They say a week is a long time in politics, but in the case of Iran sometimes one day is a very long time. Over the past few weeks there have been mass protests, the threat of war and then we had first the assassination of Qassem Soleimani ordered by Donald Trump – as I wrote earlier, this seemed to be primarily for the purpose of internal consumption – followed by his threat to bomb 52 places in Iran, including those of cultural prominence.
Following that, we saw the mobilisation of large numbers – not just, in my opinion in protest against the killing of Soleimani, but a reaction to the threat of US military attack. From January 3, when the assassination took place, until the middle of the following week, from what I can gather from messages on social media, every day people were wondering, is this the day we’re going to be bombed?
Now we have the protests – not just by opponents of the regime, but by various factions within the ruling circle – against Tehran’s shooting down on January 8 of a civilian aircraft, resulting in the death of all 176 people on board. The latest demonstrations are not as large as the previous week’s, but nevertheless reflect the extent of the opposition – not just to the United States, but to the corruption and lying of the regime, especially the initial statements following the attack on the Ukrainian plane, which made people more angry than the attack itself.
If anyone was looking for justification for the position of Hands Off the People of Iran, then the latest situation has provided it, sad and appalling as it is. First and foremost, we must oppose US aggression in the region, and specifically all attacks on Iran, which the United States has identified as the main enemy. But we must not ignore the fact that the people of Iran have an enemy within their own borders – the message of the latest demonstrations and those of November last year.
Let us begin with Soleimani. We now have a little more information than when I wrote the Weekly Worker article, ‘A godsend for the regime’ (January 9). I recently spoke to an American journalist familiar with Pentagon and US state department officials and he told me that in the state department officials were horrified. They had no idea that Soleimani was being targeted and there had been no risk assessment – particularly important, when it comes to the Middle East.
The state department ordered those in the know not to talk about the plans or to meet with any Iranian pro-‘regime change’ oppositionists, including royalists and Mujahedin-e Khalq. My understanding is that they had told secretary of state Mike Pompeo that if there is some serious action, such as an assassination or bombing, the regime is so fragile that it was likely to collapse. That did not happen, of course.
Instead the government was able to mobilise large numbers against the assassination and subsequent US threats. The regime has been able to demonstrate its power within Iran. Another general was unsuccessfully targeted by the US and then we had Trump’s claim of an ‘imminent threat’ from Iran – the story has changed so many times about what exactly it consisted of that no-one, including Republicans in the US Congress, knew exactly what Trump’s position was or what he expected from Iran.
Craig Murray has written a useful article about all this being linked to the “Bethlehem doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence”,1 where he says that this ‘imminent threat’ from Iran is neither likely nor possible – basically it is a figment of the imagination – but it has been used to justify the assassination and other possible US actions. The assassination was, of course, an act of war – that cannot be denied, and acts of war produce a response.
Its effect in terms of regional politics was exactly as expected. The Iraqi parliament voted for US troops to be withdrawn. In Lebanon the Christian Maronites opposed the US escalation – they believed that Soleimani had helped prevent Islamic State atrocities (the US itself had promoted him as the man who had defeated IS).
In Iran the regime promised revenge for the killing and there has been genuine anger amongst the protestors that the leader of the so-called ‘free world’ had been making such threats of violence against them. And then we had the events in the Islamic Republic itself. It is not just the regime’s errors, but the deliberate lies and deceit, which all help to reinforce the notion that for the regime human life does not matter.
First we had the January 7 stampede at the funeral procession for Soleimani in Tehran, when 56 people died. The authorities did not take the necessary measures – according to one reporter, there was no capacity to deal with the more than one million who showed up.
Then we have the regime’s revenge attacks on US forces in Iraq on January 8. From what I can gather, the US knew about it in advance – Tehran had already informed Iraq and Norway, for example, that it was going to attack the two US bases. But every effort was made to ensure that no US or Iraqi citizens would be killed (the only thing the regime does not seem to worry about is the plight of its own citizens). This was a symbolic missile launch, but it is the first time in recent history that a ‘third world’ country has fired missiles at a US base (and got away with it apparently).
You might say that, given that the US committed an act of war, the shooting down of the Ukrainian aircraft is ultimately its responsibility. But that is not how people in Iran see it, not least because of the way their government lied about it. For three days, although they knew it was their fault, they continued the falsehoods until finally on January 11 they admitted the truth and we had all the explanations.
It is claimed that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had only been informed of the actual reality the previous day. Mehdi Kahroubi, one of the former leaders of what was the Green Movement in Iran, has summed up this claim quite well. He said that, as the supreme leader is commander-in-chief of the army, either he is incompetent or he is lying. Either way, he should resign.
In fact since January 11 there have been crowds on the streets chanting, “Resign, resign!” It is not entirely clear who exactly this is addressed to – just Khamenei or president Hassan Rouhani or the entire leadership. We do have to understand that there is a great deal of confusion – understandable, given the dire state of the Iranian opposition (the left is a complete shambles). There is a mood of anger, of anti-war protest. Some are calling for a referendum, but we do not know on what exact question.
It is true that some demonstrators are clearly calling for the overthrow of the regime. A comrade of mine has commented: “Fine, we can say, ‘Let’s build the barricades and overthrow the regime’, but what do we put in its place?” That is the key question for the opposition to deal with.
None of this reduces the importance with which we should regard the latest demonstrations. Like many of the passengers killed on the aeroplane, who were postgraduates returning from a winter break (most of those killed were in fact Iranian or had dual nationality), a good number of the demonstrators are young people.
The lie initially told by the regime, saying that a fault had developed causing the plane to crash, symbolises the situation in the Islamic Republic. For example, we still do not know how many people died during the November demonstrations at the hands of security forces. First it was said to be 200, than the figure went up to 300, but Reuters claims it was 1,500. However, the point is that the government is refusing to come clean on this important issue. How many were killed as a result of its forces opening fire?
There is clearly a base of support for the government amongst sections of the civilian population as well as the military, but it treats 90% of the population as if their problems, their lives, don’t matter. There is already fury over the government’s handling of the effects of sanctions, the loss of jobs and so on. Yes, it is the United States that is responsible for imposing sanctions, but the regime’s corruption and cronyism has created multi-millionaires out of the black market that resulted from these sanctions.
I think the current situation shows that in the short term, following the assassination and US threats, it will be difficult to mobilise such huge numbers against the regime and that it will survive. Its regional allies are emboldened, there is no doubt. Some people say that these recent events will in fact pave the way for peace. Things are going nowhere, they say, and the US has not actually retaliated, so there is hope. I think that is a mistaken view.
Apart from the fact that the Iranian government cannot live without crisis, and therefore is unlikely to move towards resolving the conflict, the main point is that the United States does not want a settlement with Iran’s current regime. The talk of revenge and the 52 targets shows the mentality of the US leadership and the Republicans. They are still committed to avenging the taking of 52 US hostages in Tehran in 1979.
There is also the US arms industry, which involves huge sums of money. Who will buy arms if there was no threat of war? What about Israel? What would be its raison d’être from the US point of view if there was no Iranian threat? Such complicated issues cannot be resolved by saying, ‘If only the Iranian leaders were reasonable, rational people, then everything would be OK.’
What about the working class in Iran? Will it go onto the offensive? In my view that is not likely right now. Why is it that the students are the main force backing current anti-regime demonstrations? Because the working class has suffered severe repression – most of its effective leaders are in prison. For example, trade unionists were sentenced to 11 years for supporting the strike by sugar workers in March 2019. In reality the leadership of the workers’ movement has collapsed.
But, yes, protests will continue because of the economic situation, because of sanctions – a boycott of Iran’s airspace is one of the measures now being considered. So demands for radical change inside the country will continue to be raised.
As for the Iranian left in exile, it has become so engrossed in regime change, that it does not even wish to criticise Trump or US policy. Nor does it take on effective US allies like Mujahedin-e Khalq or the royalists. In the case of the latter, credit must go to the Tehran demonstrators of January 11, who provided a good answer. Their slogan was: “No shah, no supreme leader!”
Some remind us that the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party supported the Islamic republic. But the exiled left is today’s equivalent of Tudeh. It calls for a united front with US-backed regime change elements, so that we can all unite against dictatorship and later we will decide what to do after it has been removed. Well, that was exactly Tudeh’s attitude to the Islamists with respect to the shah. They formed a united front with Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the regime’s first supreme leader, and thought they would be part of the new establishment. Khomeini decimated the entire opposition to the new regime – and eventually it was Tudeh’s turn.
Similarly, today we are told that bringing down the dictatorship is the only thing that matters. Who cares about the United States? This is the sad state of the majority of the Iranian left. There are, of course, exceptions, but, as for the majority, I am dismayed by the positions they take today.