Monday, January 17, 2011

The Tunisian Revolution: Views from Iran

The biggest front page story of Kayhan on Monday, 17 January 2011 is headlined thus: "80% of People in the Middle East: Repeat of Tunisia Phenomenon in Store for Arab Governments."

By way of not-so-subtle contrast, Kayhan features a story of happy Iranian children right next to the Tunisian story: "Joyful Winter Day across Iran: Yesterday, Kids, Instead of Studying, Played with Snow."

Raja News,1 for its part, notes five similarities between the deposed Shah of Iran and the deposed Tunisian president: promoting secularism with an iron hand; supporting and being supported by the West; looting national wealth during escape; attempting to impose lifelong rule; and getting driven out from home and getting discarded by the West.

A note of general satisfaction, in short, is unmistakable among the oficialistas in Iran.  The revolution in Tunisia, in their eyes, confirms their strategic assessment that "a major shift in the regional balance of power" underway favors the axis of resistance:
In Tehran, there is a strong belief that the region is changing dramatically in favor of Hezbollah, the Palestinians, and the Resistance.  The rise of an independent Turkey, whose government has a worldview very different from that of the U.S., German, British, and French governments, along with the relative decline of Saudi and Egyptian regional influence, signals a major shift in the regional balance of power.  Saudi military incompetence during the fighting with Yemeni tribes along the border between the two countries, the general decline of the Egyptian regime in all respects, and the almost universal contempt among Arabs as a whole for the leaders of these two countries and other pro-western Arab regimes and their corrupt elites, are seen as signs that the center cannot hold.  The fact that the Iranian president and the Turkish prime minister are so popular in Arab countries, while most Arab leaders are deeply unpopular, is a sign that the region is changing.
Meanwhile, the Web site of the embattled Green Path Movement features Nader Marzban's opinion reflecting on "Iran and Tunisia: Superficial Similarities and Substantial Differences between the Two Movements."  What is the main difference?  Marzban highlights the difference between the Iranian movement's reform strategy and the Tunisian movement's revolutionary strategy.  What is more important, however, is that in Tunisia the movement first began with, and has organically grown from, a protest against unemployment,2 a class battle, an aspect notable for its absence at the height of the Green Path Movement.3  As the tenth government of the Islamic Republic implements controversial subsidy reform4 in Iran, both defenders and opponents of the nezam of Iran today will have opportunities to revisit similarities and differences between Iran and Tunisia.

1  Raja News, by the way, is giving big play to the news of exiled Renaissance Party leader Rashid Ghannoushi's return to Tunisia.  Its editor has apparently failed to canvass informed Arab sources such as this: "Aljazeera has [to] stop promoting Rashid Ghannushi and stop announcing his travel to Tunisia as if his impending arrival is analogous to that of Khumayni's return to Iran.  No one cares about Ghannushi, from what I have seen, although I won't rule out the likelihood of the emergence of an Islamist current later on."

2  Rising youth unemployment, plus relative deprivation felt by educated youth, resulting from a combination of a youth bulge due to demographic transition, economic liberalization making decent jobs in the public sector scarcer, and slower growth of the world capitalist economy after the end of the post-WW2 boom, is a common story in the Middle East.  What is peculiar to the Iranian case is both the rise and the fall of the youth bulge are sharper than in any other country: "As noted above, the current group of Iranian youth is the largest in the country's history.  In 2005, the age group 20-24 was 62 percent larger than it was 10 years earlier, 9.1 million compared to 5.6 million, pushing the ratio of youth, which we define as ages 15-29, to total  population to 35 percent, the highest recorded ratio in any country.  Figure 1 shows that Syria has the second highest youth ratio (32 percent) while Turkey's is considerably lower, about 27 percent, having passed its peak of near 30 percent in the 1990s.  By 2020, youth ratio will decline considerably, to less than 25 percent, the level observed in advanced countries.  This is because the youth population is predicted to fall in absolute terms; for example, the 20-24 age group is expected to shrink by 75 percent in 2015, to 5.2 million.  The reason for Iran's high youth ratio and its fluctuations is a baby boom in the early 1980s, when the revolutionary government was pro-natal, followed by a sharp decline in fertility in the 1990s, when it reversed this policy" (footnotes omitted, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, "Iranian Youth in Times of Economic Crisis," September 2010).

3  E.g., "Iran has witnessed several spirited labor actions in recent years, well-known examples being the wildcat strikes of Tehran bus drivers and schoolteachers.  But these actions have not crystallized into what can be called a coordinated, militant labor movement.  Furthermore, militancy has not yet appeared in the most sensitive sectors of the economy, oil and transportation of freight. . . .  These trends of diffusion of protest and relatively small-bore economic demands have held during the Ahmadinejad presidency. . . .  [T]he core of the Green Movement leadership is devoted to an Iranian version of trickle-down economics, according to which the masses will eventually enjoy the good life but only if the elites prosper first and furiously.  The Green Movement has offered little in terms of a redistributive vision that could motivate the working class to flex its muscles" (Mohammad Maljoo, "The Green Movement Awaits an Invisible Hand," Middle East Report, 26 June 2010).

4  Two contrasting views of the subsidy reform: Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, "Iran: Goodbye to Energy Subsidies, Hello to Price Controls?" (Tyranny of Numbers, 19 December 2010); Kevan Harris, "Iran's Subsidy Reductions: Upon Whom Will the Costs Fall?" (MRZine, 27 December 2010).  It would be instructive to comparatively study Iran's subsidy reform juxtaposed with the aborted energy price reform in Bolivia and the ongoing economic reform in Cuba.