Sexism: Macho culture and the lessons we can learn from the Middle East

fedOn Wednesday January 9 three members of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), including Sakine Cansız, a founding member of the organisation, were murdered in Paris. There are many theories about who was behind the execution-style killings and most of them relate to conspiracies to derail the current talks between the PKK and Turkey.

It could be that hard-line nationalists or Islamists within the Turkish security forces were behind the murders, although it is far more likely that Iranian or Syrian security forces, anxious about recent progress in negotiations between the Kurdish group and the Turkish state, were responsible. Iran’s security forces have already killed a number of the regime’s opponents in France and got away with it. One thing is clear: whoever was responsible for the murder of the three Kurdish activists made it look like an internal execution. PKK supporters say that in death as in life. Sakine Cansız was an equal to any of the organisation’s men. Others might argue that the ‘macho militarist’ culture of the organisation had another victim.

Although she was a loyal supporter of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, she was no ‘yes woman’. There are unconfirmed reports that she had fallen out with the leadership in the past and that her partner, Mehmet Şener, was killed in the early 1990s as a result of PKK factional infighting. But she engaged in self-criticism and was rehabilitated. Former PKK members recount an incident in the 1990s when Öcalan made fun of prisoners who had just ended a hunger strike, saying: “They sold out the revolution for a bowl of shorba [soup]”. But Sakine, who had just been released from a 13-year prison sentence, stood up against the ‘leader’ and defended the prisoners. A courageous act that, according to the same reports, actually impressed Öcalan.

PKK supporters often claim that the large number of female fighters in their ranks is testimony to the group’s determination to fight patriarchy and Cansız is quoted as saying that that women’s participation in the PKK’s armed struggle was no “token gesture”.

Critics will point out that masculinisation of women in guerrilla organisations is no path to women’s liberation and in many ways I would not disagree with this view. Having said that, Sakine’s life and her commitment to socialism have lessons for all of us. I did not know her, but, reading about her life, I was struck by the similarities with the lives of so many of the Fedayeen women fighters in Kurdistan. I felt I had known her all my life. And in a week when British left politics has been dominated by allegations of sexism in the Socialist Workers Party, it could be that the successes and mistakes of some of the Middle East’s main radical left organisations have lessons for the challenges facing women activists in leftwing European organisations.

For all the PhD theses (usually written by men with little first-hand experience or knowledge of the Fedayeen) about the plight of women in the Organisation of the Iranian People’s Fedayeen, I maintain that my experience as a candidate member, member and full cadre of the OIPFG contradicts all the stereotypical accusations. I am not implying that a militarist organisation with confused politics had overcome sexism. However, given the patriarchal, religious backdrop of the first Islamic regime in the Middle East, or in the case of eastern Turkey, given the predominance of Islamic fundamentalism, the practises of the Fedayeen in the 1980s and the PKK reveal surprising achievements regarding women’s equality. I believe these advances were achieved because members of these organisations took their politics and their commitments to revolutionary change seriously and, despite the serious flaws in their political outlook, their organisational practice was superior to that of the radical left in Europe.

No amount of reading or quoting Engels or Kollontai, no repetition of standard texts about the dual exploitation of women, can help us deal with the current debate about sexism in the SWP. One can safely assume that left activists, and certainly members of the SWP central committee, are familiar with such texts – indeed they quote them regularly and, at least on paper, there is no major difference between the opponents of sexism on the left and those they accuse of sexism. That is why in trying to find answers we might do well by looking at the limited and indeed isolated achievements of the Fedayeen and PKK. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to use the SWP fiasco to revisit the issue of sexism on the left, but the fact that this aspect has dominated internet discussions on the subject is regrettable – especially as we now have the Daily Mail lecturing us about ‘feminism’!

Of course, the specific conditions of leftwing military operations in the snowy mountains of Iran or Turkey cannot be duplicated. But it is important to establish what can be learnt from the positive and negative aspects of those experiences. This article is not concerned with the shambolic behaviour of the SWP’s CC in relation to allegations of rape (although I would say that sexism was not the cause of that particular problem – more the inevitable consequence of other shortcomings: a rudderless political outlook, lack of strategy, cronyism, and the absence of democracy). No, this article concerns the practices of the Middle Eastern left and the way those practices impact on women’s equality.
Membership

The Fedayeen imposed notoriously stringent membership conditions and, although these were often criticised by other groups, I do think the idea of recruiting ‘revolutionaries’ on the basis of a passing expression of sympathy on a demonstration or protest is far more ridiculous – unless one is only interested in membership quantity, as opposed to quality.

In order to become a member of the Fedayeen, a supporter with a reasonable understanding of its politics would have to pass one, preferably two, tests: emerging from jail with a ‘‘courageous prison record” and surviving a couple of cold winters in the battlegrounds of Kurdistan. These qualifications were obviously specific to a particular era in Iran. However, fighting capitalism in the 21st century is not a dinner party and it is certainly time for the organisations of the radical left to revisit their minimum conditions for membership. There must be happy medium between these two extremes.

Those that think they can build a serious organisation by distributing membership cards at various protests are badly mistaken. It is not surprising that members recruited on such a basis bring with them all sorts of retrograde predispositions or prejudices, including sexist attitudes. It is not surprising that such recruits are ‘impressed’ by the powerful men (or women) in the organisation they have joined.

The membership requirements of the SWP – and indeed many of the other organisations of the radical left – appear to me to be less demanding than those of a gym (you may not actually show up for a workout, but at least you have to pay your subscription). So why are we surprised when ‘yes men’ and indeed ‘yes women’ are the ones who get promoted in the SWP?

The other side of the coin is the cavalier attitude towards lethargy. For all the talk of action to bring about the overthrow of capitalism, we are not talking about a combatant membership: a large chunk of the 7,000-plus men and women who are supposed to be SWP members cannot be considered activists, let alone serious revolutionaries, so why should we expect them to have conquered sexism?
Sexist society

One reason why guerrilla organisations have a better record of combating sexism is because they are isolated from society. Their members do not interact within normal society. The claim that Fedayeen women activists of the 1980s were totally ‘liberated’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, there is no doubt that separation from day-to-day family tasks did present unparalleled ‘opportunities’ for women. We live in a patriarchal society and removal from it at least presents us with the possibility of creating conditions where sexism can be more easily combated.

By definition guerrilla women did not have household responsibilities. Either we were childless or those with children had their offspring looked after by parents or relatives in cities and villages far from the battlefield. We did not have any gender-specific duties, so, in that respect, living in a collective military base was to a very limited extent like living in post-revolutionary conditions. Female comrades in European leftwing organisations (maybe with the exception of a few full-timers) spend the majority of their time in a sexist environment – as wage-earners (often on lower wages than their male counterparts), as carers for children and the elderly, as unpaid workers doing housework (and, in the vast majority of cases, spending many more hours on housework than the men they live with). At the best of times it would be impossible to expect a political organisation to deal with the day-to-day discrimination women activists face in society – discrimination unrelated to party activity.

To overcome this situation there are difficult personal, social and political choices to be made and in my opinion those who put politics in command often come out of it stronger. As women, we may vent all our frustrations about sexual inequality within the political organisations to which we belong. It is certainly easy to play the role of the victim, but for a revolutionary such attitudes are cop-outs. If we are to combat sexism within our organisations, we must start by building female comrades’ self-confidence.

Women activists are often their own worst enemy when it comes to their own capabilities, organisationally and politically. On this issue we must rebel against stereotyped work. We need to consider the possibility of ditching housework and reducing care duties so that we have enough time to write articles, to participate in meetings, to organise. But many female comrades are not in a position to do so – who would look after their children? Who would care for their elderly parent? Some do not want to do so, yet all of us expect miracles from our political organisation.
Physical and mental

Even guerrilla organisations take note of the fact that there are physical differences between men and women, and some tasks are more suited to women’s physical capabilities.

However, life in a combat zone leaves little room for chivalry. Women might be issued with lighter guns and in the case of the Fedayeen, female combatants had to come to terms with the company of a dedicated male bodyguard, who would have his gun pointed to her head when they ventured into dangerous areas. This bizarre custom was meant to ensure that the organisation would never allow a female fighter to fall into the hands of the Islamic regime. Upon arrival in Kurdistan, my immediate reaction to this practice was to condemn it as an insult. But a few weeks into my stay, having heard about the kind of torture Islamic Guards reserved for communist women, I actually found it reassuring that my bodyguard would make sure I was dead rather than taken prisoner. It was a practical step taken to deal with a specific issue.

However, with the exception of this single practice, men and women wore the same uniform, performed the same tasks, were treated more or less equally in the camp, in battle and in the division of labour.

In Kurdistan, maybe because we lived so far from reality (away from capitalist commodity fetishism, away from the false modesty imposed by the Shia state) our appearance seemed to have no significance and this in itself had a liberating effect. Qualities such as the ability to debate, organise and, yes, shoot accurately, were considered far more important than looks – our military uniform did not leave much room for coquetry. Both in Kurdistan and later as the representative of the organisation abroad, I was well aware that using make-up and spending time on one’s appearance in other ways were considered serious flaws.

I know this will be frowned upon by modern feminists, but if revolutionary women are to be equal with men there must come a time when we stop becoming victims of commodity fetishism – a time when we refuse to be concerned about our appearance. Apart from anything else, this will leave us more time for politics, its theory and practice. Whether we like it or not, the inequality in terms of the time we spend on non-political tasks – be it family, housework , childcare or our appearance – does contribute to our lack of confidence. It does make us victims of a sexist culture, sexist society. It is up to us individually and collectively to change this – we cannot expect men to do it for us.
Power and sex

Throughout their clandestine life in Iranian cities, the Fedayeen banned sexual relations of any kind between members of the organisation. Both the pre-1979 Fedayeen and the PKK have been accused of executing comrades for breaking such rules, and the shah’s secret police and some on the Iranian left keep repeating the allegation that the Fedayeen would impose the death penalty for initiating a relationship with another member of the organisation. Although this allegation is completely false, the sex ban does reveal the kind of discipline considered necessary to confront the dangers presented by clandestine political activity in a police state.

Of course, such a ban would both be ridiculous and represent an interference in the private lives of comrades under any other circumstances, but there is no doubt that the left has to deal with the issue of the abuse of power by men, and occasionally women. However, the simple answer must be to combat bureaucracy, privilege and kowtowing to those in positions of power. It is wrong – and counterrevolutionary – to encourage an admiration of senior cadres simply because of the position they hold, or to promote myths about their intellectual or organisational capabilities to encourage respect for their rank. Such practices can result in a cult of personality – to the detriment of the building of a serious political organisation.

The issue is not one of sexual abuse, pure and simple (although elements of such abuse exist). It is one of unaccountable power. That is what the members and supporters of all working class organisations must constantly be on their guard against.

A Fistful of Tomans

There's money to be made in a place like this
There’s money to be made in a place like this

Kevan Harris in the London Review of Books:

A Tehran restaurant owner recently told me the advice he’d been giving his friends for the last year: ‘Sell your car. Buy dollars.’ Sound counsel, I thought. Exchanging Iranian rials for dollars at the end of 2011 and converting them back nine months later would have yielded enough profit to buy two new cars. Waiting another month would have got you a cheap motorbike too. This sort of ‘street maths’ filters into every conversation. In September a waiter told me he had just sold his stash of $10,000 for a hefty profit. A young woman took her pay cheque to the bank every month and bought dollars with it. In this unofficial currency market the value of the rial dropped nearly 70 per cent in ten months. The frenzied speculation began early last year, after the EU announced it was going to restrict imports of Iranian oil. Government attempts to stem the flight only pushed the rial’s value down further. ‘The Central Bank governor promises on Tuesday to take action, and the dollar goes up on Wednesday,’ a businessman joked. ‘So he reverses his position on Saturday, and the dollar goes up on Sunday.’

HOPI: We stand by our principles

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HOPI: clear line on the Iranian regime

Hands Off the People of Iran has been accused by some forces in the orbit of the Iran Tribunal of abandoning its central political slogans and effectively becoming an apologist for the Tehran regime. Hopi categorically rejects these accusations. Our opposition to the IT flows precisely from the principles embodied in our founding statement – principles that uphold implacable opposition to both imperialism and the theocratic regime. At the same time we were – and remain – crystal-clear about where change must come from: the struggles of the working class and the social movements.

Our criticism of the Iran Tribunal and the left organisations that have collaborated with it flows from this. The refusal of this body to stand against sanctions and the threat of war against Iran makes its condemnation of the regime’s crimes – accurate though they are in the abstract – an aid to imperialism’s plans and manoeuvres in the region. Quite apart from murky questions to do with the tainting of the IT through funding or indirect support, its silence on US threats and the possibility of an Israeli attack provide a damning indictment of the whole initiative.

Despite protestations to the contrary, some of those on the ‘left’ who have cooperated with the IT have effectively given up on the ability of the working class to win fundamental change in Iran. Their political decay and disorientation is illustrated by the agency they now look to in order to defeat the theocratic regime: the stance of the IT proves that, for these people, that force is now imperialism. Others who have given their support in hope of raising awareness of the crimes committed by the theocratic regime have done so at a political cost that is too high. Whatever media interest has been gained has been placed within the framework of strengthening the imperialist arguments for deeper sanctions and the possibility of a military strike.

In stark contrast, Hopi stands proudly by the founding principles we adopted at our first conference in 2007:

  •   No to any imperialist intervention. The immediate and unconditional end to sanctions on Iran.
  •   No to the theocratic regime.
  •   Opposition to Israeli expansionism and aggression.
  •   Support to all working class and progressive struggles in Iran against poverty and repression.
  •   Support for socialism and democracy in Iran and therefore solidarity with all democratic, working class, socialist and secular movements in that country.
  •   Opposition to Israeli, British and American nuclear weapons. For a Middle East free of nuclear weapons as a step towards worldwide nuclear disarmament.

The Law and the Iran Tribunal

Yassamine Mather interviews Mike Macnair, lecturer in law at Oxford University on law, international law, and the Iran Tribunal.

This interview was conducted for Rahe Kargar, the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers in Iran.

 

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In the firing line

When is a political tribunal ‘non-political’? Hands Off the People of Iran national secretary Mark Fischer responds to the latest salvo of pro-imperialist apologetics

Hyperinflation: a tool of war that enriches some

Hands Off the People of Iran and the Weekly Worker have been sent a document authored by Dariosh Afshar, associate member of the Iran Tribunal’s International Communications Work Group. The Iran Tribunal, set up by exiled anti-regime Iranians, was convened to investigate Tehran’s massacre of some 15,000 political prisoners in the 1980s, but has been shown by Hopi and this paper to be a body that objectively aids the US-led drive to impose – by military or other means – regime change from above on Iran.

The long, rambling and self-contradictory document, entitled ‘What the “friends of the people” are, and how they fight the social power of the people’, is presented as a response to a situation where allegedly “professor Norman Paech, a renowned and well respected German politician of Germany’s ‘Left’ party, who had earlier offered his support to Iran Tribunal, was compelled to withdraw his support …”1 Its stated aim is to refute the criticisms of the IT that soured comrade Paech’s attitude and – pursuing that – the document makes a whole series of counter-accusations against Hopi and one of its leading figures, Yassamine Mather, as well as the Weekly Worker.

We have been challenged to publish the 16,000-word document in our paper, which we have no intention of doing. However, Hopi has reproduced it on its website,2 so comrades can judge its quality for themselves, and we intend – in due course – to comprehensively unpick its amateurish dishonesty and clumsy apologetics. This article will confine itself to presenting some answers to the main political charges that Afshar – presumably with the tacit consent of other members of the IT – has laid against us.

There are other, more involved questions: for example, the funding links of individuals and organisations involved in the IT. These we will take up subsequently in a longer, more detailed reply. Here we will content ourselves with a few observations. For example, the web of influence through which imperialism pursues its global agenda is, naturally, not transparent. It is opaque, highly complex, subtle and circuitous: it is pushed forward financially, through academic patronage, personal pressure/inducement and the ideological cooption of useful dupes. Simply stating that there are no direct, bank-account-to-bank-account transactions that can be highlighted in yellow marker is an idiotic defence – or perhaps, more accurately, a defence that is designed to satisfy no-one but fools.

More often than not, the simplest questions are the most profound. So comrade Paech is to be congratulated for prompting the production of this long, self-contradictory screed with his plainly put request for clarification: “Can the tribunal take a clear position against war and sanctions?” he asked.

No it cannot, Afshar answers. More tellingly, this apologist suggests that its very nature dictates that it should not. This is because the Iran Tribunal is “non-political”, he insists. Comrades who plough through his document online will note that he returns repeatedly to this challenge and – interestingly – provides different definitions of “non-political”.

Non-political politics

Most absurdly, he actually suggests in one place that the IT is non-political because “upholding justice and human dignity and values doesn’t mix with politics. This is one of the main elements which Yassamine Mather cannot see or appreciate.”

On two levels, it is a little difficult to respond to something as silly as this. Historically, the notion that categories such as ‘justice’ and ‘human dignity’ have not been rather hotly contested political concepts should not really detain us too long – Liberté, égalité, fraternité anyone …?

The more pertinent point here is the way contemporary imperialism promotes its interventions as ‘humanitarian’ gestures – Afshar asks whether “any war between two or more reactionary forces” has “ever been motivated, or been used as a pretext, to defend or even pretend to defend or protect human rights”. A smarter question would perhaps be – particularly since Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the second cold war – when have they not?

With this is mind, the recommendations of the IT’s second sitting (ending on October 29) make ominous reading. As others have pointed out, they sound very much like the conclusions reached by the kind of tribunals that preceded the ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the former Yugoslavia – conclusions that conveniently paved the way for the military intervention of Nato. In this context, there is an irony that this final session of the IT was staged in the Hague, where former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić is currently on trial.

Afshar’s insistence that “no-one’s political or ideological views play any role whatsoever” in the IT and that “this is absolute” assumes that his audience are morons. A tribunal – with, rather obviously, no powers whatsoever – is specifically set up to investigate the crimes of a particular regime and we are meant to believe that politics do not come into it?

What is more, the Iran Tribunal takes place against the background of sanctions, warmongering and attempts to impose regime change from above. Meanwhile, the international anti-war movement (for which Afshar consistently expresses contempt throughout his document) is very much weakened, compared to its zenith in 2003, and seems incapable of mounting a serious challenge to imperialism’s plans.

Then in this particular historical moment, the ‘non-political’ IT steps forward with its condemnation of the barbaric Tehran regime and its ear-splitting silence concerning the looming danger of another disastrous war in the region. It ignores the ongoing horror of ‘soft war’ sanctions that are fraying the fabric of Iran’s society and making life hell for ordinary people. The evasions of Afshar are worthless – it is clear whose interests are being served by his tribunal. The “absolute” ban on “political or ideological views” is meaningless: what other conclusion are we supposed to draw from the evidence than ‘something must be done’? Moreover, those participating in the stunt who supported sanctions and war had vast resources deployed daily outside the hall to make their case for them.3

The ban is exclusively directed against the left, against anti-imperialist forces – something that has been documented in some detail. For example, in two highly critical statements the Norwegian IT support committee describes how all tribunal witnesses who arrived in London on June 17 were taken to a briefing, where they were explicitly asked not to ‘raise any politics’ during their evidence. One witness wanted to challenge the tribunal and at the end of his 30-minute session made an anti-imperialist statement. Outrageously, his whole evidence was excluded from the record.

In the current world context, to remain silent on sanctions and the threat of war is to play the role of willing dupes; it is to constitute yourself as the ‘human rights’ wing of imperialism’s reactionary campaign.

Third force

Possibly the most absurd argument is Afshar’s attempt to prove that Hopi generally and Yassamine Mather specifically are in effect supporters of the Islamic regime. It is worthwhile examining his text here. A quote from comrade Mather is cited: “without clear opposition to war and sanctions, the tribunal effectively strengthens the hand of all those reactionary forces contemplating a military attack on Iran … I am a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran – but a war would be disastrous for the forces in Iran that have a real interest in democracy: the workers, women’s groups and social movements in that country.”

Absurdly this is taken to show that “Yassamine simply cannot see through her tunnel vision that there is a third force: ie, the people of Iran. They are the ultimate power who could stop any potential war by overthrowing the regime and establishing their own secular and democratic system. Being ‘a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran’ doesn’t mean that one should see the welfare and democratic aspirations of the people through maintaining the balance of power between two reactionary and warring states.”

At this point, some readers may start to doubt the man’s sanity. It is possible to fill a barn with Hopi and Mather quotes that exactly make the point that the working people of Iran are the focus of our work, our hopes for democracy and socialism – indeed the quote used by Afshar himself does that. However, very quickly it becomes clear that what Afshar actually takes offence to is the anti-war component of Hopi’s work.

“Yassamine only sees the US and the rulers of IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran],” he writes, in contradiction to the words he is actually quoting. “She only worries about weakening or strengthening one or the other. People don’t come into Yassamine’s equation and have no place in her ‘anti-war’ politics. And when people do something collectively and form a social power institution such as Iran Tribunal, she smears it with lies and accusations.”

“[Mather] has focused the main part of her activism on ‘anti-war’ campaigning. Isn’t the balance of power between the USA and [Iran] the main issue with Yassamine? Doesn’t she just want to play ‘anti-war’ games within the ‘anti-imperialist camp’ of some of the mind-twisted so-called ‘Marxists’? Where do the people of Iran come into Yassamine’s active politics?”

Given world politics and relations between Israel, the US and Iran over the last few years, one might have expected that someone like Afshar (who self-defines himself as a ‘Marxist’ in the document) would see anti-war agitation and propaganda in a period like this as rather more than a ‘game’.

In truth, and despite his protestations otherwise, Afshar’s politics lend themselves to, if not active support for sanctions and the war drive, at least indifference. He imagines a scenario where “Yassamine Mather had a successful campaign and not only she prevented the war, but the sanctions were also lifted. Wouldn’t the best achieved outcome and scenario be similar to the time when Khatami or Rafsanjani had the upper hand within the Islamic Republican of Iran factions?”

In contrast, Afshar appears to see the present, dire situation in today’s Iran as preferable. The “country’s disastrous and catastrophic circumstances” mean that “all the right conditions for a revolutionary regime change are ready … The great majority of the Iranian population is faced with unprecedented harsh and unmanageable economic and living conditions, and as far as social unrest is concerned, Iran right now is a massive time bomb waiting to go off at any time …” An important source of the pressure that has produced these apparently propitious conditions for the struggle of the people of Iran is imperialism itself, of course – its vicious sanctions and the threats of a military strike.

In stark contrast, Hopi’s anti-war/anti-sanctions campaign has nothing whatsoever to do with restoring the hegemony of this or that faction in the theocracy, still less a “balance of power” between US-led imperialism and Tehran. (When on earth did that ever exist, by the way? The United States is the world’s policeman, massively more powerful militarily than its main imperialist rivals, let alone Iran). Our fight to remove the crippling sanctions (which disrupt and demoralise the working people primarily) and to stop the drive to war (which would be a disaster for ordinary people and which facilitate oppression in the here and now) is intended to give the working class and its allies the maximum space and opportunity to impose its own progressive democratic agenda.

Finally, Afshar reaches a truly bizarre conclusion about the motivations of Yassamine Mather and Hopi (comrade Mather has by now clearly become the personification of the campaign for him: any accusation he throws against her holds good for the organisation as a whole in his mind):

“Yassamine doesn’t want Iran Tribunal to succeed because she doesn’t want [Iran] to be exposed with yet another one of its horrific scandals on the international scene. The reason for this is that [Iran] has, of course, taken full advantage of the concept of being ‘anti-war’, and has marked its own devious influence by launching organisations … to act as impostors within [the anti-war movement] in order to steer and direct the whole of the ‘anti-war’ movement toward its own political advantage. As far as the ‘anti-war’ movements are concerned, the point to make should be that both the USA and Islamic Republic of Iran are reactionary forces who pursue their own agendas.”

Hopi has always said that Iran’s Islamic Republic must be held accountable for its crimes, including the massacre of political prisoners that the IT was convened to look into. Nor has Hopi ever argued that the threat of war means we should ignore or delay such investigations.4 However, to condemn the Iranian regime for its myriad crimes in the current political situation without making crystal-clear at the same time your implacable opposition to any external interference in the country, either in the form of ‘soft war’ sanctions or a military strike, is to effectively make yourself a dupe of imperialist reaction. There were plenty of them in the war in former Yugoslavia; plenty of them cheered on the assault on Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. So, despite Afshar bleating about the unique and principled nature of the Iran Tribunal, it is actually joining a very long, very disreputable line.

Lastly, two points about the IT’s final report:

1. It seems that the gagging order on the left and anti-imperialists is to be applied retrospectively even to the victims of the Islamic regime’s executions in the 1980s. It is not mentioned that many (if not the majority) of the victims were socialists and communists who would have been appalled by the pro-imperialist use their sacrifice is being put to. Not even an echo of their voices is to be allowed; not even from beyond the grave.

2. The IT’s recommendation “that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation mandate its Independent Permanent Commission of Human Rights to designate these violations a ‘priority human rights issue’ and ‘conduct studies and research’” into it is truly jaw-dropping. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is made up of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – they are being asked to monitor Iran’s human rights record!

Clearly, however, the deciding factor here is not these countries’ own democratic credentials. For example, Saudi Arabia is an undemocratic hell-hole, but it is one of the main allies of imperialism in the region. A coincidence? We think not …

Comrades in Hands Off the People of Iran do not take great pleasure in being proved right about the IT. We took a potentially controversial decision to oppose it so energetically. The only gratifying aspect of the whole affair has been that our stance has been vindicated so quickly and so completely – something rare in leftwing politics. However, the fact that important elements of the Iranian left chose to cooperate with it makes this a sad and worrying ‘victory’ for us.

First published in the Weekly Worker.

Notes

1. All quotes from ‘What the “friends of the people” are’, unless otherwise stated. For the full story on Norman Paech see www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/iran-tribunal-impossible-to-continue-support. A shortened version of this article appeared as ‘Iran Tribunal: credibility drains away’ (Weekly Worker October 4).

2. www.hopoi.org/supporters-of-Irantribunal.pdf.

3.The IT’s ‘chief prosecutor’, Payam Akhavan, is a keen supporter of sanctions on Iran. For many years, Akhavan has been pushing his sponsors’ agenda for ever harsher sanctions. He is one of the authors of the international report published by the Responsibility to Prevent Coalition, which calls for “a comprehensive set of generic remedies – smart sanctions – to combat the critical mass of threat, including threat-specific remedies for each of the nuclear, incitement, terrorist and rights-violating threats”. This 2010 report was, incidentally, also signed by Tory MP Michael Gove and Carl Gershman, president of the US-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy.

4. See, for example, two recent Hopi videos: http://vimeo.com/52090333 and http://vimeo.com/48434673.

Blogger Sattar Beheshti dies in custody

Sattar Beheshti, who ran a blog critical of the Iranian regime, was arrested on October 30 for comments made on Facebook, and handed over to the ‘cyber police’. After a night in Evin prison, where he complained about threats and beatings, he was moved to an unknown location. By November 3rd he was dead, with evidence of torture all over his body.

Beheshti was apparently not well known as an activist, showing how far-reaching the regime’s clampdown on dissent has become.

More:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/sattar-beheshti-dead_n_2117945.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20259533

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/08/sattar-beheshti-dead-iran_n_2095075.html

Quotes: Why we don’t support the Iran Tribunal

Israeli socialist and found of Matzpen, Moshé Machover, believes that some of the organisers and participants have “acted with evident good will, but that is not enough. It often happens that people of good intentions lend themselves out of naivety to be exploited by evil forces. This is a danger that we must always guard against. Many good people, out of genuine and justified concern for women’s rights, were duped into lending legitimacy to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001; and similarly good people, with genuine horror of Saddam Husain’s atrocities, were duped in 2003 into lending legitimacy to the disastrous invasion of Iraq.”

Norman Paech, human rights lawyer and member of Die Linke in Germany: “I have indeed supported the intention and the work of the committee to prepare this tribunal. I still think it is absolutely necessary that all facts about the horrific murders, the torture and the crimes of the 1980s are brought to light. But the background of the funding and the obvious links to the NED, of which I had no knowledge and which have only just been brought to my attention, make it impossible for me to continue this support. I find myself in particularly strong disagreement with the committee when it comes to my resolute opposition to sanctions and the threat of war on Iran. I do not want to be part of a project which is supported by the pro-war Mujahedin.”

John McDonnell MP: This tardy interest in “human rights” in Iran is clearly part of the US, Israeli and British governments’ drive to topple the theocratic regime – just like military threats and the vicious sanctions on the country, which are bleeding ordinary Iranians dry: food prices have rocketed, many workers have to be laid off as contracts with foreign companies are cancelled, hospitals cannot get hold of necessary and life-saving equipment. In this context, the refusal of IT’s steering committee to take a stand against the looming war and the calamitous effects of sanctions is a significant silence.

Mark Fischer, national secretary of Hands Off the People of Iran: “Financially and politically the tribunal is an integral part of the campaign for ‘regime change from above’.  This multi-front campaign utilises bombs, military threats, sanctions, killer commandos despatched by the Israeli secret service Mossad … and ‘human rights’ initiatives like the Iran Tribunal. For the sake of legitimacy – especially when it comes to ‘soft war’ initiatives like the IT or sanctions – the support of pliant politicians of the Iranian opposition is vital in this. Indeed, some of these forces have foolishly suggested that the worse the social conditions become in Iran, the weaker the regime.”

Mohammad Reza Shalgouni, a founder-member of Rahe Kargar, who spent eight years in prison under the shah: “It is inconceivable that a genuine tribunal of victims of the 1988 massacre would be associated with individuals or organisations who have such connections to the United States government.”

Professor Bridget Fowler, Glasgow University: I have read your very disturbing articles and support your anxiety about some of the funders to the Iran Tribunal, including – via the Abdorrahman Borroumand Foundation – the National Endowment for Democracy. I came to learn about the NED through discovering that it was one of the many organisations that had tried to destabilise the present Cuban Govt, so as to reinstate a regime which would back full privatisation as well as pursuing neoliberal demands.

Michael Parenti, US Marxist academic: Anti-imperialists and socialists should not take monetary or promotional support from organizations that are funded and directed by the imperialists. The NED and other such imperial interests are happy to undermine us with dollars as well as with brutal assaults. Never do they give anything that does not have strings attached to it. The imperialists have only their own self-interest in mind. The nectar they offer us is laced with poison. Build your own organizations as best you can, free from the infiltrations and subversion of those who preach democracy but who practice fascism.

Ruben Markarian, a leading member of Rahe Kargar: “The reality is that families of political prisoners who were seeking justice for their relatives have been delivered to the US and its allies.”

Professor Cyrus Bina, University of Minnesota: This so-called Tribunal is indeed a bashful front of US neocons and the Israel lobby in United States. Let’s not kid ourselves by walking on the eggshells on this and when it comes to Mr. Payam Akhavan.

Ashraf Dehghani, a prominent member of the Iranian People’s Fedayeen Guerrillas, has also come out strongly in opposition to the tribunal. “These days, we see that various imperialist powers are concerned about the issue ‘human rights’ and the defense of this or that political prisoner in Iran. One example of such concern by imperialist forces is the so called Iran Tribunal held recently in London.”

Ervand Abrahamian, historian of Middle Eastern and particularly Iranian history: I think this is not a good time to focus on the prison massacres. A better time will come once the nuclear issue subsides. Incidentally, Moussavi had absolutely nothing to do with the killings. There is a vital need to differentiate between different sectors of the regime.

Articles from all over the world, criticising the tribunal and its organisers:

 

The 7 key arguments against the “Iran Tribunal”

1. Payam Akhavan (chair and spokesperson of the tribunal’s steering committee) has links to organisations that have accepted large amounts of money from the US government
2. The tribunal refuses to take a stand against war and sanctions on Iran
3. Mainstream lawyers and politicians like Sir Geoffrey Nice, John Cooper QC and Maurice Copithorne ideologically support the tribunal – why?
4. The pro-war Mujahedeen is closely involved with the tribunal
5. Many organisations and witnesses have withdrawn
6. Critical voices have been silenced
7. Conclusion: The tribunal has become part of the campaign to legitimise war and sanctions to enforce pro-western ‘regime change from above’.

The arguments in more detail:

1.    Payam Akhavan (chair and spokesperson of the tribunal’s steering committee) has links to organisations that have accepted large amounts of money from the US government.

He is leading member of Iran Human Rights Documentation. This has received a large amount of funding from the US government.[i]  Akhavan is also active in Human Rights and Democracy for Iran (also known as the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation).This is financed by a variety of American and European foundations, amongst them the infamous National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED was founded in 1983 by former US president Ronald Reagan to spread his version of “democracy” around the globe

2.    The tribunal refuses to take a stand against war and sanctions on Iran.

Yassamine Mather, chair of Hands Off the People of Iran, has written to the tribunal’s steering committee, requesting that it takes a stand against the threats of war on Iran and the devastating effect that the sanctions are having on the country. She did not even receive a reply.

Organisers of the tribunal subsequently stated that the tribunal is “non-political.” Yassamine Mather has responded that, “without clear opposition to war and sanctions, the tribunal effectively strengthens the hand of all those reactionary forces contemplating a military attack on Iran. The danger of war grows every day. I am a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran – but a war would be disastrous for the forces in Iran who have a real interest in democracy: the workers, women’s groups and social movements in that country.”

In contrast, Payam Akhavan is a keen supporter of sanctions on Iran. For many years, Payam Akhavan has been pushing his sponsors’ agenda for ever harsher sanctions. He is one of the authors of the International report published by the Responsibility to Prevent Coalition, which calls for “a comprehensive set of generic remedies – smart sanctions – to combat the critical mass of threat, including threat-specific remedies for each of the nuclear, incitement, terrorist and rights-violating threats”. This 2010 report was, incidentally, also signed by Tory MP Michael Gove and “Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy”.[ii]

(In an interview with a Canadian newspaper, Akhavan boasts: “After years of lobbying, we succeeded in persuading both the US and EU to adopt targeted sanctions against Iranian officials. Canada is far behind in this regard.”).[iii] On March 8 2012, he attended a meeting of the European Union to present a report he had co-authored that contains the proposal to blacklist not just “individuals”, but “the organisations and government bodies that commit these violations”, which “should also be put under sanction”.[iv]

Sanctions are supposed to destabilise the regime and prepare the ground for ‘regime change from above’. In reality, they impact below: first and foremost ordinary working people are harmed by them. There have been clashes on the streets of Tehran over the price of food – even stallholders at the Grand Bazaar are supporting the demonstrators- most Iranians will tell you that the sanctions are the main reason for their misery. In other words, they help deflect anger away from the theocratic regime. They weaken the only force that can deliver real democracy: the workers’, students’ and women’s organisations, who are today weaker than they have been for many years. Clearly, sanctions are a form of war.

3.    Mainstream lawyers and politicians like Sir Geoffrey Nice, John Cooper QC and Maurice Copithorne ideologically support the tribunal – why?

Sir Geoffrey Nice is a supporter of the Human Rights Commission of the British Conservative Party; John Cooper QC has stood for the Labour Party in elections. Payam Akhavan was voted “young global leader” at the World Economic Forum in 2005. All three are well-known, high-ranking lawyers, who in the name of what they dub “the international community” have over the years confronted many dictators and government heads in international courts (generally when these have turned on their former sponsors in the US, of course).

Between 1995 and 2002, Maurice Copithorne acted as UN human rights rapporteur for Iran. “Some Iranians travelled to meet him in 1995 in order to get him to start an investigation of the 1988 massacre,” according to a member of the Norwegian tribunal support committee (which has since withdrawn). “But they weren’t even allowed to meet him. His aide told them that he would only deal with the current situation in Iran and was not interested in things from the past.” Of course, this was at a time when the US was making efforts to stage a rapprochement with Tehran and to enlist it as an ally in the fight against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. It was in this geo-political context that Copithorne’s 1998 annual human rights report was seen as a political whitewash of the theocracy’s oppression. For example, in that report he opines that “the Islamic Republic of Iran is making progress in the field of human rights”.[v].

Why is Copithorne interested in the massacre now? And why have members of the Conservative Party donated their services for free? After all, this is the same Conservative Party that was in government in 1988 and remained ostentatiously silent as leftists and democrats were systematically culled by the theocracy. This is the same Conservative Party that supports harsh sanctions on Iran and continues to rattle the war drums.

Clearly, all these people are ideologically committed to the trial – which explains why the organisers refuse to come out against war and sanctions. This effectively contradicts the tribunal’s claims that they are “non-political”.

4.    The pro-war Mujahedeen is closely involved with the tribunal

For the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the overthrow of the regime has always been the key objective and it explicitly supports sanctions and war to achieve it. (In the first Gulf War, it famously sided with Saddam Hussein and supported his attacks on Iran, including active participation in military operations). The Mujahedin’s backing for the Iran Tribunal is actually disputed by the tribunal, yet the involvement of people with close MEK links seems to tell a different story. Hardly surprising: after all, the US government has recently announced that it has removed the Mujahedin from its list of terrorist organisations.Leila Ghalehbani (who is featured in a video on the tribunal’s front page) is the sister of a number of Mujahedin prisoners who were killed in 1988. Iraj Mesdaghi, a survivor of the massacre, describes himself as “a former member” of the organisation. The website of the pro-Mujahedin organisation, Human Rights and Democracy for Iran, has just published a very sympathetic interview with Payam Akhavan, in which he is sympathetically prompted to tell readers how he feels about being “slandered” by the British leftwing paper, Weekly Worker, in its critical coverage of the IT. [vi]

5.    Many organisations and witnesses have withdrawn.

The organisations that have withdrawn their witnesses, support for and cooperation with the tribunal include Rahe Kargar (Komitee Ejraai) and the communist organisation Charikhaye Fadai Khalgh (one of the offshoots of the original Fedayeen). Others, like the Communist Party of Iran, have dropped their support. The Marxist-Leninist Party of Iran (Maoist) has split over the issue, as has the Iranian Left Socialist Alliance in the US and Canada. The most ferocious criticism has come from the tribunal’s Norwegian support committee, which has since dissolved because it felt “duped” by the tribunal organisers.

6.    Critical voices have been silenced.

A number of tribunal witnesses have used their statements to condemn the links of the committee to the NED and publicly stated that they are against war and sanctions on Iran. In two highly critical statements the Norwegian support committee describes how all IT witnesses who arrived in London on June 17 were taken to a briefing session, where they were explicitly asked not to raise any politics during their session. They would not be asked the name of their organisation or their political views, as this was “not a political tribunal”. One witness wanted to challenge the tribunal and at the end of his 30-minute session made an anti-imperialist statement. Outrageously, his whole statement was excluded from the tribunal’s report.

7.    Conclusion: The tribunal has become part of the campaign to legitimise war and sanctions to enforce pro-western ‘regime change from above’.

The tribunal is part of a campaign that includes sanctions and the threat of war: they are designed to destabilise the theocratic regime, so that it can be easily toppled. But such a regime change from above cannot bring democracy, as the most recent examples of Iraq and Afghanistan prove.

Hopi is campaigning for a real tribunal that can investigate the crimes of the Iranian regime – but which at the same time takes an implacable stand against war and sanctions. Democracy in Iran will come from below, from the struggles of its working people themselves; they need solidarity, not the pro-imperialist bleating of Johnny-come-lately ‘democrats’ like Cooper, Nice and Copithorne. 

Video: Yassamine Mather responds to her critics on the ‘Iran Tribunal’

Hands Off the People of Iran has been criticising the “Iran Tribunal” for its pro-imperialist agenda and links to funds that campaign for “regime change from above”, like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In this video, Yassamine Mather responds to some criticisms leveled against Hopi.