All posts by y.mather

Redrawing the map Why is Trump abandoning the nuclear deal?

War will follow war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rogue state’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kurdistan

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

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

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

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

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

Part and parcel of global capital

Solidarity with workers needed

In late July around 50 political prisoners in Iran’s Rajai Shahr prison were moved to new cells, where windows are covered by metal sheets, access to drinking water is limited and prisoners complain of suffocation and dehydration. In protest 17 of them began a hunger strike.

One of them is labour activist Reza Shahabi. He has gone without food for more than 20 days and, according to his family, his physical condition has deteriorated considerably in the last few days. Shahabi is the treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and has been in and out of jail since 2010. In the spring of 2012 he was sentenced to six years by an Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran – five years for “conspiracy against state security”, and one year for “propaganda against the system”. He was also fined and banned from all trade union activities for five years.

Many Iranians have compared his plight with that of former presidential candidate and leader of the 2009 ‘green’ movement protests, Mehdi Karroubi, who is currently under house arrest. He recently staged a hunger strike, which succeeded in its aim of removing members of the security forces from his house. Karroubi’s plight was widely reported by a number of media outlets, including the BBC Persian service and Voice of America, and was also widely reported inside Iran. However, when it comes to Shahabi’s hunger strike, there is a deafening silence.

Of course, the charges against him are nonsense: a trade unionist who has constantly opposed war and regime change from above is not a threat to “state security”. However, he is a threat to the regime, as he symbolises workers’ protests against the neoliberal economic policies of successive governments, both ‘reformist’ and conservative.

In the midst of all the publicity for regime change from above (boosted no end after Donald Trump’s election) it is often difficult for those opposing both the Islamic regime, together with its oppressive, neoliberal form of capitalism, and the threat of war and new sanctions to make themselves heard. But in fact Shahabi is not alone. Every day there is news of demonstrations and protests by Iranian workers across the country.

A comrade reminded me recently that many of the younger supporters of the conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who stood against Hassan Rouhani in this year’s presidential elections, believe corruption and the current problems of Iran’s economy – in particular the financial hardship faced by the overwhelming majority of the population – is down to the specific capitalist path taken by ‘reformists’ like Rouhani. Such elements genuinely believe that a fairer economic system is possible within the framework of Iran’s Islamic Republic and blame the unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor, as well as the all-encompassing corruption, solely on policies followed by the ‘reformist’ faction. They have illusions in the likes of Raisi and in supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s so-called ‘resistance’ economics.

Although it is correct to say that the implementation of neoliberal economic policies started with ‘reformist’ president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) and both the Khatami and Rouhani governments have implemented the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in terms of ‘privatisation’, casualisation of work, the imposition of ‘white’ contracts (where the employee signs a blank sheet of paper regarding terms of employment), etc, we should not forget that it was Khamenei himself who decided overnight to rewrite article 44 of the constitution, removing any legal barriers to full-scale privatisation of the state sector. The original constitution anticipated state ownership for key economic areas – although, of course, this was never enforced strictly by the market-loving clerics who came to power in 1979: after all, their social base was in the bazaar and amongst the property-owning classes.

However, as time went on, the role of the private sector gradually increased. By 2004, an amendment to this article, approved by Khamenei, allowed for 80% of state assets to be privatised. The IMF and World Bank have constantly encouraged Iran to pursue these polices and in fact it was under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported by the conservative factions of the regime, together with Khamenei, despite his claims of being “on the side of the poor and the deprived sections of society”, that Iran was heralded by the IMF as a ‘model’ country following its economic liberalisation programmes. Over the last few years a government body called the Iran Privatisation Organisation has pursued an aggressive policy, aiming to ensure that the remaining state-owned enterprises are privatised.

Successive governments have declared the aims of Iran’s economic policies in terms that include “economic competition through the market”, an “increase in labour productivity”, the shrinking of government through privatisation, and a reduction in subsidies and budget costs.

For all their talk of a ‘resistance economy’, the conservatives consist of individuals and institutions overseeing billion-dollar private organisations. During the presidential elections, Raisi told voters: “I own nothing but a 140-square-metre apartment and a private bank account”, but the reality is, he is head of the multi-billion-dollar religious foundation, Astane Quds Razavi.

In 2013 Reuters revealed that Khamenei is head of an organisation created to help the poor that is now a major business worth tens of billions of dollars. In the last decade it has become a conglomerate that holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and farming.1

Of course, the idea of a third-world economy surviving independently of global capital is either day-dreaming or a deliberate lie – in the case of Iran’s supreme leader and his claims of building a ‘resistance economy’ clearly the latter. It is true that, like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, Khamenei claims he is in favour of ‘delinking’ Iran’s economy from western capital (his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, famously declared that dependence on Japanese capital was acceptable, as Japan was not part of the west!). But the reality is that his own ‘charitable’ multi-billion-dollar organisation, not to forget the partly privatised banks and industries owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are actually part and parcel of global capital.

A few months ago Khamenei complained about the gap between the rich and the poor in Iran. But, despite the fact that the Islamic regime has been in power for over 38 years, there are many reasons why that gap keeps growing. First of all, those sections of the Iranian aristocracy and bourgeoisie that were not directly involved with the shah’s regime have retained their wealth, their capital and their land: and, thanks to Iran’s extremely high interest rates, that wealth grows daily. In addition the exploiting classes have been augmented by a whole new layer of nouveaux riches. What Iranians call aghazadeh-ha (sons and daughters of the ayatollahs) spend money at levels comparable to Saudi princes – driving sports cars and generally displaying their wealth.

As elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism, there is no ‘trickle-down effect’. During the years of sanctions senior clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters made billions from sanction-busting and the black market, while ordinary Iranians faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to a shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. Shahrzad Elghanayan, a New York Times reporter, was astonished 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.”2

Nowadays no-one denies that the nuclear deal was promoted and managed by Khamenei every step of the way. One of its main aims was the further integration of Iran’s economy within the global order and in this all factions of the regime, irrespective of their rhetoric, are united. The warnings of both supporters of regime change from above – who keep telling us that the supreme leader wants to isolate Iran and turn it into another North Korea – and the conservative factions – who claim they want to save Iran from globalisation – are nonsense.

The Islamic Republic is and will remain an integral part of global capitalism. That is why the idea that somehow a bourgeois government (either one composed of ‘more committed’ reformists or one imposed by regime change from above) would introduce democracy and workers’ rights is also a complete nonsense. Freedom of movement for capital has its rationale and the post-war commitment to democracy, trade union rights and public services has ended. There is a need more than ever for uninterrupted free movement of capital to the cheapest zones of exploitation. In the advanced capitalist countries concessions to workers are threatened, while trade unions have been considerably weakened by membership losses, as well as draconian legislation.

Under such circumstances it is criminal for the Iranian left to sow hopes that bourgeois democracy can save workers such as Reza Shahabi from arrest, intimidation and long prison sentences. It is irresponsible to offer Europe or the USA as models to be followed. The gains won in the advanced capitalist countries came at the expense of the superexploited third world. We live in the era of new imperial practices – as Alain Badiou puts it, “the policy of destroying states rather than corrupting or replacing them”3 – and that is the kind of future ‘regime change from above’ will bring to Iran.

As for Reza Shahabi, we have a duty to support his struggle, calling for his immediate, unconditional release and building support for his case amongst the international working class. But we should have no illusions in the rightwing, pro-regime-change NGOs, political groups, charities and other organisations which also claim to support him. They are an insult to the Iranian working class, which, despite severe hardship, has maintained its principled opposition to foreign intervention, while pursuing class-based struggles against Iran’s Islamic Republic and its internal and external capitalist allies.

Notes

1. www.reuters.com/investigates/iran/#article/part1.

2. www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/opinion/clerical-rule-luxury-lifestyle.html?mcubz=0.

3. A Badiou Notre mal vient de bien loin Paris 2015.

Nationalism and imperial power

 

 

 

 

The Kurdish regional government (KRG) in Iraq will be holding a referendum on the issue of independence on September 25. There have been appeals for it to be delayed and the date has changed a number of times, but at the moment it looks like the vote will go ahead.

In 2014, at the time when Islamic State was gaining ground in northern Kurdistan, Kurds accused the Iraqi army of abandoning the territory lost to the jihadists. Ironically it is the ‘liberation’ of Erbil, Mosul and other northern cities that has precipitated the referendum. Last week in an interview with BBC Persian, Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, indicated that it will draw up the borders of a future Kurdish state if Baghdad does not accept a vote in favour of independence. However, what was significant in the BBC interview was Barzani’s insistence that the vote will also take place in “areas of Kurdistan outside the region’s administration”, including Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Sinjar. The oil-rich Kirkuk has large Arab and Turkmen populations, which prompted Barzani to add:

We don’t say that Kirkuk only belongs to Kurds. Kirkuk should be a symbol of coexistence for all ethnicities. If the people of Kirkuk vote ‘no’ in this referendum we will respect their vote, but we don’t accept that anyone can prevent us from holding a referendum there. If any group wants to change the reality of Kirkuk using force, they should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight over it.

It is not difficult to envisage a future where Barzani’s threats would lead to yet another bloody civil war in Iraq.

Of course, Kurdish leaders claim the vote will not necessarily lead to independence – their aim is to strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Baghdad. But the Iraqi government response came on September 12, when parliament voted to reject the referendum as “unconstitutional” and authorised the prime minister to “take all measures” to preserve Iraq’s unity.

The official US and UK position is a recommendation that the vote for Kurdish independence should be delayed in view of the ‘dangerous situation’ so soon after the defeat of IS. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson made that point on a visit to the KRG in August, but more hard-line neoconservatives in the US and their allies in Israel believe that any referendum would be the first step in a much wider scheme: one that would go beyond Iraq and encompass all Kurdish areas in Syria, Iran and Turkey.

As far the Zionist regime and sections of the Trump administration are concerned, an independent Kurdish state would accelerate the disintegration of Iraq, paving the way for more independence movements: Sunnis in Iraq and Syria; Arabs, Baluchis and maybe Azeris in Iran. They hope this would result in a complete neo-imperial remapping of the region, replacing the borders drawn up in the early part of the 20th century.

So why would anyone want to destroy current states and in the process create further devastation and chaos? Because the new imperial order is interested not only in ‘regime change from above’, but would actually prefer chaos and anarchy to ‘rogue states’ capable of challenging US hegemony in areas where the majority of the population (ironically with the exception of Iran) are no longer the superexploited masses of the global ‘market’ economy.

Of course, we all know that since the US invasion, Iraq is a much weaker power in the region. But the proposed referendum will pave the way for the kind of civil wars that will make the current situation in Libya or Afghanistan look like a tea party. For Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his advisors such a plan would enable Israel to become a regional superpower – no wonder the KRG is ‘benefiting’ from Israel’s continuous advice.

No-one in their right mind can imagine that the ‘greater Kurdistan’ promised by Kurdish nationalists will happen peacefully – the existing brutal regimes will fight to the bitter end to stop it and prevent their own demise. And in reality the creation of such a state would produce further inter-Kurdish battles.

Narrow-minded

A long time ago, in very difficult circumstances in Iranian Kurdistan, I was witness to a bitter conflict between supporters of northern Kurdistan and of southern Kurdistan. On a snowy night, at a time when I had been given temporary responsibility as political leader in the camp where we were staying, I was woken up by a comrade asking me to return to the base (as the only female member of the peshmergeh group, I was staying outside the base in a peasant’s house – part of our organisation’s attempt to respect Kurdish sensitivities regarding gender segregation).

Two groups – both ‘Marxist’ Kurdish peshmergehs – had got into a bitter argument over whether northern Kurdistan (capital: Mahabad) was more radical and revolutionary than southern Kurdistan (capital: Sanandaj) and the two groups seemed ready to open fire on each other. The old comrade who came to wake me up, Kak Omar, was a wise old man who could see where all this could lead. I put on my uniform, went to the base and attempted to fulfil my duty as a political leader by giving a talk on ‘internal contradictions’, based on a booklet issued by a small group called the Union des Communistes de France Marxiste-Léniniste, written by a then much less famous Alain Badiou, whose Théorie de la contradiction was an attempt to understand and come to terms with the many “linear”, “circular”, “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic” contradictions.

I think I managed to bore the comrades sufficiently and by the time I had finished very few felt like entering into a midnight shooting match. Yet the incident demonstrated to me how narrow-minded nationalism can be, how easily it can turn to regionalism. And, once you go down that route, there is no end to the divisions that can be exploited by the enemies of the working class. After all, the civil wars of the Middle East have not harmed US or Israeli interests in the region and no doubt the destruction of the current state of Iran would also serve them well. Anything that can pave the way for such a scenario is a bonus for them.

Even if we imagine the establishment of a unified Kurdish state, how would its economy work? As KRG leaders know, without Kirkuk such a state would not be viable, but even with Kirkuk it is difficult to foresee a prosperous future in the current world capitalist order for a country composed of the least developed regions of four underdeveloped countries … and with no access to the sea. Of course, the blame for such underdevelopment lies squarely with the current and past rulers of the respective countries and no doubt it is this, combined with the constant suppression of national rights in Kurdish areas, that has led to the current wave of nationalism. Both the right and the left should take note of the dangers such a new state would face.

Let me add a few comments about the current Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Those of us who are familiar with its current leaders find it difficult to take them seriously. There was nothing positive in their foreign policy – from when Mustafa Barzani (the father of the current president) became an ally of the shah of Iran, to their support for the Islamic Republic (all because Iran was opposed to Iraq’s Ba’athist regime), to their current mesmerisation by US and Israeli ‘advisors’. This is a government based on tribalist politics. For all its claims about ‘women’s rights’, the organisations leading the KRG, as well as their allies in Iran, are mainly corrupt, misogynist forces, whose power and wealth often relies on extortion and corruption.

If you are in the west, at a time when fundamentalists still force women to wear the burqa or hijab, it is easy to be impressed by female peshmergehs filmed in Kurdish areas, brandishing guns. However, you will forgive me for being cynical about such images. All too often both in Kurdistan and abroad I have had to deal with women peshmergehs whose bruises and battered bodies tell the story of domestic abuse.

The proposed Kurdish referendum has initiated a number of debates amongst the Iranian left about the implications of the right to self-determination at a time of aggressive, destructive imperialist policy in the region. No-one can deny the fact that the Kurds have been victims of discrimination, repression and military aggression in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In this respect the call for independence is very attractive.

However, the question is, ‘After independence what next?’ We know how the current regional powers will react, and how the already weakened working class movement will further be divided along nationalist lines.

Some time ago, Robert Fisk wrote a book on Lebanon entitled Pity the nation. Unfortunately in the current situation this is the phrase that keeps coming to mind when I think of Kurdistan.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Part and parcel of global capital

In late July around 50 political prisoners in Iran’s Rajai Shahr prison were moved to new cells, where windows are covered by metal sheets, access to drinking water is limited and prisoners complain of suffocation and dehydration. In protest 17 of them began a hunger strike.

One of them is labour activist Reza Shahabi. He has gone without food for more than 20 days and, according to his family, his physical condition has deteriorated considerably in the last few days. Shahabi is the treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and has been in and out of jail since 2010. In the spring of 2012 he was sentenced to six years by an Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran – five years for “conspiracy against state security”, and one year for “propaganda against the system”. He was also fined and banned from all trade union activities for five years.

Many Iranians have compared his plight with that of former presidential candidate and leader of the 2009 ‘green’ movement protests, Mehdi Karroubi, who is currently under house arrest. He recently staged a hunger strike, which succeeded in its aim of removing members of the security forces from his house. Karroubi’s plight was widely reported by a number of media outlets, including the BBC Persian service and Voice of America, and was also widely reported inside Iran. However, when it comes to Shahabi’s hunger strike, there is a deafening silence.

Of course, the charges against him are nonsense: a trade unionist who has constantly opposed war and regime change from above is not a threat to “state security”. However, he is a threat to the regime, as he symbolises workers’ protests against the neoliberal economic policies of successive governments, both ‘reformist’ and conservative.

In the midst of all the publicity for regime change from above (boosted no end after Donald Trump’s election) it is often difficult for those opposing both the Islamic regime, together with its oppressive, neoliberal form of capitalism, and the threat of war and new sanctions to make themselves heard. But in fact Shahabi is not alone. Every day there is news of demonstrations and protests by Iranian workers across the country.

A comrade reminded me recently that many of the younger supporters of the conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who stood against Hassan Rouhani in this year’s presidential elections, believe corruption and the current problems of Iran’s economy – in particular the financial hardship faced by the overwhelming majority of the population – is down to the specific capitalist path taken by ‘reformists’ like Rouhani. Such elements genuinely believe that a fairer economic system is possible within the framework of Iran’s Islamic Republic and blame the unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor, as well as the all-encompassing corruption, solely on policies followed by the ‘reformist’ faction. They have illusions in the likes of Raisi and in supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s so-called ‘resistance’ economics.

Although it is correct to say that the implementation of neoliberal economic policies started with ‘reformist’ president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) and both the Khatami and Rouhani governments have implemented the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in terms of ‘privatisation’, casualisation of work, the imposition of ‘white’ contracts (where the employee signs a blank sheet of paper regarding terms of employment), etc, we should not forget that it was Khamenei himself who decided overnight to rewrite article 44 of the constitution, removing any legal barriers to full-scale privatisation of the state sector. The original constitution anticipated state ownership for key economic areas – although, of course, this was never enforced strictly by the market-loving clerics who came to power in 1979: after all, their social base was in the bazaar and amongst the property-owning classes.

However, as time went on, the role of the private sector gradually increased. By 2004, an amendment to this article, approved by Khamenei, allowed for 80% of state assets to be privatised. The IMF and World Bank have constantly encouraged Iran to pursue these polices and in fact it was under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported by the conservative factions of the regime, together with Khamenei, despite his claims of being “on the side of the poor and the deprived sections of society”, that Iran was heralded by the IMF as a ‘model’ country following its economic liberalisation programmes. Over the last few years a government body called the Iran Privatisation Organisation has pursued an aggressive policy, aiming to ensure that the remaining state-owned enterprises are privatised.

Successive governments have declared the aims of Iran’s economic policies in terms that include “economic competition through the market”, an “increase in labour productivity”, the shrinking of government through privatisation, and a reduction in subsidies and budget costs.

For all their talk of a ‘resistance economy’, the conservatives consist of individuals and institutions overseeing billion-dollar private organisations. During the presidential elections, Raisi told voters: “I own nothing but a 140-square-metre apartment and a private bank account”, but the reality is, he is head of the multi-billion-dollar religious foundation, Astane Quds Razavi.

In 2013 Reuters revealed that Khamenei is head of an organisation created to help the poor that is now a major business worth tens of billions of dollars. In the last decade it has become a conglomerate that holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and farming.1

Of course, the idea of a third-world economy surviving independently of global capital is either day-dreaming or a deliberate lie – in the case of Iran’s supreme leader and his claims of building a ‘resistance economy’ clearly the latter. It is true that, like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, Khamenei claims he is in favour of ‘delinking’ Iran’s economy from western capital (his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, famously declared that dependence on Japanese capital was acceptable, as Japan was not part of the west!). But the reality is that his own ‘charitable’ multi-billion-dollar organisation, not to forget the partly privatised banks and industries owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are actually part and parcel of global capital.

A few months ago Khamenei complained about the gap between the rich and the poor in Iran. But, despite the fact that the Islamic regime has been in power for over 38 years, there are many reasons why that gap keeps growing. First of all, those sections of the Iranian aristocracy and bourgeoisie that were not directly involved with the shah’s regime have retained their wealth, their capital and their land: and, thanks to Iran’s extremely high interest rates, that wealth grows daily. In addition the exploiting classes have been augmented by a whole new layer of nouveaux riches. What Iranians call aghazadeh-ha(sons and daughters of the ayatollahs) spend money at levels comparable to Saudi princes – driving sports cars and generally displaying their wealth.

As elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism, there is no ‘trickle-down effect’. During the years of sanctions senior clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters made billions from sanction-busting and the black market, while ordinary Iranians faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to a shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. Shahrzad Elghanayan, a New York Times reporter, was astonished 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.”2

Nowadays no-one denies that the nuclear deal was promoted and managed by Khamenei every step of the way. One of its main aims was the further integration of Iran’s economy within the global order and in this all factions of the regime, irrespective of their rhetoric, are united. The warnings of both supporters of regime change from above – who keep telling us that the supreme leader wants to isolate Iran and turn it into another North Korea – and the conservative factions – who claim they want to save Iran from globalisation – are nonsense.

The Islamic Republic is and will remain an integral part of global capitalism. That is why the idea that somehow a bourgeois government (either one composed of ‘more committed’ reformists or one imposed by regime change from above) would introduce democracy and workers’ rights is also a complete nonsense. Freedom of movement for capital has its rationale and the post-war commitment to democracy, trade union rights and public services has ended. There is a need more than ever for uninterrupted free movement of capital to the cheapest zones of exploitation. In the advanced capitalist countries concessions to workers are threatened, while trade unions have been considerably weakened by membership losses, as well as draconian legislation.

Under such circumstances it is criminal for the Iranian left to sow hopes that bourgeois democracy can save workers such as Reza Shahabi from arrest, intimidation and long prison sentences. It is irresponsible to offer Europe or the USA as models to be followed. The gains won in the advanced capitalist countries came at the expense of the superexploited third world. We live in the era of new imperial practices – as Alain Badiou puts it, “the policy of destroying states rather than corrupting or replacing them”3 – and that is the kind of future ‘regime change from above’ will bring to Iran.

As for Reza Shahabi, we have a duty to support his struggle, calling for his immediate, unconditional release and building support for his case amongst the international working class. But we should have no illusions in the rightwing, pro-regime-change NGOs, political groups, charities and other organisations which also claim to support him. They are an insult to the Iranian working class, which, despite severe hardship, has maintained its principled opposition to foreign intervention, while pursuing class-based struggles against Iran’s Islamic Republic and its internal and external capitalist allies.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.reuters.com/investigates/iran/#article/part1.

2. www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/opinion/clerical-rule-luxury-lifestyle.html?mcubz=0.

3. A Badiou Notre mal vient de bien loin Paris 2015.

The threat of military action against Iran is once more very much on the agenda

One of the scariest characters around the new Trump administration is Steve Bannon, the 63-year-old who ran Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign. Now he is chief strategist and senior advisor to the US president.

Just in case you are not familiar with Breitbart News, it is a rightwing outlet, known for headlines such as “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew” and “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke very much approved of Bannon’s nomination, describing it as “excellent”, while Peter Brimelow, who is associated with the white supremacist website, VDARE, called it “amazing”.

There is a lot of information circulating about Bannon’s rightwing opinions, but the Washington Post in particular has given us an insight into how the Iran hostage crisis helped shaped his views:

It was just after midnight on March 21 1980, when a Navy destroyer navigated by Stephen K Bannon, a junior officer, met with the supercarrier, USS Nimitz, in the Gulf of Oman. The convoy headed near the Iranian coast, where a secret mission would be launched a month later to rescue 52 US embassy hostages held in Tehran.Bannon’s ship, the USS Paul F Foster, trailed the Nimitz, which carried helicopters that would try to retrieve the hostages. But before the mission launched, Bannon’s ship was ordered to sail to Pearl Harbour, and he learned while at sea the rescue had failed. A US helicopter crashed into another aircraft in the Iranian desert, killing eight servicemen and dooming the plan to liberate the hostages.

…. As Bannon has told it, the failed hostage rescue is one of the defining moments of his life, providing a searing example of failed military and presidential leadership – one that he carries with him, as he serves as president Trump’s chief strategist. He has said he wasn’t interested in politics until he concluded then-president Jimmy Carter had undercut the navy and blown the rescue mission.1

Of course, the truth is more complicated. The Republicans had given their declared enemy, Iran’s Islamic Republic, details of the rescue plan, in an attempt to undermine Carter.

But Bannon is not alone in all this. There is general James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, who is also obsessed with Iran. Last year, the four-star general was forced out of his job by Barack Obama. Why? Because at a time when most of the world was thinking of the dangers posed by al Qa’eda and Islamic State in the Middle East, he was adamant that the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace”. Mattis recalls that, as commander of US troops in the Middle East, the first three questions he would ask his subordinates every morning “had to do with Iran and Iran and Iran”.

Media reports suggested it was Mattis’s eagerness for confrontation with Iran that led to his sacking by Obama. He was central command chief until 2013 – just before the US and other world powers were trying to engage with Tehran to secure a nuclear deal.

However, after Trump nominated him as defence secretary, the war of words between the US and Iran intensified less than a month into the new presidency, with Mattis calling Iran “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”, after Tehran confirmed it had tested mid-range ballistic missiles. Trump tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire”, as he ordered new sanctions on 13 Iranian individuals and 12 companies. When reporters asked him if a military action was possible, he replied: “Nothing is off the table”.

Many scenarios have been proposed on how and when such a conflict might start. Saeid Golkar, an Iran expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is probably right when he told Al Jazeera: “I think people in the Trump administration will try to make Iran do something stupid” – so that the US can use this as an excuse for war. We have already seen new sanctions, the absence of which being one of Iran’s red lines for adhering to the nuclear deal.

Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah, claimed in a recent interview with Voice of America that he has written to Trump asking him to distinguish between the Iranian people and the regime, and urging the US to play a “pivotal role” in supporting what he called the Iranian people’s “quest for liberty and justice” in their homeland.2 If anyone from Trump’s government decided to hold a meeting with hated figures of the Iranian opposition – including the ex-shah’s son, or the Mujahedin, or other idiots clamouring for ‘regime change from above’, the government in Tehran would react. Let us not forget that the animosity between the Iranian regime and sections of the US government first started in 1979, when Washinton allowed the ex-shah to seek medical treatment in the US.

‘Ominous signs’

Globalresearch, described on its website as the “centre for research on globalisation”, recently published an article entitled “Eleven ominous signs that we are racing towards war with Iran”. Referring to the current “engineered disorder”, it claims that “Trump is taking the US on a sure course to war with Iran”.3

The website gives three fundamental reasons why Iran remains the principal target and lists them as follows:

Iran has become the arch-enemy of the Saudi-Israeli alliance, because it is the one country militarily and economically strong enough to challenge their dominance of the Middle Eastern region …Secondly, Iran has been openly supportive of the fight against Zionism (by funding Hezbollah in Lebanon) and against the Sunni extremist group Isis (the pet Frankenstein of the US) …

Thirdly, Iran has forged a tight alliance with Russia and China in defiance of the Zionist-Anglo-American New World Order, which seeks to impose a unipolar One World Government on the world, with the international bankers at the helm. Iran remains one of the few countries in the world without a Rothschild-owned central bank. It refuses to bow to the will of the US or to allow the US to place its imperial military bases within its territory.

I would dispute the second reason. Everyone knows of Iran’s secret economic deals with Israel, and its support for Palestine has remained very much tired rhetoric, where actions do not match slogans. Supporting the Palestinian people is part of the regime’s propaganda in competing with Sunni states in the region and should not be taken seriously.

However, the website goes on to list the “11 ominous signs” as follows.

1. US foreign policy is being driven by the likes of the Brookings Institution, which in 2009 “advocated the US make a deal with Iran, then renege on the deal (making it look like Iran was refusing something very reasonable), and then attack Iran with support from the international community”.

2. Iran is at the centre of the “Muslim ban”, yet Saudi Arabia is not even among the seven states on Trump’s list, despite being “the source of 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers” on 9/11.

3. Iran “has formally announced it is ditching the US dollar for oil transactions as of March 21 2017”. The website claims that “the real reason for the invasion of several Middle Eastern countries over the last two-three decades was due to their desire to abandon the petrodollar (eg, with Libya’s gold in 2011)”.

4. Iran has been put “on notice” for its recent ballistic missile test. Trump’s ex-national security advisor, Michael Flynn, claimed before his February 14 resignation that the test had violated the nuclear deal and contravened UN resolution 2231, which calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”. However, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, stated that the country’s missiles are “not designed for the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead”, but rather “to carry a normal warhead in the field of legitimate defence”.

5. White House press secretary Sean Spicer “falsely accused Iran of attacking a US naval vessel”, when actually it was a Saudi ship that had been attacked – and by “Houthi rebels from Yemen, not Iranians”.

6. As mentioned above, the US administration has accused Iran of being the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism”.

7. New sanctions have been imposed on Iran by Trump.

8. Despite Trump’s defence of Vladimir Putin, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has condemned Russia, which is in a “binding military alliance” with Iran.

9: China is also in a “binding military alliance” with Iran, and Beijing has also “been on the receiving end of some threats”.

10. Steve Bannon has even claimed there will be war with China “in the next five-10 years”, according to Globalresearch.

11. The US, along with the UK, France and Australia, have “conducted a joint naval operation named Unified Trident just off the Iranian coast”.

All this indicates that “the long-held agenda of initiating war with Iran is speeding up under Trump”, states Globalresearch’s Makia Freeman.

Of course, all this could change in the next couple of days. If Republicans as well as Democrats continue demanding an inquiry into the reason’s behind Flynn’s resignation as national security advisor, and into allegations that members of Trump’s team had been in regular contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the presidential election campaign, the US president might be forced to delay any moves against Iran. On the other hand, he might not want to disappoint Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is currently on an official visit to Washington. He might well announce new sanctions against Iran, paving the way for more confrontation.

May election

Meanwhile, inside Iran itself, the southern province of Khuzestan has just suffered one of the worst dust storms seen in recent years. The thick plume of dust and sand forced officials to cancel 10 flights leaving Ahvaz airport, as the field of vision had been reduced to a mere 50 metres, according to Kourosh Bahadori, Khuzestan’s chief meteorologist.

The citizens of Ahvaz, the provincial capital, who are clearly frustrated by the inability of successive governments to improve the environment and deal with the effects of dust storms, took part in a large demonstration on February 11. However, despite the looming presidential elections, the government does not appear too concerned about such protests.

Hassan Rouhani is standing for re-election as president in May 2017, but the promise of economic prosperity following the nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries now seems a distant dream. US banks and financial authorities have kept in place many of the sanctions imposed on Iran, while uncertainty about the new administration’s attitude towards the nuclear deal has deterred many European countries from investing.

Then, of course, adding insult to injury, Trump issued a ban on Iranians visiting the United States. Of course, the ban was rejected by the US courts, but no-one believes this is the end of the story. The US administration is preparing new immigration legislation and there are rumours that by adding Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to the list of ‘terrorist organisations’, the ban on Iranians visiting the US will become permanent. The Revolutionary Guards run large sections of the state and the economy in both the public and private sector, which means that most Iranians would be affected ­- irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, many work for or are connected with RG companies and institutions.

From the day he took office in 2013, Rouhani insisted that reaching agreement with the west on Iran’s nuclear programme would solve the country’s economic problems and that would produce national reconciliation. When Iran’s reformists talk of national reconciliation, as former president Mohammad Khatami has done recently, they mean reconciliation between the factions of the regime, although it is often portrayed by sections of the media as reconciliation between the state and Iran’s various nationalities. No-one denies the existence of these divisions – between both the two factions of the regime and between the state and the people – especially after the protests of 2009. Unfortunately for Rouhani and foreign minister Zarif, however, they have no powerful allies within the moderate factions of the regime and that is why Rouhani’s re-election as president was in doubt even before Trump took office.

 

Notes

1. www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bannons-navy-service-during-the-iran-hostage-crisis-shaped-his-views/2017/02/09/99f1e58a-e991-11e6-bf6f-301b6b443624_story.html?utm_term=.f0a4451eb44f.

2. www.voanews.com/a/iranian-prince-trump-immigration-order/3719951.html.

 

Trump threatens N-deal

trumpYou would have thought that the peoples of the Middle East,    who have suffered so much this millennium under the Bush    and  Obama administrations, might be spared more destruction  and  devastation, but unfortunately things do not look good.  With the  new Trump administration it is very likely that, in  addition to the existing war zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain … we will see new areas of conflict and new attempts at regime change from above.

Millions of civilians throughout the Middle East, but especially in Iran, are wary of the dangers ahead, and anxious about the close relationship between the US president and the Israeli prime minister. A number of events in the last few weeks have given rise to this anxiety.

A week before Trump’s inauguration, two of his closest allies – former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former US representative to UN John Bolton – joined two dozen ex-officials in signing a letter to Trump urging him to start talks with the Iranian opposition group, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and its front organisation, the National Council of Resistance.

For those who do not know much about the MEK, let me assure you it is one of the most discredited exile groups – nowadays more a religious cult, with practices similar to the Moonies (in recent years we have seen enforced mass divorce, enforced mass remarriage, worship of the married couple who are the cult’s leaders, a switch from supporting Saddam Hussein to becoming paid lackeys of Saudi Arabia …). The very fact that these close allies of Donald Trump could envisage such talks is proof once more that the US has learnt nothing from the Iraq war or attempts at regime change in Syria. If there is one way of making sure the Islamic rulers of Iran stay in power in Tehran, it would be to start a dialogue with the Mujahedin as a possible replacement. The Iranian people hate the MEK and their lunatic practices so much, one can envisage Iran’s rulers hoping the Giuliani-Bolton letter succeeds in its aim.

After this came Trump’s comments two days before his inauguration: the US should have seized Iraq’s oil in 2003. Now, anyone with even limited knowledge of the matter knows there were good reasons why Bush did not contemplate such lunacy. Had the administration done so, it would have been violating decades of international practice, including the Geneva conventions. But maybe we should not expect anything else from the man who supports waterboarding prisoners of war.

So, if the signs were ominous before the inauguration, what has happened since is even more worrying.

On January 21, Binyamin Netanyahu sent a ‘message to the Iranian people’. The Jerusalem Post published the entire text of Netanyahu’s letter, including the following:

I hope this message reaches every Iranian – young and old, religious and secular, man and woman …

I know you’d prefer to live without fear. I know you’d want to be able to speak freely, to love who you want without the fear of being tortured or hung from a crane. I know you’d like to surf the web freely and not have to see videos like this one using a virtual private network to circumvent censorship …

By calling daily for Israel’s destruction, the regime hopes to instil hostility between us. This is wrong. We are your friend, not your enemy. We’ve always distinguished between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime.

The regime is cruel – the people are not; the regime is aggressive – the people are warm. I yearn for the day when Israelis and Iranians can once again visit each other freely in Tehran and Esfahan, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Both in Tehran and throughout the Middle East the message was interpreted as a threat – an attempt to justify imminent plans for air attacks, now that the restraints imposed by the Obama administration on the more adventurous policies of the Zionist regime have been lifted. This message was followed by a phone conversation with the US president, where by all accounts the Iran nuclear deal was discussed.

The Israeli premier will be amongst the first world leaders to visit Washington and the Iranian people are justifiably worried about what the combination of neoconservative, pro-MEK advisors and Trump’s pro-Zionist stance will bring for the region.

Iran’s rulers have mixed feeling about the new administration. On the one hand, they are happy he is not a fan of Saudi Arabia and Trump’s comments about Russia have received positive coverage in Tehran. On the other hand, with allies and advisors such as Giuliani and Bolton, it is likely that Trump would not act to stop an Israeli attack on Iran, even if his declared priority is to defeat Iran’s main enemies in the region, Islamic State and Al Nusra.

As for the reformist faction of the Iranian regime, it is concerned about the impact of Trump’s presidency on the nuclear agreement signed last year. Trump has said on many occasions that he considers this to be “one of the worst deals ever made”. The more conservative factions of the regime, just like the ‘regime change from above’ opposition groups, are hoping Trump will tear it up.

Left

With all the controversy over the new president’s racist, sexist and anti-gay remarks, amongst other things, sections of pro-west Iranian opposition in exile have been forced to change their tune. For most of the last two or three decades they have told us that Iran’s rulers were backward because they had failed to promote anti-sexist, pro-LGBT policies. But now those rulers are no longer the only misogynists in town. No doubt the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved of one of Trump’s first initiatives – taking down references to LGBT equality from the White House website on his first day as president.

And by January 23 Trump was trying to outdo Khamenei on abortion. He signed an executive order blocking foreign aid and federal budget funding for international non-governmental organisations that provide or “promote” abortions. The new vice-president, Mike Pence, is of like mind: he facilitated the passage of several laws restricting abortions, when he was governor of Indiana.

As I write, Trump is expected to announce restrictions on US entry for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. Unlike the Israeli premier, Trump is not after winning hearts and minds in Iran (or elsewhere in the Middle East), yet he has fans amongst deluded sections of the Iranian opposition, including the MEK, who are convinced that sooner rather than later he will go for a full-scale military attack on Iran, or else give Netanyahu the nod to knock out its military and nuclear installations (while the US concentrates on ‘fighting al Qa’eda’ in Iraq and Syria!). Both scenarios are clearly frightening, yet in these uncertain times they cannot be ruled out.

All this coincides with a time when Iran’s rulers are facing considerable internal opposition from the working class. Strikes and protests in and around some the country’s major industrial sites are occurring daily, while retired teachers and civil servants, whose real income is falling daily because of inflation and the fall in the value of the Iranian currency, have organised demonstrations. While Iranians are using every opportunity to protest, the left is not only weak and divided, but have mostly lost all credibility – having, for example, accepted funds from US neoconservatives. Many former leftwing groups are now nothing more than single-issue campaigns (for women’s or LGBT rights, supporting Kurdish or Arab nationalism …), because it was easier to get funding from the west that way. Gradually that funding affected their politics. It was no longer fashionable to talk of imperialism and capitalism. Now they were against ‘backward Islamists’ and for ‘progress’.

Many such groups have had a hard time of it after the nuclear deal and so they were hoping a Clinton presidency would revive their fortunes. Unfortunately for them, it looks like under Trump their financial situation will not improve.

In the absence of a principled organised left, the voice of the Iranian working class – a class whose struggles continue, day in, day out, a class destined to play a significant role in the struggles ahead – is not being heard. Outside Iran we are not in a position to do much, but we must become the voice of our own class in Iran, theworking class. We must publicise the struggles against the Islamic government and its corrupt, capitalist backers, while remaining vigilant about the danger of new imperialist wars and aggression in the region.

That is why we will need to reboot Hands Off the People of Iran

After the fall of Aleppo

Yassamine Mather

Before the death of ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on January 8 (an event that has dominated Iranian politics and news), Iranian clerics and leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had been competing with each other in making exaggerated claims about the significance of the fall of Aleppo: it was a victory against “heresy” and for the “ascendancy of Shia Islam”. One cleric called on Iranians (presumably he meant the Revolutionary Guards already in Syria) to clean up Aleppo, as the 12th Shia Imam would soon be paying a visit!

This, together with the triumphalism during the inspection of the ruins of east Aleppo by major general Qasem Soleimini (credited with commanding Iranian troops in Syria’s recent battles), should be condemned. The intervention of Iran and Russia in Syria has cost the lives of thousands of civilians. All such foreign intervention – be it by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Russia – should be condemned, and Iran and Russia cannot be exempt from this on the basis that they were invited by the Syrian regime.

Having said that, we now have a clearer picture of the final days of the battles in and around east Aleppo. The latest round of ‘peace talks’ between some rebel groups and Turkey, Iran and Russia gives an indication of who backed the main armed rebel groups. Most of these groups, far from being democratic, secular forces, were close to Turkey’s Islamic nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The extended participation of Syrian Kurds on the same side as those fighting against ‘rebels’ in Aleppo (in other words, on the same side as Hezbollah and other Shia groups) demonstrates that accusations of Turkish involvement in arming and sponsoring a section of the rebels in east Aleppo should be taken seriously.

By all accounts, at least since 2015 the claim that the Free Syrian Army represents moderate or secular forces has been untenable.

It is worthwhile repeating what Ben Hall, in his book, Inside Isis: the brutal rise of a terrorist army, tells us. The FSA leading light, Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, who was promoted by the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has never denied his support for jihadist groups – to the embarrassment of the US authorities. After the battle for Al Menagh, al-Oqaidi’s victory speech is quoted by many to show that, while he was on the US government’s Syria support payroll, he fought alongside and publicly praised IS fighters, calling them “heroes”.

Robert Fisk gave us a similar view in 2015, when he wrote about claims that the Syrian regime was not fighting IS:

This rubbish has reached its crescendo in the on-again, off-again saga of the Syrian ‘moderates’. These men were originally military defectors to the FSA, which America and European countries regarded as a possible pro-western force to be used against the Syrian government army. But the FSA fell to pieces, corrupted, and the ‘moderates’ defected all over again, this time to the Islamist Nusra Front or to Isis, selling their American-supplied weapons.Washington admitted their disappearance, bemoaned their fate, concluded that new ‘moderates’ were required, persuaded the CIA to arm and train 70 fighters, and this summer packed them off across the Turkish border to fight – whereupon all but 10 were captured by Nusra and at least two of them were executed by their captors. Just two weeks ago, I heard in person one of the most senior ex-US officers in Iraq – David Petraeus’s former No2 in Baghdad – announce that the ‘moderates’ had collapsed long ago. Now you see them – now you don’t …1

False claims

In a letter to the Weekly Worker published on December 22, Hannu Reime made a number of claims in relation to my article, ‘Reaping the harvest’ (December 15), and I will attempt to reply to some of his points.

He wrote:

Yassamine seems to argue – obliquely, but still – that the Syrian uprising against the Assad tyranny was almost nothing else but a US, Saudi and Qatari regime-change scheme and had very little in common with the Arab spring in other countries of the Arab world, Egypt in particular.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have written extensively on the importance and legitimacy of opposition to Bashar Assad, notably the protests of 2011 and 2012 and the opposition to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies by the Assads (father and son). I have also written in support of the Kurdish peshmergas, who were for a long time the only forces fighting IS and Al Nusra, and criticised their subsequent rapprochement with Russia and later the United States.

I am also very clear in my December 15 article that no-one should doubt the legitimacy of the opposition to Assad in 2011 and 2012. However, I believe that the deliberate destruction of Syria and the defeat of the genuine opposition to the Assad regime – after Saudi Arabia got involved and Turkey, Qatar, etc, intervened, supported by the United States – played an important role in changing the balance of forces among those fighting the regime, leading to the dominance of jihadist groups and forcing the secular opposition into exile. This is also the opinion of Syrian socialists in exile and what comrades I know in Beirut are saying. The population of eastern Aleppo had no allegiance to Al Nusra or pro-Turkey groups fighting in the city and it was right to express concern about the people of the city. That is why I opposed Russian air raids and opposed Iranian intervention in articles and in a number of interviews/debates on BBC Persian TV.2

Moreover, I do not equate calling for no-fly zones with pro-imperialist posturing. I just do not think it is a rational or practical suggestion. However, the ‘socialists’ mentioned in my article have called unambiguously for ‘humanitarian’ imperialist intervention. That is what I am arguing against. Imperialist intervention is part of the problem and will play no role in strengthening or saving the Syrian secular opposition. Any illusions the Kurds had about such interventions have been shattered in recent months.

In the last few weeks leftwing Syrian exiles have given a number of interviews, reminding us that there was a genuine opposition to Assad in 2011-12 and I agree with what they say. My only additional comment is that, once Saudi Arabia and the United States got involved in the conflict, it was inevitable that the much weaker secular opposition would be ignored by the ‘international community’. On a far larger scale the same is true of Iran, where tens of thousands of workers have protested against the neoliberal economic policies of the clerical rulers, but there is no mention of their protests in most of the western media. This is not the kind of news they are looking for.

In the case of Syria’s contemporary history, the constant betrayal of the ‘official’ Communist Party, its support for Hafez al-Assad and later his son, and the absence of an alternative left, meant that the working class movement was in a much weaker position when the conflict started. That is why I agree with those on the Syrian left such as Yassin Al Saleh, who says:

For 30 years, the Ba’ath Party has made a project of crushing all political life in Syria. So, when the uprising came, we had no real political organisations – only individuals here and there. Islam, in our society, is the limit of political poverty. When you don’t have any political life, people will mobilise according to the lowest stratum of an imaginary community. This deeper identity is religion. When you have political and cultural life, you can have trade unions, leftist groups, and people are able to organise along any number of identities. But when you crush politics, when there is no political life, religious identity will prosper.3

Of course, we should blame the dictatorial regimes of Assad and Saddam for suppressing all secular opposition and paving the way for jihadist dominance. However, it remains the case that the main countries currently funding these groups are imperialism’s allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the emirates of the Persian Gulf.

I also disagree with those who argue that the US should have provided the heavy weapons required by Syrian rebels to defend themselves against the regime’s air attacks, We have seen enough leaked documents to know that the US turned a blind eye when the Saudis and Qataris armed and financed jihadi groups, and we also know that such weapons have ended up in the hands of IS or Al Nusra.

Even if the weapons were ‘defensive’ – ie, anti-missile or anti-aircraft – the fact remains that they would have lengthened the military life of the murderous jihadists. Al Qa’eda’s origins in Afghanistan should give some indication of how CIA anti-aircraft missiles not only saved the group from air attacks, but encouraged them to believe they had defeated one superpower – the Soviet Union – and they could do the same to the rest of the infidel world. In Syria any weapons supplied to non-Islamist groups have either been captured by jihadists (who were stronger and better armed than smaller groups, courtesy of the west’s main allies in the region) or handed over by rebels who left the ranks of the ‘moderate opposition’ to join Al Nusra or IS. The idea that imperialism would have considered supporting secular, democratic forces within the Syrian opposition, as opposed to relying on Saudi Arabia, the emirates and their jihadist protégés, is both naive and contrary to the history of colonialism and imperialism – not only in Syria, but in the entire Middle East.4

It is understandable that, faced with the current devastating situation in their country, individuals in the Syrian opposition, including some socialists, still have illusions about western intervention. However, internationalist socialists have a duty to say they are mistaken. The battles in Syria are part of a bigger war, engulfing all of the Middle East. They are the direct result of the situation created after the collapse of Saddam’s regime and subsequent Israeli and Saudi paranoia about Iran’s Islamic Republic. Assad’s Syria’s remains a target for regime change, not because he is a progressive secular leader, as the Syrian Communist Party tells us, but because, if there is an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, Syria and Hezbollah could facilitate Iranian retaliation. The pro-Zionist ‘left’ I was referring to is well aware of this and its advocacy of western intervention is in fact support for the state of Israel – such people could not care less about Syrian progressives.

Of course, that does not mean we should tone down our opposition to Assad or his allies in Iran, I am in favour of the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran and I have no sympathy with the Shia clerics’ ally, the Assad regime. But the reality is that US failed attempts to overthrow the clerical regime in Iran and to impose regime change from above on its ally, the Syrian regime, have only strengthened both Damascus and Tehran.

 

Notes

1. www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-s-moderates-have-disappeared-and-there-are-no-good-guys-a6679406.html.

2. The last of these was on December 22 and can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SO6oQn49It4&feature=youtu.be.

3. https://theintercept.com/2016/10/26/syria-yassin-al-haj-saleh-interview.

4. See my article, ‘The fall of the Ottoman empire and the current conflict in the Middle East’ in Critique: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03017605.2014.972151.

Yalda, Triumph of light

Shabe Yalda, the festival of Yalda, is celebrated by Iranians, Kurds, Afghans, Tajiks and others, on the last day of the Persian month of Azar – which falls on December 21 or 22. It is a celebration of the longest night of the year, 40 days before what is assumed to be the end of the coldest period of winter. It dates back to Zoroastrian times and is considered a joyous occasion as it coincides with the time of year when days start getting longer.

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest extant religions in the world, practiced in ancient Persia, it influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Above all else, Yalda was a celebration of light winning over darkness, commemorating the triumph of the sun god Mithra. The ancient belief has it that when the sun rises, the light shines and goodness prevails. According to professor Joel Willbush, Yalda was “a celebration dating from early in the second century BC, representing the efforts by Antiochus IV (Epiphanes 175–163) to consolidate his father’s conquests by cultural uniformity. Judea’s monotheism presented special problems, and its acceptance of the mid-winter celebration of Shab-é-Chel must have encouraged him”.

Mithraism, inspired by Persian worship of Mithra, was practiced in the Roman empire from about the first to fourth centuries, although there is considerable academic debate about the level of continuity between Persian and Greek-Roman practices.1

In ancient Persia, during Shabe Yalda, fires burnt all night and Zoroastrian worshipers prayed for the absolute victory of light over darkness, longer days and the sun, all necessary for winter crops. The myth about Mithra was popular in the Roman military, and the birth of the sun god was celebrated in much splendour by the Romans. When Christianity took over, many of the stories about Mithra were incorporated into stories about the birth of Jesus Christ. According to some historians, the birth of the sun god was combined and celebrated as Christmas.

There are two interpretations of the name Shabe Yalda – literally, night of birth. According to some experts it was imported into the Persian language by Syriac Christians and it means birth (tavalud and meelad, in contemporary Persian vocabulary, derive from it). A rival interpretation is that ‘da’ in the word ‘Yalda’ is from an Indo-European, Persian word meaning ‘birth’ so Yalda means the birth of “day, light”. For Iranians it remains a significant cultural celebration, part of pre-Islamic traditional rituals. Historians believe the Persians adopted this annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own religion. For them it was important to stay up all night in Shabe Yalda in order to fight the forces of evil – Ahriman – who were thought to be at their most powerful during the long darkness. Keeping the fires alight all night is to ensure the defeat of the forces of evil.

According to Massoume Price, “There would be prayers to god Mithra (Mithr/Mihr/Mehr) and feasts in his honour, since Mithra is an izad (av Yazata) and is responsible for protecting ‘the light of the early morning’, known as ‘Havangah’. It was also believed that Ahura Mazda would grant people’s wishes on that day.”

The following day, the first day of the month of Day, also known as khoram rooz or khore rooz – the day of sun – belongs to the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, the ‘Lord of Wisdom’.2

Persians continue the fight against Ahriman throughout the winter, with the culmination on Charshanbeh souri, the festival of fire, on the eve of the last Wednesday before Norooz, which is celebrated on the day of the spring equinox3 and marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, usually around March 21.

Modern day celebrations of Shabe Yalda include consumption of fruits, especially fruit containing water, such as watermelon, pomegranate and grapes, as well as dried fruits and nuts. The most typical fruit to be consumed is watermelon, often kept from late summer or autumn. Water represents light, and consuming watermelon or pomegranate on the night of cella (the night of forty, or Yalda night) is supposed to bring good health and well-being.

After food, Iranian families gather to read poetry from Divan ?afe?(fal-e ?afe?). The book is used as a form of fortune telling. Everyone makes a wish, someone opens Hafez’s book of poems and reads out the 14th century poet’s response to the wish, with elders interpreting the poems.

Of course Iranians of all classes have always drunk alcohol on Shabe Yalda, and the banning of alcohol imposed by the Islamic Republic regime in Iran when it came to power almost 38 years ago has had little effect on this – except that nowadays, because of prohibition, more Iranians drink and most Iranians drink more than they used to, despite the fact that imported alcohol – as opposed to a variety of home made versions – is more expensive.

The Iranian Jewish community, who, after the Zoroastrians are the oldest extant religious community in the country, celebrate the festival of Illanout – the tree festival – at around the same time. Illanout has many similarities to Yalda: candles are lit and the celebrations include the consumption of fresh and dried fruits.

In the first years after coming to power, Iran’s clerics did their best to ban the celebration of Zoroastrian festivals, as symbols of Persian rather than Islamic culture. Norooz and Shabe Yalda were undermined, while Muslim religious festivals were promoted.

However a combination of resistance by the overwhelming majority of the population, as well as political expediency, led to a reversal of such policies. Isolated in an Islamic world dominated by Sunni Muslims, faced with a war with Saddam’s Iraq in 1980 and later a series of proxy wars with jihadist Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Shia clerics moved quickly, first to tolerance and later to promotion of Persian/Iranian ceremonies from Yalda to Norooz, even though some of the more fundamentalist clerics bow out to popular pressure with considerable resentment.

Notes

1. For more, see Beck, Roger, July 20 2002 ‘Mithraism’ Encyclopaedia Iranica online edition, retrieved March 3 2011: “The term ‘Mithraism’ is of course a modern coinage. In antiquity the cult was known as ‘the mysteries of Mithras’; alternatively, as ‘the mysteries of the Persians’. … The Mithraists, who were manifestly not Persians in any ethnic sense, thought of themselves as cultic ‘Persians’. … the ancient Roman Mithraists themselves were convinced that their cult was founded by none other than Zoroaster, who ‘dedicated to Mithras, the creator and father of all, a cave in the mountains bordering Persia’, an idyllic setting ‘abounding in flowers and springs of water’ (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).”

2. Massoume Price – quote from http://www.iranchamber.com/culture/articles/festival_of_yalda.php.

3. In the northern hemisphere the March equinox is known as the vernal, or spring, equinox, and in the southern hemisphere as the autumnal equinox. It is the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator.

Legacy of the 2003 war We all know who is responsible for Fallujah

As reports continue to come from Iraq indicating advances by the country’s armed forces on Fallujah, held by Islamic State, a number of international organisations, including the United Nations, are echoing earlier warning from Iraq’s main Shia cleric, ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that the lives of the town’s 50,000 inhabitants are in mortal danger.

Al Jazeera’s Omar al-Saleh, reporting from Erbil in northern Iraq, described the situation in Fallujah as dire: “There is a lack of medicine and food. They are caught in the fighting between Isil and Iraqi forces.”1 And, according to UN agencies, Fallujah civilians were starving to death – some have been killed for refusing to fight for IS, while others were being used as “human shields”. Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “We have dramatic reports of the increase of the number of executions of men and older boys, refusing to fight on behalf of Isil.”

With Tony Blair about to be exonerated by the Chilcot enquiry for his criminal part in the invasion of Iraq, it is time to remind ourselves why we are where we are, with the continuing civil war in Iraq and the rise of IS. In the words of lieutenant-general Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Bush-Blair Iraq war was a “tremendous blunder” that “helped to create Islamic State”. According to Flynn, “As brutal as Saddam Hussein was, it was a mistake to just eliminate him.” In fact the “historic lesson” is that it was “a strategic failure to go into Iraq”.2

Fallujah hit the headlines in 2004, when four American private military contractors were ambushed and killed in the city, leading to what became known as Operation Vigilant Resolve and the subsequent battle for control, lasting most of the year. The US-led Fallujah offensive of November 2004 was documented by Italian film-makers Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta, who claimed that white phosphorus, a highly efficient smoke-producing agent (ironically not considered a chemical weapon), was being used by US troops against civilians.3 This was later confirmed by the journal Field Artillery in April 2005.

Anyone in their right mind will tell you that it was the atrocities committed by US and British troops in Fallujah (as well as the rest of Iraq) that helped the Iraqi al Qa’eda recruit those who wanted to resist the occupation, including previously secular Ba’athists, to what was to become Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and later IS.

Fallujah is important to IS, not just because of its proximity to the capital, Baghdad, but because it is the jihadist group’s birthplace. That is why, contrary to early predictions, the battle for Fallujah is turning out to be far more difficult than expected.

However, for the Iraqi regime regaining control of the oil-producing town of Mosul in the north remains a priority. Yet that battle has been left to the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government, aided by US air strikes. The Zerevani special forces involved in that battle consist of 5,500 Kurdish Peshmerga, who are attempting to wrest control back from IS. Western reporters, including Sky News and CNN, have identified American and Canadian advisors in the front line, but no-one is claiming that the current fighting will lead to the recapture of the city, which had a population of over two million before IS took control.

Mosul is close to a number of smaller towns on the Nineveh plains, such as Qaraqosh. But these towns effectively no longer exist – their Christian inhabitants, who had lived there for centuries alongside Muslims, have been forced to flee from their birthplaces. And in another battle in western Anbar province, in and around the town of Heet, 40 Iraqi security forces were killed by IS, forcing a retreat.

All this is yet another sign of the contradictory US policy in the region. If the aim is to defeat IS, then the solution is obvious. Put pressure on Turkey and Saudi Arabia to impose economic and political sanctions against anyone financing or dealing with the jihadists.

Rivalries

However, for the time being the main battles are around Fallujah, where a visit by Iranian general Qasem Soleimani to encourage Shia al-Quds paramilitary forces fighting alongside the Iraqi army caused controversy, with Sunni politicians condemning the visit for fuelling sectarian tensions. Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament, told news agencies: “We are Iraqis and not Iranians … Would Turkish or Saudi advisors be welcomed to assist in the battle?”4 For his part, the MP for Fallujah, Salim Muttar al-Issawi, said: “Soleimani’s presence is suspicious and a cause for concern. He is absolutely not welcome in the area.”

All this was grist to the mill of Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, who accused Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of other regional countries – not that Saudi Arabia itself would do such a thing, of course. Iran’s response came via the deputy head of the Iraqi volunteer forces, who stated that Soleimani’s presence followed a “request of the Baghdad government”.

So the battles in Iraq (as well as in Syria) are not just about control of Fallujah, Mosul, Heet, etc. They are part and parcel of the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are still fighting to fill the political vacuum left after Saddam Hussein’s downfall more than a decade ago. As I have pointed out many times, the current civil wars in the Middle East have little to do with ‘Sunni-Shia conflict’: they are part of this regional rivalry. Iran’s Islamic Republic, the unintended beneficiary of the Iraq war, continues to support the corrupt, sectarian government in Iraq, the brutal dictator in Damascus and its long-term allies in the Lebanese Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Islamic State would not survive for long if Saudi and Turkish financial and military support was ended. But that is unlikely, as long as the two main rivals of the Islamic Republic of Iran feel threatened by its ability to control what they consider to be a Shia belt stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean (albeit with an Alawite strip in Syria).

IS’s revenge has come in the form of suicide bombings. Sadr City – a Shia suburb in eastern Baghdad, considered a stronghold of the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr – has been one of the main targets and on May 17 a crowded market was hit and dozens were injured. Of course, Baghdad’s infamous ‘green zone’ – the government quarters inherited by the post-occupation administration – has been the scene of a number of protests by supporters of al-Sadr, who are campaigning against the corruption and incompetence in the government led by fellow Shias. However, according to the website Al monitor: The pulse of the Middle East, “IS has been seeking to provoke Shi’ite infighting in a bid to delay the liberation of the remaining areas under its control.”5

Shi’ite political parties have accused each other of initiating the bombings in Sadr City and other Baghdad suburbs. Al-Sadr himself has issued statements naming the current interior minister, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, as responsible for the previous suicide attack on May 11 and called on prime minister Haider al-Abadi to dismiss him – “or else the people will find a way to deal with him on their own …” In other words, al-Sadr is equating the Iraqi authorities and IS.

Throughout all this another, related, civil war is continuing in Syria and, of course, both Iran and IS are involved there too. News in late April was dominated by the discovery that the Islamic Republic had sent thousands of Hazara Afghan men (who are Shias) to fight alongside the Syrian regime’s army. They were born to Afghan refugee families in Iran and dispatched to Syria, courtesy of the Revolutionary Guards. Some of these ‘volunteers’ have subsequently deserted and joined Syrian refugees trying to seek asylum in Europe. According to BBC Persian service, these Afghans are fleeing the “multinational Shia Muslim militia – in effect a ‘Foreign Legion’ – that Iran has mobilised to support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.”6

No-one is expecting much from the Chilcot enquiry. However, Tony Blair’s blatant denial of his part in the creation of the chaos in the Middle East shows that few have learnt any lessons from the invasion of Iraq. More worryingly, Hillary Clinton – who in private meetings with the Israeli lobby and rightwing Iranian exiles in the United States is allegedly promising regime change from above in Iran – is ready to repeat the same mistakes all over again, this time in Syria.

As the examples of Iraq and Libya show, overthrowing dictators is easy for imperialism. The problem is, what will replace them?

 

Notes

1. www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/iraqi-army-poised-fallujah-assault-isil-160530040140967.html.

2. www.spiegel.de/international/world/former-us-intelligence-chief-discusses-development-of-is-a-1065131.html.

3. www.democracynow.org/2005/11/8/u_s_broadcast_exclusive_fallujah_the.

4, http://in.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-iraq-iran-falluja-idINKCN0YJ0G7.

5. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/islamic-state-strategy-cause-infighting-among-iraqi-shiites.html.

6. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36035095

Pro-Zionists are false friends

Between imperialism and a hard place
Between imperialism and a hard place

We need a movement for genuine solidarity with the working class

When it comes to Iran, the world’s media has concentrated on the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies and then the long-drawn-out nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, not a day has gone by when there has not been a strike, a protest, a sit-in by Iranian workers demanding their unpaid salaries, job security, the right to organise in independent workers’ organisations … These struggles were taking place before the nuclear deal and they have continued – indeed escalated – since, especially as government promises of economic recovery and full employment have not materialised.

Because of this the life of a number of jailed labour activists hangs in the balance. Obviously we must do what we can to draw attention to their plight. Those in danger include the spokesman of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, who was hospitalised on May 8 after falling seriously ill following a 17-day hunger strike; and political prisoner and labour activist Jafar Azimzadeh, who has also been on hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin prison for the last 26 days.

According to Owen Tudor of the TUC,

Throughout the diplomatic standoff, unions globally and here in the UK have continued to demand that, whatever else happens, Iran’s international obligations to respect workers’ rights – especially freedom of association and the right to strike – must be observed. We have opposed the threat of war, but at the same time drawn attention to the way the Iranian theocracy has acted just like any other bosses’ club, cracking down on trade unionism and preventing workers getting a fair day’s pay for their work.

Now that the sanctions are being lifted, the Iranian government’s excuses are less and less believable. Without an external threat, violent repression of internal protest is even less justifiable. And, with growing trade, the money should now be available to meet demands for back pay and higher wages. But we are concerned that, as Iran becomes ‘just another regime’, the attention we have been able to secure for the harassment and physical attacks on trade unionists will ebb away.1
In other words, international pressure was only imposed up until the nuclear deal was signed. Western governments’ ‘concern’ for the plight of Iranian workers and other oppressed sections was an integral part of a policy of exercising pressure to force the signing of the nuclear deal.

Of course, Iranian workers continue to face hardship and many obstacles inside the country. Repression continues, wages remain unpaid, factories are still closing. The complete removal of sanctions is proceeding slowly and at a time of economic uncertainty there is little enthusiasm for major investments in Iran. At the same time, since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani, and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have travelled to most of the key European capitals declaring that Iran is open for business and that its labour force – intimidated by years of recession, mass unemployment and repression – will accept low wages, poor conditions and superexploitation.

These overtures have also been backed up by practical examples of the regime’s style of ‘labour discipline’. Thus, we have seen the brutal attack by the paramilitary basij on a group of striking factory employees in Kalaleh, the continuing attacks on workers in Haft Tapeh and the crackdown on protests at the Ardakan Foulad steel plant.2 Here one should also mention the destructive role of the government-sponsored Islamic ‘workers’ councils, nowadays gaining more prominence because of their association with the ‘reformist’ factions of the regime and the Rowhani government. They continue to play an important roles in containing and controlling workers’ struggles.

Pro-regime

Following the February 1979 uprising, when the Iranian working class played a crucial role in the overthrow of the shah’s dictatorship, the Islamic government did all it could to undermine workers’ organisations and since then it has been illegal to set up independent trade unions. The only ‘workers’ organisation’ that the government authorises is the Khaneh Kargar (Workers’ House). This is not a trade union in any recognisable sense. Rather it is a political organisation that was set up by a faction of the Islamic movement after the destruction of the workers’ shora (councils) after the 1979 revolution. It does not have representatives or shop stewards in workplaces, but communicates from its office with the Islamic workers’ councils. Although these councils vary considerably, in general their members are nominated locally by clerical associations rather than directly elected by the workers.

The labour code stipulates that “the workers … may establish Islamic councils and associations at the workplace” in industrial, agricultural and service organisations of more than 35 employees. They consist of representatives of the workers and one representative of the management. Once these bodies are set up, no other workers’ organisation can be established. Labour activists arrested by the government are accused of plotting against national security. They are political prisoners with no rights, facing incarceration for long periods.

In such circumstances the Iranian working class needs international solidarity, independent of the interests of world powers. Of course, we should not be surprised that yellow trade unions in the west, together with social-imperialist groups and their fellow travellers in what passes as ‘solidarity movements’ (the pro-Zionist wing of reformist trade unionists), have taken up the cause of Iranian workers, but what is regrettable is the way the supporters of Iranian workers abroad have collaborated, willingly, or unconsciously, with such efforts and the inevitable damage this has done to the working class movement inside the country.

The Iranian left in exile has many major shortcomings. There is a failure to report, explain and inform the international working class movement of the struggles inside Iran in any language but Persian. Long before the region became known as the home of failed states, civil wars and military interventions, the sheer number of workers’ strikes, factory sit-ins and demonstrations in Iran was impressive, even though most of the time we have to admit the demands were and still are defensive. However, what remains of the various organisations of the Iranian left in exile compete with each other in posting news bulletins and reports about workers’ actions (almost always in Persian). You get exactly the same news from each of the various mailing lists about a particular struggle or the latest arrest.

Of course, there are valid reasons for these shortcomings. Many, if not most, of the comrades, who are long-term refugees in western Europe, and some in North America, do not speak the language of the host country – mainly because illusions about their imminent return to Iran and their full-time political activism in exile (mainly consumed in endless debates about the past) have isolated them from the workers’ movement and the radical left in the host country.

When the exiled Iranian left does try to gain solidarity for imprisoned workers, it often goes about it in the wrong way. In its impatience for publicity and high-profile support, some exiled groups have now become accustomed to ditching principles, when it comes to accepting financial or political support from the most dubious sources. We saw this time and time again in relation to campaigns regarding women’s rights, gay rights and the infamous tribunal for the victims of the Islamic Republic’s mass execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. So it is not surprising that Iranian leftwing exiles have not done better, when it comes to campaigns in solidarity with the Iranian working class today. They have associated themselves with some of the most unsavoury international forces such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Anyone who has followed the daily confrontations with the Iranian regime will have no doubt that, faced with the ravages of neoliberal capitalism, a factory worker who goes on strike or takes part in a sit-in or demonstration in Iran is not simply demanding trade union rights or even just fighting the theocracy. That worker is conscious that his/her struggle is against international capital and its institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – organisations that have dictated the neoliberal economic policies being imposed on Iran over the last two decades.3 He/she believes that, despite differences and inter-capitalist rivalries, the imperialist military presence in the region will in the long term support the interests of both international capital and ruthless local capitalists. Such a worker has no illusions about the US military presence or intervention by CIA-sponsored trade unions in the region.

Broader vision

Over the last decade both the Iranian economy and the labour movement have changed dramatically. Young workers have internet access and are often well informed on international issues. Today’s labour movement is not limiting itself to trade union struggles. Nor is it simply fighting ‘Islamic’ capitalists and their legislation. Its leaflets and declarations show it to be against imperialism and, of course, western military intervention.

What is more, to reduce the Iranian workers’ movement to minimalist economic struggles is to underestimate and ignore the historic role of our class in leading revolutionary battles. After all, this is the working class that played a crucial role in the overthrow of the shah’s regime – and, of course, it is also opposed to Israel’s aggression. The continued US financial and military support for Israel is correctly regarded as part and parcel of imperialist strategy in the Middle East, adversely affecting radical political struggles throughout the region. So supporters of the Iranian working class cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the actions of the Zionist state – indeed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a separate issue.

That is why we need an international campaign in support of Iranian workers that includes anti-Zionist activists, Arab, Kurdish and Palestinian supporters – a campaign that steers clear of opportunist forces, who, on the one hand, claim ‘solidarity with Iranian workers’ and, on the other, declare themselves supporters or apologists of Zionism – as proclaimed by Eric Lee, the coordinator of the LabourStart website.4

Such individuals and the groups they are associated with have no legitimate place in the movement for solidarity with the Middle East’s revolutionary struggles. Iranian exiled groups who, out of expediency, accept their support should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Having received repeated warnings about these groups, ignorance is no longer an excuse.

In the next few months the campaign, ‘Support Iranian Workers’ (Karegaran), will concentrate on reporting workers’ struggles in Iran with a view to gaining a different kind of international solidarity: genuine, independent workers’ solidarity between Iranian, British and Middle Eastern socialists. Our new website will play a crucial role in reporting the struggles, ideas and debates of the Iranian working class.

Notes

1. http://strongerunions.org/2016/02/22/iran-what-does-ending-sanctions-mean-for-workers.

2. Short film of workers’ protests in Ardakan Foulad: www.bbc.com/persian/interactivity/2016/05/160519_l93_ugc_steel_workers.

3. ‘Iran’s political and economic crises’ Critique (www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2010.492694).

4. www.ericlee.info/blog/?p=1150.