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’.
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.
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.
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.