A week before Donald Trump made his infamous comments about drinking disinfectant as a cure for coronavirus, a self-appointed ‘Islamic medical expert’ in Iran had filmed himself on Instagram drinking camel urine. He claims it should be used to treat anyone suffering from the current pandemic. Exiled Iranian broadcasters – especially Saudi- and US-financed TV stations – were covering the story for a few days, as if this was the most important item of global news.
It should be stressed that Mehdi Sabili, the man featured in the video, has no official position in Iran and the Arab News claim that his Instagram account is “popular among some of the regime’s loyalists”1 is meaningless. There are thousands of such social media cranks in Iran and elsewhere. Yet a week later, when the US president made a far more dangerous and stupid claim about curing coronavirus by drinking disinfectant and injecting bleach, the same Persian-speaking media outlets (with the exception of BBC Persian) were extremely quiet about this suggestion or the worldwide condemnation that followed. The exception was a tweet by a producer/presenter on ‘Saudi International’ TV (the name given by Iranians to a Persian TV station broadcasting from London), who compared the two.
This was a bizarre comparison. Mehdi Sabili is a silly individual, whose claims were immediately rebuked by the Iranian government. Trump is the president of the world hegemon power – the man who under normal circumstances many would have expected to be leading global efforts to deal with the pandemic. The incident and the disparity in reporting reflects in some ways the fact that the ‘cold war’ (or media war) against Iran started a long time ago and, as in any other war, truth is the first victim.
Clearly, for all these pro-regime-change media outlets, which promise the dawn of democracy following a US-led military intervention, criticising Trump is not on the agenda. Such criticism might be interpreted as going soft on the main enemy: Iran’s Islamic Republic.
In the midst of all this misinformation, when it comes to the number of victims of coronavirus or Iran’s response to the pandemic, it is impossible to believe either the Islamic Republic or its pro-regime-change opponents. According to the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, the country will now be divided up into white, yellow and red regions based, on the number of infections and deaths. The categorisation will determine the level of activity permitted in each region: an area that has been consistently free of infections will be labelled ‘white’, and there mosques will be able to reopen for Friday prayers. According to the deputy health minster, Iraj Harirchi, this means 116 areas will be in the white sector.
Last week Rouhani claimed Iran was doing better fighting the various pandemics than a number of advanced industrial countries – a view echoed by none other than London’s Blairite mayor, Sadiq Khan. Speaking in an interview on Press TV, Iran’s English-language station, Khan claimed that Iran had been more successful in combating Covid-19 than the UK. (Speaking earlier in a video conversation with Tehran’s mayor, Pirouz Hanachi, Khan had said most of the required measures taken in London are similar to those employed in Iran.)
It is interesting to note that there has been no major outcry about this interview – by all accounts a propaganda coup for the Islamic Republic – as opposed to the treatment Jeremy Corbyn received for an interview with the same station a few years ago.
However, there is some doubt about the accuracy of Iran’s coronavirus statistics. For example, on April 28 it was claimed there had been 92,584 confirmed cases, of whom 72,439 patients had recovered and 5,877 had died. According to official figures, there have been 100 deaths amongst doctors and nurses, but many Iranians believe the real figure is much higher. Having said that, Iran’s enemies have made so many exaggerated claims about the number of patients dying from the disease that no-one believes a word they are saying. In early April Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu shared a fake video from the 2007 mini-series made by Hallmark, called Pandemic and claimed it was evidence that Iran was covering up its coronavirus deaths. According to news agency reports, Netanyahu discussed the clip during an online cabinet meeting, saying he had seen a film of Iranian soldiers dumping dead coronavirus patients into trash piles to conceal the country’s actual death toll.
In the midst of all this Iran has asked for a $5 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund and a lifting of US sanctions, at least for the duration of the pandemic. But Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have not only ignored calls by US Democrats and European countries for a temporary lifting of sanctions: they actually plan to increase them and over the last few weeks we have witnessed a ratcheting up of threats.
On April 27, The New York Times reported on Pompeo’s plans to argue that the US remains a participant in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the 2015 nuclear deal struck between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany – and wanted to trigger what is called a ‘snapback provision’ that would bring back all the pre-2015 UN-related sanctions. Using this mechanism, a country can complain about Iranian non-compliance and demand that Tehran resolves the issue within 30 days; otherwise UN sanctions would be reapplied. Of course, there is a slight problem here, in that two years ago the United States unilaterally left the JCPOA.
Since then the threat of secondary sanctions, plus heavy fines imposed by the US treasury on banks and institutions which continue dealing with Iran, has stopped most European countries and investors doing business there. On April 27, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted:
Two years ago, Pompeo and his boss declared ‘ceasing US participation’ in JCPOA, dreaming that their ‘max pressure’ would bring Iran to its knees. Given that policy’s abject failure, he now wants to be JCPOA participant. Stop dreaming: Iranian nation always decides its destiny.2
But last week, as tension between the two countries escalated, Trump tweeted: “I have instructed the United States navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
So in the middle of a pandemic not only are we unlikely to get ceasefires, peace deals and the lifting of sanctions: the world hegemon power is determined to increase tension, and add to existing sanctions. Such threats go down well with Trump’s support base at a time when the pandemic is supposed to have affected his presidential re-election prospects.
As we contemplate that possibility of additional sanctions, it is worth reminding everyone how, contrary to Trump’s claims, sanctions affect ordinary people, while those in power are largely unaffected – in fact they may become richer and more powerful by taking advantage of their status. This has definitely been the case in Iran, where those close to circles of power, both within the government and amongst the Revolutionary Guards, have accumulated huge fortunes, benefiting from the black market and access to favourable rates of exchange. Sanctions have given them a unique opportunity to take advantage of the hoarding of goods, price rises and a monopoly over distribution.
However, as a direct consequence of sanctions, millions of workers have been made redundant and often they now have to rely on casual, low-paid jobs to make ends meet. But, as a direct result of the pandemic, even these casual jobs are disappearing., It is estimated that three to six million Iranians will be without work as a result of Covid-19.
And, in this situation, sanctions are increasing the death toll: as elsewhere, there is a shortage of ventilators, medications, surgical equipment, protective clothing and masks – something that is impossible to resolve precisely because of sanctions. Yet there is a relatively strong lobby of Iranian exiles and Iranian-American supporters of Donald Trump who are working day and night with the US state department to make sure current sanctions stay and more people suffer: this would supposedly bring down the Islamic Republic and perhaps even bring the idiot son of the ex-shah, Reza Pahlavi, to power. This scenario is truly bizarre, because so far it has had the opposite effect to what these royalists have wanted: increased pressure from the US has made the government more popular and united the various factions of the regime.
These royalists and the US state department have also started a concerted campaign calling on supreme leader Ali Khamenei to use his foundation’s external funds to pay for the country’s response to the pandemic instead of asking for sanctions relief. As a general rule, of course, it is not a bad idea that the rich should pay to alleviate hardship, but the problem is, why limit such a call to Khamenei and his foundation (worth an estimated $95 billion)? This is not his personal wealth – he uses it to finance various international ideological campaigns, but, if it was a personal fortune, why should we single out Iranian leaders when making such a call? Why not make the same demand on others? How about Trump himself financing the necessary anti-Covid-19 measures in the US? Or Elizabeth Windsor donating her fortune to the national health service, instead of just praising the efforts of a 99-year-old to raise funds?
The way Iranian pro-Trump, rightwing pressure groups operate is also interesting. Both in Canada and the United States, organisations such as the Project for the New American Century – made up of neoconservative Republicans and Democrats, as well as Zionists – have created and funded a plethora of anti-Islamic Republic ‘foundations’, ‘institutions’ and ‘research centres’. A quick web search allows you to see who is funding them. They all employ exiled Iranians (often with very limited intellectual capabilities), some ex-supporters of the Islamic Republic, including former supporters of the ‘reformist’ faction of the regime who have moved steadily to the right, and others who have always been supporters of royalist or other rightwing groups. These people are given exaggerated academic titles in what are clearly non-academic institutions. They are called ‘expert’, ‘senior researcher’, ‘principal investigator’, etc, and given a platform to express their pro-Trump, pro-royalist opinions on the Persian-speaking media.
They are regularly interviewed – at times because of ‘the need to give a balanced view’ – even though you might think from some of the ill-informed comments they make they have never read a book in their life. They repeat ad infinitum exactly the same thing (I would not be surprised if some uneducated, low-ranking state department official had sent an identical memo to all of them). They speak out for sanctions, for Reza Pahlavi, and tell us how people inside Iran really love Trump for imposing those sanctions. No-one seems to ask why we have to listen to these fools.
No wonder the vast majority of Iranians have no confidence in either the current regime or these pathetic opponents.
A look at the blame-gaming and likely consequences of Covid-19 in the Middle East .
The criminal incompetence of western leaders in failing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic has led to a situation where we do not hear much about the disastrous effects of the virus in the rest of the world – and in particular in the poorer, more vulnerable south. However, the victims of coronavirus are dying in their thousands and the measures taken so far by many ‘third world’ countries have failed to address the severity of the situation – in terms of both human lives and the economic and political consequences.
More than three decades of global neoliberal capitalism, imposed as one of the conditions for receiving International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans, have devastated the social infrastructure of these countries. There is no proper healthcare and, to make matters worse, subsidies have been removed. There is huge job insecurity – high rates of unemployment existed long before the pandemic, as a result of the ‘structural adjustment’ dictated by said international organisations. And, of course, all this has got far worse in the last few months.
The situation will deteriorate further, as the number of fatalities increases. Most of these states will be left with the stark choice of saving lives or saving the economy. The figures regarding deaths and numbers infected by coronavirus put out by various Middle East governments are not reliable – no-one at all believes them. Egypt, with its densely populated cities, has reported 135 deaths and 1,794 infected patients, yet Saudi Arabia, with a much smaller population, admits to 3,651 confirmed cases and 47 deaths. According to some news agencies, including Al Jazeera, some 150 members of the Saudi royal family have been infected, forcing “King Salman and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to retreat into isolation to avoid the outbreak”.1 The health minister warned last week that the number of Covid-19 cases in the country could reach 200,000 in the coming weeks.
The declared figures of Iran’s Islamic Republic are 74,877 confirmed cases and 4,683 deaths, as of April 14. Of course, given the record of this regime, it is difficult to believe the government’s claims that the rate of infection peaked on March 30 and the number has since fallen. Iranian leaders have followed the UK and US pattern of first denying there was any cause for concern, then claiming ‘herd immunity’ would do the trick. President Hassan Rouhani actually quoted UK government comments on this, but then a ‘voluntary lockdown’ was announced – ignored by the majority of the population, who decided that if it was a choice between hunger and disease, they would risk the disease. Finally, the government imposed a compulsory lockdown over the Iranian new year holiday in late March. But even this was lifted on April 11 – against the advice of the government’s own medical experts.
Since then Iran has moved into a new phase labelled ‘smart social distancing’. Of course, there is nothing ‘smart’ about this new policy, for the country’s economic survival – and therefore the regime’s political survival – are deemed more important than human lives. Iranians are still posed with the choice: ignore the lockdown and risk illness or to stay at home and die of hunger.
Throughout all this ayatollah Ali Khamenei has seemingly been attempting to win an award for the most stupid comment made by any leader on the subject – in his case defeating even Donald Trump. In late February, Iran’s supreme leader claimed that the threat of the virus was part of a ploy by the United States and other western powers to use a deadly outbreak to sabotage Iran’s parliamentary elections. In early March he said the virus was not a big deal, then on the occasion of the Persian New Year (March 23) he seemed to imply the virus was connected to invisible, supernatural creatures with unbelievably destructive powers: “We have jinn2 and human enemies that help each other. The intelligence services of many countries work together against us”. Iranians have not failed to see similarities between Khamenei’s comments on the virus and those of his arch-enemy, Donald Trump.
Of course, far from ‘jinn’, it is his own regime’s neoliberal ‘structural adjustment policies’, combined with corruption and nepotism, that have created the current disastrous economic conditions, where hunger and deprivation are killing as many people as coronavirus.
But, as I say, no-one believes any of it, including the official figures. After all, this is the country where we still do not know how many people died in the protests of November 2019 or the mourning processions after general Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by a US drone in January. The government shows complete disdain for the lives of its own supporters – never mind the majority who make up the rest of the population.
Hard-line Islamists have tried to breach the lockdown with visits to shrines and some to make family visits. Although travel between cities was officially banned over the new year holiday starting on March 20, photos posted on social media clearly demonstrate that many Iranians were not adhering to social distancing rules. Travelling on overcrowded public transport – just like living in an overcrowded apartment – has taken its toll.
The story is similar in many other densely populated Middle Eastern countries. Egypt is, according to the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in the third stage of the outbreak (this is the period when the source of the infection is untraceable and therefore difficult to control). The government is advising a lockdown, yet, according to Al Monitor,
… many people still wander around in the streets without caring about the virus, preoccupied with more important matters. These people are the most affected by the crisis, but they do not have the luxury of staying at home. They are irregular workers – a segment of society that amounts to 12 million to 14 million people, according to figures given by the secretary general of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, Mohamed Wahballah.3
Images on social media show social distancing is non-existent in Cairo, while in Giza the market is packed – as in Iran most people are more concerned about their livelihood.
And in Egypt – also just like Iran – government advice is not believed. Many think that the lockdown is part of a plot by the state to deprive them of their meagre income. But the regime is not imposing penalties or arresting anyone breaking the lockdown rules – they are keeping such repressive measures for later, when job losses, deaths and mass hunger will likely prompt mass protests.
The national TV claims that “Egypt is protected by god. No harm can befall us” – a message echoed by religious leaders. A preacher, speaking via social media, told his congregation: “Muslims shouldn’t fear coronavirus. They perform ablution five times a day, which makes it impossible for them to get infected.”
Across the Middle East, national TV stations are as bad as social media, when it comes to conspiracy theories. In Egypt one pro-Sisi presenter blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the spread of the virus. However, the most common conspiracy theory is that corona was manufactured in a laboratory to weaken China as an economic rival to US. No-one seems to point out to the proponents of such nonsense that if it was US plot how can we explain its disastrous effects on western economies – in particular the United States.4
It is clear that there is no coordinated international effort to deal with the pandemic. The hegemon power is not concerned about the rest of the world. This is quite an unusual situation, in that, following previous major catastrophes (two world wars, the 2008 financial crisis …), there was a level of international coordination led by the United States. To add insult to injury, Trump has imposed a funding freeze on the World Health Organisation. However, the US is not alone in prioritising national self-interest, in the expectation that this period will be followed by unprecedented rivalry between the two major economic powers, the United States itself and China.
There is no sign of such coordination even within Europe. If Italy has to look to China for support, how likely is it that ‘third world’ countries will get any help from international organisations? Many are avoiding loans from the World Bank, because they know they will be paying high interest on them for at least the next decade. It is not as though these organisations are in the habit of cancelling such debts.
On the contrary, the US administration is not only putting ‘America first’, but is now involved in high-sea piracy, when it comes to stealing protective masks – a sign of a truly barbaric era. There is no sign that the US will now relax its economic sanctions against Iran, which is unlikely to get a favourable answer to its request for loans – Trump, Israel and even the Iranian rightwing opposition are all dead set against any financial relief for the country.
According to Toby Matthiesen, writing in the magazine Foreign Affairs, the coronavirus is “exacerbating sectarian tensions in the Middle East”.5 In fact Iran’s Islamic Republic is blamed by most Arab countries for actually spreading the Covid-19 infection. It was, of course, the first country in the region to suffer large numbers of infected people as early as January. Chinese students who were studying in the religious city of Ghom, as well as Chinese workers, were claimed to be the source of infection and then most Arab countries reported their first cases amongst citizens returning from visits to Iran. It is also true that, despite the large number of deaths caused by the virus, Iran was late in taking measures against its spread. However, several Persian Gulf countries depend on their airlines for substantial income, with major airports like Doha and Dubai acting as international hubs. No doubt they have played a significant part in the spread of the virus. Yet, as Matthiesen points out, the Islamic republic’s Arab neighbours were quick to blame Shia Iran:
General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa accused Iran of “biological aggression that is criminalised by international law” for covering up the outbreak and failing to stamp Bahraini travellers’ passports. On its official Twitter account, Saudi Arabia’s ministry of foreign affairs condemned Iran for “creating a health threat which endangers mankind”. And a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates claimed that all coronavirus cases in the region were linked to Iran – even though the UAE’s first Covid-19 cases were Chinese tourists from Wuhan (and the cases which were the first to be reported in the Middle East were confirmed on January 29 – weeks before the outbreak in Qom became public).6
Inevitably the spread of the coronavirus, coinciding with a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, has led to a dramatic drop in the price of crude oil, which is now at its lowest level for 17 years. The Persian Gulf states have shut down large sections of their economies. According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia has suspended most domestic and international transport and closed most shops except for supermarkets and pharmacies. The United Arab Emirates has urged residents to stay at home and is halting passenger air travel, except for emergency evacuation flights. Kuwait has closed down schools until August and in early April the government announced its intention to repatriate about 17,000 Egyptian teachers, who had been working in the country’s education system. There are around 800,000 Egyptian workers in Kuwait out of a total number of immigrant workers of 3.5 million. In Dubai the national airline, Emirates, one of country’s largest employers, has cut most of its flights and is asking its workers to take early holidays and unpaid leave. The crisis in these countries has direct consequences for many countries in the region, as income from migrant workers plays an important part in the economies of countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan.
According to the International Labour Organisation, there will be
a rise in global unemployment of between 5.3 million (the ‘low’ scenario) and 24.7 million (the ‘high’ scenario) from a base level of 188 million in 2019. The middle’ scenario suggests an increase of 13 million (7.4 million in high-income countries). Though these estimates remain highly uncertain, all figures indicate a substantial rise in global unemployment.7
It is estimated that at least 20 million Americans, plus equivalent numbers of Europeans, working in the travel, hospitality and retail sectors are likely to lose their jobs. In such circumstances they are likely to make immigration and political asylum much more difficult to achieve than before. Fortress Europe’s previous restrictions on migration from ‘third world’ countries might soon be regarded as the good old days.
According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa will go into recession in 2020, contracting by between 2.1% and 5.1%, compared to a growth of 2.4% last year. The disruption to trade will cost sub-Saharan Africa somewhere between $37 billion and $79 billion. According to Ken Rogoff, former chief economist at the IMF, we should “expect commodity-price collapse and a collapse in global trade unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1930s.”8
In most ‘third world’ countries economic collapse will lead to huge tension and lead to increased authoritarianism. Dictatorial regimes will use the pandemic to suppress opposition and maintain power. Far from releasing prisoners – a justifiable global demand – they will incarcerate ever larger numbers of political opponents. In such circumstances, leftwing activists in Europe and North America should prioritise solidarity with workers and the poor in the south. Otherwise the current global divide will become far worse.
- Supernatural creatures in Islamic theology.↩︎
- See youtube.com/watch?v=pTSu9hGyWzE&feature.↩︎
Professor Fariborz Raisdana, who died on March 16 in a Tehran hospital, was a leftwing economist, political activist and author, who lived and worked in Iran. According to relatives, his hospital admission was as a result of showing symptoms of coronavirus. He had a long-standing heart condition.
Raisdana faced many restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic, yet never missed an opportunity to express openly his support for socialism, and the class struggles of the Iranian working class. An economist by training, he had a degree and a PhD from the London School of Economics. But he was much more than a university lecturer. An activist and a member of Iran’s writers association, he was an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic and often one of the first at political protests, including student and workers’ gatherings, in the last two decades.
During and after the episode known as ‘serial political murders’, when a number of dissident intellectuals critical of the Islamic Republic system were murdered or disappeared (1988-98), Raisdana was one of the few intellectuals who bravely took every opportunity to protest. He attended the funerals of leftwing writers killed during this period and was often the spokesperson for their families.
There is evidence to suggest he had some illusions in the regime’s ‘reformists’, particularly in the first round of the 1997 presidential elections won by Mohammad Khatami. However, those illusions were soon shattered. His anger was expressed passionately in subsequent comments against all sections of the regime. In the last few years he had been a fierce critic of the administration of president Hassan Rouhani.
In an interview in 2002, he was asked what he thought about the possibility of US-led intervention. He replied that: “If the United States intervenes in Iran directly, I think it is in favour of the conservatives. It will cause the government to unite and to be more powerful.”
In March 2012 Raisdana was arrested after criticising the economic policies of the charlatan populist, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on BBC Persian. He was given a one-year sentence. The charges labelled against him included “membership of the writers’ association, preparing seditious announcements against the regime, giving interviews to BBC and Voice of America, and accusing the Islamic Republic of abusing prisoners and holding show trials”. His fellow inmates held in the political wing of Evin prison have written about the time they spent there with him. They all write of his modesty, his humour and his support for fellow detainees.
He was an outspoken opponent of censorship and repression, yet he had no time for pro-war, pro-‘regime change from above’ ex-leftists, who nowadays parade on Saudi, Israeli and US-paid Persian-speaking TV and radio stations. He had no interest in financial and personal gain, and remained to the end a committed anti-war, anti-imperialist activist.
The following extract from an interview with Al Monitor summarises his views about the neoliberal economic policies of the two main factions of Iran’s Islamic Republic, the conservatives and ‘reformists’:
Al-Monitor: Previously, you had criticised the economic policies of president Rouhani. Can you please clarify why you disagree with his economic policies? What do you think his economic plans should be?
Raisdana: You know, I did not only criticise the Rouhani administration. When it comes to the economy, I criticise all previous administrations. They were all capitalist administrations with semi-governmental monopolies. All these administrations were basically opposed to any effective form of welfare, scientific planning or democratic and cooperative programmes that would increase equality. For all of them, making more profit by relying heavily on petroleum revenue, heavy capital investment, trade and real estate has always been the number-one goal.
The fact that the Rouhani administration is moderate and neoliberal, that Hashemi’s administration was also moderate and neoliberal, that Ahmadinejad’s administration was conservative-populist and used radical policies against internal and external opposition groups or that Khatami’s administration was also neoliberal, with a bit of a tendency toward planning and organisations, does not take away their common denominator. These small differences do not change the fact that these administrations all have had one major element in common: all of them were radically market-oriented and were against any form of cooperative planning or democratising the economy.
It means that they were against the idea of increasing the share [going to] the workers, service personnel and government employees with middle or low incomes. Under the supervision of all these presidents, with the exception of the first few years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, distribution of wealth either worsened or stayed the same.1
Exposing the regime
Although he was a political activist, Fariborz Raisdana certainly did not neglect his intellectual work. He authored 15 books, including Applied development economics, Money and inflation, Political economy of development and Globalisation.
I had never met Raisdana in person, but we were on a number of TV interviews together and I chaired a number of talks he gave in Socialist Forum online meetings in 2005-10. In those meetings I was always impressed by how patient he was in answering everyone’s questions, but also in dealing in a calm and composed manner when replying to baseless accusations from the audience – mainly supporters of the various groups originating in the Worker Communist Party of Iran. He argued that they were apologists for imperialism and Zionism, and he was used to their attempts at disrupting meetings he addressed.
Last summer I contacted him regarding a research proposal I had sent to my college in Oxford. The working title of the proposal is ‘Privatisation and its relation to workers’ protests in Iran’s Islamic Republic’ and I asked him for references to articles and his own books on the subject. He read the proposal carefully and was very generous with his time and support. We spoke a couple of times and he wrote lengthy messages on the subject.
He was adamant on how I should proceed. He was clearly contemptuous of all the factions of the regime – they were all equally bad, when it came to their neoliberal economic policies. He advised me to concentrate on the relationship between the business interests of members of these factions and external global capital: “You must address the continuing conflict between Khamenei and his anti-US rhetoric. We need to explain how this relates to his insistence on relentless privatisation.”
He wanted me to do more work on the special character of Iran’s religious-capitalist system, its ability to gain maximum profits through the non-productive sector – rent, land ownership, endemic corruption. He was convinced that the regime’s hatred of the left stemmed from the fact that we analyse and expose these characteristics, while rightwing opponents of the regime just bury themselves in slogans.
Last but not least, he was adamant that the research will be of little value, unless I conducted in-depth interviews with labour activists who had taken part in class conflicts, and he volunteered to help with this. In honouring his memory, I will do as much as I can to follow up what he suggested.
1. . www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/01/iran-economist-rouhani-policies.html#ixzz6GxRrqobO.↩︎
They say a week is a long time in politics, but in the case of Iran sometimes one day is a very long time. Over the past few weeks there have been mass protests, the threat of war and then we had first the assassination of Qassem Soleimani ordered by Donald Trump – as I wrote earlier, this seemed to be primarily for the purpose of internal consumption – followed by his threat to bomb 52 places in Iran, including those of cultural prominence.
Following that, we saw the mobilisation of large numbers – not just, in my opinion in protest against the killing of Soleimani, but a reaction to the threat of US military attack. From January 3, when the assassination took place, until the middle of the following week, from what I can gather from messages on social media, every day people were wondering, is this the day we’re going to be bombed?
Now we have the protests – not just by opponents of the regime, but by various factions within the ruling circle – against Tehran’s shooting down on January 8 of a civilian aircraft, resulting in the death of all 176 people on board. The latest demonstrations are not as large as the previous week’s, but nevertheless reflect the extent of the opposition – not just to the United States, but to the corruption and lying of the regime, especially the initial statements following the attack on the Ukrainian plane, which made people more angry than the attack itself.
If anyone was looking for justification for the position of Hands Off the People of Iran, then the latest situation has provided it, sad and appalling as it is. First and foremost, we must oppose US aggression in the region, and specifically all attacks on Iran, which the United States has identified as the main enemy. But we must not ignore the fact that the people of Iran have an enemy within their own borders – the message of the latest demonstrations and those of November last year.
Let us begin with Soleimani. We now have a little more information than when I wrote the Weekly Worker article, ‘A godsend for the regime’ (January 9). I recently spoke to an American journalist familiar with Pentagon and US state department officials and he told me that in the state department officials were horrified. They had no idea that Soleimani was being targeted and there had been no risk assessment – particularly important, when it comes to the Middle East.
The state department ordered those in the know not to talk about the plans or to meet with any Iranian pro-‘regime change’ oppositionists, including royalists and Mujahedin-e Khalq. My understanding is that they had told secretary of state Mike Pompeo that if there is some serious action, such as an assassination or bombing, the regime is so fragile that it was likely to collapse. That did not happen, of course.
Instead the government was able to mobilise large numbers against the assassination and subsequent US threats. The regime has been able to demonstrate its power within Iran. Another general was unsuccessfully targeted by the US and then we had Trump’s claim of an ‘imminent threat’ from Iran – the story has changed so many times about what exactly it consisted of that no-one, including Republicans in the US Congress, knew exactly what Trump’s position was or what he expected from Iran.
Craig Murray has written a useful article about all this being linked to the “Bethlehem doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence”,1 where he says that this ‘imminent threat’ from Iran is neither likely nor possible – basically it is a figment of the imagination – but it has been used to justify the assassination and other possible US actions. The assassination was, of course, an act of war – that cannot be denied, and acts of war produce a response.
Its effect in terms of regional politics was exactly as expected. The Iraqi parliament voted for US troops to be withdrawn. In Lebanon the Christian Maronites opposed the US escalation – they believed that Soleimani had helped prevent Islamic State atrocities (the US itself had promoted him as the man who had defeated IS).
In Iran the regime promised revenge for the killing and there has been genuine anger amongst the protestors that the leader of the so-called ‘free world’ had been making such threats of violence against them. And then we had the events in the Islamic Republic itself. It is not just the regime’s errors, but the deliberate lies and deceit, which all help to reinforce the notion that for the regime human life does not matter.
First we had the January 7 stampede at the funeral procession for Soleimani in Tehran, when 56 people died. The authorities did not take the necessary measures – according to one reporter, there was no capacity to deal with the more than one million who showed up.
Then we have the regime’s revenge attacks on US forces in Iraq on January 8. From what I can gather, the US knew about it in advance – Tehran had already informed Iraq and Norway, for example, that it was going to attack the two US bases. But every effort was made to ensure that no US or Iraqi citizens would be killed (the only thing the regime does not seem to worry about is the plight of its own citizens). This was a symbolic missile launch, but it is the first time in recent history that a ‘third world’ country has fired missiles at a US base (and got away with it apparently).
You might say that, given that the US committed an act of war, the shooting down of the Ukrainian aircraft is ultimately its responsibility. But that is not how people in Iran see it, not least because of the way their government lied about it. For three days, although they knew it was their fault, they continued the falsehoods until finally on January 11 they admitted the truth and we had all the explanations.
It is claimed that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had only been informed of the actual reality the previous day. Mehdi Kahroubi, one of the former leaders of what was the Green Movement in Iran, has summed up this claim quite well. He said that, as the supreme leader is commander-in-chief of the army, either he is incompetent or he is lying. Either way, he should resign.
In fact since January 11 there have been crowds on the streets chanting, “Resign, resign!” It is not entirely clear who exactly this is addressed to – just Khamenei or president Hassan Rouhani or the entire leadership. We do have to understand that there is a great deal of confusion – understandable, given the dire state of the Iranian opposition (the left is a complete shambles). There is a mood of anger, of anti-war protest. Some are calling for a referendum, but we do not know on what exact question.
It is true that some demonstrators are clearly calling for the overthrow of the regime. A comrade of mine has commented: “Fine, we can say, ‘Let’s build the barricades and overthrow the regime’, but what do we put in its place?” That is the key question for the opposition to deal with.
None of this reduces the importance with which we should regard the latest demonstrations. Like many of the passengers killed on the aeroplane, who were postgraduates returning from a winter break (most of those killed were in fact Iranian or had dual nationality), a good number of the demonstrators are young people.
The lie initially told by the regime, saying that a fault had developed causing the plane to crash, symbolises the situation in the Islamic Republic. For example, we still do not know how many people died during the November demonstrations at the hands of security forces. First it was said to be 200, than the figure went up to 300, but Reuters claims it was 1,500. However, the point is that the government is refusing to come clean on this important issue. How many were killed as a result of its forces opening fire?
There is clearly a base of support for the government amongst sections of the civilian population as well as the military, but it treats 90% of the population as if their problems, their lives, don’t matter. There is already fury over the government’s handling of the effects of sanctions, the loss of jobs and so on. Yes, it is the United States that is responsible for imposing sanctions, but the regime’s corruption and cronyism has created multi-millionaires out of the black market that resulted from these sanctions.
I think the current situation shows that in the short term, following the assassination and US threats, it will be difficult to mobilise such huge numbers against the regime and that it will survive. Its regional allies are emboldened, there is no doubt. Some people say that these recent events will in fact pave the way for peace. Things are going nowhere, they say, and the US has not actually retaliated, so there is hope. I think that is a mistaken view.
Apart from the fact that the Iranian government cannot live without crisis, and therefore is unlikely to move towards resolving the conflict, the main point is that the United States does not want a settlement with Iran’s current regime. The talk of revenge and the 52 targets shows the mentality of the US leadership and the Republicans. They are still committed to avenging the taking of 52 US hostages in Tehran in 1979.
There is also the US arms industry, which involves huge sums of money. Who will buy arms if there was no threat of war? What about Israel? What would be its raison d’être from the US point of view if there was no Iranian threat? Such complicated issues cannot be resolved by saying, ‘If only the Iranian leaders were reasonable, rational people, then everything would be OK.’
What about the working class in Iran? Will it go onto the offensive? In my view that is not likely right now. Why is it that the students are the main force backing current anti-regime demonstrations? Because the working class has suffered severe repression – most of its effective leaders are in prison. For example, trade unionists were sentenced to 11 years for supporting the strike by sugar workers in March 2019. In reality the leadership of the workers’ movement has collapsed.
But, yes, protests will continue because of the economic situation, because of sanctions – a boycott of Iran’s airspace is one of the measures now being considered. So demands for radical change inside the country will continue to be raised.
As for the Iranian left in exile, it has become so engrossed in regime change, that it does not even wish to criticise Trump or US policy. Nor does it take on effective US allies like Mujahedin-e Khalq or the royalists. In the case of the latter, credit must go to the Tehran demonstrators of January 11, who provided a good answer. Their slogan was: “No shah, no supreme leader!”
Some remind us that the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party supported the Islamic republic. But the exiled left is today’s equivalent of Tudeh. It calls for a united front with US-backed regime change elements, so that we can all unite against dictatorship and later we will decide what to do after it has been removed. Well, that was exactly Tudeh’s attitude to the Islamists with respect to the shah. They formed a united front with Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the regime’s first supreme leader, and thought they would be part of the new establishment. Khomeini decimated the entire opposition to the new regime – and eventually it was Tudeh’s turn.
Similarly, today we are told that bringing down the dictatorship is the only thing that matters. Who cares about the United States? This is the sad state of the majority of the Iranian left. There are, of course, exceptions, but, as for the majority, I am dismayed by the positions they take today.
Trump’s reckless drone assassination has actually strengthened the reactionary Islamic Republic in Tehran, states Hands Off the People of Iran.
Hands Off the People of Iran unequivocally condemns the United States assassination on January 3 of the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani – the culmination of the latest bout of sabre-rattling between the two countries. It is not enough, however, to simply denounce Trump’s perilous manoeuvres in this volatile region. We must understand the underlying political dynamics of the face-off between two mismatched reactionary regimes – the US world hegemon and the Islamic State of Iran.
In truth, the killing of Soleimani – and Trump’s subsequent threat to bomb 52 targets in Iran – was a godsend for the rulers of the Islamic Republic. After the targeted strike, a mood of patriotism grew in Iran and rival factions within the government converged in the face of external threat. Even some outright opponents of the regime have rallied to ‘defend the nation’. More worryingly, the mood of cross-class outrage against the American attack will have a dampening effect on workers’ struggle against the regime’s neoliberal domestic economic policies.
According to Trump, he ordered the killing to prevent more wars in the region. In stark contrast, most of the world’s media predict an escalation of tension and military conflict as a result. Beyond Iran’s borders, Trump’s foolish raid has been a spectacular failure, strengthening Iran’s position in Iraq and Lebanon. In the recent past, citizens of Shia Iraqi cities were setting fire to Iranian consulates; the demand for Iran to keep its hands off Iraq had been one of the main slogans of protestors in Baghdad and elsewhere. Last week Shia Iraqis were chanting the slogan often heard in Iran’s Islamic Republic: “Death to America”. Similar sentiments have been expressed in Lebanon, where Christian Maronite and Druze politicians are echoing Hezbollah’s claims that it was Soleimani who saved the country from Islamic State.
Hopi likewise condemns the ‘revenge’ exacted by the Iranian regime, which in any case was deliberately ineffectual – Iran having informed both Norway and Iraq, if not the US directly, that missiles were incoming. The effective state of war on both sides and likelihood that missile launches would invite US retaliation meant that Tehran’s air defences were on the highest alert, but the regime did not cancel civil air traffic. This resulted in the mistaken shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet and the death of all 176 people on board, including many Iranian dual nationals returning to Canada via Kiev.
For three days the regime blamed the crash on a technical fault, and denied any missiles had been launched. Only when the mountain of evidence became insurmountable did they admit the truth; many in Iran have questioned whether an admission would ever have come, if foreign and dual nationals had not been involved. Within Iran at least, this avoidable catastrophe and subsequent attempt to escape blame has undermined the regime’s narrative. Demonstrations, beginning at two of Tehran’s historically most political universities, spread quickly around the country, participants chanting anti-regime slogans such as “No leader, no shah! Down with the Islamic Republic!”
The unstable nature of the period that has opened makes it difficult to formulate perspectives with any degree of certainty. However, there are points that all consistent democrats should be clear on:
- The rationale that prompted the US attack is hard to understand – unless it is simply related to domestic politics and Trump’s impeachment in a presidential election year. While the Iranian state is episodically drawn into conflict with the West, it is not an anti-imperialist force. There is nothing defensible about the nature of the regime and those political forces who attempt to sow illusions in it should be condemned.
- If there is escalation and the threat of war between the USA and Iran becomes palpable, many on the left will automatically defend the Islamic Republic. Feeble arguments will be advanced for this; no doubt we would be treated to the poisonous logic of ‘the enemy of my enemy must be a friend’, also known as the anti-imperialism of fools. We have implacably rejected this in the past and we will stay loyal to internationalist principle.
- The only consistent force for peace in Iran and the wider region is the working class. We condemn US imperialism’s war-mongering in Iran and the region, though we refuse to defend Iran’s Islamic regime. We will continue to support the struggles of Iranian workers against the oppressive, neoliberal economic policies of the religious state that oppresses them.
Yassamine Mather assesses the situation in the Middle East following the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s missile revenge gesture
This week has been a godsend for leaders of the Islamic Republic. First, the drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander in chief of the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Then Donald Trump’s subsequent threat to bomb 52 targets in Iran. We can say with a level of confidence that in the short term all this has done wonders for the Islamic regime.
Of course, everything could change suddenly if the United Sates decides to retaliate for the missile attack on two US air bases in Anbar and Erbil provinces in Iraq. But it seems there were no casualties and the Iraqi government had prior warning of the attack – there is speculation that the US military was also given notice to make sure there were no casualties. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has announced that the missile attack has concluded the retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination. However, there is no doubt we are entering a period of prolonged tension and possible US air attacks.
Inside Iran, a mood of patriotism has grown, with rival factions within the government coming closer together, and even some opponents of the regime rallying to ‘defend the country’. Such views are expressed by the former foreign minister of the shah’s era, Ardeshir Zahedi – the son of general Fazlollah Zahedi, the commander of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that paved the way for the shah’s return from exile. Zahedi praised Soleimani in a January 5 BBC Persian programme, and his views find echoes amongst middle class nationalists, though they have never been supporters of the regime.
Inevitably the assassination, Trump’s threats and now the missile attack on US bases mean a new, dangerous situation is unfolding in the Middle East. On January 3, soon after the drone attack near Baghdad’s civilian airport, Iran’s foreign minister summoned officials from the Swiss embassy – which represents US interests – to express his outrage at the “assassination of general Soleimani”, stating it was a “blatant example of American state terrorism” (senior Iraqi Shia militia leaders, most notably Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were also killed).
There are suggestions that the exchange also included threats to ‘take revenge’ on the US – a hardline stance that apparently prompted Trump to send off his January 5 tweet that the US is “targeting” 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture”. America will strike “very fast and very hard” if Tehran attacks Americans or US assets. Defense secretary Mark T Esper later promised to stay within international law and not to attack cultural sites, but Trump tweeted, in reply, “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people … and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work like that.”1
The January 2 drone attack was the culmination of sabre-rattling that started in December of last year. Washington blamed Iranian-backed militia for firing rockets at a military base in Iraq used by US troops – an American civilian contractor was killed. Payback came in the form of US air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah, a pro-Iran Shia Iraqi militia. These killed 25 of its fighters. The Shia group’s response came on December 31, when it took over the vast US embassy compound in Baghdad.
US retaliation came in the form of the assassination of Soleimani. According to Trump, the killing was ordered to lessen the possibility of more wars in the region. In stark contrast, most of the world’s media predict the escalation of military conflict.
According to Iraq, Soleimani was in Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to discuss ways of easing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Speaking in the Iraqi parliament on January 5, the country’s caretaker prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, said he himself had been scheduled to meet Soleimani on the day he was assassinated. Soleimani had been expected to deliver “Iran’s response to a previous message sent from Saudi Arabia to Tehran”. If this claim is true, one can understand the anger in Tehran and the calls for revenge. Despite the repeated threats, however, it is difficult to see how Iran’s leaders can take ‘revenge’ on the world’s most powerful imperial state. Nevertheless we should expect an unprecedented escalation of tension between the two countries. The Financial Times observes: “The death of the general … represents a ramping-up of the conflict between the US and Iran … Diplomats have long feared that a miscalculation on either side could ignite a war in the region.”
The New Yorker’s unease went further when it bluntly characterised the US attack as ‘‘an act of war“ and cited the comments of Douglas Silliman – US ambassador to Iraq until last winter and now the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He assesses the assassination of Soleimani as “equivalent” to Iran killing the commander of US military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. He asks the obvious question – if Iran had killed the commander of US central command, “what would we consider it to be?” Restraint – the buzzword for the moment of Democratic Party senators in Washington, as well as of European and Middle Eastern politicians – is, however, in short supply. Iran, for instance, is comparing the event with the CIA organised coup d’etat of 1953.
Gift to regime
Indeed, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind the assassination, except when it relates to internal US politics and the need to distract attention from impeachment hearings in a presidential election year. If anyone in the Pentagon or the US national security council had any understanding of Iran’s Islamic Republic they would have known that the regime exalts in martyrdom – especially if it can pose as the victim. The entire Shia religion is based on this concept (the death of Mohammad’s grandson in Karbala defines the Shia version of Islam). The moment the drone blasted the general’s convoy, Iran’s regime had scored an important propaganda victory – witness the huge funeral processions in Iraqi and Iranian cities. For Iranians the attack and the nature of Trump’s threats have increased the fear of another war and therefore overshadowed the internal struggle against the regime, at least for the time being.
If the assassination was supposed to weaken or to damage Iran’s position in Iraq or Lebanon, that has also been a spectacular failure. Not long ago, citizens of Shia Iraqi cities were setting fire to Iranian consulates; the demand for Iran to keep its hands off Iraq had been one of the main slogans of protestors in Baghdad and elsewhere. Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Shia community in Iraq, was echoing such calls.
But by January 3, everything had changed. Shia Iraqis were uniting behind their own militia and Iran’s Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Sistani’s condemnation of the killing – read at Friday prayers – was in stark contrast to his previous messages and his sermon was followed by chants of “Death to America” in the main Shia holy shrine in Karbala. This was the first time such a call had been taken up by the congregation. Despite US propaganda to the contrary, it is clear that the first steps are being taken to withdraw troops from Iraqi territory.
In Lebanon, Christian Maronite leaders and Druze politicians are echoing Hezbollah’s claims that it was Soleimani who saved the country from the threat posed by Islamic State. In Iran itself, in the last few days the regime has seized the opportunity to demonstrate the extent of its mass support on the streets. Mobilised by yet another ‘martyrdom’, the crowds are up in arms against the US president’s threat to bomb their country. All this has effectively cut across months of protests against the regime’s involvement in Iraq, not to mention the workers’ struggle against its neoliberal domestic economic policies.
Particularly important was the size of the procession in Ahvaz – it stretched for 30km. Ahvaz is very significant, as it is the capital of Khuzestan province, and Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in supporting the Arab separatist movement in the region. An even larger procession took place in Mashad, in northern Iran, and on January 6 Tehran witnessed one of the largest gatherings in the capital since the Islamic Republic came into existence. Women wearing no headscarf (despite the fact that the Islamic hijab is compulsory) were photographed joining the procession with apparently no move against them from state forces.
Whatever we may think of Soleimani, opponents of jihadism in the region – including Sunnis and Christians in Iraq and Lebanon – believe that he played a significant role in defeating Islamic State. This claim was in fact made in the US press and media. Only two years ago, the Iranian general made the cover of Time magazine. Inside was the claim that he was the military mastermind behind the defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria. Around the same time The New Yorker produced a lengthy biography of Soleimani as the man fighting Islamic State.
The reality is more complex. It was the nameless fighters from many religious and national backgrounds who eventually defeated the brutal Salafi group. There are allegations that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forcibly sent Afghan refugees to fight in Syria … However, at the end of the day both Iran and its opponents were keen to exaggerate the role of Soleimani as part of their propaganda war.
What is not disputed is that he was an effective military commander; a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Since the early 2000s he had been responsible for the external operations of the Revolutionary Guards – in Iraq, where he set up Shia militias, in Lebanon in working closely with Hezbollah and later in Syria fighting on the side of pro-government forces. There is no indication that Soleimani took an active part in the repressive activities of the Revolutionary Guards inside Iran during recent protests. However, writing in Middle East Eye, Maysam Behravesh states:
His name had grabbed public attention as a signatory of a notorious letter written by 24 IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] to former reformist president Mohammad Khatami after the 1999 student protests in Tehran. The letter chastised Khatami’s administration for sympathising with anti-establishment protesters, warning that “we are running out of patience”.2
We in Hands off the People of Iran condemn Iran’s involvement in regional wars, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts have led to the loss of many lives. However, we should not forget that it was the imperialist wars of early 2000s – and in particular the war against Iraq – that paved the way for all this. The US and its allies (including the UK) bear main responsibility for the current situation in the Middle East.
In the beginning of this century, senior clerics and supporters of the Shia regime could not believe their luck when in two wars George Bush jnr (along with Tony Blair in the UK) overthrew their opponents in Kabul and Baghdad. In addition, regime change from above in Iraq brought to power Shia groups that were close allies of the Islamic Republic. It was in opposition to this sectarian government, a direct product of US occupation, that al Qa’eda gained support among a minority of the Sunni population in Iraq. US prisons produced the likes of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi.
The rise of al Qa’eda, and later IS, was very much in line with Saudi Arabia’s policy of demonising the Shia religion in its rivalry with Iran’s Islamic Republic. Throughout the period of dominance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia and a number of Persian Gulf countries transferred their propaganda machine from satellite TV stations to social media in order to promote Sunni fundamentalism and anti-Shia propaganda. There is no doubt that IS’s infamous slogan – ‘Today Damascus, tomorrow Tehran’ – if not actually devised in Riyadh, was very popular in the Saudi kingdom.
There is no need to remind anyone that during this period there was little real attempt by the US or its western allies to tackle the jihadist groups. No-one proposed sanctions against Arab countries whose leading figures and religious organisations were funding Islamic State. So it is no surprise that the Iranian military commander who is supposed to have led the resistance to IS became a regional hero.
Soon after the assassination, Trump tweeted that Soleimani was responsible for millions of deaths in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Even by the US president’s standards this is something of an exaggeration. On the other hand, Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, started his military career in Iranian Kurdistan, before joining the war against Iraq. Those of us who have any experience of Iranian Kurdistan during that period cannot forgive anyone associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Even when they were held as prisoners of leftwing forces, they boasted about murdering and raping “communist opponents of the Islamic Republic”. So I am afraid we should expect far worse from Ghaani – especially when it comes to the suppression of class struggles inside Iran.
In the United States, opponents of Donald Trump were quick to label his clear appetite for war with Iran as an attempt to divert attention from the impeachment hearings in the Senate. Ironically, in 2011 and 2012, Trump repeatedly accused Barack Obama of seeking war with Iran to help win the 2012 presidential election.
In Washington, Trump opponents are not buying the claim that the bombing was prompted by a concern to save “American lives”. CNN’s headline summed it up: ‘Skepticism mounts over evidence of “imminent” threat that Trump says justified Soleimani killing’.3
There are two additional reasons why Trump might want an adventure in the Middle East. First, his political opponents in the US, including commentators in the Washington Post and the New York Times, were writing that he has been weak in the face of Iranian attacks in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Second, the US was facing an imminent emergency vote in the Iraqi parliament on a motion calling for American troops to leave the country. A senior administration official said the US was working with its allies on the ground to “prevent it from happening”, adding that Iranian proxies were threatening Iraqis who were supportive of the US presence” “The government of Iraq right now is faced with a choice whether they want to be an Iranian satellite state or whether they want to be a sovereign nation-state of good standing in the international community.”4
In this respect, the Iraqi parliament’s vote on January 5 – calling on their government to work on a plan to end US troop presence in the country – was no surprise. In his death, Soleimani has achieved what he probably could not done alive. Those near the centres of power in Iraq must feel thoroughly embarrassed by the current situation. Almost 17 years after the US occupation of Iraq, the current Iraqi state has absolutely no power; it remains a pawn between two enemies who, ironically, managed to unite because both opposed Saddam Hussein. Both the occupation of the US embassy compound in Baghdad by pro-Iranian forces and individuals and the killing of Soleimani by US drones show that the entity I have repeatedly dubbed the “Shia occupation government in Iraq” is not in charge of its own destiny.
During president Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the Soleimani household following his death, the daughter of the general was heard to say that she hopes the Lebanese Hezbollah will revenge her father’s death. In a later TV interview she said: “I am asking the leader of Iran and my uncle Seyed (Hassan Nasrallah) to take revenge on my father’s blood.”5
This was a clear reference to possible attacks against Israel. However, Iran’s Islamic Republic is unlikely to take too many risks – especially not in the immediate future, as the current situation is in its favour right now. The missile attack on US air bases was symbolically significant. It was the first time any country in the Middle East has attacked a US air base. The propaganda inside Iran is very clear: ‘We don’t need to attack US proxies – we are brave enough to take on a superpower.’ On the other hand, they did make sure there were no casualties, so it is true to say that Iran does not want an escalation of military conflict and will concentrate on political steps.
Instead, we have the official announcement declaring a final step in reducing the country’s commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (nuclear deal). According to a government statement, Iran’s nuclear programme “no longer faces any operating restrictions” – the enrichment level and the amount of enriched material would from now on be determined only by the programme’s own “technical needs.” However, the Iranian government confirms it is still committed to continued cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and his president, Hassan Rouhani, are now concentrating on a single slogan: ‘All US troops out of the Middle East’. Of course, they will not achieve this, but US troop withdrawals from Syria and Iraq, followed by a military reduction in Afghanistan, can be claimed as a victory ‘in revenge for Soleimani’, even though we know some of these withdrawals were already on the Pentagon’s agenda.
There is no doubt that the US will be wary of the current wave of patriotism in Iran and the fact that – far from losing support in Iraq – Tehran has managed to consolidate its role there. Thus, we can expect any excuse – eg, an action by a rogue group or the shooting of harmless rockets into the Green Zone in Baghdad – might possibly be used by the US as an excuse to launch an attack on Iran. If such a scenario unfolds, I doubt we will see China or Russia rush to support Iran. Their economic and political interests might demand indignant statements – but no action.
Fight on two fronts
Of course, after long and inconsequential wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, there is no appetite for a land invasion of Iran. In addition, the country’s large and complex landscape would make a successful invasion a very difficult task. Instead, if a war breaks out, we can expect relentless air bombardment intended to weaken the central government and pave the way for separatist movements to launch civil wars (Arab separatists in Khuzestan province, Kurdish demands for unity with Iraqi Kurdistan, calls for Baluchistan to join Pakistan and Azerbaijani demands to join Turkey). Given the size of pro-government processions in the last four days, we can expect any such civil wars to be very bloody indeed. However, while the Middle East is facing a situation far worse than ever before – in contrast the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya will look like a storm in a teacup – though I do not believe that we are on the brink of World War III.
We must condemn US aggression in the region and Trump’s reckless warmongering. However, we will not shed tears for the commander of the Quds force of Revolutionary Guards. We remain committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic Republic, as opposed to the kind of regime change from above supported by a plethora of rightwing Iranian, Israeli and Saudi forces. These disreputable groups – trying to encourage the US president to pave the way for their ‘alternative’ to come to power – have been silenced by recent events. For months they had been telling the world (and, one assumes, Trump advisors) that a small incident would be sufficient to pave the way for regime change. Millions would pour onto the streets supporting them. But the complete silence of Reza Pahlavi, the ex- Shah’s son, since the assassination of Soleimani and the current threat of war, speaks volumes. The fact that this week the US state department has put restrictions on its staff regarding meetings and discussions with ‘Iran regime change’ organisations – royalists, Mojahedin-e Khalq and the Council for Transition, as well a number of separatist nationalist groups – is good news. The Iranian people can and will deal with the Islamic Republic themselves.
This is why we must fight on two fronts. We unequivocally condemn the US’s war-mongering. At the same time, we will continue to defend the struggles of the workers of Iran against the oppressive neoliberal economic policies of the reactionary religious state that oppresses them.
- New York Times January 6 2020.
HOPI chair Yassamine Mather has been interviewed by Counterpunch Radio in the US, on the international crisis sparked by president Trump’s assassination of Qassam Soleimani and the effects within Iran.
Yassamine is also quoted in this news story, written before Iran’s admission that a Ukrainian jet was brought down by one of its own missiles.
Yassamine Mather compares Radio Farda’s reporting of Iran with its touching depiction of Britain.
Recent protests against the withdrawal of state subsidies for fuel have seen 200, maybe 300, people killed – mostly, as far as I can tell, by the security forces. This human slaughter by the Islamic Republic regime should be strongly condemned. Moreover, it is the leaders of all its factions who share responsibility for the brutal suppression.
However, this has led to some bizarre comments from some reporters, including one from Radio Farda – the Persian-language branch of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty external service. It broadcasts 24 hours a day from its headquarters in the Czech Republic – its parent organisation is the US Agency for Global Media, based in Prague. The station is forever condemning the actions of the Iranian security forces.
By way of contrast, last week a senior reporter from Farda tweeted a short video of a 2010 protest in London of students taking over Tory Party offices – with a comment that the police stood by and did not intervene, despite the fact that the protestors were damaging property. The implication is that in the UK the police never mistreat protestors, unlike in Iran. There are so many ways of replying to such a stupid comment that I am not sure where to start. But let me mention just a few examples of violence on the part of the British police and army, which have a long history of brutality, especially during the colonial era:
Bloody Sunday, or the Bogside massacre, of January 30 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians during a protest march against the internment of political prisoners. Fourteen people died – many of them shot at as they were running away, or even while trying to help the wounded. A number of protestors were injured by rubber bullets or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles. All of those shot were Catholics.
In 1997, only weeks before the Good Friday agreement, mass protests led to riots and gun battles in the nationalist districts of Northern Ireland. The protests had started when officials gave permission for an Orange Order march in Portadown, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary used brutal, aggressive methods to remove nationalist protestors who had been blocking the march.
Of course, Northern Ireland had been the scene of many examples of brutality by state forces, including:
The 1922 Arnon Street killings in Belfast, when six Catholic civilians were killed by police, apparently in revenge for the killing of a Royal Irish Constabulary officer by the IRA.
In 1969 during a period of sectarian rioting, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, consisting of pro-British Protestants, helped paramilitary loyalists while ignoring the plight of republicans. During the same period the Battle of the Bogside was a three-day conflict in Derry between the RUC and nationalist residents.
And what about in Britain itself?
In 1936, during the Battle of Cable Street, police horses were used to attack anti-fascist protestors.
In 1984-85 during the miners’ Great Strike there were many confrontations between striking miners and police. One of them was at the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham on June 18 1984, in what was later called the ‘Battle of Orgreave’. Police on horseback charged miners using truncheons and many of the demonstrators sustained serious injuries . Other less well known, but also bloody, police attacks took place – for example, in Maltby, South Yorkshire.
In 2010 the policing of the student protests included the use of a controversial technique known as kettling, when hundreds of students were contained for hours within cordons of police officers. During a march in Whitehall on November 24, mounted police on horseback launched a vicious attack on the demonstrators.
There are plenty of other examples, such as the police killing of Kevin Gately during the 1974 Red Lion Square demonstration, while in 1979 Blair Peach was killed by an officer of the Special Patrol Group during an anti-racism demonstration in London. In 2009, during protests against the G-20 London summit, a bystander, Ian Tomlinson, died shortly after being pushed to the ground by police.
I know history is not a strong point for contemporary reporters, but maybe next time the reporter should do a bit more research before tweeting.
By the way, Mike Pompeo – the former CIA director, who gave us waterboarding and ‘extraordinary rendition’ (in other words, “government-sponsored abduction and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another, with the purpose of circumventing the former country’s laws on interrogation, detention and torture”1) – is, in effect, the boss of Radio Farda.
If, god forbid, I was working for that broadcaster, I would be careful about implying the unique nature of the brutal methods used by tinpot dictators such as Iran’s Ali Khamenei. As we have consistently pointed out, when the world looks away, while the upholders of ‘democracy and human rights’ themselves pursue violent, oppressive policies, they give a green light to dictators all over the world that such methods are legitimate and acceptable.
In comparing policing methods in Iran and the United Kingdom, our esteemed reporter also does not seem to understand that the sophisticated, well tried system of political propaganda in advanced capitalist countries has succeeded in indoctrinating large sections of the population to accept the status quo. And it is no coincidence that the print media is owned and controlled almost entirely by major owners of capital, including in Britain.
There is Rupert Murdoch (owner of News International), Nicholas Prettejohn (Mirror, Daily Star and Daily Express) Viscount Rothermere (Daily Mail) and the Barclay brothers (Daily Telegraph). These capitalists account for over 70% of the newspaper market in the UK. Even many regional newspapers, previously run locally or independently, are now owned by the major media companies.
When it comes to other media outlets, such as television broadcasters, we have, for example, Sky (owned by US media conglomerate Comcast) and Channel 5 (owned by the US media group, Viacom). When it comes to the BBC, despite the fact that Labour supporters have drawn attention to the channel’s pro-Tory bias, especially during general election campaigns, a minor criticism – in the form of Andrew Neil complaining about Boris Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed by him – led the Tory leader to make the following threat: “The BBC licence fee could be scrapped under a Conservative government and replaced with a pay-to-watch subscription model.”
There is little diversity in this media – mainly it favours the right and all outlets support capitalism. Between them they have managed to convince British workers that their economic problems have nothing to do with capital’s insatiable appetite for profit, the austerity imposed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition or even the banking crisis of 2008.
The media tends to blame low-paid workers from the European Union and elsewhere for taking the jobs that few British people would ever consider, and for the long queues in the national health service (while everyone knows that the NHS would not be able to function without foreign nurses, doctors and ancillary staff). The rightwing media insists that the only hope for a better life is to leave the EU with no deal or a hard Brexit – favourite options of a rightwing Conservative Party, led by what many of them admit is a ‘congenital liar’: someone who wants to reduce taxes for the rich and is discussing selling at least part of the NHS to profit-making US companies. The media has convinced the British working class that it is in their interest to fork out millions for the queen and the entire royal family, not forgetting their entire entourage, because tourists would not come to Britain if it was not for the monarchy.
The last few weeks should have taught everyone a lesson about the British mainstream media. False accusations against the Labour Party were repeated without qualification. When rabbis and other Jewish citizens declared their support for Jeremy Corbyn, that largely went unreported – despite the fact that in one case they held a demonstration right outside the BBC headquarters. Irrespective of what one thinks of the current Labour leader, he is clearly very popular in many cities.
On social media you can see that almost everywhere he went very large crowds gathered to support him, yet very little of that made it to the mainstream media. Similarly Boris Johnson faced angry crowds, and had to cancel many scheduled and advertised campaigning visits, yet once again very little of that made it into mainstream media reports.
One of the most bizarre media stories of this election occurred on December 9, when Tory officials briefed media hacks that an advisor of health minister Matt Hancock had been “punched in the face” and pointed the finger at a Labour “thug”. Senior correspondents of BBC and ITV repeated the story, on the basis that it must have be true if it came from Conservative central office. They only withdrew their comments after a video emerged that showed the advisor walking into a protestor’s arm.
Given the success of the media in supporting the rightwing agenda, there is not much need for police brutality at present. The security forces can work in the shadows, occasionally spreading false rumours about this or that slightly left-leaning individual.
Meanwhile in Iran there is a different state of affairs. The government that was established following the 1979 revolution has failed to retain any legitimacy and it is hated by the majority of the population. Of course, the media is controlled by various factions of the government, but the continued disputes between them have meant that Iranians are at least well informed about the corruption and nepotism, leaving no room for illusions.
No doubt if you make a superficial, ahistorical comparison of the way protestors are treated in Iran and the UK, you can establish that right now the level of repression, the horrific mistreatment at the hands of the regime, etc are far more prolific in Iran. I have no intention of justifying the Islamic Republic’s treatment of protestors, but please do not try and glorify the British police, army or media.
With Iran partially withdrawing from the nuclear deal and the US imposing yet more sanctions, tensions are rising fast. This is an edited version of an opening given by Yassamine Mather on the political situation in the Middle East
A common question journalists ask these days – if they are not asking about Brexit – is ‘Will there be a war against Iran?’ and, if so, when? They seem to be thinking about a conflict within the next few weeks or months. In fact, a better question to ask would be: ‘Will there be a war in the Middle East?’
In the United States, this is the question that is being posed in mainstream commentary and journalistic speculation and I believe there are a number of reasons why one should consider such a scenario, however improbable it might seem. Let us start by looking at the situation in the US.
The Mueller report might in the long run become more damaging to Donald Trump, partly because of the way attorney general William Barr intervened to minimise the damage and the way this tactic has backfired. Barr, who was appointed by Trump, did all he could to give a good spin on the Mueller report, yet this might have actually damaged the president’s case. He presented such a whitewash, suggesting that Trump had nothing to answer for, that the negative impact, once the redacted report reached the House and the Senate, was significant. People recognised that there was a case to answer. In addition Mueller has been clear that Barr did not accurately reflect the actual content of the report.
This is not about impeachment – the whole issue is about Trump’s insecurity at home and the fact that he is clearly worried about what is happening. His unease increases the chances of him becoming more unhinged and taking precipitative action. If you had monitored the instances of factually incorrect nonsense spoken by the president over the last three or four weeks, as some journalists have done, you would have seen that the number has gone up considerably! This, along with the increasingly flaky nature of his tweets over this period, is perhaps indicative of an unravelling mind.
The other issue that has attracted attention in the last few weeks is the world economy. Stagnation has been a subject of unease for some time, but this question has become more pressing. While opinions vary, most commentators talk of uncertainty and the effect of raised tariffs – which has greatly exacerbated the problems for a world economy that was already running out of momentum. The latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund is negative for just about every economy in the world and the expectation is that the figures for the next three quarters in the United States itself will be pretty poor. Trump predicted that his tax cuts would win him a certain level of support amongst Republicans in the Senate, and claimed that this would boost the economy. But the dark clouds of recession are gathering.
All of this adds up to uncertainty in the United States and in these circumstances – as we know from history – conflict abroad is a good diversionary tactic.
We have also had the Israeli elections. It is not simply that Netanyahu was re-elected – that in itself was not a huge surprise – but it has also demonstrated a further rightward shift in Zionism. This has given new life to the scheme devised by Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner for a new ‘peace’ initiative in the Middle East, which apparently will be unveiled in June.
In the Middle East itself, Islamic State is supposedly defeated – Trump has announced this ‘victory’ four or five times, giving a variety of different, inaccurate dates for when it supposedly happened. However, the refugee camps in Syria and Iraq are full of IS fighters, while recent events in Sri Lanka indicate that they are scattered around the world and are ready to create mayhem. We do not know whether or not Saudi and United Arab Emirates support for them – from the state or via individual backers – continues and, if so, to what extent.
The Saudis have emerged relatively unscathed from the hostile reaction to the Jamal Khashoggi murder, plus the execution of other opponents, in recent months. While many expected them to be punished for this – or least given a diminished role in Middle East politics – this has not happened. We have seen, however, the formation of two new alliances – Egypt and Israel, on the one hand, and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other. (The first of these alliances is particularly important, as it is meant to provide the political backbone for the Kushner plan.)
In addition, over the last two weeks we have seen what the Middle Eastern press calls the “threat of war” – not conflict, sharp exchanges or small incursions, but war – between Israel and Lebanon. This development has gathered momentum – far more than anyone expected. And, of course, a war between Israel and Lebanon would also involve Iran – it is an accepted fact that if Israel and Lebanon go to war, then Hezbollah will be the main target for the Israeli state. Once that dynamic is in play, Iran would have to become involved.
At the same time, we have the continuing chaos in Afghanistan. The Afghan parliament was elected four years ago, but it sat for the first time during the week beginning April 22 of this year! This is because there is no real sense of what the government should be for. De facto the country is run by war lords, although the Taliban are gaining support – it is worth remembering that the Taliban previously came to power as a result of the chaos in the post-Soviet era and they are now viewed as the ‘cleaner’ (less corrupt) option amongst a bad bunch. This time they also have the Pakistani premier, Imran Khan, on their side.
In terms of the Yemen war, the US Congress voted to end military support for Saudi Arabia. However, within four hours Trump had vetoed it. In a way, the Yemen war is the red line for Trump. Via this conflict, he is showing his affiliation with Saudi. The repeated claims that Iran is the source of the conflict are just incorrect. Certainly, Iran is benefiting from it, but it is not “Iran’s baby” as secretary of state Mike Pompeo keeps saying.
The Saudi-Bahrain-UAE alliance came together because of the alleged fear of Iran. Its Arab neighbours claim Tehran has become too powerful: it does have allies in Syria, it does have the Iraqi government on its side and it does have supporters in the Lebanese government.
But there is an additional problem, which to a certain extent has been overlooked: we have all become so immune to the disasters created by the Trump administration that we are almost desensitised. The president has rid himself of any official who does not want a war with Iran, a country of 80 million people – some of whom are keen to martyr themselves in the name of the 12th Shia Imam! Worryingly, people like former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who were opposed to US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, have been replaced by the warmonger Pompeo. Trump’s former defence secretary, James Mattis, was dismissed for expressing doubts about military interventions in the Middle East and in particular in Iran.
Pompeo comes across as a buffoon who sounds off without thinking about the consequences. The secretary of state is promoting idiotic groups and cults that oppose the Tehran regime and he seems to have accepted the lies they feed him about having massive support inside Iran. Both the royalists and the Mujahedeen are giving the US administration assurances about how easy it will be to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Some US senators are comparing such groups to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition leader promoted by the United States, who claimed before the US invasion of Iraq that his supporters would ensure a smooth transfer of power to pro-US ‘democratic’ forces in Iraq (a fantasy eagerly repeated by Bush and Blair).
Considering all of this, I would say that we are in a far more serious position than 2007-10, when we worked under the banner of Hands Off the People of Iran. This is partly because the political scenario has changed so dramatically, but also because of the uncertainty in the US. This is explained by a combination of the unpredictability of the US president, along with the anti-Iran warmongers he has chosen to have around him.
The Washington Post reflected this uncertainty and the volatile nature of the current political discourse when it recently ran with the headline, ‘Has war with Iran started?’ Bloomberg has a different title: ‘What if Trump wants war with Iran and no-one trusts him?’1 This is undoubtedly a major factor. He does not have Congress on his side for a war on Iran and he has lost his secretaries of defence and homeland security.
Nor does he have the support of the major European states or the European Union itself. Angela Merkel does not want this war and, while Macron is prepared to talk about it, war is actually the last thing he wants. As for Theresa May, she is slightly distracted at the minute and is not exactly keen on getting embroiled in military action in addition to her other woes. This is a change from the past, of course.
In late April the US media paid a lot of attention to what the Iranian foreign secretary Mohammad Javad Zarif had been saying, during a visit to the United States – from this the media presented a scenario akin to the last days of Saddam. Zarif suggested that Trump does not necessarily want war, but the people around him could create conditions where a conflict starts accidentally – they are truly that stupid. I believe this is a more realistic scenario. Concretely, he identified the ‘four Bs’ as the main threat to peace – John Bolton (who wanted a war with Iran before 2003!), Binyamin Netanyahu, Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE.
Also in April, US senator Paul Rand questioned Pompeo. This related to the law passed more than a decade ago which basically implies that if you can prove that Iran has any connection with Al Qa’eda, you are entitled to go to war with that country without further ado. Rand is anti-war, despite being a rightwinger, and he asked Pompeo if he was thinking of using that route to launch a war. Pompeo basically refused to give an answer – he dodged the question altogether. However, the mere fact that a senator of Rand’s political leaning is asking that – and not getting an answer – tells us how dangerous the situation is.
Now Iran is suspending some commitments made under the 2015 nuclear deal and Trump has responded with imposing sanctions on Iran’s export trade in iron, steel, aluminium and copper. The warmongers are delighted. However, the main danger of war is still the Israel-Palestine crisis. As I have stated, Kushner’s plan for the Middle East is expected to be unveiled in June so as to avoid a clash with Ramadan. From what we can gather, he will say that any two-state solution cannot work and should be taken off the table.
He will advance the idea of diminished autonomy within a smaller area for several Palestinian Bantustans. Apparently, they will be presented as ‘autonomous regions’, alongside a much-expanded Israel, which will, of course, include the Golan Heights and all of Jerusalem. According to some, Kushner basically wants to accept the 1967 borders as permanent. The incentive for the Palestinians will be that Saudi Arabia will apparently make substantial investments in Palestinian areas.
This is a recipe for disaster that will not be accepted by the Palestinians – it would surely result in a new war. Even the king of Jordan – an imperialist stooge – will not be able to sit safely in his palace if he accepts such a deal. The Qataris would not survive either, although perhaps Saudi Arabia would be able to keep its population in check, but this is the kind of ‘peace deal’ that would create huge turbulence.
To divert attention from all this – if this plan is actually announced in June, and I expect it will be – a useful ploy would be to trigger a conflict between Israel and Lebanon, and between the United States and Iran. We witnessed the rumblings of Israeli-Lebanese conflict in April. Hassan Nasrallah – the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, who heads a party that is an exponent of neoliberal politics in the Middle East – is important in terms of political strategy. He is saying that the Israel army is not ready to attack Lebanon. Remember, the only time Israel has suffered defeat in its entire existence came with an incursion into southern Lebanon. We can assume that Israel will make sure that it is not repeated – so what will happen?
We have seen a number of different opening moves connected to the Kushner plan. Most importantly, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has been declared a terrorist organisation. In effect a declaration of war. Imagine if the British government declared that the entire French army was a terrorist organisation – that would signal an immediate prelude to war. We are still, after all, in the era of the ‘war on terror’.
The US has imposed sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and ended the waiver on countries buying oil from Iran: 85% of its income coming from oil. But this will now be squeezed to the point of strangulation. This is no longer just sanctions – it is a policy of imposing starvation. No doubt there will be ways around the siege, but Iran would be then selling oil without insurance – a bizarre arrangement under modern capitalism. And in order to attract customers in the first place, Iran is already having to sell its oil well below the market price.
China has said it is ready to step in and buy Iranian oil and claims it will deal with subsequent American sanctions – there is already a conflict between US and China regarding tariffs and it could be that China believes it is not losing much in terms of its relationship with the US. Presumably, this will be one of its bargaining chips in the next round of negotiations with Washington.
The US has been quite explicit about the purpose of its sanctions on Iran. They are imposed to put pressure on working people of Iran, to make life as hard for them as possible. This has been openly admitted by the ultra-hawkish John Bolton, for example. They are trying to foment a rebellion from below against the state – in other words, they are regime-change sanctions.
The other motivation behind the sanctions is that they might prompt Tehran to do something really stupid, such as mount an attack on the US naval forces in the Gulf or provoke flare-ups in Syria, where Iran, Turkey and Russia are basically an occupying force. Israel is bombing Iranian positions in Syria on a regular basis and Tehran is not saying much about it. It can retaliate via Hezbollah, of course – Israel is claiming that Hezbollah now has land-to-land missiles, which can hit Israeli cities.
Bolton, Pompeo and attorney Rudy Giuliani are hoping to provoke the Iranians into mounting an attack, which would legitimise an Israeli response. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah is probably correct to claim that the Israelis are not yet ready to deploy land forces, but they do have an airforce far superior to that of any other state in the region – it would easily be able to target Iran’s nuclear facilities. It would not be necessary for the US to become embroiled in such a conflict from the beginning, but Washington would surely intervene on the side of its primary ally in the region at some convenient stage.
There is also the possibility that things settle down and the prospect of war recedes. After all, Iran-US negotiations – open and secret – have taken place throughout the last 40 years. In 2017, when both president Donald Trump and president Hassan Rouhani were attending the United Nations general assembly, there was a ‘chance meeting’ in a corridor and a handshake.
Apparently Macron was the intermediary – the French president called Rouhani and asked him if he would be interested in a meeting. But the day before Trump had delivered a blistering speech to world leaders, in which he denounced the Iranian leadership as dictators who have turned a wealthy country into an “economically depleted rogue state, whose chief exports are bloodshed and chaos”. So, understandably, Rouhani said ‘no thanks’ to a chat, citing his talks with Barack Obama, which had caused him lots of problems back home – and Obama had not launched a tirade like Trump!
On the other hand, it is important to remember here that, as I have already pointed out, over the last 40 years there have been many examples of cooperation between Iran and the US – including military cooperation.2 So we must be aware of the possibility of tensions receding and a relative calm being established.
That said, US senators are comparing the current period to the one that prevailed before the Iraq invasion. The constant attempt to equate Iran with terrorism and Al Qa’eda come from the same template as the one used against Iraq – it was false then and it is false today.
A number of senior US figures – not least Hillary Clinton – have admitted that the US knew about Islamic State and its predecessor being financed by the Saudis. However, the US turned a blind eye because the activities of this organisation weakened Iran. But, incredibly, IS was destroyed as a state with help provided by Iran. Alliances are made, alliances dissolve, and yesterday’s allies become today’s ‘terrorists’ – the cynicism of the ruling classes is beyond a joke.
We must draw some lessons. If there is an escalation and the threat of war becomes palpable, there will be many people on the left who will automatically defend the Islamic Republic. No doubt they will point to the superficial improvement in Iranian rights – some women now go unveiled, for example. We will be inundated with the ‘anti-imperialism of fools’ – the enemy of my enemy must be a friend, so we must support the Iranian government. That is something we have rightly rejected in the past.
We will also see a major challenge for the Labour leadership and – given the trends at the top of the party that we have noted and commented on before – the possibility that John McDonnell will strike a ‘statesman’ like pose and Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition will be muted because of the need to avoid charges of anti-Semitism.
Since Corbyn’s election as leader, Labour has said very little about Iran. In 2017 Corbyn was challenged by Jon Snow about his appearances on Iran-sponsored Press TV. The Labour leader responded weakly and came across as very apologetic. Of course, we also have that bizarre Emily Thornberry statement at the height of the protests in early 2018 when she told the BBC’s Political thinking podcast:
Our approach now is one of extreme caution when it comes to Iran and a recognition that the society in Iran is an immensely complex one, and seemingly contradictory. For example, with these current riots, sometimes they are calling to reinstate the monarchy, sometimes they’re calling out against [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, sometimes they’re calling for Khamenei, sometimes they’re calling for the price of eggs.3
But that is about it. Even on Yemen, Corbyn has been pretty tight-lipped. McDonnell’s last parliamentary intervention on Iran dates back to 2013, when he submitted a motion on Iranian trade unionists, presumably prompted by Hopi.
I realise there are other pressing issues in British political life at present. However, the question of the Middle East is hardly unimportant. If the conflict escalates, we should not expect any strong opposition from the Labour leadership. The Stop the War Coalition, weakened by contradictory positions on Syria and eager to ensure no damage is done to Corbyn, is unlikely to take any serious initiatives. That does not auger well.
This article was first published in the Weekly Worker.