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Civil Society

Despite War Anxiety, a Cooperative Mood in Iran

TEHRAN, Sep 10 2012 (IPS) - More than three years after the contested 2009 presidential election, many Iranians continue to mistrust their government. But rather than stand on the sidelines, they are still trying to better the conditions in the country.

With the end of street protests against the poll results, analysts have debated the impact of the breach of trust the election opened between the large number of urban middle-class people who voted for presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mussavi, who has been under house arrest along with his spouse for most of the last three years, and the regime.

But once the protests subsided, a sense of responsibility has become the guiding spirit for many despite the violence and repression that were used by the government to crush the opposition.

This sense of responsibility emanates from concern regarding the way the country has been run in the face of the concerted effort by the United States to isolate and threaten Iran and weaken its economy.

This concern was articulated even by the conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei, who stated during the electoral campaign that “the country is standing at a precipice.”

Instead of withdrawing from the public sphere as many foreign observers had anticipated, the middle class has gradually become more active, trying to wield influence in areas not directly related to politics.

This active presence was first felt in the economic arena, where businesspeople have been at the forefront. Private entrepreneurs in the electricity and construction sectors are good examples. Despite the fact that the government has lagged badly in its payment for their services, they continue to look for solutions and work with a government many of them find distasteful. The government, in turn, has been less sensitive to the criticisms of the private sector and has elicited the suggestions of its members.

Implementation of subsidy reforms was one area of cooperation. One businessman says that eliminating subsidies has always been one of the key demands of the private sector, but the timing of its implementation in the midst of serious economic downturn was not deemed appropriate.

Nevertheless, the businessman said, “We cooperated because the government insisted.” Working groups in various ministries were created that brought together representatives from the government as well as various business sectors to assess various ways to implement the plan.

The Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration eventually failed to implement the agreements that were reached, particularly in relation to providing direct financial support that was expected to be given to businesses so they could adjust to sudden price increases in energy costs for factories. But continued interaction with the government and public airing of serious problems eventually led to the parliament halting the second phase of the subsidy plan.

According to the businessman, “Waste of resources and mistakes cannot be ignored and we still need to utilise channels that are open to us such as the parliament or even parts of the government that show more understanding to influence and bring about change.”

Another businessman who also writes on economic issues for newspapers says, “Every time I write a column, I worry about being hauled in for questioning by the authorities.” But he continues to write because “We love our country and are concerned about the conditions of the country. This is why we must express our criticism and views. Perhaps someone will hear and give attention to a point of view that comes out of compassion and not enmity.”

Cooperation with the government has been more difficult for people who are active in the cultural and social arena. Nevertheless, the question of whether to do so has turned into a significant discussion. A political scientist states that an invitation extended to him by a government institution led to heated discussion among his academic friends. “But eventually we agreed that having an impact is better than sitting at home and sulking,” he said.

“Refusing to speak, rejection, and elimination,” the political scientist goes on to say, “are embodied in a discourse that has violence within it, and this is what we reject. In any case, we should not waste time. We cannot wait for an ideal time since such a time may never come. We should capitalise on every opportunity to participate and influence.”

But this high desire to participate and influence is tempered by a lack of trust in government, and, the government itself continues to be wary – even fearful – of popular participation in every aspect of the society.

This mutual distrust was clearly evident in the popular response to the earthquake that occurred in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province in August. While quite a lot of money and goods were gathered by people from other provinces, particularly Tehran, many volunteer activists proved reluctant to deliver them to the Red Crescent which was charged with leading the rescue and aid mission. They insisted on delivering the aid on their own.

The government, in turn, arrested about 20 volunteers. Although some of these volunteers were quickly released, their arrest suggests that the government remains highly insecure regarding any kind of co-operative work among the population.

A sociologist in Tehran sees the source of this insecurity in “fear of potential mobilisation and collaboration in any segment of the society.” In his view, the earthquake provided an opportunity for people of the capital city of Tehran to come to the aid of Azeri-speaking people of the East Azerbaijan province.

But “wherever participation leads to bonds among people, even if this participation helps the government in performing its duties, it is rejected by the government,” he said.

Government rejection, however, has not been able to crush this desire for participation by any means and in any place possible. A sociologist from Allameh Tabatabai University suggests that people have developed “creative” ways to contribute and identifies their behavior as “intrusive participation”.

For instance, in the case of the earthquake, the Iranian blogosphere was replete with complaints about the inadequate information given by the state-owned television, quickly forcing better coverage. In addition, several private construction companies joined forces with donors, while bypassing the government, to build houses for people in the earthquake-stricken areas.

According to the sociologist, “Any opportunity for participation, co-operative work among the population, and loud criticism is seized actively.” And it is precisely this active posture that unsettles the government.

“The government doesn’t know where this participation is going to come next and is always in a state of reaction,” says the sociologist for Allameh Tabatabai University.

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