Iran, Kurdistan and the left

How can we achieve principled communist unity in the Middle East? We spoke to Mohammad Reza Shalgouni, a member of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar)

How do you see the current situation in the Middle East and in Iran itself following first the nuclear deal and then its ‘decertification’ by Donald Trump?

Over the last few years the Middle East has been torn apart by a destructive crisis – caught in the midst of a full-scale international conflict. All sides have played a crucial part in initiating and continuing this situation, but of course the United States, Britain, France and their regional allies – in particular the kingdoms in the oil emirates of the Persian Gulf – have played a crucial role in the ensuing tragedy.

This disastrous situation entered a new phase with the Republican Party’s victory in last year’s US elections and, given the declared aims of the Trump administration, one cannot see an end to it. Let us not forget that the Trump administration is the first US government that openly admits it is seeking ‘regime change’ (be it in a ‘peaceful manner’) in Iran. It also wants to transfer the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and with unprecedented clarity declares in a gathering of Arab leaders that it is not concerned about human rights, that its only preoccupation is the defeat of Islamic terrorism (and, of course, only the anti-US version of this phenomenon).

In the current situation in the Middle East a number of issues have special significance.

Following the events of the last two decades, the house of Saud sees its future in danger and is therefore employing a more active and aggressive foreign policy – attempting to impose its hegemony over other Arab states and creating a situation where the Saudi dynasty is secure. However, this policy means the Saudis themselves are facing major crises.

Firstly, their attempt to confront Shia movements has not only increased the confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran: it has also created an extraordinary situation in Yemen, Bahrain and even the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia (where the country’s major oil reserves are to be found), to such an extent that it is difficult to see how they can control this situation. For example, the catastrophic situation in Yemen is far worse than the tragedy in that engulfed Syria.

Secondly, Saudi attempts at eradication of various networks associated with the Muslim Brotherhood have led them to a confrontation with Qatar, and as a result the Gulf Cooperation Council is on the verge of destruction. It has also led to a situation where Saudi and Arab Emirates relations with Turkey have soured to critical levels.

Thirdly, in the Syrian civil war the intervention of the Russian airforce has changed the balance of forces in favour of the Assad regime and, as a result of this, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.

In Turkey itself, after decades of Kemalism and its emphasis on secularism, with the formation of a personal dictatorship by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the separation of state and religion has become meaningless, and repression against the Kurds has increased. This might lead to longer and more serious confrontations in that country, thereby increasing the Middle East’s many crises.

As for Iran, which in the past wanted to unite ‘all Muslims’ against both the ‘east and the west’, it now has to confine itself to uniting various Shia sects against the Sunnis and to relying on sectarian divides to become a regional power. However, the creation of groups similar to Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria will in the long run weaken the current rulers of Iran.

The Iranian regime is engulfed in deep sectarian wars with Sunnis (who encompass nine tenths of the world’s Muslims) and in the longer term victory against such forces is impossible. This also increases the threat of military confrontation with the United States and its allies. We should not forget that right now in Iraq we are witnessing a situation where some Shia groups are distancing themselves from Iran and in Syria, where the majority of the population is Sunni, there is increasing antipathy towards the Iranian regime.

Under such circumstances the Trump administration is trying to use a number of punitive measures to render the nuclear deal with Iran meaningless. It is hoping to reverse George Bush’s failure to change the map of the region.

What is your analysis of the referendum that took place in Iraqi Kurdistan and what effect has it had on Iranian Kurdish groups?

Iraqi Kurdistan is already benefiting from a solid, all-encompassing autonomy and within Iraq’s federalist constitution that situation would have been maintained.

In the most optimistic scenario, separation from Iraq would lead to complete dependence on one or other of the neighbouring states. Such dependence would be dangerous even in the European Union, never mind in the kind of jungle rule prevalent in a crisis-riddled Middle East. Following separation from Iraq, the Kurdish regional government would inevitably become another little oil state, similar to those of the Persian Gulf, but even more fragile than them: unlike those kingdoms, Iraqi Kurdistan is land-locked.

The separation of Kurdistan would inevitably lead to further nationalist and regional wars in the Middle East and we know that nationalist struggles can lead to the same kind of cannibalistic confrontations that religious infighting causes. The Kurdish vote for independence immediately prompted anti-Kurd sentiment in Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

The separation of Kurdistan from Iraq would no doubt increase tensions amongst various Kurdish groups both inside Iraq and in neighbouring countries – firstly because establishing democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan would face many obstacles and secondly because the regional government would undoubtedly have to compromise with one of the neighbouring countries – oppressors of Kurds within their own borders – in order to survive. Here it is not accidental that Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, had (until recently) good relations with Turkey – a vicious enemy of the Kurds both in Turkey and Syria.

The separation of Kurdistan would make the coexistence of Sunnis and Shias more difficult in Iraq and would lead to the complete destruction of Iraq as a nation-state – a situation that would no doubt increase the reactionary influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia amongst opposing religious sects, leading to more widespread religious-based violence. In addition, let us remember that separation from Iraq would not be as peaceful as the separation of the Czech and Slovak republics, in that it would lead to ethnic cleansing in some areas. For example, the issue of the control of Kirkuk, Khaneghin and even Mosul would lead to further confrontations, causing deeper, unresolvable divisions.

The Kurdish referendum took place at time when, after years of struggling for independence, the majority of the Kurdish population had come to the conclusion that the peaceful coexistence of nationalities was the best way of achieving democracy and exercising the right to self-determination. This way of thinking is currently dominant amongst Kurds in Turkey (the largest group of Kurds within a country in the Middle East).

The result of the 2015 elections showed how such an attitude can strengthen the alliance between progressive forces and the workers’ movement. In those elections, the Peoples Democratic party (which had only had come into existence three years earlier) united the Turkish Kurds with a number of leftwing tendencies in Turkey, and managed to get the best result ever achieved by the left in Turkey. If it had not been for the manifold plots of Erdoğan’s security forces and the mistakes of the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), this would have undoubtedly changed the political scene in Turkey in favour of democracy.

All this shows clearly that the solution is not separation, but voluntary, democratic coexistence of all nationalities and peoples of the region, which can pave the way for democracy in the entire Middle East. This is the path that progressive Kurdish forces will have to accept sooner or later.

However, unfortunately the majority of Iranian Kurdish groups, under the influence of nationalist sentiments and slogans, supported the Kurdish referendum. They essentially interpret the right to self-determination as separation.

Your organisation has recently left the ‘Council of Cooperation’ of Iranian left and communist groups. You have stated that this was related to the illusions held by certain groups that ‘regime change from above’ could lead to ‘democracy’ or even ‘socialism’. Can you explain your reasons for leaving this alliance?

From the outset our organisation was in favour of a powerful class bloc created through an alliance of the left and for more than two decades we have defended our line in favour of the unity of supporters of socialism. It was in this context that we joined the Council of Cooperation in Iran.

The reality is, however, that our understanding of socialism was always different from the majority of the groups in this alliance, mainly because most of them do not draw a clear line between themselves and the ‘socialist states and communist parties’ of the Soviet era. These were parties that did not believe in the participation of the majority of the population in shaping the transition to socialism. Nevertheless, we defended our line within the alliance, inviting others to debate such issues, while participating in joint activities.

However, the change in the line of the Communist Party [mainly a Kurdish organisation – translator], towards an alliance with those Iranian Kurdish forces associated with US-sponsored ‘regime change from above’, made it impossible for us to remain in the Council of Cooperation. In response to our opposition to this line, the Communist Party denied that the US had any plans for regime change from above. This comment was made in circumstances when after Trump’s victory the United States openly talks of such plans – indeed some of the groups that the Iranian Communist Party wants to ally itself with are openly seeking financial support from Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States itself.

So the Communist Party wanted to remain in the alliance of the left, while participating in a Kurdish unity front, advocating regime change from above. This would have meant the Council of Cooperation becoming a junior partner of the US in blatant contradiction to the first principle of the alliance of left and communist forces: ie, “commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic republic” – from below and by the majority of the Iranian people.

Redrawing the map: why is Trump abandoning the nuclear deal?

War will follow war

In a single speech on October 13, lasting just a few minutes, Donald Trump managed to succeed in doing what had seemed impossible for decades – uniting the Iranian government and the almost all the opposition to the regime (ironically including sections of Trump’s own ‘regime change from above’ gang), as well as the majority of Iranians inside and outside the country.

Having turned a deaf ear to pleas from European leaders, members of Congress and the Senate, as well as a large chunk of his own administration, the president’s ‘decertification’ of the Iran nuclear deal was, at least in the short term, in effect a gift to the Islamic regime in Tehran. As sections of the Iranian left have maintained, the country’s religious leaders thrive in situations of crises provoked by US threats – it could be argued that they owe their survival to them.

Over the last 16 years the US ‘war on terror’ has provided helpful conditions – not only by getting rid of its main regional enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but internationally the Islamic regime loves to present itself as a victim of global injustice. Trump has given Tehran a helping hand on this one, with Britain, Germany and France united in their opposition to the US president’s stance. In the British parliament, condemnation of Trump’s statement united Blairites with Corbyn supporters, pro-Brexit Tories with ‘remainers’, and the Democratic Unionist Party with the Scottish nationalists. Meanwhile, European politicians did not shy away from expressing their disappointment.

A joint statement by British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – was “the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy” and “a major step toward ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is not diverted for military purposes”.

Of course, the European Union’s main concern is the economic benefits of the Iran nuclear agreement and the possibility of lucrative deals, which they hope will open up new markets. Having said that, many European firms have in the past faced huge penalties for trading with Iran and, at a time when we are witnessing renewed trade wars, Trump’s line on Iran could become a serious matter of contention between the EU and the US – although at this stage, of course, no-one can predict where the UK will stand, if such a situation occurs. However, if the US Congress agrees to new sanctions, it is also possible that European countries – not only threatened with potentially heavy penalties, but also eager to maintain economic relations with the US – would toe the line of the world hegemon.

Can we deduce from all this that there is consensus in opposition to Trump’s position? Not really. As always there are those in the US administration whose only purpose in politics seems to be taking revenge on Iran, and more particularly on the Iranian people, for the 1979 revolution, which saw the overthrow of the US stooge, the shah of Iran. Former chief strategist Steve Bannon may have left the White House, but Trump is surrounded by neoconservatives whose central political ambition seems to be the enforcement of regime change from above in Iran: John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani and even Trump’s main Republican opponent, John McCain, agree with this particular piece of Trump lunacy. And, of course, there remains amongst Iranians a minority under the illusion that regime change from above will bring about ‘civil society’, democracy and the rule of law (presumably with the return of the shah’s son or the rule of the loony religious cult known as the Mojahedin).

Within minutes of Trump’s speech Iranian president Hassan Rouhani appeared on TV with his response: “As long as our rights are guaranteed, as long as our interests require, and as long as we enjoy its benefits, we will respect the JCPOA within the framework of the interests of our nation.” However, Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned of a different outcome:

If they revive the sanctions and we face an inability to use the deal in oil, gas and shipping arenas, and for bringing our money to the country, we have the right to make a decision about the continuation of our presence in the JCPOA.

If Congress imposes new sanctions, the first victim will be Iran’s multi billion-dollar contract with US plane manufacturer Boeing. On this, Zarif said: “In our view, there is no problem, but if the US government impedes this contract, then they haven’t honoured their commitments under the JCPOA.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, confirmed that Tehran would not willingly abandon the internationally backed nuclear deal – he welcomed the reaction of its European signatories to Trump’s decertification.

‘Rogue state’?

Iran’s relations with Hamas and Hezbollah are often mentioned as a source of ‘instability’ in the region. Apparently this is what Trump means by claiming Iran is breaching the “spirit” of the deal.

I have been a life-long critic of Hezbollah and I have no illusions about its ‘social’ activities in south Lebanon. I blame it for events that led to Irangate. As far as Hamas is concerned, after the 1967 war with Egypt, Israel hunted down secular Palestinian Liberation Organisation factions, but in Gaza it dropped what had been Egypt’s policy for many years: the imposition of restrictions against Islamist activists. This relaxation played a crucial role in the creation of Hamas (influenced ideologically by the Muslim Brotherhood) and its subsequent evolution into a major political force.

In fact, for many years Israel tolerated and at times encouraged such activists as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO and its dominant faction, Fatah, and this inevitably strengthened the position of Hamas – although Iran’s own relations with Hamas has had its ups and downs.

We have to remember that, as far as Iran’s Islamic republic is concerned, sending arms to both Hamas and Hezbollah is a form of insurance. Iranian nationalists, who keep telling us that ‘Iran should stop arming these terrorists’ and ‘concentrate on the country’s own interests’, forget that, had it not been for fear of retaliation by Hezbollah, Israel would have bombed Iran’s nuclear installations a long time ago. That would have had disastrous consequences not just for Iran, but for the entire region. Of course, now that Egypt’s Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, not Khamenei, is Hamas’s best friend, Trump claims Iran is supporting the Taliban.

Here a bit of history might help the US president. When the Taliban were in power in Kabul their main religious/political opposition was from Iran’s Islamic Republic. In 2001, as far as the war against the Taliban was concerned, Iran’s then reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, gave all the political and logistic support he could to the US under its neoconservative president, George W Bush. What was Bush’s response? Naming Iran as a “rogue state”. So if there is any ‘cooperation’ between Iran and the Taliban, we know how that came about.

As for the claim that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (or Pasdaran) are a terrorist organisation, up until a few months ago when Iran was fighting Islamic State in Syria, the Pasdaran were hailed in the US media as the most effective force fighting ‘Jihadi terrorists’ and all this culminated in the Guards’ commander, major-general Qasem Soleimani, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine, which welcomed Pasdaran’s military operations.

Kurdistan

Of course, all this is related to the current situation in Kirkuk. As we predicted, while Islamic State is losing territory in Syria as well as Iraq, the battle for the areas ‘evacuated’ by the jihadi group is creating new conflicts. The Kurdish regional government tried to take advantage of all this by organising a referendum on Kurdish independence, but this week Baghdad government troops, accompanied by Shia militias, have moved into Kirkuk.

This is a rather sad end to the silly miscalculation of Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani, but it also reflects the worries of both the Iranian and the Iraqi governments about the current White House incumbent and his closest ‘advisors’. As Trump keeps saying, they are not into ‘nation building’, so the claim that they want regime change in Tehran is in reality code for their preference to see the destruction of the current states of both Iran and Iraq, and their replacement with smaller, national/regional governments more subservient to US foreign policy.

Of course, as far as economic policy is concerned, both Iran’s Islamic Republic and the Shia government installed in Baghdad in 2003 work entirely within the frameworks of neoliberal capitalism. However, when it comes to politics, Iran is not exactly in the US sphere of influence and current thinking on Iraq in the White House seems to be: ‘Let us get rid of the problem once and for all, by overturning the entire national set-up – Iraq can be divided into three separate entities surely.

In these circumstances one can only laugh at ‘leftwing’ Iranian Kurdish leaders who claim that a future ‘independent’ Kurdistan (‘liberated’ from Iran and Iraq thanks to US military and financial help) will be a step towards socialism. Global capital is already up in arms about the soft anti-austerity economic programme of the Corbyn/McDonnell opposition in the UK, because it challenges neoliberal economic dogma (it definitely does not challenge capitalism, as so many Corbynistas keep telling us). So how can anyone imagine that imperialism would tolerate ‘socialist’ economic policies in a tiny, land-locked Kurdish republic?

The US state department (not just Donald Trump) is the main sponsor of the attacks of the Labour Party right and the UK media on Corbyn’s soft anti-war stance. So are we really saying that it will allow a new ‘independent’ Kurdistan to exercise a ‘socialist’ foreign policy? One that might challenge Israel’s nuclear programme, for example? One that will be in solidarity with the Palestinians? The answer is, of course, in the negative. The Iranian Kurdish groups propagating such ideas have lost touch with reality – they are now part of the problem rather than the solution to the upheavals in the region.