When is a political tribunal ‘non-political’? Hands Off the People of Iran national secretary Mark Fischer responds to the latest salvo of pro-imperialist apologetics
Hands Off the People of Iran and the Weekly Worker have been sent a document authored by Dariosh Afshar, associate member of the Iran Tribunal’s International Communications Work Group. The Iran Tribunal, set up by exiled anti-regime Iranians, was convened to investigate Tehran’s massacre of some 15,000 political prisoners in the 1980s, but has been shown by Hopi and this paper to be a body that objectively aids the US-led drive to impose – by military or other means – regime change from above on Iran.
The long, rambling and self-contradictory document, entitled ‘What the “friends of the people” are, and how they fight the social power of the people’, is presented as a response to a situation where allegedly “professor Norman Paech, a renowned and well respected German politician of Germany’s ‘Left’ party, who had earlier offered his support to Iran Tribunal, was compelled to withdraw his support …”1 Its stated aim is to refute the criticisms of the IT that soured comrade Paech’s attitude and – pursuing that – the document makes a whole series of counter-accusations against Hopi and one of its leading figures, Yassamine Mather, as well as the Weekly Worker.
We have been challenged to publish the 16,000-word document in our paper, which we have no intention of doing. However, Hopi has reproduced it on its website,2 so comrades can judge its quality for themselves, and we intend – in due course – to comprehensively unpick its amateurish dishonesty and clumsy apologetics. This article will confine itself to presenting some answers to the main political charges that Afshar – presumably with the tacit consent of other members of the IT – has laid against us.
There are other, more involved questions: for example, the funding links of individuals and organisations involved in the IT. These we will take up subsequently in a longer, more detailed reply. Here we will content ourselves with a few observations. For example, the web of influence through which imperialism pursues its global agenda is, naturally, not transparent. It is opaque, highly complex, subtle and circuitous: it is pushed forward financially, through academic patronage, personal pressure/inducement and the ideological cooption of useful dupes. Simply stating that there are no direct, bank-account-to-bank-account transactions that can be highlighted in yellow marker is an idiotic defence – or perhaps, more accurately, a defence that is designed to satisfy no-one but fools.
More often than not, the simplest questions are the most profound. So comrade Paech is to be congratulated for prompting the production of this long, self-contradictory screed with his plainly put request for clarification: “Can the tribunal take a clear position against war and sanctions?” he asked.
No it cannot, Afshar answers. More tellingly, this apologist suggests that its very nature dictates that it should not. This is because the Iran Tribunal is “non-political”, he insists. Comrades who plough through his document online will note that he returns repeatedly to this challenge and – interestingly – provides different definitions of “non-political”.
Most absurdly, he actually suggests in one place that the IT is non-political because “upholding justice and human dignity and values doesn’t mix with politics. This is one of the main elements which Yassamine Mather cannot see or appreciate.”
On two levels, it is a little difficult to respond to something as silly as this. Historically, the notion that categories such as ‘justice’ and ‘human dignity’ have not been rather hotly contested political concepts should not really detain us too long – Liberté, égalité, fraternité anyone …?
The more pertinent point here is the way contemporary imperialism promotes its interventions as ‘humanitarian’ gestures – Afshar asks whether “any war between two or more reactionary forces” has “ever been motivated, or been used as a pretext, to defend or even pretend to defend or protect human rights”. A smarter question would perhaps be – particularly since Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the second cold war – when have they not?
With this is mind, the recommendations of the IT’s second sitting (ending on October 29) make ominous reading. As others have pointed out, they sound very much like the conclusions reached by the kind of tribunals that preceded the ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the former Yugoslavia – conclusions that conveniently paved the way for the military intervention of Nato. In this context, there is an irony that this final session of the IT was staged in the Hague, where former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić is currently on trial.
Afshar’s insistence that “no-one’s political or ideological views play any role whatsoever” in the IT and that “this is absolute” assumes that his audience are morons. A tribunal – with, rather obviously, no powers whatsoever – is specifically set up to investigate the crimes of a particular regime and we are meant to believe that politics do not come into it?
What is more, the Iran Tribunal takes place against the background of sanctions, warmongering and attempts to impose regime change from above. Meanwhile, the international anti-war movement (for which Afshar consistently expresses contempt throughout his document) is very much weakened, compared to its zenith in 2003, and seems incapable of mounting a serious challenge to imperialism’s plans.
Then in this particular historical moment, the ‘non-political’ IT steps forward with its condemnation of the barbaric Tehran regime and its ear-splitting silence concerning the looming danger of another disastrous war in the region. It ignores the ongoing horror of ‘soft war’ sanctions that are fraying the fabric of Iran’s society and making life hell for ordinary people. The evasions of Afshar are worthless – it is clear whose interests are being served by his tribunal. The “absolute” ban on “political or ideological views” is meaningless: what other conclusion are we supposed to draw from the evidence than ‘something must be done’? Moreover, those participating in the stunt who supported sanctions and war had vast resources deployed daily outside the hall to make their case for them.3
The ban is exclusively directed against the left, against anti-imperialist forces – something that has been documented in some detail. For example, in two highly critical statements the Norwegian IT support committee describes how all tribunal witnesses who arrived in London on June 17 were taken to a briefing, where they were explicitly asked not to ‘raise any politics’ during their evidence. One witness wanted to challenge the tribunal and at the end of his 30-minute session made an anti-imperialist statement. Outrageously, his whole evidence was excluded from the record.
In the current world context, to remain silent on sanctions and the threat of war is to play the role of willing dupes; it is to constitute yourself as the ‘human rights’ wing of imperialism’s reactionary campaign.
Possibly the most absurd argument is Afshar’s attempt to prove that Hopi generally and Yassamine Mather specifically are in effect supporters of the Islamic regime. It is worthwhile examining his text here. A quote from comrade Mather is cited: “without clear opposition to war and sanctions, the tribunal effectively strengthens the hand of all those reactionary forces contemplating a military attack on Iran … I am a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran – but a war would be disastrous for the forces in Iran that have a real interest in democracy: the workers, women’s groups and social movements in that country.”
Absurdly this is taken to show that “Yassamine simply cannot see through her tunnel vision that there is a third force: ie, the people of Iran. They are the ultimate power who could stop any potential war by overthrowing the regime and establishing their own secular and democratic system. Being ‘a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran’ doesn’t mean that one should see the welfare and democratic aspirations of the people through maintaining the balance of power between two reactionary and warring states.”
At this point, some readers may start to doubt the man’s sanity. It is possible to fill a barn with Hopi and Mather quotes that exactly make the point that the working people of Iran are the focus of our work, our hopes for democracy and socialism – indeed the quote used by Afshar himself does that. However, very quickly it becomes clear that what Afshar actually takes offence to is the anti-war component of Hopi’s work.
“Yassamine only sees the US and the rulers of IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran],” he writes, in contradiction to the words he is actually quoting. “She only worries about weakening or strengthening one or the other. People don’t come into Yassamine’s equation and have no place in her ‘anti-war’ politics. And when people do something collectively and form a social power institution such as Iran Tribunal, she smears it with lies and accusations.”
“[Mather] has focused the main part of her activism on ‘anti-war’ campaigning. Isn’t the balance of power between the USA and [Iran] the main issue with Yassamine? Doesn’t she just want to play ‘anti-war’ games within the ‘anti-imperialist camp’ of some of the mind-twisted so-called ‘Marxists’? Where do the people of Iran come into Yassamine’s active politics?”
Given world politics and relations between Israel, the US and Iran over the last few years, one might have expected that someone like Afshar (who self-defines himself as a ‘Marxist’ in the document) would see anti-war agitation and propaganda in a period like this as rather more than a ‘game’.
In truth, and despite his protestations otherwise, Afshar’s politics lend themselves to, if not active support for sanctions and the war drive, at least indifference. He imagines a scenario where “Yassamine Mather had a successful campaign and not only she prevented the war, but the sanctions were also lifted. Wouldn’t the best achieved outcome and scenario be similar to the time when Khatami or Rafsanjani had the upper hand within the Islamic Republican of Iran factions?”
In contrast, Afshar appears to see the present, dire situation in today’s Iran as preferable. The “country’s disastrous and catastrophic circumstances” mean that “all the right conditions for a revolutionary regime change are ready … The great majority of the Iranian population is faced with unprecedented harsh and unmanageable economic and living conditions, and as far as social unrest is concerned, Iran right now is a massive time bomb waiting to go off at any time …” An important source of the pressure that has produced these apparently propitious conditions for the struggle of the people of Iran is imperialism itself, of course – its vicious sanctions and the threats of a military strike.
In stark contrast, Hopi’s anti-war/anti-sanctions campaign has nothing whatsoever to do with restoring the hegemony of this or that faction in the theocracy, still less a “balance of power” between US-led imperialism and Tehran. (When on earth did that ever exist, by the way? The United States is the world’s policeman, massively more powerful militarily than its main imperialist rivals, let alone Iran). Our fight to remove the crippling sanctions (which disrupt and demoralise the working people primarily) and to stop the drive to war (which would be a disaster for ordinary people and which facilitate oppression in the here and now) is intended to give the working class and its allies the maximum space and opportunity to impose its own progressive democratic agenda.
Finally, Afshar reaches a truly bizarre conclusion about the motivations of Yassamine Mather and Hopi (comrade Mather has by now clearly become the personification of the campaign for him: any accusation he throws against her holds good for the organisation as a whole in his mind):
“Yassamine doesn’t want Iran Tribunal to succeed because she doesn’t want [Iran] to be exposed with yet another one of its horrific scandals on the international scene. The reason for this is that [Iran] has, of course, taken full advantage of the concept of being ‘anti-war’, and has marked its own devious influence by launching organisations … to act as impostors within [the anti-war movement] in order to steer and direct the whole of the ‘anti-war’ movement toward its own political advantage. As far as the ‘anti-war’ movements are concerned, the point to make should be that both the USA and Islamic Republic of Iran are reactionary forces who pursue their own agendas.”
Hopi has always said that Iran’s Islamic Republic must be held accountable for its crimes, including the massacre of political prisoners that the IT was convened to look into. Nor has Hopi ever argued that the threat of war means we should ignore or delay such investigations.4 However, to condemn the Iranian regime for its myriad crimes in the current political situation without making crystal-clear at the same time your implacable opposition to any external interference in the country, either in the form of ‘soft war’ sanctions or a military strike, is to effectively make yourself a dupe of imperialist reaction. There were plenty of them in the war in former Yugoslavia; plenty of them cheered on the assault on Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. So, despite Afshar bleating about the unique and principled nature of the Iran Tribunal, it is actually joining a very long, very disreputable line.
Lastly, two points about the IT’s final report:
1. It seems that the gagging order on the left and anti-imperialists is to be applied retrospectively even to the victims of the Islamic regime’s executions in the 1980s. It is not mentioned that many (if not the majority) of the victims were socialists and communists who would have been appalled by the pro-imperialist use their sacrifice is being put to. Not even an echo of their voices is to be allowed; not even from beyond the grave.
2. The IT’s recommendation “that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation mandate its Independent Permanent Commission of Human Rights to designate these violations a ‘priority human rights issue’ and ‘conduct studies and research’” into it is truly jaw-dropping. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is made up of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – they are being asked to monitor Iran’s human rights record!
Clearly, however, the deciding factor here is not these countries’ own democratic credentials. For example, Saudi Arabia is an undemocratic hell-hole, but it is one of the main allies of imperialism in the region. A coincidence? We think not …
Comrades in Hands Off the People of Iran do not take great pleasure in being proved right about the IT. We took a potentially controversial decision to oppose it so energetically. The only gratifying aspect of the whole affair has been that our stance has been vindicated so quickly and so completely – something rare in leftwing politics. However, the fact that important elements of the Iranian left chose to cooperate with it makes this a sad and worrying ‘victory’ for us.
First published in the Weekly Worker.
1. All quotes from ‘What the “friends of the people” are’, unless otherwise stated. For the full story on Norman Paech see www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/iran-tribunal-impossible-to-continue-support. A shortened version of this article appeared as ‘Iran Tribunal: credibility drains away’ (Weekly Worker October 4).
3.The IT’s ‘chief prosecutor’, Payam Akhavan, is a keen supporter of sanctions on Iran. For many years, Akhavan has been pushing his sponsors’ agenda for ever harsher sanctions. He is one of the authors of the international report published by the Responsibility to Prevent Coalition, which calls for “a comprehensive set of generic remedies – smart sanctions – to combat the critical mass of threat, including threat-specific remedies for each of the nuclear, incitement, terrorist and rights-violating threats”. This 2010 report was, incidentally, also signed by Tory MP Michael Gove and Carl Gershman, president of the US-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy.