Iran in despair

Mike Phipps reviews Crooked Alleys: Deliverance and Despair in Iran, by Soraya Lennie, published by Hurst.

Relations with Iran will be a central feature of US President Biden’s foreign policy. Will it be a return to the hawkish approach championed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Obama’s first term, or the second term détente that produced the Iran nuclear deal?

President Trump’s ripping up of that painstakingly negotiated accord had a huge impact beyond the US’s relations with Iran. More than 100 major international companies abandoned Iran. Economic deals worth almost $45 billion were wrecked. Even before this, European companies which violated US sanctions on Iran faced stiff fines: French bank BNP Paribus was forced to pay $9 billion in fines in 2014 alone.

Soraya Lennie’s book explores the impact of these policies within Iran itself. But it’s also about much more: how the battle between conservatives and reformers within the Iranian ruling elite impacted on domestic policy; how the regime’s response to the nationwide protests of 2009 affected key aspects of Iranian society; and above all how the trauma of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War with its colossal fatalities and injuries continues to be felt in the country today.

As Lennie says, “Everyone knows someone who was killed in the Iran-Iraq War. Everyone knows someone under the age of thirty-five who is unemployed. And now, everyone knows someone struggling to find or pay for medication because of sanctions.”

The book is a mine of little-reported information about Iranian society: why its outdated aeroplanes tend to crash; how those voices that have highlighted the catastrophic human impact of US sanctions have been marginalised by a regime which prefers to minimise their effect; the shocking scales of luxurious corruption enjoyed by sections of the elite.

Rising discontent, particularly at the impact of western sanctions and the regime’s attempt to manage this, has broken out repeatedly in recent years. Then the steep increase in the cost of fuel in November 2019 saw protests erupt in a score of cities. The government responded by switching off the internet for six days. Unrest spread and the state’s crackdown was the bloodiest in the history of the Islamic Republic, with hundreds – perhaps as many as 1,500 – killed.

How far this wave of protest might have gone is difficult to say, as two events came to the aid of the Iranian regime. First was the escalation of tensions with the US which very nearly led to war, including the fatal US drone attack in Iraq on the Iranian Quds militia commander Qasem Seleimani. His assassination allowed the Iranian regime to orchestrate a display of patriotism and national unity which helped to sideline the country’s internal divisions.

Yet this event itself was overshadowed by the shooting down by Islamic Revolutionary Guards of a Ukrainian airliner carrying 176 passengers and crew, 147 of whom were Iranian. It was a tragic error, although one that was allowed to happen by inadequate controls over the Guards’ power. As I have argued elsewhere, the Islamic Guards operate a parallel state in Iran. They own 80% of the economy and act as a major tool of repression. As a force, they are a major limitation on the prospects for internal reform within the country, a key point which I think Lennie underestimates.

The shooting down of the airliner was a crime. But it was compounded by the military cover-up that followed in which even the President was kept in the dark. One of Iran’s most popular actresses, Taranah Alinoosti, wrote on her Instagram account: “We are not citizens. We never were. We are captives, millions of captives.” Protesters again took to the streets and clashed with security forces.

The second event was Covid-19. Coronavirus has dampened down the public expression of dissent, but anger is nevertheless mounting at the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic. Humiliatingly, for the first time in nearly sixty years, Iran had to seek an emergency loan from the IMF.

Turnout at 2020’s parliamentary elections was at a record low. This was partly a reflection of Covid, but also because Iran’s Guardian Council had disqualified a large percentage of reformists, including at least eight sitting MPs. As a result, hardliners swept the parliament. Although not covered inthis book, it was a similar story in June’s presidential election: record low turnout and the hardline Raisi ‘elected’.

Lennie, like many of the Iranians she spoke to in the course of her research, seems to have put a lot of hope in the supposed reformism of President Rouhani. But in the end, thanks partly to the crippling sanctions imposed by the US and partly to the continuing power of Iran’s conservative theocrats, hope for reform has evaporated and been replaced by widespread despair.

Yet the regime remains vulnerable. If Iranians take to the streets again as they have done repeatedly in recent years, the political situation could change dramatically. Anti-regime protest movements continue to organise even under the pandemic. Lennie’s book would be strengthened by more focus on these developments.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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