July 6, 2012

Salamatian on society, state, and sanctions in Iran

The following is a transcription from an interview with Ahmad Salamatian on the French radio France Culture (on February 20, 2012). Mr. Salamatian, a political analyst who served in the Islamic Republic’s first government under Bani Sadr and cofounded the Committee for the Defense of Freedom and Human Rights, explains the evolution of  Iranian society and the fracture between the State and the society that led to the 2009 massive demonstrations. According to him, Iranian society suffers from the populist mismanagement of the economy, but he argues that Western sanctions reinforce the Iranian State while slowing down the internal fracture between “the societal Iran” and “the Iranian State”.
Ahmad Salamatian: Iranian Society, Power and the West
Two sides of Iran: “societal Iran” Vs. “the Iranian State”
What happened in 2009 was the revelation of a situation which has been brewing for three decades in Iran.
What we have today is an Iran split in two parts. On the one hand, there is what I call a “societal Iran”. On the other hand, there is an “Iran of power”. They are increasingly far apart and they are increasingly anachronistic to one another.
In 1979 – with regard to his mental and his imaginary– Ayatollah Khomeini was the most in-phase with the Iranian society of that time. It was among those who were familiar with Khomeini that his slogans, symbols and discourses were the most in-phase with people’s imaginary because Iran was transitioning from a rural society to an urban one. The Iranian cities were filled with villagers and other people who lived in the country. They started the process of becoming literate, of learning politics; and with such violence! With a revolution! A fundamental change of everything!
In 2009, you have a society where the city is constituted and advanced. People did not only become literate; they have made steps forward in the shaping of the individual. Iran has somewhat entered history in 1979, with acceleration toward modernity. Though this move is jerky and from time to time shut-off, there is an incontrovertible and irreversible move toward modernity.
The different transitions – demographic, geographic, urban, economic, related to family ties, and cultural – have been accumulated and we have reached the threshold of democratic and political transition.
Transitionally, 2009 was important.
The power in place hardens its position: the military hat underneath the turban
Considering this, the fracture between the societal and the State has worsened. The State is more and more encapsulated in a discourse which is no longer a religious and ideological discourse, but one that is military and securitarian.
For example, for the legislative elections, you now have almost 3 running candidates in 4 who belong to the revolutionary Guards – and not just any rank. The Revolutionary Guards consist of field officers, intelligence services and psychological action services. The people from these services are those who occupy the stage of the legislative elections.
Before this election, the major justification the Guardian Council had to eliminate a candidate was to question his loyalty to the principle of the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurisprudence). Today, this is no longer the case. A candidate that does not firmly believe that Iran is going through a soft war, or a candidate that does not accept the idea that the entire world is plotting against Iran to turn the election into an act of foreign aggression is eliminated. Also, a candidate who refuses to consider Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Karoubi, Mr. Khatami and Mr. Rafsanjani – i.e. those who constituted almost 90 percent of the establishment of the Islamic republic three years ago – as foreign agents or traitors cannot be present for an election.
Consequently, there is a drift within the Iranian power in place, and this is a result of the worsening of the fracture between the “societal Iran” and the Iranian State.
Ahmadinejad’s populist mismanagement: main problem for the Iranian economy
Iran is an oil country. After the Strait of Hormuz crisis, the price of oil jumped 15 dollars more per barrel, which means that the oil revenue of the Iranian State had an increase of 20 percent.
It is important to note that the arch-enemy is not the sanctions but the Iranian government’s populist economic and diplomatic mismanagement – especially under Mr. Ahmadinejad. Indeed, there are more endemic crises that have hit the Iranian speculative economy.
Remember, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s slogan was “I bring the money of oil on your dinner table”. And he has indeed send checks to low-income families. This is wrong. The oil revenue should cog the wheel of the Iranian economy. Instead, Ahmadinejad is explaining that to counter the sanctions he is going to barter with China and India. It is simply not possible! China and India are not capable of providing the needs of an economy which is not autarkic and has connections and communications with its outside world. One of the consequences of this populist mismanagement is that, over the last few months, Iran’s currency change rate happened to change by 12% within a single day! And today, Mr. Ahmadinejad himself has become a burden for his associates and the Supreme Guide.
Today, unemployment is the number-one problem of the Iranian economy. According to figures admitted by Mr. Ahmadinejad himself, there are 2.3 million workers who enter the labor market each year and the entire Iranian economy is only capable of providing between 300,000 and 600,000 jobs. What are these millions of unemployed who are added to the others each year going to do? As a result, in the Iranian society, the hope of getting a job has become a struggle.
Sanctions cripple the Iranian societal change and reach to democracy while they radicalize and reinforce the Iranian power in place
And foreign sanctions are added to these populist economic policies. As a result, it is in the Iranian power’s interest to say that these economic difficulties are because of foreign sanctions. But on the other hand, in the West, it is in the interest of many to say “Hey, you see! Sanctions are biting, this strategy works!”
Sanctions, politically, are a mistake, because the first victim of sanctions is the Iranian population. This population – which has become mature – doesn’t want to gamble with its life and with its death. It wants to live; it is no longer a population with the cult of martyrdom. As a result, it handles its struggle. Anytime the population sees that the international pressure increases — I’m not going to say that people are going to agglutinate to the power in place — but they say “wait a minute! I don’t want to have the same fate as Iraq or Afghanistan” and I understand them!
One must not forget that the Iranian societal change — its axis — is an educated middle class. And the imaginary of this middle class stretches out even beyond the economic lines and social classes. This middle class is accumulating the experiences of democracy and moves towards a good governance. Today’s arch-enemy of the Iranian economy is the bad governance (which also exists for the Iranian diplomacy).
The Iranian government, under Mr. Ahmadinejad, has accelerated the sanctions due to its own actions. It has isolated itself more and more. Consequently, this society and the Iranian State are more and more face-to-face – same regarding their fates.
So, one the one hand, you are facing a weak power (because the Iranian State is a weak power, though it claims to be strong), whose only means is to blackmail, to vociferate, to show its muscles. On the other hand, you have an international situation which points up the gesticulations of a weak authority and they start to be afraid of this weak power. In general, the weak — when you are in tough arm wrestling in the international domain — become dangerous. The world that is surrounding by Iran as well as the Iranian State itself becomes dangerous.
If we accept that we are facing a political process that can take time — and that we trust the Iranian society — it will be much easier to access democracy rather than with sanctions or other military actions that will accelerate other processes in Iran.
The Western obsession
The West spends too much time on the Iranian nuclear program rather than the aspirations of the Iranian people. They allude to the fact that the nuclear crisis is a godsend for the Iranian State. It’s a gold mine! First of all, because the Iranian power in place — claiming that it wants to have the military nuclear industry — is making a modernist mask. This mark of modernity is wanted by many countries.
However, a nuclear weapon has never helped to save any regime. It is not a life life-insurance — contrary to what many politicians say. We cannot claim that a nuclear weapon is a life-insurance the ones and the others offer to themselves, and say to others “you are not allowed to get this life-insurance.” This is wrong. Nuclear weapons are a danger to humanity, to powers, and especially to powers such as the Iranian power. The people of Iran is aware of this because the nuclearization can develop itself to a nuclearization of the entire region — military nuclearization — and from that moment on, Iran does not have the strength to follow the competition.
Moreover, this discourse is presented to the Iranians as a double-standard discourse. The Iranians, who are open, read the information in English [and other sources] — at least for the Iranian middle-class. Indeed, the Internet penetration rate in Iran — despite the State censorship — is up to 38% i.e. more important than the neighboring Turkey which has a free system. Consequently, those who are open to the outside world are able to analyze the discourse of the ones and the others concerning the difference in few grams of enriched uranium or nuclear nukes and so on.
This obsession from the West – which many people call the international community — on a possible Iranian nuclear program that would get out of control, is a manna which the Iranian State considerably takes advantage of. I am aware of the danger of nuclear proliferation, but the way this obsession from the West has been used by Iran strengthens the Iranian State.
Ahmad Salamatian was born in Esfahan in 1941. Along with Abolhassan Bani Sadr, Salamatian co-founded the Committee for the Defense of Freedom and Human Rights. He was then appointed Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs under the first government of the Islamic Republic of president Bani Sadr in 1979. He was also a member of Majles as deputy of Esfahan. Detained after ouster of Bani Sadr, he immigrated to France in 1981. Today he is more known as a political analyst than a political activist. He often appears on BBC Farsi, France 24 and other media.

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