Supporters and apologists of Iran’s Islamic Republic in Respect,1 Counterfire2 and the Socialist Workers Party3 have in the past told us that Iran is not a dictatorship. It has democratic elections to determine the president and the composition of its parliament …
The regime’s 11th presidential elections have demonstrated how far removed this is from reality. Having arrested and imprisoned all serious opposition, including the regime’s own ‘reformists’, the remaining factions, despite being at each other’s throats, are all agreed that only those candidates for president who completely uphold the line of the supreme leader may be permitted to stand. So not only has the favourite of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, been barred. So too has the moderate centrist and former president, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The omens were not good from the beginning. The supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had disowned his chosen candidate of 2009. Ahmadinejad, who came to power following a controversial vote in elections many Iranians believed to be rigged, is now considered an enemy. In fact, despite the careful vetting of candidates for this and other elected posts on religious grounds, as determined by the constitution, Iran’s clerical dictators, in the form of two supreme leaders, have ended up falling out with almost everyone who has occupied the presidency, beginning with ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who famously turned his back on the regime’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr.
Rafsanjani, who was Khamenei’s first president, fell out with the supreme leader. So did Mohammad Khatami, a vetted, obedient servant of the regime – he was out of favour by the end of his first term and definitely an enemy by the end of his second. Last but not least, for all his earlier support for Ahmadinejad against leaders of the green ‘reformist’ movement, the supreme leader fell out with his chosen president in the first months of his second term and in the end it could hardly be any worse.
What is different this year is that the entire electoral process has become a joke even before the election campaign has started. Because Khamenei was determined to reduce electioneering from months to only three weeks, it was not until May 21, just 24 days before the polls, that Iranians got to know the final list of candidates. However, Khamenei had apparently been concerned that the absence of any known figure, never mind a controversial one, might lead to a lacklustre campaign and no doubt this played a part in the supreme leader’s quiet encouragement of Rafsanjani to enter the foray.
His candidacy was hailed by both ‘reformists’ and opponents of the regime as a sign of ‘hope’ – the ‘saviour’ had come out of retirement. Even sections of the left believed he was therefore worthy of critical support. No-one was clear about how exactly Rafsanjani would save the nation – except by lengthening the rule of the religious dictatorship, that is – but in the euphoria that followed his registration as a candidate, none of this mattered. In fact it could well be that the unprecedented support for Rafsanjani by sections of the ‘reformist’ opposition convinced the Guardian Council to rule him out of the electoral process.
The Guardian Council is supposed to make its deliberations in private. However, while the vetting process was going on, one of its leading figures, ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, commented: “Iranians do not want to elect a president whose car is a Mercedes Benz” – the model Rafsanjani arrived in to register his candidacy.
Rafsanjani’s supporters hit back by arguing that Jannati’s own modern Peugeot is far more expensive than Rafsanjani’s old Mercedes. BBC Persian service produced a short video of the cars used by several of Iran’s Islamic rulers, which shows Khamenei himself getting out of a bullet-proof BMW. It should be pointed out that Iran’s supreme leader and his family are embroiled in a scandal regarding the BMW dealership in Iran.
The issue of luxury cars is a touchy subject for Shia rulers. When young Iranians were asked in a telephone and internet poll what they associated with the phrase, ‘Islamic clerics’, a considerable number said “Mercedes Benz” or “BMW” (although the sons of the ayatollahs have long since preferred Maseratis and Porsches).
Once the car issue became just too embarrassing, the Guardian Council changed its tactics and focussed instead on the question of age. A candidate over 75 was apparently too old to occupy the presidency and, had the council been aware that a 78-year-old would put himself forward, they would have introduced an age bar.
However, this too was easy to counter by Rafsanjani supporters and others. A TV station listed the age of the Islamic regime’s current and previous leaders, starting with Khomeini, who became head of state aged 81, and the current supreme leader, who is 73. Jannati is 87 – the same age as one of his senior colleagues on the Guardian Council, ayatollah Mahdavi Kani …
Rafsanjani’s daughter has informed the world’s press and media that on May 21 senior figures of the regime had been trying to persuade her father to withdraw his nomination. But he had refused, saying he could not “betray the people’s trust”. However, earlier that day, as the Guardian Council was preparing to make its final announcement, security forces moved into action. Supporters of Mashaei and Ahmadinejad were arrested as a “precautionary measure”, and the offices of a ‘reformist’ youth organisation were ransacked and closed down.
Then the daughter of the founder of the Islamic Republic, ayatollah Khomeini, issued an open letter to Khamenei, declaring that her father had considered Hashemi Rafsanjani to possess all the qualities necessary to be not just president, but supreme leader. This was the first time anyone had quoted Khomeini’s thoughts concerning a possible successor to himself and obviously implied a serious criticism of the current supreme leader.
Once it became clear that Mashaei had been barred, Ahmadinejad absurdly announced he would contest the decision by asking the supreme leader to intervene. Apparently Ahmadinejad was the only person who did not know that it was Khamenei’s decision to bar both Mashaei and Rafsanjani.
There is a big difference between electoral cheating, such as ballot-rigging (as happened in 2009) and barring a very senior cleric like Rafsanjani, the man who is considered alongside Khomeini as a founder of the Islamic regime, the man who played a crucial part in writing the constitution of the clerical state, who has been one of the regime’s most powerful figures. As many have commented in Tweets and on Facebook, the ayatollah who chairs the expediency convention – a body answerable to the supreme leader with supervisory powers over all branches of government – is not considered fit to run for president!
This whole farce says everything about the crisis gripping the Islamic regime. It is true that some of Rafsanjani’s supporters might now switch support to a lesser known ‘reformist’, Mohammad Aref, or the centrist, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, but this is now a doomed electoral process. In many ways the events of the last few days have shown how pinning one’s hopes on the pseudo-dictatorial electoral process in Iran was a disaster.
The US might have considered negotiations with Iran under a Rafsanjani presidency, but the Obama administration is unlikely to take seriously whoever wins from the remaining, vetted candidates, however conciliatory the tone of those candidates may be. Ayatollah Khamenei and his Guardian Council might end up regretting the path they have taken.
As for the Iranian working class, it has two enemies: imperialism and its own rulers. The latter are not only remote from ordinary people, but so very clearly engulfed in personal struggles for wealth and power. When it comes to the presidential elections, any tactic other than a boycott is tantamount to offering support to this retrograde, reactionary regime.
On the last available day, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani arrived at the ministry of the interior to register himself as a presidential candidate. Rafsanjani was the Islamic republic’s fourth president, from 1989 to 1997, and is now once again standing as a ‘reformist’. In reality he is the candidate of capitalism and probably still one of the richest men in Iran. Despite that, the announcement that Rafsanjani had entered the race ‘to save the country’ generated an almost unprecedented hysteria.
There are two main explanations for his timing. The principlists (conservative, hard-line supporters of the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei) are accusing Rafsanjani (also known as the fox because of his political cunning) of holding back before making his dramatic, last-minute move in order to surprise and spread confusion amongst his opponents. There is some truth to this claim: confident of an easy ride, principlists entered the presidential elections with at least seven serious candidates, and another 14 less serious contenders. One assumes that, had they known they would be facing such a figure, they would have tried to rally round a single candidate.
Some of Rafsanjani’s allies have claimed he was waiting for the approval of the supreme leader before putting himself forward. Two weeks ago he said he would only go ahead if Khamenei wanted him to do so, but a few days later there was a slightly different version: he would only put his name forward if the supreme leader did not object to his nomination. His telephone conversation with Khamenei1 or one his close advisers2 (depending on which version you read) only took place at 4.30pm Tehran time on May 11 – less than one and a half hours before the deadline. Rafsanjani’s daughter confirms this.3
Whatever the truth, Rafsanjani, who is now benefiting from the full support of the ‘reformist camp’ led by Mohammad Khatami, is no opponent of the Islamic regime. In fact he does not even claim to be a reformist: he is, in his own words, a “moderate”. Some consider him to be a “pragmatist conservative”4 – someone who tried to mediate between the ‘reformists’ and the conservatives after the debacle of the 2009 elections. Now he has, according to Khatami (Iran’s last ‘reformist’ president) made a “major sacrifice” and come forward to fulfil his duty to the “nation, the Islamic Republic and the faith”.
It is clear then that, far from providing a challenge to Khamenei, Rafsanjani is standing to save the clerical system and with it its supreme leader, who, after all, owes his own position to Rafsanjani. According to a video released in 1989, soon after ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, “Rafsanjani took the lead in a meeting of the assembly of experts”. He described his last encounter at Khomeini’s hospital bedside, as well as an earlier discussion he had had with the Islamic republic’s first supreme leader over his succession. Rafsanjani claimed he had told Khomeini that no-one had “the stature to fill your shoes”, to which Khomeini had replied: “But why not? Mr Khamenei is the one!”5
Rafsanjani’s message to the supreme leader and the conservatives is clear: the regime is facing its most serious crisis ever, sanctions have paralysed the economy, international relations are at an all-time low, and then there are the idiotic holocaust-denial statements that still come from president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies. One needs to “drink the poison” – a reference to Khomeini’s famous statement when he accepted the resolution passed by the United Nations security council in 1987 to end the Iran-Iraq war.6 (Of course, many believe that it was Rafsanjani who, as commander-in-chief of Iran’s military forces during the eight-year war, convinced Khomeini to accept that ceasefire.) Iran’s “moderate” presidential candidate is also in favour of direct talks with the US to resolve the nuclear issue and there is a precedent for this: it is alleged that Rafsanjani was one of many Iranian politicians who got involved in ‘Irangate’, the secret deal with the Reagan administration which saw Iran being sold arms despite an embargo.7
Although it is unlikely that the Council of Guardians – the religious body responsible for vetting election candidates – will find sufficient reason to eliminate Rafsanjani from standing in the June elections, there are no guarantees that he would get sufficient votes, real or ‘engineered’, to win.
Now that his nomination is in, every one of his recent and not so recent statements is being analysed and it is clear that, like every other serious candidate (‘reformist’, ‘moderate’ or principlist conservative), he is advocating a U-turn as far as the nuclear issue is concerned. This is, above all, a victory for the United States, which it will use to demonstrate that sanctions against ‘third-rate rogue states’ work. Although we in Hands Off the People of Iran have always opposed Iran’s nuclear programme, we refuse to join those celebrating the US victory in bringing a country to its knees.
Iranians have paid a heavy price for the foolish policies of their leaders. Sanctions have immiserated the working class, impoverished the middle class, made the already disastrous unemployment situation even worse and caused spiralling inflation, currently estimated at above 32% by the Islamic parliament’s economic commission. As we predicted – in a neoliberal religious dictatorship, where the clergy and Islamic revolutionary guards are the main beneficiaries of privatisation – ‘targeted sanctions’ against the ‘rulers of the country’ are in fact sanctions against the entire population: 70 million Iranians are now facing the consequences of a deliberate, callous policy by a superpower to assert its authority. Yet most Iranians believe worse is yet to come – fear of becoming ‘another Iraq or Syria’ dominates people’s minds and that is one explanation why so many are willing to forget Rafsanjani’s horrific record.
Iran’s richest man is no friend of the Iranian working class. According to an updated biography on the BBC website, “Mr Rafsanjani has close links to Iranian industry and business … He was featured in the ‘Millionaire mullahs’ section of the Forbes Rich List in 2003”.8 Most of this fortune was accumulated after 1979, although he denies the fact that his political connections were in any way used to help him.
So far Rafsanjani has given no clue as to his economic plans, but his record is clear. He implemented the free market, privatisation and deregulation. Since Rafsanjani’s presidency, economic policy has been based on a reduction in government spending, itself fuelling inflation, as successive governments printed money to finance deficits and worsened the imbalance in foreign trade by encouraging imports and overall economic dependence on a single product: oil. It was immediately after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and during Rafsanjani’s presidency that the government started subsidising foreign goods to the benefit of the urban rich, while allocating resources to commerce and finance at the expense of production. So we can expect more of the same if Rafsanjani is returned to power. In other words, for all the promises of saving the economy, the nation and the Islamic republic, the population can expect better times for the rich but even worse times for the poor.
Rafsanjani is a firm supporter of the Islamic regime’s constitution and therefore believes democratic rights should be limited to those who support the current order. In the early 2000s he came in for a lot of criticism from the ‘reformist’ media inside Iran. In a series of articles, later published as a book, former revolutionary guard Akbar Ganji called him the “red eminence”9 – a reference to cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s prime minister, who was supposed to be a ruthless politician more powerful than the king. During Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), Ganji and others in the ‘reformist media’ presented Rafsanjani as the man behind the “serial political murders” of writers and intellectuals.10
In 2009, his lukewarm protest against the incarceration of ‘reformist’ activists and leaders angered the supreme leader and lost him his post as chairman of the powerful assembly of experts. Even then his proclamations were limited to ‘moderate’ statements on the poor state of some of Iran’s jails and the fact that the ‘reformists’ did not deserve quite such harsh treatment.
Let me stress that principlist candidates also want ‘meaningful negotiations’ with the US. In fact, now that the crippling effects of sanctions is recognised by all, it is no surprise that they too are promising a speedy resolution of the nuclear issue.
Sections of the principlist factions have been in discussions to support a common candidate. However, continued ideological disagreements, as well as uncertainty about the calibre of the likely ‘reformist’ opponent, meant that they failed to come up with a single name, or at least just fewer candidates.
There is a Jewish joke about the propensity of Jews to fall out over religious issues, leading to one split after another: if there are two Jews in a village, they will need a synagogue each. Shia Muslims are exactly the same, it seems – the more religious they are, the more inflexible they appear to be regarding both theological and in consequence political matters. In Iran’s parliament we have the Principlist faction (not to be confused with the principlists), the Stability Front of the Islamic Revolution and five other major principlist groups. Since Rafsanjani’s surprise registration, there is talk of the supporters of Mohammad Qalibaf, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Ali Fallahian and Saeed Jalili trying to come up with a name. However, many doubt that all the conservative factions will be prepared to withdraw their candidates.
As for the current president, now totally at odds with the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad has over the last few months made a number of provincial visits accompanied by his relative and ‘heir apparent’, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. These unofficial pre-election occasions were mocked by state press and media loyal to Khamenei, especially when it became clear that very few people were attending. Going for smaller venues did not help much – there were lots of empty seats even when they were held in somewhere less ambitious than Tehran’s Azadi stadium, where the first such meeting was held. MPs in the majles (Islamic parliament) accuse Ahmadinejad of using state funds to pay for what they allege amounts to a countrywide election tour for Mashaei.
Over the last few months principlist/conservative MPs have tried on a number of occasions to dismiss the president or his close allies in the government. Whereas in 2009, at the height of the protest movement, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the full support of the conservative/principlist factions, today less than four years later, he and his supporters are openly called the “deviant faction”, mainly because Ahmadinejad believes Mashaei’s claims to have a special relationship with the 12th Shia Imam (who fell down a well 13 centuries ago and is soon going to be resurrected to save the world). This has led some prominent ayatollahs to call him a heretic – the claim is totally abhorrent to supporters of the supreme leader, who is, after all, the only human being capable of communicating with the imam. But, trying to broaden his appeal, Mashaei also claims to be a nationalist. He and Ahmadinejad have actually been promoting Iranianism over and above Islam – in 2010 Mashaei claimed that without Iran Islam would be lost and other Islamic countries feared Iran, which upheld the only “truthful” version of Islam.
However, like Rafsanjani and the principlists, Mashaei is also keen on improving relations with the US and Israel. In fact he has gone further than anyone else on the subject of Iran-Israel relations, making comments that have angered senior clerics: Iranians are “friends of all people in the world – even Israelis”, he said.11 A phrase that lost him his job as vice-president. In the early years of Ahmadinejad’s second term the conservative factions in parliament and powerful supporters of Khamenei tried their best to convince Ahmadinejad to distance himself from Mashaei, but he refused. This produced a conservative backlash. The head of the revolutionary guards, general Hassan Firouzabadi, branded Mashaei’s comments a “crime against national security”, while a senior ayatollah claimed that “equating the school of Iran and the school of Islam amounts to pagan nationalism”.12
To add insult to injury, on May 11 the Iranian president accompanied Mashaei to the ministry of the interior to register him as a candidate. As they were making their way to the relevant office, a scuffle broke out between Ahmadinejad’s entourage and conservative MP Hassan Ghadiri. The set-to was photographed on a mobile phone and immediately posted on Facebook. Then, to make matters worse, before Mashaei took the microphone to address his first election press conference as a candidate, Ahmadinejad, unaware a microphone was live, could be heard next to him whispering: “Say the president is on leave today”. Of course, Mashaei obliged and started the press conference exactly as instructed. Again this gaffe was filmed on YouTube and made it to most news broadcasts.13 If this was not enough, the guardian council announced on May 12 that it might charge Ahmadinejad with violating electoral rules by accompanying his protégée to the interior ministry.14
A total of 686 candidates have registered. No doubt the guardian council will reduce that to half a dozen or so. However, because of the large number, the council says the process may require more time.
First to be struck off will be the 30 women who have put themselves forward, unless they manage to prove to the guardian council that they have gone through transgender operations in the last few days. Iran’s Islamic constitution is quite clear on this. According to article 115, “The president must be elected from among religious and political male personalities (the Arabic word rejal is used) possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past record; trustworthiness and piety; belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country”.15
As if this vetting process were not enough for the religious rulers, they have other tricks up their sleeve. Following accusations of election- rigging in 2009, the Iranian regime has come up with a new term for state interference in the electoral process, which is now openly talked about as a possibility. In January one of Khamenei’s representatives, Hojat Al-Islam Saeedi, said that it was the responsibility of the revolutionary guards to “rationally and logically engineer the elections”.16
There is considerable enthusiasm for Rafsanjani amongst the reformist left – all his past sins seem to have been forgotten. It is true that the threat of war against Iran persists; sanctions, another form of war, have paralysed the economy; the smell of partition is in the air; and the country is on the edge of a precipice. However, we should remind all those who believe Rafsanjani’s claim that better relations with the US will end the sanctions and the threat of war that there are two sides to this equation. The US and its allies have their own reasons for continued confrontation, especially at a time of severe economic crisis, irrespective of which ayatollah is in control.
Rafsanjani is a class enemy. We have the responsibility to remind everyone that the leaders of the Green movement, including Rafsanjani, acted like the grand old duke of York and there is no reason to believe they will behave differently this time. In fact this time there is a difference: in order to avoid upsetting the supreme leader, Rafsanjani does not want to encourage any mass protests. As one website put it, “Rafsanjani hopes to revive the enthusiasm of the 2009 election … minus the demonstrations!”17
It is not surprising that none of the candidates in Iran’s presidential elections, even before the vetting has weeded out those considered untrustworthy, mentions unemployment, mass non-payment of wages, ‘white contracts’ for temporary jobs and other issues that affect the majority of Iran’s population, the working class and the poor. If you read the various election manifestos issued in the last few days in Tehran, you would think that inflation, sanctions and the terrible economic conditions only affect the middle classes and the wealthy. In an election already known to be prone to “engineering” by revolutionary guards, where only male supporters of an Islamic constitution can become candidates, the genuine left has only one option: to boycott the elections and continue the call for the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime, together with all its myriad factions and tendencies.
For all the claims that these elections will ‘save Iran from the abyss’, improve relations with the outside world and end sanctions, three of the prominent candidates – Rafsanjani, Velayati and Fallahian – were implicated in the Mykonos trials18 of those accused of murdering Kurdish Democratic Party leaders in Berlin in 1982. Rafsanjani was president, Velayati foreign minister and Fallahian intelligence minister. So it is possible that Iran will end up with a president wanted by Interpol and incapable of travelling to many western countries. These factions might be at war with each other now, but let us not forget that were united in crime not that long ago.
Having said all that, it is very likely that protests against the guardian council’s vetting or vote-rigging, as in 2009, will cause anger and protests in Tehran and other large Iranian cities. We should not ignore such protests – boycotting the elections does not mean boycotting those who, in desperation, will try and vote for the ‘least worst’ candidate.
Let me start with a proposition that should by now be a matter of general knowledge: the totality of Jews do not constitute a nation in the modern sense of this term; nor have they been a nation in any contemporary meaningful sense for well over 2,000 years.
The only attribute common to all Jews is Judaism, the Jewish religion, encoded in the Hebrew-cum-Aramaic language of its sacred texts and liturgy. The only way in which a non-Jew – a person whose mother was not Jewish – can become a Jew is by religious conversion; and a Jew who converts to another religion is no longer regarded as a Jew (except by racists, who believe in the false doctrine of race). There is, of course, such a thing as secular Jewish identity: in other words, there are people not practising Judaism or believing in its god, but who regard themselves and are regarded by others as Jews. But outside Israel – I will return to this significant exception later on – secular Jewish identity tends to dissipate after two or three generations: it normally no longer pertains to persons who do not practise Judaism, and none of whose parents and grandparents practised this religion.
Of course, some Jewish communities have, or used to have, common secular cultural or social attributes, such as a communal language of everyday discourse, a literature in this language and a distinctive musical tradition. But these attributes differ as between communities. Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish (a German dialect), Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Iraqi Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic.
The fact that the Jews are not a single nation or ‘people’ has been popularised by Shlomo Sand’s book The invention of the Jewish people.1 Actually, Sand did not claim he was disclosing original or new discoveries; he merely put together what was quite well known, but not so widely recognised. Indeed, anti-Zionists had long ago argued that the Jews do not constitute a nation in the modern sense (current since the French Revolution).2 It was simply a matter of dispelling the misconception fostered by Zionist ideology: the myth that Jews all over the world are a single ancient nation, forcibly exiled from its ancient homeland, the Land of Israel, to which it is ‘returning’, thanks to the Zionist project of ‘ingathering of the exiles’.
A Jewish nation that perished
Yet this Zionist myth had a degree of verisimilitude, because it was partly based on fact; a fallacious generalisation of a particular reality. By the second half of the 19th century, the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim in the Russian empire and its immediate periphery did constitute a nation or quasi-nation, with its own Yiddish language, vibrant culture, secular literature, music and (by the end of that century) organised working class, led by the Jewish Bund. (The Bundists did not have to invent a new Yiddish culture: they simply invested it with proletarian content.) This quasi-national group did not, of course, encompass the entirety of world Jewry, but did comprise a considerable majority of it.3
The Bund, the foremost Jewish workers’ organisation in the Russian empire, was formed in 1897. A year later, when it helped to found the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, it demanded, and was initially granted, the right to be an autonomous national section within the new party. In the 1903 second congress of the RSLDP, the majority (Bolshevik) faction, led by Lenin, had that right revoked, and the Bund thereupon split from the RSDLP. (It rejoined the party at the 1906 6th Congress, in which the Bolshevik faction was a minority.) Among Lenin’s arguments was the claim that the Jews were not a nation. In support of this claim he quoted “one of the most prominent of Marxist theoreticians”, Karl Kautsky, as well as the anti-Zionist radical French Jew, Alfred Naquet.4
However, Lenin’s polemic on this particular point is somewhat misplaced: Kautsky and Naquet argue, in effect, that the totality of all Jews is not a nation. But the Bund had no need for such an overarching, and indeed false, notion. It was not concerned with world Jewry, but only with the Jewish workers in the Russian empire, as its full name made clear: General Jewish Labour Bund (Federation) of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Kautsky and Naquet based their denial of Jewish nationhood on the observation that world Jewry lacks a common language and is not territorially localised. But the Jews with whom the Bund was concerned did have their own distinct language, Yiddish. And, while they were not a majority of the population in a single, contiguous territory, they did not differ very much in this respect from some other national groups in the mosaic of eastern Europe, where nationhood tended to be primarily a linguistic-cultural category.
Moreover, Yiddish-speakers did form a high proportion of the population in quite a few towns and cities, mostly clustered in the western parts of the Russian empire. This was documented by the Russian imperial census of 1897. Note that in the census summary tables ‘nationality’ was based on the declared mother language of respondents. The census recorded a little over five million Yiddish speakers, constituting some four percent of the total population. The census also classified respondents by religion; and, according to this classification, the Jews were 4.15% of the total, presumably because some Jews (mostly outside the Pale of Settlement) were linguistically assimilated.5
Let us look at the percentage of Jews in the population of some selected cities.6
Kovno (Kaunas) 36
Wilno (Vilnius) 41
Kishinev (Chișinău) 43
Clearly, it was quite possible for Jews living in those areas to interact mainly with members of their own community, in their own language. So it is hardly surprising that many of them regarded themselves, and were widely regarded by others, as a national group. (Indeed, Lenin’s contrary view notwithstanding, Jews in the USSR were classed as a national group, and were officially registered as such in the ‘nationality’ rubric of the ID document that each Soviet citizen had to carry.)
Of course, this quasi-nation no longer exists: most of it perished in the Nazi genocide, and the remainder largely dispersed. But a considerable majority of present-day Jews around the world are its relics and descendants, and still carry in their collective memory a lingering sense of a national identity, which, while no longer based on actual reality, did have a real basis in the not too distant past.
Western Jews’ opposing view
While many Jews living in, or recently migrated from, eastern Europe around 1900 tended to regard Jewishness as a national category, members of the long-established Jewish communities in western Europe and the US tended to view matters quite differently, due to their very different experience. They shared their non-Jewish compatriots’ language of everyday discourse and secular culture. And, unlike their east European coreligionists, in most western countries they had won legal equality. In the US Jews had equal rights since 1789, and the French Revolution emancipated the Jews in 1791. This was extended to other west European countries during the 19th century (Napoleon freed the Jews in the countries he conquered). In the UK, the process was – as you would expect – gradual, and Jews achieved full legal equality relatively late, under the 1858 Oath Bill.7
The deal in 1791 revolutionary France was that Jews would be equal citizens of France, as members of the French nation. They would, of course, be perfectly free to practise their distinct religion. This kind of deal was emulated elsewhere – and it was a tremendous achievement, which its beneficiaries were loath to lose. To most of them the idea, propagated by anti-Semites and Zionists, of a separate, worldwide Jewish nation was anathema.
I referred earlier to Lenin’s polemic, in which he invokes Alfred Naquet against the Bund. Here is the relevant quote from Lenin’s article
A French Jew, the radical Alfred Naquet, says practically the same thing [as Kautsky – MM], word for word, in his controversy with the anti-Semites and the Zionists.8 “If it pleased Bernard Lazare,” he writes of the well-known Zionist, “to consider himself a citizen of a separate nation, that is his affair; but I declare that, although I was born a Jew … I do not recognise Jewish nationality … I belong to no other nation but the French … Are the Jews a nation? Although they were one in the remote past, my reply is a categorical negative.“The concept nation implies certain conditions which do not exist in this case. A nation must have a territory on which to develop, and, in our time at least, until a world confederation has extended this basis, a nation must have a common language. And the Jews no longer have either a territory or a common language … Like myself, Bernard Lazare probably did not know a word of Hebrew, and would have found it no easy matter, if Zionism had achieved its purpose, to make himself understood to his co-racials [congénères] from other parts of the world.
“German and French Jews are quite unlike Polish and Russian Jews. The characteristic features of the Jews include nothing that bears the imprint [empreinte] of nationality. If it were permissible to recognise the Jews as a nation, as Drumont does, it would be an artificial nation. The modern Jew is a product of the unnatural selection to which his forebears were subjected for nearly 18 centuries.”
This argumentation was echoed a few years later by leading members of the established Jewish community in Britain against the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann – who was to be the first president of Israel – was born in 1874 near Pinsk (a city where Jews were nearly three quarters of the total population, as we have seen). From 1904 he was senior lecturer in chemistry at the university of Manchester, where he invented an industrial process for producing acetone – a crucial input for manufacturing the explosive, cordite, which played an important role in World War I. During that war, he was active lobbying the British government for a charter whereby Zionist colonisation of Palestine would proceed under British protection. (This charter was eventually granted on November 2 1917. It is known as the Balfour Declaration and was included verbatim in the text of the Palestine mandate granted to Britain in June 1922 by the League of Nations.)
When Lucien Wolf, distinguished journalist and leading member of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews, was confronted with Weizmann’s project, he wrote a worried letter to James de Rothschild, dated August 31 1916:
Dear Mr James de Rothschild
At the close of our conference with Dr Weizmann on the 17th inst, you asked me to write you a letter defining my view …
I have thought over very carefully the various statements made to me by Dr Weizmann, and, with the best will in the world, I am afraid I must say that there are vital and irreconcilable differences of principles and method between us.
The question of principle is raised by Dr Weizmann’s assertion of a Jewish nationality. The assertion has to be read in the light of the authoritative essay on ‘Zionism and the Jewish future’ recently published by Mr Sacher, more especially those written by Dr Weizmann himself and by Dr Gaster. I understand from these essays that the Zionists do not merely propose to form and establish a Jewish nationality in Palestine, but that they claim all the Jews as forming at the present moment a separate and dispossessed nationality, for which it is necessary to find an organic political centre, because they are and must always be aliens in the lands in which they now dwell (Weizmann, p6), and, more especially, because it is “an absolute self-delusion” to believe that any Jew can be at once “English by nationality and Jewish by faith” (Gaster, pp92-93).
I have spent most of my life in combating these very doctrines, when presented to me in the form of anti-Semitism, and I can only regard them as the more dangerous when they come to me in the guise of Zionism. They constitute a capitulation to our enemies, which has absolutely no justification in history, ethnology or the facts of everyday life, and if they were admitted by the Jewish people as a whole, the result would only be that the terrible situation of our coreligionists in Russia and Romania would become the common lot of Jewry throughout the world.9
And on May 24 1917, as negotiations that were to lead to the Balfour Declaration were at an advanced stage, Alexander and Claude Montefiori, presidents respectively of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and of the Anglo-Jewish Association, wrote a letter to TheTimes in the name of the Conjoint Committee of these two bodies, protesting against the fallacies and dangers of political Zionism. After declaring their adherence to Lucien Wolf’s position, the writers went on to say that“establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine, founded on the theory of Jewish homelessness, must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands and of undermining their hard-won positions as citizens and nationals of those lands”.
They point out that the theories of political Zionism undermined the religious basis of Jewry to which the only alternative would be “a secular Jewish nationality, recruited on some loose and obscure principle of race and of ethnographic peculiarity”.
They went on:
But this would not be Jewish in any spiritual sense, and its establishment in Palestine would be a denial of all the ideals and hopes by which the survival of Jewish life in that country commends itself to the Jewish conscience and Jewish sympathy. On these grounds the Conjoint Committee of the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association deprecates earnestly the national proposals of the Zionists.The second part in the Zionist programme which has aroused the misgivings of the Conjoint Committee is the proposal to invest the Jewish settlers [in Palestine] with certain special rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population …
In all the countries in which Jews live the principle of equal rights for all religious denominations is vital to them. Were they to set an example in Palestine of disregarding this principle, they would convict themselves of having appealed to it for purely selfish motives. In the countries in which they are still struggling for equal rights they would find themselves hopelessly compromised … The proposal is the more inadmissible because the Jews are and probably long will remain a minority of the population of Palestine, and might involve them in the bitterest feuds with their neighbours of other races and religions, which would severely retard their progress and find deplorable echoes thought the orient.10
A new Hebrew nation
As the Zionist colonisation of Palestine proceeded – beginning with the first aliyah (Jewish immigration) of 1882-1903 and the second aliyah of 1904-14; and then, following World War I, gathering momentum under British protection – a new Hebrew settler nation was forming in that country.
There is nothing exceptional about this. As a general rule, colonisation where the settlers’ economy did not depend on the labour-power of the indigenous people led to the formation of a new settler nation; think, for example, of North America or Australia. The only exceptional feature of the Hebrew settler nation is that Zionist ideology denies its distinct nationhood. As we have seen, according to this ideology the settlers are part of a pre-existing Jewish nation, encompassing all Jews everywhere. For this reason the self-awareness of this nation is schizophrenic. At the informal everyday level, persons who are not Jews according to the rabbinical definition, but are socially and culturally integrated in Hebrew society, are regarded – at least by secular Hebrews – as belonging to this new nation; but according to the dominant ideology they cannot be accepted as such.11 To borrow Marx’s distinction regarding the different senses of the term ‘class’, the Hebrew nation is a nation an sich (in itself) but not quite für sich (for itself).
Ironically, bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist Palestinian ideology mirrors its Zionist counterpart in denying the existence of a new Hebrew nation. It finds it difficult to come to terms with the existence of this nation and prefers to conceptualise it as a confessional Jewish community, similar in kind to (albeit larger than) Jewish minorities that existed for centuries in the Arab world, which were indeed essentially confessional communities. This conception is encoded in the formula, “secular, democratic Palestine, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims will live in equality and without discrimination”, proposed for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.12
However, readiness to step outside these ideologies will lead anyone familiar with the realities on the ground to conclude that a new Hebrew nation has indeed come into being. The first to do so were the Young Hebrews (better known as ‘Canaanites’, as they were pejoratively labelled by Zionists, who rightly regarded their views as heretical). This was a group of artists and writers that formed in 1939 a Committee for Consolidation of the Hebrew Youth. Although its rightwing Hebrew nationalism found little political acceptance, this group had a major impact on modern Hebrew literature and art.13
The Young Hebrews were by no means the first to designate the settler community in Palestine as ‘Hebrew’. This term was in fact commonly used by the Zionists themselves, who, while refusing to accept that this community was a distinct new nation, were quite willing to recognise its distinctiveness and newness – albeit as part of the alleged worldwide Jewish nation. Let me give a few examples of this common usage.
It is widely known that the pre-1948 settler community in Palestine was referred to as the ‘Yishuv’. But as a matter of fact the full term used at the time was the ‘Hebrew Yishuv’ (or, less commonly, the ‘new Yishuv’) – as distinct from the ‘old Yishuv’, the pre-Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land. The first Zionist feminist organisation in Palestine, founded in 1919, called itself the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Yisrael.14 The notorious Zionist campaign for excluding Arab workers from employment in the settler economy was conducted under the slogan “Hebrew Labour!” And I remember witnessing, as a young boy growing up in Tel-Aviv during the rift between the Zionist movement and the British government, mass Zionist demonstrations in which the main slogans displayed and chanted were “Aliah hofshit!” (free Jewish immigration) and “Medinah Ivrit!” (Hebrew state!).
Of special significance is the usage in a quintessentially Zionist text, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, promulgated on May 14 1948. In its two references to the settler community, the Hebrew text of this document uses the term, “Hebrew Yishuv”:
In World War II, the Hebrew Yishuv in this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations …Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Hebrew Yishuv and of the Zionist movement, … hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.
Even more significantly, in the official English translation, provided by Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, the term “Hebrew Yishuv”, which I italicised in this quotation, is falsely rendered as “the Jewish community”.15
‘Nation-state of the Jewish people’
This fudge – or, let me call a spade a spade: falsification – in the translation of a key document is not accidental. Since 1948, Zionists have been increasingly reluctant to use the term ‘Hebrew’ in referring to the so-called ‘Israeli Jews’ and have preferred the latter term. This terminological back-pedalling has a definite ideological, political and propagandist purpose.
It is well known that Israel defines itself officially as a “Jewish and democratic state”: this is enshrined in constitutional legislation adopted by the knesset.16 But most people are not fully aware of the import of this formula. It is widely recognised by critics of Israel that this official definition privileges its Jewish citizens and relegates its Palestinian Arab citizens – approximately one fifth of its population – to an inferior status. This is true, but by no means the whole truth. What the formula is intended to mean is that Israel is a state of the entire Jewish ‘nation’: not just of its own Jewish citizens, but of all Jews everywhere.
To prevent any ambiguity, it is now proposed to enact a basic law declaring Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.17 Moreover, senior Israeli politicians have already made it abundantly clear that any accord between Israel and the Palestinians must be based on acceptance of this formula. Thus, Ron Prossor, Israel’s envoy to the UN, asserted on April 26 2013 that “peace must be built on a clear recognition that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people”.18
So Israel officially presumes to be the state not only of Binyamin Netanyahu but, willy-nilly, also ‘of’ Ed Miliband and Michael Howard, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, as well as Alan Dershowitz.
Clearly, to promote this breathtaking pretension it is necessary to repress Hebrew identity, suppress any reference to it, and blur the distinction between it and Jewishness at large.
This political and ideological strategy is by no means new. In the May 1967 issue of Matzpen – the last one to appear before the June war – I published an article entitled ‘New premises for a false conclusion’, whose English translation is included in my book.19 This was a polemic against the leading Zionist historian and ideologue, Yigal Elam, who proposed exactly this strategy. Begging the reader’s indulgence, let me quote from my 46-year-old article:
The kernel of Zionism [according to Elam] is “the linkage of the State of Israel to the Jewish people … It is only this linkage that gives the State of Israel a sense and a raison d’être; it is only from this linkage that it developed, and only with this linkage can it exist and sustain itself in the world’s consciousness.” Israel is a Zionist state so long as it is not a political instrument of its inhabitants, but of all the world’s Jews; and the world’s Jews must be harnessed for pro-Israel activity …
He therefore proposes that Israel’s Zionist character be given an official, constitutional and institutional expression:
“The State of Israel will be accepted as the political project of the Jewish people, in the domain of responsibility of the Jewish people everywhere. This means that responsibility for the State of Israel and for whatever happens in it will not be confined to the citizens living within its borders. The Israelis will have to assert this issue in their constitution and give it immediate institutional expression (original emphasis).”
In order to secure the “permanent linkage between the Jewish people and the State of Israel” Elam proposes the following two institutions: (a) a written constitution that will proclaim the linkage between the State of Israel and the Jewish people; (b) a senate, in which the Jews of the diaspora will sit, and which will act alongside the knesset and will be empowered to prevent or delay legislation that is contrary to the constitution of the State of Israel or to Jewish public opinion around the world.
To the objection that it is unacceptable for the destiny of a country to be decided by those living abroad, Elam has a ready response: this is nothing new; this is precisely what Zionism has always practised. Indeed, the colonisation of Palestine was carried out without consulting its inhabitants, so the very existence of the Zionist state is based from the start on the premise that the destiny of Palestine ought to be determined not by its inhabitants, but by the entire Jewish people.20
The background to this proposed strategy was a crisis of Zionism in the period just before the 1967 June war: Jewish immigration had dwindled to a trickle, and the Zionist leadership was worried that in the long run Israel’s small size would turn the balance of power between it and the Arab world to its disadvantage.
Following the 1967 war, Israel greatly expanded its territorial domain, and has gained a large inflow of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. But it is now ruling over a Palestinian Arab population of roughly the same size as its Hebrew citizenry; and the sources of potential new Jewish immigration seem to be virtually exhausted. So the long-term anxiety about an adverse change in the balance of power is still haunting Zionist strategists. Plus ça change …
Politics of the two identities
In some progressive circles in the Jewish diaspora there are attempts to promote an alternative Jewish identity – secular and non-Zionist, in some cases pointedly anti-Zionist. I assume that this is motivated partly by nostalgia for the murderously extinguished progressive and proletarian tradition of east European Jewry, and partly by outrage at Israel’s pretension to speak and act for all Jews and thus implicate them in its misdeeds.
It is not my business to tell those who pursue such an alternative identity how to define themselves. It is entirely up to them. Even nostalgia is a legitimate sentiment (although, alas, it is no longer what it used to be …). And a progressive Jewish identity deployed against Zionist propaganda certainly plays a positive role.
But I believe that diasporic Jewish secular identity does not have a long-term future, because it lacks an objective basis. The condition of Jews in virtually all parts of the diaspora are not at all like those in eastern Europe around 1900, but more like – in fact, considerably more advanced than – those reflected in the quotes from Naquet, Wolf and the Montefioris. Jews enjoy equal rights, are well integrated in their respective homelands, speak the languages of their compatriots and have no separate culture. There are, of course, famous Jewish authors, writing ‘Jewish’ novels; but these are part of the general culture of their linguistic communities, just like the English novels of immigrant writers from the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, as I noted before, secular Jewish identity in the diaspora tends to dissipate within a very few generations.
Turning now to Hebrew national identity, it should be clear from my earlier discussion that I think it is very real and – at least potentially – a positive counter to Zionism. The Hebrew nation exists, and those who deny this fact are misguided by ideology. There are also some who claim that this nation is an oppressor not just due to present circumstances, which are mutable, but inherently and inexorably. I find this view quite mistaken. It is no truer of the Hebrew nation than of its American or Australian counterparts.
I think it is vital to recognise this fact, because no eventual benign democratic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be possible unless it is acceptable to a considerable majority – primarily the working class – of both national groups; and a precondition for this is recognition of their national existence, and right to exist on equal terms.
What a nation finds acceptable depends, of course, to a large extent on real objective circumstances. Under present conditions no benign resolution of the conflict is possible, because the balance of power is so overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour that what a large majority of Hebrews find acceptable falls far short of what can be acceptable to the Palestinian masses. Yet, even given Israel’s massive power, and despite the brutality of its attempts to impose an unjust outcome on the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nation of which they are a component part, it is unable to achieve this. The strong do what they can, yet the weak can still resist so long as they are alive. Only a total massacre can eliminate their resistance.
And even if the balance of power were to be totally reversed – a very big ‘if’ – the Hebrew masses would resist to the death any attempt to deny their nationhood or subjugate them as a nation. This is not an outcome that socialists ought to advocate.
I have outlined elsewhere a socialist resolution of the conflict, so I need not expand on it here.21 Suffice it to say that it looks beyond the narrow box of Palestine to a regional revolution that will overthrow Zionism as well as the oppressive Arab regimes and establish a socialist Arab east, within which both Palestinian Arab and Hebrew national groups can be accommodated by democratic consent and on equal terms.
1. Translated by Yael Lotan, London 2009.
2. Matzpen’s long-held view on this is reiterated in my 2006 public lecture Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution, included as chapter 33 in my book by the same title (Chicago 2012). See also the review of Sand’s book in chapter 32.
3. It is estimated that before World War II over 90% of all Jews were Ashkenazim (see S DellaPergola, ‘Demography’ in Encyclopaedia Judaica Philadelphia 2006, table 2. Also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazim). At the end of the 19th century a large majority of Ashkenazim were in the Russian empire and its periphery, although from about 1888 there was mass migration of Jews from that part of the world to the US and elsewhere.
8. Lenin is quoting from Alfred Naquet’s article, ‘Drumont and Bernard Lazare’, published on September 24 1903 in the Paris La Petite République. Édouard Drumont was founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France.
9. Photocopy of typewritten original in B Destani (ed) The Zionist movement and the foundation of Israel 1839-1972, Cambridge 2004, Vol 1, p727.
16. Passed in 1985 as amendment 9, clause 7a to the Basic law: the Knesset 1958. Israel has no written constitution, but ‘basic laws’ are supposed to be elements of a future constitution and have constitutional force.
19. Israelis and Palestinians (op cit), chapter 18.
20. Elam’s words quoted and paraphrased above are from his article, ‘New premises for the same Zionism’ Ot No2, winter 1967. Ot, of which Elam was an editor, was an official journal of the Labour Alignment.
Over the weekend of May 4-5 Israel launched air raids against targets in Syria. Yassamine Mather and Moshé Machover, two members of the Hands Off the People of Iran steering committee, discuss the issues raised by this latest development
YM: The two Israeli air raids into Syrian territory have to be looked at in the context of the current Syrian civil war and realignment of regional powers. However, there is an Iranian dimension to all this. According to some Iranian military strategists, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to appropriate either Syria or Khuzestan [in southern Iran], the priority is that we keep Syria.”1
According to ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most senior foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, “Syria has a very basic and key role in the region of promoting firm policies of resistance … for this reason an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”2
Until May 4-5, there could have been no doubt that, in the event of a military attack by US or Israeli forces, Iran’s first line of defence would be a retaliation against Israel using Hezbollah, who in turn would rely on Syrian military support. The Israeli bombings have clearly changed the situation and weakened Iran’s position considerably. What do you think? Am I right or is this a very Iran-centric analysis?
MM: You can regard these air raids as a narrow intervention in the Syria civil war, but this is not the way to understand their wider significance. If you look at it only in this way, it appears very paradoxical. If it was aimed at helping the forces opposed to president Bashar al-Assad, there was no logic to it.
First of all, it compromises the Syrian opposition, which is very heterogeneous. Some elements are genuine popular forces, others are supported from the outside by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and indirectly by the US. Those sponsors don’t mind collaborating with Israel, but the forces on the ground, even the forces supported by Qatar, the Islamists, are not happy being in a common front with Israel. In this respect, it gives Assad a means to denigrate the opposition and he has taken it. So this is not the context in which to understand the logic of these attacks.
I think that context is a wider regional one. Israel is doing everything it possibly can to widen the confrontation and there are several reasons for this. A couple of weeks ago there was a hoo-ha about weapons of mass destruction, specifically poison gas. The Israeli intelligence agency alleged that poison gas had been used, knowing that president Barack Obama had said this was a “red line” for intervention. Clearly the intention was to draw Obama into a more direct intervention in Syria: in other words, to widen the confrontation.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not working hand in hand with the Obama administration, but with some more rightwing forces in the US. The announcement about poison gas was very much welcomed by senator John McCain and various other rightwing elements. It turns out that Obama and his administration were not very keen to take up this infringement of the “red line”. (Let me add there is no serious proof about the use of poison gas: it isn’t clear how much was used and who actually used it. There are even reports that it was sections of the opposition who were responsible.)
This attempt to widen the conflict failed, so now Israel has embarked on a new adventure. Following the weekend attacks, all commentators are saying this was an attempt to stop Syria delivering missiles to Hezbollah. This may or may not be true. However, I don’t think this is the whole answer. The key point is that Israel is trying to widen the confrontation. This is expressed well by a cartoon I saw, showing Israeli planes spouting petrol over the flames of the civil war.
Why? I think there are two parts to this. First, there is an attempt to prevent a settlement both in Syria and more generally between the US and Iran. There are various attempts at arriving at a modus operandi in both the limited Syria context and with Iran. There is a long history of this and I don’t need to go into details about it. Some elements within the Obama administration would like to achieve a compromise and the same is true of elements of the Iranian regime, but the more hawkish circles in the US, with whom Netanyahu is allied, want to prevent it.
Israel wants to prevent it because for it an upgrading of relations between Iran and the US via a settlement of their conflict would mean that Israel loses its position as the unique and most reliable franchise-holder of US imperialism in the region. It would be a relative loss of status for Israel.
The other issue is more strategic. Netanyahu is doing everything he can to create a major conflagration in the region. I have conjectured several times that this is because he would like to use it to perpetrate massive ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and with a big war, win or lose (whether the Iranian regime were overthrown or not), that one thing can be achieved. The chances are improved if the war is widened sufficiently and if it creates regional upheavals; under those conditions it offers an effective smokescreen for ethnic cleansing.
I think this is his plan and for this he would be ready to accept casualties on the Israeli side – a real possibility for which there are already various estimates. For this strategic aim of securing Israel’s future as a Jewish ethnocracy, Netanyahu is prepared for sacrifices, as such a war would solve Zionism’s historical dilemma, the so-called ‘demographic peril’. Israel is holding occupied territories with a Palestinian population that is roughly the same size as the Israeli Hebrew population. Israel has done everything to prevent a Palestinian state; it wishes to annexe territories, but without a large Arab population. Logically, expelling a large part of the indigenous population in the West Bank would solve the demographic problem and a major regional conflict would present the opportunity. This is my interpretation: it is only a conjecture, but it relies on facts.
YM: Sections of the Iranian press are saying that Israel has accepted responsibility for, or at least hinted strongly that it was behind, the air raids. An unusual admission, but intended to provoke Iran into retaliation.
In fact, an Iranian retaliation seemed to be very likely and, let me stress, I am glad it did not materialise. It would have provided the perfect excuse for military attacks against Iran by the US and Israel. However, the fact that this did not happen is both a reflection of the weakness of the Iranian state and, indeed, an expression of the weakness of the supreme leader, Khamenei. There are two reasons for this: the terrible economic situation in Iran and the political chaos in the country.
Iran’s currency continues in free fall. Sanctions, combined with economic mismanagement, have crippled the economy. The US department of energy estimates that Iran’s oil exports fell by 27% from $95 billion in 2011 to $69 billion in 2012.3 Inflation is estimated by Iran’s central bank to be around 40% and there is a zero growth rate.4
The political situation is fraught. We are in the middle of a presidential election that was supposed to be a fait accompli. However, all predictions of the make-up of the future government are on hold, as the conflict within the regime widens. The supreme leader’s relationship with his former protégé, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is at an all-time low. Rumours circulate that Ahmadinejad was arrested for seven hours last week. The supreme leader is accusing him of trying to delay the elections. Until a couple of weeks ago, everyone expected the nomination of Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to be rejected by the Guardian Council, which would have allowed the uncontested election of a ‘principlist’ candidate loyal to the supreme leader.
This was before it became apparent that Ahmadinejad was not giving up power so easily. His determination to hold on has gone as far as threatening the very foundations of the regime. He has hinted at possession of tapes purporting to show electoral fraud in 2009 and the corruption of ‘principlist’ candidates. To add to the turmoil, in the last week before the deadline for registration of presidential candidates, two ‘reformist’ leaders, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, issued statements indicating that one of them might stand.
Candidates have to register by May 11. Those putting forward their name will be vetted by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council and no-one expects a ‘reformist’ to win. However, it is conceivable that the Israelis are concerned that the new Iranian president, whether a reformist, a ‘principlist’ or even Ahmadinejad’s favoured candidate, will move the negotiations with the ‘P5+1’ countries forward. Even some of the supreme leader’s close supporters have made conciliatory comments about the nuclear issue.
Sanctions are destroying the country and the expectation is that the presidential elections will not solve anything. One could say that Iran’s Islamic Republic is politically and economically weak and the timing of the Israeli attacks against Syria cannot be a coincidence. And, of course, when it came to the threat of war, an important weapon in Iran’s hand was Hezbollah and the potential danger it poses to Israel. The Syrian bombings allegedly destroyed deliveries of heavy artillery from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah. This is a major blow to the Islamic Republic of Iran, making it far more vulnerable to a serious attack by Israel or the United States.
MM: Let me stress that there has not been an official Israeli admission that it was responsible for the weekend’s air raids. However, Israeli military experts and other commentators have made comments which are as good as an admission. Not that there was any doubt about it anyway.
There is a little twist to this. There were two attacks. There is good reason to believe that Israel got approval from the Obama administration for the first attack, which was relatively minor. The second was a much more powerful explosion – the ground around Damascus shook. I think Israel got the green light to attack – in fact, the announcements about the May 4 attack were first made by the US. But, as so often happens, it seems that in the second attack Israel exceeded the prior agreement.
YM: On the other hand, all the current and potential candidates in Iran’s presidential election (reformists, ‘principlists’ or Ahmadinejad’s favourite, Mashaei) are united on one issue: they all want to negotiate an end to the nuclear debacle. So the question of the timing of these bombings against Syria is very indicative.
MM: Yes this timing question is very important – why now? All bourgeois commentators are happy to look at the issues country by country – Israel versus Syria and Hezbollah, etc – but they cannot see that all the issues are linked. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, with Iran and with Hezbollah – all are interconnected; and in that context the best explanation for the timing of the attacks on Syria is the forthcoming presidential election in Iran.
On Wednesday January 9 three members of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), including Sakine Cansız, a founding member of the organisation, were murdered in Paris. There are many theories about who was behind the execution-style killings and most of them relate to conspiracies to derail the current talks between the PKK and Turkey.
It could be that hard-line nationalists or Islamists within the Turkish security forces were behind the murders, although it is far more likely that Iranian or Syrian security forces, anxious about recent progress in negotiations between the Kurdish group and the Turkish state, were responsible. Iran’s security forces have already killed a number of the regime’s opponents in France and got away with it. One thing is clear: whoever was responsible for the murder of the three Kurdish activists made it look like an internal execution. PKK supporters say that in death as in life. Sakine Cansız was an equal to any of the organisation’s men. Others might argue that the ‘macho militarist’ culture of the organisation had another victim.
Although she was a loyal supporter of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, she was no ‘yes woman’. There are unconfirmed reports that she had fallen out with the leadership in the past and that her partner, Mehmet Şener, was killed in the early 1990s as a result of PKK factional infighting. But she engaged in self-criticism and was rehabilitated. Former PKK members recount an incident in the 1990s when Öcalan made fun of prisoners who had just ended a hunger strike, saying: “They sold out the revolution for a bowl of shorba [soup]”. But Sakine, who had just been released from a 13-year prison sentence, stood up against the ‘leader’ and defended the prisoners. A courageous act that, according to the same reports, actually impressed Öcalan.
PKK supporters often claim that the large number of female fighters in their ranks is testimony to the group’s determination to fight patriarchy and Cansız is quoted as saying that that women’s participation in the PKK’s armed struggle was no “token gesture”.
Critics will point out that masculinisation of women in guerrilla organisations is no path to women’s liberation and in many ways I would not disagree with this view. Having said that, Sakine’s life and her commitment to socialism have lessons for all of us. I did not know her, but, reading about her life, I was struck by the similarities with the lives of so many of the Fedayeen women fighters in Kurdistan. I felt I had known her all my life. And in a week when British left politics has been dominated by allegations of sexism in the Socialist Workers Party, it could be that the successes and mistakes of some of the Middle East’s main radical left organisations have lessons for the challenges facing women activists in leftwing European organisations.
For all the PhD theses (usually written by men with little first-hand experience or knowledge of the Fedayeen) about the plight of women in the Organisation of the Iranian People’s Fedayeen, I maintain that my experience as a candidate member, member and full cadre of the OIPFG contradicts all the stereotypical accusations. I am not implying that a militarist organisation with confused politics had overcome sexism. However, given the patriarchal, religious backdrop of the first Islamic regime in the Middle East, or in the case of eastern Turkey, given the predominance of Islamic fundamentalism, the practises of the Fedayeen in the 1980s and the PKK reveal surprising achievements regarding women’s equality. I believe these advances were achieved because members of these organisations took their politics and their commitments to revolutionary change seriously and, despite the serious flaws in their political outlook, their organisational practice was superior to that of the radical left in Europe.
No amount of reading or quoting Engels or Kollontai, no repetition of standard texts about the dual exploitation of women, can help us deal with the current debate about sexism in the SWP. One can safely assume that left activists, and certainly members of the SWP central committee, are familiar with such texts – indeed they quote them regularly and, at least on paper, there is no major difference between the opponents of sexism on the left and those they accuse of sexism. That is why in trying to find answers we might do well by looking at the limited and indeed isolated achievements of the Fedayeen and PKK. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to use the SWP fiasco to revisit the issue of sexism on the left, but the fact that this aspect has dominated internet discussions on the subject is regrettable – especially as we now have the Daily Mail lecturing us about ‘feminism’!
Of course, the specific conditions of leftwing military operations in the snowy mountains of Iran or Turkey cannot be duplicated. But it is important to establish what can be learnt from the positive and negative aspects of those experiences. This article is not concerned with the shambolic behaviour of the SWP’s CC in relation to allegations of rape (although I would say that sexism was not the cause of that particular problem – more the inevitable consequence of other shortcomings: a rudderless political outlook, lack of strategy, cronyism, and the absence of democracy). No, this article concerns the practices of the Middle Eastern left and the way those practices impact on women’s equality.
The Fedayeen imposed notoriously stringent membership conditions and, although these were often criticised by other groups, I do think the idea of recruiting ‘revolutionaries’ on the basis of a passing expression of sympathy on a demonstration or protest is far more ridiculous – unless one is only interested in membership quantity, as opposed to quality.
In order to become a member of the Fedayeen, a supporter with a reasonable understanding of its politics would have to pass one, preferably two, tests: emerging from jail with a ‘‘courageous prison record” and surviving a couple of cold winters in the battlegrounds of Kurdistan. These qualifications were obviously specific to a particular era in Iran. However, fighting capitalism in the 21st century is not a dinner party and it is certainly time for the organisations of the radical left to revisit their minimum conditions for membership. There must be happy medium between these two extremes.
Those that think they can build a serious organisation by distributing membership cards at various protests are badly mistaken. It is not surprising that members recruited on such a basis bring with them all sorts of retrograde predispositions or prejudices, including sexist attitudes. It is not surprising that such recruits are ‘impressed’ by the powerful men (or women) in the organisation they have joined.
The membership requirements of the SWP – and indeed many of the other organisations of the radical left – appear to me to be less demanding than those of a gym (you may not actually show up for a workout, but at least you have to pay your subscription). So why are we surprised when ‘yes men’ and indeed ‘yes women’ are the ones who get promoted in the SWP?
The other side of the coin is the cavalier attitude towards lethargy. For all the talk of action to bring about the overthrow of capitalism, we are not talking about a combatant membership: a large chunk of the 7,000-plus men and women who are supposed to be SWP members cannot be considered activists, let alone serious revolutionaries, so why should we expect them to have conquered sexism?
One reason why guerrilla organisations have a better record of combating sexism is because they are isolated from society. Their members do not interact within normal society. The claim that Fedayeen women activists of the 1980s were totally ‘liberated’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, there is no doubt that separation from day-to-day family tasks did present unparalleled ‘opportunities’ for women. We live in a patriarchal society and removal from it at least presents us with the possibility of creating conditions where sexism can be more easily combated.
By definition guerrilla women did not have household responsibilities. Either we were childless or those with children had their offspring looked after by parents or relatives in cities and villages far from the battlefield. We did not have any gender-specific duties, so, in that respect, living in a collective military base was to a very limited extent like living in post-revolutionary conditions. Female comrades in European leftwing organisations (maybe with the exception of a few full-timers) spend the majority of their time in a sexist environment – as wage-earners (often on lower wages than their male counterparts), as carers for children and the elderly, as unpaid workers doing housework (and, in the vast majority of cases, spending many more hours on housework than the men they live with). At the best of times it would be impossible to expect a political organisation to deal with the day-to-day discrimination women activists face in society – discrimination unrelated to party activity.
To overcome this situation there are difficult personal, social and political choices to be made and in my opinion those who put politics in command often come out of it stronger. As women, we may vent all our frustrations about sexual inequality within the political organisations to which we belong. It is certainly easy to play the role of the victim, but for a revolutionary such attitudes are cop-outs. If we are to combat sexism within our organisations, we must start by building female comrades’ self-confidence.
Women activists are often their own worst enemy when it comes to their own capabilities, organisationally and politically. On this issue we must rebel against stereotyped work. We need to consider the possibility of ditching housework and reducing care duties so that we have enough time to write articles, to participate in meetings, to organise. But many female comrades are not in a position to do so – who would look after their children? Who would care for their elderly parent? Some do not want to do so, yet all of us expect miracles from our political organisation.
Physical and mental
Even guerrilla organisations take note of the fact that there are physical differences between men and women, and some tasks are more suited to women’s physical capabilities.
However, life in a combat zone leaves little room for chivalry. Women might be issued with lighter guns and in the case of the Fedayeen, female combatants had to come to terms with the company of a dedicated male bodyguard, who would have his gun pointed to her head when they ventured into dangerous areas. This bizarre custom was meant to ensure that the organisation would never allow a female fighter to fall into the hands of the Islamic regime. Upon arrival in Kurdistan, my immediate reaction to this practice was to condemn it as an insult. But a few weeks into my stay, having heard about the kind of torture Islamic Guards reserved for communist women, I actually found it reassuring that my bodyguard would make sure I was dead rather than taken prisoner. It was a practical step taken to deal with a specific issue.
However, with the exception of this single practice, men and women wore the same uniform, performed the same tasks, were treated more or less equally in the camp, in battle and in the division of labour.
In Kurdistan, maybe because we lived so far from reality (away from capitalist commodity fetishism, away from the false modesty imposed by the Shia state) our appearance seemed to have no significance and this in itself had a liberating effect. Qualities such as the ability to debate, organise and, yes, shoot accurately, were considered far more important than looks – our military uniform did not leave much room for coquetry. Both in Kurdistan and later as the representative of the organisation abroad, I was well aware that using make-up and spending time on one’s appearance in other ways were considered serious flaws.
I know this will be frowned upon by modern feminists, but if revolutionary women are to be equal with men there must come a time when we stop becoming victims of commodity fetishism – a time when we refuse to be concerned about our appearance. Apart from anything else, this will leave us more time for politics, its theory and practice. Whether we like it or not, the inequality in terms of the time we spend on non-political tasks – be it family, housework , childcare or our appearance – does contribute to our lack of confidence. It does make us victims of a sexist culture, sexist society. It is up to us individually and collectively to change this – we cannot expect men to do it for us.
Power and sex
Throughout their clandestine life in Iranian cities, the Fedayeen banned sexual relations of any kind between members of the organisation. Both the pre-1979 Fedayeen and the PKK have been accused of executing comrades for breaking such rules, and the shah’s secret police and some on the Iranian left keep repeating the allegation that the Fedayeen would impose the death penalty for initiating a relationship with another member of the organisation. Although this allegation is completely false, the sex ban does reveal the kind of discipline considered necessary to confront the dangers presented by clandestine political activity in a police state.
Of course, such a ban would both be ridiculous and represent an interference in the private lives of comrades under any other circumstances, but there is no doubt that the left has to deal with the issue of the abuse of power by men, and occasionally women. However, the simple answer must be to combat bureaucracy, privilege and kowtowing to those in positions of power. It is wrong – and counterrevolutionary – to encourage an admiration of senior cadres simply because of the position they hold, or to promote myths about their intellectual or organisational capabilities to encourage respect for their rank. Such practices can result in a cult of personality – to the detriment of the building of a serious political organisation.
The issue is not one of sexual abuse, pure and simple (although elements of such abuse exist). It is one of unaccountable power. That is what the members and supporters of all working class organisations must constantly be on their guard against.
When is a political tribunal ‘non-political’? Hands Off the People of Iran national secretary Mark Fischer responds to the latest salvo of pro-imperialist apologetics
Hands Off the People of Iran and the Weekly Worker have been sent a document authored by Dariosh Afshar, associate member of the Iran Tribunal’s International Communications Work Group. The Iran Tribunal, set up by exiled anti-regime Iranians, was convened to investigate Tehran’s massacre of some 15,000 political prisoners in the 1980s, but has been shown by Hopi and this paper to be a body that objectively aids the US-led drive to impose – by military or other means – regime change from above on Iran.
The long, rambling and self-contradictory document, entitled ‘What the “friends of the people” are, and how they fight the social power of the people’, is presented as a response to a situation where allegedly “professor Norman Paech, a renowned and well respected German politician of Germany’s ‘Left’ party, who had earlier offered his support to Iran Tribunal, was compelled to withdraw his support …”1 Its stated aim is to refute the criticisms of the IT that soured comrade Paech’s attitude and – pursuing that – the document makes a whole series of counter-accusations against Hopi and one of its leading figures, Yassamine Mather, as well as the Weekly Worker.
We have been challenged to publish the 16,000-word document in our paper, which we have no intention of doing. However, Hopi has reproduced it on its website,2 so comrades can judge its quality for themselves, and we intend – in due course – to comprehensively unpick its amateurish dishonesty and clumsy apologetics. This article will confine itself to presenting some answers to the main political charges that Afshar – presumably with the tacit consent of other members of the IT – has laid against us.
There are other, more involved questions: for example, the funding links of individuals and organisations involved in the IT. These we will take up subsequently in a longer, more detailed reply. Here we will content ourselves with a few observations. For example, the web of influence through which imperialism pursues its global agenda is, naturally, not transparent. It is opaque, highly complex, subtle and circuitous: it is pushed forward financially, through academic patronage, personal pressure/inducement and the ideological cooption of useful dupes. Simply stating that there are no direct, bank-account-to-bank-account transactions that can be highlighted in yellow marker is an idiotic defence – or perhaps, more accurately, a defence that is designed to satisfy no-one but fools.
More often than not, the simplest questions are the most profound. So comrade Paech is to be congratulated for prompting the production of this long, self-contradictory screed with his plainly put request for clarification: “Can the tribunal take a clear position against war and sanctions?” he asked.
No it cannot, Afshar answers. More tellingly, this apologist suggests that its very nature dictates that it should not. This is because the Iran Tribunal is “non-political”, he insists. Comrades who plough through his document online will note that he returns repeatedly to this challenge and – interestingly – provides different definitions of “non-political”.
Most absurdly, he actually suggests in one place that the IT is non-political because “upholding justice and human dignity and values doesn’t mix with politics. This is one of the main elements which Yassamine Mather cannot see or appreciate.”
On two levels, it is a little difficult to respond to something as silly as this. Historically, the notion that categories such as ‘justice’ and ‘human dignity’ have not been rather hotly contested political concepts should not really detain us too long – Liberté,égalité, fraternité anyone …?
The more pertinent point here is the way contemporary imperialism promotes its interventions as ‘humanitarian’ gestures – Afshar asks whether “any war between two or more reactionary forces” has “ever been motivated, or been used as a pretext, to defend or even pretend to defend or protect human rights”. A smarter question would perhaps be – particularly since Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the second cold war – when have they not?
With this is mind, the recommendations of the IT’s second sitting (ending on October 29) make ominous reading. As others have pointed out, they sound very much like the conclusions reached by the kind of tribunals that preceded the ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the former Yugoslavia – conclusions that conveniently paved the way for the military intervention of Nato. In this context, there is an irony that this final session of the IT was staged in the Hague, where former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić is currently on trial.
Afshar’s insistence that “no-one’s political or ideological views play any role whatsoever” in the IT and that “this is absolute” assumes that his audience are morons. A tribunal – with, rather obviously, no powers whatsoever – is specifically set up to investigate the crimes of a particular regime and we are meant to believe that politics do not come into it?
What is more, the Iran Tribunal takes place against the background of sanctions, warmongering and attempts to impose regime change from above. Meanwhile, the international anti-war movement (for which Afshar consistently expresses contempt throughout his document) is very much weakened, compared to its zenith in 2003, and seems incapable of mounting a serious challenge to imperialism’s plans.
Then in this particular historical moment, the ‘non-political’ IT steps forward with its condemnation of the barbaric Tehran regime and its ear-splitting silence concerning the looming danger of another disastrous war in the region. It ignores the ongoing horror of ‘soft war’ sanctions that are fraying the fabric of Iran’s society and making life hell for ordinary people. The evasions of Afshar are worthless – it is clear whose interests are being served by his tribunal. The “absolute” ban on “political or ideological views” is meaningless: what other conclusion are we supposed to draw from the evidence than ‘something must be done’? Moreover, those participating in the stunt who supported sanctions and war had vast resources deployed daily outside the hall to make their case for them.3
The ban is exclusively directed against the left, against anti-imperialist forces – something that has been documented in some detail. For example, in two highly critical statements the Norwegian IT support committee describes how all tribunal witnesses who arrived in London on June 17 were taken to a briefing, where they were explicitly asked not to ‘raise any politics’ during their evidence. One witness wanted to challenge the tribunal and at the end of his 30-minute session made an anti-imperialist statement. Outrageously, his whole evidence was excluded from the record.
In the current world context, to remain silent on sanctions and the threat of war is to play the role of willing dupes; it is to constitute yourself as the ‘human rights’ wing of imperialism’s reactionary campaign.
Possibly the most absurd argument is Afshar’s attempt to prove that Hopi generally and Yassamine Mather specifically are in effect supporters of the Islamic regime. It is worthwhile examining his text here. A quote from comrade Mather is cited: “without clear opposition to war and sanctions, the tribunal effectively strengthens the hand of all those reactionary forces contemplating a military attack on Iran … I am a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran – but a war would be disastrous for the forces in Iran that have a real interest in democracy: the workers, women’s groups and social movements in that country.”
Absurdly this is taken to show that “Yassamine simply cannot see through her tunnel vision that there is a third force: ie, the people of Iran. They are the ultimate power who could stop any potential war by overthrowing the regime and establishing their own secular and democratic system. Being ‘a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran’ doesn’t mean that one should see the welfare and democratic aspirations of the people through maintaining the balance of power between two reactionary and warring states.”
At this point, some readers may start to doubt the man’s sanity. It is possible to fill a barn with Hopi and Mather quotes that exactly make the point that the working people of Iran are the focus of our work, our hopes for democracy and socialism – indeed the quote used by Afshar himselfdoes that. However, very quickly it becomes clear that what Afshar actually takes offence to is the anti-war component of Hopi’s work.
“Yassamine only sees the US and the rulers of IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran],” he writes, in contradiction to the words he is actually quoting. “She only worries about weakening or strengthening one or the other. People don’t come into Yassamine’s equation and have no place in her ‘anti-war’ politics. And when people do something collectively and form a social power institution such as Iran Tribunal, she smears it with lies and accusations.”
“[Mather] has focused the main part of her activism on ‘anti-war’ campaigning. Isn’t the balance of power between the USA and [Iran] the main issue with Yassamine? Doesn’t she just want to play ‘anti-war’ games within the ‘anti-imperialist camp’ of some of the mind-twisted so-called ‘Marxists’? Where do the people of Iran come into Yassamine’s active politics?”
Given world politics and relations between Israel, the US and Iran over the last few years, one might have expected that someone like Afshar (who self-defines himself as a ‘Marxist’ in the document) would see anti-war agitation and propaganda in a period like this as rather more than a ‘game’.
In truth, and despite his protestations otherwise, Afshar’s politics lend themselves to, if not active support for sanctions and the war drive, at least indifference. He imagines a scenario where “Yassamine Mather had a successful campaign and not only she prevented the war, but the sanctions were also lifted. Wouldn’t the best achieved outcome and scenario be similar to the time when Khatami or Rafsanjani had the upper hand within the Islamic Republican of Iran factions?”
In contrast, Afshar appears to see the present, dire situation in today’s Iran as preferable. The “country’s disastrous and catastrophic circumstances” mean that “all the right conditions for a revolutionary regime change are ready … The great majority of the Iranian population is faced with unprecedented harsh and unmanageable economic and living conditions, and as far as social unrest is concerned, Iran right now is a massive time bomb waiting to go off at any time …” An important source of the pressure that has produced these apparently propitious conditions for the struggle of the people of Iran is imperialism itself, of course – its vicious sanctions and the threats of a military strike.
In stark contrast, Hopi’s anti-war/anti-sanctions campaign has nothing whatsoever to do with restoring the hegemony of this or that faction in the theocracy, still less a “balance of power” between US-led imperialism and Tehran. (When on earth did that ever exist, by the way? The United States is the world’s policeman, massively more powerful militarily than its main imperialist rivals, let alone Iran). Our fight to remove the crippling sanctions (which disrupt and demoralise the working people primarily) and to stop the drive to war (which would be a disaster for ordinary people and which facilitate oppression in the here and now) is intended to give the working class and its allies the maximum space and opportunity to impose its own progressive democratic agenda.
Finally, Afshar reaches a truly bizarre conclusion about the motivations of Yassamine Mather and Hopi (comrade Mather has by now clearly become the personification of the campaign for him: any accusation he throws against her holds good for the organisation as a whole in his mind):
“Yassamine doesn’t want Iran Tribunal to succeed because she doesn’t want [Iran] to be exposed with yet another one of its horrific scandals on the international scene. The reason for this is that [Iran] has, of course, taken full advantage of the concept of being ‘anti-war’, and has marked its own devious influence by launching organisations … to act as impostors within [the anti-war movement] in order to steer and direct the whole of the ‘anti-war’ movement toward its own political advantage. As far as the ‘anti-war’ movements are concerned, the point to make should be that both the USA and Islamic Republic of Iran are reactionary forces who pursue their own agendas.”
Hopi has always said that Iran’s Islamic Republic must be held accountable for its crimes, including the massacre of political prisoners that the IT was convened to look into. Nor has Hopi ever argued that the threat of war means we should ignore or delay such investigations.4 However, to condemn the Iranian regime for its myriad crimes in the current political situation without making crystal-clear at the same time your implacable opposition to any external interference in the country, either in the form of ‘soft war’ sanctions or a military strike, is to effectively make yourself a dupe of imperialist reaction. There were plenty of them in the war in former Yugoslavia; plenty of them cheered on the assault on Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. So, despite Afshar bleating about the unique and principled nature of the Iran Tribunal, it is actually joining a very long, very disreputable line.
Lastly, two points about the IT’s final report:
1. It seems that the gagging order on the left and anti-imperialists is to be applied retrospectively even to the victims of the Islamic regime’s executions in the 1980s. It is not mentioned that many (if not the majority) of the victims were socialists and communists who would have been appalled by the pro-imperialist use their sacrifice is being put to. Not even an echo of their voices is to be allowed; not even from beyond the grave.
2. The IT’s recommendation “that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation mandate its Independent Permanent Commission of Human Rights to designate these violations a ‘priority human rights issue’ and ‘conduct studies and research’” into it is truly jaw-dropping. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is made up of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – they are being asked to monitor Iran’s human rights record!
Clearly, however, the deciding factor here is not these countries’ own democratic credentials. For example, Saudi Arabia is an undemocratic hell-hole, but it is one of the main allies of imperialism in the region. A coincidence? We think not …
Comrades in Hands Off the People of Iran do not take great pleasure in being proved right about the IT. We took a potentially controversial decision to oppose it so energetically. The only gratifying aspect of the whole affair has been that our stance has been vindicated so quickly and so completely – something rare in leftwing politics. However, the fact that important elements of the Iranian left chose to cooperate with it makes this a sad and worrying ‘victory’ for us.
3.The IT’s ‘chief prosecutor’, Payam Akhavan, is a keen supporter of sanctions on Iran. For many years, Akhavan has been pushing his sponsors’ agenda for ever harsher sanctions. He is one of the authors of the international report published by the Responsibility to Prevent Coalition, which calls for “a comprehensive set of generic remedies – smart sanctions – to combat the critical mass of threat, including threat-specific remedies for each of the nuclear, incitement, terrorist and rights-violating threats”. This 2010 report was, incidentally, also signed by Tory MP Michael Gove and Carl Gershman, president of the US-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy.
Hands Off the People of Iran remains true to its slogan, ‘No to imperialism, no to the Islamic regime’. Yassamine Mather describes the devastation and hunger inflicted on Iranians
If you want to find out what economic chaos looks like, forget about Athens or Madrid: Tehran is the capital to study.
In 2009-10 there were already signs of a serious economic crisis in Iran – low wages, mass unemployment, spiralling inflation, all helped along by privatisation. That was when we saw mass protests against fraudulent elections results, dictatorship and repression. Those demonstrations were suppressed and a number of factors, including the threat of war and the reformism of the self-appointed leaders of the green movement, contributed to the defeat of the protests.
Since then Iran has not been much in the news – until the protests of early October, when angry crowds took to the streets of Tehran. Sanctions have crippled the country to such an extent that for most Iranians day-to-day life is becoming impossible. It is true that not a single shot has been fired, but sanctions are indeed a form of warfare, imposing hunger and destitution on the population. And if the US presidential race remains close in these last days before the poll, the Obama administration could yet consider a military strike.
Of course, Iran’s economy is not crippled just because of sanctions. Decades of obedience to the International Monetary Fund have left the country with a privatised, corruption-riven economy. The gap between rich and poor is wider than at any time in living memory. Food and fuel subsidies have been abolished by Islamic clerics – to the applause of the IMF and World Bank. In other words, even without sanctions Iran would have had all the features of a third-world capitalist country suffering from the effects of the global economic crisis. But sanctions have made life so intolerable that people will tell you that hunger and poverty, combined with this constant fear of military conflict, is worse than war itself.
The first sanctions against Iran were imposed in 1979. However, Tehran was able to circumvent the worst of their effects until 2006, when measures relating to Iran’s nuclear industry were introduced, to be followed by further UN resolutions between 2007 and 2010. But the situation was transformed with the new wave of sanctions that started in January this year, when the United States and European Union took steps to ensure Iran could not sell its oil overseas and imposed restrictions on all Iranian banks and financial institutions. In the first few months of 2012 the Islamic government deluded itself that these were short-term steps and therefore spent its reserves of foreign currency in order to maintain the value of the Iranian rial. However, as the new sanctions began to bite, in the face of US and Israeli military threats, the exchange rate plummeted.
A series of United Nations-backed measures reduced the country’s oil exports from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.5 million in early 2012. Major shipping companies now refuse to send their tankers to Iranian ports, in fear of the severe fines imposed on sanction-busters. Any international bank doing business in Iran is now deprived access to the US market and unsurprisingly most financial institutions have ended their dealings with Tehran as a result. In July new EU sanctions banned oil imports from Iran entirely. Europe was purchasing 20% of Iranian exports – hence the devastating effect on the Iranian rial.
In early October the currency lost 75% of its value against the dollar, and the rate of inflation is now so high that many shops are refusing to sell goods, as they know prices will rise from one hour to the next and what they receive in sales today could be worthless tomorrow. In Ferdowsi Square, where most major currency exchange dealers work, some have hung signs saying, “Dollars not bought or exchanged” in protest against the government’s plans to set a fixed rate for the rial.
Wary of riots in response to food shortages, the Iranian government has announced a classification of imports into 10 categories, based on how essential they are. Importers of essential goods will be able to buy dollars at a subsidised rate,while importers of goods classified as non-essential will have to pay hand over fist to obtain dollars.1 However, a thriving black market in luxury goods – including those dubbed ‘unIslamic’ – has characterised the 33-year rule of Tehran’s corrupt, religious, capitalist regime and few expect this to change.
Prices for staple foods, such as milk, bread, rice, yogurt and vegetables, have doubled since the beginning of the year. Chicken, the cheapest meat, is so scarce that every time supplies become available there are long queues and sometimes riots. Unemployment is thought to be around three times higher than the official rate of 12%, and millions of unskilled factory workers are on wages well below the official poverty line of 10 million rials (about $250) a month.
On October 12 yet another set of sanctions was finalised by EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg. The aim was to “further restrict Iran’s ability to move money around efficiently – a step to aggravate the current financial crisis of the Iranian regime inside the country”.2 A number of international airlines responded by stopping their flights to Tehran. The message conveyed by this relentless pressure is clear: you are under siege, and you are isolated. It is a form of psychological warfare – not just against Iran’s rulers, but against the population. According to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a proponent of still tougher measures, “repetition is the key to success of message-penetration”.3
Throughout the last few years supporters of sanctions have told us they are not directed at the Iranian people. No, they are ‘targeted’ sanctions, aimed only at the regime. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, senior clerics and military generals have been the main beneficiaries of privatisation and, as a result, they own a considerable chunk of Iran’s economy. The rest, including whatever is left of public services, is dependent on state funds, which are squeezed further by sanctions. As for the fortunes of senior clerics and their offsprings, it is safe to say little of it remains inside Iran – by 2007 they were already ensuring that their personal wealth had left the country for the safety of foreign banks. The main victims of sanctions have been the mass of the people – including workers made redundant, as senior ayatollahs and leaders of the Pasdaran Revolutionary Guards have closed down their businesses and moved their money into Swiss bank accounts. Iran’s car industry has shed almost half of its workforce and oil workers have also lost their jobs, as oil exports have gone into free fall.
Launching our anti-sanctions campaign in 2009, Hands Off the People of Iran declared: “The current proposals of the US government to enforce sanctions on Iran’s oil industry would unquestionably cause chaos for a society depending on oil for its national income. They are also a disaster for the cause of democracy because they limit working class struggle.
“Radical democratic change in Iran (and indeed in the imperialist countries such as the US and UK) can only come from below. It cannot be gifted by the likes of [green leader Mir-Hossein] Moussavi, or imposed by the imperialists. Not that either would wish to see such change. We have to aid such advances through promoting working class internationalism – the core politics that Hopi implacably stands for.”4
However, the effects of current sanctions are far worse than we predicted in 2009.There is a serious shortage of drugs affecting both the rich and the poor. Tehran residents report long queues of poorer sections of the population outside chemists in more affluent suburbs trying to sell their prescriptions so that they can buy food for their families. Hospital notice boards are full of adverts for the sale of kidneys and other organs – a new method of raising funds.
Government employees have not been paid their full salaries for many months. Many make ends meet by selling their household goods, such as furniture. And, although unemployment is affecting every section of the working class, women have been amongst the first to lose their jobs and therefore any degree of independence in a patriarchal society. Government statistics show female unemployment to be around 43%. There are reports of an unprecedented rise in casual prostitution, while social workers have raised concerns about an increase in the level of reported violence against women and young girls, as economic hardship affects family relations.
In the midst of all this misery David Cameron dismissed speculation about an Israeli attack “that might strengthen the Islamic regime”. He called on the “international community” to “show the courage to allow sanctions against Iran to work”.5 The British prime minister is talking of the “courage” of the imperialists in inflicting devastation on ordinary Iranians. And Iran’s brutal clerical regime could not care less what happens to its population – sanctions could continue for years and the real victims will still be the Iranian people.
In a move reminiscent of Ruhollah Khomeini’s fascistic call on Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war to have more children, so that a new generation could defeat the Arab invader, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has also urged his subjects to reproduce more. However, there are two major problems with this: (1) the US and Israel are not Saddam Hussein – Iran’s population could rise tenfold and it would not make an iota of difference in a war against two nuclear powers; (2) the Iranian women of 2012 are not those of 1982: they are too aware of the nature of the regime to be told when they should reproduce and how many children they should have.
Given the level of economic hardship, working class actions have been few and far between – workers are forced to take on second or even third jobs to pay their extortionate rents and are forced to spend hours in queues to feed their families. However, this month has seen a number of workers’ protests. A petition addressed to Iran’s minister of labour has been secretly circulating among factories and workshops. By mid-October some 20,000 workers had signed the document, pointing out that wages agreed in March have lost half of their value – rent and food prices have doubled, and working class families cannot survive.
Meanwhile, 600 metal workers held protests outside the ministry on October 13 and managed to close one of the capital’s busiest streets for almost an hour. This was followed the next day by another demonstration outside the offices of Tehran’s provincial governor. Earlier, on October 10, hundreds of bus drivers from Tehran and the provinces had protested for four and a half hours outside Tehran’s main municipality offices. These drivers have not received the 10% pay rise promised to all city employees.
These are the kinds of actions we should support. We in Hopi are true to our slogan, ‘No to imperialist war and sanctions, no to the clerical regime’. Today, at a time when sanctions have become an important weapon in imperialism’s arsenal, at a time when they are supposed to pave the way for the downfall of the regime, as the population becomes desperate, we must reiterate our opposition to ‘regime change from above’. In the absence of a movement from below, sanctions will produce one of two outcomes: either the regime will survive, becoming even more repressive; or it will be replaced by the US’s chosen coalition.
It is no accident that the latest sanctions have coincided with concerted efforts by the US/EU to finance and organise the most reactionary forces aiming to benefit from the economic chaos. The son of the shah is being promoted ad nauseam in US-funded TV stations broadcasting to Iran, while the People’s Mujahedin (MEK) have been removed from the US ‘terrorist’ list, so that they can take their place among the ‘patriotic forces’ being groomed to replace the Islamic regime.
Similarly, naive and opportunist sections of the left have rushed to join forces with ‘human rights’ organisations sponsored by the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy in the anti-regime, pro-western Iran Tribunal, and there are attempts to lure the discredited ‘leaders’ of the green movement into this unholy alliance. In the meantime labour activists languish in Iranian prisons, and those attempting to set up independent workers’ organisations are in constant danger of arrest, imprisonment and worse.
Hopi’s principled opposition to the Iran Tribunal is not because we are soft on the Islamic republic, as our opponents have alleged. On the contrary, we are committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic regime and all its factions. However, we believe alliances pretending to pursue a ‘non-political’, ‘human rights’ (read rightwing, pro-imperialist) agenda are a serious threat to the future of the revolutionary movement of workers in Iran. Those sections of the left who cannot see (or who pretend they cannot see) the serious risks posed by their collaboration with those involved in regime change from above, such as the Iran Tribunal, will become mere pawns in a game where the winner is international capital (and that inevitably includes Iranian capital).
Norman Paech, a prominent member of the German left Party Die Linke, has joined others in withdrawing his support for the Iran Tribunal after approaches from supporters of Hands Off the People of Iran, reports Tina Becker
This is an edited version of an article recently published on the website of the German magazine Hintergrund.[i]
The Iran Tribunal continues to divide the left. Yassamine Mather’s articles in the Weekly Worker have been hotly debated in Iranacross Europe and the United States. Since she started to expose the links of the organisers to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a number of organisations and individuals have withdrawn their support. Other groups and parties have split over the issue.
It is therefore timely to take a closer look at the tribunal, its gestation, its corruption – and the fallout from Hopi’s criticism.
During the 1980s, tens of thousands of political activists in Iran were arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Many leftists abroad and around 20,000 dissidents were murdered. The worst massacre in the summer of 1988, when between 5,000 and 7,000 political prisoners were systematically executed in a matter of weeks, their bodies dumped in anonymous mass graves.
Since then, the relatives and former comrades of those killed have fought for justice. But how to do that in today’s ? That’s the question that has heated debates amongst the Iranian left. They are united in the view that a first, important step should be the publication of the details of the massacre. After all, the government in Teheran has never the crimes and continues . Many of those responsible remain in power.
For many years, we have been fighting for an independent commission examine the horrific murders and name the guilty parties. Our model is the Russell Tribunal, which was established by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1967 and which exposed very effectively the crimes US military in Vietnamsays Yassamine Mather, who has been living in exile in London for almost 30 years and today is chair of Hands Off the People of Iran. After dozens of her comrades were executed in the early 80s, Mather and other members of her organisation Fedayeen (minority) fled to Kurdistan to continue their struggle. From exile, she many more of her comrades and political friends were murdered.
Like other exiled Iranians, she initially supported the preparations for the Iran Tribunal. She even supplied it with evidence. An impressive range of international politicians and lawyers were won to the project – from Germany Norman Paech, a prominent member of Die Linke and respected professor of law.
The first stage of the tribunal from June 18-22 in Amnesty International’s HQ, 60 witnesses (all of them survivors of the massacre or relatives of those murdered) truth commissionand their family members (had supplied written statements beforehand). A report of 359 pages has since been published on the tribunal’s website. It contains an overview of the horrific conditions the prisons, a list of the names of the torturers and a detailed report of some executions. But the fully published witness statements throw a light on the brutal events. Rapes, beatings and torture were not just common, but the norm.
None of evidence is really new or unknown – but the of that the opposition was systematically exterminated. Thousands of political prisoners were to be released in 1988. Their crimes? Some had been arrested for distributing leaflets, others were members of banned organisations, some had helped to organise strikes and demonstrations. Most were arrested in the first wave of oppression in the early 1980s and sentenced to six or seven years in prison.
Their looming release came at a inconvenient time for the government in Tehran. The and unpopular war against Iraq had come to an end, leaving the theocratic regime weakened. prospect of thousands of left and militant oppositionists and the growing discontent wide of the population And so all political prisoners were dragged before makeshift courts, where an Islamic judge, a prosecutor and a representative of the intelligence services judged if they were to live or die. There were no defence lawyers, no evidence, no jury.
he Iran Tribunal that the prisoners were Muslim, if they prayed to god and if they had changed their political beliefs. If judge didn’t like an answer, the defendant was sentenced to death. The were piled into lorries and hanged or shot – often in intervals of 30 minutes. Many relatives were informed only months laterothers have never been told.
This gruesome report of the truth commission will be handed to a court in a second stage of the . This court, made up of human rights lawyers from around the world, will meet in The Hague from October 25-27 in order evaluate the and announce a judgement.
Of course we cannot implement this judgement or the results of the commission, the organisers. But the proceedings give tens of thousands of families a voice for the first time.
So far, so supportable.
However, Yassamine Mather and others when they noticed that the materials the war plans of the US and Israel. The danger of war grows every day. I am a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran – but a war would be disastrous for the forces in Iran who have a real interest in : the workers, women’s groups and social movements in . Without clear opposition to war and sanctions, all those a military attack on Iran, Mather says.
Mather wrote to the committee that many of those killed were socialists who the Iranian regime, but also capitalism and imperialism. Surely, . I never even got a reply
Mather and other Iranians were taken aback by this and took a closer look at the committee and its funding. They the tribunal is supported by the Iran Human Rights Documentation, whose founder Payam Akhavan acts as the chair and spokesperson of the steering committee.
he IHRD has over the years received large from the US government.[ii] Akhavan is also active in Human Rights and Democracy for Iran (also known as the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation) is financed by American and European foundations, amongst them the infamous National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED was founded in 1983 by former US president Ronald Reagan to spread democracy around the globe.
It is that the US has coup and . The CIA finances, organises and trains local opposition groups. In Chile, Guatemala and many other countries, democratically elected governments were overthrown and replaced by dictators for decades. In 1953 the CIA – with the help of the British government – toppled the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
he US‘ strategy has been refined and regime change
In the Iranian presidential elections of 2009, the West heavily supported presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi. e was prime minister of Iran in 1988 and directly responsible for the mass murders and the extermination of the opposition (even if he didn’t order them personally). opposition split; the wave, which brought more than a million people onto the streets of Iran, has largely away.
“The NED is supposedly a private, non-government, non-profit foundation, but it receives a yearly appropriation from the US Congress”, explains the former CIA agent Philip Agee in an article on the website Clearing Hous[iii] In 2009, it was funded $135 million by the US government.
No left activist should accept money from such sourcessays Mark Fischer, chair of Hands Off the People of Iran. , totally . The has become part of the to topple the Islamic government and replace it with a US- and Israel-friendly regime.
is so bad about accepting money from the US government? it possible to receive funds from pigs without to grunt yourself
Of course it Fischer. But only if the financier places no conditions or demands on you. But the NED is an important of US-sponsored foreign policy.” Fischer says it is no coincidence or oversight that the website of the does not come out in opposition to war and sanctions. Or that it does not mention once that many of the victims of the 1988 massacre were communists and socialists.
he is part of the campaign for regime change from abovesays Fischer. This campaign bombs military threats killer commandos by the Israeli Mossad. support of politicians of the opposition is .
“first and foremost the people in Iran. The workers‘ movements and women’s organisations are currently than they have been for many yearseople struggle to get by in worsening economic conditions.”
Comrade Mather also criticises the steering committee of the , whichreads like Who is whoof fight for human rights in a total political vacuumSir Geoffrey Nice is a supporter of the Human Rights Commission of the British Conservative Party. Payam Akhavan was voted young global leader at the World Economic Forum in 2005. John Cooper QC has stood for the Labour Party in elections. All three are well-known, high-ranking lawyers who in the name of he international communithave over the years many dictators and government heads in international courts (turned on their former sponsors in the US).
The government in Tehran was able to dismiss the as part of a Western plot against Iran: the radio stations ‚Voice of America‘ and Radio Free Iran – both financed by – broadcast the witness statements uncut and for many hours.
Israeli socialist Moshé Machover believes that some of the organisers and participants have acted with evident good will, but that is not enough. It often happens that people of good intentions lend themselves out of naivety to be exploited by evil forces. This is a danger that we must always guard against. Many good people, out of genuine and justified concern for women’s rights, were duped into lending legitimacy to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001; and similarly good people, with genuine horror of Saddam Husain’s atrocities, were duped in 2003 into lending legitimacy to the disastrous invasion of Iraq.”
number of former political prisoners have been criticising the and its links to the US government. But only the subject of an international when Yassamine Mather to publish research in the Weekly Worker June 2012.
“I have indeed supported the intention and the work of the committee to prepare this tribunal. I still think it is absolutely necessary that all facts about the horrific murders, the torture and the crimes of the 1980s are brought to light. But the background of the funding and the obvious links to the NED, of which I had no knowledge and which have only just been brought to my attention, make it impossible for me to continue this support. I find myself in particularly strong disagreement with the committee when it comes to my resolute opposition to sanctions and the threat of war on Iran. I do not want to part of a project which is supported by the pro-war Mujahedin.”
It is mid-summer in an election year, so we should not be surprised by the hawkish statements regarding Iran coming from the US – not just from the Republican contender, Mitt Romney, but also the current US president. However, even when we take into account the timing, some of the statements Romney has just made in Jerusalem are more than worrying – and they have been matched by Barack Obama’s promises to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on the despatch of bunker-buster bombs to the Gulf region.1
According to the Financial Times, in a keynote speech delivered in Jerusalem, Mitt Romney stated that the US has a “moral imperative” to stop Iran – the “most destabilising country in the world” – from developing nuclear weapons.2 Earlier in the day one of Romney’s advisors, Dan Senor, had said: “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision”.3
In March 2012 Obama had criticised the “bluster and big talk” of Republicans candidates about a possible war with Iran: “This is not a game. There is nothing casual about it.”4 However, with the polls suggesting a tight presidential race,5 the US president has himself joined the “bluster and big talk” about Iran, the suggestion that the use of bunker-busters may now be on the agenda representing a real escalation. It is sad reflection of our time that the fate of 75 million Iranians and the possibility of military air raids against Iran’s nuclear facility might be decided by the rise and fall of Obama’s ratings in the polls. Added to this are reports that the United States is sharing with Israel full details of its possible military plans in relation to Iran.6
As far as Iranians are concerned, the war started on July 1, when a combination of new EU and US sanctions came into effect. The result has been large numbers of job losses, long queues for basic food, riots and demonstrations – no wonder Iranians are convinced that the confrontation with the west has entered a new phase. Sanctions cover not just nuclear, missile and military exports to Iran, but also oil, gas and petrochemicals, plus refined petroleum products; shipping in general; and banking and insurance, including transactions with the Central Bank of Iran – its director, Mahmoud Bahmani, commented that sanctions are “no less than a military war”.7
But it does not end there. On July 30, negotiators from the United States Congress and Senate reached an agreement regarding a new round of sanctions. The Senate Banking Committee’s Democratic chairman, Tim Johnson, promised to do all he could to make sure the legislation passed before the August recess: “… unless Iranians come clean on their nuclear programme, end the suppression of their people and stop supporting terrorist activities, they will face deepening international isolation and even greater economic and diplomatic pressure”.8 In addition, on July 31 Obama announced new measures to penalise foreign banks that help Iran sell its oil.9
Clearly the reason for imposing sanctions and preparing for war has changed. It is no longer just about Iran’s nuclear programme. Now the US might go to war because the US has suddenly realised that the country’s rulers suppress the Iranian people and support “terrorist activities”. Iranians have every reason to ask, why now? The Islamic regime has been suppressing its own population since the day it came to power and in the last decade the bulk of the state’s most brutal repression has been directed at workers and labour activists who have campaigned against the religious capitalist state’s implementation of neoliberal economic policies dictated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
As for the regime’s “terrorist activities”, over the last 33 years its main victims have been the Iranian people themselves. However, there is no doubt that many of the US’s current and previous allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, can match Iran in this regard, but so far there have been no ultimatums issued against them.
The nearer we get to the presidential elections, the more we can expect both candidates to emphasise their support for Israel and declare further measures to punish Iran. Contrary to what some commentators are saying, this is not just about gaining more votes from amongst Jewish Americans: a lot more is at stake. In these times of economic crisis the hegemon capitalist power cannot tolerate regimes such as Iran or Syria and, contrary to what the Senate Banking Committee chairman says, the possibility of air raids against Iran would remain even if the country’s clerical dictators came “clean on their nuclear programme, end the suppression of their people and stop supporting terrorist activities”.
Inside Iran, after months of denying or playing down the effects of existing and future sanctions, the regime now admits that the current situation is not sustainable. The price of basic food items has shot up, the country can no longer export oil and the reaction of Iranian leaders over the last few days has only compounded the sense of panic.
As factions of the Islamic state continued blaming each other for the appalling economic conditions, with some now talking of a possible U-turn regarding the nuclear programme, supreme leader Ali Khamenei was forced to intervene. He urged all factions to stop bickering, reminding everyone that the current threat of war has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear programme. Referring to attempts at a rapprochement with the west during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Khamenei commented that such policies had failed in the past.
You know that military confrontation is looming when Iranian leaders call on the people to have more children. Echoing Ruhollah Khomeini’s infamous call to Iranians to defeat Saddam Hussein’s Iraq through population growth so as to create a “20-million-member army”, Khamenei blasted family planning programmes and urged his subjects to reproduce more. Of course, many Iranians would say that in the current economic climate they cannot afford to feed one or two children, never mind a much larger family. Iran’s population growth rate has fallen from 3.9% in 1986 to 1.3%. in 2011.10
US strategy is quite clear: sanctions are putting the reactionary rulers of Iran under severe pressure. The intended consequences are clear too: it is hoped that the pressure will drive Iranian rulers to take forceful countermeasures which the US will use as justification for military action, such as closing the Straits of Hormuz (through which 30 % of the world’s oil flows) or embarking on a terrorist adventure.
Some sections of the left, notably those influenced by US ‘regime-change funds’, claim that sanctions are actually a blessing. The population will be forced by the food shortages, absence of medical equipment and lack of jobs – not to mention the continued repression by the religious state – to rise up against the regime. Leaving aside the callousness of such wishful thinking, there is no direct correlation between the worsening of living conditions and the ability of the people to make revolution. The problem in Iran, as elsewhere, is in the absence of a truly nationwide organised working class movement, and in its absence the crisis could pave the way for the coming to power of the most dubious rightwing forces – or merely the transfer of power from one faction of the Islamic regime to another.
Hands Off the People of Iran activists have been discussing our intervention in the current situation. In counterposition to the disastrous CIA-funded Iran Tribunal, we are investigating the possibility of setting up a workers’ tribunal that will examine in depth both the crimes of the Islamic regime – not least the mass execution of prisoners in the summer of 1988, including aspects the Iran Tribunal is conveniently keeping quiet about – and the devastating effects of the current imperialist sanctions and military threats. This would help publicise not only the life-threatening shortages caused by sanctions, but also the psychological effects of war threats on millions of Iranians already under pressure from a repressive dictatorship.
This is a major project that may be beyond our current capabilities. However, we think such a proposal can gain momentum and in the meantime we plan to hold a symbolic event that will help us to judge how we can advance the possibility of a workers’ tribunal.
With this in mind we will be contacting those involved in the International Endowment for Democracy, such as professor Bertell Ollman, who exposed the pro-imperialist agenda of the National Endowment for Democracy during the war against Iraq. The idea is to bring together all those opposed to the pro-imperialism of the NED amongst US and UK academics, activists and trade unionists to put both the Iranian state and the imperialists in the dock.
We will also seek to work closely with those sections of the Iranian left taking a principled position on the issue of ‘regime-change funds’ – and in particular with those former political prisoners who took such a courageous stance in opposition to the sham Iran Tribunal.
1. ‘US adds 13.6-tonne bunker-buster to arsenal’: www.vancouversun.com/sports/adds+tonne+bunker+buster+arsenal/7005758/story.html.
2. ‘Romney forced to clarify Iran position’: www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c2012f06-d96d-11e1-8529-00144feab49a.html#axzz225sNjQMO.
4. ‘Obama warns of “loose talk” on Iran’: www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e9d579c0-6621-11e1-979e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz225mJnd6J.
5. The Presidential Tracking Poll for Sunday July 29 shows Romney on 47%, with Obama two points behind: www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/obama_administration/daily_presidential_tracking_poll.
6. ‘Panetta: US, Israel united in favour of more Iran sanctions’: http://news.antiwar.com/2012/07/29/panetta-us-israel-united-in-favor-of-more-iran-sanctions.
Supporters of the Iran Tribunal have desperately been trying to defend their abandonment of working class principle. Yassamine Mather reports on the contortions
The Iran Tribunal – convened to put the Tehran regime in the dock for its massacre of 5,000-10,000 political prisoners in 1988 – took place in London over June 18-22. While it largely went unnoticed by the public in Britain, it caused uproar amongst sections of the Iranian left.
The tribunal was not the first well-financed attempt to divert the genuine anger of the Iranian people, and their hatred of the Islamic regime (in its many factions), towards dubious ends. Similar stunts have taken place before under the auspices of so-called NGOs – which turn out to be little more than fronts for the United States and the European Union.
The National Endowment for Democracy – which organised and paid for the Iran Tribunal – is a case in point. The NED is in fact a not very covert operation run by the CIA. This is from an Information Clearing House interview with a former CIA agent: “The NED is supposedly a private, non-government, non-profit foundation, but it receives a yearly appropriation from the US Congress. The money is channelled through four ‘core foundations’. These are the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (linked to the Democratic Party); the International Republican Institute (Republican Party); the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity; and the Centre for International Private Enterprise (US Chamber of Commerce).”1
The NED’s NGO status provides the fiction that recipients of its largesse are receiving ‘private’ rather than US government money. The LewRockwell.com website explains this further:
“Washington’s formula for regime change underwent a makeover in the 1980s. In a bid to ensure US political and economic interests were safeguarded, CIA-backed coup d’etats ousted democratically elected leaders from Iran to Chile. In their place were brutal dictatorships and governments that committed heinous crimes against their people … The concept of democracy promotion is simple: finance, train, and politically back local opposition forces around the world that support the American agenda.
“On this very subject Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell said, ‘We do this through surrogates and non-governmental organisation and through people who are less suspecting of the evil that may lurk behind their actions than perhaps they were before. Have we learned some lessons in that regard? You bet! Do we do it better? You bet! Is it still just as heinous as it has always been? You bet!’ So, while the goal remains the same, it is no longer the CIA, but the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners spearheading the effort.”2
The NED is also heavily involved in Egypt. According to the Los Angeles Times, “In Egypt, the four US organisations under attack for fomenting unrest with illegal foreign funding were all connected to the endowment [NED]. Two – the GOP’s International Republican Institute and the Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute – are among the groups that make up the endowment’s core constituents. The two other indicted groups, Freedom House and the International Centre for Journalists, receive funds from the endowment.”3
It should be obvious to anyone claiming to be on the left that genuine human rights, workers’ rights and prisoners’ rights are not the real concern of such an organisation. And the fact that so many former political prisoners of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship, including those who survived the dark days of the 1988 mass murder in Iranian jails, stayed away from the Iran Tribunal charade and wrote extensively on the reasons they did not attend is a credit to the Iranian left – comrades such as Homayoun Ivani, Vazir Fathi, Mojdeh Arassi, Farrokh Ghahremani and many others. The fact that many groups of the exiled Iranian left have chosen to keep silent about this issue – or, worse, have actually supported the tribunal – is a sad reflection of their bankrupt politics.
Sections of the Iranian left, desperate for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, frustrated by three decades of exile and eager for funding (or even the hope of a place in Iran’s post-Islamic republic future), are determined to cooperate with US-funded groups and meanwhile pretend to be offended by accusations of supping with the devil – they are objectively aiding the drive towards imperialist military intervention against Iran.
Others have simply been duped. Despite long years in Europe or North America, many of these comrades are still not at home with the language of their adopted country … and obsessively write on the internet in Farsi. Many are clearly ignorant of what the NED stands for and some seem even to be unaware of the politics of the Conservative Party, prominent members of which were, of course, involved in the Iran Tribunal.
So, instead of responding to the valid points raised by those of us opposed to this stunt, they attempt to turn the tables. In desperation, organisations such as Rahe Kargar (Heyat Ejraii), which warn of the trap of accepting regime-change funds, are accused of supporting Iran’s Islamic regime! Conspiracy theory was always the forté of some of the individuals and groups going down this route. However, this is really unacceptable behaviour – especially when such accusations are thrown simply as a means of avoiding giving a straight answer to a straight question: what is the role of the NED in this tribunal?
This is definitely the case when it comes to the main group supporting the tribunal: one of the many Fedayeen Minority factions – this time the one headed by a comrade Tavakol. Those of us who know this former member of the central committee of Fedayeen are not surprised that the man who believed socialism can be built in Iran with the help of Soviet industrial might is now ready to accept regime-change funds (not just for the Iran Tribunal, but also for a feminist website associated with his group, Shahrzad News). Apparently anyone who does not understand the ‘revolutionary’ logic of accepting such handouts must be an agent of the Islamic regime!
For others, such as Rahe Kargar (Comite Markazi), who have in recent times taken a distance from revolutionary politics, justifying the NED’s close connection with the tribunal comes easy. The fact that the tribunal’s chair is directly associated with the NED is merely ‘coincidence’. They too claim that those like Rahe Kargar (Comite Ejrai) who have exposed these links are covertly supporting the Islamic regime.
A Comite Markazi central committee leaflet (in Farsi) states that because the Iran Tribunal is a “single-issue campaign” it does not need to take a position on the danger of imperialist military attack.4 First of all, at a time when war threatens to devastate Iran – with serious, unpredictable consequence for the Middle East and the world – single-issue campaigns seem a bit irrelevant. However, in this particular case the problem is far worse: irrespective of the ignorance of some, the Iran Tribunal has become an integral part of the plans for regime change.
In this respect the response of one of the tribunal’s main spokespersons to a question posed by a TV reporter is illuminating. In response to the seemingly naive question, “Why aren’t the organisers of the tribunal taking a position regarding the threat of war against Iran, when asked to do so?”, a tribunal spokesperson replied: “We are not a political organisation. That is why we didn’t take a position on the issue of war.” Yet at the end of the same interview the worthy spokesperson remarks: “Oh yes, we are for the overthrow of the Islamic regime.” So being against war is political, but calling for the overthrow of the Islamic regime isn’t?
A third set of arguments relies on such stupid ideas that, out of respect for readers of this paper, I will not go into too much detail about them. But to give you an idea of their banality, let me quote a sentence from someone who defends NED sponsorship: “NGOs do not necessarily follow the policies of the governments that fund them.”
This might sometimes be true, but it is clearly not so with the NED. Here is what George W Bush said of the NED on the occasion of its 20th anniversary in November 2003, six months after the invasion of Iraq: “I’m glad that Republicans and Democrats and independents are working together to advance human liberty.” He ended his address this way: “Each of you at this endowment is fully engaged in the great cause of liberty. And I thank you. May god bless your work.”5
So let us reiterate the facts. The Iran Tribunal is backed by NED funds and there is no doubt about the NED’s role in the US. There are dozens of sites promoting its work and they all verify what we have written. The NED is not just another NGO.
The Obama administration budgeted $80 million for it in 2009, according to the White House website and, of course, US radical and progressive sites are full of detailed reports about the NED, its funding and its raison d’être. Prominent US intellectuals have certainly exposed its close connections with the CIA.
NED funding was not our only concern. There was also the question of the legal team, which consisted of an impressive group of rightwingers. Sir Geoffrey Nice is associated with the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. John Cooper QC is another Tory luminary on the panel.
I have heard it said that the reason the intellectuals and lawyers involved are not radical is “because we don’t live in the 1960s and 70s”. Apparently there are no radical leftwing academics nowadays. I have news for those who think like that: not only are there many US academics, intellectuals and writers who consider themselves leftwing and oppose imperialism without having any illusions in Islamic fundamentalism; some have set up an alternative to the NED. They have called their NGO (set up with very limited funds) the International Endowment for Democracy. It was set up in 2006 and is “a new foundation of progressive American scholars, lawyers and activists dedicated to promoting real democracy in the country that needs it most: the USA.”6
Their website was created to “critique the anti-democratic work of the National Endowment for Democracy” and supporters include: Bertell Ollman, the founder and president, author of many works on Marx; the late Howard Zinn, author of A people’s history of the US; political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal; Annette Rubinstein, a lecturer at the New York Marxist School; Gore Vidal, author of numerous essays, novels and plays; Ellen Meiksins Wood, author of Democracy against capitalism; David Harvey, author of The new imperialism; and so on. So the world has not lost all its radical and progressive lawyers, academics and intellectuals: they just do not happen to support the ‘non-political’ rightwing agenda of the NED and its Iran Tribunal. On the contrary, they are actually very much involved in exposing such dubious projects and their CIA funders.
Some have asked how the Iranian left can be so stupid not to see where all this is leading. I am afraid the answer to this question is not that simple. Yes, some are ignorant of the facts, while other do not follow non-Iranian affairs, viewing world politics through a single lens: that of opposition to Iran’s Islamic regime. Of course, the regime has created such a hell on earth that one can understand the motivation of such people and their thirst for justice. However, imperialism and its sponsored NGOs do not sympathise with the mainly leftwing political prisoners who were massacred in their thousands in the summer of 1988 – what did they say then when the executions were actually taking place, when socialist opponents of the regime were being targeted by regime death squads? Why is it that they have suddenly become interested in the events of more than two decades ago? It is no coincidence that the Iran Tribunal took place at the height of western propaganda, at the time when the spectre of war overshadows all issues relating to Iran.
That is why we point the finger not at the naive and ignorant, but at those amongst the Iranian left who have been corrupted by regime-change funds – unprincipled groups moving rapidly to the right. These types are impressed by the rise of the former leftwinger, Jalal Taleban, now the president of Iraq, and can imagine themselves eventually occupying high office in Tehran. No doubt some of them actually believe their actions will benefit the working class, oppressed women, the Kurdish people … However, when members of the ‘vanguard’ accept imperialist funds they have truly crossed the line.
Finally, because Hands Off the People of Iran has been the butt of much criticism for our principled stance on the Iran Tribunal, let me repeat the three basic tenets of our campaign: No to imperialist war! No to sanctions! No to the theocratic regime! I would like to use this opportunity to thank comrades – in particular former political prisoners – who have supported us in the face of the barrage of insults from the spineless left.
We have said it many times and I emphasise it again: we are for the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic republic – all its factions, all its structures. But this can only be achieved from below, through mass action. Any other type of regime change – a coup d’etat, replacement by military action, the coming to power of the many-coloured alliances or configurations proposed by the US and its allies – will have one major victim: the Iranian working class. In the capitalist world we live in, only fools and those in search of political positions can envisage ‘liberation’ through the NED.