As Iranian president Hassan Rowhani addressed the UN general assembly on September 25, there seemed to be no end to the charm offensive unleashed by the new government in Tehran. Following a number of conciliatory articles in US papers1 and a TV interview during which he emphasised Iran’s commitment to “peaceful nuclear development”, the Iranian president arrived in New York, accompanied by Iran’s only Jewish MP – apparently a supporter of the new government.
Two days into the UN’s 68th general assembly, Iran’s foreign minister had already met William Hague, Rowhani had shaken hands with French president François Hollande and it was announced that Iran will take part in negotiations with the ‘five plus one’ countries on September 26, along with US foreign secretary John Kerry. The proposed meeting between Kerry and Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will be the highest-level US-Iran contact for more than 30 years and, according to media reports,2 the UN was buzzing with rumours that there might be a Rowhani-Obama handshake in the corridors of the United Nations.
The ‘accidental’ meeting would not have been the first time the US administration had used the general assembly for communicating with moderate Iranians. According to Bruce Riedel, who was a senior director at the National Security Council and adviser to Bill Clinton on Iran, in September 2000 Clinton instructed aides to arrange a face-to-face encounter with Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami. At the secretary general’s lunch, the two presidents were supposed to be seated not too far from each other so that an ‘accidental’ meeting could be arranged. Thirteen years later, the Americans apparently made very similar efforts.
However, there was no handshake. According to the New York Times, “After two days of discussions between American and Iranian officials about a potential meeting of the leaders, a senior administration official said the Iranian delegation indicated that it would be ‘too complicated’ for Mr Rowhani and Mr Obama to bump into each other.” Rowhani decided he could not attend the lunch organised for heads of states “because alcohol was being served”. The truth is Rowhani can only test supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s tolerance of his ‘diplomacy’ so far and clearly a handshake with Obama would have been too much. However Rowhani did manage a meeting that was just as important – with an unveiled woman, International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde, to discuss “how the partnership with the IMF might be deepened”. At the end of the day, after all the hype, Obama and Rowhani both spoke of improved relations and backed the resumption of nuclear talks.
Of course, we have been here before during the Khatami presidency, when similar gestures were hailed as signs of a thaw in US-Iran relations, yet little came out of it. In fact in an editorial The Guardian drew attention to this, warning that this time the west must not turn its back on diplomacy: “Failure now to create an atmosphere of trust and meaningful dialogue will only boost extremist forces on all sides. The consequences of such a failure will be not only regional, but global.”3
As I wrote last week, Rowhani has less than six months to bring about a resolution of the nuclear issue and an end to sanctions.4 After that he will surely lose the supreme leader’s support for negotiations. Before Rowhani left Tehran, Khamenei gave his blessing to his president’s efforts, speaking of Iran’s “heroic flexibility” and “tactical diplomacy”. Revolutionary Guard leaders echoed the supreme leader’s message.
Clearly sanctions are taking their toll and forcing the Iranian regime to compromise. Ironically, the super-rich clerics who run the country, as well as their immediate families and allies, have been relatively immune from the disastrous consequences of sanctions. However, the majority of Iranians are facing severe hardship caused by food and medical shortages, spiralling prices and the destruction of Iran’s economy – no wonder the country’s religious leaders fear losing power. So Khamenei and his obedient servants in the Revolutionary Guards have been forced to make a U-turn, be it for a limited period – in the words of former supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini, they have accepted that they must “drink the poison” of negotiations.5
No-one should be under any illusion: the reality is that a superpower, the US, has defeated a ‘third world’ religious dictatorship by using its economic power. It has stopped Iran’s oil exports, paralysed its banking and financial systems, destroyed an important part of its manufacturing and petrochemical industries. Indeed Iran’s economy is in a worse situation now than during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. So, before anyone starts celebrating the prospects of peace, let me remind you that these negotiations, like the conflict that preceded them, are part of a reactionary process. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, the current hype about a rapprochement in US-Iran relations should be recognised for what it is: tortuous negotiations on the nuclear issue while long-term tensions persist.
In their respective speeches to the UN both Obama and Rowhani made clear references to the history of the last three decades. Obama spoke of Iran’s hostage-taking, of its labelling of the US as the main enemy and of its threats against Israel. Rowhani gave what could be described as a ‘third-worldist nationalist’ speech, complaining about inequality amongst states, and the misconceptions about the ‘civilised’ west and ‘uncivilised’ countries like Iran. So even if nuclear negotiations progress – and that is a big ‘if’ – the conflict will continue.
Throughout the last three decades both sides have fuelled this confrontation: in the case of Iran for internal reasons; and in the case of the US for global reasons – to prove the power of the hegemon. Now, in desperation, a wrecked Iran and a weakened US are looking for a settlement. It will not lead to ‘peace’ in the region. Far from it – it might fuel further conflicts between an enraged Israel and an empowered Iran; or between a Sunni alliance and the Shia/Alawi axis of Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
Of course, all this also shows a level of incoherence in the US approach to the Middle East in general. The ousting of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and the coming to power of a Shia government in Baghdad had the inevitable consequence of increasing Iran’s influence in the region. The US’s immediate reaction was to strengthen its allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supporting their interventions in Syria, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards were taking part in the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.
But the Israeli lobby and hawks amongst US Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are very concerned. The joke in Tehran is that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the only person on earth who wishes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still Iranian president. According to Benny Avni, writing in the New York Post, “Iranian president Hassan Rowhani will undoubtedly play the well-dressed matinee idol in this year’s UN annual gabfest, which begins Tuesday. But will Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu be the only one to note that this emperor has no clothes?”6 Only hours after Rowhani’s UN appearance, Netanyahu described him as making “a cynical speech full of hypocrisy”.7
Some have argued that the current situation proves ‘sanctions’ have forced Iran to ‘engage in nuclear negotiations’. Nothing could be further from the truth. For all the talk of peace and moderation, Iran’s Islamic regime maintains a commitment to pursue nuclear development – so as far as the nuclear issue is concerned, not much has changed. What is different is the new government’s willingness to negotiate with the US.
Sanctions against Iran date back to 1979 and, contrary to Obama’s claims, they have always been about regime change. In this respect the US has succeeded, in that sanctions forced all candidates in this year’s presidential elections in Iran to take a ‘moderate’ line vis-à-vis US relations. This was as true of the more conservative candidates as it was of the centrist, Rowhani. No wonder Iranian royalists, the Mujahedin and others who hoped to be the main beneficiaries of US regime-change policy are furious with the Obama administration. However, as we in Hands Off the People of Iran have said, the US plan A was always about regime change – and that meant a change in policy, not necessarily a change in personnel.
Clearly Iran hopes that improved relations with the US will result in the lifting of some of the harshest sanctions, allowing the sale of Iranian oil, a gradual reacceptance of Iran’s banks and financial institutions into the world economy, and that in turn these measures will improve the rate of exchange for the Iranian currency. Will this improve life for the Iranian working class? Not very likely.
As the world media pontificates about the significance of this week’s events in New York, it is worthwhile listening to the words of Labour activist Ali Nejati, a member of the Haft Tapeh sugar workers’ union: “Workers should not be under any illusion that change in the management of the state, within the confines of the existing order and for the purpose of maintaining this order in power, will bring about any change in the economic, political and social situation of the working class, nor does this change represent any move in that direction. It is no secret that our class, despite encompassing the overwhelming majority of the population, plays no role in the country’s politics – as far as the government is concerned, our only role is to produce more, accept lower wages and become cannon fodder.”8
By contrast, Iranian reformists, even when the most radical among them address working class issues (and that in itself is a rare event), consider the class as a minority and they talk of “the necessity of raising the demands of all minorities: women, national minorities and workers”.9
What they fail to realise is that:
- the majority of the population of Iran are workers of one kind or another;
- this majority, the working class, remains the only force capable not only of freeing itself, but of winning the emancipation of other oppressed sections of the population;
- woman and national minorities are themselves divided into antagonistic classes.
So what can the working class do under difficult economic conditions at a time when repression remains as bad as it was in the worst years of the Ahmadinejad period? The reformist left is telling everyone that now is the time for ‘national reconciliation’, to give peace a chance, and the nation has to be united!
Labour activists such as Ali Nejati are absolutely right to combat such ideas. On the contrary, this is precisely the time for workers’ protests – not just over economic demands, but for political freedom and the end of the dictatorship. In Hopi we will do our utmost to support such demands – as long as the forces putting them forward are not tainted by western or Arab funds for regime change from above.
9. Interview with exiled reformist activist Mostfa Khosravi: www.bbc.co.uk/persian/tv/2011/04/000001_ptv_newshour_gel.shtml.