Monthly Archives: October 2013

Solidarity with the Iranian working class

The political landscape of the Middle East is an increasingly complicated place.  In this video, Yassamine Mather of Hands Off the People of Iran looks at the conflicting interests that have driven the United States and Iranian governments to seek some form of modus vivendi with each other and the implications this may have both for the wider politics of the region and the respective domestic balance of class forces in these countries.

 

 

Iran: Step up solidarity

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After weeks of speculation about Iran-US relations and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, Iran’s foreign minister and his deputy finally made their initial proposals clear on October 15-16 in closed talks with the ‘P5+1’ countries in Geneva. Those proposals will come in stages, coinciding with a gradual reduction of western sanctions. Despite Iran’s denials it is clear that at some stage during this process Iran will reduce the level of uranium enrichment and may “allow unannounced visits to its nuclear sites as a ‘last step’”.1

Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament who is close to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, had hinted in an interview with CNN that Iran might concede to P5+1 demands for stopping the enrichment of uranium, or at least that Iran is willing to discuss the thorny issue of its ‘surplus’ enriched uranium. However, he seemed to contradict this a few days later with a statement “clarifying that current achievements in the nuclear programme cannot be reversed”, but it looks like Khamenei has swallowed the poison and a variation of the above is part of Iran’s proposal. Larijani was also quoted by Associated Press as saying that Iran has ample enriched uranium to use as a bargaining chip with the west. Later the quote was labelled “false”, “fundamentally inaccurate” and “baseless” by his official office in the majles (parliament).

In early October there were reports that Iran might volunteer to close its Fordo plant. However, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, strongly rejected “western media reports”, adding that the underground uranium enrichment facility is essential to the country’s nuclear programme: “The closure of the Fordo site is a sheer lie.”

Never mind Iranian officials speaking with one voice – it is clear that each voice has two or three opinions! But this apparent disarray is in fact part of the supreme leader’s strategy to claim victory if the talks achieve any reduction in the current level of sanctions, while remaining deeply pessimistic about the discussions. The regime has put all its hopes in an immediate relaxation, at least in terms of the country’s banking and finance systems, as well as the lifting of insurance and shipping restrictions that would allow an increase in the country’s oil exports.

However, given the fact that sanctions have clearly brought about a U-turn in Tehran, it is unlikely that they will be lifted shortly. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US hawks are clearly warning against any relaxation. On October 10, in calls to David Cameron and French president François Hollande, Netanyahu is supposed to have warned that “Only our pressure brought Iran to this point, and only the continuation of that pressure and its strengthening can bring them to dismantle their nuclear programme.”2

The Israeli premier was given a unique opportunity to speak directly to the Iranian people in a long interview with the BBC Persian service on October 3. And he managed to do something that former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never achieved: unite Iranians against the Zionist government. In condescending, arrogant comments that were supposed to mobilise young Iranians in support of the Zionist regime, the Israeli premier told Iranians they “deserve better” than their current government adding the now infamous statement: “I think if the Iranian people had their way, they’d be wearing blue jeans, they’d have western music, they’d have free elections.”3

The response was unprecedented. Social media and the blogosphere was inundated with pictures of Iranians wearing jeans. Thousands of Iranians took to social media to publish photographs of prominent Iranians, including some of the supreme leaders’ closest allies, so attired. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that poking fun at the Israeli prime minister has become a favourite online pastime for Iranians over the last couple of weeks. One presumes his advisers must be eating humble pie.

However, all this has not stopped Netanyahu, nor has it lead to any moderation in his utterances. By October 13, as the prospects of some progress in the Geneva talks loomed, he was comparing himself to Winston Churchill and presenting himself as virtually the sole opponent of ‘appeasement’ of the Iranian ‘fascists’.

U-turns

One has to ask, what brought about Iran’s U-turn? And what happened to the US policy that Iran must be punished?

The Iranian retreat is easier to explain – although, contrary to all the claims of the US and its allies, sanctions have not affected the private fortunes of Iran’s clerical leaders or their immediate relatives. However, it is clear that the country is facing a major economic crisis, leaving its rulers powerless, and the current situation is unsustainable. This week, the central bank announced that the rate of inflation had exceeded 40%: According to its figures, “The cost of food and drink rose by 51%, shoes by 60%, and utilities, water and fuel by 21%. Healthcare was 43% more expensive and transport 45%.”4

Manufacturing is at a standstill. Whereas in the heyday of its growth many had commented that the rise in car output was stunning, today the collapse of the industry is just as marked. This year alone car production is down by 40% and production is 10% of what it was before the latest round of sanctions. Workers in this industry say they go to work even if they are not paid – in the hope that the industry will pick up once sanctions are lifted. The car industry, like aerospace, has been deprived of many essential engineering software packages, which are listed as computing software capable of having ‘dual use’. For example, a package called Abaqus, used extensively in the car and aerospace industries for mesh analysis, allows testing for cracks. But because it could also be used for the same tests to nuclear reactors it cannot be exported to Iran. The same is true of many other industries.

Meanwhile, thousands of workers are not being paid. Last week there were dozens of workers’ protests up and down the country, including at the Kian tyre factory near Tehran, where the slogan was: “Our families are hungry”. In Boroujerd in western Iran more than 1,000 public-service workers in municipal services have not been paid for two months. But, as I have said time and time again, why is a country that claims it has no money to pay its public-sector workers paying billions of dollars for black-market nuclear devices?

If Iran’s apparent agreement to scale down its nuclear programme was predictable, there is a lot of speculation about the reasons for what looks like a softening of the US position. A comrade in Hands Off the People of Iran has offered a possible explanation. Having traditionally relied on Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their Sunni allies, the US might be concerned that these countries have no control over Islamic military groups they finance in the region, Libya and Syria being obvious example of this phenomenon. So the US might be pursuing a twin-track policy of establishing better relations with Shia Iran (a country that has firm control of the Islamist groups associated with it), while maintaining its links with the Sunni states.

In Iran speculation about US inconsistencies dominate sections of the media. The state TV network, Jaam-e-Jam, has gone so far as to quote this writer on its website, when it reproduced part of what I had said on the weekly news/analysis programme of the BBC Persian service.5 (Incidentally it describes the Persian service as a den of spies, part of a Zionist conspiracy and paid for by MI5 on other pages of its website). Inevitably only those sections of the programme where I referred to the US and the effect of sanctions are reported: the rest of the discussion, when I talked about Iran’s ambitions in the region and the regime’s need for crises in order to survive, did not make it onto Jaam-e-Jam’s web pages. This in itself shows the desperation of the Iranian regime – it is not as though it is unaware of my life-long opposition.

And the battle between conservatives and ‘reformists’ has moved up a gear, with foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claiming that false reporting of his comments about president Hassan Rowhani’s visit to New York has caused him so much stress that he was almost paralysed on the eve of the Geneva talks. To prove it, Zarif tweeted a picture of himself lying in bed with backache. But our Twitter-using foreign minister is a firm believer in secrecy. No details of Iran’s presentation in Geneva have been made available to the Iranian people.

The other contentious issue inside Iran is the debate around the slogan, ‘Death to America’. In line with the needs of Rowhani, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani revealed that Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini once commented – in private – that people should abandon the slogan. ‘Death to America’ became popular with both Islamists and their reformist apologists, the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party and the Majority Fedayeen, in 1979 and the early 1980s. In fact the radical left always opposed it, because it is non-political and was deliberately chosen to undermine the left’s anti-imperialist slogans.

According to Rafsanjani, Khomeini had confessed: “I did not agree with the call for anyone’s death during public meetings. For example, in our meetings, ‘Death to Banisadr’ was a popular chant and I told people not to chant it after Friday prayers. There was ‘Death to Bazargan’ and I told them not to say that … As for ‘Death to America’, I said the same thing. I personally am opposed to strong and offensive rhetoric – I do not find it constructive.”6

It was inevitable that Rafsanjani’s comments would raise fierce opposition inside Iran. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that the Iranian people just would not believe that Khomeini did not approve of the slogan. In fact after a week of attacks on him, Rafsanjani decided to backtrack. He said that the republication of one of his interviews in which he had recalled Khomeini’s comments had been a “mistake”.7 Rafsanjani did not, however, deny the truth of what he had said.

Solidarity

What does all this mean for solidarity work? Clearly there is a possibility that some sanctions will be lifted in the next few weeks. This will not change the economic situation much for the majority of Iranians. However, if workers can get back to their jobs, if some of the money owed in salaries is paid, we might see an upsurge in the class struggle. Similarly, if the threat of foreign attack is lifted, we might see student demonstrations against the religious dictatorship once more – in fact we saw a glimpse of such protests this week as Rowhani was addressing students in one of Iran’s main campuses.

Now more than ever Iranian workers, students, women and minority nationalities need international working class solidarity. At a time when all eyes are on Iranian government officials and the prisoners of the green movement, we must redouble our efforts to secure the unconditional, immediate release of all labour activists, for the right of workers to set up their own organisations, and in support of workers’ struggles for the payment of the wages they are owed.

In other words, Hopi’s work has only just started.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24542216.

2. www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.552031.

3. www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=5991.

4. www.irandailybrief.com/2013/10/08/cbi-annual-inflation-rate-exceeded-40/#sthash.qAq1EIfw.dpuf.

5. Iranian state TV: www.jamnews.ir/TextVersionDetail/234097.

6. www.majalla.com/eng/2013/10/article55245894. Abolhassan Banisadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic, while Mehdi Bazargan was the regime’s first prime minister.

7. www.aawsat.net/2013/10/article55319235.

Telephone diplomacy riles Israeli hawks and Iranian conservatives

Last week’s phone conversation between the presidents of the United States and Iran, the first direct talks between the two heads of state in more than 30 years, has been the cause of major controversy amongst conservatives both in the US and the Islamic Republic.

Although both countries have declared a willingness to work together to “break the deadlock” over Iran’s nuclear programme, in hindsight it is easy to understand why Hassan Rowhani avoided a handshake or a ‘casual meeting’ in the corridors of the UN with Barack Obama. He did not have permission for a face-to-face meeting and there is some dispute as to whether or not he had the supreme leader’s blessing even for the now (in)famous phone call. According to Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, supreme leader Ali Khamenei approved of everything he and Rowhani did, and Hossein Naghavi, a ‘reformist’ spokesperson on foreign policy in the majles (parliament), claimed the president had received “the necessary permission from the system” for his telephone diplomacy with Obama. “System” is considered by most commentators to be code for ‘supreme leader’.

Khamenei’s foreign affairs representative was at the airport to welcome back Rowhani – another sign that overall the supreme leader was happy with the outcome. State TV only showed pro-Rowhani demonstrators at the airport, so the Iranian people only found out about the eggs and shoes thrown at the presidential vehicle from the western press and media. Having said that, Khamenei is a complicated character and it is possible that those voicing opposition to Rowhani might also have been prompted by the supreme leader’s office.

Khamenei is making sure that, whatever happens, he will not be blamed if things go wrong. That is why general Mohammad Ali Jafarione, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and a close ally of Khamenei, said on September 30 that the telephone diplomacy was “a tactical mistake”. Probably the same can be said about Hossein Shariatmadari, a notorious rightwinger and editor of the Tehran daily Kayhan. He was derisive: “Mr Rowhani has not achieved anything in New York … the telephone conversation with Mr Obama was the most regretful part and the biggest advantage Iran … gave to the rival.”1

Obama was clearly delighted, calling the week’s negotiations between representatives of the two countries a “unique opportunity” to seal a deal: “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”

But that was before the visit of Binyamin Netanyahu. During a meeting with the Israeli premier the US president assured Israel that a military option on Iran remains on the table. A week is long time in politics, but in terms of US foreign policy it seems to be getting longer by the hour. The reaction from Tehran was swift. Foreign minister Zarif wrote on Twitter: “President Obama should avert contradiction in order to win the confidence of the Iranian people. Flip-flop and contradictory positions will destroy trust and discredit the United States. President Obama’s presumption that Iran has entered negotiations due to his threats and illegal sanctions is an insult to a nation, bullying and wrong.”2 Reacting to Netanyahu’s claims that Iran was building a nuclear bomb, Zarif was quoted as saying: “For 22 years Israel has claimed that Iran’s nuclear programme will reach military capability in six months and they keep repeating the same lie. How many six months is that?”

Of course, Rowhani and Zarif have every reason to be concerned. The conservative factions of the Islamic Republic regime have been very active in the last few days – not just seeing to it that shoes were thrown at the presidential convoy, but preparing a more serious challenge, referred to by former ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami as “threats of the return of terror”. The protests were not spontaneous, said Khatami, but staged. “Their number was few, but their power is plenty” (I assume this is a reference to the serial political murders during his presidency, when secular writers, translators and political activists were assassinated by ‘rogue’ elements of the ministry of intelligence).3

Misconceptions

Clearly both states are keen to press ahead with nuclear negotiations as soon as possible and if Islamic conservatives and hawks in the US are both kept at bay we can expect some progress in that area. However, before anyone gets too excited, let me point to some of the current misconceptions being propagated by both sides:

 

  • The Iran-US conflict is all down to Iran’s nuclear programme. Not true: US sanctions predate the nuclear issue. Iran has long been a US enemy. After all, the country dared rid itself of the shah’s regime, the main ally of the US in the region. Just as bad from a US point of view was the taking of American hostages and support offered by the Islamic Republic to Hezbollah and Syria. The nuclear programme was always an excuse which would allow the US to bring this ‘rogue state’ to heel.
  • US-Iran negotiations have only become possible because Iran persevered with its nuclear programme. This is what supporters of the Islamic Republic, including pro-Rowhani forces, have claimed, but it is completely false. The comparison that comes to mind is that of a customer who takes a hand grenade to a bank in order to discuss his overdraft. It might draw attention in the short term, but it is hardly likely to resolve the problem with the account.
  • Nuclear negotiations will pave the way for better Iran-US relations. Another myth. The US’s Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are already raising further demands: for example, curtailing Iran’s role in the region, starting with Syria, then Iraq and Lebanon.

There is even renewed talk about the islands in the Gulf whose sovereignty is disputed. The United Arab Emirates has called on the UN general assembly to pressure Iran into settling the dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. A spokesman denounced the “continued Iranian occupation”. This is in line with the position of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has declared that the UAE owns the islands (although they are uninhabited, they are strategically important because of their position close to the Strait of Hormuz).

Bargaining

Both the Iranian and the international left have in the past shown considerable confusion regarding the nuclear issue. Deluded western and Middle Eastern ‘anti-imperialist’ supporters of the last Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his crude anti-western rhetoric, went as far as defending the ‘Iranian bomb’.

While others have stopped short of that, there seems to be growing support among sections of the reformist left deluded by nationalist sentiments for “Iran’s right to nuclear technology”. They ask, why shouldn’t Iran want to become a regional power? After all, it is the most important country of the Gulf. Such classless analysis is beyond disdain. I have said before, it is criminal for a country that claims it cannot pay its employees (even before recent sanctions), where many public-sector workers have not been paid for months, where 60% of the population live below the poverty line, to spend billions of dollars every year on dodgy, unreliable, black-market technology to keep its nuclear programme progressing for the sake of ‘national pride’.

The Iranian left’s illusions about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should also be confronted. As Iranian socialist Reza Fiyouzat has written, “This treaty – the biggest international lobby on behalf of the operators of nuclear power plants and military contractors – seems to have completely gone over the heads of those among the western left who, through their positioning vis-à-vis Iran’s regime, support and venerate the NNPT.”4

For the talks to succeed, the US will have to distance itself from Netanyahu’s demands and take a position similar to that of the European Union. The EU is keen to see the back of international sanctions mainly due to its own economic interests. However, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s ‘high representative’ for foreign affairs and security, is taking a conciliatory position regarding talks with Iran planned for October: “I would like to get to Geneva with the best possible atmosphere … and that means, in all sorts of ways, we need to show willingness and good faith to sit down and talk and expect the same in return.”

But the two sides are still a long way apart. The Iranian regime has no intention of closing down any of its plants. It is adamant it will continue to mine, process and enrich uranium up to 20% (a figure that allows a jump to weapons-grade material within a few months).

Israel and American hawks want Iran to: stop all uranium enrichment; remove existing enriched uranium from the country; close the Fordo enrichment plant near Qom; and halt the development of its reactor at Arak, Iran’s plutonium plant. The EU would accept Fordo if Iran allowed regular inspections (so far it has not mentioned the removal of existing nuclear material) and is taking a softer line on Arak.

The Fordo plant is buried deep underground and so cannot be destroyed by conventional means. But for ordinary Iranians it represents a serious danger. Fordo is located on a notorious geological fault line and, of course, is a prime target for bunker-buster air attacks. The possibility of attack or earthquake keep many awake at night. There is no doubt that revolutionaries should call for the immediate closure of this facility – not because of US and Israel demands, but because of the risk it poses to the population.

What about the plant at Arak, again close to Tehran, where an estimated 14 million people live? Arak is a heavy water production and reactor plant. Iran claims it is undertaking research there involving the development of radioisotopes for medical and agricultural purposes. However, the US insists that the plant is used for producing weapons-grade plutonium. The demand for Asrak’s closure or even inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency will be another source of conflict.

Why is 20% enrichment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) important? The fissile uranium used in nuclear weapons usually contains 85% or more of uranium235. However a crude, inefficient weapon can be produced with uranium enriched to just 20%, the minimum for weapons-grade. In that sense Iran’s boasting about 20% enriched uranium contradicts its repeated statement that it would never develop nuclear weapons, as they are anti-Islamic. This will also become a difficult point in any negotiations, as the Islamic Republic is unlikely to agree to reduce either current levels of uranium enrichment or its stockpile of HEU.

The one question that goes unmentioned by all sides is the disposal of nuclear waste – a major problem in highly developed countries, let alone somewhere like Iran. All indications are that the authorities are taking major risks. The Bushehr plant, one of its largest nuclear power plants, uses Russian-made fuel and its radioactive waste is allegedly returned to Russia, travelling thousands of kilometres. There are, however, persistent rumours about it being buried in the central Iranian desert. That would be par for the course. The Islamic regime has proved both unable and unwilling to pay serious attention to basic health and safety issues, whether in the workplace or society at large. Add to this the secrecy and corruption, and no-one in their right mind should trust Tehran to follow the basic safety precautions necessary when it comes to nuclear waste and radiation.

Sanctions

The demonstrators who welcomed Rowhani were not interested in international relations. They were concerned with the economy. What they want to know is how quickly sanctions can be removed, how soon prices will go back down.

Most of the severe sanctions, including those directed against financial institutions, have taken years to be fully implemented. Contrary to what the majority of Iranians believe – and indeed contrary to what the Rowhani government promises – the removal of sanctions will not come about overnight. Some of the UN embargoes imposed on Saddam Hussein following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait are still in place, 22 years after the first Gulf war and 10 years after US occupation of Iraq and the coming to power of another government! This is partly because all the conditions set in the original sanctions, including compensation to Kuwait, have not been met. So you can see why no-one should expect the reduction (never mind the removal) of sanctions against Iran to happen overnight. In addition, the passing of any US legislation to implement such a move would inevitably be hindered, if not prevented, by both Republican and Democrat hawks.

However, European Union institutions have begun to move over a number of new sanctions on Iranian banks and corporations. On September 16 the Luxembourg-based General Court ruled that embargoes against the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) cannot be justified, as there is no evidence of its alleged involvement in nuclear proliferation. The court’s ruling means the removal of “restrictive measures” on all Iranian shipping firms connected to IRISL.

Moreover, the psychological effects of better Iran-US relations are already improving aspects of the economy. Following his own experience of a long trip to the US, Rowhani is promoting the idea of direct flights between Tehran and major US cities. For its part, the US has returned to Tehran a historic treasure, a silver griffin rhyton, which had been seized by customs a decade ago. And after a lot of discussions in Tehran it is very likely that Ayatollah Khamenei’s website will be toned down. Any easing of sanctions will certainly reduce the power of rightwing Mafia-type groups associated with the Revolutionary Guards, who profit enormously from the black market.

None of this is likely to change the daily lives of ordinary Iranians in the near future, however. Manufacturing will take years just to reach pre-sanctions levels – Iran’s car and petrochemical industries have now lost most of their outlets and it will be very difficult to find replacements in the current economic climate.

Having said that, the alternative – continued sanctions and the threat of a military attack – is even worse. Contrary to what ‘left’ supporters of regime change from above keep saying, this level of hardship does not lead to revolutionary opposition. Far from it: poverty saps the energy of workers and deprives them of the ability to engage in class struggles.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2f2cffb6-28e5-11e3-ab62-00144feab7de.html#axzz2gY9lV4RZ.

2. www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/10/01/327020/obama-flipflop-destroys-trust-zarif.

3. www.labournet.net/world/0101/iran01.html.

4. http://dissidentvoice.org/2007/10/an-anti-imperialist-case-against-iran%E2%80%99s-nuclear-program.Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran