. But let us not assume that every newfound Iranian American friend belongs to a “civil rights movement” until we hear whether they also marched against U.S. and Israeli threats to bomb Iran.

Mousavi and his top aides, too, are not on record criticizing U.S. and British aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan or the West’s illegal threats against Iran. “Provocation is for the extremists,” one of Mousavi’s lieutenants explained to me, referring to the Ahmadinejad faction. By contrast, reformist publications regularly feature tirades against Iran’s alignment with left-leaning governments in Latin America. If Erlich could read Farsi and speak directly to Iranians who cannot communicate in English, he might not have been so quick to criticize Hugo Chavez for siding with Ahmadinejad.

Another reformist candidate in this year’s election who practices moderation rather than speaks truth to (global) power is former parliament speaker, Mehdi Karroubi.

During a series of first-ever televised debates that preceded the June 12 elections, Karroubi ridiculed Ahmadinejad’s one-time claim that “the Americans” plotted to assassinate the incumbent in 2008 while he was on a state visit to Iraq. Before a television audience of record size, Karroubi then praised U.S. authorities for protecting him while he visited New York in 2000. One does not have to have faith in Iran’s recent elections or see a Western hand in the ensuing protests to recognize that deference to, as Rev. King put it, the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence” is improper for an aspiring civil rights leader.

In another move sure to please Western elites, Karroubi made a campaign splash when he listed incremental de-nationalization of Iran’s oil industry at the top of his promised economic reforms. In 1953, the CIA overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s best hope for secular democracy, because he nationalized Iranian oil. Thousands of Iranians sacrificed their lives or careers for the nationalization campaign to succeed. The widow of Mosadegh’s nationalist foreign minister endorsed Ahmadinejad in this year’s election. As Karroubi’s top advisors, Massoud Nili and Abbas Abdi, have argued for years, the goal of the proposed privatization of oil is to take away the Ahmadinejad faction’s ability to “buy” working class votes with social spending.

If the opposition is to qualify as a genuine civil rights movement, it needs to change drastically. It must show a commitment to equality within Iran and in international relations as much as it champions freedom. With reformists siding with local and global privileged classes, it is naïve to dismiss Ahmadinejad as a demagogue relying on brute force to block a progressive mass movement.

Judging from what I hear during frequent trips in Iran, citizens of nearly all backgrounds, including the president’s supporters, want more social freedoms and political choices. But a great many are not willing to live without the services they have come to expect from their government or abandon the current leadership’s foreign policy. The election of a person of color as president of the United States suggests that Americans have a renewed distaste for trickle-down economics and imperial conquests. It shouldn’t be difficult to understand that a sizeable segment, perhaps a majority, of Iran’s population shares those concerns and may vote accordingly to keep the reformists out of power. Reverend King would understand.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Rostam Pourzal is an independent Iranian-American analyst specializing in the politics of human rights.