It is workers who have been hit the most, writes Yassamine Mather, while those close to the regime have benefited enormously
We all remember Hillary Clinton’s promise of “targeted sanctions” against Iran’s Islamic republic. They were deployed to ‘moderate’ the Shia government’s regional policies, as well as its internal human rights record. Of course, anyone with any knowledge of the regime in Tehran would have told the then secretary of state how futile such policies were.
We knew that, given the existing political and economic structures in Iran, sanctions would enrich those in power, while creating misery, through food and medical shortages, for the majority. Yet none of us could have predicted the extent to which those associated with the government of the populist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the supporter of the poor and disinherited!), were benefiting from sanctions – profiting to the tune of millions of dollars.
Last week in a trial in Tehran we got a glimpse of what had occurred under the ‘targeted’, ‘smart’ sanctions of the Obama era. The latest government drive to root out corruption – concentrating on events that occurred under the previous government, not the current one – has revealed a scandal which, according to the Iranian judiciary, involved the theft of some $7.4 billion.
The case involves 14 executives and board members of Iran’s Petrochemical Commercial Company (PCC), going back to the last years of the second term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2010-13). Most of the suspects are in custody in Iran, while three who now reside abroad and are being tried in absentia.
The charges read out in court involve “disrupting Iran’s economic system” by profiteering from the multi-tiered exchange rate. According to a senior judiciary official, who addressed the hearing on March 7, “Despite numerous letters [from] the minister of oil … to the defendants that the foreign currency proceeds must be paid in full … the defendants did not pay any attention … and seized a portion of the foreign currency.”
In other words, they were involved in circumventing sanctions when selling petrochemical products and in the process they embezzled a percentage of the profits. A spokesman for Iran’s prosecutor general explained on March 9:
The suspects converted the foreign currency into Iranian currency before returning it to the government, making a profit in the process. They kept some of the foreign currency, allegedly selling it for up to three times the official rate on the black market.
Of course, this case is not unique. We already know of a similar one – that of billionaire businessman Babak Zanjani, who is currently in prison awaiting execution.
All this is a familiar story. The immediate effect of sanctions is a dramatic fall in the rate of exchange and Iran’s currency continues to fall, as new sanctions are imposed. The current administration under president Hassan Rowhani relies on the export of oil and petrochemical products and often the deals negotiated open the way to uncontrolled black-marketeering.
As with most other industries, Iran’s petrochemical companies have been privatised and inevitably those close to various factions of the Iranian religious state have benefited. Managers are often nominated by the president and his cabinet, and also involve influential MPs in the majles (Iranian parliament), as well as the Revolutionary Guards militia.
The case of the Iranian PCC is getting widespread attention, mainly because of the sordid tale of one of those being tried in absentia – you couldn’t make it up. The controversial figure involved is Marjan Sheikholeslami Aleagha, who is currently in the United States. She was apparently a supporter of ‘reformists’ in the regime, but switched to support for Ahmadinejad, once he was in power. She now lives in the US and is married to Mehdi Khalaji, a ‘senior researcher’ in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). The institute is by all accounts a rightwing, pro-war, pro-sanctions set-up – it was established in 1985 by, amongst others, Martin Indyk, an Australian-trained academic and former deputy director of research for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. According to an article by David Ottoway, published in 1989, “Indyk described the think tank as friendly to Israel, but doing credible research on the Middle East in a realistic and balanced way.”1
In December 2003, professor Rashid Alkhalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, criticised WINEP in an interview with Al Jazeera, claiming it represents “the fiercest of the enemies of the Arabs and the Muslims”, and described it as the “most important Zionist propaganda tool in the United States”.2
As for Khalaji, Iranians know him as one of the most ardent advocates of sanctions! In recent months he has promoted ‘discussions’ with the pretender to the Iranian throne, Reza Pahlavi. In a number of BBC Persian TV debates, where he was promoting sanctions, I have argued against his position. And now, of course, Farsi social media is inundated with comments about his political stance and his wife’s role in the current scandal.
According to documents presented to last week’s court hearing, Marjan Sheikholeslami transferred proceeds from sales of Iranian petrochemical products to the accounts of her trading companies in Turkey, profiting by a cool $9 million.3
Another individual facing corruption charges is Reza Hamzelou, who was managing director of the Iranian PCC in 2010-11. It is now alleged that in the autumn of 2011, as new economic sanctions went into effect, he was given a new role: to bypass them by selling petrochemicals on the black market.
By the time all this was happening, I had already written extensively on the consequences of the US’s ‘targeted’ sanctions. According to the theocratic government’s own statistics, by 2009 one third of the state assets had been privatised (value: $37 billion, out of $110 billion), and 78% of such privatisation occurred under Ahmadinejad, who was following the International Monetary Fund’s model for ‘structural adjustment’. In many ways, this dismantling of the public sector resembles what happened in Russia and other east European states in the 1990s, when vast sections of the economy were turned over to oligarchs at bargain-basement prices. In Iran it was the Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran (RGCI) and its subsidiaries, followed by individuals associated with pro-Ahmadinejad factions of the regime, who benefited from relentless privatisation. In this period tens of billions of dollars in state assets were handed out to the RGCI in secret deals. The sanctions were supposed to be ‘targeted’ at the Revolutionary Guards, close associates of the supreme leader and senior clerics, but, because these people own everything, they were the least affected.
Of course, it would be a complete mistake to believe that anything has changed in Iran. Now that the country faces a new wave of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, it would be foolish to think that with the departure of Ahmadinejad the economy is more transparent or that those associated with the Rowhani government are not involved in sanctions-busting, the black market and dodgy currency deals. As before, the ones who are suffering from sanctions are mainly the workers – for instance, those who have lost their jobs, as companies incapable of importing basic raw materials go bust; those who have not been paid their wages for months; civil servants who have suffered pay cuts; patients who cannot get the medicine they need or receive treatment in hospitals where basic surgical equipment cannot be repaired.
Next time someone tells me about corruption in Iran, I will remind them that the money made from it manages to find its way out of the country. So how come western banks and financial institutions – which in the two years since Trump’s presidency began have, in order to avoid US-imposed penalties, blocked the accounts of thousands of Iranian law-abiding citizens in their searching for ‘money laundering’ – have failed to detect millions in dirty money sent from Iran to Canada and the US?
Next time anyone advocates sanctions against Iran, they should be reminded of a certain Mehdi Khalaji – he also advocates US sanctions, while his wife has been raking in millions as a direct result of them.
The US administration preferred Islamists to leftists, says Yassamine Mather
Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the February 1979 uprising in Iran has been marked by dozens of scholarly seminars in Europe, numerous documentaries produced by the Persian-language media, as well the usual military parade inside the country.
Documentaries produced outside Iran concentrate on memoirs of key players who are still alive – from the wife of the ex-shah, Farah Diba, and the officials of the Pahlavi court, to Abolhassan Banisadr, one of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s closest allies in 1979, who is now in exile in France. Most of them have made similar comments on previous anniversaries of the Iranian revolution, but this time quotes from American general Robert Huyser’s reports (originally declassified in 2015), which have been repeated by a number of news agencies, give us a better idea of US plans after the shah’s departure.
Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic have peddled various conspiracy theories about Huyser’s secret mission of January 1979. However, the published documents show the confusion emanating from the Carter administration, which was trying to manage events thousand of miles away, in circumstances where it had failed to understand the reasons behind mass protests against its favourite Middle Eastern tyrant. One of Huyser’s main tasks was to encourage the shah to leave the country and to stop a potential military coup by generals loyal to him. According to BBC World Service journalist Kambiz Fattahi, who has studied the state department’s declassified documents, 10 days after the shah’s departure, Khomeini sent a message to Washington offering a deal:
If president Jimmy Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.1
Khomeini’s note to the president was declassified in 2016, but it is only now, on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, that comments and analysis of it have become well known – shedding more light on the Carter administration’s secret negotiations in the crucial weeks after the shah’s flight from Tehran. While, as I have pointed out, Huyser’s main mission was to stop pro-shah generals from organising a military coup, he had in fact given the generals the green light for such a coup if the left was in a position to take power. In other words, the secret deal demonstrates that the US administration was more fearful of the left than the Islamists – particularly the working class, whose strikes had paralysed the country. In the true tradition of US ‘foreign intervention’, not least during the cold war, it was better to ally with the Islamists against secular and leftwing forces.
The plan agreed between the Carter administration and Khomeini (via his secular advisors) was to hold back the workers’ movement and organise a smooth transfer of power to Khomeini. What shattered those plans was the involvement of homafars (technicians and junior flight crew) in the Iranian air force, who took up arms against their commanders in support of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Guerrillas on February 11-12.
As I have written on a number of occasions, in February 1979 we were not facing a situation of ‘dual power’ in Iran. While the Islamists were powerful before the uprising, leftwing activists were the last to be released from prison. In fact Islamists had faced far less repression under the shah than the left – holding meetings in mosques and other religious institutions had been tolerated. They were also much better off financially, benefiting from donations from the bazaar. That is why the religious movement was far better organised than the left and other secular forces. In addition the left was politically confused, made many mistakes and allowed the Islamists to outmanoeuvre them.
Looking back at the film reels of 40 years ago, it is interesting to see how the current situation in Iran is hardly what was envisaged at the time of the February revolution. In late 1978 and early 1979 two of the common slogans on demonstrations were: ‘Bread, work, freedom!’ and ‘Equality, independence!’ Forty years on, I do not think anyone in their right mind would argue that Iranians has won ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’, let alone democracy. The supreme leader dominates the political agenda, while presidents are ‘elected’ from a pre-selected list of supporters of the current order. Prisons are full of labour and civil rights activists, and the Shia religious order cannot even tolerate opposition from within its own ranks. Leaders of the reformist green movement have been under house arrest for the last 10 years.
That is why, when I was asked to talk at a seminar to mark the 40th anniversary, I decided to speak on ‘“Equality” and its relation to “independence”.
Needless to say, the Iranian people would not have rebelled against the shah had it not been for the massive gap between the rich and poor. In the absence of any financial support for the peasantry, the shah’s ‘land reform’ had impoverished the countryside, while the massive exodus to the big cities created sprawling shanty towns.
Two parallel universes existed – not just in terms of income and standards of living, but also in terms of culture. The secular upper classes in north Tehran looked down on the poor and even the lower middle class. The word chadori (the long cloak worn by religious women) was used by westernised, upper class woman as a derogatory term. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, certain forms of ‘cultural capital’ were valued over and above others – they helped or hindered social mobility just as much as income or wealth.
Far from being a ‘conspiracy by the west to depose the shah, because he was getting too powerful’ (one of the theories put forward by Iranian royalists), the uprising was a direct result of the failures of the shah’s regime to respond to the economic crisis that followed the boom of the early 1970s. Most skilled workers faced a drop in their living standards in 1976, while the ‘White Revolution’ in agriculture had left massive numbers of peasants landless and penniless, forcing them to seek seasonal jobs in the big cities. Recession left them unemployed and destitute. In addition to the above two groups, the small independent producers had been forced out of business, and sometimes made bankrupt, by the decision of Iran’s chamber of commerce to shore up the already privileged position of the big capitalists. Corruption and the rule of a clique around the royal court meant that many traditional merchants, often associated with the bazaar, were deprived of large profits available to the more privileged sections of the ruling class.
Such decisions, exemplifying the arrogant dictatorship of the royal family, fuelled widespread political discontent, while the suppression of leftwing and in fact all secular opposition allowed sections of the clergy and the Islamic movement to mobilise what was in reality class discontent in the name of religion. The clergy, which had survived the repressive measures of the shah’s dictatorship by making compromises with the regime, was in a much better position to benefit from political discontent than secular and socialist groups, who had lost many in their ranks through execution and imprisonment. In the summer of 1978 religious demonstrations in major cities were led by the clergy, financed by the bazaar and supported by independent producers, the urban poor and students.
After the revolution, as protests against inequality and for better wages and working conditions continued in factories and throughout the oil industry, the new Islamic government attacked protesters and labour activists. For a regime whose main support was based in the bazaar and amongst small capitalists, defence of private property became paramount.
In addition, the non-homogeneous (multi-class) mix in the Islamists’ camp necessitated a policy of denying class struggle, or at least marginalising it and removing it from the political agenda. This social bloc, united under the umbrella of religious culture, had no other way of surmounting the class antagonisms within it between the poor shanty-town dwellers and the much better-off bazaaris. The new religious state needed ‘unity’, and it therefore quickly developed a hatred of the left, which wanted to continue the struggle, and champion independent working class action. In the first month after coming to power the new regime used paramilitaries and civilian supporters to attack workers’ protests. In March 1979 those attending a meeting of oil workers in Tehran refinery were attacked by Hezbollah and Bassij militias, who were shouting Hezb faghat hezbollah: ‘Only one party – Allah’s party’.
New and weak
The Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) was the only time when the state took welfare measures such as issuing coupons to most of the population. The harsh conditions created by the war masked some of the underlying inequalities within the country. But even then the rich and powerful were able to pay bribes to prevent their sons being sent to the front – some even found ways to send their offspring abroad to avoid conscription. In other words, there was not much equality in terms of those who were sent to the front, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost their lives.
The end of the war was marked by the country’s re-integration into the world economy. The death of Khomeini led to the appointment of a new supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who was by comparison relatively weak – not yet the dictator he was to become in later years. He was completely loyal to Akbar Rafsanjani, the senior cleric who had nominated him as vali faghih (‘guardian of the imbecile’, or supreme leader). The international domination of finance capital and globalisation, as well as the ascendency of a powerful ‘reformist’ faction in the Iranian regime, paved the way for a massive post-war reconstruction plan, entirely in line with the new capitalist world order. No-one pursued this more eagerly than ayatollah Rafsanjani, who was already a businessman with a considerable personal fortune. It is this period that marked the beginning of an ever widening gap between the rich and the poor in Iran’s Islamic Republic.
This is the time when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund became involved in aiding Iran’s economy – a situation that has lasted until today, despite the Islamic leaders claims of ‘independence’. These institutions drove the policy of privatisation and the maximisation of profit for the sake of ‘growth’ (plus the ending of welfare subsidies).
The following report by the World Bank in October 2018 gives a reasonable summary of the situation:
Iranian authorities have adopted a comprehensive strategy encompassing market-based reforms, as reflected in the government’s 20-year vision document and the sixth five-year development plan for the 2016-2021 period … On the economic front, the development plan envisages an annual economic growth rate of 8% and reforms of state-owned enterprises, the financial and banking sector, and the allocation and management of oil revenues among the main priorities of the government during the five-year period.2
However, in Iran – as elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism – there was no ‘trickle-down effect’. There was no reduction of the gap between the rich and the poor, let alone fulfilling promises of ‘equality’. While clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters have made billions of dollars from sanction-busting and the black market, ordinary Iranians have faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to the shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. No doubt the display of grotesque wealth is adding insult to injury, but the supreme leader does not pay much attention to the injury.
Last year a New York Times reporter was shocked 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 ….
After a revolution that promised an egalitarian utopia and vowed to root out gharbzadegi – the modern, westernised lifestyles of Iran’s cosmopolitans – how have some people become so rich? Much of Iran’s wealth, it turns out, is in the hands of the very people in charge of maintaining social justice. Hard-line clerical leaders, together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, have engineered a system where it is largely they, their family members and their loyal cronies who prosper.3
The son of an Iranian diplomat, Sasha Sobhani, who apparently has half a million followers on Instagram, recently posted photographs from his travels to Greek islands. There he was sitting on the deck of an expensive yacht drinking champagne. Under one post he wrote: “How long will you be jealous of me?”
In other words, nothing is left of the egalitarian slogans of the February uprising. Today most young Iranians laugh at their rulers’ claims of pursuing ‘social justice’ and, just as in February 1979, Iranians live in two parallel universes. Gold-topped ice cream, Lamborghini and Porsche cars in north Tehran are a world apart form the real life of millions of Iranians who face hunger and lack of basic medication, not to mention the tens of thousands who still live in shanty towns, such as Nassir Shahr just outside Tehran. In addition, the dominance of superficial, US-type celebrity culture, spread widely via social media amongst well-off sections of Iranian youth, means that the rich flaunt their wealth shamelessly – increasing the anger and resentment felt by the majority of the population.
The poverty line in 2018 was set at approximately $480 a month per household. This means that 33% of the population – more than 24 million Iranians – live below that poverty line. The median income for an average household is only $885, leaving those above the official poverty line struggling to make ends meet. The top one percent spend 86 times more than the poorest one percent. According to the Iranian paper Donya-e-Eqtesad, “The bottom 10% of the population spend one 14th of the sum spent by the richest 10%.”
When Donald Trump reimposed sanctions against Iran, following the US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in November 2018, Iran’s oil and banking sectors were hard hit. The currency lost more than half its value last year. No need to remind readers that those in power, or close to the centres of power, are not affected by these new sanctions. They can still buy goods using unreal government rates of exchange – selling them at the highly inflated, semi-official price, thus securing huge profits. In addition those related to centres of power have a monopoly over the distribution of food and medicine. Most of them have amassed their astronomic fortunes through control of the black market during the era of sanctions. This group is using its expertise in sanction-busting in the growing black economy sector to accumulate yet more wealth at the expense of the working class and the poor.
Khamenei and increasingly the government under president Hassan Rouhani tell Iranians that the ‘sacrifices’ they are making are worth it, because, after all, Iran is now politically independent. This is not quite true. The nuclear deal signed in 2016 was in fact a sign of submission to western dictat. Speaking to crowds gathered for the celebrations of the February uprising, Rouhani said the country was in a “state of war”, and, as Iranians increasingly question the price they have to pay for this celebrated ‘independence’, the obvious reality is that it is meaningless, given the country’s economic dependence on global capital. Economic sanctions have had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy precisely because of this dependence – at least in terms of the importation of basic goods.
If you intend to take on the world hegemon, it helps if, in addition to economic independence, you enjoy overwhelming support within your own borders. But this can hardly be achieved if you accuse workers who protest at the non-payment of wages of being agents of foreign powers; if you arrest every lawyer who dares represent a leftwing activist; if you accuse retired teachers and state employees demanding payment of their hard-earned pensions of being spies!
On the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution the Iranian state went through the usual routine of massed street celebrations, while Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and US president Donald Trump exchanged Twitter insults.
Trump wrote: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”
Zarif responded: “#40YearsofFailure to accept that Iranians will never return to submission. #40YearsofFailure to adjust US policy to reality. #40YearsofFailure to destabilize Iran through blood & treasure. After 40 yrs of wrong choices, time for @realDonaldTrump to rethink failed US policy.”
The clerics and their government managed to get tens of thousands of Iranians to attend celebrations. However, the majority were soldiers, teachers, school pupils and government employees. Footage shows that there was none of the enthusiasm or spontaneity of 1979. In contrast last month’s demonstrations at the Haft Tapeh sugar plant and the workers’ protests in Ahvaz in mid-January all showed that the spirit of 1979 is alive and well. If there is going to be any change in Iran, it will come from these forces – and definitely not the supporters of ‘regime change from above’ sponsored by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Saudi plans for regional domination are not meeting with much success, writes Yassamine Mather
More than six weeks after the death of Jamal Khashoggi we know a lot more about his tragic plight after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. However, it is still unclear who ordered his execution, what will be done about it, who knew what when …
According to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, audio tapes of Khashoggi’s last moments in the consulate have been shared with the CIA and leaders of the ‘free world’, including the United States, the UK and EU. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau admits his intelligence services have received the audio tapes and listened to them and, while French ministers deny having received such recordings, other European and US officials remain quiet on the subject.
According to The Guardian,Saudi officials have claimed that Erdoğan “betrayed the kingdom by disclosing details of the investigation and refusing all overtures from Saudi envoys, including an offer to pay ‘significant’ compensation”.1 However, it is unlikely that Turkey, playing its own game in this sad saga, will be tempted by blood money, which theoretically can only be offered to relatives of the deceased.
By November 13 the drip-drip of information about Khashoggi’s death reached a new level, with revelations carried by the New York Times and Al Jazeera, quoting Turkish intelligence officers, that soon after the assassination, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the agents involved in the murder, phoned his superior with the message “tell your boss [believed by some to be crown prince Mohammed bin Salman] that the operatives have carried out their mission”. The recording was, according to Turkey, shared last month with Central Intelligence Agency director Gina Haspel.
The allegations, true or false, have caused a considerable dent in bin Salman’s authority. Meanwhile, we have seen the return from self-imposed exile of Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the only remaining full brother of the Saudi king; the release from prison of another royal, Khaled bin Talal al-Saud, who had been held in custody following last year’s purge, when princes and business ‘leaders’ were held in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. But MBS remains crown prince for the time being.
There are also further revelations about MBS’s antics since he ascended to the second most important position in the Saudi kingdom. According to the New York Times, “Top Saudi intelligence officials close to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman asked a small group of businessmen last year about using private companies to assassinate Iranian enemies of the kingdom.”2
Last week, as oil prices fell following ‘excessive supply’ from the world’s major producers, Saudi Arabian authorities told ministers from other oil-exporting countries at an Opec meeting that they had no prior knowledge of the Trump administration’s plans to exempt seven countries – purchasers of Iranian oil – from new sanctions against the Islamic republic imposed on November 5. As a result the Saudis, who had already increased their oil production, were forced to do a U-turn – a clear sign that US-Saudi relations are not as warm as last year.
Over the last few weeks Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi have been lobbying the US government in support of MBS and, according to the website Middle East Eye, “Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman attempted to persuade Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a conflict with Hamas in Gaza as part of a plan to divert attention from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” A “war in Gaza would distract Trump’s attention and refocus Washington’s attention on the role Saudi Arabia plays in bolstering Israeli strategic interests”.3 Yet all this – including attempts to bribe Erdoğan with promises of Saudi purchases of arms from Turkey – seems to have failed so far.
To add insult to injury, Qatar-Israel-Hamas negotiations, which started a few months ago, seem to have progressed. Last week, in what was an unprecedented move, Netanyahu allowed the transfer of $15 million to Gaza, to pay for “salaries”, following the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cut them in Gaza last year. The money is also supposed to contribute towards medical care of the wounded. Despite criticism by some, including his own ministers, who have denounced the transfer of millions to Gaza as “protection money”, Netanyahu has defended the initiative. In fact, the Israeli prime minister said: “I’m doing everything I can in coordination with security experts to return calm to [Israeli] villages of the south, but also to prevent a humanitarian disaster [in Gaza].”
According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Qatar and Israel had agreed to establish a sea passage between Cyprus and Gaza – a route that would be under Israeli security supervision and monitored by international forces.
Of course, some of this seemed to be in doubt following a ‘secret’ security operation on November 11 by Israeli special forces, using a civilian vehicle deep inside Gaza. What was a plan to target and execute a senior Hamas commander was botched – an Israeli officer was killed and another was wounded. Seven Palestinians were killed.
There is speculation in the Middle Eastern press that opponents of the Qatar deal in the Israeli government planned and ordered the Israel Defence Forces operation. Some ministers, including Naftali Bennett, who had strongly criticised the Qatar-Israel-Hamas deal, were happy to see an escalation of the conflict in Gaza. However, three days after the IDF adventure into Gaza, there seems little sign that either side wants a full-scale war at this particular time. A ceasefire was agreed on November 12 and seems to be holding. MBS’s dream of an Israeli-Palestinian war diverting attention from his plight has not materialised.
Meanwhile, Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has resigned, labelling the deal with Gaza “a capitulation to terror”.
Saudi officials have changed their story about the Khashoggi execution so many times that it is difficult to believe anything they say. However, they have consistently denied allegations that MBS played any role in the planning of this political murder. Instead they blame rogue elements, including general Ahmed al-Assiri, who discussed a $2 billion plan with a private intelligence firm to “sabotage Iran’s economy”. During these discussions Assiri is said to have also asked about plans to kill general Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
A few days earlier fresh allegations were made about the kind of activities Saudi publicists are alleged to follow in UK. According to The Guardian, “A UK-based Iranian TV station is being funded through a secretive offshore entity and a company whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessman with close links to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.”4 Although it is difficult to verify the paper’s claims that bin Salman is the “force behind the TV channel” via his media advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, there is no doubt that Iran International’s relentless promotion of pro-Trump ‘regime change’ groups such as Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and individuals such as the son of the ex-shah do follow a clear political agenda. The reporter who is associated with the article has faced a barrage of verbal abuse, and threats of legal action, as well as threats to his safety.
Of course, the TV channel is not unique in promoting individuals and organisations who have been emboldened by Trump’s new sanctions. There are many exiled Iranians, including royalists, ‘liberals’ and even some claiming to be on the left who endorse sanctions as a means of achieving regime change. In the last few weeks some of us have tried to balance the situation by writing or speaking against this type of regime change and as a result we are accused of ‘helping the Islamic Republic by criticising its opponents’. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was precisely the reluctance of the Iranian left to expose Ruhollah Khomeini and his brand of Islamic fundamentalism prior to the February uprising of 1979 that led to the nightmare of the religious state. It is a state which claims to be the government of the disinherited, while presiding over one of the most corrupt regimes on earth, where the gap between the rich and the poor is reaching unprecedented levels.
Last week Iranians were treated to an interview with the former shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, courtesy of Iran International TV. In answer to the sycophantic ‘questions’ that started with praise of the hapless ex-prince, every time he opened his mouth he managed to say something stupid.
In other words, if a section of the al Saud family is behind the funding of this TV station run by exiled Iranians, they are failing badly – every time they promote MEK or Reza Pahlavi, they only manage to strengthen Ayatollah Khamenei and the Tehran regime. As much as Iranians hate the increasingly dictatorial tone of the supreme leader at a time of severe economic crisis – not all of which can be blamed on sanctions – the alternatives presented by US regime change planners are both too stupid and too corrupt to be taken seriously. All of this amounts to yet another setback for MBS and the Saudi royals.
Repression and exile have clouded the view of Iranian anti-government forces, writes Mohamad Moein in Tehran
Throughout history governments have faced opposition to their rule and the current period is no exception. These days in Iran , the opponents of the Islamic Republic are known as the opposition. In English speaking countries, the term opposition was first used in relation to the British Parliament and later became commonplace in other countries. Hence, ‘opposition’ is a new word whose academic life dates back to the early twentieth century in Western democracies. It refers to structured political groups that do not accept a government or a state and want to change it, if the majority of the people vote in their favour in free elections. In other words, the term opposition refers to a party that presents its program and alternative to society, and accepts that people accept or reject the program and their alternative.
In Iran, the governments that have come to power in recent decades have faced opposition inside and outside the country. The objective of this opposition is to overthrow the rule of those in power one way or another. During the rule of the Pahlavi dynasty, the ineffectiveness of resolving the country’s internal crises through political means, by removing political freedoms, became clear. This resulted, by the end, in the participation of a wide range of people, parties and groups in protests that led to the collapse of the regime in 1979. Many hoped this collapse would result in the coming to power of a revolutionary government capable of building a better Iran, resulting in a brighter future.
But it did not take long for the new government to reveal its true nature; it not only failed to take a single step towards improving democratic rights, but on the contrary established a transition from a secular dictatorship to a religious one. In this respect the revolution ended when, having succeeded in overthrowing the old order, which was their declared aim, the people provided the arena for a new dictatorship. On the other hand, the international conditions of that era were dominated by the Cold War and the beginning of a devastating war with Iraq. All factors that helped the consolidation of dictatorship.
On this basis, the government that emerged from the revolution initially claimed to be adhering to its interpretation of democracy ‘in an Islamic framework’ but over time, with the strengthening of the foundations of state authority, all pretence of democracy disappeared and we witnessed the true nature of a totalitarian and ideological dictatorship. It was in such circumstances that individuals, groups and parties were eliminated one after another from the circles of power. It was this policy that created – and strengthened – opposition inside and outside the country. Accordingly, to date, the opposition has had an endemic and ineffective political life, inevitably strengthening those in power.
There are many explanations for this phenomenon and a variety of causes can be mentioned. But the main reasons for the opposition’s ineffectiveness against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran can be classified as follows;
1) The opposition has been incapacitated in its organisational functioning, because the constitution of the Islamic Republic does not provide any status for the opposition, or any clear transparent legislation regarding the Islamic state’s relations with those holding political views opposed to its rule.
2) The second reason is reliance on verbal and theoretical opposition. Throughout these years the opposition has not produced an alternative concrete platform for solving the current problems of the country. To put it simply, the opposition does not have a proper, pragmatic alternative, and most of its programs are propagandist. It is quite clear that should they gain power, they will act just as badly as the current government.
3) The third reason is lack of courage amongst the opposition. They fear rejection and lack of popular acceptance, and as a result of this fear are incapable of providing clear and independent commentary. In other words, the opposition has not yet reached such a degree of sophistication that it can announce its official point of view about current affairs inside and outside the country, nor is it willing to discuss the consequences of its declared propagandist policies.
4) Fourth, the opposition does not have a proper analysis of the current situation and conditions inside the county. It is ignorant of internal developments. With the explanations it has, it could be said that the opposition are like spear-fishers hoping to catch fish in muddy waters.
5) Fifth, intellectual poverty and absence of political, social and economic theory have led to a situation where opposition figures duplicate and copy speeches, actions from each other, all lacking any conviction or ingenuity.
In other words, the opposition is incapable of producing original thought and theory; it continues to live and think in the past.
6) The sixth reason is the failure of the opposition to cooperate in the social dimension. Simply put, the opposition does not have the ability to work collectively: the opposition has no practice of debate and democracy, and therefore seeks only to eliminate rivals in a totalitarian manner.
7) Finally, possibly one of the most important reasons for the opposition’s ineffectiveness is their dependence on foreign money. They are at the mercy of foreign governments and often have no alternative but to express the views and positions of these governments. According to Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, “In these times, what distinguishes the “real revolutionaries” from mere masqueraders is not only the clear vision “to know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up but the willingness, and moral courage to “seize power” when it is lying there, and “assume responsibility for the revolution after it had happened.” Sections of the opposition have different political outlooks which are briefly outlined below, and the reasons for their failure to engage the masses discussed.
The most obvious point regarding this group is the fact that their ideas and plans are frozen in time: they believe in return to a glorious past! And in this respect their ideals are completely clear. They are seeking to revive royalty in Iran in the form of a return to power of the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty. This section of the opposition, who have been living mainly in the United States or other Western countries, hold views that have not changed much in the last forty years. Throughout their exile they have not even tried to understand the world we live in, they are ignorant of current international developments, they remain opposed to any democratic ideas. When it comes to the revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, they believe in conspiracy theories: “The West overthrew the Shah because he was developing the country”, “it was all the fault of Jimmy Carter and his Human Rights agenda!!”…
Among the reasons for the ineffectiveness and exclusion of monarchists inside Iran are their inability to understand the current world, either the international space or the historical conditions inside Iran today, as well as the belief in re-establishing a sovereign monarchy. The ideology justifying this programme, of natural hierarchy and disbelief in the possibility of equality and non-discrimination is itself repellent to most people in Iran. From the point of view of the monarchists, the poor will always be poor and the king must be a shrewd king. But many of the people who form current Iranian society who had already overcome the kingdom in 1979, have no belief in the rule of kings or desire to return to the past, and this part of the opposition is completely rejected by the people. Inside Iran they lack support, they are ineffective. Young people in Iran don’t believe in hereditary privilege and are aware of the ignorance and incompetence of this section of the opposition. Consequently, the chances of this section in the Iranian political arena are zero or close to zero.
Mojahedin-e Khalq or People’s Mujahedin of Iran:
The crucial point about this opposition group is their contradictory history and their military aggression into Western Iran, using Iraqi tanks and artillery when Saddam Hussein supported them. This was originally an Islamic left-wing group. In the early days of the revolution it was closely linked to the Islamic state. However it fell from grace as Khomeini and his allies consolidated their share of power and as the group’s disagreements with Khomeini grew. Mojahedin members and supporters were dismissed from the circles of power and the group declared itsef for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran through armed struggle.
One of the main reasons for the ineffectiveness of this group is the sharp difference between the group’s claims and its actions. We are talking of an anti-democratic secretive group with dictatorial practices within, against its own members. Many years after the death of the leader of the group (Massoud Rajavi), thought to have been killed during the second Gulf war, the group’s leadership has not acknowledged this information. Armed struggles and blind assassinations have always been amongst the reasons for ordinary Iranians rejecting this group. In addition there is confusion about the group’s goals and objectives.
However what distinguishes this group from other opposition groups, what makes them a despicable force hated by the Iranian people, is their cooperation with the enemy during the Iran-Iraq war and their participation in an effort to invade Iran, helped by Iraqi troops, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Many Iranians consider them more dangerous, far more horrific than the current Islamic Republic. So not only do they have little support in the country, any attempt at promoting them, for example by supporters and allies of Donald Trump, such as John Bolton or Giuliani backfires, strengthening the Islamic Republic. In summary the PMOI is viewed negatively in general and its recent history is considered disgusting.
The virtual opposition or quasi-opposition groups:
In recent years, we have seen a flood of unidentified opposition groups. This type of opposition, often very small groups, with fewer members than the fingers of one hand, is often composed of very young opponents of the regime. In general they are more familiar with basic concepts of democracy however their behaviour is marked by lack of experience, so they play on emotions to alarm their audience and as a result they attract some supporters amongst the young generation. On the whole such groups are more rebellious, however they remain ineffective because they lack organisation and political theory.
In addition, since Iranian society is a traditional and conservative society, the fact that such groups thrive by crossing social red lines, damages their reputation beyond their immediate supporters. But the most important reason why such groups remain ineffective is their reliance on lies and deceit, for the sake of political advancement. They believe it is permissible to use ‘fake’ information to oppose the government. From the point of view of this type of opposition, attacking other opposition groups is not just a tactic but a strategy for further development.
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.
Hands Off the People of Iran congratulates Labour’s John McDonnell on his appointment as shadow chancellor. The MP for Hayes and Harlington was a founding member of HOPI and is honorary president of the organisation. He has consistently opposed imperialist intervention in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as supporting movements for democracy from below.
We feature below a video of John addressing a day school held by HOPI in 2008.