Yassamine Mather: Spin and lies in US

pic3-cyrus-cylinderYassamine Mather exposes the concerted efforts of the Islamic regime against Iranian women

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the 43 year old mother of two who awaits the death penalty by stoning in Iran on adultery charges brought by the sharia court in Azerbaijan province, is on the cover of many western newspapers and the subject of news broadcasts in Europe and the US. Last Sunday, protesters, including philosophers and singers, were among those taking part in a demonstration in Paris in solidarity with Mrs Ashtiani, while similar protests took place in cities throughout the world.

One of her lawyers has been forced to leave Iran, seeking political asylum in Scandinavia. European ministers, presidents and MPs are defending her right to live, yet in her home town of Tabriz very few seem to be aware of her plight. The local media has not mentioned her case except as a small column in the ‘accidents’ pages, official Iranian TV channels do not cover her story and, arriving in New York this week, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed: “reports of a woman being sentenced to killing by stoning in Iran were fabricated, made up and part of Western propaganda.”[1]. All this after many official statements by Iran’s foreign ministry that the stoning of Mrs Ashtiani will be reviewed![2].

It appears that her sentence, like the exaggerated claims about Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities, or the spying case against the three hikers (one of whom was released on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York)[3], are for foreign consumption. At times it looks as if the Islamic regime and its president are determined to attract publicity even if it is negative publicity. Of course, it is ordinary Iranians who pay the price of this adventurism.

Sakineh Ashtiani was first tried on May 15 2006 by a court in Tabriz, and pleaded guilty to an “illicit relationship”, although the so-called adultery occurred after the death of her husband. She was sentenced to 99 lashes, and the sentence was carried out that year. In September 2006, her case was re-opened when another court was prosecuting one of the two men involved in the death of her husband. She was then convicted of adultery while still married, and sentenced to death by stoning. She later retracted her confession. The case was held in Persian; though she only speaks Azeri.

Every time the Islamic regime faced a political crisis, a new crime was added to Sakineh’s case; and now, as Ahmadinejad embarks on a wave of media interviews in the US, we are suddenly told there is no ‘stoning’ case. Those people in Iran who know about her plight agree she is the victim of a cynical ploy by Ahmadinejad and his supporters to deliberately attract international condemnations – part of a strategy to divert attention from internal economic and political problems.

No one should be in any doubt about the concerted efforts of the Islamic regime against Iranian women, however. Hardliners are trying to reintroduce a family-law bill that is recognised as discriminatory against women not only by moderates but also by some staunch conservatives. For example, one article of the bill provides men with the right to marry a second wife without consent from the first.

Fractured regime

As predicted, once the reformist faction was marginalised in terms of government executive power, conflict between Ahmadinejad’s government and the parliament, or majlis, deepened. The main parliamentary group, known as the principlist faction, is headed by the speaker, Ali Ardashir Larijani. The conflict has paralysed the state, with Ahmadinejad angrily withdrawing a number of bills presented by his government, claiming that they had been changed beyond recognition as they passed through various majlis committees. The government has stopped sending its decisions to lawmakers for confirmation, and it routinely fails to implement laws adopted by parliament.

In the last few weeks, another faction – the ‘pragmatists’ led by former Islamic revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) commander Mohsen Rezai – has also been critical of the government.

The ideological battles between Ahmadinejad and the conservatives has entered a new phase. He is constantly attacked for controversial statements made by his self appointed chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. In a complete departure from all the ‘principles’ of the Islamic regime, on August 4 Mashaei told a gathering of Iranian expatriates that “the country should introduce the ideology of Iran, rather than Islam, to the world … Islam would be lost if it weren’t for Iran”. And, a week later: “… if we want to present the truth embodied in Islam, we must fly the flag of Iran.” His remarks were attacked as heresy by conservative clerics who accused Ahmadinejad and Mashaei of advocating nationalism and secularism.

In early September, Ahmadinejad and Mashaei presided over the opening of the Cyrus ‘human rights’ cylinder exhibition. The cylinder was transferred to Iran from the British Museum in early September and will be on display for four months. Some regard it as the world’s first declaration of human rights, and a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and faiths made under the orders of Cyrus II, founder of the Persian empire under the Achaemenid dynasty, in 539 BCE following the conquest of Babylon.

Herodotus and Aeschylus – Greeks who lived after Cyrus – praised him and called him merciful. The Bible describes him as the “anointed one”, because he allowed exiled Jews to return to Israel. However, modern historians doubt this flattering version of events. According Josef Wiesehöfer, professor of ancient history at the university of Kiel, in Germany, Cyrus attained his goals with “carrots and sticks”, but in truth, he was a violent ruler like all others.

Inside Iran this sudden obsession with ‘old Persia’ has been reminiscent of the last days of the shah. His lavish celebrations of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy at the palace of Persepolis, and the reciting of Cyrus’s charter marked the beginning of the end of his rule. So Iranians of a variety of political persuasions are not impressed by Ahmadinejad calling Cyrus a ‘major prophet’ and draping a basij scarf around the shoulders of a man dressed as an Achaemenid soldier at Iran’s national museum during the inauguration of the Cyrus cylinder. All this has led to a new title for Ahmadinejad supporters: Archemedis Bassiji.

Balancing act

During the last few weeks Ahmadinejad has made a number of new appointments: Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as his special envoy to the Middle East; Hamid Baghei, head of Iran’s cultural heritage foundation, as special envoy for Asian affairs; deputy foreign minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh has been named Iran’s envoy on Caspian affairs; and Abolfazl Zohrevand, deputy head of Iran’s supreme national security council, is now the president’s envoy to Afghanistan. None of these appointments were approved by the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, who decides foreign policy issues; and, of course, they are a challenge to the dominant conservative factions of the majlis as well as a blow to Iran’s foreign ministry and foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki, who is considered a pragmatist, and whom many believed was the supreme leader’s appointee in the government following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

On September 7, 122 MPs in Iran’s 290-seat majlis called Ahmadinejad’s move “illegal”, and the supreme leader warned against duplication of foreign policy roles, reasserting his support for foreign ministry officials.

Mashaei has established his own news agency, Mashanews, which is campaigning for an Iran without clerics (presumably with military nationalists in power?): “Iran needs someone like Mashaei to get rid of mullahs once and for all in Iran and bring back the great civilization of Iran minus the Arab mullahs who have polluted and destroyed Iran for the past 31 years.” Almost word for word what royalists and ultra-nationalist Iranians have been saying.

The Islamic reformist reaction came from ex-president Seyed Mohammad Khatami: “I don’t want to speak about individuals. I believe that the clergy has played an important role in the regime. The thesis ‘Islam minus the clergy’ is fundamentally senseless, just like medicine without doctors, and has imperialist roots. Its goal is to marginalize the clergy from the arena and to give room to those who have deviated and have fundamental problems with the Islamic revolution and the regime. Therefore, this movement will not find a path among the devout and the principlist.”

So here we are – Ahmadinejad and royalists on one side, Khatami, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi on the opposite side. Iran’s supreme leader has a difficult choice to make; his balancing act between the warring factions of the regime cannot last long and everyone inside and outside Iran is well aware of this.

Sanctions economy

The economy is in ruins. Sanctions are taking their toll and the government is paralysed. Sanctions on the banking and finance sector started three years ago; however it is only in the last few months that the new round of tougher sanctions and investment conditions has created problems for ordinary Iranians. Morteza Massoumzadeh of the Iranian business council in Dubai explains: “During this period we have seen the volume of economic activity in some cases drop by more than 50%”. New sanctions will make Iranian foreign exchange trade more difficult.

Economist Bijan Bidabadi told the BBC that sanctions on banking has put pressure on the economy. Some private banks have tried to substitute for banks listed in the sanctions bill, but their resources are too limited to cope with the country’s trade dealings.

Many importers and exporters are using loans to pay for transportation, others are entering deals without formal invoices and this will affect the economy. As greed, lack of spare parts (due to sanctions) and corruption continue to destroy manufacturing, including food production and agriculture, most of the country’s basic necessities are imported at colossal prices. Iranians are complaining that the price of most basic food items in major cities is more than the price of the same item in Europe. Most people, even amongst the professional classes, cannot afford to buy meat.

Last week ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the clerical assembly of experts, told the annual gathering of the assembly that Iran would become a “dictatorship” unless current policies are reversed. He revealed the true extent of the sanctions:

“We have never been faced with so many sanctions … I would like to ask you and all the country’s officials to take the sanctions seriously and not as a joke.”

The remarks were aimed at Ahmadinejad, who has brushed away concerns about sanctions, calling them “pathetic” and less effective than “a used handkerchief”.

Paralysed

Disputes within the many factions of the Islamic regime have paralysed the functioning of the state. It is no wonder ‘regime change from above’ is once more openly discussed by the US administration, while Israel and ‘hawks’ in the US Republican Party are once more calling for direct military action. On August 17 John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations told Fox news that “Israel has until the weekend to launch a military strike on Iran’s first nuclear plant before the humanitarian risk of an attack becomes too great”. Bolton was referring to the fact that on August 22 a Russian company was expected to help Iran start loading nuclear fuel into the Bushehr reactor. Contrary to all Barack Obama’s election claims, many of this summer’s statements regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and the need for regime change, as well as the dramatic escalation in the levels of sanctions imposed on the country, remind us of the Bush administration’s obsession with regime change in Iraq.

Let us be clear; Iran it is not an anti-imperialist state; its economy is that of a capitalist dictatorship; its foreign policy is limited to irrational, reactionary anti-Western rhetoric; and, given serious internal political conflict and its association with the occupation governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is neither in a position to challenge US aggression in the region, nor to support Palestinians. Yet, at a time of economic crisis, the hegemon capitalist world power is in no position to tolerate a rogue state in a strategic part of the Middle East. The severity of the sanctions can only be explained if we take these facts into account. Iran’s clerical rulers are busy fighting each other, the economy is in a terrible state and the US and its allies hope sanctions will bring about their desired regime change.

Reformists and US style regime change

Since the disputed elections of last summer, sections of the international left have tried to reduce protests by millions of Iranians to an imperialist plot for a colour revolution. In the US the World Workers Party stood firmly behind Ahmadinejad, denying any fraud took place and heralding the Iranian president as the champion of the poor, while leftist academic James Petras wrote:

“The demography of voting reveals a real class polarization pitting high income, free market oriented, capitalist individualists against working class, low income, community based supporters of a ‘moral economy’ in which usury and profiteering are limited by religious precepts.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being an opponent of privatisation or a champion of the poor, Ahmadinejad’s presidency has coincided with a period of unprecedented privatisations, deregulation of work, mass unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor, and the abolition of all subsidies.[4]

As Iran steadily moves up in the ranks of the most corrupt world states, contrary to James Petras’s claims it is the upper classes, the owners of capital, who benefit from the current government’s policies. Dictatorships work well for those seeking maximum exploitation of labour. Who but a neo-conservative Islamic regime could have created conditions forcing car plant workers (among the elite of the Iranian working class) work three consecutive shifts in order to survive?

Owners of major capital have benefited from the policies of consecutive Islamic governments, especially since 1988. That is why they tolerate minor inconveniences caused by the interference of religion in private lives. In fact, unlike the working classes and the poor, they are not too concerned about sexual apartheid, bans on alcohol, restrictions on gatherings. They can afford to bribe their way into living a Los Angeles style life right in the middle of the capital city of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And both in maintaining a Western lifestyle and in their ultra rightwing Persian nationalism, they have an ally in Ahmadinejad’s most trusted deputy, Mashaei.

On the political scene, the leaders of the Green movement are not considered regime-change forces by the US. There are many reasons for this, amongst them the fact that they remain loyal to the constitution of the Islamic republic. Also because their coming to power would not be seen by anyone as the US regaining control of Iran, not a sufficient enough reversal of the 1979 revolution. On the contrary, they remain the last card of the Islamic republic, a safeguard against downfall of the entire regime. The overwhelming majority of the political groups and parties behind the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979, as well as senior ayatollahs, both in the council of experts (ayatollah Rafsanjani) and those acting as source of shia guidance (ayatollahs Yousef Sanei, Bayat-Zajani, Dastgheyb, etc) are currently in the reformist camp.

This above all else explains why Iran’s supreme leader tolerates this legal opposition and why so often in recent weeks his office played the role of intermediary and peacemaker between conservatives (the majority faction in the majlis) and reformists, even at the cost of isolating Ahmadinejad. Of course, should other more trusted allies, such as royalists, republicans and former religious figures currently gathered around the regime change camp in Washington, fail to increase their support base, the US and its allies might then consider supporting leaders of the Green movement.

Opposition to the entire regime and the reformist camp

The last few weeks have been turbulent times for the reformist movement. Despite new arrests, the return to prison of activists on bail and impending court cases, sections of this movement seem to have found new confidence in confronting the regime. Attempts at gaining televised confessions from imprisoned reformists have failed and some have started proceedings against their jailers and torturers. Karoubi and Mousavi have launched a new satellite and internet station. However the gap between the radical young supporters of the Green movement and a conservative and rather ineffective leadership remains as wide as ever.

Two weeks ago Karoubi’s house was surrounded by a pro-Ahmadinejad mob who smashed windows and damaged security cameras; but they had to retreat having failed to gain any support from revolutionary guards. Even amongst Iran’s paramilitary forces there are divided loyalties between conservatives and neo-conservative pro-Ahmadinejad forces. In a clear sign of shifting alliances, revolutionary guard commanders issued a statement condemning the attack on Karoubi’s house. On September 15 plain clothes security agents raided the office of Mousavi and took away computers and some of his belongings. His office and website claimed this marked a “new phase in restrictions” on him.

Throughout the 14 months since the rigged elections, leaders of the Green movement have complained about repression and attacks by security forces. However no Green movement supporters have faced the kind of repression meted out day in day out to labour activists (such as Tehran busworkers Reza Shahabi and Mansoor Ossanlou), to defenders of women’s rights such as Shiva Nazarahari or to hundreds of leftist student activists arrested in the last few months. Having said that, a positive aspect of the continued internal conflict between the various factions of the regime is that it allows a limited breathing space to workers, women and students who are waging the real struggle for regime change from below – its revolutionary overthrow.

While conflicts between plain clothes security forces and military and Pasdar leaders who call them ‘rogue agents’ are escalating, reformists and conservatives are attempting a new alliance against neo-conservatives around Ahmadinejad. With severe sanctions and renewed talk of military attacks against Iran, all of this heralds a new phase in the post-election period.

There is the danger of increased repression, imprisonment of all opposition figures, imposition of terror and further attacks on the working class. However there is also a possibility that the cracks between the majlis and the president are too deep to permit a reconciliation, that protests will continue and that the next round of mass protests against unemployment, abolition of subsidies and the lack of freedom and democracy will be more radical and effective than last year’s demonstrations.

Notes

  1. What death sentence? says Ahmadinejad, as Clinton calls for regime change www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/what-death-sentence-says-ahmadinejad-as-clinton-calls-for-regime-change/story-e6frg6so-1225926574574
  2. Iran stands firm over Ashtiani stoning case www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11212289
  3. Former hostage speaks as Ahmadinejad arrives in USA www.pressherald.com/news/nationworld/former-hostage-speaks-as-ahmadinejad-arrives-in-u_s__2010-09-20.html
  4. ‘Iran, economic and political crises’ Critique volume 38- issue 3, August 2010 www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a924315217~frm=titlelink
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