Sealed trains and class traitors

Debates about the Iran Tribunal – convened to put the Islamic regime in the dock for its massacre of 5,000-10,000 political prisoners in 1988 – continues to occupy a prominent place in the publications and websites of the Iranian left, both in exile and to a lesser extent inside Iran itself.

In a sense it is true that, given the current situation in Iran – not least the disastrous consequences of what the US calls “comprehensive sanctions” – this is a small, irrelevant issue. After all, this week alone another 400 workers lost their jobs in Iran’s main car manufacturer, Iran Khodro, as a direct consequence of sanctions: Malaysia, under pressure from the US, pulled out of a contract. It is also true that sanctions are not the same as cluster bombs, but their effect on the Iranian working class can be devastating nevertheless.

The first round of the tribunal, which took place last month in London, attracted very little publicity and was indeed an insignificant event. So why is Hands Off the People of Iran devoting so much attention to it? We exposed the fact that it was organised and paid for by the CIA-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy as another way of building up the momentum for a military attack on Iran. Yet some conspiracy theorists are saying that Hopi chose to do so because we are “supporters of the Islamic regime” – or alternatively we are part of a sectarian plot to discredit sections of the Iranian left. Well, to deal with the second accusation first, the leftwing cheerleaders of this tribunal have made a pretty good job of discrediting themselves.

In the week before the tribunal Hopi activists had been approached by a number of Iranian comrades (who no doubt were ignorant of the politics of the tribunal’s backers) asking us to help with publicity in the United Kingdom. We were asked to get involved in translating the proceedings and to encourage John McDonnell MP to support the tribunal. These requests forced us to look into the matter more carefully and indeed every page we turned, every piece of information we came across, made us more wary. So let me make it very clear: we had no hidden agenda. Had the supporters of the Iran Tribunal not tried to engage us in the event, we might not have written about it at all. We might not have been alerted to the highly dubious rightwing forces behind it.

However, once we found out what was going on, to have deliberately kept silent would have been totally unprincipled. Indeed, as I have said before, silence would have been a betrayal of the memory of the comrades who died in the dungeons of the Islamic regime. They would have been revolted by the thought of pro-imperialists making use of their deaths to further the aim of imposing regime change from above.

The issues surrounding this affair have a significance far beyond the question of the Iran Tribunal. We are living through a moment which for the radical left in Iran is comparable to the US embassy takeover of 1981. At that time sections of the ‘left’ argued that, as the regime had moved away from the west’s sphere of influence and was adopting an ‘anti-imperialist’ position, its anti-working class, undemocratic political characteristics should be downplayed, overlooked or even tolerated. Groups such as the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party and sections of the Fourth International abandoned working class independence and joined the bandwagon of pro-regime forces.

The taking of hostages in the embassy – itself an attempt by the new religious state in Iran to divert the ongoing struggles of workers, women and national minorities – marked a clear division between revolution and counterrevolution in the Iranian left. Those who fell behind the ‘imam’s line’, as it was called at the time, ended up spying for the regime, participating in repression and justifying it, all in the name of anti-imperialism; those who opposed the theocracy ended up fighting the regime at a colossal price, often losing their lives as a result of their political activities.

Today, the spectre of war hangs over Iran – indeed a form of war (economic siege) is already being conducted, and the Iranian people are facing mass unemployment and hunger as a result of severe sanctions. The US and its allies are committed to regime change, irrespective of whether Iran makes concessions or ends its nuclear programme. None of this is happening because the Iranian regime is ‘anti-imperialist’, but because the reactionary mullahs ruling Iran have dared to defy the US.

US regime-change policy has relied heavily on corrupting the opposition with offers of funding, and sections of the Iranian left have slowly but surely moved in the direction of excusing such financial aid. With or without the left, we have now arrived at a situation where NGOs, acting as torch-bearers for ‘human rights’ in Iran, are key agents of the US foreign policy apparatus – indeed they have become integral parts of the imperialist regime-change drive. Hence the sudden concern of openly rightwing agencies, neoliberal institutions and Conservative politicians about the execution of political prisoners in Iran in the 1980s (while, of course, failing to mention the leftwing politics of these prisoners).

So the Iran Tribunal is far more significant than it might first appear and the attacks on those of us who refuse to follow this descent of much of the Iranian ‘left’ into total surrender before imperialism, far from deterring us from speaking out, have made us more determined.

Sealed train

Some of its leftwing supporters have sought to justify the acceptance of imperialist aid by comparing it to Lenin agreeing to board a German sealed train for Petrograd in 1917. This is given as an example of the necessity of pragmatism by deluded sections of the left. It goes without saying that the analogy is ridiculous. Lenin did not meekly allow Germany to dictate the anti-tsarist agenda and act as a tool of German imperialism. He got on that train to Finland station in order to help lead a working class revolution, not to further German war aims.

Over the decades the Iranian left has gradually adopted a complacent attitude towards accepting financial aid from rightwing enemies of the Islamic regime. In fact this is a mirror-image of the position of some on the left in the west, who believe that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend. So if the US considers Iran’s Islamic regime an enemy, we must support it. By contrast, for some on the Iranian left for whom the main enemy is Tehran, all kinds of dubious forces who oppose Iran’s Islamic theocracy can be regarded as allies. Both positions are wrong and unprincipled.

During the 1960s when pro-Soviet parties dominated the political scene in Iran and Kurdistan, financial and material support from the USSR was part and parcel of the existence of the left. In the 60s pro-China Maoists could rely on Chinese funding. However, throughout the shah’s time Iranian left groups such as Fedayeen and Peykar tried to avoid compromising their independent political line by refusing the conditional assistance on offer from the USSR and China, relying instead on their own ability to organise, and financing their activities through bank robberies and other illegal operations. In fact the Fedayeen and Peykar were proud of this independence and the discipline it forced on members and cadres of the organisation.

During and immediately after the revolution of 1979, the left gained massive support. Fundraising at meetings of over 500,000 people was not exactly difficult. Those who worked at the first headquarters of the Fedayeen in Tehran remember how difficult it was to keep up with the sums of money ordinary people donated. Repression, of course, forced the left underground and changed all that. While Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority continued to benefit from extensive Soviet aid, the rest of the left had to rely on much more meagre income or what was saved from the heyday of 1979-80.

Later, in the mid-1980s, the question of the safety of cadres forced many organisations to move their central committee and editorial members to Kurdistan, and by late 1980s they were followed by most of the surviving members of these groups. Kurdistan had its own history of nationalist groups relying on funding from one dictator (Saddam Hussein) to fight another (the shah or ayatollah Khomeini) – and vice versa. Jalal Talebani, the post-occupation Iraqi president, was already accepting financial aid from Iran’s Islamic regime, so Iranian Kurds and later the Iranian left used that to justify their acceptance of support and later finance from Saddam.

When I was sent to Kurdistan to help set up a radio station for the Fedayeen Minority, I was shocked when I was told I had to travel via Iraq. Unknown to me, the Fedayeen had limited relations with the Iraqi regime, including the right of passage via Kirkuk to the Iran-Iraq border. As time went on, the assistance became more extensive. First the Fedayeen accepted a house in Kirkuk and later financial support from Baghdad. This at a time when Iran was at war with Iraq and sections of the international left considered the US to be using Iraq as its proxy. Of course, the radical left in Iran maintained that the Iraq-Iran war was a fight between two reactionary regimes and that neither was anti-imperialist.

Yet financial support was accepted from Iraq and this created many problems for the Fedayeen. First of all, it was considered a matter of security, kept secret and divulged only on a ‘need to know’ basis. So, although I travelled via Iraq to get to Iranian Kurdistan, no-one among the hundreds of supporters of the Fedayeen in Europe or the US was aware of this.

On one occasion the student paper Jahan (which was part of my political responsibility) published a cartoon mocking Saddam Hussein. Controlling the political content of the journal (in case younger comrades deviated from the ‘correct political line’) was one of my tasks. On this particular occasion I had been delayed overseas and returned to London the day after the paper had been sent to the printers. The organisation decided that the journal could not be distributed except in Europe and North America. I had the unenviable task of explaining to a bemused editorial group that we could not send the journal to Kurdistan and Iran, as our route was via Baghdad and this would endanger the lives of our militants. The cartoon was removed and we had the ridiculous situation where two versions of the journal were distributed in two parts of the world.

The production team – young comrades who spent countless hours putting together the 68-page monthly – were not told why there were two versions. Some of us broke organisational norms and told them what was what.

However, this incident was only the beginning of the corrupting influence of Iraqi money on the Iranian Fedayeen. It could be said that accepting financial support from Iran’s enemy paved the way for the kind of prostituted approach sections of the left displayed as soon as US regime change funds became available. This, and the understandable hatred of the religious state, have created circumstances where many on the Iranian ‘left’ see nothing wrong in accepting support and direction from the likes of the National Endowment for Democracy, Conservative Party members and the Dutch government.

Going soft

One should point out, however, that the Islamic regime is so deeply hated by the overwhelming majority in Iran, and its anti-US rhetoric so discredited, that this lends a considerable credence to the west’s propaganda. Eg, ordinary Iranians just switch off when they hear of the latest evil action of the ‘great Satan’.

After 30 years in power the Islamic regime’s ‘anti-imperialism’ has no serious content whatsoever. Here there is a lesson for all those supporting, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: the pro-poor, pro-revolution, anti-Scaf slogans might appear radical, but if they are not accompanied by genuine economic and political change, they are a sure recipe for inoculating the population against all criticisms of the west. Imagine if you were a genuine anti-imperialist with illusions in the MB, what would you think when you saw Mohammed Mursi relaxing with Hillary Clinton and Egypt’s military leaders? Wouldn’t it cause confusion? After a few years, especially once Mursi turns to the repression that any ‘third world’ capitalist state (Islamic or otherwise) finds necessary, might you not end up becoming soft on the US?

Wide sections of ordinary Iranians, including the working class, fail to identify international capital as their enemy. They oppose everything the regime stands for. However, one would assume a radical left that has constantly identified the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as responsible for the Iranian state’s neoliberal economic policies would have no illusions in the National Endowment for Democracy or Tory lawyers fronting the Iran Tribunal.

In defending their unprincipled position, apologists for the tribunal have unleashed personal attacks on those like myself who have opposed this stunt. Yes, it is true, as they say, that I use my English married name. That is because I do not want to increase the dangers faced by members of my family, most of whom still live in Iran and have at times been under pressure because of my opposition to the regime, not to mention my political dossier as a member of the Fedayeen.

It is also true that my maternal family was not working class and that I attended a French private school. But let me respond to such points with an anecdote. Just before the 22nd congress of the Soviet Communist Party Chou En Lai visited Moscow and, as he arrived, Khrushchev told him: “There is a major difference between us – I am from peasant stock and you are from the aristocracy.” Chou said nothing in reply, but on the day he was leaving he turned to Khrushchev and, reminding him of his welcoming comment, said: “You were right about our class origins. However, we also have something in common: we have both betrayed our class.”

I have the same thing in common with those on the Iranian left who see nothing wrong with accepting funds from neoliberal organisations.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Accepting funds from the CIA

Supporters of the Iran Tribunal have desperately been trying to defend their abandonment of working class principle. Yassamine Mather reports on the contortions

The Iran Tribunal – convened to put the Tehran regime in the dock for its massacre of 5,000-10,000 political prisoners in 1988 – took place in London over June 18-22. While it largely went unnoticed by the public in Britain, it caused uproar amongst sections of the Iranian left.

The tribunal was not the first well-financed attempt to divert the genuine anger of the Iranian people, and their hatred of the Islamic regime (in its many factions), towards dubious ends. Similar stunts have taken place before under the auspices of so-called NGOs – which turn out to be little more than fronts for the United States and the European Union.

The National Endowment for Democracy – which organised and paid for the Iran Tribunal – is a case in point. The NED is in fact a not very covert operation run by the CIA. This is from an Information Clearing House interview with a former CIA agent: “The NED is supposedly a private, non-government, non-profit foundation, but it receives a yearly appropriation from the US Congress. The money is channelled through four ‘core foundations’. These are the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (linked to the Democratic Party); the International Republican Institute (Republican Party); the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity; and the Centre for International Private Enterprise (US Chamber of Commerce).”1

The NED’s NGO status provides the fiction that recipients of its largesse are receiving ‘private’ rather than US government money. The LewRockwell.com website explains this further:

“Washington’s formula for regime change underwent a makeover in the 1980s. In a bid to ensure US political and economic interests were safeguarded, CIA-backed coup d’etats ousted democratically elected leaders from Iran to Chile. In their place were brutal dictatorships and governments that committed heinous crimes against their people … The concept of democracy promotion is simple: finance, train, and politically back local opposition forces around the world that support the American agenda.

“On this very subject Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell said, ‘We do this through surrogates and non-governmental organisation and through people who are less suspecting of the evil that may lurk behind their actions than perhaps they were before. Have we learned some lessons in that regard? You bet! Do we do it better? You bet! Is it still just as heinous as it has always been? You bet!’ So, while the goal remains the same, it is no longer the CIA, but the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners spearheading the effort.”2

The NED is also heavily involved in Egypt. According to the Los Angeles Times, “In Egypt, the four US organisations under attack for fomenting unrest with illegal foreign funding were all connected to the endowment [NED]. Two – the GOP’s International Republican Institute and the Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute – are among the groups that make up the endowment’s core constituents. The two other indicted groups, Freedom House and the International Centre for Journalists, receive funds from the endowment.”3

NED defenders

It should be obvious to anyone claiming to be on the left that genuine human rights, workers’ rights and prisoners’ rights are not the real concern of such an organisation. And the fact that so many former political prisoners of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship, including those who survived the dark days of the 1988 mass murder in Iranian jails, stayed away from the Iran Tribunal charade and wrote extensively on the reasons they did not attend is a credit to the Iranian left – comrades such as Homayoun Ivani, Vazir Fathi, Mojdeh Arassi, Farrokh Ghahremani and many others. The fact that many groups of the exiled Iranian left have chosen to keep silent about this issue – or, worse, have actually supported the tribunal – is a sad reflection of their bankrupt politics.

Sections of the Iranian left, desperate for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, frustrated by three decades of exile and eager for funding (or even the hope of a place in Iran’s post-Islamic republic future), are determined to cooperate with US-funded groups and meanwhile pretend to be offended by accusations of supping with the devil – they are objectively aiding the drive towards imperialist military intervention against Iran.

Others have simply been duped. Despite long years in Europe or North America, many of these comrades are still not at home with the language of their adopted country … and obsessively write on the internet in Farsi. Many are clearly ignorant of what the NED stands for and some seem even to be unaware of the politics of the Conservative Party, prominent members of which were, of course, involved in the Iran Tribunal.

So, instead of responding to the valid points raised by those of us opposed to this stunt, they attempt to turn the tables. In desperation, organisations such as Rahe Kargar (Heyat Ejraii), which warn of the trap of accepting regime-change funds, are accused of supporting Iran’s Islamic regime! Conspiracy theory was always the forté of some of the individuals and groups going down this route. However, this is really unacceptable behaviour – especially when such accusations are thrown simply as a means of avoiding giving a straight answer to a straight question: what is the role of the NED in this tribunal?

This is definitely the case when it comes to the main group supporting the tribunal: one of the many Fedayeen Minority factions – this time the one headed by a comrade Tavakol. Those of us who know this former member of the central committee of Fedayeen are not surprised that the man who believed socialism can be built in Iran with the help of Soviet industrial might is now ready to accept regime-change funds (not just for the Iran Tribunal, but also for a feminist website associated with his group, Shahrzad News). Apparently anyone who does not understand the ‘revolutionary’ logic of accepting such handouts must be an agent of the Islamic regime!

For others, such as Rahe Kargar (Comite Markazi), who have in recent times taken a distance from revolutionary politics, justifying the NED’s close connection with the tribunal comes easy. The fact that the tribunal’s chair is directly associated with the NED is merely ‘coincidence’. They too claim that those like Rahe Kargar (Comite Ejrai) who have exposed these links are covertly supporting the Islamic regime.

A Comite Markazi central committee leaflet (in Farsi) states that because the Iran Tribunal is a “single-issue campaign” it does not need to take a position on the danger of imperialist military attack.4 First of all, at a time when war threatens to devastate Iran – with serious, unpredictable consequence for the Middle East and the world – single-issue campaigns seem a bit irrelevant. However, in this particular case the problem is far worse: irrespective of the ignorance of some, the Iran Tribunal has become an integral part of the plans for regime change.

In this respect the response of one of the tribunal’s main spokespersons to a question posed by a TV reporter is illuminating. In response to the seemingly naive question, “Why aren’t the organisers of the tribunal taking a position regarding the threat of war against Iran, when asked to do so?”, a tribunal spokesperson replied: “We are not a political organisation. That is why we didn’t take a position on the issue of war.” Yet at the end of the same interview the worthy spokesperson remarks: “Oh yes, we are for the overthrow of the Islamic regime.” So being against war is political, but calling for the overthrow of the Islamic regime isn’t?

A third set of arguments relies on such stupid ideas that, out of respect for readers of this paper, I will not go into too much detail about them. But to give you an idea of their banality, let me quote a sentence from someone who defends NED sponsorship: “NGOs do not necessarily follow the policies of the governments that fund them.”

This might sometimes be true, but it is clearly not so with the NED. Here is what George W Bush said of the NED on the occasion of its 20th anniversary in November 2003, six months after the invasion of Iraq: “I’m glad that Republicans and Democrats and independents are working together to advance human liberty.” He ended his address this way: “Each of you at this endowment is fully engaged in the great cause of liberty. And I thank you. May god bless your work.”5

So let us reiterate the facts. The Iran Tribunal is backed by NED funds and there is no doubt about the NED’s role in the US. There are dozens of sites promoting its work and they all verify what we have written. The NED is not just another NGO.

The Obama administration budgeted $80 million for it in 2009, according to the White House website and, of course, US radical and progressive sites are full of detailed reports about the NED, its funding and its raison d’être. Prominent US intellectuals have certainly exposed its close connections with the CIA.

Tory connection

NED funding was not our only concern. There was also the question of the legal team, which consisted of an impressive group of rightwingers. Sir Geoffrey Nice is associated with the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. John Cooper QC is another Tory luminary on the panel.

I have heard it said that the reason the intellectuals and lawyers involved are not radical is “because we don’t live in the 1960s and 70s”. Apparently there are no radical leftwing academics nowadays. I have news for those who think like that: not only are there many US academics, intellectuals and writers who consider themselves leftwing and oppose imperialism without having any illusions in Islamic fundamentalism; some have set up an alternative to the NED. They have called their NGO (set up with very limited funds) the International Endowment for Democracy. It was set up in 2006 and is “a new foundation of progressive American scholars, lawyers and activists dedicated to promoting real democracy in the country that needs it most: the USA.”6

Their website was created to “critique the anti-democratic work of the National Endowment for Democracy” and supporters include: Bertell Ollman, the founder and president, author of many works on Marx; the late Howard Zinn, author of A people’s history of the US; political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal; Annette Rubinstein, a lecturer at the New York Marxist School; Gore Vidal, author of numerous essays, novels and plays; Ellen Meiksins Wood, author of Democracy against capitalism; David Harvey, author of The new imperialism; and so on. So the world has not lost all its radical and progressive lawyers, academics and intellectuals: they just do not happen to support the ‘non-political’ rightwing agenda of the NED and its Iran Tribunal. On the contrary, they are actually very much involved in exposing such dubious projects and their CIA funders.

Some have asked how the Iranian left can be so stupid not to see where all this is leading. I am afraid the answer to this question is not that simple. Yes, some are ignorant of the facts, while other do not follow non-Iranian affairs, viewing world politics through a single lens: that of opposition to Iran’s Islamic regime. Of course, the regime has created such a hell on earth that one can understand the motivation of such people and their thirst for justice. However, imperialism and its sponsored NGOs do not sympathise with the mainly leftwing political prisoners who were massacred in their thousands in the summer of 1988 – what did they say then when the executions were actually taking place, when socialist opponents of the regime were being targeted by regime death squads? Why is it that they have suddenly become interested in the events of more than two decades ago? It is no coincidence that the Iran Tribunal took place at the height of western propaganda, at the time when the spectre of war overshadows all issues relating to Iran.

That is why we point the finger not at the naive and ignorant, but at those amongst the Iranian left who have been corrupted by regime-change funds – unprincipled groups moving rapidly to the right. These types are impressed by the rise of the former leftwinger, Jalal Taleban, now the president of Iraq, and can imagine themselves eventually occupying high office in Tehran. No doubt some of them actually believe their actions will benefit the working class, oppressed women, the Kurdish people … However, when members of the ‘vanguard’ accept imperialist funds they have truly crossed the line.

Finally, because Hands Off the People of Iran has been the butt of much criticism for our principled stance on the Iran Tribunal, let me repeat the three basic tenets of our campaign: No to imperialist war! No to sanctions! No to the theocratic regime! I would like to use this opportunity to thank comrades – in particular former political prisoners – who have supported us in the face of the barrage of insults from the spineless left.

We have said it many times and I emphasise it again: we are for the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic republic – all its factions, all its structures. But this can only be achieved from below, through mass action. Any other type of regime change – a coup d’etat, replacement by military action, the coming to power of the many-coloured alliances or configurations proposed by the US and its allies – will have one major victim: the Iranian working class. In the capitalist world we live in, only fools and those in search of political positions can envisage ‘liberation’ through the NED.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. ‘Former CIA agent tells how US infiltrates “civil society” to overthrow governments’: www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4332.htm.www.rahekaregar.com/elamiye/2012/06/22/el_iran_teribunal.pdf.

2. www.lewrockwell.com/rep2/democracy-promotion.html.

3. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/07/opinion/la-oe-meisler-prodemocracy-20120306.

4. www.rahekaregar.com/elamiye/2012/06/22/el_iran_teribunal.pdf.

5. www.ned.org/george-w-bush/remarks-by-president-george-w-bush-at-the-20th-anniversary.

6. www.iefd.org/press/press_releases.php?r=r01.