Legacy of the 2003 war We all know who is responsible for Fallujah

As reports continue to come from Iraq indicating advances by the country’s armed forces on Fallujah, held by Islamic State, a number of international organisations, including the United Nations, are echoing earlier warning from Iraq’s main Shia cleric, ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that the lives of the town’s 50,000 inhabitants are in mortal danger.

Al Jazeera’s Omar al-Saleh, reporting from Erbil in northern Iraq, described the situation in Fallujah as dire: “There is a lack of medicine and food. They are caught in the fighting between Isil and Iraqi forces.”1 And, according to UN agencies, Fallujah civilians were starving to death – some have been killed for refusing to fight for IS, while others were being used as “human shields”. Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “We have dramatic reports of the increase of the number of executions of men and older boys, refusing to fight on behalf of Isil.”

With Tony Blair about to be exonerated by the Chilcot enquiry for his criminal part in the invasion of Iraq, it is time to remind ourselves why we are where we are, with the continuing civil war in Iraq and the rise of IS. In the words of lieutenant-general Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Bush-Blair Iraq war was a “tremendous blunder” that “helped to create Islamic State”. According to Flynn, “As brutal as Saddam Hussein was, it was a mistake to just eliminate him.” In fact the “historic lesson” is that it was “a strategic failure to go into Iraq”.2

Fallujah hit the headlines in 2004, when four American private military contractors were ambushed and killed in the city, leading to what became known as Operation Vigilant Resolve and the subsequent battle for control, lasting most of the year. The US-led Fallujah offensive of November 2004 was documented by Italian film-makers Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta, who claimed that white phosphorus, a highly efficient smoke-producing agent (ironically not considered a chemical weapon), was being used by US troops against civilians.3 This was later confirmed by the journal Field Artillery in April 2005.

Anyone in their right mind will tell you that it was the atrocities committed by US and British troops in Fallujah (as well as the rest of Iraq) that helped the Iraqi al Qa’eda recruit those who wanted to resist the occupation, including previously secular Ba’athists, to what was to become Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and later IS.

Fallujah is important to IS, not just because of its proximity to the capital, Baghdad, but because it is the jihadist group’s birthplace. That is why, contrary to early predictions, the battle for Fallujah is turning out to be far more difficult than expected.

However, for the Iraqi regime regaining control of the oil-producing town of Mosul in the north remains a priority. Yet that battle has been left to the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government, aided by US air strikes. The Zerevani special forces involved in that battle consist of 5,500 Kurdish Peshmerga, who are attempting to wrest control back from IS. Western reporters, including Sky News and CNN, have identified American and Canadian advisors in the front line, but no-one is claiming that the current fighting will lead to the recapture of the city, which had a population of over two million before IS took control.

Mosul is close to a number of smaller towns on the Nineveh plains, such as Qaraqosh. But these towns effectively no longer exist – their Christian inhabitants, who had lived there for centuries alongside Muslims, have been forced to flee from their birthplaces. And in another battle in western Anbar province, in and around the town of Heet, 40 Iraqi security forces were killed by IS, forcing a retreat.

All this is yet another sign of the contradictory US policy in the region. If the aim is to defeat IS, then the solution is obvious. Put pressure on Turkey and Saudi Arabia to impose economic and political sanctions against anyone financing or dealing with the jihadists.

Rivalries

However, for the time being the main battles are around Fallujah, where a visit by Iranian general Qasem Soleimani to encourage Shia al-Quds paramilitary forces fighting alongside the Iraqi army caused controversy, with Sunni politicians condemning the visit for fuelling sectarian tensions. Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament, told news agencies: “We are Iraqis and not Iranians … Would Turkish or Saudi advisors be welcomed to assist in the battle?”4 For his part, the MP for Fallujah, Salim Muttar al-Issawi, said: “Soleimani’s presence is suspicious and a cause for concern. He is absolutely not welcome in the area.”

All this was grist to the mill of Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, who accused Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of other regional countries – not that Saudi Arabia itself would do such a thing, of course. Iran’s response came via the deputy head of the Iraqi volunteer forces, who stated that Soleimani’s presence followed a “request of the Baghdad government”.

So the battles in Iraq (as well as in Syria) are not just about control of Fallujah, Mosul, Heet, etc. They are part and parcel of the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are still fighting to fill the political vacuum left after Saddam Hussein’s downfall more than a decade ago. As I have pointed out many times, the current civil wars in the Middle East have little to do with ‘Sunni-Shia conflict’: they are part of this regional rivalry. Iran’s Islamic Republic, the unintended beneficiary of the Iraq war, continues to support the corrupt, sectarian government in Iraq, the brutal dictator in Damascus and its long-term allies in the Lebanese Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Islamic State would not survive for long if Saudi and Turkish financial and military support was ended. But that is unlikely, as long as the two main rivals of the Islamic Republic of Iran feel threatened by its ability to control what they consider to be a Shia belt stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean (albeit with an Alawite strip in Syria).

IS’s revenge has come in the form of suicide bombings. Sadr City – a Shia suburb in eastern Baghdad, considered a stronghold of the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr – has been one of the main targets and on May 17 a crowded market was hit and dozens were injured. Of course, Baghdad’s infamous ‘green zone’ – the government quarters inherited by the post-occupation administration – has been the scene of a number of protests by supporters of al-Sadr, who are campaigning against the corruption and incompetence in the government led by fellow Shias. However, according to the website Al monitor: The pulse of the Middle East, “IS has been seeking to provoke Shi’ite infighting in a bid to delay the liberation of the remaining areas under its control.”5

Shi’ite political parties have accused each other of initiating the bombings in Sadr City and other Baghdad suburbs. Al-Sadr himself has issued statements naming the current interior minister, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, as responsible for the previous suicide attack on May 11 and called on prime minister Haider al-Abadi to dismiss him – “or else the people will find a way to deal with him on their own …” In other words, al-Sadr is equating the Iraqi authorities and IS.

Throughout all this another, related, civil war is continuing in Syria and, of course, both Iran and IS are involved there too. News in late April was dominated by the discovery that the Islamic Republic had sent thousands of Hazara Afghan men (who are Shias) to fight alongside the Syrian regime’s army. They were born to Afghan refugee families in Iran and dispatched to Syria, courtesy of the Revolutionary Guards. Some of these ‘volunteers’ have subsequently deserted and joined Syrian refugees trying to seek asylum in Europe. According to BBC Persian service, these Afghans are fleeing the “multinational Shia Muslim militia – in effect a ‘Foreign Legion’ – that Iran has mobilised to support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.”6

No-one is expecting much from the Chilcot enquiry. However, Tony Blair’s blatant denial of his part in the creation of the chaos in the Middle East shows that few have learnt any lessons from the invasion of Iraq. More worryingly, Hillary Clinton – who in private meetings with the Israeli lobby and rightwing Iranian exiles in the United States is allegedly promising regime change from above in Iran – is ready to repeat the same mistakes all over again, this time in Syria.

As the examples of Iraq and Libya show, overthrowing dictators is easy for imperialism. The problem is, what will replace them?

 

Notes

1. www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/iraqi-army-poised-fallujah-assault-isil-160530040140967.html.

2. www.spiegel.de/international/world/former-us-intelligence-chief-discusses-development-of-is-a-1065131.html.

3. www.democracynow.org/2005/11/8/u_s_broadcast_exclusive_fallujah_the.

4, http://in.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-iraq-iran-falluja-idINKCN0YJ0G7.

5. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/islamic-state-strategy-cause-infighting-among-iraqi-shiites.html.

6. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36035095

Pro-Zionists are false friends

Between imperialism and a hard place
Between imperialism and a hard place

We need a movement for genuine solidarity with the working class

When it comes to Iran, the world’s media has concentrated on the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies and then the long-drawn-out nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, not a day has gone by when there has not been a strike, a protest, a sit-in by Iranian workers demanding their unpaid salaries, job security, the right to organise in independent workers’ organisations … These struggles were taking place before the nuclear deal and they have continued – indeed escalated – since, especially as government promises of economic recovery and full employment have not materialised.

Because of this the life of a number of jailed labour activists hangs in the balance. Obviously we must do what we can to draw attention to their plight. Those in danger include the spokesman of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, who was hospitalised on May 8 after falling seriously ill following a 17-day hunger strike; and political prisoner and labour activist Jafar Azimzadeh, who has also been on hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin prison for the last 26 days.

According to Owen Tudor of the TUC,

Throughout the diplomatic standoff, unions globally and here in the UK have continued to demand that, whatever else happens, Iran’s international obligations to respect workers’ rights – especially freedom of association and the right to strike – must be observed. We have opposed the threat of war, but at the same time drawn attention to the way the Iranian theocracy has acted just like any other bosses’ club, cracking down on trade unionism and preventing workers getting a fair day’s pay for their work.

Now that the sanctions are being lifted, the Iranian government’s excuses are less and less believable. Without an external threat, violent repression of internal protest is even less justifiable. And, with growing trade, the money should now be available to meet demands for back pay and higher wages. But we are concerned that, as Iran becomes ‘just another regime’, the attention we have been able to secure for the harassment and physical attacks on trade unionists will ebb away.1
In other words, international pressure was only imposed up until the nuclear deal was signed. Western governments’ ‘concern’ for the plight of Iranian workers and other oppressed sections was an integral part of a policy of exercising pressure to force the signing of the nuclear deal.

Of course, Iranian workers continue to face hardship and many obstacles inside the country. Repression continues, wages remain unpaid, factories are still closing. The complete removal of sanctions is proceeding slowly and at a time of economic uncertainty there is little enthusiasm for major investments in Iran. At the same time, since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani, and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have travelled to most of the key European capitals declaring that Iran is open for business and that its labour force – intimidated by years of recession, mass unemployment and repression – will accept low wages, poor conditions and superexploitation.

These overtures have also been backed up by practical examples of the regime’s style of ‘labour discipline’. Thus, we have seen the brutal attack by the paramilitary basij on a group of striking factory employees in Kalaleh, the continuing attacks on workers in Haft Tapeh and the crackdown on protests at the Ardakan Foulad steel plant.2 Here one should also mention the destructive role of the government-sponsored Islamic ‘workers’ councils, nowadays gaining more prominence because of their association with the ‘reformist’ factions of the regime and the Rowhani government. They continue to play an important roles in containing and controlling workers’ struggles.

Pro-regime

Following the February 1979 uprising, when the Iranian working class played a crucial role in the overthrow of the shah’s dictatorship, the Islamic government did all it could to undermine workers’ organisations and since then it has been illegal to set up independent trade unions. The only ‘workers’ organisation’ that the government authorises is the Khaneh Kargar (Workers’ House). This is not a trade union in any recognisable sense. Rather it is a political organisation that was set up by a faction of the Islamic movement after the destruction of the workers’ shora (councils) after the 1979 revolution. It does not have representatives or shop stewards in workplaces, but communicates from its office with the Islamic workers’ councils. Although these councils vary considerably, in general their members are nominated locally by clerical associations rather than directly elected by the workers.

The labour code stipulates that “the workers … may establish Islamic councils and associations at the workplace” in industrial, agricultural and service organisations of more than 35 employees. They consist of representatives of the workers and one representative of the management. Once these bodies are set up, no other workers’ organisation can be established. Labour activists arrested by the government are accused of plotting against national security. They are political prisoners with no rights, facing incarceration for long periods.

In such circumstances the Iranian working class needs international solidarity, independent of the interests of world powers. Of course, we should not be surprised that yellow trade unions in the west, together with social-imperialist groups and their fellow travellers in what passes as ‘solidarity movements’ (the pro-Zionist wing of reformist trade unionists), have taken up the cause of Iranian workers, but what is regrettable is the way the supporters of Iranian workers abroad have collaborated, willingly, or unconsciously, with such efforts and the inevitable damage this has done to the working class movement inside the country.

The Iranian left in exile has many major shortcomings. There is a failure to report, explain and inform the international working class movement of the struggles inside Iran in any language but Persian. Long before the region became known as the home of failed states, civil wars and military interventions, the sheer number of workers’ strikes, factory sit-ins and demonstrations in Iran was impressive, even though most of the time we have to admit the demands were and still are defensive. However, what remains of the various organisations of the Iranian left in exile compete with each other in posting news bulletins and reports about workers’ actions (almost always in Persian). You get exactly the same news from each of the various mailing lists about a particular struggle or the latest arrest.

Of course, there are valid reasons for these shortcomings. Many, if not most, of the comrades, who are long-term refugees in western Europe, and some in North America, do not speak the language of the host country – mainly because illusions about their imminent return to Iran and their full-time political activism in exile (mainly consumed in endless debates about the past) have isolated them from the workers’ movement and the radical left in the host country.

When the exiled Iranian left does try to gain solidarity for imprisoned workers, it often goes about it in the wrong way. In its impatience for publicity and high-profile support, some exiled groups have now become accustomed to ditching principles, when it comes to accepting financial or political support from the most dubious sources. We saw this time and time again in relation to campaigns regarding women’s rights, gay rights and the infamous tribunal for the victims of the Islamic Republic’s mass execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. So it is not surprising that Iranian leftwing exiles have not done better, when it comes to campaigns in solidarity with the Iranian working class today. They have associated themselves with some of the most unsavoury international forces such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Anyone who has followed the daily confrontations with the Iranian regime will have no doubt that, faced with the ravages of neoliberal capitalism, a factory worker who goes on strike or takes part in a sit-in or demonstration in Iran is not simply demanding trade union rights or even just fighting the theocracy. That worker is conscious that his/her struggle is against international capital and its institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – organisations that have dictated the neoliberal economic policies being imposed on Iran over the last two decades.3 He/she believes that, despite differences and inter-capitalist rivalries, the imperialist military presence in the region will in the long term support the interests of both international capital and ruthless local capitalists. Such a worker has no illusions about the US military presence or intervention by CIA-sponsored trade unions in the region.

Broader vision

Over the last decade both the Iranian economy and the labour movement have changed dramatically. Young workers have internet access and are often well informed on international issues. Today’s labour movement is not limiting itself to trade union struggles. Nor is it simply fighting ‘Islamic’ capitalists and their legislation. Its leaflets and declarations show it to be against imperialism and, of course, western military intervention.

What is more, to reduce the Iranian workers’ movement to minimalist economic struggles is to underestimate and ignore the historic role of our class in leading revolutionary battles. After all, this is the working class that played a crucial role in the overthrow of the shah’s regime – and, of course, it is also opposed to Israel’s aggression. The continued US financial and military support for Israel is correctly regarded as part and parcel of imperialist strategy in the Middle East, adversely affecting radical political struggles throughout the region. So supporters of the Iranian working class cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the actions of the Zionist state – indeed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a separate issue.

That is why we need an international campaign in support of Iranian workers that includes anti-Zionist activists, Arab, Kurdish and Palestinian supporters – a campaign that steers clear of opportunist forces, who, on the one hand, claim ‘solidarity with Iranian workers’ and, on the other, declare themselves supporters or apologists of Zionism – as proclaimed by Eric Lee, the coordinator of the LabourStart website.4

Such individuals and the groups they are associated with have no legitimate place in the movement for solidarity with the Middle East’s revolutionary struggles. Iranian exiled groups who, out of expediency, accept their support should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Having received repeated warnings about these groups, ignorance is no longer an excuse.

In the next few months the campaign, ‘Support Iranian Workers’ (Karegaran), will concentrate on reporting workers’ struggles in Iran with a view to gaining a different kind of international solidarity: genuine, independent workers’ solidarity between Iranian, British and Middle Eastern socialists. Our new website will play a crucial role in reporting the struggles, ideas and debates of the Iranian working class.

Notes

1. http://strongerunions.org/2016/02/22/iran-what-does-ending-sanctions-mean-for-workers.

2. Short film of workers’ protests in Ardakan Foulad: www.bbc.com/persian/interactivity/2016/05/160519_l93_ugc_steel_workers.

3. ‘Iran’s political and economic crises’ Critique (www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2010.492694).

4. www.ericlee.info/blog/?p=1150.

 

New era, new focus

The nuclear deal means we must refocus our campaigning priorities

If anyone had any doubts about the new relations between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the west, the messages by Iranian and US leaders on the occasion of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, will show that a dramatic change has occurred.

President Barack Obama said that, although the nuclear deal was “never intended to resolve all disputes between the United States and Iran”, it nonetheless “opened a new window of dialogue” and made it possible for Iran to “rejoin the global economy” through increased trade and investment, creating jobs and opportunities for Iranians to “sell their goods around the world”.

In his own congratulatory message, Obama’s counterpart in Iran, Hassan Rowhani, called for internal reconciliation following bitter divisions around last month’s elections. Reminding the country that “sanctions aimed at banks, oil, finance, money, petrochemicals, insurance, transport, and all nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted”, he declared that the scene was set for “our people’s economic activities”. Thanks to “god’s favour” and “the people’s efforts”, Iran got through the last year and now “without a doubt we all can create an Iran which is worthy of this great nation.”

Rowhani stated that the Iranian revolution had been “for Islam and morality”, and so, “in our revolutionary society, there should be no trace of lies, false accusations, mistrust, bad language and irritability. In our society, there should be no trace of corruption.” Hardly the Iran that most of its people would recognise.

While Rowhani said that further engagement with other countries was the key to economic growth, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, seemed to disagree. What was needed was “self-sufficiency” and a “resistance economy”. After all, in Khamenei’s eyes, the “government of the US” is still Iran’s “enemy”. The Islamic Republic should take steps to reduce its vulnerability to the designs of the US and other “enemies”, he said.

Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether one should laugh at Khamenei’s hypocrisy or cry at his self-deception. Here is a man leading a country where the ‘approved’ president and his government are embarking on a major project to persuade transnationals to invest in Iran and take advantage of its cheap skilled labour, so that Iran can be fully integrated into global capitalism, which is still headed by a single hegemonic military and economic power, the United States. It is a country where the president’s opponents in the more rightwing factions have no hesitation in working with capitalists of any nationality, as long as they themselves can take their own cut, aided by corruption and the black market. Yet Khamenei is still going on about “self-sufficiency” and the “economy of resistance”. He is either delusional or an accomplished liar.

Irrespective of all this, the nuclear deal has marked a new phase in Iran’s relations with the west. There is no longer a threat of military action against the country. Of course, given the tumultuous situation in the Middle East, the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the conflicts in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, all this could change dramatically and suddenly. No doubt the election of a Republican president, whether it is Donald Trump or one of his rivals, would signal an end to the “new window of dialogue” and a return to a conflict situation.

Nevertheless, we in Hands Off the People of Iran have decided that the case for a shift in the nature of our campaign is clear. It is no longer a case of opposing imperialist war against Iran. We need to concentrate our focus on the struggles against the neoliberal economic policies of the government by the Iranian working class – they are a beacon of hope in a region devastated by war and conflict. Our organisation will need a new name to reflect the changed circumstances.

 

Statement

The campaigning anti-war organisation, Hands Off the People of Iran, was founded in 2007 and quickly established itself as a principled focus for activists in the movement who understood it was possible and necessary to oppose the threat of imperialist war against Iran without dressing up the country’s rulers as ‘anti-imperialist’ or maintaining a diplomatic silence on their repressive crimes against the working people of the country. We are proud of the record of our campaign, but it is clear that these are challenging new political times in the Middle East and, in particular, that the new relationship between Iran and the west presents us with important new tasks.

The country’s rulers have complied with the nuclear agreement signed in July 2015 with the five ‘official’ nuclear powers (United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia) plus Germany. This has opened up a new period of cooperation and a degree of rapprochement between Tehran and US-led imperialism.

Given this new political context, Hopi activists have held discussions on the future of the campaign. The west, and in particular US imperialism, has emerged victorious from this confrontation. Of course, we have to remain alive to the possibility of new conflicts arising. The situation in Syria and Iraq, as well the Palestinian people’s struggles against Israeli colonisation, continue to be destabilising factors. In addition, the danger remains frighteningly real of regional wars, such as those in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, escalating and dragging others into the maelstrom. However, it seems clear that the prospect of an imminent imperialist attack on Iran has considerably receded.

There is no doubt that the relaxation of tensions and the lifting of sanctions will mean an improvement in the material wellbeing of many working people in Iran. They, after all, are the ones who have borne the heaviest burden in the sanctions period. However, it will not mean a relaxation of the political oppression of the Iranian people by the regime. In fact, the rapprochement with its external enemy will free the Iranian ruling elite to concentrate on its internal enemy: the working class and its allies. As the threat of conflict with the US recedes, the regime will step up the domestic class war.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani, and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have already sent very clear messages to foreign capital. Iran is open for business and its labour force – intimidated by years of recession, mass unemployment and the regime’s brutal repression – will accept low wages, poor conditions and vicious exploitation. These overtures have also been backed up by practical examples of the regime’s style of ‘labour discipline’. Thus, we have seen the brutal attack by the paramilitary Basij on a group of striking factory employees in Kalaleh, an assault brazenly reported by pro-regime media outlets as one of a number of exercises by this militia in preparation for future actions against protesting workers.

In these new circumstances, we need to refocus the work of Hands Off the People of Iran, to give it a different emphasis, a new style of work, and this must be reflected in a different name. In contrast to others, Hopi has been implacable in its commitment to the principle that the only consistent anti-war, anti-imperialist and democratic force in Iran and beyond is the working class. Now is the time to step up our solidarity with the beleaguered workers’ movement in that country, as the reactionary regime – having made important concessions on the international stage – looks to consolidate its repressive hold on domestic power.

Hands Off the People of Iran