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Boycott the vetted election, not the mass protests!

The Islamic republic is bitterly divided at the top and subject to crippling international sanctions. Yassamine Mather analyses the political situation in the run-up to the June 14 presidential poll

(First published in the Weekly Worker)

Hashemi Rafsanjani: last-minute capitalist candidate
Hashemi Rafsanjani: last-minute capitalist candidate

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.

US victory

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.

Principlist splits

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

Boycott

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.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/05/130512_ir92_33_daysto.shtml.

2. www.akhbar-rooz.com/article.jsp?essayId=52706.

3. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/05/130513_ir92_32days.shtml.

4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3034480.stm.

5. www.spiegel.de/international/world/the-fight-for-iran-s-political-future-revolution-leaders-struggle-for-power-in-tehran-a-641967-3.html.

6. http://articles.latimes.com/1988-07-20/news/mn-6124_1_khomeini.

7. http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110810105707235.

8. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22494982.

9. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people6/Ganji.

10. www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/02/2012215164958644116.html.

11. www.haaretz.com/news/iran-vp-iranians-are-friends-of-all-people-even-israelis-1.251479.

12. www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/08/07/115966.html.

13. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/tv/2011/04/000001_ptv_newshour_gel.shtml.

14. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/05/130512_l10_ir92_ahmadinejad_mashai_reax.shtml.

15. www.iranonline.com/iran/iran-info/government/constitution-9-1.html.

16. http://iranpulse.al-monitor.com/index.php/2013/04/1721/chief-of-armed-forces-defends-engineer-elections-statements.

17. http://mikhak.info/?p=645.

18. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2012/09/25/the-verdict-that-shook-iran-and-europe.

Moshé Machover: The formation of the Jewish nation

(First published in the Weekly Worker)

Moshé Machover: nations and classes
Moshé Machover: nations and classes

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

City %

Łódź 31

Warsaw 34

Kovno (Kaunas) 36

Odessa 37

Wilno (Vilnius) 41

Kishinev (Chișinău) 43

Mogilev 52

Vitebsk 52

Minsk 52

Pinsk 74

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 The Times 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.

 

Notes

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.

4. See VI Lenin, ‘The position of the Bund in the party’ (October 1903): www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1903/oct/22a.htm.

5. For a general survey of this census see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Empire_Census.

6. These data are taken from the Wikipedia entries for the respective cities.

7. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_emancipation; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emancipation_of_the_Jews_in_the_United_Kingdom.

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.

10. See www.godlikeproductions.com/forum1/message55570/pg1.

11. Occasionally this poses difficult conundrums for the Israeli legal system. An instance of this was the notorious case of major Binyamin Shalit, whose children were not Jewish according to rabbinical law. See www.haaretz.com/fateful-years-1970-welcoming-their-children-s-children-1.34889.

12. See my critique of this conception in chapters 17 and 34 of my book Israelis and Palestinians (op cit). Chapter 34 is online at www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/757/breaking-the-chains-of-zionist-oppression; and www.israeli-occupation.org/2009-02-19/moshe-machover-resolution-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-a-socialist-viewpoint.

13. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaanism.

14. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yishuv.

15. See www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/declaration%20of%20establishment%20of%20state%20of%20israel.aspx.

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.

17. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_Law_proposal:_Israel_as_the_Nation-State_of_the_Jewish_People; www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/9935954/Israel-to-define-itself-as-national-state-of-Jewish-people-despite-Arab-population.html.

18. See www.ejpress.org/article/66009.

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.

21. ‘Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a socialist viewpoint’: chapter 34 of my book Israelis and Palestinians (op cit). Online at www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/757/breaking-the-chains-of-zionist-oppression; and www.israeli-occupation.org/2009-02-19/moshe-machover-resolution-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-a-socialist-viewpoint.

Syrian bombing: Netanyahu attempts to provoke new confrontation

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

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and his sponsor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and his sponsor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

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.

First published in the Weekly Worker

Notes

1. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/02/130214_nm_tayeb_syria_basij.shtm.

2. www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/26/us-syria-crisis-iran-idUSBRE90P05620130126.

3. www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2013/05/01/Irans-economy-declines-as-sanctions-bite/UPI-33591367443395/#ixzz2ScLFExa3.

4. www.uskowioniran.com/2013/04/rate-of-economic-growth-in-iran-drops.html.

HOPI STATEMENT: MAY DAY 2013 IRAN – SUPPORT WORKERS’ STRUGGLES!

Workers Portest
Workers Protest

 

Hands Off the People of Iran has consistently identified the workers of Iran as the solid anti-imperialist force in that country, a force that has shown resilience in opoposition to the religious state . This is the section of Iranian society that the anti-war movement in the west must be a partisan of and ally with. This understanding explains why we have been implacably opposed not simply to any military attack on the country, but also the so-called ‘soft war’ option of sanctions: when the working class is distracted daily by the struggle to simply keep body and soul together, its ability to intervene in national politics with its own, radical agenda for democratic change is drastically restricted.

 

We therefore enthusiastically welcome news from Iran that May Day – international workers’ day – saw workers tenaciously defy military and security forces to organise illegal gathers and protests throughout the country. In Tehran and other major cities, slogans were raised against low pay, unemployment and the non-payment of wages. In an audacious symbolic act, the largest demonstration of all gathered outside the Islamic parliament, the Majles. We send our warm congratulations to all those who participated in these inspiring May 1 actions and re-commit ourselves to aid their struggles, first though mobilising the workers’ movement in this country to take a stand against war and sanctions and, second, through the direct provision of financial and other aid where we can.

 

The potential power of the workers is not simply recognised by Hopi, however. Increasingly, forces very far from the progressive movement – frustrated by the impotence of political groups such as the reformist Greens – are taking an interest in the class that has been the most persistent and courageous opponent of the Islamic regime.

 

For instance, the US journal Foreign Policy writes: “As Iran’s economy continues to deteriorate, the labour movement is a key player to watch because of its ability to pressure the Islamic Republic through protests and strikes … And thus far, Iranian labourers have not joined the opposition green movement en masse. But the economic pains caused by the Iranian regime’s mismanagement, corruption and international sanctions have dealt serious blows to worker wages, benefits and job security – enough reason for Iranian labourers to organise and oppose the regime …”. More ominously for today’s theocracy, it goes on to draw a parallel between the repression of today and “the Shah’s treatment of Iranian workers before his overthrow, particularly in the regime’s denial of the right to organize, the quashing of protests and strikes, and its refusal to address worker’s rights.”1 

 

In the UK during the same week, The Economist published an article with the strap: “Though watched and muzzled, independent labour unions are stirring”.2

 

The new, restive mood amongst the working class coincides with turmoil at the very top of the regime:

 

* Confusion is rife about who will or will not stand as a candidate in the country’s forthcoming presidential elections and whether the Guardian Council will allow Mohammad Khatami (the last ‘reformist’ president) or Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anointed successor) to participate

 

* On April 29, the Guardian wrote that according to a unconfirmed report from a source in the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligent unit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been arrested and held for seven hours. This is yet to be confirmed, but what is true is that the man had threatened to release audio tapes proving there was fraud in the 2009 presidential elections. Before he was released, Ahmadinejad was apparently warned to keep silent about matters ‘detrimental’ to the Islamic regime – like presidential vote-rigging, for instance

 

* Iran’s press and media are dominated by speculation about ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani after he announced he is not ruling himself out as a candidate in the June 14 polls

 

In this fluid situation, what is the role of activists in solidarity with the workers of Iran? Hands Off the People Iran says we must:

 

1. Step up our efforts to block any military action against Iran. The regime is already using bellicose posturing from the US and Israel to depict its opponents as a fifth column for western imperialism. An actually military attack would dramatically derail the slow recomposition of the working class movement and give the theocracy a golden opportunity to unite the people around a ‘defence of the nation’ … led by itself, of course

 

2. Fight to end the form of war that is currently being waged on Iran – sanctions. The main victim of the these is the working class and the resultant poverty and desperate struggle for the basic necessities of life effectively excludes it from the political life of the country. The oil industry and parts of the manufacturing sector are on the verge of a complete shutdown and as a result tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs. Others have not been paid any wages for up to two years, yet they continue going to work so that they can keep their jobs. Workers make ends meet by taking up extra part-time work – anything from driving taxis to selling goods on the pavement.

 

We say it is our internationalist duty to provide solidarity and material aid to the working people of Iran. Their struggles, though defensive in the main, should be a source of pride for us in the resilience of our class. The key problems are the barriers placed in the way of workers organising as a political force. Given this vacuum, regime change forces of the right – both green ‘reformists’ within the religious state and the US-sponsored ‘republican and royalist’ champions of regime change from above – are now trying to hitch the social power of this section of Iranian society to their stalled reactionary projects.

 

So far they have had little success. But there is no room for complacency.

 

Notes

 

1. http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/ 2013/04/22/labor_and_opposition_in_iran

 

 

2.http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21576408-though-watched-and-muzzled-independent-labour-unions-are-stirring-aya-toiling.

 

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Though watched and muzzled, independent labour unions are stirring

From The Economist

DURING a Persian new year’s party (in late March) at Iran’s flagship South Pars project in the Persian Gulf, where the world’s largest known gasfield is being tapped, a labourer called on Iran’s workers to unite. Behnam Khodadadi demanded better pay and conditions, and a proper trade union. Around 1,500 workers stopped security guards from detaining Mr Khodadadi. A week later he was fired from his job at Iran Industrial Networks Development, a contractor for the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company. Mr Khodadadi may have been muzzled, but disaffection is growing among Iranian workers as inflation outpaces wage rises and workers are laid off. At the same time attempts to organise labour are being suppressed in the run-up to June’s presidential elections.

“They haven’t paid us for at least four months and I have to keep borrowing money,” says Jamshid, a 32-year-old industrial worker in Tehran, the capital. Last month the minimum wage was raised by 25%, to 4.87m rials ($140) a month, but even by official criteria this is one-third of what is deemed to be a living wage in the capital. The drop in the rial’s value means that, when it comes to the imports on which Iran relies, Iranian cash is worth barely a third of what it was in 2011, before the United States imposed sanctions on the country’s financial system.

Iran does not recognise independent unions, so workers have to make do with Islamic Labour Councils, which must be approved by employers and the security services. Reckoning that these councils are in cahoots with the government, workers tend to keep their grievances to themselves for fear of being sacked as troublemakers. Labour leaders are often imprisoned.

Ali Nejati and Reza Shahabi, who led sugarcane workers’ and bus drivers’ unions respectively, were recently freed under surveillance. Mr Shahabi is now in prison again, as is Muhammad Jarahi, who stands for petrochemical workers, and Shahrokh Zamani, a painter, all of them guilty of “endangering national security”. “Not having independent workers’ unions guarantees things will stay the same,” Mr Nejati recently told an Iranian radio station based in Germany. “As a workers’ representative I complained and I went to prison for it and was fired.”

Despite the long history of Iran’s labour movement and the big part its oil workers played in deposing the shah in 1979, Iran’s workers have witnessed a steady erosion of their bargaining power. After the revolution, independent workers’ councils won rights to such things as a 40-hour week and lodging allowances. They got rid of people who had worked for the shah’s intelligence service. But during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) the unions’ independence was destroyed. Under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his successor, Muhammad Khatami, imports soared while Iran’s own manufacturing industry slumped. Unions have been further weakened by the reclassification of many workers as temporary.

Last month several bakers were arrested for allegedly organising their colleagues in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj. At the same time, workers at a tractor-making company in Tabriz, in the north-west, signed a letter accusing managers of “brutal treatment, intimidation and failing to pay wages”. “Authorities who always talk about justice in the Islamic republic should know that complete injustice prevails in this system,” they wrote.

“We are at the mercy of our employers,” says Mahmud, a Tehran street sweeper on his night shift, scraping rubbish out of an open gutter with a coarse wicker brush. “We almost never get the overtime pay we are entitled to but we can’t complain because we would be fired.” A senior municipal worker admits that thousands of non-unionised street sweepers, who clean the capital by night, often go months without pay. Last year the office of Muhammad Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor and a presidential hopeful, commissioned a film called “Those Who Wear Orange” about a brainy university graduate who becomes a street cleaner—for love of the job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the firing line

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

Hyperinflation: a tool of war that enriches some

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-political politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in the Weekly Worker.

Notes

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

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

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

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

Quotes: Why we don’t support the Iran Tribunal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 7 key arguments against the “Iran Tribunal”

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

The arguments in more detail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.    Many organisations and witnesses have withdrawn.

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

6.    Critical voices have been silenced.

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

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

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

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

Iran: Sanctions mean war on the people

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.

Sanctions

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.

Effects

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.

Support

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).

Notes

1. www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iran-says-it-will-cut-imports-of-nonessential-goods/2012/10/14/7291ba34-1640-11e2-a55c-39408fbe6a4b_story.html.

2. ‘EU moves closer to new Iran sanctions’: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/10/12/uk-eu-iran-sanctions-idUKBRE89B0VH20121012.

3. ‘Obama implements additional Iran sanctions’: www.jpost.com/IranianThreat/News/Article.aspx?id=287319.

4. http://hopoi.org/?p=663.

5. ‘Iran sanctions need time to work, David Cameron says’: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19957218.