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Friday, March 02, 2012

The Iranian National Assembly Elections, 2012

So ballot boxes in Iran closed today.

There are two major issues here: i) the role of assembly elections in Iran, ii) the boycott of those elections.

In electing the Majles-e-Shura, or parliament, Iranians went to the polls against a background of political upheavel in the world of their neighbouring Arab counterparts. These elections are free and fair insofar as they contain a ballot between mostly conservative factions. So not that "free and fair" by our standards at all.

Quite easily the most followed foreign news service in Iran is the BBC Persian news service, whose news provision has experienced a doubling in views by Iranians in the past year or so.

BBC Persian is an excellent service (if you can read the lingo) but sometimes it reads a little like The Shah's Broadcasting Service, given the apparent loathing of a much younger and obviously pro-western team of journalists towards the brutal regime now in power.

So firstly the reality: These elections will not change a great deal. Western outlets are inclined to say "Iranian elections never do", but the fact is that Iran has a vibrant and often vitriolic political landscape in which few figures beyond the Assembly of Experts (those 86 Islamic scholars who appoint the Supreme Leader) are safe from mudslinging and accusations both in the press and on tv. Contrary to the myth, Iranian national politics is not a world of silence and prison terms. Certainly it's a world of knowing when to not push your luck, but it's not 1950s Stalingrad.

Iran is not a totalitarian state. This often surprises westerners weaned on a diet of Cold War rhetoric; to be sure, you are not free to call for the destruction of the ruling regime, yet there is a certain zone of debate within the society where opposition is both expected and encouraged.

But it's On Their Terms!

Cross the line and, like the main opposition parties, you will find yourself under house arrest or worse. Mass executions of dissidents may be a thing of the past, but harrassment, rigged courts, and eventual imprisonment are not.

So, onto the boycott: under this curious breed of limited freedom, the candidates for election have been vetted already by the regime. There are two angles to this: i) They don't want a repeat of the mass urban rallies for democracy seen in recent years, ii) This election is about the growing troubles between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad.

In a nutshell, the majority of reformist candidates seeking a western-style democratic nation will not be in these elections; the state has ensured that this is a contest between long-standing conservative enemies, not between newer foes from within the democratic 'Green Movement'. In a sign of the personal nature of the battle between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, several of the latter's media machines (websites, radio stations, printing houses etc) were this week shut down by the apparatus of the state.

The battle is between Ahmadinejad's class warfare pseudo-socialism (heavily backed by young, religious, poor urban firebrands) and the hardline pseudo-rationalist conservatism of the ruling establishment.

The only hope for real participation by reformers that "western powers" would like to see in office was shattered by the decision by former Majles Speaker Mehdi Karroubi to entirely abstain from the vote in protest.

Karroubi is a remarkable man. Educated at the main seminary in Qom, he cut his political teeth in the nightmare years of the secular destruction of his world by the Pahlavi Shahs, who saw the clerical world of mullahs and Islamic politics as the last threat to their modernising, centralising power base. Almost certainly radicalised by the abortive clamp-downs on religious freedom by the ruling dynasty, Karroubi gained a reputation as a man of humanity in the face of vicious internice fighting which tore Iranian society apart in the Islamic Revolution in 1978/79. He has persistently condemned the ruling council, persistently called for greater freedoms in the press and general society, persistently called for the removal of laws which hold women back, and is now the only major voice of reform left among the ruling Islamic clerical system which contains all final, absolute executive power in the hands of Islamic Jurists - the Velayat-e Faqih political philosophy of Revolutionary Iran under Khomeini.

Karroubi is, therefore, the last remnant of the determined moderates such as Montazeri and Shariatmadari, men as utterly different from the horror of former Ayatollah Khomeini as one could imagine. Karroubi is a reminder to the world that Iran's popular revolution to oust the Shah in the seventies was never supposed to end in Khomeini's absolute reign of terror; it was supposed to remove the Shah and the crooks who ran Iran for 40 years with foreign guns, plundering the nation's treasury and enriching themselves alone. It was supposed to rid Iran of a foreign-backed tyrant, not replace him with a homegrown one.

Hence it's a tremendous pity Karroubi decided to boycott the elections. I don't think it was the right decision and I think an opportunity has been missed.

Yet here's the reality of it all: Karroubi spent years in prison under the Shah's regime, watched dozens and dozens of friends executed by the radical tyranny under Khomeini, has waited thirty years to become the head of the opposition movement, has recently seen his own family attacked and almost killed, and is not about to throw his entire life away on a whim. It's a true shame that the west doesn't balance all this nuclear proliferation crap with some reporting on Karroubi and his followers; they are truly courageous people whom the world should be reading about.

The press in the west is happy to report that Ahmadinejad denies the holocaust occurred, but it is strangely silent on reporting those figures in Iran who have publicly, loudly, and persistently mocked and derided Ahmadinejad on national television and radio in Iran's capital.

The election today is a battle between the pressured, disorganised followers of Ahmadinejad and the ruthless campaigners of the Supreme Leader. It's likely that some clericalist moderates will pick up votes, but on the whole this is an election aimed at silencing a president whom even the Supreme Leader is now clearly coming to see as a national embarrassment.

Don't expect to see champagne and mini-skirts in Tehran just yet, but the outcome of this election does indeed matter. If Ahmadinejad's party suffers badly it could spell the end of a truly bizarre political career that has so far survived a regional political renaissance.

But above all else I'd advise one position: Never assume that an asbolutely "free and fair" election in Iran would end in the absolute rejection of the traditionalist, Islamic, hardline parties of Iranian public life; Iran is not a nation likely to forget the often noble and self-sacrificial role that the clergy played in ridding the country of western colonialism under the Shah.

And whether you like it or not, Iranians will create the nation they want.

Oil price at 43-month high

So crude prices are now at a 43-month high.

The initial suggestion seems to be a "rumour" that an oil pipe in Saudi exploded. The Sauds deny this with an odd "nothing to see here" vein of non-statement which I find quite suspicious.

You may remember that just a month ago the Saudis, in typically over-the-top House O' Saud fashion, promised to mop up the shortfall in supply that would result if Iran were to cut the Straits of Hormuz. The promise was that Saudi Arabia had enough to turn the Iranian threat into a mere trifle.

Well the markets aren't buying it.

Stephen Chu (US Energy Secretary) refers to "spare capacity" in the oil supply but he is being horrifically disingenous if not downright stupid. Mr Chu knows full well that Iran is one of the top five oil producers and that China has no intention of playing America's games for it. In other words, what might be a squeeze in Iran could prove a collapse for the teetering US economy. 

With yet more evidence of western attempts to silence Iranian protestations over sanctions, it would seem highly likely that a major chink in the armour of Saud's bravura is now appearing.

Just recently, Press TV (Iran's English-speaking mouthpiece) had its license revoked in the UK under the spurious assertion that it did not have UK registration. Hmm...guess who else has no such "registration" in the UK? Try CNN and FOX.

So the upshot of it is this: Iran's brutal regime has already achieved their goal: to put far greater economic pressure on the west than the west can put on Iran.

Short of a no-holds-barred war against Iran (for which there is next to no support in Europe nor America) there is little that can be done beyond the common sense of minding our own business where Iran is concerned.

Martin Luther once wrote that war is only glorious to those who have no experience of it. In a similar vein, sanctions and imposed deprivation are only glorious to those whose own lives would remain untouched by poverty.