Around 40 people attended the school organised by Hands Off the People of Iran on January 25. As Hopi secretary Mark Fischer explained in introducing the day, the election of a new Iranian president and the subsequent negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear capability had “changed the context of our work”.
But it had not changed the underlying principles. Hopi, he said, has “laid down a marker” for anti-imperialist, anti-war work, in that it makes clear that the allies of the solidarity movement must be the Iranian working class and democratic movement, not the oppressive regime. We must now “take stock” of the new situation after the election of Hassan Rowhani.
The day featured sessions on an overview of the Middle East, looking at the role of imperialism and Israel; on the position of Iran’s working class; and on the country’s national minorities. The school ended with a brief discussion of Hopi’s priorities on how to build solidarity. In every session there was plenty of time for debate and engagement with the platform speakers.
Starting the ball rolling was Mike Macnair of the CPGB, who opened the session on the Middle East. He was sharing a platform with Israeli communist Moshé Machover, who dealt with Zionism’s particular interest in provoking conflict with Iran. I will not report in detail on what comrade Macnair said, since his whole contribution can be read elsewhere in this issue,1 but his wide-ranging speech dealt not only with Iran, but Syria and Egypt too. He warned that sections of the US establishment see the current negotiations with Iran as part of a strategy to launch a full-scale attack – although he stressed that an invasion was ruled out. Comrade Macnair also commented briefly on the political-economic background – the decline of capitalism and in particular of the US hegemon.
Israel and Iran
Comrade Machover began his contribution by saying that it followed on from what Mike Macnair had just said about the unlikelihood of an invasion. Invasions, he said, “no longer work”. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – all had gone very badly. Which is why he agreed with comrade Macnair that there would be no imperialist troops sent into Iran.
Comrade Machover made the point that it is a truism to say the ruling class pursues its own interests. But it is also an oversimplification: it pursues what it thinks are its interests. And imperialism is not monolithic, containing within it sharply conflicting interests. For example, war in the Middle East might be good for the oil companies and arms suppliers, but it would be very bad for other sections. Having mentioned oil, he agreed with comrade Macnair that any war would not be about access to oil, although it would partly be about control of it.
Comrade Machover reminded the school that, while Tehran has agreed to roll back its nuclear programme, that does not mean that Iran was now reduced to being a client state – far from it. Which is why Israel still has an interest in provoking a conflict. Iran’s influence in the Middle East diminishes Israel’s hegemony in the region.
However, there is a second reason why a war with Iran would be useful from Israel’s point of view. As comrade Machover has explained on several occasions, including in the Weekly Worker,2 it would provide it with an opportunity to “ethnically cleanse” the West Bank under cover of the crisis and chaos produced by war, as outlined in the ‘Sharon plan’ of 2002. In that sense the US war on Iraq was “finished too soon” for Israel. From the US point of view, an attack on Iran would not only “deal with” that country: it would “take the lid off” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Comrade Machover noted that in Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not just demanding recognition of Israel: he is demanding recognition of its status as the “nation-state of the entire Jewish people”. In other words, endorsement of Israel’s’ racist immigration policy. However, as with Iran, we are very far from “complete capitulation”. So the situation could end in a new conflagration, involving Israel and both Iran and Palestine.
During the debate, one comrade disagreed with the platform speakers on Iraq: the invasion had accomplished what the US wanted to achieve, she said. To which comrade Macnair replied that, yes, Saddam had been overthrown, but that had been followed by utter devastation; comrade Machover added that as a result the US had “lost control”.
There was also discussion about US motives for a possible attack. One comrade from the Iranian left group, Rahe Kargar, commented that it would be the “last mistake of a declining hegemon”. John Bridge from the CPGB pointed out that the US no longer has a “grand strategy”. For example, having sought a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood following the ‘Arab spring’, the US now seems to be operating in a strategic void.
Charlie Pottins from the Jewish Socialists Group believed that Netanyahu’s “state of all the Jews” would require the help of anti-Semitic elements in the west – comrade Machover pointed out that Israel’s immigration policy was actually a “limiting factor”, meaning that the Zionist state could never pull in the necessary numbers: in fact the sources of potential immigration were “now exhausted” – one reason why Zionism can never achieve complete victory.
Opening the session on the struggles of workers in Iran, Hopi chair Yassamine Mather first of all looked at the effect of sanctions on the working class. They had adversely affected the everyday life of the mass of the people, producing mass unemployment and dire poverty. Recent figures show that Iran is registering -8% growth, combined with 40%-plus inflation.
Of course, it is untrue to say, as regime propagandists claim, that all Iran’s ills result from sanctions. The economic hardship and the repressive apparatus can hardly be laid in their entirety at the door of the imperialists. Few buy into those claims and comrade Mather was sure that “people will rebel”. Nevertheless, it is clear that sanctions were aimed at the mass of ordinary people and it is they who have indeed suffered as a result.
Comrade Mather pointed out that seven out of the eight candidates standing in last year’s presidential elections favoured making a deal with the US. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had effectively accepted it as a necessary evil. So there can be no doubt that sanctions in the end forced change – not regime change, but a government ready to concede on nuclear development. So now Iran has agreed to limit its uranium enrichment programme and destroy certain stockpiles – otherwise it will face the reimposition of the small proportion of sanctions that have been relaxed.
However, in parallel with the softening in relation to nuclear capability there has been a toughening of the regime’s economic policy and its attitude to the working class. While previous president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was hardly the workers’ friend, Rowhani had stepped up the regime’s neoliberal policies: the aim is to eliminate “residual socialist practices”. There is a drive to attract foreign investment on the basis of Iran’s cheap labour. Repression in some ways is being stepped up too.
Comrade Mather concluded her speech on an optimistic note: the regime “still fears the working class” and she was sure those fears were justified.
Next to speak was Torab Saleth, who was a socialist activist during the Iranian revolution of 1979. At that time there were limited numbers of workers, although the working class population was constantly being expanded, thanks to migration from rural areas – there were half a million people living in shanty towns in Tehran alone, he said. But by the late 70s working class confidence was rising, as was the number of strikes – the general strike at the end of 1978 was a key factor in the crumbling of the shah’s regime, which finally fell in January 1979.
Comrade Saleh talked about the creation of neighbourhood committees, which linked up with the strike committees to form a formidable component of the revolution. But, despite this, the working class suffered from a “lack of leadership” resulting from the weakness of the organised left. It was little wonder that the committees often used mosques as their local bases from which to organise. However, at this time, he emphasised, the working class was “not dominated by Islamic ideology”.
During the course of the insurrection the strike committees, or shora, took up arms. The workers took over the factories, as the owners fled. They began to take over the distribution of essential supplies – much to the consternation of the bazaaris. However, noted comrade Saleth, these shora did not really link up beyond the individual workplace or district, which led him to conclude that the situation was “nowhere near dual power”.
It was the Islamists who realised the potential – students “following the imam’s line” took up the idea of uniting the shora, and the working class did not challenge the new regime. Islamic “storm troops” were recruited from among the urban poor and within a year all the councils were in Islamic hands. The working class was facing not just defeat, but a long period of retreat.
Comrade Saleth went on to talk about the debate on the left on the way forward. Should we attempt to reignite the factory committees? Should we just become trade union activists? His view had been that clandestine workers’ committees and a clandestine national union should be set up, “along the lines of the Polish Solidarity”.
Turning to the current period, he said that lately there has been a “huge upsurge” in working class struggles, but there is little to show from them organisationally, either in the shape of mass unions or a workers’ party. Nevertheless, in the new period following the easing of relations with the west, there were possibilities for the workers’ movement. Like comrade Mather he was “optimistic” – he was enthusiastic about “new elements” in the class, and about the state “being less able to repress”.
There were questions from the floor about old and new forms of oppression, about the role of the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party and about the influence of US-backed international union federations. On repression, comrade Saleth warned that we should not expect any weakening of the regime’s apparatus – the ‘legitimacy’ endowed by imperialist recognition might actually strengthen it.
On the Tudeh party, he said that fortunately it had lost almost all influence – but that did not mean other left organisations were making any kind of progress. Comrade Mather concurred: Tudeh had “called Torab and me imperialist agents”, but it had “lost all credibility” in the eyes of a whole generation. You could be generous and say it had been “a mistake” to support the regime, as Tudeh did. But it had been quite another thing to actually collaborate with it in fingering left activists, many of whom were subsequently killed by the regime.
On the question of the influence of pro-imperialist organisations such as the American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations, comrade Mather explained that some workers’ leaders in Iran take the view that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend. They have been prepared to collaborate with regime change projects. Fortunately most such ‘leaders’ quickly lose their rank and file base and become seen as mere imperialist stooges.
Nevertheless, both comrades were confident that it was only a matter of time before we would see real working class organisations getting off the ground.
The final session in the school proper was opened by Nasrollah Ghazi of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar), who discussed the question of Iran’s national minorities. He pointed out that only 67% of the Iranian population have Farsi as their first language and there are many thousands of Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis. They suffer official discrimination, when it comes to language, traditional and religious rights, and, of course, they are denied any form of national representation.
However, it is clear that the struggles of these minorities are entirely led by the various nationalists, who are not interested in linking up with each other, let alone in promoting an all-Iran struggle. As a result, many are easily courted by the imperialists, who have an interest in the breaking up of Iran. For comrade Ghazi the solution is not separation, but centralism. Yes, there must be the right to self-determination, but the influence of imperialism must be strongly resisted. He finished his contribution with the call to “End the Islamic regime” and “For a democratic republic”.
There were some useful points added from the floor. For example, comrade Mather pointed to the weaknesses of the national struggles: the Kurds in Iran, for instance, were ‘served’ by four main nationalist organisations – two close to the US, and one linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Comrade Bridge thought we ought to say more than just “self-determination”. With the imperialists attempting to redraw the map of the Middle East, we should emphasise the necessity of working class leadership and the struggle for socialism.
In summing up, comrade Ghazi said he was not for a federation. There was “no solution without socialism after the demise of the Islamic republic”.
The day ended with a brief discussion on ‘Building solidarity’, introduced by comrade Mather. She reminded comrades that Hopi organised in Sweden and Germany as well as Britain, along with the charity set up by Hopi, Workers Fund Iran, which raised funds for those in struggle. She recommended that Hopi organise a campaign around political prisoners in particular. To this end Hopi would give greater priority to its website and Facebook page.