Anger from below
Iranians are expecting the worst from both Trump and their own regime, writes Yassamine Mather
As diplomatic efforts gain momentum to persuade Donald Trump that the United States should remain in the Iran nuclear deal, most Iranians are preparing themselves for the worst. By all accounts there is a prevailing sense of despair, as the country prepares itself for a new wave of economic sanctions.
The threat of US military action against Syria in early April, as well as the appointment of hawkish elements such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who has been an opponent of the deal and an advocate of regime change from above, have already created major economic problems for Iran. And all this before Trump’s warning of “big problems” if it resumes the nuclear programme it agreed to curb in the 2015 international accord - an agreement he calls “insane”. This is bizarre, of course, as it is Trump himself who wants to end the accord.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who according to Alain Badiou has many similarities with Napoleon III has, of course, been in Washington this week, attempting to convince Trump to maintain the Iran nuclear deal. However, after lengthy talks with the US president, it became clear that the ‘special relationship’ with Macron has its limits. Both men are now talking of negotiating a new deal. Neither of them seem to be asking the obvious question: why should the Tehran regime consider renegotiating a deal that took years to complete and why should Iranians believe that the US will adhere to the new accord when it has just walked away from the last one?
All Trump’s threats and hyperbole are doing no harm at all to Iran’s religious leaders. What is more, they know that if further sanctions are imposed, they can use their privileged position to make further use of the black market and maintain their wealth. It is ordinary people who are already paying the price of the political and subsequent economic uncertainty. In early April the Iranian rial plummeted to a record low, trading at more than 60,000 (!) to the US dollar and forcing the Tehran government to end unofficial exchanges (Iran previously had two exchange rates: the official one and a free-market variant, which fluctuated with demand). According to Kamal Seyyed Ali, director of the export guarantee fund of Iran,
The price hike was not logical, because the [central bank] was not injecting currency into the market ... when the official and market rates failed to reconcile after so many years, there was no other option but to bring them together abruptly.1
Far from saving the rial, however, the move was seen as a sign of panic. Iranians remember a similar attempt during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2012, which led to the exchange rate with the dollar tripling in less than a year. And, of course, it is one thing to declare a single rate and another to enforce it. Currently fear of a further dramatic fall means the rate is limited to selected sections of business. For the time being Iranians who want to travel abroad, for instance, are unable to purchase foreign currency before they leave.
Right now Iran’s economy is doing slightly better than it was at the end of the nuclear sanctions era. The trade balance has improved because more oil is being exported and the economy has also benefited from non-oil exports worth around $40 billion. The problem, however, remains the transfer of the proceeds from oil sales and other exports back to inside the country. Lifting of sanctions has not affected the restrictions imposed by the major banks on trade with Iran.
It is this combination of circumstances - the US threat to pull out of the nuclear deal, the appointment of Pompeo and Bolton, the military operations in Syria, and Trump’s threat to make Iran pay a “big price” after Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons - that has provoked a flight of capital, prompting the current exchange rate crisis. As a result the price of Iran’s imports, including food items, minerals, plastics and chemicals has risen dramatically and there seems to be no end to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.
Every week we hear of new protests and demonstrations, mainly by workers in response to the non-payment of wages, but also by pensioners and peasants. The latter, faced with climate change and drought, believe they have nothing to lose. Last week protestors in the city of Kazeroon in Fars province managed to disrupt Friday prayers and, as seen on footage shared on social media, some of the slogans could well worry Iran’s rulers - “Fear the day we become armed”, for example. And, almost 40 years after the February 1979 uprising, the crowds were also shouting: “They claim America is our enemy, but our enemy is right here.”
For us on the left there is a problem with this slogan. It is clear that the predicament of the working class in Iran and the policies of the reactionary factions of the capitalist theocracy in Iran are not unrelated to the actions of the United States and its allies in Europe. However, in the same way as reformists and revisionists bring socialism into disrepute, the corrupt, neoliberal, capitalist, Islamic government in Iran has managed to bring ‘anti-imperialism’ into disrepute.
There has not been much media attention given to these latest protests, but the fact that they are continuing all over the country is proof that the rebellion of December 2017-January 2018 was not just a flash in the pan. The very fact that protestors disrupted Friday prayers is also very significant, given that this weekly event is an integral and highly significant part of the regime’s authority.
Protests have become almost permanent. When one dies down another flares up. Plans to reroute the Karun river in Khuzestan province, so as to build a dam, have provoked anger in the city of Ahwaz and anti-government demonstrations have become more and more political: “Death to tyranny” and “Death to repression” being among the prominent slogans.
Throughout Iran, but particularly in Khuzestan, there have also been a number of protests against the state-run broadcasting company, following the airing of a children’s programme that managed to obliterate Arabs from a map showing the locations of Iran’s many ethnic minorities. In March peasants demonstrating against water shortages in Isfahan chanted the ironic slogan, “Death to the farmers! Long live the oppressors!” as a taunt against the government.
Water protests in Isfahan continued into April, with slogans that should worry all factions of the Tehran regime: “Liar Rouhani, where is our river?” “If the waters stop flowing, there will be a revolt”; “We demand the right to water, even if we die”. They also chanted: “The nation demands equality and justice”; “Leave Syria alone - think about us”; and “Death to this impostor government!”
Of course, diverting attention away from the main source of power (supreme leader ayatollah Khamenei) to the hapless, ‘elected’ president, Hassan Rouhani, has its advantages for the regime and this has led to speculation about a possible coup to remove Rouhani. For example, Al Jazeera tells us:
As commander-in-chief, ayatollah Khamenei controls all of Iran’s armed forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the volunteer militia, Basij, and Iran’s military. The IRGC and the Basij are especially loyal to the supreme leader, who has massively invested in them since 1989, when he took office.
In recent months, there have been a number of unusual changes in the political leadership of these institutions and alarmist commentators claim that ayatollah Khamenei is preparing the revolutionary guards … for one of two scenarios: one, in the short term, if the crisis gets worse, the guard would overthrow Rouhani’s administration; two, if the situation stabilises, Rouhani will be allowed to finish his term and thereafter the IRGC would install a military president.2
I disagree with this analysis. Khamenei is well aware that the facade of an ‘elected’ executive is worthwhile. The partial diversion of blame for various shortcomings from the religious and military wings of the regime to those ‘elected’ has helped ensure its survival, so for the time being he will stick with Rouhani.
However, just as with Donald Trump, no-one can predict what is going on in Khamenei’s head. Clearly Iranians are right to prepare for the worst.