On July 13 the Persian-speaking spokesperson of the US state department was asked by the BBC if in the absence of any progress in negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran before July 20 there would be an extension to the deadline for the final phase of nuclear discussions. His reply was clear: John Kerry is in Vienna to resolve the differences and we want to sign the final deal. So don’t let’s talk of extensions.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was in Vienna for those talks in an attempt to resolve what William Hague has called “a huge gap” – in particular between Iran’s demand for a future nuclear enrichment programme in spite of the west’s strong opposition.
By July 15, after three meetings with Iranian officials, Kerry seemed positive, although both he and Zarif were already hinting at an extension of the July 20 deadline. Further concessions by Iran are likely to include a possible delay of three to seven years in pursuing aspects of the country’s nuclear programme. Irrespective of the final outcome, it is clear that Iran is under considerable pressure to sign the final agreement. A return to sanctions worse than in the 2010-13 period is unthinkable. However, the Iranian negotiating team is aware that the “full support” of supreme leader Ali Khamenei will only last as long as they can come up with a face-saving compromise.
In theory the general outlines of the proposed final deal between the P5+1 and Iran is very clear: western powers will recognise Iran’s rights to have a nuclear industry, as long as the country accepts inspections and verification of all its nuclear facilities. On the face of it, both sides agree with this proposal and, given the current US predicament over Iraq (not to mention Syria and Afghanistan), one might have thought there would be fresh momentum to resolve things. However, US-Iranian relations are not that simple and the west’s insistence on restrictions on nuclear enrichment, the closure of the Arak heavy water plant and an end to plutonium production go far beyond nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conditions (they are, according to the Iranian team, “NPT-plus”).
Iranian president Hassan Rowhani sent his brother to Vienna, apparently as an advisor to the foreign secretary, but sections of the Iranian press claim he came with new proposals that should narrow the gap between the two sides – better monitoring facilities, and a delay in pursuing certain aspects of the nuclear programme in return for Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
However, none of this is sufficient for the US. The reality is, the US wants to punish Iran and make sure it cannot benefit from the political vacuum in the region. It wants to ensure that its own interpretation of the NPT becomes the norm, as far as the developing world is concerned. On this Khamenei is probably right when he says US concerns have little to do with nuclear proliferation.
Two interpretations of the NPT have dominated the various stages of the talks. On the one hand, there is the non-aligned countries’ literal interpretation. The ‘Brics’ states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) believe the NPT allows for the development of what is known as ‘fuel cycle capabilities’. In fact Brazil and South Africa, who have given up nuclear weapons capability themselves, are allowed to enrich nuclear material, and the Iranian president and foreign minister have based their negotiating position on this interpretation of the NPT.
On the other hand, the US and its allies clearly believe that specific rules should be imposed on certain countries. In this interpretation of the NPT, initiated in the early 2000s by George Bush, the intention is to impose an international ban on the transfer of fuel cycle technologies to countries that do not already possess them. This understanding has been followed by the Obama administration, which insisted on changes to NPT conditions to enable more intrusive and proactive inspections in specific states. Definitely the restrictions posed on Tehran are of this category: ie, they are unique to Iran.
That is why the most important obstacle to a deal over the last few months has been the controversy regarding ‘dual use’ capability and fuel cycle technology. Power stations, as well as nuclear medical research, rely on enriched uranium, and the same reactors producing civil-use uranium can provide the capability to enrich it to the higher levels of concentration necessary for making nuclear bombs.
Over the last decade the US administration has insisted the UN security council adopt resolutions aimed at ending nuclear enrichment in Iran. Tehran accepted them, together with Washington’s demand to limit nuclear enrichment to 20%. According to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, Iran has complied with all the restrictions imposed as of November 2013: all uranium enriched beyond 5% was diluted or converted to uranium oxide. The installation or preparation of new centrifuges was halted, and 50% of the centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility and 75% at the Fordow enrichment facility have been made inoperable. At the Arak nuclear power plant fuel production has stopped. The IAEA inspectors have been granted daily access to Natanz and Fordow, with some sites monitored by 24-hour cameras. They also have access to Iran’s uranium mines and centrifuge production facilities. In other words, there has been full compliance with the interim conditions.
However, it has been obvious since November 2013 that serious points of contention between Iran and P5+1, not least over interpretation of the NPT, will make the final stages of these negotiations much more difficult. Contrary to what was reported in most of the media, the issue is not over the number of centrifuges, but ‘separative work units’ (SWU), by which the power of uranium enrichment is measured in kilograms or metric tonnes. Two weeks ago Khamenei surprised many commentators by divulging the sticking point of the negotiations. According to the Iranian side, the country needs 190,000 SWU per year. But clearly this is a red line for the Obama administration.
Israel and NPT
Throughout these negotiations the elephant in the room has been Israel. Here is a country with nuclear weapons capability, yet it denies it has any nuclear plants, has not signed the NPT and therefore is exempt from any inspections or monitoring. However, the whole world knows about its heavy water plant in Dimona (listed as a textile factory), which produces at least 40kg of plutonium a year – sufficient for 10 atom bombs.
Israel began its nuclear weapons research from its inception as a state in 1948. In exchange for Israeli cooperation during the Suez crisis in 1956, France provided know-how and helped in the construction of a reactor complex at Dimona – it is capable of large-scale plutonium production and reprocessing. By 1958 the US knew about the nuclear facility and, according to White House documents released under the 50-year rule, the subject came up in a number of discussions between US presidents and Israeli prime ministers.
However, in the early 1960s French president Charles de Gaulle ordered restrictions and conditions on the supply of uranium to Israel and in 1964 it was discovered that Argentina had agreed to sell 80 tons of uranium ‘yellow cake’ to Israel, which replaced the fuel it had expected from France. The story of the Argentine yellow cake sale to Israel has remained largely untold because Israel went to great lengths to keep it a secret and because the US government and its close allies kept quiet about what they knew at the time.
After French disengagement in the early 1960s, Israel continued to progress its nuclear programme covertly. Before the 1967 Six-Day War, several nuclear devices were reportedly assembled. Israel had certainly produced its first nuclear weapon by 1967, but it was not until 1968-69 that US officials concluded that an Israeli bomb existed.
The yellow cake issue was a big Israeli secret, but bigger still was the existence of a reprocessing facility to convert reactor fuel from Dimona into weapons-grade plutonium. The Israelis had told the Canadians and the Americans in 1961 that Dimona would include a pilot plant for reprocessing, but it was assumed that it would be too small to support a weapons programme. In reality the original French design for Dimona included a large underground reprocessing facility – Israel’s most important nuclear secret, which Dimona technician Mordechai Vanunu made public in 1986. Soon after The Times published an interview with Vanunu, he was lured to Rome, where he was kidnapped by Mossad, smuggled back to Israel and jailed.
In 1969 the CIA became concerned about massive loss of material from Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation and its possible connection to Israel’s nuclear programme. We know this because the CIA wrote to the US attorney general: “It is critical for us to establish whether or not the Israelis now have the capability for fabricating nuclear weapons, which might be employed in the near east.”1
Israel was expected to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, a number of international events delayed ratification and it was during this period that Israel’s internal divisions and hesitations over the treaty became public. The Johnson administration tried to use the sale of 50 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers to pressure Israel to sign the NPT, but subsequently abandoned the idea. In April 1969 Henry Kissinger issued a national security study memorandum asking for a review of options for dealing with the Israeli nuclear programme, linking it to the pending sale of the Phantom. However, “if we explain our position publicly, we will be the ones to make Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons public, with all the international consequences this entails.”2
In September 1969, US president Richard Nixon met with Israeli premier Golda Meir and, according to Avner Cohen, the author of Israel and the bomb,3 there is sufficient historical evidence to indicate that the two “reached a secret understanding on at least one issue: Israel would keep its nuclear devices out of sight and not test them, and the United States would tolerate the situation and not press Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that has been embraced by scores of countries around the world. That understanding remains to this day.”4
There is no written record of the meeting between Nixon and Meir that took place on September 26 1969. However, it marks the beginning of the US-Israeli nuclear understanding, whereby Israel pledged to maintain “nuclear restraint” – no testing, no declaration, no visibility – while White House agreed to “stand down” its pressure on Israel. Following on from this, on February 23 1970 the Israeli ambassador to the US, Yitzhak Rabin, informed Kissinger that, in the light of Nixon’s conversation with Meir in September 1969, Israel “has no intention to sign the NPT”.
By 1975, ‘opacity’ regarding Israeli nuclear arms had become the norm and, in keeping with the US-Israel understanding, when Congress questioned the state department as to whether Israel had nuclear weapons, the response was predictable. The state department refused to deny or confirm the existence of an Israeli bomb.
There are many unknowns about Israel’s nuclear capability. However, according to a study published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute entitled Plutonium and highly enriched uranium, 1996: world inventories, capabilities and policies, Israel had “a complete repertoire” of nuclear weaponry (neutron bombs, nuclear mines, suitcase bombs, submarine-based missiles …). This was the year that the UN general assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. By 2006 the Federation of American Scientists believed that Israel “could have produced enough plutonium for at least 100 nuclear weapons, but probably not significantly more than 200 weapons.”5
In 2009, during a press conference in the White House, Washington reporter Helen Thomas asked the US president if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. Predictably Obama avoided a reply, saying only that he did not want to “speculate”. UK spokespersons have followed the US lead on this. When asked about the Israeli bomb, Conservative peer and foreign affairs minister Baroness Warsi would only say: “Israel has not declared a nuclear weapons programme. We have regular discussions with the government of Israel on a range of nuclear-related issues.”
In parallel with such obfuscation, whenever the issue of an Israeli nuclear bomb is raised, there is always the implication that this is not a central question in any case. After all, Israel is a ‘democracy’ – unlike Iran, a religious autocracy.
Of course, it is true that nuclear weaponry in the hands of a religious dictatorship is hardly an inspiring prospect, especially when sections of the Shia theocracy talk about an Armageddon to precipitate the return of the 12th Shia imam. It is also true that protection against accidents for staff working in the nuclear industry and requirements regarding nuclear plants in an earthquake zone are matters of great importance – despite IAEA monitoring, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme is, above all else, a danger to its own population.
Having said that, Zionist Israel is unencumbered by external monitoring and can hardly be considered trustworthy. The fact that Israel arranged the kidnapping of the only technician who has dared to speak out about the country’s undeclared nuclear facilities, in order to make sure he could reveal no more from his prison cell, tells us a lot.
Are Israel’s nuclear facilities ‘safe’ as far as Israelis and others in the neighbouring countries, or indeed worldwide, are concerned? The answer is definitely no. The nuclear industry is inherently unsafe and obviously secret ‘nuclear’ plants, which by definition are beyond public scrutiny, are even more dangerous. Nuclear industry specialists consider 40-year-old facilities such as Israel’s ‘textile factory’ nuclear plant to be in desperate need of replacement.
Several accidents have occurred in Dimona. The first we know of took place in 1956 or 1957, before the construction of the nuclear plant itself. Scientists in the Weizmann Institute working on the construction of the reactor revealed: “Material which was supposed to seal the nuclear substance and protect it from leaking cracked and radioactive materials leaked. This was discovered late, and high reading of nuclear material was found in the laboratory and in the bodies of some of the workers. High radiation was also found in the homes of the young scientists, articles they touched and even their children’s beds.”6
This was all reported by the Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv in 2006 following 50 years of censorship on this question.
Haya Sadeh, widow of Dror Sadeh, one of the scientists employed at the lab, explains the situation as follows: “Dror arrived from the Weizmann Institute with two other persons and a Geiger counter in order to measure the radiation levels. They said there had been an ‘accident’. They went to the hut where we lived and then to the children’s dormitory where our son was staying. They found contamination on everything that Dror touched, even on Shmuel’s baby crib and his sheets. Dror would come every time from the lab and directly go over to the children’s dorm. They saw that everything was contaminated. We had a sink where we would make coffee. The sink and utensils were all contaminated. We got rid of the utensils and Dror’s clothes. None of us knew about the dangers of nuclear materials.”7
This incident forced Israeli authorities to close down the Weizmann Institute while all those working there were asked to undergo tests. We know of at least two scientists, including Dror Sadeh, who died of cancer as a result of the incident.
Haya Sadeh explains the ‘democratic’ Israeli state’s approach: “They were all interested in keeping the incident quiet. Nobody knew that the Weizmann Institute was doing things like that. I too talked to no-one regarding these issues. I thought, ‘Why ruin things?’ It would have closed down the institute. However, it was always at the back of my mind, but Dror did not want to think about it, not even after the first scientist died.”
On December 14 1966 another major accident occurred in the Dimona reactor. One employee was killed and an entire section was contaminated. At the time it was thought that the improper use of alcohol for cleaning purposes was the main cause of the accident. The clean-up took weeks and throughout this period the reactor was shut down.
Then in 1982 a hydrogen leak produced a small explosion and in the early 1990s a large fire broke out in the reactor’s grounds, causing another shutdown, this time for a longer period. Again, there was a news blackout – you can hardly admit to nuclear accident if you deny having a nuclear programme.
In 1994, following heavy rains in the Dimona area, water leaked from the reactor’s drainage pools. Clearly this water was contaminated. Yossi Sarid, minister of environmental affairs, told reporters they could not bring their own Geiger counters to the scene and instead produced a reading from a ministerial counter, which gave a zero result. Clearly a stage-managed pretence at an investigation. However, Sarid admitted in front of the TV cameras that Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister, had forbidden the publication of the official findings. And, of course, no-one was allowed to ask about the nuclear waste from a plant that does not exist.
In October 1997, a Tel Aviv district court judge ordered £427,000 be paid to the family of an employee at the Negev Nuclear Research Centre in Dimona, who died of cancer in 1989, aged 43. The judge ruled there was a link between his death and his work, as he could have been exposed to radiation.
None of this means we should ignore accidents that have taken place at Iranian plants, such as the blast at Isfahan in 2011, or the lax attitude to health and safety reported by staff. However, at least Iran’s nuclear plants are clearly marked on the map – they are not shown as textile plants and they are regularly monitored by IAEA inspectors. Those of us who have campaigned for a nuclear-free Middle East oppose Iran’s nuclear programme as much as that of Israel.
However, achieving such an aim requires openness about existing nuclear capability in the region and the Zionist state’s ‘secret’ nuclear programme, which is so prone to accidents and mishaps, making a mockery of western claims of adhering to non-proliferation. It is such double standards that provoke such deep resentment in the region and, in the absence of a revolutionary left, it will be the fundamentalists and jihadists who continue benefit from such obvious imperialist arrogance.
3. A Cohen Israel and the bomb Columbia 1998.
Last week, the leader of the Islamic state (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis) appeared in Friday prayers in Mosul addressing Muslims worldwide. At least this is what his supporters claimed after a week when the organisation had declared the territory under their control a “caliphate”.
On July 3 the Iraqi ministry of interior (not the most reliable source of information) put out a statement maintaining that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (otherwise known as Ibrahim al-Samarrai), the Islamic world’s new caliph, or Amir Almuminin (‘commander of the believers’), successor to prophet Muhammad, had been wounded in an air strike and had been transferred to Syria for medical treatment. Irrespective of whether this was the real Baghdadi or a double (as claimed by Iraqi government forces and the United States), Isis took no chances. According to Mosul residents, the city’s mobile network was closed down, presumably to stop any tracing of the movement of the Isis leader.
The same day the militant Sunni group also issued video footage showing the destruction of dozens of places of worship in Nineveh province in northern Iraq. Shia, Sunni and Christian sites were destroyed, with images placed on social media. In line with Isis’s claim that it is abolishing the arbitrary borders drawn up by Britain and France in 1916, the group symbolically blew up border posts between Syria and Iraq. On July 8 the Al Arabia news agency was reporting the circulation of a new Isis passport in the name of “the State of the Islamic Caliphate”.
The first caliphate, or succession to Islam’s prophet Muhammad, was established in the 7th century, when, according to Sunnis, Abu Bakr succeeded Muhammad as the commander of the believers. Sunni Muslims claim Abu Bakr was chosen by Muhammad in the last few days of his life – the prophet asked him to lead prayers and this indicated his choice of successor. However, according to followers of Shia Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, had been designated his successor and previous caliphs were irrelevant.
The Ottoman emperors (1451-1924) were originally secular conquerors. However, Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1481 claimed caliphal authority and his grandson, Selim I, who conquered and unified more Islamic territories, continued the title as the defender of Islam’s holiest shrines. The collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923 marked the end of the caliphate.
Over the last few centuries small fringe groups have, like Isis, declared their territory to be a caliphate and, of course, Iran’s Islamic Republic portrays itself as the true Islamic state for both Sunnis and Shias, while the Moroccan king calls himself “commander of the faithful”. The specific problem with Isis’s declaration is not just that it has left itself open to accusations of overreaching itself, but that it has put it on a collision course with al Qa’eda. The conflict between the two groups has been in the open for months and in Syria they have taken up arms against each other.
The government of Nouri al-Maleki has rightly been blamed for sectarianism and incompetence and it is certainly largely responsible for creating the political stalemate that paved the way for the current crisis in Iraq. Throughout his two spells as prime minister, the Iraqi leader made no serious effort to reach out to either the Sunnis or the Kurds. On the contrary, Maleki’s ‘counterinsurgency’ policies were aimed at reducing the influence of Sunnis in the state and the military – a policy that created dissatisfaction amongst the Sunni population of the northern provinces. The Iraqi army became dominated by incompetent, unpopular officers whose only quality was loyalty to the Shia prime minister.
Maleki ignored reports of corruption and torture made against his allies in the upper ranks of the military. One general close to the Iraqi premier was implicated in torture; another, already sacked in 2009 for failing to protect Baghdad from terror attacks, was put in charge of defending part of the northern territories and is believed to have been amongst the first deserters. As a result, the military was quickly sapped of morale and cohesion, and the local population lost confidence in the central government.
In the 2010 elections, the more or less non-sectarian, mainly Sunni Iraqiya coalition gained the largest number of parliamentary seats. However, Maleki used the courts to stop it from attempting to form a government. He later used delaying tactics, bringing false accusations of corruption against Sunni rivals to outmanoeuvre opposition politicians and eventually taking power himself. And now, nearly three months after the elections held on April 30 2014, the Iraqi parliament has failed to reach an agreement over nominations for the country’s top posts: president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament.
According to the Iraqi constitution, a new president should be chosen within 30 days of the election of parliamentary speakers and their deputies. Following this process, the new head of state will have two weeks to ask the political party/alliance with the most MPs to nominate a prime minister, whose responsibility it is to form a government. Maleki, who remains the prime minister-designate until August, is responsible for carrying the process through and it is his delaying tactics that are blamed for the current political chaos in Iraq – a stalemate that has paved the way for Isis’s military advances.
The Iraqi prime minister has now acquired some powerful enemies. The United States, Britain and some factions of Iran’s Islamic Republic are looking for an alternative figure. John Kerry, Tony Blair and senator John McCain all agree that Maleki needs to stand down before a unity government can take shape in Baghdad. In late June US deputy secretary of state William Burns discussed Iraq with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in Vienna. US officials claim Iran is sending out conflicting messages over whether it is prepared to support a new Shi’ite prime minister other than Maleki. Both Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Ahmed Chalabi, mentioned as possible replacements, are acceptable to Iran’s government. However, ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has publicly declared his support for Maleki and demanded the US stop interfering in Iraq’s political deliberations.
His views are supported by some commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In fact the Revolutionary Guards are heavily involved in military operations against Isis. For all the denials by Iran’s foreign ministry officials regarding the country’s military intervention in Iraq, there are a number of reports over the last couple of weeks of funerals held for Revolutionary Guards, as well as for Iranian airforce pilots, killed in Iraq and Syria.
Tribal leaders and Sunni politicians in northern Iraq have also been blamed for the crisis. Without the active cooperation or acceptance of locals, Isis would not have been able to capture so many cities. Those Sunni leaders who think they are preparing the ground for an Islamic state have clearly not thought through the implications of being part of an Isis-led ‘rogue state’, with little or no access to oil; a state where self-appointed ‘caliphs’ will interfere forcefully in every aspect of the private and social lives of Iraqi citizens in the cities under its control, irrespective of their religious and cultural background.
In the midst of this political and military chaos, incompetent, corrupt and deluded Iraqi Kurdish leaders are also hoping to benefit from the situation, and are calling for Kurdish independence. Having secured temporary control of the Kirkuk oil refinery on July 1, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, told the BBC he intends to hold a referendum within months – Iraq was already “effectively partitioned”, he added. No sooner had Barzani spoken than the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, promised cooperation with any new state.
The news of Netanyahu’s support initiated postings on the internet and the social media of the historical background to Israeli-Kurdish relations, including photographs from the 1960s showing Massoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa, embracing the then Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan. In 2004 Israeli officials met with Kurdish political leaders when Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, publicly affirmed good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.1
Soon after the Israeli statement, social-imperialist groups, ranging from the Worker-communist Party of Iran to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Britain, echoed Israel’s position on the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.
Iran’s response followed soon after, with a warning to its former allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not to declare independence, since Israel was plotting to divide Iraq. Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted as saying: “Undoubtedly the vigilant Iraqi people will not allow the Zionist regime and enemies of a unified Iraq to carry out their plots and realise their immature fantasies in the region.” Deputy minister for Arab and African affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the US is going for a Ukraine scenario in Iraq.
However, before anyone gets too excited about an ‘independent Kurdistan’ (limited to Kurdish territory in Iraq, of course), let me remind them that the biggest obstacle to such a plan will be economic considerations. Barzani clearly hopes to benefit from oil revenues generated from areas under his control, but the Kurdish authorities are currently in dispute with the central government and Baghdad is withholding payment of the share of the national budget allocated to the Kurdish regional government. Any serious attempts at separation will reduce the chances of the Kurdish authorities obtaining sufficient funds for economic survival. Moreover, the territory is landlocked, and the ‘independence’ plan is based on the income gained from the export of oil resources through Turkey. This will depend on the outcome of lengthy negotiations with Ankara. In other words, the new Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic survival will be in the hands of Ankara (not exactly the Kurds’ best friend) instead of Baghdad. Turkey’s support for such a state will no doubt include plans to control and silence aspirations for independence in Turkish Kurdistan.
Meanwhile, exaggerated stories about the role of KDP pishmargehs in fighting Isis in northern Iraq do not match reports from the region. Barzani’s initial order to his pishmargehs was to avoid conflict with Isis. It is the PKK and Pejhak guerrillas who have been taking the lead against Isis advances in Kurdish territory in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Barzani and his supporters should be well aware that Isis’s ambitions go far beyond defeating the Shia government in Baghdad. It is violently opposed to semi-secular Iraqi Kurdistan, where there is no state-imposed sexual segregation, where some women dare go out without a headscarf, where alcohol is openly sold and consumed …
There is also the question of Sunni Arabs living in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are fiercely nationalistic and will oppose any talk of independence. Iraqi Turkmen in and around Kirkuk are also unhappy about Barzani’s proposal and are threatening to unite against the Kurdish regional government’s attempts to fully integrate Kirkuk into the region.
No-one should take Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in the Iranian and the British left seriously when they talk of the “birth of a new Kurdish nation” in Iraq. Any unilateral attempt at declaring the current Kurdish region independent would unleash civil war.
For all the hype about Isis’s military gains in the last few weeks, we should remember that last time jihadists, in the shape of al Qa’eda forces led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, controlled a large chunk of northern Iraq, they did not keep hold of it for long, because their brutality alienated the majority of the local population and they also managed to alienate the Sunni tribes who had backed them. Reports from Iraq imply the new ‘caliph’ has not learned any lessons from the previous occasion. No wonder al Qa’eda has distanced itself from its former ally.
Having said that, clearly the unpopular Maleki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, does not believe he can stop Isis without huge support – and in the case of Iraq almost everyone is now involved: Russian jets, Iranian planes and ground forces, as well as US drones.
Although the governments in Iran and Iraq have publicly accused Saudi Arabia of funding the jihadi movement, the Saudis, together with Jordan and Morocco, are now concerned that it could endanger their own rule. In the case of Saudi Arabia there is clearly a feeling that the monster it has created is out of control. Nothing else would explain the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with talk of a possible visit by the chairman of Iran’s expediency council, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, to Riyadh.
On July 5 Rafsanjani proposed the following: “To fight extremism … a collective effort should be made by all Muslim countries, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, in order to prevent a perception that Islamic nations and governments depend on foreign powers to maintain their stability and security.”2
Once again it is clear that, far from securing ‘democracy and prosperity’, the ‘war on terror’ unleashed by Bush and Blair has created such chaos that the two most reactionary countries in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – could soon be widely seen as forces of moderation and “stability”.
The sharp improvement in the relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic (and subsequently between the United Kingdom and Iran) has been remarkable – Washington is seriously considering military cooperation with Iran over the civil war in Iraq.
Above all else, this is a reflection of the absence of any strategy by the western powers. All they are pursuing in the Middle East is short-term aims – a situation that goes beyond the politics of the current holders of power in Washington and London. Indeed there is unanimity regarding current tactics between Democrats and Republicans, as well as between Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats.
In 2003, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, the US claimed it would build democracy on the ruins of the Ba’athist regime – we were told that market forces would create the conditions for democracy. No other solution could be contemplated: the entire infrastructure, economic and political, together with the social fabric of the Ba’athist state, had to be destroyed to allow this new system to flourish. During subsequent years both Republican and Democrat politicians have proposed similar solutions for Syria and Iran.
Yet, more than a decade after the invasion of Iraq, we are witnessing a complete U-turn: a softening of attitudes towards Iran, an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria. Has anything changed in Iran or indeed in Syria to warrant this change of heart? The answer is clearly no. What has changed are immediate geopolitical priorities – the elevation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) to the position of the main enemy and the US need to ally with anyone as long as they oppose this group of jihadists.
Political commentators used to mock Kurdish organisations in Iranand Iraq for their shallow politics, for aligning themselves with the enemy of their enemy, irrespective of the consequence of such politics. Throughout the last five decades Iraqi Kurds have relied on Iranian support for fighting successive Iraqi governments and Iranian Kurds had, until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, relied on financial and logistic support from the government in Baghdad. Yet today we seem to be witnessing a superpower, the United States, following the same type of politics in the region.
A lot has been written about Isis and its religious ideas – the forced wearing of the hijab, the attacks on Christian communities in Syria, the banning of alcohol. Of course, in opposition all Islamic groups, Sunni and Shia, are puritanical, following the rules of amr bil maroof and nahi anil munkar (‘guidance for good’ and ‘forbidding evil’). It is when they come to power, as they did in Iran more than 35 years ago, that the population finds out they can be as corrupt and hypocritical as the secular states they replace. So, as Isis brands Shia Muslims ‘apostates’ who have brought Islam into disrepute, it is worth examining the position of religion in Iran – America’s best friend in the region.
Guided to heaven?
In the final stages of negotiations with the P5+1 powers over Iran’s nuclear programme, a serious row has broken out between president Hassan Rowhani and a number of conservative clerics about the role of the Islamic Republic in ‘guiding’ its citizens to heaven. The row is potentially serious, as it questions the very essence of the Shia state at a time of regional conflict and economic crises.
For more than 35 years the religious state in Iran has interfered in every aspect of the private and public life of its citizens. Iranians are regularly told what they can and cannot wear, what they can and cannot eat or drink, the kind of music that is suitable and the kind that provokes punishment. Senior clerics tell Iranians how many children they should have – a number that changes according to the state’s current needs. For example, at times of war and conflict Iranians are told they should have as many children as possible – the current desired number per family is 14, according to the supreme leader, ayatollah Ruhollah Khamenei. The clerics also tell Iranians when they must accept that the lives of their offspring must be sacrificed to ‘save Islam’. This was the message at Friday prayers during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. But in the immediate post-war period the recommendation was for only one or two children per family because of the general economic hardship. That policy dominated the post-war period – up until the recent calls by the supreme leader to increase the birth rate once again.
However, despite all the efforts of the religious state, the regime’s supporters and its opponents are united in their assessment of these policies: they have not worked. Iranian women, especially the young, do not like wearing the hijab. Every time the regime tries to impose harsher regulations, women of all ages, but once again especially the young, rebel by lifting their headscarves a few centimetres above their fringe.
The country has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world. According to a report in the conservative Etemaad newspaper, as many as 200,000 Iranians, mostly women, go to cosmetic surgeons each year.1 Both the clerical hierarchy and the state are well aware that sharia laws on the hijab, the ban on mixed gatherings, drinking alcohol, homosexuality, playing pop music … are broken every second of every day. Hence the dual lives of most Iranians – apparently observant of Islamic rules in public, but in reality ‘decadent’ (according to Shia clerics) in private. This has resulted in a situation where three decades after the coming to power of the first Shia Islamic state, lying is the norm for most Iranians.
As part of maintaining this facade of religious observance, conservative clerics in the judiciary constantly try to restrict the use of the internet. On the other hand, Rowhani and his foreign ministers use social media pages and appear on Facebook and Twitter. The use of social media has become a serious matter in recent weeks – a Facebook page with pictures of Iranian women wearing no headscarf in public places inside Iran went viral. The page, entitled Stealthy freedom, was started by an exiled journalist to support the right for individual women to choose or reject the hijab. It got half a million ‘likes’ in less than three weeks. Women in Iran have used it to post photos of themselves or friends after ‘stealthily’ taking their hijabs off in public. They have even dared remove headscarves in places of historic and religious significance. It is illegal for any woman to leave the house without wearing a headscarf and the current activities on social media are considered part of a civil disobedience campaign. As the campaign gained momentum, both opponents and supporters of the forced hijab have entered the debate.
On May 24 Rowhani used a speech to call for less intervention in people’s private lives, as well as more respect for the rights of individual Iranian citizens. “Let people live their lives in peace. Do not interfere so much in people’s lives even if you think you are being sympathetic … Let people choose their own path to heaven. We cannot send people to heaven by force or by using the lash.”2
Most Iranians know that the punishment commonly carried out by Revolutionary Guards for citizens caught drinking, partying, wearing a ‘bad hijab’ or for attending mixed-sex gatherings is flogging. However, if you are rich you can pay for someone else to take the punishment or bribe officials to avoid the lash. All this making a mockery of sharia rules. Rowhani’s comments therefore represented both an admission of the reality of life in Shia Iran and a questioning of the role of the state in leading “people to heaven”.
The ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan called the president’s comments “questionable”. But by the end of the month senior clerics were more open in their criticism. On May 20, ayatollah Ahmad Khatami used a sermon to reaffirm the state’s duty: “The mission is to smooth the path to heaven; therefore the government is duty-bound to pave the way … We have to protect our Islamic system; we do not want to send anyone to heaven by force, but, with your statements, do not straighten the path to hell for anyone.” In Mashhad, ayatollah Sadegh Alamolhoda also spoke against Rowhani: “We will stand against all those preventing people from reaching heaven with all our force, not only with a whip.”3
On May 31 the Iranian president hit back. In a speech full of sarcasm he said: “Some people have nothing better to do. They have no work, no profession. They are delusional, incessantly worried about people’s religion and the afterlife. They know neither what religion is nor the afterlife, but they’re always worried.”4 Continuing his comments on this subject, Rowhani referred to a story of his time as a seminary student in Qom: “There were two great events in Qom during those years. One was the bath becoming a shower – a tragic event in the minds of some – and the other was when they wanted to change the time, winter and summer hours. They said that this was to ‘eliminate religion’. They said, ‘How will we know noon prayers?’ Well, how did we know until then? We used to pray at 12.15, now we pray at 1.15.”
Rowhani went on: “A religious government is a very good thing, but a governmental religion? I don’t know: we need to discuss that. We must not give religion to the administration. Religion should be in the hands of the experts themselves: the clerics, the seminaries, the specialists. It is they who have to propagate religion, while the administration must support them, help them – all of this is right.”
While this is still a long way from the call for the separation of state and religion, it is an historic comment in the context of a cleric who holds the second highest position in the country.
So how can we explain these dramatic statements at a time when the Iranian government’s attention should be focused on the nuclear negotiations?
In some ways the two issues are related. The president is well aware that the current round of negotiations is not going as smoothly as expected. Despite Iran’s concessions, it is still not clear if the nuclear deal with the 5+1 powers will be signed before the deadline of July 20. Ayatollah Khamenei gave him six months to complete the nuclear negotiations. That time period is about to come to an end. Rowhani is already facing a rebellion by conservative elements amongst the security forces and the basij (Islamic militia), so he is trying to build support amongst the overwhelming majority of the population who do want more personal freedom, less intervention in their private lives and who hate the forces of amr bil maroof and nahi anil munkar, Hezbollah and the rest of the god squad. Rowhani has nothing to lose. If the nuclear negotiations fail he will risk losing power and under those circumstances he could at least rely on the support of sections of the population. On the other hand, if he actually managed to strike a deal, however disadvantageous for Iran, he would win wide support amongst women and the youth – support he would need to confront the conservative and pro-nuclear lobby.
The Iranian president is not the only one facing problems. Iran’s supreme leader is trying to explain the contradiction between current economic pressures on the country caused by sanctions and his delusions about ‘national sovereignty and political independence’ in the era of global capital.
Two weeks ago Khamenei talked once more of “arrogant powers” when referring to the US and its allies. Of course, the supreme leader is right when he says western powers are not against Iran’s nuclear programme, but against the Islamic Republic in principle. However, he shows a level of self-deception when he says, “They were ruling the region without any worries. They had full control over a country like Iran, with its rich resources and numerous facilities … But now they have been deprived of all these things.”5
Well, not quite. Even if the US and its allies have lost friends in the region, as they did when the shah of Iran fell in 1979, they are not too concerned, because they exercise control over the financial and banking institutions. They also managed to bring oil-producing Iran to its knees. For all the talk of standing up to “arrogant powers”, Iran’s economy remains very much dependent. It is fully integrated into the system of international capital and can never gain full economic independence.
However, Khamenei’s recent utterances against the US, at a time when he might be considering an historic alliance over Iraq, show a different side of a ruler whose political history is unfamiliar to many outside Iran. For those of us who know of his close association with secular and leftwing forces in the 1960s and early 70s, his references to “justice, independence and self-sufficiency” sound like the delusions of an old third worldist.
Ali Khamenei was born in Mashhad in north-east Iran in 1939 to a religious family. His father, of Turkish Azeri origin, was an Islamic scholar and Khamenei followed in his footsteps and became a seminary student in Qom. He attended religious school between 1958 and 1964. Both during this period and later, when he joined the opposition to the shah, the young cleric was associated with not only religious, but also secular and even leftwing, intellectuals. The foundations of his politics go back to that era – opposition to the regime in Iran and indeed opposition to the US from a third-worldist position.Both in Mashhad and later in Tehran, Khamenei attended underground circles that included some of Iran’s best known leftwing writers and intellectuals. The pioneer free-verse poet, Mehdi Akhavan Sales, was a close friend.
His political views were in particular influenced by the coup d’etat against the regime of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. He recollected those times in an address to university students in Tehran:
It is interesting to realise that America overthrew his government even though Mossadegh had shown no animosity toward them. He had stood up to the British and trusted the Americans. He had hoped that the Americans would help him; he had friendly relations with them, he expressed an interest in them, perhaps he expressed humility toward them. And still the Americans overthrew such a government. It was not as if the government in power in Tehran had been anti-American. No, it had been friendly towards them. But the interests of Arrogance [Khamenei’s term for the US] required that the Americans ally with the British. They gathered money and brought it here and did their job. Then, when they brought their coup into fruition and had returned the shah, who had fled, they had the run of the country.6
At the time Khamenei agreed with writers such as Dariush Ashuri, who famously said, “The third world is composed of the poor and colonised nations, which are at the same time revolutionary.”7 His criticisms of western liberal democracy derive more from third-worldism than his religious studies in Qom. While many of his ideas have changed, he remains of the opinion that the primary concern for the US is to bring about regime change either through ensuring the ascendancy of ‘reformists’ or via total destruction.
This is what he said in 1987, speaking to UN general assembly when he was Iran’s president:
The history of our nation is in a black, bitter and bloody chapter, mixed with varieties of hostility and spite from the American regime, culpable in 25 years of support for the Pahlavi dictatorship, with all the crimes it committed against our people. The looting of this nation’s wealth with the shah’s help; the intense confrontation with the revolution during the last months of the shah’s regime; its encouragement in crushing the demonstrations of millions of people; its sabotage of the revolution through various means in the first years of its victory; the American embassy in Tehran’s provocative contacts with counterrevolutionary elements; the aid to coup plotters and terrorist and counterrevolutionary elements outside the country; the blockading of Iranian cash and property and refusal to transfer goods whose payment had long been received or assets that the shah had taken from the national wealth and deposited in his own name in American banks; the striving to enforce an economic embargo and the creation of a united western front against our nation; the open and effective support of Iraq in its war against us; and, finally, an irrational, thuggish invasion of the Persian Gulf that seriously threatened the region’s security and tranquillity – all this is only part of our nation’s indictment against the regime in the United States of America.8
So Khamenei’s sermons about the evils of the west might be full of religious phrases, but they have roots that go back to the 1950s. That is why it would be a mistake to think that he is simply anti-Christian or anti-western. He has often praised aspects of western culture, literature, science and music. He rejects the idea that the Quran has answers to all the world’s problems. He certainly has a more sophisticated view of western culture than many of his followers, describing it as “a combination of beautiful and ugly things”.
An avid reader, he has been known to discuss classical literature with visitors. Apparently in 1996 he told an audience of Iranian writers to “read the famous book The grapes of wrath, written by John Steinbeck … and see what it says about the situation of the left and how the capitalists of the so-called centre of democracy treated them.” His favourite book is said to be Victor Hugo’s Les misérables. In 2004 he praised it is as a “miracle in the world of novel writing.” It is “a book of history, a book of criticism, a divine book, a book of love and feeling.”9
However, for all this western cultural influence, at the end of the day his politics are very much nationalist and Islamic. Khamenei’s opposition to ‘Arrogance’ was influenced by nationalist writers such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad and liberal religious intellectuals like Ali Shariati. He is known to have studied the writings of the Sunni scholar and theorist of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Jamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.
As the debate in Iran between Islamists and Marxists raged in the 1970s, Khamenei was closer to the opinions of Qutb, who wrote of the western powers:
They need Islam to fight against communism in the Middle East and the Islamic countries of Asia and Africa … Of course, the Islam that America and the western imperialists and their allies in the Middle East want is not the same Islam that fights imperialism and struggles against absolutism; rather, it is that Islam that struggles against the communists. Thus, they do not want the Islam that rules and definitely do not want an Islamic government, since when Islam rules it sets up another ummah [Islamic community] and teaches the nations that it is obligatory to become strong, and that rejecting imperialism is a necessity, and that the communists, too, are like the imperialist pests, and that both are enemies …10
Indeed it is the anti-communist aspect of the Qutb doctrine that has dominated Khamenei’s politics since his rise to power. A trend that intensified after he became supreme leader.
In his youth Khamenei moved in the same opposition circles as founding members of the Fedayeen Khalq, as well as leftwing poets such as Shafiee Kadkani. There are reliable reports of Khamenei’s time as a political prisoner under the shah when he was being interrogated about, amongst others, Marxists activists. By all account he refused to cooperate with the authorities. Others have recalled Khamenei’s admiration for the young guerrilla leader, Massoud Ahmadzadeh.11
Recently a journalist asked me what I thought Ahmadzadeh would say about Iran’s supreme leader. I have no crystal ball, but after the execution of thousands of communists in the hands of the Islamic regime the answer is not difficult: Ahmadzadeh would be as committed to the overthrow of this dictator as he was committed to the overthrow of the shah’s regime. The reality is that the world will not remember the Ali Khamenei who as a young seminary student wrote a book entitled For a classless tohidi [single god] society. The lasting image of him will be that of a theocratic ruler who presides over a neoliberal capitalist economy, where the gap between rich and poor is wider than in most countries, where corruption is institutionalised, where the overwhelming majority of the population dare not express a political point of view, and constantly lie to conceal their unIslamic behaviour from the religious police.
Reza Shahabi – an Iranian labour activist member of the executive committee of the VAHED Bus Union – has been on hunger strike for almost 40 days in prison in Iran. According to the latest reports from Tehran, his protest is now having grave physical effects on him and he has become paralysed down the left side of his body.
Shahabi has spent the last four years in prison, accused by the Islamic state in Iran of “gathering information and colluding against state security, spreading propaganda against the system and ‘Moharebeh’” (translated as “enmity against god”). Over the last few years, his state of health has deteriorated markedly. Vindictively however, the authorities have not allowed him access to appropriate medical treatment.
Shahabi is an anti-war, anti-imperialist worker activist. In his defence, Hands Off the People of Iran is joining forces with the veteran labour activist, Ali Pichgah (a former leader of Iran’s oil workers’ strike) to call for his immediate, unconditional release.
As a matter of urgency, Reza Shahabi now needs hospital treatment. His life is being endangered by the Iranian authorities’ refusal to allow him proper medical care. We hold the government of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani directly responsible for Reza Shahabi’s life. This brave working class leader has taken a stand against capitalist exploitation and oppression in Iran – as well as any attack on the country by the west or Israel – and it is incumbent on all anti-imperialist/anti-war activists to support Shahabi in these extremely difficult days, when he is putting his life on the line for his beliefs.
What you can do:
- Support the demand of Hopi and Ali Pichgah for the immediate release of Reza Shahabi! Publicise this protest widely!
- Email your name/your organisation to Hopi at email@example.com and we will add your details to the protests we are coordinating (please indicate whether personal capacity or not)
- Invite a speaker from Hopi to a meeting of your organisation to explain our anti-war/anti-imperialist work and the situation of the working people in Iran
- Write to the European embassy for Iran (notify us if you do):
Ambassade de la Republique Islamique d’Iran
4 avenue d’iena
75116 Paris, France
- Or email the newly opened UK embassy (copy us in): firstname.lastname@example.org