Yalda, Triumph of light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

Legacy of the 2003 war

We all know who is responsible for Fallujah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rivalries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pro-Zionists are false friends

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

We need a movement for genuine solidarity with the working class

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

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

According to Owen Tudor of the TUC,

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

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

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

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

Pro-regime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broader vision

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

 

A dynasty of ill-gotten gains

Yassamine Mather looks at the life of Ashraf Pahlavi who died on January 7 aged 96

Ashraf Pahlavi, the twin sister of the ex-shah of Iran, was a deluded, ruthless megalomaniac. Until her last days she believed that the Iranian revolution of 1979 against the rule of her brother was a “plot devised by the secret services in the United States and the United Kingdom”! Contrary to what has been written in the last week – not only by royalist exiles, but even by sections of the liberal opposition, nostalgic for the shah’s era – she was no champion of women’s rights, nor was she a “Lady Macbeth”, as Hamid Dabashi claims in an obituary published on the Al Jazeera website!1

In 1938, inspired by Kemal Ataturk’s westernisation in Turkey, her father, Reza Shah, decided to unveil women as part of his ‘modernisation’ drive. Ashraf, her sister and their mother were amongst the first Iranian women to appear in public wearing a hat instead of the traditional head covering of Iranian women. Like many other aspects of this ‘modernisation from above’, at the end of the day only a minority of urban women – mainly amongst the aristocracy and the middle classes – adopted the new dress code. Attempts to impose unveiling, including the use of police to remove women’s head covering by brute force, only added to the resentment against Reza Shah’s policies. Ashraf Pahlavi, like many in the shah’s court, never understood this – her comments decades later, describing her horror at seeing a demonstration of black-veiled women in Tehran in 1978, is proof of this.

In the few days since her death, the royalist exiles have made exaggerated comments about her work as a champion of women’s rights. Not quite true. The women’s organisation she set up had a marginal impact on the lives of middle class and upper class women, but it did nothing to alleviate the plight of the overwhelming majority of Iranian women – except as the objects of charitable activities. Far from being a champion of women’s rights, she always talked of her own masculine qualities. Far from being a champion of women’s’ rights she always talked of her own masculine qualities. She was proud of being the only child of Reza Shah to be slapped by him, always boasting that she had more guts than her brothers and aspired to become a power in her own right. In her autobiography she wrote: “I confess that, even though since childhood I had paid a price for being a woman, in terms of education and personal freedom, I had not given much thought to specific ways in which women in general were more oppressed than men.”2

In 1941, the United Kingdom and Russia invaded and occupied Iran in response to Reza Shah’s declaration of neutrality in World War II. Accused of harbouring pro-Nazi sentiments, he was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. The Allies sent him and the rest of the family to exile in South Africa, but Ashraf soon returned to Tehran, setting up her own royal headquarters – mainly to support her brother, who at the time was viewed as weak and indecisive. It is believed that it was she who appointed several of his prime ministers.3

In 1946 she visited the Soviet Union to discuss withdrawal of Soviet troops from northern Iran. A meeting with Stalin, which was supposed to last 15 minutes, ended three hours later and as a parting gesture Stalin gave Ashraf a fur coat as a gift.

According to historians, in the early 1950s Ashraf met Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s nationalist prime minister, on at least two occasions. She tried to convince Mossadegh to take a more conciliatory approach to her brother and, having failed, became one of his major opponents. She was heavily involved in the preparations for the 1953 coup.

Coup

In the preceding months Ashraf played a crucial role in Operation Ajax, the CIA-organised military and propaganda campaign to overthrow Mossadegh. Historians have credited her with convincing her brother, Mohammad Reza Shah, to give the go-ahead. According to Stephen Kinzer, author of the bookAll the shah’s men, Ashraf met CIA agents in Spring 1953. They asked her to use her influence to convince her brother to agree to the proposed coup:

Ashraf was enjoying life in French casinos and nightclubs when one of Roosevelt’s Iranian agents, Assadollah Rashidian, went to visit her … The next day a delegation of American and British agents came to pose the invitation in stronger terms. The leader of the delegation, a senior British operative named Norman Darbyshire, had the foresight to bring a mink coat and a packet of cash. When Ashraf saw these emoluments, Darbyshire later recalled, “her eyes lit up and her resistance crumbled”.4

Ashraf’s own account contradicts this. She claims she was offered a blank cheque if she agreed to return to Iran from her French exile, but refused the money and returned of her own accord.

CIA documents declassified in 2000 and published by the New York Times show the agency’s assessment of the shah at that time as “a man of indecision”. These documents support the suggestion that to ensure progress in the coup plans, those involved relied on “the shah’s dynamic and forceful twin sister” and that she had already been in touch with US and British agents.

Ashraf was a renowned gambler, at times spending long hours in poker games with close friends – some from Iran’s aristocracy. Later she became famous for gambling in the French Riviera, the French press dubbing her La Panthère Noire (Black Panther) after she survived what appeared to be an assassination attempt in 1976. Fourteen shots were fired at her Rolls Royce – a friend was killed and the chauffeur was wounded.5

Throughout the 1960s and 70s there were allegations about Ashraf Pahlavi’s “financial misconduct”. By her own account, she faced hardship in 1953, when Mossadegh’s nationalist government sent her into exile. However, once Pahlavi rule was re-established, she amassed considerable wealth. Nikki Keddie claims:

… part of the story behind the build-up of her fortune may have been that during the Iranian industrial boom, which was driven by a surge in oil prices, Pahlavi and her son, Shahram, took 10% or more of a new company’s stock gratis, in return for ensuring the delivery of a licence to operate, to import, to export or to deal with the government. Government licences were said to be given only to a few well-connected companies in each field. As a result, the need to get and keep a licence became a cost that had to be met.6

There were also widespread allegations about her role in drug-trafficking in Iran – some of the shah’s ministers repeated these claims at the time and later in their memoirs.

In 1980, Ashraf published an article in the New York Times, followed by two books in English: Faces in a mirror: memoirs from exile (1980) and Time for truth (1995), together with a similar autobiographical book in French, Jamais résignée(1981) . Here she respond to rumours about her wealth, arguing it came about not through “ill-gotten gains”. She was particularly keen to rebut the stories that she had profited from drug-trafficking, attributing her fortune to inherited land, which “drastically increased in value with the development of Iran and the new prosperity that was there for all”. She notes that many other Iranians profited from the sale of real estate, but were not accused of financial misconduct because of close ties to the clergy and ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.7

However, before coming to power in 1925, Reza Khan was an officer of the Iranian army, with very little income or land. It is inconceivable that the fortunes accumulated by the Pahlavis and their entourage – fortunes smuggled out of the country around the time of the 1979 revolution, allowing them a life of luxury for the last three and a half decades – derived just from the sale of land. By emphasising this as the main explanation of the family’s wealth, Ashraf Pahlavi gives further credibility to accusations that have survived well beyond the short-lived rule of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Notes

1. www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/01/lady-macbeth-princess-ashraf-pahlavi-160108130337420.html.

2. A Pahlavi Faces in a mirror: memoirs from exile New Jersey 1980.

3.www.bbc.com/persian/iran/2016/01/160108_behnoud_ashraf_pahlavi_died.

4. S Kinzer All the shah’s men: an American coup and the roots of Middle East terror London 2003.

5. A Pahlavi op cit.

6. N Keddie Roots of revolution: an interpretive history New Haven 1981, p172.

7. A Pahlavi op cit.

Method behind the madness

While the Saudi kingdom’s callous executions must be condemned, Yassamine Mather says Iran’s official protests are sheer hypocrisy

It appears as if the new leaders of Saudi Arabia woke up on the first day of 2016 and thought, ‘How can we make a terrible situation in the Middle East worse than it already is? How can we incite more sectarian violence, start new wars?’ And then they came up with the brilliant idea of executing 47 prisoners. Forty-three Sunni and four Shia prisoners were killed; some were beheaded, others faced a firing squad. Amongst them the country’s top Shia cleric, Nimr Al Nimr, who was injured during the course of his arrest in 2012. Saudi attempts at linking his execution to an anti-al Qaeda, anti-terrorist operation beggars belief. Nimr had been convicted of “sedition, disobedience and bearing arms”. He never denied the political charges against him, however he and his supporters are adamant that he never carried weapons or called for violence.

Robert Fisk is right when he mocks the Saudi kingdom’s election to the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 – with UK help – adding: “Now, only hours after the Sunni Muslim Saudis chopped off the heads of 47 of their enemies, including a prominent Shia Muslim cleric, the Saudi appointment is grotesque. All that was missing was the video of the decapitations – although the kingdom’s 158 beheadings last year were perfectly in tune with the Wahabi teachings of the ‘Islamic State’.”1

However, there was method behind this madness. The second most important prisoner executed on January 2 was Faris Ahmed Zahrani, described by the Saudi media as al-Qaeda’s top religious leader in the kingdom. Saudi Arabian prisoner Adel al-Dhubaiti, who was convicted of the murder of BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers and the attempted murder of BBC correspondent Frank Gardner was among the other prisoners executed by Saudi Arabia. According to the Independent, “Cumber’s parents, Robert and Bronagh, from Navan in County Meath, had previously called on the Saudi Arabian authorities not to execute their son’s killer, adding their son Simon was a pacifist, someone who would not have wanted the death penalty and would have opposed it. We do not want this man to be executed if he is found guilty”, Mr Cumbers said in 2009.

In a country where there is considerable sympathy and support for Al Qaeda and Islamic State, the inclusion of four Shias was aimed at reassuring the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries that the rulers were still on their side, that Shia Iran remains the main enemy. The reality is that king Salman, like his predecessors, is far more concerned about the possibility of a Sunni, Salafi rebellion than protests by the Shia minority in the east of the country.

Once the Saudis took this step their Shia counterparts in Iran were bound to react with protests outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran organised by bassij (the state’s right wing militia) but portrayed as a spontaneous outpouring of anger. The response by Iran’s ‘supreme leader’, ayatollah Khamenei, to other ayatollahs, calling for “divine punishment of the house of Saud”, prompted many criticisms inside the country. For the ‘moderate’ reformist opposition, who kept repeating their allegiance to the Islamic Republic but have been badly suppressed in the last 7-8 years, it is inconceivable that Iran would have shown more tolerance than Saudi Arabia towards an opponent calling for “the overthrow of the existing order” – as Nimr Al Nimr did in Saudi Arabia.

The ‘reformist’ leaders of the 2009 protests in Iran, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, never called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic; on the contrary, they constantly reiterated their support for the supreme leader; yet they have spent the last 7 years under house arrest, with no trial. In the 37 years since the Islamic Republic of Iran came into existence, anyone who called for the overthrow of the religious dictatorship has faced execution.

Ironically, this week Mansoureh Behkish, the mother of five executed left wing activists, died in Tehran. Her children were all communists, members of Fedayeen Minority, and all executed by Iran’s Islamic Republic. She once said she had spent most of her time outside Iranian jails. So for Iranian clerics, pasdars and bassijis to show anger at political executions in Saudi Arabia is hypocritical. No wonder everyone is talking of the pot calling the kettle black.

As for Nimr’s own credentials, the Islamic Republic might be in denial, but far from being a constant ally of the regime in Tehran, when it came to making deals with the United Sates he showed the kind of pragmatism Shia leaders are famous for. Documents released by Wikileaks show how Nimr courted the Americans, claiming to have nothing to do with Tehran, and was prepared to do a deal in exchange for US support. According to CIA documents released by Wikileaks:

B. 08 RIYADH 1070

Classified By: CG JOHN KINCANNON FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D)

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY: In an August 13 meeting with PolOff, controversial Shi’ite sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr sought to distance himself from previously reported pro-Iranian and anti-American statements, instead adopting a less radical tone on topics such as the relationship between Iran and the Saudi Shi’a, and American foreign policy. Arguing that he is portrayed publicly as much more radical than the true content of his words and beliefs, the Sheikh also espoused other conciliatory ideas such as fair political decision-making over identity-based politics, the positive impact of elections, and strong “American ideals” such as liberty and justice. Despite this more moderate tone, Al-Nimr reasserted his ardent opposition to what he described as the authoritarianism of the reactionary al-Saud regime, stating he would always support “the people” in any conflict with the government.

The CIA background notes on al Nimr are also interesting. He clearly sought to reassure the CIA that he wanted to befriend the US:

In the meeting with PolOff, al-Nimr stated that his fundamental view of foreign powers – including Iran – is that they act out of self-interest, not out of piety or religious commonality. Al-Nimr said he was against the idea that Saudi Shi’ite should expect Iranian support based on some idea of sectarian unity that supersedes national politics.

6. (S/NF) In addition to supporting Iran, al-Nimr’s recent sermons have been laced with anti-American rhetoric, for example that America “wants to humiliate the world.” In this meeting, the sheikh distanced himself from these ideas, saying that he has great affection for the American people. Al-Nimr stated that in his view, when compared with the actions of nations such as Britain, the European colonial powers, or the Soviet Union, the “imperialism” of the United States has been considerably more benign, with better treatment of people and more successful independent states. Al-Nimr said that this was evident in comparing the fortunes of West and East Germany, where the American-supported West was clearly more successful than the Soviet-supported East. The Sheikh also cited Japan as another case of America properly compensating and building a nation. The Sheikh believes that US efforts in the Middle East are also better intentioned than previous imperial powers in the region, but that the US has made tremendous mistakes in Iraq.

The reformist faction of the regime, from president Hassan Rouhani to sections of the ‘soft left’, were unanimous in repeating ad nauseam that the January 2 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was a violation of international law. Contrary to the propaganda of more conservative factions of the Islamic regime in Iran, attacking embassies, be it the US embassy in the early years of the regime or the Saudi embassy this week, is neither radical nor is it anti-‘arrogance’ (the Iranian clergy’s term for imperialism).

However the outcry of the opposition is also ludicrous. How can anyone talk of respect for international law when we live in a world where the hegemon power, the US, has broken every aspect of international law, even the basic rules governing military engagement covered by the Geneva convention, during its interventions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan; when we know from recent history that UK soldiers in Iraq facing war crime charges are unlikely to face any punishment; when we know US and UK security agents who sat through interrogation and torture of Guantanamo prisoners will never face any court?

The whole idea of international law has become a joke, and anyone peddling it is either deluded or dependent on the financial contributions of western powers – a sad reality when it comes to large chunks of the Iranian opposition, including some masquerading as leftwing.

Having said that, the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stupid and irrelevant. At the end of the day it will be the Islamic Republic which will be even more isolated in the region. Already Saudi Arabia and a number of its allies, including Bahrain and Sudan, have broken off diplomatic relations. Senior clerics and pasdar leaders have already started distancing themselves from the Saudi embassy protesters.

Time to shed illusions

Only the international solidarity of our class can deliver a lasting solution, writes Yassamine Mather

As the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate, and in the wake of renewed political and military efforts led by the United States, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies have gone onto the offensive.

On December 6, Ali Akbar Velayati – advisor to and representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei – met the Syrian ruler in Damascus. Tehran is confident that, given the current situation, if elections are held in the next few months, Assad and his Ba’ath party will win and no doubt in the next round of negotiations, to be held in New York, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran will fight their corner. However, it is not clear if this total support for Assad results from an agreement with Russian president Vladimir Putin or if Iran is asserting its position ahead of a compromise by Russia. Apparently Putin is considering the possibility of replacing Assad by a military junta, to include Sunni and Christian military commanders – a solution favoured by the US and its allies. Iran’s reassertion of its support for Assad is an attempt to avert any such compromise.

The reality is that, for all the spin coming from the US administration about the next round of Syria talks in New York, the various options presented as ‘solutions to the crisis’ seem as bad as each other. After more than four years of bloodshed and suffering – including the complete destruction of several major cities, not just by Islamic State, but by the regime itself, not forgetting the air raids by the US, France, Russia and in the last week the United Kingdom – the efforts of the ‘international community’ could well end in the continuation of a minority Alawite-led regime or a military junta.

According to an article aptly named ‘Can Iran live without Assad?’ by Matthew McInnis, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Islamic Republic’s options ahead of a new round of peace talks are clear. In fact the west’s options are not that different. According to McInnis, the alternatives are:

  1. Someone from Assad’s inner circle taking over. The problem with this option is that the Syrian opposition and presumably their western allies will not accept such an arrangement and, more importantly, there is no likely candidate to fulfil such a role.
  2. A Christian or Druze as a compromise candidate. Tehran has few allies beyond the Alawite community and it is therefore unlikely that Iran will accept this.
  3. The replacement of Assad by a Sunni officer, rumoured to be favoured by the Russians. This would clearly be unacceptable to Tehran, and Khamenei would have made Iran’s views on this clear during his meeting with Putin last week.

That is why, as far as Tehran is concerned, Assad’s survival is the best, and maybe the only, option. Again according to McInnis,

Tehran will continue the fight on the ground to improve the Syrian regime’s position, work with Russia to find candidates that have support from the army and the Alawite community, the country will prevent the emergence of any leader too popular or strong to potentially push Iran out of Syria later, and it will ensure Iran retains a veto over the transition process, either directly or implicitly through threats of sabotaging any deal.1

For most Iranians the supreme leader’s 100% support for Assad – support echoed by the most conservative factions of the regime, including the Revolutionary Guards – is bizarre. Khamenei and his inner circle will not tolerate anything approaching secularism in their own country – female members of the Assad family, including Bashar’s wife, Asma al-Assad, would face a flogging for failing to wear a hijab if they were Iranian citizens. Apparently Iran’s adherence to Shia rules was one of the reasons the Syrian dictator refused to accept the offer of a sanctuary for his family in Tehran.

Yet senior clerics, leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and close advisors to the supreme leader do not seem to see the irony of their commitment to do all in their power to keep a Ba’athist, secular party in power in Syria. As many Tehranis have observed, there is one rule for Iranians and another for the country’s allies – as always, Iran’s foreign policy is based on pragmatism, not religion. Tehran wants to maintain its current advantageous position in the region – the fall of the Syrian regime would endanger Hezbollah’s grip in Lebanon and Iran cannot tolerate such a situation. However, for the US and its allies Iran’s emerging market and cheap labour force present a golden opportunity not to be wasted.

Support Damascus?

According to the Morning Star, “the Nato powers and their Middle Eastern allies should stop arming and funding terrorist groups in Syria and start supporting the Damascus regime in its desperate battle against Isis and other sectarian forces.”2 This is precisely the solution put forward by sections of global capital and, although it might bring a temporary respite, it would not deal with the root causes of the current conflict and could be temporary at best.

But London mayor Boris Johnson seems to be competing with the Star in this regard:

I was in Paris at the end of last week, and the Russian leader’s face glowered sulkily from every billboard. “Putin”, said the headline, “notre nouvel ami”. Many French people think the time has come to do a deal with their ‘new friends’, the Russians – and I think that they are broadly right. We have the estimated 70,000 of the Free Syrian Army (and many other groups and grouplets); but those numbers may be exaggerated, and they may include some jihadists who are not ideologically very different from al Qa’eda.

Who else is there? The answer is obvious. There is Assad, and his army; and the recent signs are that they are making some progress. Thanks at least partly to Russian air strikes, it looks as if the regime is taking back large parts of Homs. Al Qa’eda-affiliated militants are withdrawing from some districts of the city. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.

However, both the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and Boris Johnson are wrong. The Russia/Iran/Syria ‘solution’ will only delay the final stages of this conflict. If Assad and his Iranian allies were popular or had legitimacy, we would not be where we are today.

Similarly, the talk about ‘illegal’ wars and United Nations resolutions is totally counterproductive. In his speech to the UK parliament last week, Jeremy Corbyn told MPs:

UN security council resolution 2249, passed after the Paris atrocities and cited in today’s government motion, does not give clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK bombing in Syria. To do so it would have had to be passed under chapter 7 of the UN charter, to which the security council couldn’t agree.

The UN resolution is certainly a welcome framework for joint action to cut off funding, oil revenues and arms supplies from Isil. But there’s little sign of that happening in earnest. Nor is there yet any serious evidence that it’s being used to coordinate international military or diplomatic strategy in Syria.3

I rest my case. At least two of the west’s allies are involved in the IS sale of oil, which is said to generate $1 billion a month! Do we really believe that nothing can be done about this trade? US sanctions have meant that European banks have paid billions of dollars in fines for trading with Iranian companies, yet the sale of oil from Mosul and other Iraqi regions cannot be detected and stopped? Are we seriously expecting the UN to punish the countries involved? The US and its allies are not actually attempting to defeat IS – the policy is one of containment, not destruction. In fact the group has its uses for imperialism – or at least imperialist allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states.

For us it is clear that the defeat of the imperialist project involves the shedding of liberal illusions, including in the UN. The statement issued by the Stop the War Coalition on the eve of the Westminster vote on Syria certainly had its fair share of those: “Our parliament must ensure it takes decisions in the interests of the security and well-being of our citizens and must consider the impact of our decisions on the wider world.”4 Hardly an expression of internationalism. It is regrettable that sections of the left have fallen into the trap of using the state’s current opportunistic emphasis on “security”.

Solidarity

Everyone knows that IS has its origins in al Qa’eda – itself a creation of US imperialism – and that it is able to recruit because of imperialist interventions, together with the failure to address historic injustices in the region, including the occupation of Palestine. It is only through the defeat of the imperialist project that a genuine solution can be found.

We are first and foremost for the defeat of the imperialist project – including their jihadist offshoots, such as Islamic State. Even if many of their recruits do not see themselves as such, I would classify IS as part of the imperialist project. They are also part of the problem, the enemies of revolutionary forces. So, while we call for the defeat of the imperialists, we are not necessarily for the victory of their opponents.

The working class in Iran and Iraq are under the neoliberal economic hammer of these Shia states, and the secular peoples of the region are desperately in need of support, which must come in the form of the international solidarity of the working class. As Adam Hanieh rightly points out,

Isis’s rise cannot be explained as simply an outcome of ideology or religion, as many western commentators appear to believe. There are very real social and political roots that explain the organisation’s growth.

One of the most important factors is the defeat of the Arab spring – itself a rebellion against the onslaught of neoliberal economic policies in the region, in circumstances where the weakness of the left allowed reactionary forces to benefit from the political vacuum caused by war, instability and economic hardship.5

Contrary to populist belief, the Arab spring had little to do with the spread of the internet and the growth of social media. It was first and foremost a reaction to economic hardship, the transfer of the effects of the 2008 economic crisis to the third world in general and the Near East in particular.

Its dramatic defeat – predictable, given the weaknesses of radical forces of the left – gave new impetus to the forces of reaction, including Wahhabi Islamists. They were already popular because of their opposition to the rise of Shiism in the region – a direct consequence of another war with no strategy, the one started in 2003 in Iraq.

To defeat the imperialist project we must address the fundamental reasons behind the Arab spring, as well as the issues surrounding the current civil wars – in this case the continuation of politics by reactionary states, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

Notes

1. www.aei.org/publication/could-iran-live-without-assad.

2. www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-ef71-Communists-condemn-wave-of-brutal-terrorist-attacks#.Vmfc4XaLT8s.

3. www.lawfareblog.com/uks-parliament-debates-what-un-security-council-said.

4. http://stopwar.org.uk/index.php/news/why-uk-joining-the-bombing-will-be-bad-for-syria-the-region-and-britain.

5. www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/isis-syria-iraq-war-al-qaeda-arab-spring.

Deselect the Labour warmongers

h-jOn December 2 the House of Commons voted by 397 to 223 in favour of UK air strikes in Syria. Under the leadership of Hilary Benn, shadow foreign secretary, there were 66 Labour MPs who took advantage of the free vote offered by Jeremy Corbyn and openly sided with the ill-considered imperialist operations in Syria – even 10 Conservatives rebelled, such were their worries. After his closing speech Benn was cheered and congratulated not only by the 67 pro-war Labour MPs, but by front-bench Tories, members of the Democratic Unionist Party and Liberal Democrats. He is the leader of their Labour Party.

Continue reading Deselect the Labour warmongers

Two culpable rivals

What lies behind the Mecca tragedy?

On September 24, the Saudi authorities told the world that 769 pilgrims had been killed and 863 injured during what was described as a “stampede” in Mecca, as Muslim pilgrims were beginning the Hajj ritual. A few days later, however, it was claimed that Saudi officials had given Indian and Pakistani diplomats 1,100 photographs of different corpses, and it was only after these revelations that Riyadh admitted the death toll was even higher.

According to Tehran, at least 246 of the dead and 630 of those injured were Iranians. Amongst those missing and presumed dead at the time of writing was Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi. Saudi administrators denied he was in Mecca, but Tehran produced a short film of him addressing Shia crowds during this year’s Hajj. Official figures released by Saudi authorities had the number of Iranian deaths at 131 – the largest national contingent (the second largest being Moroccans, of whom 88 are believed to have died).

Later the Iranian broadcaster, Press TV, quoted Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage organisation, who predicted there would be “3,000 to 3,200 bodies” in the 21 containers where the dead had been placed – clearly an exaggerated figure.1 The Iranian official claimed that “imprudence, irresponsibility and the mismanagement of the Saudi authorities are the main factors behind the tragic incident”.2 Iran’s Islamic republic has done its utmost to place the entire blame on the Saudi authorities, challenging the kingdom’s competence to run this “important event in the Islamic calendar”.

Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for an investigation, and his demand was echoed by every Friday prayer leader in the country, prompting religious zealots to pour to the streets. Instructions from mosques were sent by text, urging Shias to demonstrate, in what was labelled “spontaneous protests”. Supporters of the regime, carrying black flags, shouted: “The Saudi regime is a friend of Satan” (part of the Hajj ritual consists of pilgrims throwing stones at ‘Satan’). One paper, Tasnim, carried a cartoon showing king Salman of Saudi Arabia as a camel riding over pilgrims and ayatollah Mohammad Kashani, addressing Friday prayers in Tehran, called on the Organisation of Islamic Countries to take over responsibility for Hajj, since the Saudi authorities were “incapable” of running it.

The war of words between the two regional powers rapidly escalated, with Saudi Arabia categorically denying “misleading and distorted allegations” about inappropriate road closures that it alleged had been started by Iranian state-controlled media. Iran’s allies were repeating the same claims, with Iraq’s discredited former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, stating that the disaster was “proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season” – a bit rich, coming from a leader who lost two of his country’s major cities, Mosul and Tikrit, to Islamic State in 2014, through incompetence and corruption. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah added his voice to the Shia chorus, saying the Hajj tragedy reflected a “malfunction in the administration”.3

Originally the Saudi authorities had claimed that African pilgrims had disobeyed instructions given by the Hajj authorities blocking the route of the procession. However, Press TV (not the most reliable source of information) countered that “the convoy of prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the son of Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz, had arrived at the site, forcing the pilgrims to change their original directions”.4Whereupon the Saudi media changed its story and Sabq News quoted unnamed “eyewitnesses”, who claimed that the “stampede” was actually caused by Iranian pilgrims. This was followed by a comment from Dr Khalid al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, who used his Twitter account to claim that “the time has come to think – in a serious way – about banning ‘Iranians’ from coming to Mecca, for the safety of the pilgrims”.5

The official Saudi response was more measured, with prince Mohammed bin Naff Al Saudi, the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, stating: “Claims that the stampede occurred following road closures because of a ministerial event or a dignitaries’ convoy are false.”6 However, Iran is not the only source claiming road closures played a part in the tragedy. On September 29 The Daily Telegraph quoted Libyan pilgrim Ahead Abu Barr as saying: “The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one.”7

To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, implied that nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. He told Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef: “As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable.”8 Unsurprisingly, Iranian president Hassan Rowhani disagreed and demanded an international enquiry.

Incompetence

As I have said, the Islamic republic’s allegations about Saudi culpability are exaggerated, but there is no doubt that Riyadh’s incompetence in running the only major annual event they host should be exposed and condemned. This is not the first time that hundreds of Hajj pilgrims have died. In 1990 in a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel, 1,426 pilgrims lost their lives – most of them Malaysians, Indonesians and Pakistanis (the Saudi authorities encourage groups of each nationality to walk together). On top of that, incidents in May 1994, April 1998, March 2001, February 2003, February 2004 and January 2006 cost the lives of pilgrims – around 3,000 have perished in the last 20 years.

Given the Saudi royal family’s pride in hosting the event, the direct responsibility falls on the crown prince himself, who just happens to be minister of the interior. It is truly incomprehensible why even such a bureaucratic dictatorship cannot organise a better process, ensuring the safety of the pilgrims as they progress through the various stages of Hajj.

Hajj is the fifth ‘pillar’ of Islam – the other four being Shahadah (testimony to a single god and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet), Salat (physical and spiritual worship), Zakat (obligatory religious tax), and Sawm (fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan). According to Islamic belief, every Muslim man or woman should undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, should they be healthy and financially able to do so. The ceremony involves wearing a simple white cloth (hiram) – the idea being to strip away all distinctions of wealth, class, status and culture. Not quite true: in the first place, the cost of travel only allows the wealthy to attend Hajj, especially when it comes to believers from east Asia or Africa.

According to Basharat Peer, an Indian journalist who has written on Mecca,

You could be an Arab prince, you could be a south Asian construction worker, you could be an Afghan warlord … you are all wearing the same clothes and you just walk through this barren landscape and it is miserably hot. But when you look a little more carefully what you see is that even during the Hajj the distinctions of wealth and class do not disappear.9

The Saudi authorities have helped ensure such class distinction by overseeing the building of luxury hotels, where wealthy Muslims pay astronomical sums for rooms with a view of the Kaaba – the black stone structure in the middle of the Grand Mosque. The experience of the wealthy pilgrims is very different from that of the poorer ones, who suffer in the often sweltering heat in camp sites or hostels with no air conditioning.

As with everything else relating to Islamic economics, the ownership of land and capital are key factors. The cost of Hajj might be paid by the pilgrims, but the real price is obtained from the surplus value of workers, whose exploitation allows the Muslim shopkeeper or workshop owner to undertake the pilgrimage.

Hajjis from Iran are often representatives of the upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie and small capital, on whose support the regime relies. Traditionally, the aristocracy and the nouveaux riches (who have accumulated huge fortunes under the Islamic republic) prefer to spend their wealth in holiday resorts in Europe or North America, while the less well-off middle classes and those who cannot afford to travel far would escape up Turkey, Dubai or anywhere near Iran’s border, where they can take a break free from strict Islamic regulation regarding dress, alcohol consumption, etc.

After over 36 years of unpopular rule, then, Iran’s Shia clerics can only rely a petty-bourgeois minority – primarily the bazaaris and shopkeepers, the section of the population that tends to be obsessed by Hajj. Hence the regime’s overzealous response to the Mecca tragedy, which can be blamed in its entirety on Iran’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia.

However, it is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. After all, Iran’s Islamic government cannot guarantee the health and safety of Iranian workers or flight passengers – let alone its political prisoners (many of whom ‘accidentally’ die in the regime’s many prisons).

 

Notes

1. www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/09/29/431165/Saudi-Arabia-Mina-Iran-Rouhani-Hajj.0

2. www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/09/25/430691/Hajj-Mecca-Stampede-Irans-Hajj-and-Pilgrimage-Organization-Saeed-Ohadi-Saudi-Arabia.

3.http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/M/ML_SAUDI_HAJJ_THE_LATEST?SITE=AP&

4. www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/09/25/430691/Hajj-Mecca-Stampede-Irans-Hajj-and-Pilgrimage-Organization-Saeed-Ohadi-Saudi-Arabia.

5. www.nytimes.com/2015/09/26/world/middleeast/hajj-stampede-mecca-saudi-arabia.html?_r=0.

6. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/09/26/middleeast/hajj-pilgrimage.

7. The Daily Telegraph September 29.

8. www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/saudi-grand-mufti-hajj-stampede-human-control-150926080554917.html.

9. www.nytimes.com/2015/09/26/world/middleeast/hajj-stampede-mecca-saudi-arabia.html.