Sunday, April 26, 2009

Austerity and corruption

Austerity and corruption

Yassamine Mather calls on the left to boycott the presidential and parliamentary elections

On the fringes of the G20 and Nato meetings last week the thorny issue of US-Iran relations and the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran were once more discussed.

David Petraeus, commander of American forces in the Middle East, once more raised the prospect of an Israeli “pre-emptive” strike against Tehran: “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take pre-emptive military action to derail or delay it.” Meanwhile, US defence secretary Robert Gates claimed Israel will not attack Iran this year.

There were contradictory reports regarding the first official meeting between Iranian and US diplomats at a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on March 31. Prior to the meeting there were rumours that Barack Obama’s special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the head of Iran’s delegation, deputy foreign minister Mohammad Akhundzadeh, were to hold separate discussions. At the end of the conference, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told reporters that such a meeting had in fact taken place

Iran’s account was different. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashavi told the Mehr news agency: “There was no official or unofficial meeting or conversation between the representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and America on the sidelines of the conference, and the news about this has been dismissed.”

In the US itself, pro-Israel groups hoping to use Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons plans as a pretext to impose ‘regime change’ rallied some of the most powerful Democrats in the US Congress to their side. The Congressmen sent a letter to Obama urging stepped-up action against Iran. Signed by several key Democratic lawmakers, including Steny Hoyer, the House of Representatives majority leader, the letter backs the Obama administration’s pledge to pursue talks with Iran, but insists that engagement must be “serious and credible”, not “open-ended”. Talks should be launched “as soon as possible”, the letter states, and if they fail to produce results quickly, then Obama should use executive orders to implement various sanctions.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was pleased: “This is an important letter and one that AIPAC applauds,” spokesman Josh Block said. “It expresses support for current efforts to create the opportunity for constructive engagement should Iran choose to comply with international demands, but … should that effort fail, the president must be prepared to impose crippling economic sanctions on Iran to create the leverage needed to change their behaviour.” Fearing success of a more ‘reformist’ candidate in Iran’s presidential elections in June, IPAC is keen that Iran-US discussions take place during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, hoping the failure of such talks will pave way for more sanctions.

Pro-IPAC Democrats have proposed: new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and international banks that continue to do business with Iranian banks; denying access to American ports to shipping companies whose vessels call in Iran; targeting companies that insure ships calling in Iranian ports or aircraft landing at Iranian airports; and applying measures against energy companies investing in Iran’s oil and gas sector.
Iran’s year of austerity

Last week during a visit to Iran, Hugo Ch├ívez, the Venezuelan president, ridiculed the G20 summit and its attempts to ease the capitalist economic crisis. However, his hosts, who have embraced ‘Islamic’ capitalism with fervour, did not join in his condemnations of the IMF and international capital. Instead, Iran’s clerics concentrated on explaining ayatollah Khamenei’s message for the Iranian new year, during which he announced that cutting consumption should be the theme of the new year, as the country struggled to cope with the recession.

Every year our grand ayatollah announces the theme that the regime has decided should dominate the country’s ‘aims and objectives’. This year it is ‘austerity’ - clearly inspired by the IMF and in line with the G20 understanding that, in the words of leftwing academic professor Michael Hudson, the $1.1 trillion from the IMF has been made available to debtor countries “not to revive their own faltering economies, not to pursue counter-cyclical policies to restore market demand (that is only for creditor nations), but to pass on the IMF ‘aid’ to the banks that have made the irresponsible toxic loans”.1

In Iran the plan essentially means a reduction in subsidies, an increase in the price of energy and other utilities. Iran’s new year budget (March 2009-10) is based on the assumption that the oil price will remain around $37.50 per barrel. However, even this low price is now in doubt and revenue from oil may well fall further.

Iranians have been left wondering whether ‘austerity’ applies to everyone. No-one believes that the rich mullahs are about to give up on their Mercedes Benz or dispose of some of their many luxuries. No-one expects the rich to suffer - as always it will be the working class, the urban poor and the peasants who must tighten their belt in the new drive to “reform consumption in all spheres”.2

Khamenei, who presides over one of the most corrupt regimes on earth, called on Iranians to avoid “squandering” bread and water. “A third of our bread and one fifth of the nation’s water, with all the difficulty and trouble of getting it, is practically wasted.”3

He also threatened further prices increases in basic essentials. Clearly in the heat of the electoral battle between the factions of the Islamic regime, Iran’s supreme religious leader has lost his marbles. Waste in Iran has nothing to do with the poor, who can often afford only bread and water. How about the extortionate prices paid for nuclear enrichment equipment on the black market? Or the huge arms expenditure serving only to shore up and expand Iranian influence and that of Shia Islam? Then there is the money squandered by super-rich clerics and their bazaari merchant backers to maintain four households - one for each wife!

The regime could also target the money most Iranians have to spend every day on bribes to Islamic officials at every level. At one extreme this may be necessary to avoid a flogging for unIslamic behaviour (drinking alcohol, mixing with the opposite sex, failure to adhere to strict rules regarding the wearing of a hijab …). But on a more mundane level bureaucrats and state officials expect a ‘gift’ in exchange for providing documents necessary for survival in Iran - a country where such practice is endemic amongst the most powerful sections of the regime.

According to Abbas Palizdar, a corruption investigator inside Iran, leading politicians and clerics routinely pilfer state funds and try to obtain favourable business arrangements for their relatives. His targets have included the family of ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, while the names of many powerful religious families and members of the regime’s inner circles are amongst those known to be accumulating wealth through corrupt means: the Khatamis, the Yazdis, the Shahroudis ...

Before every major election the factions of the regime vie with each other to expose their rivals’ corruption. After the laissez-faire period of Khatami, conservatives and some principlists (those wishing to return to the ‘principled’ ways of ayatollah Khomeini!) had claimed that their man, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would clean up Iranian politics. Four years on, supporters of the new reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, claim corruption has reached unprecedented levels under his government. According to one of Moussavi’s allies, the director of the Centre for Religion and Economy, “The government accepts there were 2,000 financial irregularities in one year. If we think there are 200 working days in a year, this implies that every day of the year there were 10 financial irregularities.”

Iranians would be foolish to believe that a Moussavi government would be any different, however. But, as the elections approach, they can look forward to months of revelations by the rival factions of the regime. After all, June’s elections are not just about choosing the president: the faction that wins will benefit from all the trappings of power, including the 10%-20$ ‘commission’ on any contract or deal involving a government agency, from the complicated technology needed by the nuclear industry to basic goods imported or exported.

Although the elections are still three months away, all presidential candidates have now met with and obtained the blessing of the supreme leader, ayatollah Khamenei. In addition, the religious ‘Council of Experts’ will ensure that all candidates comply with the various rules governing Islamic behaviour.

In the meantime Iran’s ministry of the interior has published regulations governing websites, posters, meetings and gatherings associated with elections. These include:

* a total ban on campaigns that promote a boycott of the presidential poll
* no photos of women and young girls in electoral publicity
* no quoting from the leaflets or publications of “counterrevolutionary organisations”: ie, anyone who does not support the Islamic Republic

While the 2009 elections are likely to focus more international attention on Iran than previously, as far as Iranians are concerned, they will be no different from past presidential and parliamentary elections held during the 30-year rule of corrupt clerics. Only those who support or accept the Islamic state can participate either as candidates or voters. For the majority the choice will be between bad and worse candidates.

The left has no option but to expose this farce and campaign for a boycott of the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Notes

1. www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=13054
2. Khamenei speech, March 22: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDevCqAbFJk
3. Khamenei speech: www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP229709

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