Monday, June 22, 2009

What we know about Iran can be cleverly packaged into convenient dichotomies. Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, breaks it down:

Highly educated, pro-Western and progressive Iranians are … placed on Mir Hossein Moussavi’s side, while backward villagers and urban poor are on Ahmadinejad’s. The fact that in North America and Western Europe, usually unveiled and fluently English-speaking women are brought to speak on behalf of the women demonstrators further intensifies the impression that if women are veiled or do not speak English fluently then they must be Ahmadinejad supporters.

This is a deeply false dichotomy that projects a flawed picture to the outside world. It is predicated on the spin that a very limited pool of expatriate academics are putting on a movement that is quite extraordinary in Iranian political culture, one whose full dimensions have yet to be unpacked.

…Moussavi is universally known as a hard-core socialist in his economic platform and a social reformist in his politics. Mehdi Karrubi is far to Moussavi’s right in his economic neo-liberalism and social conservatism. Mohsen Rezaie, meanwhile, is even more to the right of Karrubi in his social conservatism but to his left in his economic platform.

What above all challenges the reading of this event as a middle-class revolt against ‘uncouth radicalism’ is a crucial statistic that professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, one of the most reliable Iranian economists in the U.S., provides in the same set of responses that The New York Times solicited from experts. ‘Young people ages 15-29,’ Salehi-Isfahani reports, ‘make up 35 percent of the population but account for 70 percent of the unemployed.’

The overwhelming majority of the people pouring into streets of Tehran and other major cities in support of Moussavi are precisely these 15- to 29-year-olds. How could this then be a middle-class uprising if the overwhelming majority of those who are supporting it and putting their lives on the line are in fact jobless 15- to 29-year-olds who still live with their parents — who cannot even afford to rent an apartment, let alone marry and raise a family and join the middle class in a principally oil-based economy that is not labor-intensive to begin with?

Another crucial statistic that Salehi-Isfahani does not cite is the fact that more than 63 percent of university entrants in Iran are women, but only 12 percent are part of the labor force. That means that the remaining 51 percent are out of a job, and yet the most visible aspect of these anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrations is that women visibly outnumber men. How could jobless men and women be participating in a massive middle-class uprising against their ‘uncouth’ leaders?

If we were to look closely at Moussavi’s campaign commercials, his social and economic platforms since he entered the race, and the presidential debates with all the other candidates, we see that a sizable component of his supporters are indeed university students, young faculty and the urban intellectual elite — such as filmmakers, artists and the literati.

But the fact is that a major constituency of Moussavi is also the urban poor and particularly the war veterans who have no respect for Ahmadinejad, believing he had an inglorious war record, but are full of unsurpassed admiration for Moussavi because of his role as a fiercely dedicated prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

Conversely, there is a significant segment of the traditional middle class, the bazaaris, that is in fact the beneficiaries of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies of governmentally subsidized commodities and services, and thus supports him.”

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