Threat of war is real

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.

Chaos

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).

Iran

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’.

Starvation

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.

Lessons

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.


Notes

  1. www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-04-26/early-returns-what-if-no-one-trust-trump-in-a-war-with-iran.
  2. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0003871.
  3. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/iran-protests-deaths-latest-emily-thornberry-boris-johnson-united-nations-a8145371.html.

This article was first published in the Weekly Worker.



Raking in fortunes

It is workers who have been hit the most, writes Yassamine Mather, while those close to the regime have benefited enormously

Mehdi Khalaji: doing very nicely, thank you very much

We all remember Hillary Clinton’s promise of “targeted sanctions” against Iran’s Islamic republic. They were deployed to ‘moderate’ the Shia government’s regional policies, as well as its internal human rights record. Of course, anyone with any knowledge of the regime in Tehran would have told the then secretary of state how futile such policies were.

We knew that, given the existing political and economic structures in Iran, sanctions would enrich those in power, while creating misery, through food and medical shortages, for the majority. Yet none of us could have predicted the extent to which those associated with the government of the populist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the supporter of the poor and disinherited!), were benefiting from sanctions – profiting to the tune of millions of dollars.

Last week in a trial in Tehran we got a glimpse of what had occurred under the ‘targeted’, ‘smart’ sanctions of the Obama era. The latest government drive to root out corruption – concentrating on events that occurred under the previous government, not the current one – has revealed a scandal which, according to the Iranian judiciary, involved the theft of some $7.4 billion.

The case involves 14 executives and board members of Iran’s Petrochemical Commercial Company (PCC), going back to the last years of the second term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2010-13). Most of the suspects are in custody in Iran, while three who now reside abroad and are being tried in absentia.

The charges read out in court involve “disrupting Iran’s economic system” by profiteering from the multi-tiered exchange rate. According to a senior judiciary official, who addressed the hearing on March 7, “Despite numerous letters [from] the minister of oil … to the defendants that the foreign currency proceeds must be paid in full … the defendants did not pay any attention … and seized a portion of the foreign currency.”

In other words, they were involved in circumventing sanctions when selling petrochemical products and in the process they embezzled a percentage of the profits. A spokesman for Iran’s prosecutor general explained on March 9:

The suspects converted the foreign currency into Iranian currency before returning it to the government, making a profit in the process. They kept some of the foreign currency, allegedly selling it for up to three times the official rate on the black market.

Of course, this case is not unique. We already know of a similar one – that of billionaire businessman Babak Zanjani, who is currently in prison awaiting execution.

All this is a familiar story. The immediate effect of sanctions is a dramatic fall in the rate of exchange and Iran’s currency continues to fall, as new sanctions are imposed. The current administration under president Hassan Rowhani relies on the export of oil and petrochemical products and often the deals negotiated open the way to uncontrolled black-marketeering.

As with most other industries, Iran’s petrochemical companies have been privatised and inevitably those close to various factions of the Iranian religious state have benefited. Managers are often nominated by the president and his cabinet, and also involve influential MPs in the majles (Iranian parliament), as well as the Revolutionary Guards militia.

The case of the Iranian PCC is getting widespread attention, mainly because of the sordid tale of one of those being tried in absentia – you couldn’t make it up. The controversial figure involved is Marjan Sheikholeslami Aleagha, who is currently in the United States. She was apparently a supporter of ‘reformists’ in the regime, but switched to support for Ahmadinejad, once he was in power. She now lives in the US and is married to Mehdi Khalaji, a ‘senior researcher’ in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). The institute is by all accounts a rightwing, pro-war, pro-sanctions set-up – it was established in 1985 by, amongst others, Martin Indyk, an Australian-trained academic and former deputy director of research for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. According to an article by David Ottoway, published in 1989, “Indyk described the think tank as friendly to Israel, but doing credible research on the Middle East in a realistic and balanced way.”1

In December 2003, professor Rashid Alkhalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, criticised WINEP in an interview with Al Jazeera, claiming it represents “the fiercest of the enemies of the Arabs and the Muslims”, and described it as the “most important Zionist propaganda tool in the United States”.2

As for Khalaji, Iranians know him as one of the most ardent advocates of sanctions! In recent months he has promoted ‘discussions’ with the pretender to the Iranian throne, Reza Pahlavi. In a number of BBC Persian TV debates, where he was promoting sanctions, I have argued against his position. And now, of course, Farsi social media is inundated with comments about his political stance and his wife’s role in the current scandal.

According to documents presented to last week’s court hearing, Marjan Sheikholeslami transferred proceeds from sales of Iranian petrochemical products to the accounts of her trading companies in Turkey, profiting by a cool $9 million.3

Another individual facing corruption charges is Reza Hamzelou, who was managing director of the Iranian PCC in 2010-11. It is now alleged that in the autumn of 2011, as new economic sanctions went into effect, he was given a new role: to bypass them by selling petrochemicals on the black market.

By the time all this was happening, I had already written extensively on the consequences of the US’s ‘targeted’ sanctions. According to the theocratic government’s own statistics, by 2009 one third of the state assets had been privatised (value: $37 billion, out of $110 billion), and 78% of such privatisation occurred under Ahmadinejad, who was following the International Monetary Fund’s model for ‘structural adjustment’. In many ways, this dismantling of the public sector resembles what happened in Russia and other east European states in the 1990s, when vast sections of the economy were turned over to oligarchs at bargain-basement prices. In Iran it was the Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran (RGCI) and its subsidiaries, followed by individuals associated with pro-Ahmadinejad factions of the regime, who benefited from relentless privatisation. In this period tens of billions of dollars in state assets were handed out to the RGCI in secret deals. The sanctions were supposed to be ‘targeted’ at the Revolutionary Guards, close associates of the supreme leader and senior clerics, but, because these people own everything, they were the least affected.

Of course, it would be a complete mistake to believe that anything has changed in Iran. Now that the country faces a new wave of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, it would be foolish to think that with the departure of Ahmadinejad the economy is more transparent or that those associated with the Rowhani government are not involved in sanctions-busting, the black market and dodgy currency deals. As before, the ones who are suffering from sanctions are mainly the workers – for instance, those who have lost their jobs, as companies incapable of importing basic raw materials go bust; those who have not been paid their wages for months; civil servants who have suffered pay cuts; patients who cannot get the medicine they need or receive treatment in hospitals where basic surgical equipment cannot be repaired.

Next time someone tells me about corruption in Iran, I will remind them that the money made from it manages to find its way out of the country. So how come western banks and financial institutions – which in the two years since Trump’s presidency began have, in order to avoid US-imposed penalties, blocked the accounts of thousands of Iranian law-abiding citizens in their searching for ‘money laundering’ – have failed to detect millions in dirty money sent from Iran to Canada and the US?

Next time anyone advocates sanctions against Iran, they should be reminded of a certain Mehdi Khalaji – he also advocates US sanctions, while his wife has been raking in millions as a direct result of them.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

First published in the Weekly Worker

Notes

  1. Washington Post March 24 1989.

  2. www.aljazeera.net/programs/fromwashington/2005/1/10.

  3. This and other court details translated from Tasnim News: www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1397/12/16/1963593.

Forty years of inequality

The US administration preferred Islamists to leftists, says Yassamine Mather

The masses drove out the shah then found themselves subject to a cruel theocracy

Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the February 1979 uprising in Iran has been marked by dozens of scholarly seminars in Europe, numerous documentaries produced by the Persian-language media, as well the usual military parade inside the country.

Documentaries produced outside Iran concentrate on memoirs of key players who are still alive – from the wife of the ex-shah, Farah Diba, and the officials of the Pahlavi court, to Abolhassan Banisadr, one of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s closest allies in 1979, who is now in exile in France. Most of them have made similar comments on previous anniversaries of the Iranian revolution, but this time quotes from American general Robert Huyser’s reports (originally declassified in 2015), which have been repeated by a number of news agencies, give us a better idea of US plans after the shah’s departure.

Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic have peddled various conspiracy theories about Huyser’s secret mission of January 1979. However, the published documents show the confusion emanating from the Carter administration, which was trying to manage events thousand of miles away, in circumstances where it had failed to understand the reasons behind mass protests against its favourite Middle Eastern tyrant. One of Huyser’s main tasks was to encourage the shah to leave the country and to stop a potential military coup by generals loyal to him. According to BBC World Service journalist Kambiz Fattahi, who has studied the state department’s declassified documents, 10 days after the shah’s departure, Khomeini sent a message to Washington offering a deal:

If president Jimmy Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.1

Khomeini’s note to the president was declassified in 2016, but it is only now, on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, that comments and analysis of it have become well known – shedding more light on the Carter administration’s secret negotiations in the crucial weeks after the shah’s flight from Tehran. While, as I have pointed out, Huyser’s main mission was to stop pro-shah generals from organising a military coup, he had in fact given the generals the green light for such a coup if the left was in a position to take power. In other words, the secret deal demonstrates that the US administration was more fearful of the left than the Islamists – particularly the working class, whose strikes had paralysed the country. In the true tradition of US ‘foreign intervention’, not least during the cold war, it was better to ally with the Islamists against secular and leftwing forces.

The plan agreed between the Carter administration and Khomeini (via his secular advisors) was to hold back the workers’ movement and organise a smooth transfer of power to Khomeini. What shattered those plans was the involvement of homafars (technicians and junior flight crew) in the Iranian air force, who took up arms against their commanders in support of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Guerrillas on February 11-12.

As I have written on a number of occasions, in February 1979 we were not facing a situation of ‘dual power’ in Iran. While the Islamists were powerful before the uprising, leftwing activists were the last to be released from prison. In fact Islamists had faced far less repression under the shah than the left – holding meetings in mosques and other religious institutions had been tolerated. They were also much better off financially, benefiting from donations from the bazaar. That is why the religious movement was far better organised than the left and other secular forces. In addition the left was politically confused, made many mistakes and allowed the Islamists to outmanoeuvre them.

Looking back at the film reels of 40 years ago, it is interesting to see how the current situation in Iran is hardly what was envisaged at the time of the February revolution. In late 1978 and early 1979 two of the common slogans on demonstrations were: ‘Bread, work, freedom!’ and ‘Equality, independence!’ Forty years on, I do not think anyone in their right mind would argue that Iranians has won ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’, let alone democracy. The supreme leader dominates the political agenda, while presidents are ‘elected’ from a pre-selected list of supporters of the current order. Prisons are full of labour and civil rights activists, and the Shia religious order cannot even tolerate opposition from within its own ranks. Leaders of the reformist green movement have been under house arrest for the last 10 years.

That is why, when I was asked to talk at a seminar to mark the 40th anniversary, I decided to speak on ‘“Equality” and its relation to “independence”.

Inequality

Needless to say, the Iranian people would not have rebelled against the shah had it not been for the massive gap between the rich and poor. In the absence of any financial support for the peasantry, the shah’s ‘land reform’ had impoverished the countryside, while the massive exodus to the big cities created sprawling shanty towns.

Two parallel universes existed – not just in terms of income and standards of living, but also in terms of culture. The secular upper classes in north Tehran looked down on the poor and even the lower middle class. The word chadori (the long cloak worn by religious women) was used by westernised, upper class woman as a derogatory term. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, certain forms of ‘cultural capital’ were valued over and above others – they helped or hindered social mobility just as much as income or wealth.

Far from being a ‘conspiracy by the west to depose the shah, because he was getting too powerful’ (one of the theories put forward by Iranian royalists), the uprising was a direct result of the failures of the shah’s regime to respond to the economic crisis that followed the boom of the early 1970s. Most skilled workers faced a drop in their living standards in 1976, while the ‘White Revolution’ in agriculture had left massive numbers of peasants landless and penniless, forcing them to seek seasonal jobs in the big cities. Recession left them unemployed and destitute. In addition to the above two groups, the small independent producers had been forced out of business, and sometimes made bankrupt, by the decision of Iran’s chamber of commerce to shore up the already privileged position of the big capitalists. Corruption and the rule of a clique around the royal court meant that many traditional merchants, often associated with the bazaar, were deprived of large profits available to the more privileged sections of the ruling class.

Such decisions, exemplifying the arrogant dictatorship of the royal family, fuelled widespread political discontent, while the suppression of leftwing and in fact all secular opposition allowed sections of the clergy and the Islamic movement to mobilise what was in reality class discontent in the name of religion. The clergy, which had survived the repressive measures of the shah’s dictatorship by making compromises with the regime, was in a much better position to benefit from political discontent than secular and socialist groups, who had lost many in their ranks through execution and imprisonment. In the summer of 1978 religious demonstrations in major cities were led by the clergy, financed by the bazaar and supported by independent producers, the urban poor and students.

After the revolution, as protests against inequality and for better wages and working conditions continued in factories and throughout the oil industry, the new Islamic government attacked protesters and labour activists. For a regime whose main support was based in the bazaar and amongst small capitalists, defence of private property became paramount.

In addition, the non-homogeneous (multi-class) mix in the Islamists’ camp necessitated a policy of denying class struggle, or at least marginalising it and removing it from the political agenda. This social bloc, united under the umbrella of religious culture, had no other way of surmounting the class antagonisms within it between the poor shanty-town dwellers and the much better-off bazaaris. The new religious state needed ‘unity’, and it therefore quickly developed a hatred of the left, which wanted to continue the struggle, and champion independent working class action. In the first month after coming to power the new regime used paramilitaries and civilian supporters to attack workers’ protests. In March 1979 those attending a meeting of oil workers in Tehran refinery were attacked by Hezbollah and Bassij militias, who were shouting Hezb faghat hezbollah: ‘Only one party – Allah’s party’.

New and weak

The Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) was the only time when the state took welfare measures such as issuing coupons to most of the population. The harsh conditions created by the war masked some of the underlying inequalities within the country. But even then the rich and powerful were able to pay bribes to prevent their sons being sent to the front – some even found ways to send their offspring abroad to avoid conscription. In other words, there was not much equality in terms of those who were sent to the front, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost their lives.

The end of the war was marked by the country’s re-integration into the world economy. The death of Khomeini led to the appointment of a new supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who was by comparison relatively weak – not yet the dictator he was to become in later years. He was completely loyal to Akbar Rafsanjani, the senior cleric who had nominated him as vali faghih (‘guardian of the imbecile’, or supreme leader). The international domination of finance capital and globalisation, as well as the ascendency of a powerful ‘reformist’ faction in the Iranian regime, paved the way for a massive post-war reconstruction plan, entirely in line with the new capitalist world order. No-one pursued this more eagerly than ayatollah Rafsanjani, who was already a businessman with a considerable personal fortune. It is this period that marked the beginning of an ever widening gap between the rich and the poor in Iran’s Islamic Republic.

This is the time when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund became involved in aiding Iran’s economy – a situation that has lasted until today, despite the Islamic leaders claims of ‘independence’. These institutions drove the policy of privatisation and the maximisation of profit for the sake of ‘growth’ (plus the ending of welfare subsidies).

The following report by the World Bank in October 2018 gives a reasonable summary of the situation:

Iranian authorities have adopted a comprehensive strategy encompassing market-based reforms, as reflected in the government’s 20-year vision document and the sixth five-year development plan for the 2016-2021 period … On the economic front, the development plan envisages an annual economic growth rate of 8% and reforms of state-owned enterprises, the financial and banking sector, and the allocation and management of oil revenues among the main priorities of the government during the five-year period.2

However, in Iran – as elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism – there was no ‘trickle-down effect’. There was no reduction of the gap between the rich and the poor, let alone fulfilling promises of ‘equality’. While clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters have made billions of dollars from sanction-busting and the black market, ordinary Iranians have faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to the shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. No doubt the display of grotesque wealth is adding insult to injury, but the supreme leader does not pay much attention to the injury.

Last year a New York Times reporter was shocked by what she saw in a programme screened by the pro-government Press TV:

It was not just the wealth that struck me, but how freely Iran’s ‘one percenters’ flaunted the symbols of western decadence without fear of government retribution ….

After a revolution that promised an egalitarian utopia and vowed to root out gharbzadegi – the modern, westernised lifestyles of Iran’s cosmopolitans – how have some people become so rich? Much of Iran’s wealth, it turns out, is in the hands of the very people in charge of maintaining social justice. Hard-line clerical leaders, together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, have engineered a system where it is largely they, their family members and their loyal cronies who prosper.3

The son of an Iranian diplomat, Sasha Sobhani, who apparently has half a million followers on Instagram, recently posted photographs from his travels to Greek islands. There he was sitting on the deck of an expensive yacht drinking champagne. Under one post he wrote: “How long will you be jealous of me?”

In other words, nothing is left of the egalitarian slogans of the February uprising. Today most young Iranians laugh at their rulers’ claims of pursuing ‘social justice’ and, just as in February 1979, Iranians live in two parallel universes. Gold-topped ice cream, Lamborghini and Porsche cars in north Tehran are a world apart form the real life of millions of Iranians who face hunger and lack of basic medication, not to mention the tens of thousands who still live in shanty towns, such as Nassir Shahr just outside Tehran. In addition, the dominance of superficial, US-type celebrity culture, spread widely via social media amongst well-off sections of Iranian youth, means that the rich flaunt their wealth shamelessly – increasing the anger and resentment felt by the majority of the population.

The poverty line in 2018 was set at approximately $480 a month per household. This means that 33% of the population – more than 24 million Iranians – live below that poverty line. The median income for an average household is only $885, leaving those above the official poverty line struggling to make ends meet. The top one percent spend 86 times more than the poorest one percent. According to the Iranian paper Donya-e-Eqtesad, “The bottom 10% of the population spend one 14th of the sum spent by the richest 10%.”

Sanctions

When Donald Trump reimposed sanctions against Iran, following the US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in November 2018, Iran’s oil and banking sectors were hard hit. The currency lost more than half its value last year. No need to remind readers that those in power, or close to the centres of power, are not affected by these new sanctions. They can still buy goods using unreal government rates of exchange – selling them at the highly inflated, semi-official price, thus securing huge profits. In addition those related to centres of power have a monopoly over the distribution of food and medicine. Most of them have amassed their astronomic fortunes through control of the black market during the era of sanctions. This group is using its expertise in sanction-busting in the growing black economy sector to accumulate yet more wealth at the expense of the working class and the poor.

Khamenei and increasingly the government under president Hassan Rouhani tell Iranians that the ‘sacrifices’ they are making are worth it, because, after all, Iran is now politically independent. This is not quite true. The nuclear deal signed in 2016 was in fact a sign of submission to western dictat. Speaking to crowds gathered for the celebrations of the February uprising, Rouhani said the country was in a “state of war”, and, as Iranians increasingly question the price they have to pay for this celebrated ‘independence’, the obvious reality is that it is meaningless, given the country’s economic dependence on global capital. Economic sanctions have had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy precisely because of this dependence – at least in terms of the importation of basic goods.

If you intend to take on the world hegemon, it helps if, in addition to economic independence, you enjoy overwhelming support within your own borders. But this can hardly be achieved if you accuse workers who protest at the non-payment of wages of being agents of foreign powers; if you arrest every lawyer who dares represent a leftwing activist; if you accuse retired teachers and state employees demanding payment of their hard-earned pensions of being spies!

On the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution the Iranian state went through the usual routine of massed street celebrations, while Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and US president Donald Trump exchanged Twitter insults.

Trump wrote: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”

Zarif responded: “#40YearsofFailure to accept that Iranians will never return to submission. #40YearsofFailure to adjust US policy to reality. #40YearsofFailure to destabilize Iran through blood & treasure. After 40 yrs of wrong choices, time for @realDonaldTrump to rethink failed US policy.”

The clerics and their government managed to get tens of thousands of Iranians to attend celebrations. However, the majority were soldiers, teachers, school pupils and government employees. Footage shows that there was none of the enthusiasm or spontaneity of 1979. In contrast last month’s demonstrations at the Haft Tapeh sugar plant and the workers’ protests in Ahvaz in mid-January all showed that the spirit of 1979 is alive and well. If there is going to be any change in Iran, it will come from these forces – and definitely not the supporters of ‘regime change from above’ sponsored by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

First published in the Weekly Worker

Notes

1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36431160.

2. www.worldbank.org/en/country/iran/overview.

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

Israel and Saudi Arabia in cahoots

Saudi plans for regional domination are not meeting with much success, writes Yassamine Mather

Arms sales remain healthy

More than six weeks after the death of Jamal Khashoggi we know a lot more about his tragic plight after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. However, it is still unclear who ordered his execution, what will be done about it, who knew what when …

According to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, audio tapes of Khashoggi’s last moments in the consulate have been shared with the CIA and leaders of the ‘free world’, including the United States, the UK and EU. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau admits his intelligence services have received the audio tapes and listened to them and, while French ministers deny having received such recordings, other European and US officials remain quiet on the subject.

According to The Guardian,Saudi officials have claimed that Erdoğan “betrayed the kingdom by disclosing details of the investigation and refusing all overtures from Saudi envoys, including an offer to pay ‘significant’ compensation”.1 However, it is unlikely that Turkey, playing its own game in this sad saga, will be tempted by blood money, which theoretically can only be offered to relatives of the deceased.

By November 13 the drip-drip of information about Khashoggi’s death reached a new level, with revelations carried by the New York Times and Al Jazeera, quoting Turkish intelligence officers, that soon after the assassination, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the agents involved in the murder, phoned his superior with the message “tell your boss [believed by some to be crown prince Mohammed bin Salman] that the operatives have carried out their mission”. The recording was, according to Turkey, shared last month with Central Intelligence Agency director Gina Haspel.

The allegations, true or false, have caused a considerable dent in bin Salman’s authority. Meanwhile, we have seen the return from self-imposed exile of Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the only remaining full brother of the Saudi king; the release from prison of another royal, Khaled bin Talal al-Saud, who had been held in custody following last year’s purge, when princes and business ‘leaders’ were held in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. But MBS remains crown prince for the time being.

There are also further revelations about MBS’s antics since he ascended to the second most important position in the Saudi kingdom. According to the New York Times, “Top Saudi intelligence officials close to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman asked a small group of businessmen last year about using private companies to assassinate Iranian enemies of the kingdom.”2

Last week, as oil prices fell following ‘excessive supply’ from the world’s major producers, Saudi Arabian authorities told ministers from other oil-exporting countries at an Opec meeting that they had no prior knowledge of the Trump administration’s plans to exempt seven countries – purchasers of Iranian oil – from new sanctions against the Islamic republic imposed on November 5. As a result the Saudis, who had already increased their oil production, were forced to do a U-turn – a clear sign that US-Saudi relations are not as warm as last year.

Israel

Over the last few weeks Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi have been lobbying the US government in support of MBS and, according to the website Middle East Eye, “Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman attempted to persuade Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a conflict with Hamas in Gaza as part of a plan to divert attention from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” A “war in Gaza would distract Trump’s attention and refocus Washington’s attention on the role Saudi Arabia plays in bolstering Israeli strategic interests”.3 Yet all this – including attempts to bribe Erdoğan with promises of Saudi purchases of arms from Turkey – seems to have failed so far.

To add insult to injury, Qatar-Israel-Hamas negotiations, which started a few months ago, seem to have progressed. Last week, in what was an unprecedented move, Netanyahu allowed the transfer of $15 million to Gaza, to pay for “salaries”, following the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cut them in Gaza last year. The money is also supposed to contribute towards medical care of the wounded. Despite criticism by some, including his own ministers, who have denounced the transfer of millions to Gaza as “protection money”, Netanyahu has defended the initiative. In fact, the Israeli prime minister said: “I’m doing everything I can in coordination with security experts to return calm to [Israeli] villages of the south, but also to prevent a humanitarian disaster [in Gaza].”

According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Qatar and Israel had agreed to establish a sea passage between Cyprus and Gaza – a route that would be under Israeli security supervision and monitored by international forces.

Of course, some of this seemed to be in doubt following a ‘secret’ security operation on November 11 by Israeli special forces, using a civilian vehicle deep inside Gaza. What was a plan to target and execute a senior Hamas commander was botched – an Israeli officer was killed and another was wounded. Seven Palestinians were killed.

There is speculation in the Middle Eastern press that opponents of the Qatar deal in the Israeli government planned and ordered the Israel Defence Forces operation. Some ministers, including Naftali Bennett, who had strongly criticised the Qatar-Israel-Hamas deal, were happy to see an escalation of the conflict in Gaza. However, three days after the IDF adventure into Gaza, there seems little sign that either side wants a full-scale war at this particular time. A ceasefire was agreed on November 12 and seems to be holding. MBS’s dream of an Israeli-Palestinian war diverting attention from his plight has not materialised.

Meanwhile, Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has resigned, labelling the deal with Gaza “a capitulation to terror”.

Iran

Saudi officials have changed their story about the Khashoggi execution so many times that it is difficult to believe anything they say. However, they have consistently denied allegations that MBS played any role in the planning of this political murder. Instead they blame rogue elements, including general Ahmed al-Assiri, who discussed a $2 billion plan with a private intelligence firm to “sabotage Iran’s economy”. During these discussions Assiri is said to have also asked about plans to kill general Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

A few days earlier fresh allegations were made about the kind of activities Saudi publicists are alleged to follow in UK. According to The Guardian, “A UK-based Iranian TV station is being funded through a secretive offshore entity and a company whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessman with close links to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.”4 Although it is difficult to verify the paper’s claims that bin Salman is the “force behind the TV channel” via his media advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, there is no doubt that Iran International’s relentless promotion of pro-Trump ‘regime change’ groups such as Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and individuals such as the son of the ex-shah do follow a clear political agenda. The reporter who is associated with the article has faced a barrage of verbal abuse, and threats of legal action, as well as threats to his safety.

Of course, the TV channel is not unique in promoting individuals and organisations who have been emboldened by Trump’s new sanctions. There are many exiled Iranians, including royalists, ‘liberals’ and even some claiming to be on the left who endorse sanctions as a means of achieving regime change. In the last few weeks some of us have tried to balance the situation by writing or speaking against this type of regime change and as a result we are accused of ‘helping the Islamic Republic by criticising its opponents’. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was precisely the reluctance of the Iranian left to expose Ruhollah Khomeini and his brand of Islamic fundamentalism prior to the February uprising of 1979 that led to the nightmare of the religious state. It is a state which claims to be the government of the disinherited, while presiding over one of the most corrupt regimes on earth, where the gap between the rich and the poor is reaching unprecedented levels.

Last week Iranians were treated to an interview with the former shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, courtesy of Iran International TV. In answer to the sycophantic ‘questions’ that started with praise of the hapless ex-prince, every time he opened his mouth he managed to say something stupid.

In other words, if a section of the al Saud family is behind the funding of this TV station run by exiled Iranians, they are failing badly – every time they promote MEK or Reza Pahlavi, they only manage to strengthen Ayatollah Khamenei and the Tehran regime. As much as Iranians hate the increasingly dictatorial tone of the supreme leader at a time of severe economic crisis – not all of which can be blamed on sanctions – the alternatives presented by US regime change planners are both too stupid and too corrupt to be taken seriously. All of this amounts to yet another setback for MBS and the Saudi royals.

First published in the Weekly Worker

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/12/saudi-arabia-crown-prince-mohammed-wings-clipped-as-khashoggi-death-rattles-riyadh.

2. www.nytimes.com/2018/11/11/world/middleeast/saudi-iran-assassinations-mohammed-bin-salman.html.

3. www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-arabia-israel-gaza-khashoggi-1952586885.

4. www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/31/concern-over-uk-based-iranian-tv-channels-links-to-saudi-arabia.

The Iranian opposition: fishing in muddy waters

Repression and exile have clouded the view of Iranian anti-government forces, writes Mohamad Moein in Tehran

Throughout history governments have faced opposition to their rule and the current period is no exception. These days in Iran , the opponents of the Islamic Republic are known as the opposition. In English speaking countries, the term opposition was first used in relation to the British Parliament and later became commonplace in other countries. Hence, ‘opposition’ is a new word whose academic life dates back to the early twentieth century in Western democracies. It refers to structured political groups that do not accept a government or a state and want to change it, if the majority of the people vote in their favour in free elections. In other words, the term opposition refers to a party that presents its program and alternative to society, and accepts that people accept or reject the program and their alternative.

In Iran, the governments that have come to power in recent decades have faced opposition inside and outside the country. The objective of this opposition is to overthrow the rule of those in power one way or another. During the rule of the Pahlavi dynasty, the ineffectiveness of resolving the country’s internal crises through political means, by removing political freedoms, became clear. This resulted, by the end, in the participation of a wide range of people, parties and groups in protests that led to the collapse of the regime in 1979. Many hoped this collapse would result in the coming to power of a revolutionary government capable of building a better Iran, resulting in a brighter future.

But it did not take long for the new government to reveal its true nature; it not only failed to take a single step towards improving democratic rights, but on the contrary established a transition from a secular dictatorship to a religious one. In this respect the revolution ended when, having succeeded in overthrowing the old order, which was their declared aim, the people provided the arena for a new dictatorship. On the other hand, the international conditions of that era were dominated by the Cold War and the beginning of a devastating war with Iraq. All factors that helped the consolidation of dictatorship.

On this basis, the government that emerged from the revolution initially claimed to be adhering to its interpretation of democracy ‘in an Islamic framework’ but over time, with the strengthening of the foundations of state authority, all pretence of democracy disappeared and we witnessed the true nature of a totalitarian and ideological dictatorship. It was in such circumstances that individuals, groups and parties were eliminated one after another from the circles of power. It was this policy that created – and strengthened – opposition inside and outside the country. Accordingly, to date, the opposition has had an endemic and ineffective political life, inevitably strengthening those in power.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon and a variety of causes can be mentioned. But the main reasons for the opposition’s ineffectiveness against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran can be classified as follows;

1) The opposition has been incapacitated in its organisational functioning, because the constitution of the Islamic Republic does not provide any status for the opposition, or any clear transparent legislation regarding the Islamic state’s relations with those holding political views opposed to its rule.

2) The second reason is reliance on verbal and theoretical opposition. Throughout these years the opposition has not produced an alternative concrete platform for solving the current problems of the country. To put it simply, the opposition does not have a proper, pragmatic alternative, and most of its programs are propagandist. It is quite clear that should they gain power, they will act just as badly as the current government.

3) The third reason is lack of courage amongst the opposition. They fear rejection and lack of popular acceptance, and as a result of this fear are incapable of providing clear and independent commentary. In other words, the opposition has not yet reached such a degree of sophistication that it can announce its official point of view about current affairs inside and outside the country, nor is it willing to discuss the consequences of its declared propagandist policies.

4) Fourth, the opposition does not have a proper analysis of the current situation and conditions inside the county. It is ignorant of internal developments. With the explanations it has, it could be said that the opposition are like spear-fishers hoping to catch fish in muddy waters.

5) Fifth, intellectual poverty and absence of political, social and economic theory have led to a situation where opposition figures duplicate and copy speeches, actions from each other, all lacking any conviction or ingenuity.

In other words, the opposition is incapable of producing original thought and theory; it continues to live and think in the past.

6) The sixth reason is the failure of the opposition to cooperate in the social dimension. Simply put, the opposition does not have the ability to work collectively: the opposition has no practice of debate and democracy, and therefore seeks only to eliminate rivals in a totalitarian manner.

7) Finally, possibly one of the most important reasons for the opposition’s ineffectiveness is their dependence on foreign money. They are at the mercy of foreign governments and often have no alternative but to express the views and positions of these governments. According to Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, “In these times, what distinguishes the “real revolutionaries” from mere masqueraders is not only the clear vision “to know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up but the willingness, and moral courage to “seize power” when it is lying there, and “assume responsibility for the revolution after it had happened.” Sections of the opposition have different political outlooks which are briefly outlined below, and the reasons for their failure to engage the masses discussed.

Monarchists:

The most obvious point regarding this group is the fact that their ideas and plans are frozen in time: they believe in return to a glorious past! And in this respect their ideals are completely clear. They are seeking to revive royalty in Iran in the form of a return to power of the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty. This section of the opposition, who have been living mainly in the United States or other Western countries, hold views that have not changed much in the last forty years. Throughout their exile they have not even tried to understand the world we live in, they are ignorant of current international developments, they remain opposed to any democratic ideas. When it comes to the revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, they believe in conspiracy theories: “The West overthrew the Shah because he was developing the country”, “it was all the fault of Jimmy Carter and his Human Rights agenda!!”…

Among the reasons for the ineffectiveness and exclusion of monarchists inside Iran are their inability to understand the current world, either the international space or the historical conditions inside Iran today, as well as the belief in re-establishing a sovereign monarchy. The ideology justifying this programme, of natural hierarchy and disbelief in the possibility of equality and non-discrimination is itself repellent to most people in Iran. From the point of view of the monarchists, the poor will always be poor and the king must be a shrewd king. But many of the people who form current Iranian society who had already overcome the kingdom in 1979, have no belief in the rule of kings or desire to return to the past, and this part of the opposition is completely rejected by the people. Inside Iran they lack support, they are ineffective. Young people in Iran don’t believe in hereditary privilege and are aware of the ignorance and incompetence of this section of the opposition. Consequently, the chances of this section in the Iranian political arena are zero or close to zero.

Mojahedin-e Khalq or People’s Mujahedin of Iran:

The crucial point about this opposition group is their contradictory history and their military aggression into Western Iran, using Iraqi tanks and artillery when Saddam Hussein supported them. This was originally an Islamic left-wing group. In the early days of the revolution it was closely linked to the Islamic state. However it fell from grace as Khomeini and his allies consolidated their share of power and as the group’s disagreements with Khomeini grew. Mojahedin members and supporters were dismissed from the circles of power and the group declared itsef for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran through armed struggle.

One of the main reasons for the ineffectiveness of this group is the sharp difference between the group’s claims and its actions. We are talking of an anti-democratic secretive group with dictatorial practices within, against its own members. Many years after the death of the leader of the group (Massoud Rajavi), thought to have been killed during the second Gulf war, the group’s leadership has not acknowledged this information. Armed struggles and blind assassinations have always been amongst the reasons for ordinary Iranians rejecting this group. In addition there is confusion about the group’s goals and objectives.

However what distinguishes this group from other opposition groups, what makes them a despicable force hated by the Iranian people, is their cooperation with the enemy during the Iran-Iraq war and their participation in an effort to invade Iran, helped by Iraqi troops, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Many Iranians consider them more dangerous, far more horrific than the current Islamic Republic. So not only do they have little support in the country, any attempt at promoting them, for example by supporters and allies of Donald Trump, such as John Bolton or Giuliani backfires, strengthening the Islamic Republic. In summary the PMOI is viewed negatively in general and its recent history is considered disgusting.

The virtual opposition or quasi-opposition groups:

In recent years, we have seen a flood of unidentified opposition groups. This type of opposition, often very small groups, with fewer members than the fingers of one hand, is often composed of very young opponents of the regime. In general they are more familiar with basic concepts of democracy however their behaviour is marked by lack of experience, so they play on emotions to alarm their audience and as a result they attract some supporters amongst the young generation. On the whole such groups are more rebellious, however they remain ineffective because they lack organisation and political theory.

In addition, since Iranian society is a traditional and conservative society, the fact that such groups thrive by crossing social red lines, damages their reputation beyond their immediate supporters. But the most important reason why such groups remain ineffective is their reliance on lies and deceit, for the sake of political advancement. They believe it is permissible to use ‘fake’ information to oppose the government. From the point of view of this type of opposition, attacking other opposition groups is not just a tactic but a strategy for further development.

No to unprincipled alliances

Iranian workers should be careful about who they associate with, writes Yassamine Mather

In the aftermath of the protests of late December and early January, there is a consensus that the majority of Iranians face a dire economic situation, while the poorer sections of the working class face hunger and complete destitution. Yet exiled royalists and interestingly sections of the Iranian ‘left’ outside Iran still maintain that the protests were only about democracy and against the ‘Islamic character’ of the Iranian state. As a result of this, amongst exiled leftwing groups we are witnessing yet another attempt at creating unprincipled alliances. The last time round, in 1979, uniting with clerics and Islamists against the shah’s regime ended in tragedy. This time, an alliance with royalists, US neocon republicans, Iranian supporters of Donald Trump, including the loony People’s Mojahedin sect, is truly a farce.

We are told that, since the current battles are about ‘democracy’ (necessary before the working class can get organised) and because the Shah’s son has told us he is not “seeking power”, unity of all opposition forces is necessary. Well, you might remember that ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini also promised he would not take power before he returned to Iran and look where we are now.

In the era of global capital, when we talk about democracy, especially in war-torn Middle East, we need to explain what we mean. This matters. Since 2001, the peoples of the region are weary of the ‘democracy’ delivered through regime change from above. In addition, unless we understand the reasons behind the protests and rebellions in Iran’s Islamic Republic against both factions of the regime, we will not be able to build a genuine solidarity movement and will end up betraying the aspirations of the people we claim to defend.

Neoliberal

But first let me give a very brief summary of the state of Iran’s economy and the role of both factions of the regime in creating the disaster that is Iran’s neoliberal capitalism.

Since the late 1990s the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been senior partners in Iran’s economy, partly because of the country’s international debts and partly because capital, even in a Shia republic, is global. Finance, trade and industry are all completely intertwined with global capital. Every year representatives of the major international financial organisations go to Iran to assess what progress has been made regarding privatisation, the abolition of subsidies and so on. Ironically the first time the Iranian government was actually congratulated for meeting IMF requirements was in the second term of the populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, despite claims of leading the government of ‘the disinherited’ and looking after the poor, was in fact presiding over a period where the gap between the rich and the poor widened dramatically, as privatisation (be it in the strange form it takes in Iran, as I will explain later) was implemented.

The supreme leader, Iran’s revolutionary guards and even the ‘reformist’ government of Hassan Rouhani have all played their part. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei went as far as changing the constitution to allow the privatisation of crucial sectors of the economy, including transport, telecommunication, oil, gas and petrochemicals. The privatised and semi-privatised industries have adopted all the ‘reconstruction’ adjustments that accompany such policies, making thousands of workers unemployed and reducing most jobs to short-term contracts, some with draconian conditions. The reduction – in some cases abolition – of subsidies, the most constant demand put forward by the IMF, has created additional poverty.

No doubt new sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies helped impoverish the country, yet they enriched the leaders of the revolutionary guards, as well as the heads of those privatised companies associated with them. These groups have monopoly access to foreign markets and enjoy good rates of exchange for foreign currencies. They were therefore able to increase their private and collective wealth at the expense of the majority of Iranians.

In view of all this, how ironic it is that in the current situation some are seeking support from international capital and its internal allies – in other words, the very forces which imposed privatisation on Iran’s Islamic Republic – to ‘defend’ Iranian workers. I must admit, even by the standards of exiled politics, this takes some beating – relying on capitalism itself to relieve the economic hardship caused by the neoliberal economic policies imposed by its institutions!

There is no doubt that the privatisations, which were ‘legitimised’ by Khamenei when he changed the constitution to allow private ownership of key industries, are not carbon copies of the privatisations carried out in advanced capitalist countries, in that well-placed individuals and agencies associated with the organs of power – in particular the military and security forces – benefit from them. However, they are quite close replicas of what happens worldwide in terms of effects felt, especially in less developed countries.

Currently Iran’s economy is formed of three parts: the private sector, the state sector and the semi-state/private sector. Yet the three parts work closely with each other and, although at times there is some conflict between them, on the whole the three constituent parts coordinate their functions in line with their common interests. Meanwhile, royalists, along with bourgeois liberal politicians, tell us that Iran’s economy would prosper if only there was ‘proper’ privatisation! I can only assume they mean a privatisation where they would benefit instead of elements of the regime. Every study of the current situation shows that sections of industry belong to Iran’s old aristocracy, some of whom did not like the Pahlavis (a short-lived dynasty – 1925-79 – as opposed to the Qajar dynasty that lasted from 1785 to 1925) and did not do so well under them. Other sections of capital are owned by wealthy Iranians who returned some of their money for investment following the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Another section of the super-wealthy exploiters of the working class are former members of the revolutionary guards who became private capitalists a decade ago. Many of these and their offspring are the ‘new rich’ in Iran and, although they benefited from connections with those in power, their ideological and political connections to the ideals of the religious state have been replaced by the pursuit of personal and family interests and the accumulation of more and more wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth than the image of Iran portrayed by bourgeois liberals (including constitutional royalists!) as a country where everything is owned by the public sector and it is only the likes of the revolutionary guards who benefit.

‘United front’

That is why the ‘united front for democracy’ alongside bourgeois liberals, proposed by the reformist soft left (those who not surprisingly see no harm in accepting US or European funds for their political campaigns, those who openly or covertly support imperialist intervention, those who are allegedly on the left, yet seek further sanctions against Iran for its violation of human rights) is pie in the sky. It is a bit like asking PFI managers benefiting financially from the privatisation of sections of the NHS to join the campaign to save the health service. Yes, I know it sounds mad.

This week on social media a video has appeared which was apparently taken during a meeting of Iranian activists who are addressed via Skype by a former Iranian leftwinger in exile in London, who tells them how neoconservatives in the United States and Canada have invested a lot of time and money in “campaigns to support the Iranian working class”. I assume his advice to his new allies is to take the grievances of the poor and working class seriously.

As disgusting as this intervention is – equating genuine protests by tens of thousands of Iranians with sections of the right – it is certainly true that some of those claiming to be supporters of the Iranian working class have actively sought the support of rightwing CIA-sponsored ‘trade unions’ for a good part of the last two decades, yet our constant efforts to expose such individuals and groups have largely fallen on deaf ears.

An ideological response comes from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. This is truly amazing: “The fight for a secular democracy is a way to help workers develop their economic struggles and organisations, and to grow strong enough to pose and win support for socialist aims”.1

The AWL, together with virtually every other group from the Trotskyist tradition worldwide, has spent most of the last two decades attacking the Iranian left for supporting a stagist theory of revolution and therefore being responsible for the failure of the uprising in February 1979. Yet now it tells us that we must first have a democratic secular state in Iran courtesy of what they call “regime change”. These people must think the Iranian people are complete fools: having witnessed regime change and ‘democracy’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, can anyone seriously come out with such nonsense with a straight face? Post-2011 Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by some to be ‘democracies’, yet I am sure (with the exception of a small minority of idiot royalists, most of them in exile) there are no Iranians who envy the kind of ‘democracy’ currently to be seen in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are groups on the Iranian left with a line similar to the AWL, ranging from those who are soft on Zionism to those who openly act as apologists for the state of Israel, who are also involved. Ignoring the plight of the Palestinians is one thing, but claiming that Israel is a ‘democracy’ and therefore there is nothing wrong with its nuclear programme (both military and non-military) is another matter. Let me remind you that nuclear programmes – especially those pursued by religious states in the Middle East, such as Iran and Israel – are more dangerous than anywhere else because of the clandestine nature of nature of their installations. This makes them even more of a danger than other nuclear plants, both for their own citizens and the peoples of the world. We already know that the age of Dimona (a ‘textile factory’ which is in reality is a nuclear plant) represents a serious threat. However, our soft Zionists are adamant that in the democracy that is the occupation state none of this matters. In other words, nuclear technology in the hands of religious states are OK as long as they are not Islamic.

Of course, no-one should take the Iranian groups associated with this soft Zionist agenda seriously – the ones I looked up are splits from splits of small organisations with names that are straight out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I really like the addition of “official faction” to otherwise identical names to distinguish yet another split. These groups truly belong to the dustbin of history, but we should not underestimate the damage their ‘solidarity’ does to those labour activists in prison in Iran who are falsely accused of being associated with foreign powers. No wonder elements among the genuine left are becoming weary of ‘solidarity campaigns’ with Iran’s workers.

Notes

1. www.workersliberty.org/story/2018-01-10/iranian-workers-push-regime-change.

Drumbeats of war

 

Beirut is now the focus of the burgeoning Saudi-Iranian rivalry

The political saga involving Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to make headlines and we are nowhere near a resolution of the situation. In the meantime, the war in Yemen – scene of another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia – is entering a more dangerous phase. Some 10,000 Yemenis have died in the fighting, while Yemen’s population is suffering from Saudi sanctions, which are stopping food and medicine from getting in – and stopping the Yemenis from getting out.

So it was no surprise that in his first TV interview since his resignation, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri gave stark warnings about the real threat posed to the economy if the Saudi kingdom imposes new economic sanctions on Lebanon. Hariri denied he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will, claiming he was there to serve Lebanon’s interests, to protect the country from Iran and Hezbollah – who, he repeated, were trying to take over the country.

Before the interview Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Christian president, had said Hariri’s situation in Saudi Arabia was creating doubts over anything that he had said or might say, and his statements could not be taken as an expression of his free will: he was living in “mysterious circumstances” in Riyadh which were restricting his freedom and “imposing conditions on his residency and on contact with him, even by members of his family”.

According to TheAtlantic website, the Lebanese prime minister “appeared uncomfortable”:

At times, he and his interviewer, from his own television station, looked to handlers off camera. The exchange ended abruptly, after Hariri implied that he might take back his resignation and negotiate with Hezbollah, seemingly veering from the hard-line Saudi script. “I am not against Hezbollah as a political party, but that doesn’t mean we allow it to destroy Lebanon,” he said. His resignation does nothing to thwart Hezbollah’s power; if anything, a vacuum benefits Hezbollah, which doesn’t need the Lebanese state to bolster its power or legitimacy.1

The World Pro News website claims: “Nearly 55 minutes into the interview Sunday, there was a mysterious man, caught briefly on camera, holding a piece of paper in Hariri’s line of sight.”2

The TV interview itself became quite dramatic. According to the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, at one point Hariri burst into tears, saying:

I know that there are a considerable number of Lebanese who are concerned about me. I am here with the clear message that Lebanon comes first. There are countries that I am visiting that care more about Lebanon than factions within Lebanon and that pains me very much.

Referring to his contact with an aide of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Hariri said:

In my conversation with an advisor to the Iranian spiritual leader in Beirut before [my] resignation, I made it clear to him that Iran must not intervene in the affairs of Arab countries, including Lebanon via Hezbollah. I am in favour of pluralism and the political activity of parties in Lebanon from every [religious] community, but those parties need to work for the good of Lebanon, not other countries. We in Lebanon have adopted a policy of non-intervention on the subject of other countries, and this policy has been eroded in recent years.3

Khamenei’s advisor was Ali Akbar Velayati, who was quick to deny the allegations. Referring to his meeting with Hariri in Beirut only one day before the latter’s surprise resignation, he said that, contrary to Hariri’s claims, the talks were not “tough, violent or involving threats”. Velayati denied that Iran had been interfering in Lebanon’s affairs, adding that in the meeting Hariri had tried to play the role of mediator between Tehran and Riyadh.

Change in attitude

In Lebanon the resignation has provoked anger against the Saudi royals. According to the BBC Persian Service,

The taxi driver in Beirut said that if he realises he has picked up a Saudi passenger he will ask them to get out of his car. He refers to Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, as “Ya elbal shom” (that disgraceful shame). He then raises his arms to the sky and says: “God, this mad child wants to bring war to our country, so that we become lost in the mountains. Let us hope that all you [Arabs] of the Gulf burn in the fires of your own oil.”4

The reporter adds that the taxi driver’s opinion is typical of views expressed by Lebanese of all religions. For example, on November 12 Beirut was hosting a marathon and many runners and spectators were carrying Hariri themed placards: “Waiting for you – we don’t believe your resignation.”

By November 13 there were rumours that Bahaa Hariri, the former prime minister’s brother, was going to replace him. However, interior minister Nohad Machnouk dismissed the idea: “In Lebanon things happen through elections, not pledges of allegiance.”

Those who have contacted Hariri in Riyadh claim he does not sound like himself and replies to all questions about his wellbeing with one short sentence: “I am fine”. Asked if he is coming back, he replies: “Inshallah” (God willing).5

The Beirut-based Al Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, claimed that the plan is to send Saad Hariri back to Beirut to submit his official resignation letter, from where he will go to a European capital – most likely Paris – and leave politics altogether.

In those sections of the Arab press and media not directly paid for by the Saudis, reporters and commentators are also pouring scorn over the other headline grabbing Saudi measure: fighting corruption. According to Odeh Bisharat, writing in Ha’aretz:

It’s ridiculous to hear about the young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman throwing dozens of members of the royal family and other senior figures into jail on suspicion of corruption. After all, the kingdom was founded on corruption. Everywhere a spring of corruption gushes forth; near every oil well, a spring of corruption flows. This is not a kingdom that has corruption: Saudi Arabia, under the obliging administration of the royal family, is corruption that has a kingdom ….

Saudi oil has become a tool for repressing progressive culture, for blocking advancement of the status of women and, above all, for supporting fundamentalist tendencies, from the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the establishment of al Qa’eda and other killing organisations. And all with the blessing and embrace of the developed west.6

As elsewhere in the Arab world, Saudi influence in Lebanon is directly related to its economic power. Saudi Arabia imposed economic sanctions on Lebanon in 2015, froze $3 billion in aid for the Lebanese army and business deals between the two countries dwindled. The economic threat Hariri mentions in his TV interview is reference to further sanctions by Saudi Arabia and other countries on remittances sent by 400,000 Lebanese citizens who work in the Persian Gulf. It is estimated that Lebanon gets around $2.5 billion from money sent by Lebanese workers in the oil-rich emirates to their home country.

To many Lebanese citizens, the new approach, which comes after a decade of failed Saudi efforts to bolster Hariri’s pro-Saudi Future Movement, looks like revenge against all of Lebanon. According to this view, Saudi Arabia no longer distinguishes between friendly Sunnis, hostile Shias and the Christian community: Riyadh has decided to take a position against the interests of the country as a whole.

Economy

The economic situation in Lebanon is not very different from that of many other countries in the region. Since the 1990s it has faced a shortfall in income (Lebanon’s balance of trade deficit was running at $15.65 billion in 2016), leading to serious international debt. Uncertainty about the future have led to poor rates of growth, while an all-encompassing corruption is adding to the country’s economic woes. According to the World Bank, the war in Syria and the relocation of 1.5 million Syrian refugee is costing Lebanon about $7.5 billion a year.

While existing Saudi sanctions have clearly damaged the Lebanese economy, any new sanctions – including attempts to stop remittances from workers in the Persian Gulf countries, restricting tourism, and cutting off the burgeoning Lebanese finance sector from access to Arab capitals – will no doubt bankrupt the country. According to a report on the website of the Washington Institute,

… 80% of foreign direct investment in Lebanon comes from the Gulf, 40% of which is in the real estate sector. While Gulf investment in Lebanon has not increased since 2012, despite periodic political problems, investors have not, en masse, sold off their investments either and thereby harmed the economy. Lately, however, Lebanon has witnessed a reported 10-20% drop in real estate values. To be sure, a Gulf sell-off would have further serious consequences for Lebanon’s formerly robust real estate market ….

Most notable, however, is Saudi Arabia’s potential impact on the critical Lebanese banking sector. Saudi deposits at the Banque du Liban, as the Lebanese central bank is known, are about $860 million, the sum originally placed there to help stabilise the Lebanese lira when Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s late father, was first elected prime minister in 1992. To support Hariri and his economic plans for Lebanon, Saudi Arabia agreed to keep these deposits in the Central Bank.

Now that Saudi Arabia has expressed its view of a Lebanese “declaration of war” and that Saad Hariri has resigned, concerns have arisen that Riyadh could withdraw these deposits. While overall the deposits account for only about 2% of Lebanon’s foreign reserves, their removal could shake confidence in the Central Bank, if not destabilise the lira.7

In this respect Hariri is right in predicting doom and gloom for the country in his latest televised interview.

Riyadh is also continuing to exercise its influence over the rest of the region. Egypt’s economy, like that of Lebanon, has historically been tied to Saudi Arabian and Gulf capital from the time of Sadat and Mubarak to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and now general Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Last week el-Sisi announced that the second round of reconciliation talks between representatives of the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, will take place in Cairo on November 21.

Egypt is supposed to have found a solution to the difficult issue of who will control the Palestinian security forces. The proposed plan involves the creation of a national security council, in which Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will have equal representation, with direct involvement from Egyptian military officials, who will have the final say on any disagreement between the two factions.

One of the reasons why Egypt (prompted by Saudi Arabia) is taking such an interest in bringing about a Hamas-Fatah deal is the desire to reduce Iran’s influence in that part of the Middle East. In early November, the Saudi king summoned Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, to Riyadh, where he was reminded of the importance of a deal with Hamas – one that would reduce Iranian influence in Palestinian affairs and presumably increases Egypt’s role.

So at a time when Islamic State is steadily losing all its former territory in Iraq and Syria, the zone of conflict between Saudi Arabia (supported by the United States and to a certain extent Israel) and Iran’s Islamic Republic (supported by Russia) has expanded to cover most of the Middle East – from Lebanon, Syria and the occupied territories to Yemen and Afghanistan.

The conflict has many facets – economic, political and military. Its victims are the ordinary people of the region, who are excluded from any role when it comes to decisions on foreign policy and war.

And, as if that was not bad enough, they have to endure the relentless media propaganda onslaught waged by both sides. Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, make use of a number of Arabic TV stations, such as Al Manar and Al Kawthar, plus Press TV in English, while Saudi princes and their acolytes are financing a range of Persian satellite TV stations. These range from the trashy Channels based in Los Angeles, to the more respectable news channel, Iran International. This claims to be an ‘independent’ news broadcaster, yet is apparently run by a consortium of Saudi financiers.

Notes

1. www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/lebanon-saudi-arabia-saad-hariri-iran-hezbollah/545678.

2. http://bf.worldpronews.com/9256/2482/90/a1eb883a916a6491c030c4f9c5aaf99f8be89ced.

3. www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.822400.

4. www.bbc.com/persian/world-features-41959046.

5. www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-politics-hariri-exclusive/exclusive-how-saudi-arabia-turned-on-lebanons-hariri-idUSKBN1DB0QL.

6. www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.822424.

7. www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/saudi-arabias-war-on-lebanon.

Part 2

In response to Trump’s ever more bellicose anti-Iran campaign, Putin has strengthened Russia’s links with the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis of resistance. The world is getting ever more dangerous, warns Yassamine Mather

Touching the orb: Egypt’s president Sisi, Saudi king Salman and Donald Trump

Last year, when Donald Trump was elected US president, old-order defenders of imperialism were telling the citizens of poor third-world countries run by dictators that the ‘checks and balances’ in the wonderful democracy that is the US will stop Trump’s mad policies from becoming reality.

Unfortunately, although the claim could well have some truth in relation to internal policies, when it comes to international politics and the Middle East in particular, many of his most irrational election statements are becoming a reality. Amongst them the pro-Israeli, pro-Saudi policy goes well beyond traditional US neoconservative positions. Here Trump’s unelected son in-law, Jared Kushner, is playing a crucial role advising simultaneously both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

This week we had confirmation from the Israeli army’s chief-of-staff, Gadi Eizenkot, of the scale of Saudi-Israeli cooperation. In his first ever interview with a Saudi newspaper, Alaf, Eizenkot told the world that Israel is ready to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran. Also for the first time, Israel co-sponsored with Saudi Arabia a resolution against Syria in the UN Human Rights Council. Furthermore, Israeli communications minister Ayoub Kara extended a warm invitation to Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, for what he said were his friendly comments about the country. All this follows a period during which Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman has undertaken a number of unprecedented steps, which include the arrest of scores of princes and ministers, and direct intervention in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs.

To ‘legitimise’ steps taken to normalise relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia summoned Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh last week, to convince him to accept a peace plan put forward by Kushner. Of course, Saudi-Israeli collaboration is an important part of that plan. According to the New York Times, the proposal could include, among other normalisation measures, “overflights by Israeli passenger planes, visas for business people and telecommunication links” with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.1

In Yemen civil war continues and the Saudis have the support and cooperation of the US as well as the UK. In the words of Ron Paul writing in the New American:

And why is there a cholera epidemic? Because the Saudi government – with US support – has blocked every port of entry to prevent critical medicine from reaching suffering Yemenis. This is not a war. It is cruel murder.

The United States is backing Saudi aggression against Yemen by cooperating in every way with the Saudi military. Targeting, intelligence, weapons sales, and more. The US is a partner in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen crimes.2

Then we have the public revelations of Israeli-Saudi cooperation. Of course, no-one had any doubt that it had entered a new phase since Trump’s election. However, the open admission of such relations implies a new era in the politics of the Middle East. On November 20, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s energy minister, confirmed there had been contact between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but said that Riyadh was eager to keep the cooperation a secret: “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually [we are] the party that is not ashamed.”

This claim is in direst contradiction to the official Saudi statement – foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir has said several times in the last two years that Saudi Arabia has “no relationship” with Israel and there have been no secret back channels. Yet last year, after his visit to Riyadh, Mr Trump told the world that he found king Salman and the Saudi leadership to be “very positive” towards Israel.

So less than a year since Trump took office we are seeing new alliances in the Middle East. There is no longer a major war against Islamic State and no-one wants to mention al Qa’eda or its offshoot, Al Nusrah. The ‘enemy’ is Iran – uniting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the majority of the Persian Gulf states.

What we are witnessing is the formation of a new imperialist-led alliance against Iran’s Islamic Republic. Under such circumstances it is bizarre that we keep hearing about a Sunni-Shia conflict. Typical of such ignorant articles is one by Paddy Ashdown in The Independent:

The greatest threat to world peace coming out of the Middle East now is not terrorism, but the danger of a wider Sunni-Shia religious conflict, into which the great powers are dragged.3

The great powers aren’t dragged into this war: they are behind it. To think that Liberal Democrats were once speakers on Stop the War Coalition platforms.

Macron

A firm supporter of the new alliance is Trump’s best friend in Europe, Emanuel Macron. Alain Badiou calls Macron a “neoliberal phantom” and a “leader of a democratic coup d’etat”, who is losing support fast amongst those who voted him president in preference to the much hated Marine Le Pen.

To divert attention from his failures at home Macron has become super-active on the international scene – after all, France is the ‘legitimate’ foreign power which has ‘Lebanon’s interests at heart’. That is why he invited Saad Hariri to Paris and appeared on the steps of the Elysée Palace with the ‘former’ premier of Lebanon – a man who only days earlier had resigned from his post while in another country, Saudi Arabia, on a TV channel owned by Saudis, by all accounts reading a text written for him by his hosts, in which he complained about Iran’s influence in his country!

You might have thought that this was a scene from some comedy, but unfortunately it was all too true – and all too dangerous: the lead players in the drama, Trump and Macron, are so ignorant of regional sensitivities and historical facts that we could be entering a truly catastrophic period for the Middle East. In the last few days Macron has had talks on Lebanon with president Abdel el-Sisi of Egypt, prince Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Donald Trump himself.

All this because Iran has what they regard as ‘undue influence’ over Hezbollah. Yet despite concerted Saudi/US/French efforts, there is no sign of civil war in Lebanon. The Christian president, Michel Aoun, remains critical of Hariri’s resignation and in fact as soon as the ‘former’ premier landed on Lebanese territory, he decided to ‘temporarily suspend’ that resignation:

Today I presented my resignation to his excellency the president, and he asked me to temporarily suspend submitting it and to put it on hold ahead of further consultations on the reasons for it … I expressed my agreement to this request, in the hope that it will form a serious basis for a responsible dialogue.4

So on what basis did France believe it had the right to intervene in Lebanon’s affairs? Macron – who, by the way, likes to hold cabinet meetings in Versailles – acts as if France is still the colonial protector of Lebanon and Syria. No wonder France is a recruiting ground for IS and other jihadi terrorist groups.

However, many Sunnis in Lebanon believe the Saudi ‘plot’ has already failed. Reports from Beirut talk of the anti-Saudi sentiment expressed by the Lebanese Sunni community. According to Joe Macaron, who is a policy analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, “Riyadh’s risky gambit had no realistic endgame or allies to execute it. It has failed miserably, no matter the outcome.”5

According to Sunniva Rose, Al-Monitor’s reporter who visited the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli,

The escalating regional tensions and Saudi Arabia’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric have direct and dangerous implications for Lebanon. Mustafa Alloush, a former member of parliament from Tripoli and a member of the political bureau of Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, is pessimistic. “The only way to get out of the situation is through a major clash. If there is enough money funnelled into Lebanon from abroad, a civil war can happen again” …

But in the streets of Tripoli no-one wants to hear this … In the main square, dozens of taxis stand in line waiting for customers. “I never vote,” taxi driver Mohammad Badra told Al-Monitor … “I would only vote for a politician who offers new job opportunities, and no-one has done that recently.”

For jeweller Omar Namel, the political scene in Lebanon is an “embarrassment” … Lebanon “deserves better than politicians like Saad Hariri, or anyone else”, he told Al-Monitor.6

In the meantime another world power, Russia, is building its own alliance. Within one week the Black Sea resort of Sochi has been host to a summit between Bashar al-Assad of Syria and president Vladimir Putin, and a conference where Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey joined Putin and Assad to discuss the future of Syria and presumably Lebanon.

Every one is fighting over influence and control post-IS, but the reality is that, contrary to claims by general Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, IS remains a danger not just for the countries of the region, but also for the rest of the world. The new instability fuelled by Trump, Macron and all the rest is precisely what IS needs at a time when it has lost 95 % of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria.

Notes

1. www.nytimes.com/2017/11/11/world/middleeast/trump-peace-israel-palestinians.html.

2. www.thenewamerican.com/reviews/opinion/item/27422-why-are-we-helping-saudi-arabia-destroy-yemen.

3. www.independent.co.uk/voices/middle-east-saudi-arabia-iran-control-fighting-war-diplomatic-relations-paddy-ashdown-a8061106.html.

4. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-42079999.

5. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/11/saudi-arabia-orchestrated-downfall-lebanon-hariri.html.

6. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/11/lebanon-sunni-community-shocked-by-saad-hariri-resignation.html#ixzz4z9lTDNvF.

Redrawing the map: why is Trump abandoning the nuclear deal?

War will follow war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rogue state’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kurdistan

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

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

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

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

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

Nationalism and imperial power

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrow-minded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Part and parcel of global capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism, there is no ‘trickle-down effect’. During the years of sanctions senior clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters made billions from sanction-busting and the black market, while ordinary Iranians faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to a shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. Shahrzad Elghanayan, a New York Times reporter, was astonished by what she saw in a programme screened by the pro-government Press TV: “It was not just the wealth that struck me, but how freely Iran’s one percenters flaunted the symbols of western decadence without fear of government retribution.”2

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

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

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

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

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

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

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

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