Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Mess in Iran

To begin understanding the current situation in Iran, it may help to remember some history.  In 1953, US and British intelligence agencies fomented a coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister.  When Mossadegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, the oil companies thought they'd rather do business with the Shah, unencumbered by democracy.

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi ruled a police state until he was ousted in 1979.  Under his rule, Iran westernized and secularized; the cities prospered and women got the vote, while enemies of the state – Islamists and Communists – were executed or forced into exile.  Resistance to the police state came to be associated with resistance to westernization, so Islamic clerics came to lead the political resistance, and conservative Shi'a Islam became the ideology of revolution.

In the quarter-century the Shah was in power, though, a lot of urban Iranians came to lead quite secular lives.  While the rural population welcomed Islamic rule, city dwellers never quite came to terms with rule by the Ayatollahs. Still, US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War helped maintain their support for the Islamic Republic.

Teheran, though, has remained relatively quiet in recent days; the strongest opposition to the regime comes from the small cities and towns far from the capital.  The most loyal supporters of the Ayatollahs now are expressing the greatest discontent.  Economic problems caused by mismanagement and corruption are the focus of their concerns, problems magnified by economic sanctions that were loosened but certainly not eliminated by the Iran nuclear agreement.  Exclusion from the US banking system makes trade even with willing partners very difficult.

A few demonstrators are reported to have called for a return of the Shah, but the largest number of Iranian monarchists currently are growing old in Los Angeles, and no news organizations are clamoring to interview the Crown Prince.  Our President's tweets "in support" of the protestors help only the current regime: any Iranians who long for a return of Anglo-American petroimperialism are well-advised to their heads down.

Word is that the budget documents that sparked the current unrest were leaked to the public by Hassan Rouhani, to call attention to large expenditures on religious institutions and the Revolutionary Guard.  Iranians might have tolerated a reasonable amount of graft and cronyism in a better economic climate, but not while living standards continue to decline.

The thing to watch for now is how the demonstrations alter the balance of power between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's archconservatives and President Rouhani's moderate reformers.  Security forces are likely to put an end to the demonstrations quite soon, but the political impact on Iran remains to be seen.

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