Nationalism and imperial power

 

 

 

 

The Kurdish regional government (KRG) in Iraq will be holding a referendum on the issue of independence on September 25. There have been appeals for it to be delayed and the date has changed a number of times, but at the moment it looks like the vote will go ahead.

In 2014, at the time when Islamic State was gaining ground in northern Kurdistan, Kurds accused the Iraqi army of abandoning the territory lost to the jihadists. Ironically it is the ‘liberation’ of Erbil, Mosul and other northern cities that has precipitated the referendum. Last week in an interview with BBC Persian, Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, indicated that it will draw up the borders of a future Kurdish state if Baghdad does not accept a vote in favour of independence. However, what was significant in the BBC interview was Barzani’s insistence that the vote will also take place in “areas of Kurdistan outside the region’s administration”, including Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Sinjar. The oil-rich Kirkuk has large Arab and Turkmen populations, which prompted Barzani to add:

We don’t say that Kirkuk only belongs to Kurds. Kirkuk should be a symbol of coexistence for all ethnicities. If the people of Kirkuk vote ‘no’ in this referendum we will respect their vote, but we don’t accept that anyone can prevent us from holding a referendum there. If any group wants to change the reality of Kirkuk using force, they should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight over it.

It is not difficult to envisage a future where Barzani’s threats would lead to yet another bloody civil war in Iraq.

Of course, Kurdish leaders claim the vote will not necessarily lead to independence – their aim is to strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Baghdad. But the Iraqi government response came on September 12, when parliament voted to reject the referendum as “unconstitutional” and authorised the prime minister to “take all measures” to preserve Iraq’s unity.

The official US and UK position is a recommendation that the vote for Kurdish independence should be delayed in view of the ‘dangerous situation’ so soon after the defeat of IS. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson made that point on a visit to the KRG in August, but more hard-line neoconservatives in the US and their allies in Israel believe that any referendum would be the first step in a much wider scheme: one that would go beyond Iraq and encompass all Kurdish areas in Syria, Iran and Turkey.

As far the Zionist regime and sections of the Trump administration are concerned, an independent Kurdish state would accelerate the disintegration of Iraq, paving the way for more independence movements: Sunnis in Iraq and Syria; Arabs, Baluchis and maybe Azeris in Iran. They hope this would result in a complete neo-imperial remapping of the region, replacing the borders drawn up in the early part of the 20th century.

So why would anyone want to destroy current states and in the process create further devastation and chaos? Because the new imperial order is interested not only in ‘regime change from above’, but would actually prefer chaos and anarchy to ‘rogue states’ capable of challenging US hegemony in areas where the majority of the population (ironically with the exception of Iran) are no longer the superexploited masses of the global ‘market’ economy.

Of course, we all know that since the US invasion, Iraq is a much weaker power in the region. But the proposed referendum will pave the way for the kind of civil wars that will make the current situation in Libya or Afghanistan look like a tea party. For Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his advisors such a plan would enable Israel to become a regional superpower – no wonder the KRG is ‘benefiting’ from Israel’s continuous advice.

No-one in their right mind can imagine that the ‘greater Kurdistan’ promised by Kurdish nationalists will happen peacefully – the existing brutal regimes will fight to the bitter end to stop it and prevent their own demise. And in reality the creation of such a state would produce further inter-Kurdish battles.

Narrow-minded

A long time ago, in very difficult circumstances in Iranian Kurdistan, I was witness to a bitter conflict between supporters of northern Kurdistan and of southern Kurdistan. On a snowy night, at a time when I had been given temporary responsibility as political leader in the camp where we were staying, I was woken up by a comrade asking me to return to the base (as the only female member of the peshmergeh group, I was staying outside the base in a peasant’s house – part of our organisation’s attempt to respect Kurdish sensitivities regarding gender segregation).

Two groups – both ‘Marxist’ Kurdish peshmergehs – had got into a bitter argument over whether northern Kurdistan (capital: Mahabad) was more radical and revolutionary than southern Kurdistan (capital: Sanandaj) and the two groups seemed ready to open fire on each other. The old comrade who came to wake me up, Kak Omar, was a wise old man who could see where all this could lead. I put on my uniform, went to the base and attempted to fulfil my duty as a political leader by giving a talk on ‘internal contradictions’, based on a booklet issued by a small group called the Union des Communistes de France Marxiste-Léniniste, written by a then much less famous Alain Badiou, whose Théorie de la contradiction was an attempt to understand and come to terms with the many “linear”, “circular”, “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic” contradictions.

I think I managed to bore the comrades sufficiently and by the time I had finished very few felt like entering into a midnight shooting match. Yet the incident demonstrated to me how narrow-minded nationalism can be, how easily it can turn to regionalism. And, once you go down that route, there is no end to the divisions that can be exploited by the enemies of the working class. After all, the civil wars of the Middle East have not harmed US or Israeli interests in the region and no doubt the destruction of the current state of Iran would also serve them well. Anything that can pave the way for such a scenario is a bonus for them.

Even if we imagine the establishment of a unified Kurdish state, how would its economy work? As KRG leaders know, without Kirkuk such a state would not be viable, but even with Kirkuk it is difficult to foresee a prosperous future in the current world capitalist order for a country composed of the least developed regions of four underdeveloped countries … and with no access to the sea. Of course, the blame for such underdevelopment lies squarely with the current and past rulers of the respective countries and no doubt it is this, combined with the constant suppression of national rights in Kurdish areas, that has led to the current wave of nationalism. Both the right and the left should take note of the dangers such a new state would face.

Let me add a few comments about the current Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Those of us who are familiar with its current leaders find it difficult to take them seriously. There was nothing positive in their foreign policy – from when Mustafa Barzani (the father of the current president) became an ally of the shah of Iran, to their support for the Islamic Republic (all because Iran was opposed to Iraq’s Ba’athist regime), to their current mesmerisation by US and Israeli ‘advisors’. This is a government based on tribalist politics. For all its claims about ‘women’s rights’, the organisations leading the KRG, as well as their allies in Iran, are mainly corrupt, misogynist forces, whose power and wealth often relies on extortion and corruption.

If you are in the west, at a time when fundamentalists still force women to wear the burqa or hijab, it is easy to be impressed by female peshmergehs filmed in Kurdish areas, brandishing guns. However, you will forgive me for being cynical about such images. All too often both in Kurdistan and abroad I have had to deal with women peshmergehs whose bruises and battered bodies tell the story of domestic abuse.

The proposed Kurdish referendum has initiated a number of debates amongst the Iranian left about the implications of the right to self-determination at a time of aggressive, destructive imperialist policy in the region. No-one can deny the fact that the Kurds have been victims of discrimination, repression and military aggression in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In this respect the call for independence is very attractive.

However, the question is, ‘After independence what next?’ We know how the current regional powers will react, and how the already weakened working class movement will further be divided along nationalist lines.

Some time ago, Robert Fisk wrote a book on Lebanon entitled Pity the nation. Unfortunately in the current situation this is the phrase that keeps coming to mind when I think of Kurdistan.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Part and parcel of global capital

In late July around 50 political prisoners in Iran’s Rajai Shahr prison were moved to new cells, where windows are covered by metal sheets, access to drinking water is limited and prisoners complain of suffocation and dehydration. In protest 17 of them began a hunger strike.

One of them is labour activist Reza Shahabi. He has gone without food for more than 20 days and, according to his family, his physical condition has deteriorated considerably in the last few days. Shahabi is the treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and has been in and out of jail since 2010. In the spring of 2012 he was sentenced to six years by an Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran – five years for “conspiracy against state security”, and one year for “propaganda against the system”. He was also fined and banned from all trade union activities for five years.

Many Iranians have compared his plight with that of former presidential candidate and leader of the 2009 ‘green’ movement protests, Mehdi Karroubi, who is currently under house arrest. He recently staged a hunger strike, which succeeded in its aim of removing members of the security forces from his house. Karroubi’s plight was widely reported by a number of media outlets, including the BBC Persian service and Voice of America, and was also widely reported inside Iran. However, when it comes to Shahabi’s hunger strike, there is a deafening silence.

Of course, the charges against him are nonsense: a trade unionist who has constantly opposed war and regime change from above is not a threat to “state security”. However, he is a threat to the regime, as he symbolises workers’ protests against the neoliberal economic policies of successive governments, both ‘reformist’ and conservative.

In the midst of all the publicity for regime change from above (boosted no end after Donald Trump’s election) it is often difficult for those opposing both the Islamic regime, together with its oppressive, neoliberal form of capitalism, and the threat of war and new sanctions to make themselves heard. But in fact Shahabi is not alone. Every day there is news of demonstrations and protests by Iranian workers across the country.

A comrade reminded me recently that many of the younger supporters of the conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who stood against Hassan Rouhani in this year’s presidential elections, believe corruption and the current problems of Iran’s economy – in particular the financial hardship faced by the overwhelming majority of the population – is down to the specific capitalist path taken by ‘reformists’ like Rouhani. Such elements genuinely believe that a fairer economic system is possible within the framework of Iran’s Islamic Republic and blame the unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor, as well as the all-encompassing corruption, solely on policies followed by the ‘reformist’ faction. They have illusions in the likes of Raisi and in supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s so-called ‘resistance’ economics.

Although it is correct to say that the implementation of neoliberal economic policies started with ‘reformist’ president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) and both the Khatami and Rouhani governments have implemented the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in terms of ‘privatisation’, casualisation of work, the imposition of ‘white’ contracts (where the employee signs a blank sheet of paper regarding terms of employment), etc, we should not forget that it was Khamenei himself who decided overnight to rewrite article 44 of the constitution, removing any legal barriers to full-scale privatisation of the state sector. The original constitution anticipated state ownership for key economic areas – although, of course, this was never enforced strictly by the market-loving clerics who came to power in 1979: after all, their social base was in the bazaar and amongst the property-owning classes.

However, as time went on, the role of the private sector gradually increased. By 2004, an amendment to this article, approved by Khamenei, allowed for 80% of state assets to be privatised. The IMF and World Bank have constantly encouraged Iran to pursue these polices and in fact it was under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported by the conservative factions of the regime, together with Khamenei, despite his claims of being “on the side of the poor and the deprived sections of society”, that Iran was heralded by the IMF as a ‘model’ country following its economic liberalisation programmes. Over the last few years a government body called the Iran Privatisation Organisation has pursued an aggressive policy, aiming to ensure that the remaining state-owned enterprises are privatised.

Successive governments have declared the aims of Iran’s economic policies in terms that include “economic competition through the market”, an “increase in labour productivity”, the shrinking of government through privatisation, and a reduction in subsidies and budget costs.

For all their talk of a ‘resistance economy’, the conservatives consist of individuals and institutions overseeing billion-dollar private organisations. During the presidential elections, Raisi told voters: “I own nothing but a 140-square-metre apartment and a private bank account”, but the reality is, he is head of the multi-billion-dollar religious foundation, Astane Quds Razavi.

In 2013 Reuters revealed that Khamenei is head of an organisation created to help the poor that is now a major business worth tens of billions of dollars. In the last decade it has become a conglomerate that holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and farming.1

Of course, the idea of a third-world economy surviving independently of global capital is either day-dreaming or a deliberate lie – in the case of Iran’s supreme leader and his claims of building a ‘resistance economy’ clearly the latter. It is true that, like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, Khamenei claims he is in favour of ‘delinking’ Iran’s economy from western capital (his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, famously declared that dependence on Japanese capital was acceptable, as Japan was not part of the west!). But the reality is that his own ‘charitable’ multi-billion-dollar organisation, not to forget the partly privatised banks and industries owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are actually part and parcel of global capital.

A few months ago Khamenei complained about the gap between the rich and the poor in Iran. But, despite the fact that the Islamic regime has been in power for over 38 years, there are many reasons why that gap keeps growing. First of all, those sections of the Iranian aristocracy and bourgeoisie that were not directly involved with the shah’s regime have retained their wealth, their capital and their land: and, thanks to Iran’s extremely high interest rates, that wealth grows daily. In addition the exploiting classes have been augmented by a whole new layer of nouveaux riches. What Iranians call aghazadeh-ha(sons and daughters of the ayatollahs) spend money at levels comparable to Saudi princes – driving sports cars and generally displaying their wealth.

As elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism, there is no ‘trickle-down effect’. During the years of sanctions senior clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters made billions from sanction-busting and the black market, while ordinary Iranians faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to a shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. Shahrzad Elghanayan, a New York Times reporter, was astonished by what she saw in a programme screened by the pro-government Press TV: “It was not just the wealth that struck me, but how freely Iran’s one percenters flaunted the symbols of western decadence without fear of government retribution.”2

Nowadays no-one denies that the nuclear deal was promoted and managed by Khamenei every step of the way. One of its main aims was the further integration of Iran’s economy within the global order and in this all factions of the regime, irrespective of their rhetoric, are united. The warnings of both supporters of regime change from above – who keep telling us that the supreme leader wants to isolate Iran and turn it into another North Korea – and the conservative factions – who claim they want to save Iran from globalisation – are nonsense.

The Islamic Republic is and will remain an integral part of global capitalism. That is why the idea that somehow a bourgeois government (either one composed of ‘more committed’ reformists or one imposed by regime change from above) would introduce democracy and workers’ rights is also a complete nonsense. Freedom of movement for capital has its rationale and the post-war commitment to democracy, trade union rights and public services has ended. There is a need more than ever for uninterrupted free movement of capital to the cheapest zones of exploitation. In the advanced capitalist countries concessions to workers are threatened, while trade unions have been considerably weakened by membership losses, as well as draconian legislation.

Under such circumstances it is criminal for the Iranian left to sow hopes that bourgeois democracy can save workers such as Reza Shahabi from arrest, intimidation and long prison sentences. It is irresponsible to offer Europe or the USA as models to be followed. The gains won in the advanced capitalist countries came at the expense of the superexploited third world. We live in the era of new imperial practices – as Alain Badiou puts it, “the policy of destroying states rather than corrupting or replacing them”3 – and that is the kind of future ‘regime change from above’ will bring to Iran.

As for Reza Shahabi, we have a duty to support his struggle, calling for his immediate, unconditional release and building support for his case amongst the international working class. But we should have no illusions in the rightwing, pro-regime-change NGOs, political groups, charities and other organisations which also claim to support him. They are an insult to the Iranian working class, which, despite severe hardship, has maintained its principled opposition to foreign intervention, while pursuing class-based struggles against Iran’s Islamic Republic and its internal and external capitalist allies.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.reuters.com/investigates/iran/#article/part1.

2. www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/opinion/clerical-rule-luxury-lifestyle.html?mcubz=0.

3. A Badiou Notre mal vient de bien loin Paris 2015.