Monthly Archives: February 2017

The threat of military action against Iran is once more very much on the agenda

One of the scariest characters around the new Trump administration is Steve Bannon, the 63-year-old who ran Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign. Now he is chief strategist and senior advisor to the US president.

Just in case you are not familiar with Breitbart News, it is a rightwing outlet, known for headlines such as “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew” and “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke very much approved of Bannon’s nomination, describing it as “excellent”, while Peter Brimelow, who is associated with the white supremacist website, VDARE, called it “amazing”.

There is a lot of information circulating about Bannon’s rightwing opinions, but the Washington Post in particular has given us an insight into how the Iran hostage crisis helped shaped his views:

It was just after midnight on March 21 1980, when a Navy destroyer navigated by Stephen K Bannon, a junior officer, met with the supercarrier, USS Nimitz, in the Gulf of Oman. The convoy headed near the Iranian coast, where a secret mission would be launched a month later to rescue 52 US embassy hostages held in Tehran.Bannon’s ship, the USS Paul F Foster, trailed the Nimitz, which carried helicopters that would try to retrieve the hostages. But before the mission launched, Bannon’s ship was ordered to sail to Pearl Harbour, and he learned while at sea the rescue had failed. A US helicopter crashed into another aircraft in the Iranian desert, killing eight servicemen and dooming the plan to liberate the hostages.

…. As Bannon has told it, the failed hostage rescue is one of the defining moments of his life, providing a searing example of failed military and presidential leadership – one that he carries with him, as he serves as president Trump’s chief strategist. He has said he wasn’t interested in politics until he concluded then-president Jimmy Carter had undercut the navy and blown the rescue mission.1

Of course, the truth is more complicated. The Republicans had given their declared enemy, Iran’s Islamic Republic, details of the rescue plan, in an attempt to undermine Carter.

But Bannon is not alone in all this. There is general James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, who is also obsessed with Iran. Last year, the four-star general was forced out of his job by Barack Obama. Why? Because at a time when most of the world was thinking of the dangers posed by al Qa’eda and Islamic State in the Middle East, he was adamant that the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace”. Mattis recalls that, as commander of US troops in the Middle East, the first three questions he would ask his subordinates every morning “had to do with Iran and Iran and Iran”.

Media reports suggested it was Mattis’s eagerness for confrontation with Iran that led to his sacking by Obama. He was central command chief until 2013 – just before the US and other world powers were trying to engage with Tehran to secure a nuclear deal.

However, after Trump nominated him as defence secretary, the war of words between the US and Iran intensified less than a month into the new presidency, with Mattis calling Iran “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”, after Tehran confirmed it had tested mid-range ballistic missiles. Trump tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire”, as he ordered new sanctions on 13 Iranian individuals and 12 companies. When reporters asked him if a military action was possible, he replied: “Nothing is off the table”.

Many scenarios have been proposed on how and when such a conflict might start. Saeid Golkar, an Iran expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is probably right when he told Al Jazeera: “I think people in the Trump administration will try to make Iran do something stupid” – so that the US can use this as an excuse for war. We have already seen new sanctions, the absence of which being one of Iran’s red lines for adhering to the nuclear deal.

Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah, claimed in a recent interview with Voice of America that he has written to Trump asking him to distinguish between the Iranian people and the regime, and urging the US to play a “pivotal role” in supporting what he called the Iranian people’s “quest for liberty and justice” in their homeland.2 If anyone from Trump’s government decided to hold a meeting with hated figures of the Iranian opposition – including the ex-shah’s son, or the Mujahedin, or other idiots clamouring for ‘regime change from above’, the government in Tehran would react. Let us not forget that the animosity between the Iranian regime and sections of the US government first started in 1979, when Washinton allowed the ex-shah to seek medical treatment in the US.

‘Ominous signs’

Globalresearch, described on its website as the “centre for research on globalisation”, recently published an article entitled “Eleven ominous signs that we are racing towards war with Iran”. Referring to the current “engineered disorder”, it claims that “Trump is taking the US on a sure course to war with Iran”.3

The website gives three fundamental reasons why Iran remains the principal target and lists them as follows:

Iran has become the arch-enemy of the Saudi-Israeli alliance, because it is the one country militarily and economically strong enough to challenge their dominance of the Middle Eastern region …Secondly, Iran has been openly supportive of the fight against Zionism (by funding Hezbollah in Lebanon) and against the Sunni extremist group Isis (the pet Frankenstein of the US) …

Thirdly, Iran has forged a tight alliance with Russia and China in defiance of the Zionist-Anglo-American New World Order, which seeks to impose a unipolar One World Government on the world, with the international bankers at the helm. Iran remains one of the few countries in the world without a Rothschild-owned central bank. It refuses to bow to the will of the US or to allow the US to place its imperial military bases within its territory.

I would dispute the second reason. Everyone knows of Iran’s secret economic deals with Israel, and its support for Palestine has remained very much tired rhetoric, where actions do not match slogans. Supporting the Palestinian people is part of the regime’s propaganda in competing with Sunni states in the region and should not be taken seriously.

However, the website goes on to list the “11 ominous signs” as follows.

1. US foreign policy is being driven by the likes of the Brookings Institution, which in 2009 “advocated the US make a deal with Iran, then renege on the deal (making it look like Iran was refusing something very reasonable), and then attack Iran with support from the international community”.

2. Iran is at the centre of the “Muslim ban”, yet Saudi Arabia is not even among the seven states on Trump’s list, despite being “the source of 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers” on 9/11.

3. Iran “has formally announced it is ditching the US dollar for oil transactions as of March 21 2017”. The website claims that “the real reason for the invasion of several Middle Eastern countries over the last two-three decades was due to their desire to abandon the petrodollar (eg, with Libya’s gold in 2011)”.

4. Iran has been put “on notice” for its recent ballistic missile test. Trump’s ex-national security advisor, Michael Flynn, claimed before his February 14 resignation that the test had violated the nuclear deal and contravened UN resolution 2231, which calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”. However, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, stated that the country’s missiles are “not designed for the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead”, but rather “to carry a normal warhead in the field of legitimate defence”.

5. White House press secretary Sean Spicer “falsely accused Iran of attacking a US naval vessel”, when actually it was a Saudi ship that had been attacked – and by “Houthi rebels from Yemen, not Iranians”.

6. As mentioned above, the US administration has accused Iran of being the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism”.

7. New sanctions have been imposed on Iran by Trump.

8. Despite Trump’s defence of Vladimir Putin, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has condemned Russia, which is in a “binding military alliance” with Iran.

9: China is also in a “binding military alliance” with Iran, and Beijing has also “been on the receiving end of some threats”.

10. Steve Bannon has even claimed there will be war with China “in the next five-10 years”, according to Globalresearch.

11. The US, along with the UK, France and Australia, have “conducted a joint naval operation named Unified Trident just off the Iranian coast”.

All this indicates that “the long-held agenda of initiating war with Iran is speeding up under Trump”, states Globalresearch’s Makia Freeman.

Of course, all this could change in the next couple of days. If Republicans as well as Democrats continue demanding an inquiry into the reason’s behind Flynn’s resignation as national security advisor, and into allegations that members of Trump’s team had been in regular contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the presidential election campaign, the US president might be forced to delay any moves against Iran. On the other hand, he might not want to disappoint Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is currently on an official visit to Washington. He might well announce new sanctions against Iran, paving the way for more confrontation.

May election

Meanwhile, inside Iran itself, the southern province of Khuzestan has just suffered one of the worst dust storms seen in recent years. The thick plume of dust and sand forced officials to cancel 10 flights leaving Ahvaz airport, as the field of vision had been reduced to a mere 50 metres, according to Kourosh Bahadori, Khuzestan’s chief meteorologist.

The citizens of Ahvaz, the provincial capital, who are clearly frustrated by the inability of successive governments to improve the environment and deal with the effects of dust storms, took part in a large demonstration on February 11. However, despite the looming presidential elections, the government does not appear too concerned about such protests.

Hassan Rouhani is standing for re-election as president in May 2017, but the promise of economic prosperity following the nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries now seems a distant dream. US banks and financial authorities have kept in place many of the sanctions imposed on Iran, while uncertainty about the new administration’s attitude towards the nuclear deal has deterred many European countries from investing.

Then, of course, adding insult to injury, Trump issued a ban on Iranians visiting the United States. Of course, the ban was rejected by the US courts, but no-one believes this is the end of the story. The US administration is preparing new immigration legislation and there are rumours that by adding Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to the list of ‘terrorist organisations’, the ban on Iranians visiting the US will become permanent. The Revolutionary Guards run large sections of the state and the economy in both the public and private sector, which means that most Iranians would be affected ­- irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, many work for or are connected with RG companies and institutions.

From the day he took office in 2013, Rouhani insisted that reaching agreement with the west on Iran’s nuclear programme would solve the country’s economic problems and that would produce national reconciliation. When Iran’s reformists talk of national reconciliation, as former president Mohammad Khatami has done recently, they mean reconciliation between the factions of the regime, although it is often portrayed by sections of the media as reconciliation between the state and Iran’s various nationalities. No-one denies the existence of these divisions – between both the two factions of the regime and between the state and the people – especially after the protests of 2009. Unfortunately for Rouhani and foreign minister Zarif, however, they have no powerful allies within the moderate factions of the regime and that is why Rouhani’s re-election as president was in doubt even before Trump took office.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bannons-navy-service-during-the-iran-hostage-crisis-shaped-his-views/2017/02/09/99f1e58a-e991-11e6-bf6f-301b6b443624_story.html?utm_term=.f0a4451eb44f.

2. www.voanews.com/a/iranian-prince-trump-immigration-order/3719951.html.

 

Trump threatens N-deal

trumpYou would have thought that the peoples of the Middle East,    who have suffered so much this millennium under the Bush    and  Obama administrations, might be spared more destruction  and  devastation, but unfortunately things do not look good.  With the  new Trump administration it is very likely that, in  addition to the existing war zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain … we will see new areas of conflict and new attempts at regime change from above.

Millions of civilians throughout the Middle East, but especially in Iran, are wary of the dangers ahead, and anxious about the close relationship between the US president and the Israeli prime minister. A number of events in the last few weeks have given rise to this anxiety.

A week before Trump’s inauguration, two of his closest allies – former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former US representative to UN John Bolton – joined two dozen ex-officials in signing a letter to Trump urging him to start talks with the Iranian opposition group, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and its front organisation, the National Council of Resistance.

For those who do not know much about the MEK, let me assure you it is one of the most discredited exile groups – nowadays more a religious cult, with practices similar to the Moonies (in recent years we have seen enforced mass divorce, enforced mass remarriage, worship of the married couple who are the cult’s leaders, a switch from supporting Saddam Hussein to becoming paid lackeys of Saudi Arabia …). The very fact that these close allies of Donald Trump could envisage such talks is proof once more that the US has learnt nothing from the Iraq war or attempts at regime change in Syria. If there is one way of making sure the Islamic rulers of Iran stay in power in Tehran, it would be to start a dialogue with the Mujahedin as a possible replacement. The Iranian people hate the MEK and their lunatic practices so much, one can envisage Iran’s rulers hoping the Giuliani-Bolton letter succeeds in its aim.

After this came Trump’s comments two days before his inauguration: the US should have seized Iraq’s oil in 2003. Now, anyone with even limited knowledge of the matter knows there were good reasons why Bush did not contemplate such lunacy. Had the administration done so, it would have been violating decades of international practice, including the Geneva conventions. But maybe we should not expect anything else from the man who supports waterboarding prisoners of war.

So, if the signs were ominous before the inauguration, what has happened since is even more worrying.

On January 21, Binyamin Netanyahu sent a ‘message to the Iranian people’. The Jerusalem Post published the entire text of Netanyahu’s letter, including the following:

I hope this message reaches every Iranian – young and old, religious and secular, man and woman …

I know you’d prefer to live without fear. I know you’d want to be able to speak freely, to love who you want without the fear of being tortured or hung from a crane. I know you’d like to surf the web freely and not have to see videos like this one using a virtual private network to circumvent censorship …

By calling daily for Israel’s destruction, the regime hopes to instil hostility between us. This is wrong. We are your friend, not your enemy. We’ve always distinguished between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime.

The regime is cruel – the people are not; the regime is aggressive – the people are warm. I yearn for the day when Israelis and Iranians can once again visit each other freely in Tehran and Esfahan, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Both in Tehran and throughout the Middle East the message was interpreted as a threat – an attempt to justify imminent plans for air attacks, now that the restraints imposed by the Obama administration on the more adventurous policies of the Zionist regime have been lifted. This message was followed by a phone conversation with the US president, where by all accounts the Iran nuclear deal was discussed.

The Israeli premier will be amongst the first world leaders to visit Washington and the Iranian people are justifiably worried about what the combination of neoconservative, pro-MEK advisors and Trump’s pro-Zionist stance will bring for the region.

Iran’s rulers have mixed feeling about the new administration. On the one hand, they are happy he is not a fan of Saudi Arabia and Trump’s comments about Russia have received positive coverage in Tehran. On the other hand, with allies and advisors such as Giuliani and Bolton, it is likely that Trump would not act to stop an Israeli attack on Iran, even if his declared priority is to defeat Iran’s main enemies in the region, Islamic State and Al Nusra.

As for the reformist faction of the Iranian regime, it is concerned about the impact of Trump’s presidency on the nuclear agreement signed last year. Trump has said on many occasions that he considers this to be “one of the worst deals ever made”. The more conservative factions of the regime, just like the ‘regime change from above’ opposition groups, are hoping Trump will tear it up.

Left

With all the controversy over the new president’s racist, sexist and anti-gay remarks, amongst other things, sections of pro-west Iranian opposition in exile have been forced to change their tune. For most of the last two or three decades they have told us that Iran’s rulers were backward because they had failed to promote anti-sexist, pro-LGBT policies. But now those rulers are no longer the only misogynists in town. No doubt the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved of one of Trump’s first initiatives – taking down references to LGBT equality from the White House website on his first day as president.

And by January 23 Trump was trying to outdo Khamenei on abortion. He signed an executive order blocking foreign aid and federal budget funding for international non-governmental organisations that provide or “promote” abortions. The new vice-president, Mike Pence, is of like mind: he facilitated the passage of several laws restricting abortions, when he was governor of Indiana.

As I write, Trump is expected to announce restrictions on US entry for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. Unlike the Israeli premier, Trump is not after winning hearts and minds in Iran (or elsewhere in the Middle East), yet he has fans amongst deluded sections of the Iranian opposition, including the MEK, who are convinced that sooner rather than later he will go for a full-scale military attack on Iran, or else give Netanyahu the nod to knock out its military and nuclear installations (while the US concentrates on ‘fighting al Qa’eda’ in Iraq and Syria!). Both scenarios are clearly frightening, yet in these uncertain times they cannot be ruled out.

All this coincides with a time when Iran’s rulers are facing considerable internal opposition from the working class. Strikes and protests in and around some the country’s major industrial sites are occurring daily, while retired teachers and civil servants, whose real income is falling daily because of inflation and the fall in the value of the Iranian currency, have organised demonstrations. While Iranians are using every opportunity to protest, the left is not only weak and divided, but have mostly lost all credibility – having, for example, accepted funds from US neoconservatives. Many former leftwing groups are now nothing more than single-issue campaigns (for women’s or LGBT rights, supporting Kurdish or Arab nationalism …), because it was easier to get funding from the west that way. Gradually that funding affected their politics. It was no longer fashionable to talk of imperialism and capitalism. Now they were against ‘backward Islamists’ and for ‘progress’.

Many such groups have had a hard time of it after the nuclear deal and so they were hoping a Clinton presidency would revive their fortunes. Unfortunately for them, it looks like under Trump their financial situation will not improve.

In the absence of a principled organised left, the voice of the Iranian working class – a class whose struggles continue, day in, day out, a class destined to play a significant role in the struggles ahead – is not being heard. Outside Iran we are not in a position to do much, but we must become the voice of our own class in Iran, theworking class. We must publicise the struggles against the Islamic government and its corrupt, capitalist backers, while remaining vigilant about the danger of new imperialist wars and aggression in the region.

That is why we will need to reboot Hands Off the People of Iran

After the fall of Aleppo

Yassamine Mather

Before the death of ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on January 8 (an event that has dominated Iranian politics and news), Iranian clerics and leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had been competing with each other in making exaggerated claims about the significance of the fall of Aleppo: it was a victory against “heresy” and for the “ascendancy of Shia Islam”. One cleric called on Iranians (presumably he meant the Revolutionary Guards already in Syria) to clean up Aleppo, as the 12th Shia Imam would soon be paying a visit!

This, together with the triumphalism during the inspection of the ruins of east Aleppo by major general Qasem Soleimini (credited with commanding Iranian troops in Syria’s recent battles), should be condemned. The intervention of Iran and Russia in Syria has cost the lives of thousands of civilians. All such foreign intervention – be it by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Russia – should be condemned, and Iran and Russia cannot be exempt from this on the basis that they were invited by the Syrian regime.

Having said that, we now have a clearer picture of the final days of the battles in and around east Aleppo. The latest round of ‘peace talks’ between some rebel groups and Turkey, Iran and Russia gives an indication of who backed the main armed rebel groups. Most of these groups, far from being democratic, secular forces, were close to Turkey’s Islamic nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The extended participation of Syrian Kurds on the same side as those fighting against ‘rebels’ in Aleppo (in other words, on the same side as Hezbollah and other Shia groups) demonstrates that accusations of Turkish involvement in arming and sponsoring a section of the rebels in east Aleppo should be taken seriously.

By all accounts, at least since 2015 the claim that the Free Syrian Army represents moderate or secular forces has been untenable.

It is worthwhile repeating what Ben Hall, in his book, Inside Isis: the brutal rise of a terrorist army, tells us. The FSA leading light, Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, who was promoted by the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has never denied his support for jihadist groups – to the embarrassment of the US authorities. After the battle for Al Menagh, al-Oqaidi’s victory speech is quoted by many to show that, while he was on the US government’s Syria support payroll, he fought alongside and publicly praised IS fighters, calling them “heroes”.

Robert Fisk gave us a similar view in 2015, when he wrote about claims that the Syrian regime was not fighting IS:

This rubbish has reached its crescendo in the on-again, off-again saga of the Syrian ‘moderates’. These men were originally military defectors to the FSA, which America and European countries regarded as a possible pro-western force to be used against the Syrian government army. But the FSA fell to pieces, corrupted, and the ‘moderates’ defected all over again, this time to the Islamist Nusra Front or to Isis, selling their American-supplied weapons.Washington admitted their disappearance, bemoaned their fate, concluded that new ‘moderates’ were required, persuaded the CIA to arm and train 70 fighters, and this summer packed them off across the Turkish border to fight – whereupon all but 10 were captured by Nusra and at least two of them were executed by their captors. Just two weeks ago, I heard in person one of the most senior ex-US officers in Iraq – David Petraeus’s former No2 in Baghdad – announce that the ‘moderates’ had collapsed long ago. Now you see them – now you don’t …1

False claims

In a letter to the Weekly Worker published on December 22, Hannu Reime made a number of claims in relation to my article, ‘Reaping the harvest’ (December 15), and I will attempt to reply to some of his points.

He wrote:

Yassamine seems to argue – obliquely, but still – that the Syrian uprising against the Assad tyranny was almost nothing else but a US, Saudi and Qatari regime-change scheme and had very little in common with the Arab spring in other countries of the Arab world, Egypt in particular.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have written extensively on the importance and legitimacy of opposition to Bashar Assad, notably the protests of 2011 and 2012 and the opposition to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies by the Assads (father and son). I have also written in support of the Kurdish peshmergas, who were for a long time the only forces fighting IS and Al Nusra, and criticised their subsequent rapprochement with Russia and later the United States.

I am also very clear in my December 15 article that no-one should doubt the legitimacy of the opposition to Assad in 2011 and 2012. However, I believe that the deliberate destruction of Syria and the defeat of the genuine opposition to the Assad regime – after Saudi Arabia got involved and Turkey, Qatar, etc, intervened, supported by the United States – played an important role in changing the balance of forces among those fighting the regime, leading to the dominance of jihadist groups and forcing the secular opposition into exile. This is also the opinion of Syrian socialists in exile and what comrades I know in Beirut are saying. The population of eastern Aleppo had no allegiance to Al Nusra or pro-Turkey groups fighting in the city and it was right to express concern about the people of the city. That is why I opposed Russian air raids and opposed Iranian intervention in articles and in a number of interviews/debates on BBC Persian TV.2

Moreover, I do not equate calling for no-fly zones with pro-imperialist posturing. I just do not think it is a rational or practical suggestion. However, the ‘socialists’ mentioned in my article have called unambiguously for ‘humanitarian’ imperialist intervention. That is what I am arguing against. Imperialist intervention is part of the problem and will play no role in strengthening or saving the Syrian secular opposition. Any illusions the Kurds had about such interventions have been shattered in recent months.

In the last few weeks leftwing Syrian exiles have given a number of interviews, reminding us that there was a genuine opposition to Assad in 2011-12 and I agree with what they say. My only additional comment is that, once Saudi Arabia and the United States got involved in the conflict, it was inevitable that the much weaker secular opposition would be ignored by the ‘international community’. On a far larger scale the same is true of Iran, where tens of thousands of workers have protested against the neoliberal economic policies of the clerical rulers, but there is no mention of their protests in most of the western media. This is not the kind of news they are looking for.

In the case of Syria’s contemporary history, the constant betrayal of the ‘official’ Communist Party, its support for Hafez al-Assad and later his son, and the absence of an alternative left, meant that the working class movement was in a much weaker position when the conflict started. That is why I agree with those on the Syrian left such as Yassin Al Saleh, who says:

For 30 years, the Ba’ath Party has made a project of crushing all political life in Syria. So, when the uprising came, we had no real political organisations – only individuals here and there. Islam, in our society, is the limit of political poverty. When you don’t have any political life, people will mobilise according to the lowest stratum of an imaginary community. This deeper identity is religion. When you have political and cultural life, you can have trade unions, leftist groups, and people are able to organise along any number of identities. But when you crush politics, when there is no political life, religious identity will prosper.3

Of course, we should blame the dictatorial regimes of Assad and Saddam for suppressing all secular opposition and paving the way for jihadist dominance. However, it remains the case that the main countries currently funding these groups are imperialism’s allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the emirates of the Persian Gulf.

I also disagree with those who argue that the US should have provided the heavy weapons required by Syrian rebels to defend themselves against the regime’s air attacks, We have seen enough leaked documents to know that the US turned a blind eye when the Saudis and Qataris armed and financed jihadi groups, and we also know that such weapons have ended up in the hands of IS or Al Nusra.

Even if the weapons were ‘defensive’ – ie, anti-missile or anti-aircraft – the fact remains that they would have lengthened the military life of the murderous jihadists. Al Qa’eda’s origins in Afghanistan should give some indication of how CIA anti-aircraft missiles not only saved the group from air attacks, but encouraged them to believe they had defeated one superpower – the Soviet Union – and they could do the same to the rest of the infidel world. In Syria any weapons supplied to non-Islamist groups have either been captured by jihadists (who were stronger and better armed than smaller groups, courtesy of the west’s main allies in the region) or handed over by rebels who left the ranks of the ‘moderate opposition’ to join Al Nusra or IS. The idea that imperialism would have considered supporting secular, democratic forces within the Syrian opposition, as opposed to relying on Saudi Arabia, the emirates and their jihadist protégés, is both naive and contrary to the history of colonialism and imperialism – not only in Syria, but in the entire Middle East.4

It is understandable that, faced with the current devastating situation in their country, individuals in the Syrian opposition, including some socialists, still have illusions about western intervention. However, internationalist socialists have a duty to say they are mistaken. The battles in Syria are part of a bigger war, engulfing all of the Middle East. They are the direct result of the situation created after the collapse of Saddam’s regime and subsequent Israeli and Saudi paranoia about Iran’s Islamic Republic. Assad’s Syria’s remains a target for regime change, not because he is a progressive secular leader, as the Syrian Communist Party tells us, but because, if there is an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, Syria and Hezbollah could facilitate Iranian retaliation. The pro-Zionist ‘left’ I was referring to is well aware of this and its advocacy of western intervention is in fact support for the state of Israel – such people could not care less about Syrian progressives.

Of course, that does not mean we should tone down our opposition to Assad or his allies in Iran, I am in favour of the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran and I have no sympathy with the Shia clerics’ ally, the Assad regime. But the reality is that US failed attempts to overthrow the clerical regime in Iran and to impose regime change from above on its ally, the Syrian regime, have only strengthened both Damascus and Tehran.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-s-moderates-have-disappeared-and-there-are-no-good-guys-a6679406.html.

2. The last of these was on December 22 and can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SO6oQn49It4&feature=youtu.be.

3. https://theintercept.com/2016/10/26/syria-yassin-al-haj-saleh-interview.

4. See my article, ‘The fall of the Ottoman empire and the current conflict in the Middle East’ in Critique: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03017605.2014.972151.

Yalda, Triumph of light

Shabe Yalda, the festival of Yalda, is celebrated by Iranians, Kurds, Afghans, Tajiks and others, on the last day of the Persian month of Azar – which falls on December 21 or 22. It is a celebration of the longest night of the year, 40 days before what is assumed to be the end of the coldest period of winter. It dates back to Zoroastrian times and is considered a joyous occasion as it coincides with the time of year when days start getting longer.

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest extant religions in the world, practiced in ancient Persia, it influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Above all else, Yalda was a celebration of light winning over darkness, commemorating the triumph of the sun god Mithra. The ancient belief has it that when the sun rises, the light shines and goodness prevails. According to professor Joel Willbush, Yalda was “a celebration dating from early in the second century BC, representing the efforts by Antiochus IV (Epiphanes 175–163) to consolidate his father’s conquests by cultural uniformity. Judea’s monotheism presented special problems, and its acceptance of the mid-winter celebration of Shab-é-Chel must have encouraged him”.

Mithraism, inspired by Persian worship of Mithra, was practiced in the Roman empire from about the first to fourth centuries, although there is considerable academic debate about the level of continuity between Persian and Greek-Roman practices.1

In ancient Persia, during Shabe Yalda, fires burnt all night and Zoroastrian worshipers prayed for the absolute victory of light over darkness, longer days and the sun, all necessary for winter crops. The myth about Mithra was popular in the Roman military, and the birth of the sun god was celebrated in much splendour by the Romans. When Christianity took over, many of the stories about Mithra were incorporated into stories about the birth of Jesus Christ. According to some historians, the birth of the sun god was combined and celebrated as Christmas.

There are two interpretations of the name Shabe Yalda – literally, night of birth. According to some experts it was imported into the Persian language by Syriac Christians and it means birth (tavalud and meelad, in contemporary Persian vocabulary, derive from it). A rival interpretation is that ‘da’ in the word ‘Yalda’ is from an Indo-European, Persian word meaning ‘birth’ so Yalda means the birth of “day, light”. For Iranians it remains a significant cultural celebration, part of pre-Islamic traditional rituals. Historians believe the Persians adopted this annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own religion. For them it was important to stay up all night in Shabe Yalda in order to fight the forces of evil – Ahriman – who were thought to be at their most powerful during the long darkness. Keeping the fires alight all night is to ensure the defeat of the forces of evil.

According to Massoume Price, “There would be prayers to god Mithra (Mithr/Mihr/Mehr) and feasts in his honour, since Mithra is an izad (av Yazata) and is responsible for protecting ‘the light of the early morning’, known as ‘Havangah’. It was also believed that Ahura Mazda would grant people’s wishes on that day.”

The following day, the first day of the month of Day, also known as khoram rooz or khore rooz – the day of sun – belongs to the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, the ‘Lord of Wisdom’.2

Persians continue the fight against Ahriman throughout the winter, with the culmination on Charshanbeh souri, the festival of fire, on the eve of the last Wednesday before Norooz, which is celebrated on the day of the spring equinox3 and marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, usually around March 21.

Modern day celebrations of Shabe Yalda include consumption of fruits, especially fruit containing water, such as watermelon, pomegranate and grapes, as well as dried fruits and nuts. The most typical fruit to be consumed is watermelon, often kept from late summer or autumn. Water represents light, and consuming watermelon or pomegranate on the night of cella (the night of forty, or Yalda night) is supposed to bring good health and well-being.

After food, Iranian families gather to read poetry from Divan ?afe?(fal-e ?afe?). The book is used as a form of fortune telling. Everyone makes a wish, someone opens Hafez’s book of poems and reads out the 14th century poet’s response to the wish, with elders interpreting the poems.

Of course Iranians of all classes have always drunk alcohol on Shabe Yalda, and the banning of alcohol imposed by the Islamic Republic regime in Iran when it came to power almost 38 years ago has had little effect on this – except that nowadays, because of prohibition, more Iranians drink and most Iranians drink more than they used to, despite the fact that imported alcohol – as opposed to a variety of home made versions – is more expensive.

The Iranian Jewish community, who, after the Zoroastrians are the oldest extant religious community in the country, celebrate the festival of Illanout – the tree festival – at around the same time. Illanout has many similarities to Yalda: candles are lit and the celebrations include the consumption of fresh and dried fruits.

In the first years after coming to power, Iran’s clerics did their best to ban the celebration of Zoroastrian festivals, as symbols of Persian rather than Islamic culture. Norooz and Shabe Yalda were undermined, while Muslim religious festivals were promoted.

However a combination of resistance by the overwhelming majority of the population, as well as political expediency, led to a reversal of such policies. Isolated in an Islamic world dominated by Sunni Muslims, faced with a war with Saddam’s Iraq in 1980 and later a series of proxy wars with jihadist Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Shia clerics moved quickly, first to tolerance and later to promotion of Persian/Iranian ceremonies from Yalda to Norooz, even though some of the more fundamentalist clerics bow out to popular pressure with considerable resentment.

Notes

1. For more, see Beck, Roger, July 20 2002 ‘Mithraism’ Encyclopaedia Iranica online edition, retrieved March 3 2011: “The term ‘Mithraism’ is of course a modern coinage. In antiquity the cult was known as ‘the mysteries of Mithras’; alternatively, as ‘the mysteries of the Persians’. … The Mithraists, who were manifestly not Persians in any ethnic sense, thought of themselves as cultic ‘Persians’. … the ancient Roman Mithraists themselves were convinced that their cult was founded by none other than Zoroaster, who ‘dedicated to Mithras, the creator and father of all, a cave in the mountains bordering Persia’, an idyllic setting ‘abounding in flowers and springs of water’ (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).”

2. Massoume Price – quote from http://www.iranchamber.com/culture/articles/festival_of_yalda.php.

3. In the northern hemisphere the March equinox is known as the vernal, or spring, equinox, and in the southern hemisphere as the autumnal equinox. It is the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator.