In the aftermath of the protests of late December and early January, there is a consensus that the majority of Iranians face a dire economic situation, while the poorer sections of the working class face hunger and complete destitution. Yet exiled royalists and interestingly sections of the Iranian ‘left’ outside Iran still maintain that the protests were only about democracy and against the ‘Islamic character’ of the Iranian state. As a result of this, amongst exiled leftwing groups we are witnessing yet another attempt at creating unprincipled alliances. The last time round, in 1979, uniting with clerics and Islamists against the shah’s regime ended in tragedy. This time, an alliance with royalists, US neocon republicans, Iranian supporters of Donald Trump, including the loony People’s Mojahedin sect, is truly a farce.
We are told that, since the current battles are about ‘democracy’ (necessary before the working class can get organised) and because the Shah’s son has told us he is not “seeking power”, unity of all opposition forces is necessary. Well, you might remember that ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini also promised he would not take power before he returned to Iran and look where we are now.
In the era of global capital, when we talk about democracy, especially in war-torn Middle East, we need to explain what we mean. This matters. Since 2001, the peoples of the region are weary of the ‘democracy’ delivered through regime change from above. In addition, unless we understand the reasons behind the protests and rebellions in Iran’s Islamic Republic against both factions of the regime, we will not be able to build a genuine solidarity movement and will end up betraying the aspirations of the people we claim to defend.
But first let me give a very brief summary of the state of Iran’s economy and the role of both factions of the regime in creating the disaster that is Iran’s neoliberal capitalism.
Since the late 1990s the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been senior partners in Iran’s economy, partly because of the country’s international debts and partly because capital, even in a Shia republic, is global. Finance, trade and industry are all completely intertwined with global capital. Every year representatives of the major international financial organisations go to Iran to assess what progress has been made regarding privatisation, the abolition of subsidies and so on. Ironically the first time the Iranian government was actually congratulated for meeting IMF requirements was in the second term of the populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, despite claims of leading the government of ‘the disinherited’ and looking after the poor, was in fact presiding over a period where the gap between the rich and the poor widened dramatically, as privatisation (be it in the strange form it takes in Iran, as I will explain later) was implemented.
The supreme leader, Iran’s revolutionary guards and even the ‘reformist’ government of Hassan Rouhani have all played their part. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei went as far as changing the constitution to allow the privatisation of crucial sectors of the economy, including transport, telecommunication, oil, gas and petrochemicals. The privatised and semi-privatised industries have adopted all the ‘reconstruction’ adjustments that accompany such policies, making thousands of workers unemployed and reducing most jobs to short-term contracts, some with draconian conditions. The reduction – in some cases abolition – of subsidies, the most constant demand put forward by the IMF, has created additional poverty.
No doubt new sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies helped impoverish the country, yet they enriched the leaders of the revolutionary guards, as well as the heads of those privatised companies associated with them. These groups have monopoly access to foreign markets and enjoy good rates of exchange for foreign currencies. They were therefore able to increase their private and collective wealth at the expense of the majority of Iranians.
In view of all this, how ironic it is that in the current situation some are seeking support from international capital and its internal allies – in other words, the very forces which imposed privatisation on Iran’s Islamic Republic – to ‘defend’ Iranian workers. I must admit, even by the standards of exiled politics, this takes some beating – relying on capitalism itself to relieve the economic hardship caused by the neoliberal economic policies imposed by its institutions!
There is no doubt that the privatisations, which were ‘legitimised’ by Khamenei when he changed the constitution to allow private ownership of key industries, are not carbon copies of the privatisations carried out in advanced capitalist countries, in that well-placed individuals and agencies associated with the organs of power – in particular the military and security forces – benefit from them. However, they are quite close replicas of what happens worldwide in terms of effects felt, especially in less developed countries.
Currently Iran’s economy is formed of three parts: the private sector, the state sector and the semi-state/private sector. Yet the three parts work closely with each other and, although at times there is some conflict between them, on the whole the three constituent parts coordinate their functions in line with their common interests. Meanwhile, royalists, along with bourgeois liberal politicians, tell us that Iran’s economy would prosper if only there was ‘proper’ privatisation! I can only assume they mean a privatisation where they would benefit instead of elements of the regime. Every study of the current situation shows that sections of industry belong to Iran’s old aristocracy, some of whom did not like the Pahlavis (a short-lived dynasty – 1925-79 – as opposed to the Qajar dynasty that lasted from 1785 to 1925) and did not do so well under them. Other sections of capital are owned by wealthy Iranians who returned some of their money for investment following the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Another section of the super-wealthy exploiters of the working class are former members of the revolutionary guards who became private capitalists a decade ago. Many of these and their offspring are the ‘new rich’ in Iran and, although they benefited from connections with those in power, their ideological and political connections to the ideals of the religious state have been replaced by the pursuit of personal and family interests and the accumulation of more and more wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth than the image of Iran portrayed by bourgeois liberals (including constitutional royalists!) as a country where everything is owned by the public sector and it is only the likes of the revolutionary guards who benefit.
That is why the ‘united front for democracy’ alongside bourgeois liberals, proposed by the reformist soft left (those who not surprisingly see no harm in accepting US or European funds for their political campaigns, those who openly or covertly support imperialist intervention, those who are allegedly on the left, yet seek further sanctions against Iran for its violation of human rights) is pie in the sky. It is a bit like asking PFI managers benefiting financially from the privatisation of sections of the NHS to join the campaign to save the health service. Yes, I know it sounds mad.
This week on social media a video has appeared which was apparently taken during a meeting of Iranian activists who are addressed via Skype by a former Iranian leftwinger in exile in London, who tells them how neoconservatives in the United States and Canada have invested a lot of time and money in “campaigns to support the Iranian working class”. I assume his advice to his new allies is to take the grievances of the poor and working class seriously.
As disgusting as this intervention is – equating genuine protests by tens of thousands of Iranians with sections of the right – it is certainly true that some of those claiming to be supporters of the Iranian working class have actively sought the support of rightwing CIA-sponsored ‘trade unions’ for a good part of the last two decades, yet our constant efforts to expose such individuals and groups have largely fallen on deaf ears.
An ideological response comes from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. This is truly amazing: “The fight for a secular democracy is a way to help workers develop their economic struggles and organisations, and to grow strong enough to pose and win support for socialist aims”.1
The AWL, together with virtually every other group from the Trotskyist tradition worldwide, has spent most of the last two decades attacking the Iranian left for supporting a stagist theory of revolution and therefore being responsible for the failure of the uprising in February 1979. Yet now it tells us that we must first have a democratic secular state in Iran courtesy of what they call “regime change”. These people must think the Iranian people are complete fools: having witnessed regime change and ‘democracy’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, can anyone seriously come out with such nonsense with a straight face? Post-2011 Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by some to be ‘democracies’, yet I am sure (with the exception of a small minority of idiot royalists, most of them in exile) there are no Iranians who envy the kind of ‘democracy’ currently to be seen in Iraq or Afghanistan.
There are groups on the Iranian left with a line similar to the AWL, ranging from those who are soft on Zionism to those who openly act as apologists for the state of Israel, who are also involved. Ignoring the plight of the Palestinians is one thing, but claiming that Israel is a ‘democracy’ and therefore there is nothing wrong with its nuclear programme (both military and non-military) is another matter. Let me remind you that nuclear programmes – especially those pursued by religious states in the Middle East, such as Iran and Israel – are more dangerous than anywhere else because of the clandestine nature of nature of their installations. This makes them even more of a danger than other nuclear plants, both for their own citizens and the peoples of the world. We already know that the age of Dimona (a ‘textile factory’ which is in reality is a nuclear plant) represents a serious threat. However, our soft Zionists are adamant that in the democracy that is the occupation state none of this matters. In other words, nuclear technology in the hands of religious states are OK as long as they are not Islamic.
Of course, no-one should take the Iranian groups associated with this soft Zionist agenda seriously – the ones I looked up are splits from splits of small organisations with names that are straight out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I really like the addition of “official faction” to otherwise identical names to distinguish yet another split. These groups truly belong to the dustbin of history, but we should not underestimate the damage their ‘solidarity’ does to those labour activists in prison in Iran who are falsely accused of being associated with foreign powers. No wonder elements among the genuine left are becoming weary of ‘solidarity campaigns’ with Iran’s workers.