How long after the inauguration of the new president before disillusionment sets in? Yassamine Mather discusses the limitations of Hassan Rowhani
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rowhani, will take office on August 3. He faces major internal as well as international problems. It will be interesting to see how a man who describes himself as a ‘centrist’ will try to reconcile the warring factions of the Islamic Republic, but also the increasing divide between ordinary Iranians – victims of sanctions, poor economic management, as well political repression – with an increasingly paranoid religious dictatorship.
However, the new president’s biggest and most immediate problem will be the nuclear issue. He was, after all, elected on the basis of promises to ‘resolve’ it and thus remove sanctions. In the month and a half since his election he has already faced some serious setbacks, particularly over sanctions.
Iran is now facing more sanctions than the day he was elected – including the academic boycott of research by Iranian scientists and engineers. They have only just begun to take effect, even though they were passed by the US Congress and approved by the Senate in early 2013.
In what is an unprecedented move against Iranian academics, major publishers are instructing journal editors that, in accordance with US department of the treasury regulations, they should not be involved in the management and processing of any manuscript through peer review with any author or co-author who is acting directly (as an employee) or indirectly on behalf of the government of Iran – which includes “any political subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof, [including] the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
There are also additional new sanctions. Only a few days before the presidential inauguration in Tehran, the Republican-led Congress will vote on yet another set of sanctions, this time reducing Iran’s oil exports by a further one million barrels per day by the summer of 2014. The aim is clear: to stop Iran’s oil exports altogether. However, coming less than a week after the treasury department relaxed controls on the export of certain drugs and medical devices, such as dialysis machines and electrocardiographs, to Iran without special permission, it shows that, when it comes to negotiations between the two countries, Washington is as divided as Tehran.
Since the election of a ‘moderate’ president, sections of the US administration have been advocating conciliation (“The house must not snuff out hopes for Iranian moderation before Rowhani even gets a chance”), while the pro-Israeli lobby is more in tune with Binyamin Netanyahu’s latest comments on this subject. Speaking to CBS in mid-July, the Israeli premier called Rowhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”: Iran is “getting closer and closer to the bomb” and Tehran “must be told in no uncertain terms that that will not be allowed to happen”.1
On July 1, the Obama administration authorised sanctions targeting the already troubled Iranian currency, imposing penalties on financial institutions involved in rial transactions outside Iran. This measure was included in the ninth set of sanctions imposed during Obama’s presidency. According to Robert McNally, former White House energy advisor, Washington is following a twin-track strategy: “For diplomacy to have any chance of succeeding, it must be coupled with the threat of increased sanctions.”2
In Europe, Iranian banks and financial institutions are challenging their inclusion in the sanctions list and winning some court cases – ironically because EU governments are refusing to disclose legally acceptable evidence that the targeted banks or institutions are linked to Iran’s nuclear programme. These governments claim that if they were to provide such proof in a court of law this might reveal ‘intelligence’ sources.
The supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made it abundantly clear he sees no hope of any deal with the US: “I said at the beginning of the [Iranian] year that I am not optimistic about negotiations with the US, though in past years I have not forbidden negotiations over certain issues like Iraq … the Americans are not trustworthy.”3
Khamenei might have a point here, given what I described above. And, of course, at a time of economic crises, the US might have strong political and economic reasons for wanting the state of conflict with Iran to continue.
The Iranian press and media is full of speculation about Rowhani’s cabinet to be unveiled on August 4. However, none of the current nominees are much of a surprise – all are supporters of the centrist/reformist coalition that saw him elected.
The new president’s much talked about ‘economy team’, mainly drawn from politicians of the Rafsanjani era, represents a continuation of the theme he expounded during the elections: changes in foreign policy will bring stability and therefore economic prosperity! To be fair, Rowhani’s election has had some positive affect on the Iranian economy – but mainly for capital rather than labour. Rent and house prices have gone up! The Tehran stock exchange has been rising daily and hit a record high of 54042 on July 26 – up by 1554 points from Thursday, with shares in major industries increasing in value.
Shares have risen by 30% since the beginning of the current Iranian year in March. The rial’s rate of exchange has improved against the dollar for two reasons: the currency appreciated by 8.5% following the presidential elections and the central bank has officially adopted a single-rate policy. Until early July the government applied two separate exchange rates: one for importers of essential goods, such as medicine (this also applied to senior ayatollahs, government officials and their cronies), while importers of less essential products and ordinary Iranians purchased the dollar at much higher rates on the unregulated market.
So, while Iranian capitalism is doing well, for the majority of Iranians sanctions mean continued hardship, with prices spiralling out of control. In the last three weeks importers have refused to unload ships carrying staple food and basic goods. They claim these goods were purchased at the higher rate compared to the dollar and that this should be taken into account. But the central bank is adamant that the new rate applies.
In the meantime, food prices are out of control – according to the government’s own figures, Iran’s inflation rate surged to 45% in June. According to the semi-official students news agency, ISNA, food prices have gone up sevenfold in the last 10 years – overall inflation has more than doubled in the same period. The Mehr news agency confirms this. At the same time, wages are going down – and this is for the lucky minority who have kept their jobs. On average workers’ real income has been halved in the past year: a combination of low wages and soaring inflation.
In addition to his own limitations as a centrist Islamist, in proposing his new cabinet Rowhani faces two major hurdles:
1. Appointments to some ‘sensitive’ ministries, including foreign affairs, intelligence and internal affairs, need the approval of the supreme leader and his office.
2. He needs to get his nominations approved by a hostile majles (Islamic parliament) dominated by conservatives.
So far two major posts seem to have been decided. Ahmad Jannati, the son of the notorious hard-line ayatollah of the same name, is very likely to become minister for culture and Islamic guidance. This is an important post, as it deals with issues such as freedom of speech, arts, culture, publishing and also the women wearing the hijab. Jannati senior has presided over the operation of sharia law in Iran. However, as Jannati junior keeps telling everyone, political thought is not “genetically inherited” and indeed he is a close ally of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and will make an effort to moderate the harsh attitude of the Islamic authorities regarding art, culture and women’s attire. The ministry of religious guidance is responsible for policing the streets of Iran’s’ major cities, arresting any woman not adhering to its strict dress code. In recent weeks, buoyed by Rowhani’s election, many Iranian women have felt confident enough not to cover all their hair.
Another Rowhani possible nominee is Ali Younessi, who says he has been asked to take over the ministry of intelligence. He was the director of the ministry and a member of the Supreme National Security Council during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), but before anyone starts celebrating let me remind them that Younessi was in charge when allegedly ‘rogue elements’ in his ministry embarked on what became known as the ‘serial political murders’ of leftwing intellectuals and nationalist politicians in the late 1990s.4
The day after Rowhani’s election and in the ensuing celebrations, the crowds in Tehran were calling for the release of all political prisoners and an end to the house arrest of ‘reformist’ leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi as signs of change. But Rowhani will find it almost impossible to deliver on either of these two accounts. The supreme leader has made it clear there will be no release of any political prisoners unless they apologise and ‘repent’!5
Amidst all this, what is getting little coverage is the plight of Iranian workers. Last week alone there were dozens of major workers’ protests. Workers from the Zagros Steel Factory in Kurdistan embarked on days of demonstrations, but when they were ignored by the company they moved their protests to Tehran and demonstrated outside the presidential offices. Zagros has recently closed down, claiming losses in the last two years. According to MP Kamal Alipour Khonakdari, the 82,000 workers are owed three months’ pay.6 The situation in the Iran Tractor Manufacturing Company is no better. Thousands of workers have not been paid for May and June and hundreds have gathered outside their factory in protest.
So, as the inauguration of Hassan Rowhani begins, we can expect the usual hype about the possibility of an improvement in the relations between Iran and the west and no doubt with the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the language will change when it comes to discussions about areas of mutual interest, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. (It is interesting that Khamenei openly admitted that these talks were occurring last week7). There might even be some relaxation vis-àvis the most severe forms of sanctions. However, conflict between Iran and the US has a history longer than the nuclear issue.
No US administration can forget the humiliation that accompanied the loss of the island of stability that was Iran under the shah and, although the 1979-81 holding of hostages at the US embassy in Tehran was not an anti-imperialist act, it left a bruising as far as successive US administrations are concerned. For its part the Iranian government cannot forget US and western support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war or the deliberate destruction of the Iranian economy’s infrastructure after decades of sanctions. So, as far as Iran-US relations are concerned, we are likely to see more of the same in the coming months.
Internally Rowhani is likely to cause even more disillusionment than his reformist/centrist predecessors. There might be a little more toleration of a ‘bad hijab’ during approved celebrations. But wait until there are radical protests and see how our ‘diplomatic cleric’ reacts then!
On the economy, Iran will remain proof of the absurdity of the claim that Islam provides social justice (adl eslami). The Rafsanjani presidency is remembered by Iranian capitalists as the start of the ‘good times’, including the accumulation of major wealth. But for the Iranian working class it was the beginning of deregulation, employment contracts, the loss of job security … and Rowhani’ s economy team were all part of the strategists of that era.
What will be different is that this time they will have to work under difficult global economic conditions – they might not be able to deliver even as far as capitalists are concerned.
On Friday June 14, Iranians voted in large numbers for ayatollah Hassan Rowhani, a regime insider who was elected as Iran’s president with 50.71% of the vote. A centrist, not a ‘reformist’, he became the candidate of an unofficial coalition between ‘reformists’ and ‘centrists’ forged three days before the vote, after green leader and former president Mohammad Khatami asked the ‘reformist’ candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw from the elections.
Rowhani won not because of who he is, but as a result of a massive protest vote against the candidates associated with various ‘principlist’ factions of Iran’s Islamic regime. Iranians opted once more to use the electoral system to show their hatred for the conservatives and principlists who have been in power for the last eight years. These groups promised ‘social justice’ and a clampdown on corruption in 2005 and 2009, yet the gap between the rich and the poor is far wider than when they took office and corruption now engulfs every institution of the state. Nor is it surprising that the people blame them for the sanctions and Iran’s disastrous economic position.
This was a vote for the least worst candidate. And in desperation the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is now ready to compromise with the centrist factions of the Islamic regime. Last week former ‘reformist’ president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was not accepted as a candidate this time round, warned that Khamenei must wake up to the realities of Iran’s current situation. Whether because of this, or out of a concern that after a lacklustre electoral campaign turnout would be low, Khamenei intervened forcefully to encourage people to vote. Even those who “do not support the Islamic system” should come out and vote for the sake of the country, he said. That was an historic first – Iran’s top religious leader has never previously addressed opponents of the Islamic Republic in this manner.
In the last week of the campaign Khamenei went out of his way to emphasise that no-one around him knew his personal choice and, as far as he was concerned, all six candidates on the ballot paper were acceptable. Saeed Jalili, and to a certain extent Ali Akbar Velayati, had been touted as the leader’s favourites by their respective campaign offices. Khamenei’s statement meant that no cleric could whisper at a religious meeting or in a mosque that, although this was a ‘free vote’, the supreme leader had a particular candidate in mind. On election day itself, at many voting stations outside Iran in consulates or offices set up by the government, women were allowed to vote without wearing the compulsory headscarf. Even inside the country some women wearing only symbolic head cover rather than a proper hijab were allowed into voting stations.
However, the question on everyone’s mind is if the supreme leader and his close advisors were going to allow a centrist president, why was Rafsanjani barred from standing? One explanation is that he would have presented more of a challenge to the supreme leader, while Rowhani is less of a threat.
Then there is the issue of the vote itself. One thing is clear: the conservatives were so confident that at least one conservative would get into the second round that they refused to rally around a single candidate. Iranians have taught them a lesson and the recriminations have only just started.
Having said that, the way the results were announced by the ministry of interior raised questions. A psephologist or polling statistician would have been seriously concerned. The share of the vote for each candidate remained more or less static from the announcement of the first result in the morning through to the final declaration in the evening. Rowhani was standing at between 50.01% and 50.9%, while the tally for Mohammad Qalibaf in second place hovered between 15.77% and 15.9%. There was a similar standard deviation for the other five candidates.1 Yet the results were declared region by region, some from rural areas, others from cities. It was highly suspicious that there was so little variation – surely the percentage after each announcement should have vacillated far more, especially following the early results. I am sure that if any of the conservatives had won the ‘reformists’ would have accused the ministry of interior of cheating on the basis of these virtually unchanging percentages. That is what they did after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
I asked a reputed mathematician what he thought. “You don’t need to be an expert”, he told me, “to see that such stable figures stink. I have never seen anything like this in real elections. This is very unlikely, since I am pretty certain that the later sample is from a different part of the country, with a different political profile, than the earlier sample. If all the samples, early and late, came from areas with a similar profile, then the figures would be more believable.”
Let me emphasise that I am not saying Rowhani would not have won and that he would not have finished well above the runner-up, Qalibaf, who lost a lot of support after the final pre-election debate. However, a fraction over 50% is very convenient for the supreme leader. This way the country is seen as divided 50-50 between principlists and centrists/‘reformists’, the authorities are happy and the people are ecstatic – indeed there were major celebrations, under the slogan, “We have taken back our vote”. This is a reference to the disputed 2009 elections, when ‘reformist’ Mir-Hossein Moussavi was thought to be well ahead, yet Ahmadinejad was declared the winner.
If this was referendum on the state’s intransigence regarding the nuclear issue and the economic consequences that followed, then there is little doubt that the conservatives lost. Most significantly, demonstrators celebrating in the streets of Tehran and other major cities saw this as a victory against the supreme leader. Slogans ranged from “Death to the dictator” and “Free all political prisoners” to “Bye bye, Ahmadi” and “Martyred brother, martyred sister, we got back your vote”. This was a reference not just to disputed elections of 2009, but to the repression that followed, when hundreds were killed in the streets or in prison.2
These slogans demonstrated a level of maturity. For example, the chant, “Rowhani, we will guide you”, spoke volumes. Large sections of the population do not trust the centrists or ‘reformists’ and, given the little breathing space they have gained, they are expressing the widely held view that factions of the regime are only pro-reform because the population, in its opposition to the entire regime, pushes them in that direction.
This election was a major setback for exile groups of the left and the right who had not expected the regime to be able to assert itself in such a skilful way. Many had pinned their hopes on western funds for regime change, and ‘Marxists’ have been among those who have accepted financial support from the US as well as rightwing governments in Canada and the Netherlands. Clearly, for all their efforts in organising the Iran Tribunal, ‘human rights’ commissions and so on, they seem to have been outmanoeuvred, thanks to a small concession from the supreme leader. Ironically the jubilation following the election of a centrist lacking the imprimatur of the supreme leader is being used to demonstrate the regime’s adaptability.
As I have said time and time again to former comrades deluded by western contributions to their NGOs, for all its talk of ‘human rights’, ‘women’s rights’ and latterly even ‘workers’ rights’, imperialism’s first choice in Iran will always be to reach a solution with the existing regime. If this election has one consequence, it will be a period of renewed ‘negotiations’ and a substantial reduction in regime change funds at least for the next few years, and that in itself is not a bad outcome. On the negative side it is easy to predict how, like Khatami and Rafsanjani, Rowhani will act like the grand old Duke of York, failing to live up to any of his promises, while buying time for the Islamic regime.
Who is Rowhani?
Unlike Khatami, Iran’s last ‘reformist’ president, Rowhani is very much an insider of the regime who has held crucial posts since 1979, including membership of the Assembly of Experts (the body which selects and oversees the role of the supreme leader) since 1999, the Expediency Council (the administrative assembly appointed by the supreme leader) since 1991, and the Supreme National Security Council since 1989. Throughout the last 21 years he has also held a semi-academic post as head of the Centre for Strategic Research.
After attending a religious seminary, he studied law at the University of Tehran, continuing his studies later in Glasgow Caledonian University where in 1995 he gained an MPhil (his thesis was entitled ‘The Islamic legislative power with reference to the Iranian experience’), and in 1999 a PhD. In Tehran there are rumours that he speaks English with a Scottish accent – one young blogger has been ending his posts with the phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty”.
Rowhani’s alleged involvement in Irangate during the Iran-Iraq war came about because he was a member of the Supreme Defence Council (1982-88) and deputy commander of the war (1983-85), a close ally of Rafsanjani and already part of a faction later labelled ‘moderates’. During the second term of Khatami’s presidency, Rowhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, so it was no surprise that in an election campaign dominated by foreign policy, sanctions and their effect on the economy, he boasted about his skills as a negotiator. In one TV debate he said: “In my time we held talks with presidents and ministers” – it was Rowhani who invited Jack Straw to visit Iran, for instance. By comparison, his rival, Jalili, was reduced to talking to ‘managers’ and low-ranking officials.
Other candidates pointed out that, for all his desire for accommodation with the US, soon after he and Khatami supported western efforts in the Afghan war the Bush administration labelled Iran one of the axes of evil. During this time he was given the nickname, ‘diplomatic sheikh’, and he wrote his memoirs of the period in a book entitled National security and nuclear diplomacy. He will need all his diplomatic training to deal with the conservative-dominated majles (Islamic parliament) and the supreme leader.
The presidential elections started badly. Iran’s supreme leader had fallen out with his chosen president, Ahmadinejad, in the first months of his second term and had considered abolishing the post of president altogether. However, he was advised against this, as such a move would produce constitutional complications, so Khamenei’s initial reaction was to reduce the importance of the post.
Those who watched with dismay the TV quiz show style of the first round of presidential debates could not help thinking this was a deliberate act to make a mockery of the elections. The first debate between the eight vetted candidates who had been given the nod by the Guardian Council was compared to a kindergarten game. The presidential hopefuls were asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to complicated questions about the economy and foreign policy. Many refused, and the whole thing descended into farce. The second debate was no better and it was only in the last debate, just days before the vote, that candidates were allowed to challenge their opponents directly. Clearly by that time the regime was trying to inject some life into the process and by all accounts Rowhani was the winner of that third TV debate. He opposed the regime’s intransigent stance on its nuclear industry and advocated negotiations to lift sanctions and improve the economy.
At a time of economic hardship and political isolation, slogans such as “Save Iran’s economy” and “Reconciliation with the world” made him a popular figure. Then there was: “I have always been against radicalism. I have always followed moderation”; and “I have never acted as if in a garrison”; and the slightly more obscure: “Centrifuges should spin, but so should industries and people’s livelihoods.”
He was not the only one mocking the approach of Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Jalili, to the 5+1 talks. Velayati, Qalibaf and Rezaii expressed similar views. Following the elections, Rowhani said that the nuclear enrichment programme would continue. However, there were “many ways to build trust” with the west, and it was important for Iran to show that “its activities fall within the framework of international rules”.
Rowhani’s election has been cautiously welcomed by European countries, by the G8 and by most Middle Eastern countries with the exception of Israel. US president Barack Obama summed up the US position on June 18: “We may be able to move forward on a dialogue that allows us to resolve the problems with Iran’s nuclear programme.”
Having said that, any serious negotiation will face major obstacles. To start with, the current US-Iran conflict has two parties, so conciliatory noises from Iran alone will not lead to a resolution. At a time of economic crisis, the continuation of conflict with Iran has political as well as economic benefits for any US administration. Powerful voices in Washington, as well as in the pro-Israeli lobby, still want complete regime change, even a partition of Iran.
In addition there is the issue of Syria. Hours after the results were announced, the Syrian National Coalition called on Rowhani to review Iran’s support for the Assad regime. The “Coalition believes that it is its duty to call on the new president of Iran to rectify the mistakes made by the Iranian leadership.”
Rowhani is unlikely to oblige. Like the rest of the Shia clergy, he considers defending the current Syrian regime and Hezbollah an integral part of Iran’s foreign policy. While warning western powers against intervention, Iran has, of course intervened. Rowhani will face popular opposition over this, however. During Saturday’s celebrations crowds in Tehran and Kermanshah were shouting: “Leave Syria alone – deal with our problems”.
Coincidentally, on June 18, four days after the elections, Iran’s national football team defeated South Korea to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. This prompted further celebrations which quickly turned political in major cities. One of the main slogans was a call for the release of all political prisoners and an end to the house arrest of Moussavi and Karroubi. However, even if we accept claims made by some that Iran’s football win was linked to Rowhani’s victory, he will need to perform bigger miracles to get all Iran’s politician prisoners released.
On hearing the results of Iran’s elections, comrade Mike Macnair commented that after decades of repression and the terrible situation of the last few years, this could have the effect of a “crack in the dam”: ie, a trickle of concessions could lead to a flood. Revolutionary forces in Iran will certainly hope he is right, but the fear is that once more false hope generated by the promises of the centrist-‘reformist’ coalition will actually lengthen the life of the Islamic dictatorship. While there might be some relaxation in the interference of the religious state in the private lives of Iranians, poverty, unemployment, exploitation, the absence of basic workers’ rights, political repression – all look set to continue for the foreseeable future.
We are still a very long way from a resolution of the nuclear conflict and sanctions look likely to continue. Even if they were lifted tomorrow, it would take months, if not years, for the economy to return to some sort of normality. In the meantime, prices remain high and there is a serious shortage of basic foodstuffs and medicines.
The Iranian workers’ and democratic movement will continue to need international working class solidarity and we in Hands Off the People of Iran will do our utmost to show how this can be achieved.
Yassamine Mather advocates a boycott and stresses the need for regime change from below
On May 22, the US moved closer to imposing a full trade embargo against Iran, as the Senate reaffirmed US support for Israel – should it be “compelled to attack Tehran’s nuclear programme in self-defence”.
The Senate voted unanimously to adopt a non-binding resolution urging Barack Obama to fully enforce existing economic sanctions against Iran and to “provide diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel “in its defence of its territory, people and existence”.
On the same day the Republican-dominated foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives unanimously approved new proposals for sanctions. If passed into law, these would blacklist all countries or companies that fail to reduce their oil imports from Iran to virtually nil in the next 180 days. In other words, it aims to close off Iran’s main source of income.
All this is happening in the middle of an election farce in Tehran. A day before the Senate resolutions, Iran’s religious supervisory body, the Guardian Council, announced the final list of eight candidates it deemed acceptable to contest the presidential elections on June 14. It did not include either the former president and main hope of the ‘reformists’, Hashemi Rafsanjani, or the outgoing president’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Although the remaining candidates all promise to ‘resolve the nuclear issue’, the US administration has made up its mind: bar a miracle, conflict with Iran, most likely in the form of Israeli air attacks, is now inevitable. Even if one of the remaining centrist or ‘reformist’ candidates gets elected, Washington does not believe such an individual will be strong enough to convince the country’s supreme leader of the need to compromise. By all accounts, Rafsanjani was the only candidate capable of arguing the case for ayatollah Ali Khamenei to ‘drink the poison’ and make a U-turn either on the nuclear programme or on Syria.
Whoever gets elected on June 14, Iranians are resigning themselves to the fact that confrontation with the west will continue, and so crippling sanctions and devastating economic hardship will persist. The supreme leader had promised an ‘epic year’, when massive participation in the elections would prove the nation’s tenacity in confronting the foreign enemy. But the final list of mediocre candidates will make it difficult for even the most hard-line supporters of the regime to muster any enthusiasm.
No-one should underestimate the severity of the current situation. Iran is completely isolated internationally and regionally, while its support for the Syrian government has brought it into direct conflict with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to the usual suspects. Economically the country is bankrupt.
Life is getting excruciatingly hard for most Iranians – even some among the middle classes are finding the price of basic goods beyond their means, and one can only imagine the hardship faced by the increasingly unemployed working class.
When ‘targeted’ sanctions were proposed by the US, its supporters claimed only the rulers of the regime would suffer and ordinary Iranians would hardly notice the effects. Reality could not be further from this pledge. For example, in theory medicines were exempt from sanctions. However, the current rate of exchange means that many are beyond Iran’s means. In addition most pharmaceutical companies have stopped exporting to Iran. The consequence is that Iranians are dying because of acute shortage of medicine and surgical equipment – not to mention dangerous black market fakes and imitations. The US war against Iran has long started.
Now that the TV debates and official campaigning have begun, all the candidates claim they will deal with the country’s economic problems. Speaking at an election conference at the University of Tehran, Ali Akbar Velayati, who is one of the supreme leader’s senior advisors, said if he wins the election he will prioritise the resolution of economic issues.
Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, brags about a new system of “economic federalism”. He will “fight poverty and unemployment” by empowering the provinces to manage their own economy.1 Mohammad Qalibaf, who is appealing to the middle classes and the private sector, is defending “positive competition” and “better integration into the global economy” through “expertise-oriented” economic management.2
Ayatollah Khamenei keeps saying he has no favourite candidate – it must be difficult to choose from amongst all those trusted nominees. The final list of presidential candidates includes not only Velayati, but Haddad Adel, who is Khamenei’s son’s father-in-law, and two of Khamenei’s personal appointees to the Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili and Hassan Rohani. Qalibaf is a former police chief appointed by Khamenei, who is currently mayor of Tehran, while Rezai was the longest serving head of the Revolutionary Guards (1981-97).
All the presidential candidates except one, Jalili (ironically Iran’s main negotiator in the current talks with the 5+1 countries), claim they will resolve the nuclear issue. Jalili, who is said by some to be the supreme leader’s favourite and did his PhD thesis on “the foreign policy of the prophet Muhammad”, is himself a ‘living martyr’ (having lost a leg in the Iran-Iraq war) and his supporters’ slogan is: “No compromise. No submission. Only Jalili.” Clearly Iran’s chief negotiator is a master of diplomatic language, but at least Iranians now know why negotiations are going nowhere.
None of these candidates explain how, in the absence of a political solution and an end to sanctions, they will achieve the promised economic miracles. Iran cannot get payment for the limited oil it sells and the country’s banks have been excluded from the global banking system. Swift, which facilitates the majority of global payments, has disconnected Iranian financial firms from its messaging system. Food prices have gone up by 60% compared to last year, while factories are closing down every day, as transnationals move out of Iran (Peugeot, Saipa and Citroen have all closed down or reduced production); smaller service and spare parts suppliers are going bankrupt and do not pay their workers. The slogan dominating recent workers’ protests sums up the situation: “We are hungry”.
Of course, it would be wrong to blame all Iran’s economic problems on sanctions. For all the promises of moving away from a single-product economy, 34 years after the Islamic regime came into being, Iran remains a rentier state relying solely on oil exports. For many years Bank Markazi, Iran’s central bank, has used all the country’s income from oil exports to prop up the currency, the rial, causing hyperinflation, so it comes as no surprise that the oil embargo, combined with unprecedented increases in food prices, has brought Iran’s economy to its knees.
However, as I mentioned earlier, Iran’s economic problems are completely intertwined with its international political relations and here lies the problem.
Of course any conflict has two sides and there are many reasons why the United States is committed to regime change in Iran: revenge for the overthrow of the shah, the US embassy hostage seizure, punishing a rogue state, the benefits of a rumbling conflict at a time of economic crises.
However, most Iranians, struggling to feed their families, are desperate to see the end of the current conflict and expect more from their ‘negotiators’. In this context it is understandable that sections of the Iranian opposition, mainly amongst the ‘reformist’ left, were tempted by Rafsanjani’s claims that he would start serious negotiations and ‘save the nation’. It is inevitable that sections of the population will ignore calls for a boycott of these elections and vote for Mohammad Aref or Hassan Rohani (the two remaining ‘reformists’). But ‘reformist’ leaders, including Rafsanjani and another former president, Mohammad Khatami, have yet to make up their mind if they will recommend a vote for any of the vetted candidates. They are considering running a poll amongst members/supporters of the green movement on whether they should stage a boycott.
There are a number of issues to consider when coming to that decision. First of all, there is no reason to believe that the US and its western allies would compromise. Supporters of participation would look pretty stupid if air raids or regime-change attempts happened under Aref or Rohani.
The second consideration relates to the left. Surely it would be completely compromised if it recommended voting for one of the above. This does not mean we should fall into the blind alley of always calling for a boycott when there is no working class candidate, irrespective of circumstances. The Bolsheviks debated and indeed participated in electoral processes where the choices were limited and the processes entirely undemocratic. However, choosing from amongst a religious dictator’s close advisors and nominees would certainly bring the left into disrepute.
The deteriorating situation has persuaded sections of the Iranian left to openly support regime change from above. In early May the Canadian government held a two-day ‘global dialogue conference’ at the University of Toronto, where foreign minister John Baird said: “The people of Iran deserve free and fair elections. Not another version of ayatollah Khamenei’s never-ending shell game of presidential puppets. Not the rise of a regressive clerical military dictatorship.”3 Also attending was Iran Tribunal prosecutor Payam Akhavan, who was quoted as saying: “Canada should continue to explore every avenue of assistance to civil society with a view to facilitating non-violent change.”4 Last weekend “republicans, leftists, constitutional monarchists and the green movement”5 joined forces to hold a two-day conference in Stockholm, at the invitation of the Swedish Democratic Party. They decided to form an umbrella organisation: United for Democracy in Iran.
In Hands Off the People of Iran we have always maintained that the Iranian people have to confront simultaneously two enemies: imperialism and their own rulers. Any compromise with either of these camps will tarnish the left and represent a betrayal of the interests of the working class. Adherence to this principle is as important today as it was in 2007, when Hopi was founded.
Supporters and apologists of Iran’s Islamic Republic in Respect,1 Counterfire2 and the Socialist Workers Party3 have in the past told us that Iran is not a dictatorship. It has democratic elections to determine the president and the composition of its parliament …
The regime’s 11th presidential elections have demonstrated how far removed this is from reality. Having arrested and imprisoned all serious opposition, including the regime’s own ‘reformists’, the remaining factions, despite being at each other’s throats, are all agreed that only those candidates for president who completely uphold the line of the supreme leader may be permitted to stand. So not only has the favourite of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, been barred. So too has the moderate centrist and former president, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The omens were not good from the beginning. The supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had disowned his chosen candidate of 2009. Ahmadinejad, who came to power following a controversial vote in elections many Iranians believed to be rigged, is now considered an enemy. In fact, despite the careful vetting of candidates for this and other elected posts on religious grounds, as determined by the constitution, Iran’s clerical dictators, in the form of two supreme leaders, have ended up falling out with almost everyone who has occupied the presidency, beginning with ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who famously turned his back on the regime’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr.
Rafsanjani, who was Khamenei’s first president, fell out with the supreme leader. So did Mohammad Khatami, a vetted, obedient servant of the regime – he was out of favour by the end of his first term and definitely an enemy by the end of his second. Last but not least, for all his earlier support for Ahmadinejad against leaders of the green ‘reformist’ movement, the supreme leader fell out with his chosen president in the first months of his second term and in the end it could hardly be any worse.
What is different this year is that the entire electoral process has become a joke even before the election campaign has started. Because Khamenei was determined to reduce electioneering from months to only three weeks, it was not until May 21, just 24 days before the polls, that Iranians got to know the final list of candidates. However, Khamenei had apparently been concerned that the absence of any known figure, never mind a controversial one, might lead to a lacklustre campaign and no doubt this played a part in the supreme leader’s quiet encouragement of Rafsanjani to enter the foray.
His candidacy was hailed by both ‘reformists’ and opponents of the regime as a sign of ‘hope’ – the ‘saviour’ had come out of retirement. Even sections of the left believed he was therefore worthy of critical support. No-one was clear about how exactly Rafsanjani would save the nation – except by lengthening the rule of the religious dictatorship, that is – but in the euphoria that followed his registration as a candidate, none of this mattered. In fact it could well be that the unprecedented support for Rafsanjani by sections of the ‘reformist’ opposition convinced the Guardian Council to rule him out of the electoral process.
The Guardian Council is supposed to make its deliberations in private. However, while the vetting process was going on, one of its leading figures, ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, commented: “Iranians do not want to elect a president whose car is a Mercedes Benz” – the model Rafsanjani arrived in to register his candidacy.
Rafsanjani’s supporters hit back by arguing that Jannati’s own modern Peugeot is far more expensive than Rafsanjani’s old Mercedes. BBC Persian service produced a short video of the cars used by several of Iran’s Islamic rulers, which shows Khamenei himself getting out of a bullet-proof BMW. It should be pointed out that Iran’s supreme leader and his family are embroiled in a scandal regarding the BMW dealership in Iran.
The issue of luxury cars is a touchy subject for Shia rulers. When young Iranians were asked in a telephone and internet poll what they associated with the phrase, ‘Islamic clerics’, a considerable number said “Mercedes Benz” or “BMW” (although the sons of the ayatollahs have long since preferred Maseratis and Porsches).
Once the car issue became just too embarrassing, the Guardian Council changed its tactics and focussed instead on the question of age. A candidate over 75 was apparently too old to occupy the presidency and, had the council been aware that a 78-year-old would put himself forward, they would have introduced an age bar.
However, this too was easy to counter by Rafsanjani supporters and others. A TV station listed the age of the Islamic regime’s current and previous leaders, starting with Khomeini, who became head of state aged 81, and the current supreme leader, who is 73. Jannati is 87 – the same age as one of his senior colleagues on the Guardian Council, ayatollah Mahdavi Kani …
Rafsanjani’s daughter has informed the world’s press and media that on May 21 senior figures of the regime had been trying to persuade her father to withdraw his nomination. But he had refused, saying he could not “betray the people’s trust”. However, earlier that day, as the Guardian Council was preparing to make its final announcement, security forces moved into action. Supporters of Mashaei and Ahmadinejad were arrested as a “precautionary measure”, and the offices of a ‘reformist’ youth organisation were ransacked and closed down.
Then the daughter of the founder of the Islamic Republic, ayatollah Khomeini, issued an open letter to Khamenei, declaring that her father had considered Hashemi Rafsanjani to possess all the qualities necessary to be not just president, but supreme leader. This was the first time anyone had quoted Khomeini’s thoughts concerning a possible successor to himself and obviously implied a serious criticism of the current supreme leader.
Once it became clear that Mashaei had been barred, Ahmadinejad absurdly announced he would contest the decision by asking the supreme leader to intervene. Apparently Ahmadinejad was the only person who did not know that it was Khamenei’s decision to bar both Mashaei and Rafsanjani.
There is a big difference between electoral cheating, such as ballot-rigging (as happened in 2009) and barring a very senior cleric like Rafsanjani, the man who is considered alongside Khomeini as a founder of the Islamic regime, the man who played a crucial part in writing the constitution of the clerical state, who has been one of the regime’s most powerful figures. As many have commented in Tweets and on Facebook, the ayatollah who chairs the expediency convention – a body answerable to the supreme leader with supervisory powers over all branches of government – is not considered fit to run for president!
This whole farce says everything about the crisis gripping the Islamic regime. It is true that some of Rafsanjani’s supporters might now switch support to a lesser known ‘reformist’, Mohammad Aref, or the centrist, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, but this is now a doomed electoral process. In many ways the events of the last few days have shown how pinning one’s hopes on the pseudo-dictatorial electoral process in Iran was a disaster.
The US might have considered negotiations with Iran under a Rafsanjani presidency, but the Obama administration is unlikely to take seriously whoever wins from the remaining, vetted candidates, however conciliatory the tone of those candidates may be. Ayatollah Khamenei and his Guardian Council might end up regretting the path they have taken.
As for the Iranian working class, it has two enemies: imperialism and its own rulers. The latter are not only remote from ordinary people, but so very clearly engulfed in personal struggles for wealth and power. When it comes to the presidential elections, any tactic other than a boycott is tantamount to offering support to this retrograde, reactionary regime.
On the last available day, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani arrived at the ministry of the interior to register himself as a presidential candidate. Rafsanjani was the Islamic republic’s fourth president, from 1989 to 1997, and is now once again standing as a ‘reformist’. In reality he is the candidate of capitalism and probably still one of the richest men in Iran. Despite that, the announcement that Rafsanjani had entered the race ‘to save the country’ generated an almost unprecedented hysteria.
There are two main explanations for his timing. The principlists (conservative, hard-line supporters of the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei) are accusing Rafsanjani (also known as the fox because of his political cunning) of holding back before making his dramatic, last-minute move in order to surprise and spread confusion amongst his opponents. There is some truth to this claim: confident of an easy ride, principlists entered the presidential elections with at least seven serious candidates, and another 14 less serious contenders. One assumes that, had they known they would be facing such a figure, they would have tried to rally round a single candidate.
Some of Rafsanjani’s allies have claimed he was waiting for the approval of the supreme leader before putting himself forward. Two weeks ago he said he would only go ahead if Khamenei wanted him to do so, but a few days later there was a slightly different version: he would only put his name forward if the supreme leader did not object to his nomination. His telephone conversation with Khamenei1 or one his close advisers2 (depending on which version you read) only took place at 4.30pm Tehran time on May 11 – less than one and a half hours before the deadline. Rafsanjani’s daughter confirms this.3
Whatever the truth, Rafsanjani, who is now benefiting from the full support of the ‘reformist camp’ led by Mohammad Khatami, is no opponent of the Islamic regime. In fact he does not even claim to be a reformist: he is, in his own words, a “moderate”. Some consider him to be a “pragmatist conservative”4 – someone who tried to mediate between the ‘reformists’ and the conservatives after the debacle of the 2009 elections. Now he has, according to Khatami (Iran’s last ‘reformist’ president) made a “major sacrifice” and come forward to fulfil his duty to the “nation, the Islamic Republic and the faith”.
It is clear then that, far from providing a challenge to Khamenei, Rafsanjani is standing to save the clerical system and with it its supreme leader, who, after all, owes his own position to Rafsanjani. According to a video released in 1989, soon after ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, “Rafsanjani took the lead in a meeting of the assembly of experts”. He described his last encounter at Khomeini’s hospital bedside, as well as an earlier discussion he had had with the Islamic republic’s first supreme leader over his succession. Rafsanjani claimed he had told Khomeini that no-one had “the stature to fill your shoes”, to which Khomeini had replied: “But why not? Mr Khamenei is the one!”5
Rafsanjani’s message to the supreme leader and the conservatives is clear: the regime is facing its most serious crisis ever, sanctions have paralysed the economy, international relations are at an all-time low, and then there are the idiotic holocaust-denial statements that still come from president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies. One needs to “drink the poison” – a reference to Khomeini’s famous statement when he accepted the resolution passed by the United Nations security council in 1987 to end the Iran-Iraq war.6 (Of course, many believe that it was Rafsanjani who, as commander-in-chief of Iran’s military forces during the eight-year war, convinced Khomeini to accept that ceasefire.) Iran’s “moderate” presidential candidate is also in favour of direct talks with the US to resolve the nuclear issue and there is a precedent for this: it is alleged that Rafsanjani was one of many Iranian politicians who got involved in ‘Irangate’, the secret deal with the Reagan administration which saw Iran being sold arms despite an embargo.7
Although it is unlikely that the Council of Guardians – the religious body responsible for vetting election candidates – will find sufficient reason to eliminate Rafsanjani from standing in the June elections, there are no guarantees that he would get sufficient votes, real or ‘engineered’, to win.
Now that his nomination is in, every one of his recent and not so recent statements is being analysed and it is clear that, like every other serious candidate (‘reformist’, ‘moderate’ or principlist conservative), he is advocating a U-turn as far as the nuclear issue is concerned. This is, above all, a victory for the United States, which it will use to demonstrate that sanctions against ‘third-rate rogue states’ work. Although we in Hands Off the People of Iran have always opposed Iran’s nuclear programme, we refuse to join those celebrating the US victory in bringing a country to its knees.
Iranians have paid a heavy price for the foolish policies of their leaders. Sanctions have immiserated the working class, impoverished the middle class, made the already disastrous unemployment situation even worse and caused spiralling inflation, currently estimated at above 32% by the Islamic parliament’s economic commission. As we predicted – in a neoliberal religious dictatorship, where the clergy and Islamic revolutionary guards are the main beneficiaries of privatisation – ‘targeted sanctions’ against the ‘rulers of the country’ are in fact sanctions against the entire population: 70 million Iranians are now facing the consequences of a deliberate, callous policy by a superpower to assert its authority. Yet most Iranians believe worse is yet to come – fear of becoming ‘another Iraq or Syria’ dominates people’s minds and that is one explanation why so many are willing to forget Rafsanjani’s horrific record.
Iran’s richest man is no friend of the Iranian working class. According to an updated biography on the BBC website, “Mr Rafsanjani has close links to Iranian industry and business … He was featured in the ‘Millionaire mullahs’ section of the Forbes Rich List in 2003”.8 Most of this fortune was accumulated after 1979, although he denies the fact that his political connections were in any way used to help him.
So far Rafsanjani has given no clue as to his economic plans, but his record is clear. He implemented the free market, privatisation and deregulation. Since Rafsanjani’s presidency, economic policy has been based on a reduction in government spending, itself fuelling inflation, as successive governments printed money to finance deficits and worsened the imbalance in foreign trade by encouraging imports and overall economic dependence on a single product: oil. It was immediately after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and during Rafsanjani’s presidency that the government started subsidising foreign goods to the benefit of the urban rich, while allocating resources to commerce and finance at the expense of production. So we can expect more of the same if Rafsanjani is returned to power. In other words, for all the promises of saving the economy, the nation and the Islamic republic, the population can expect better times for the rich but even worse times for the poor.
Rafsanjani is a firm supporter of the Islamic regime’s constitution and therefore believes democratic rights should be limited to those who support the current order. In the early 2000s he came in for a lot of criticism from the ‘reformist’ media inside Iran. In a series of articles, later published as a book, former revolutionary guard Akbar Ganji called him the “red eminence”9 – a reference to cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s prime minister, who was supposed to be a ruthless politician more powerful than the king. During Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), Ganji and others in the ‘reformist media’ presented Rafsanjani as the man behind the “serial political murders” of writers and intellectuals.10
In 2009, his lukewarm protest against the incarceration of ‘reformist’ activists and leaders angered the supreme leader and lost him his post as chairman of the powerful assembly of experts. Even then his proclamations were limited to ‘moderate’ statements on the poor state of some of Iran’s jails and the fact that the ‘reformists’ did not deserve quite such harsh treatment.
Let me stress that principlist candidates also want ‘meaningful negotiations’ with the US. In fact, now that the crippling effects of sanctions is recognised by all, it is no surprise that they too are promising a speedy resolution of the nuclear issue.
Sections of the principlist factions have been in discussions to support a common candidate. However, continued ideological disagreements, as well as uncertainty about the calibre of the likely ‘reformist’ opponent, meant that they failed to come up with a single name, or at least just fewer candidates.
There is a Jewish joke about the propensity of Jews to fall out over religious issues, leading to one split after another: if there are two Jews in a village, they will need a synagogue each. Shia Muslims are exactly the same, it seems – the more religious they are, the more inflexible they appear to be regarding both theological and in consequence political matters. In Iran’s parliament we have the Principlist faction (not to be confused with the principlists), the Stability Front of the Islamic Revolution and five other major principlist groups. Since Rafsanjani’s surprise registration, there is talk of the supporters of Mohammad Qalibaf, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Ali Fallahian and Saeed Jalili trying to come up with a name. However, many doubt that all the conservative factions will be prepared to withdraw their candidates.
As for the current president, now totally at odds with the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad has over the last few months made a number of provincial visits accompanied by his relative and ‘heir apparent’, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. These unofficial pre-election occasions were mocked by state press and media loyal to Khamenei, especially when it became clear that very few people were attending. Going for smaller venues did not help much – there were lots of empty seats even when they were held in somewhere less ambitious than Tehran’s Azadi stadium, where the first such meeting was held. MPs in the majles (Islamic parliament) accuse Ahmadinejad of using state funds to pay for what they allege amounts to a countrywide election tour for Mashaei.
Over the last few months principlist/conservative MPs have tried on a number of occasions to dismiss the president or his close allies in the government. Whereas in 2009, at the height of the protest movement, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the full support of the conservative/principlist factions, today less than four years later, he and his supporters are openly called the “deviant faction”, mainly because Ahmadinejad believes Mashaei’s claims to have a special relationship with the 12th Shia Imam (who fell down a well 13 centuries ago and is soon going to be resurrected to save the world). This has led some prominent ayatollahs to call him a heretic – the claim is totally abhorrent to supporters of the supreme leader, who is, after all, the only human being capable of communicating with the imam. But, trying to broaden his appeal, Mashaei also claims to be a nationalist. He and Ahmadinejad have actually been promoting Iranianism over and above Islam – in 2010 Mashaei claimed that without Iran Islam would be lost and other Islamic countries feared Iran, which upheld the only “truthful” version of Islam.
However, like Rafsanjani and the principlists, Mashaei is also keen on improving relations with the US and Israel. In fact he has gone further than anyone else on the subject of Iran-Israel relations, making comments that have angered senior clerics: Iranians are “friends of all people in the world – even Israelis”, he said.11 A phrase that lost him his job as vice-president. In the early years of Ahmadinejad’s second term the conservative factions in parliament and powerful supporters of Khamenei tried their best to convince Ahmadinejad to distance himself from Mashaei, but he refused. This produced a conservative backlash. The head of the revolutionary guards, general Hassan Firouzabadi, branded Mashaei’s comments a “crime against national security”, while a senior ayatollah claimed that “equating the school of Iran and the school of Islam amounts to pagan nationalism”.12
To add insult to injury, on May 11 the Iranian president accompanied Mashaei to the ministry of the interior to register him as a candidate. As they were making their way to the relevant office, a scuffle broke out between Ahmadinejad’s entourage and conservative MP Hassan Ghadiri. The set-to was photographed on a mobile phone and immediately posted on Facebook. Then, to make matters worse, before Mashaei took the microphone to address his first election press conference as a candidate, Ahmadinejad, unaware a microphone was live, could be heard next to him whispering: “Say the president is on leave today”. Of course, Mashaei obliged and started the press conference exactly as instructed. Again this gaffe was filmed on YouTube and made it to most news broadcasts.13 If this was not enough, the guardian council announced on May 12 that it might charge Ahmadinejad with violating electoral rules by accompanying his protégée to the interior ministry.14
A total of 686 candidates have registered. No doubt the guardian council will reduce that to half a dozen or so. However, because of the large number, the council says the process may require more time.
First to be struck off will be the 30 women who have put themselves forward, unless they manage to prove to the guardian council that they have gone through transgender operations in the last few days. Iran’s Islamic constitution is quite clear on this. According to article 115, “The president must be elected from among religious and political male personalities (the Arabic word rejal is used) possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past record; trustworthiness and piety; belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country”.15
As if this vetting process were not enough for the religious rulers, they have other tricks up their sleeve. Following accusations of election- rigging in 2009, the Iranian regime has come up with a new term for state interference in the electoral process, which is now openly talked about as a possibility. In January one of Khamenei’s representatives, Hojat Al-Islam Saeedi, said that it was the responsibility of the revolutionary guards to “rationally and logically engineer the elections”.16
There is considerable enthusiasm for Rafsanjani amongst the reformist left – all his past sins seem to have been forgotten. It is true that the threat of war against Iran persists; sanctions, another form of war, have paralysed the economy; the smell of partition is in the air; and the country is on the edge of a precipice. However, we should remind all those who believe Rafsanjani’s claim that better relations with the US will end the sanctions and the threat of war that there are two sides to this equation. The US and its allies have their own reasons for continued confrontation, especially at a time of severe economic crisis, irrespective of which ayatollah is in control.
Rafsanjani is a class enemy. We have the responsibility to remind everyone that the leaders of the Green movement, including Rafsanjani, acted like the grand old duke of York and there is no reason to believe they will behave differently this time. In fact this time there is a difference: in order to avoid upsetting the supreme leader, Rafsanjani does not want to encourage any mass protests. As one website put it, “Rafsanjani hopes to revive the enthusiasm of the 2009 election … minus the demonstrations!”17
It is not surprising that none of the candidates in Iran’s presidential elections, even before the vetting has weeded out those considered untrustworthy, mentions unemployment, mass non-payment of wages, ‘white contracts’ for temporary jobs and other issues that affect the majority of Iran’s population, the working class and the poor. If you read the various election manifestos issued in the last few days in Tehran, you would think that inflation, sanctions and the terrible economic conditions only affect the middle classes and the wealthy. In an election already known to be prone to “engineering” by revolutionary guards, where only male supporters of an Islamic constitution can become candidates, the genuine left has only one option: to boycott the elections and continue the call for the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime, together with all its myriad factions and tendencies.
For all the claims that these elections will ‘save Iran from the abyss’, improve relations with the outside world and end sanctions, three of the prominent candidates – Rafsanjani, Velayati and Fallahian – were implicated in the Mykonos trials18 of those accused of murdering Kurdish Democratic Party leaders in Berlin in 1982. Rafsanjani was president, Velayati foreign minister and Fallahian intelligence minister. So it is possible that Iran will end up with a president wanted by Interpol and incapable of travelling to many western countries. These factions might be at war with each other now, but let us not forget that were united in crime not that long ago.
Having said all that, it is very likely that protests against the guardian council’s vetting or vote-rigging, as in 2009, will cause anger and protests in Tehran and other large Iranian cities. We should not ignore such protests – boycotting the elections does not mean boycotting those who, in desperation, will try and vote for the ‘least worst’ candidate.
Let me start with a proposition that should by now be a matter of general knowledge: the totality of Jews do not constitute a nation in the modern sense of this term; nor have they been a nation in any contemporary meaningful sense for well over 2,000 years.
The only attribute common to all Jews is Judaism, the Jewish religion, encoded in the Hebrew-cum-Aramaic language of its sacred texts and liturgy. The only way in which a non-Jew – a person whose mother was not Jewish – can become a Jew is by religious conversion; and a Jew who converts to another religion is no longer regarded as a Jew (except by racists, who believe in the false doctrine of race). There is, of course, such a thing as secular Jewish identity: in other words, there are people not practising Judaism or believing in its god, but who regard themselves and are regarded by others as Jews. But outside Israel – I will return to this significant exception later on – secular Jewish identity tends to dissipate after two or three generations: it normally no longer pertains to persons who do not practise Judaism, and none of whose parents and grandparents practised this religion.
Of course, some Jewish communities have, or used to have, common secular cultural or social attributes, such as a communal language of everyday discourse, a literature in this language and a distinctive musical tradition. But these attributes differ as between communities. Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish (a German dialect), Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Iraqi Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic.
The fact that the Jews are not a single nation or ‘people’ has been popularised by Shlomo Sand’s book The invention of the Jewish people.1 Actually, Sand did not claim he was disclosing original or new discoveries; he merely put together what was quite well known, but not so widely recognised. Indeed, anti-Zionists had long ago argued that the Jews do not constitute a nation in the modern sense (current since the French Revolution).2 It was simply a matter of dispelling the misconception fostered by Zionist ideology: the myth that Jews all over the world are a single ancient nation, forcibly exiled from its ancient homeland, the Land of Israel, to which it is ‘returning’, thanks to the Zionist project of ‘ingathering of the exiles’.
A Jewish nation that perished
Yet this Zionist myth had a degree of verisimilitude, because it was partly based on fact; a fallacious generalisation of a particular reality. By the second half of the 19th century, the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim in the Russian empire and its immediate periphery did constitute a nation or quasi-nation, with its own Yiddish language, vibrant culture, secular literature, music and (by the end of that century) organised working class, led by the Jewish Bund. (The Bundists did not have to invent a new Yiddish culture: they simply invested it with proletarian content.) This quasi-national group did not, of course, encompass the entirety of world Jewry, but did comprise a considerable majority of it.3
The Bund, the foremost Jewish workers’ organisation in the Russian empire, was formed in 1897. A year later, when it helped to found the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, it demanded, and was initially granted, the right to be an autonomous national section within the new party. In the 1903 second congress of the RSLDP, the majority (Bolshevik) faction, led by Lenin, had that right revoked, and the Bund thereupon split from the RSDLP. (It rejoined the party at the 1906 6th Congress, in which the Bolshevik faction was a minority.) Among Lenin’s arguments was the claim that the Jews were not a nation. In support of this claim he quoted “one of the most prominent of Marxist theoreticians”, Karl Kautsky, as well as the anti-Zionist radical French Jew, Alfred Naquet.4
However, Lenin’s polemic on this particular point is somewhat misplaced: Kautsky and Naquet argue, in effect, that the totality of all Jews is not a nation. But the Bund had no need for such an overarching, and indeed false, notion. It was not concerned with world Jewry, but only with the Jewish workers in the Russian empire, as its full name made clear: General Jewish Labour Bund (Federation) of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Kautsky and Naquet based their denial of Jewish nationhood on the observation that world Jewry lacks a common language and is not territorially localised. But the Jews with whom the Bund was concerned did have their own distinct language, Yiddish. And, while they were not a majority of the population in a single, contiguous territory, they did not differ very much in this respect from some other national groups in the mosaic of eastern Europe, where nationhood tended to be primarily a linguistic-cultural category.
Moreover, Yiddish-speakers did form a high proportion of the population in quite a few towns and cities, mostly clustered in the western parts of the Russian empire. This was documented by the Russian imperial census of 1897. Note that in the census summary tables ‘nationality’ was based on the declared mother language of respondents. The census recorded a little over five million Yiddish speakers, constituting some four percent of the total population. The census also classified respondents by religion; and, according to this classification, the Jews were 4.15% of the total, presumably because some Jews (mostly outside the Pale of Settlement) were linguistically assimilated.5
Let us look at the percentage of Jews in the population of some selected cities.6
Kovno (Kaunas) 36
Wilno (Vilnius) 41
Kishinev (Chișinău) 43
Clearly, it was quite possible for Jews living in those areas to interact mainly with members of their own community, in their own language. So it is hardly surprising that many of them regarded themselves, and were widely regarded by others, as a national group. (Indeed, Lenin’s contrary view notwithstanding, Jews in the USSR were classed as a national group, and were officially registered as such in the ‘nationality’ rubric of the ID document that each Soviet citizen had to carry.)
Of course, this quasi-nation no longer exists: most of it perished in the Nazi genocide, and the remainder largely dispersed. But a considerable majority of present-day Jews around the world are its relics and descendants, and still carry in their collective memory a lingering sense of a national identity, which, while no longer based on actual reality, did have a real basis in the not too distant past.
Western Jews’ opposing view
While many Jews living in, or recently migrated from, eastern Europe around 1900 tended to regard Jewishness as a national category, members of the long-established Jewish communities in western Europe and the US tended to view matters quite differently, due to their very different experience. They shared their non-Jewish compatriots’ language of everyday discourse and secular culture. And, unlike their east European coreligionists, in most western countries they had won legal equality. In the US Jews had equal rights since 1789, and the French Revolution emancipated the Jews in 1791. This was extended to other west European countries during the 19th century (Napoleon freed the Jews in the countries he conquered). In the UK, the process was – as you would expect – gradual, and Jews achieved full legal equality relatively late, under the 1858 Oath Bill.7
The deal in 1791 revolutionary France was that Jews would be equal citizens of France, as members of the French nation. They would, of course, be perfectly free to practise their distinct religion. This kind of deal was emulated elsewhere – and it was a tremendous achievement, which its beneficiaries were loath to lose. To most of them the idea, propagated by anti-Semites and Zionists, of a separate, worldwide Jewish nation was anathema.
I referred earlier to Lenin’s polemic, in which he invokes Alfred Naquet against the Bund. Here is the relevant quote from Lenin’s article
A French Jew, the radical Alfred Naquet, says practically the same thing [as Kautsky – MM], word for word, in his controversy with the anti-Semites and the Zionists.8 “If it pleased Bernard Lazare,” he writes of the well-known Zionist, “to consider himself a citizen of a separate nation, that is his affair; but I declare that, although I was born a Jew … I do not recognise Jewish nationality … I belong to no other nation but the French … Are the Jews a nation? Although they were one in the remote past, my reply is a categorical negative.“The concept nation implies certain conditions which do not exist in this case. A nation must have a territory on which to develop, and, in our time at least, until a world confederation has extended this basis, a nation must have a common language. And the Jews no longer have either a territory or a common language … Like myself, Bernard Lazare probably did not know a word of Hebrew, and would have found it no easy matter, if Zionism had achieved its purpose, to make himself understood to his co-racials [congénères] from other parts of the world.
“German and French Jews are quite unlike Polish and Russian Jews. The characteristic features of the Jews include nothing that bears the imprint [empreinte] of nationality. If it were permissible to recognise the Jews as a nation, as Drumont does, it would be an artificial nation. The modern Jew is a product of the unnatural selection to which his forebears were subjected for nearly 18 centuries.”
This argumentation was echoed a few years later by leading members of the established Jewish community in Britain against the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann – who was to be the first president of Israel – was born in 1874 near Pinsk (a city where Jews were nearly three quarters of the total population, as we have seen). From 1904 he was senior lecturer in chemistry at the university of Manchester, where he invented an industrial process for producing acetone – a crucial input for manufacturing the explosive, cordite, which played an important role in World War I. During that war, he was active lobbying the British government for a charter whereby Zionist colonisation of Palestine would proceed under British protection. (This charter was eventually granted on November 2 1917. It is known as the Balfour Declaration and was included verbatim in the text of the Palestine mandate granted to Britain in June 1922 by the League of Nations.)
When Lucien Wolf, distinguished journalist and leading member of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews, was confronted with Weizmann’s project, he wrote a worried letter to James de Rothschild, dated August 31 1916:
Dear Mr James de Rothschild
At the close of our conference with Dr Weizmann on the 17th inst, you asked me to write you a letter defining my view …
I have thought over very carefully the various statements made to me by Dr Weizmann, and, with the best will in the world, I am afraid I must say that there are vital and irreconcilable differences of principles and method between us.
The question of principle is raised by Dr Weizmann’s assertion of a Jewish nationality. The assertion has to be read in the light of the authoritative essay on ‘Zionism and the Jewish future’ recently published by Mr Sacher, more especially those written by Dr Weizmann himself and by Dr Gaster. I understand from these essays that the Zionists do not merely propose to form and establish a Jewish nationality in Palestine, but that they claim all the Jews as forming at the present moment a separate and dispossessed nationality, for which it is necessary to find an organic political centre, because they are and must always be aliens in the lands in which they now dwell (Weizmann, p6), and, more especially, because it is “an absolute self-delusion” to believe that any Jew can be at once “English by nationality and Jewish by faith” (Gaster, pp92-93).
I have spent most of my life in combating these very doctrines, when presented to me in the form of anti-Semitism, and I can only regard them as the more dangerous when they come to me in the guise of Zionism. They constitute a capitulation to our enemies, which has absolutely no justification in history, ethnology or the facts of everyday life, and if they were admitted by the Jewish people as a whole, the result would only be that the terrible situation of our coreligionists in Russia and Romania would become the common lot of Jewry throughout the world.9
And on May 24 1917, as negotiations that were to lead to the Balfour Declaration were at an advanced stage, Alexander and Claude Montefiori, presidents respectively of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and of the Anglo-Jewish Association, wrote a letter to TheTimes in the name of the Conjoint Committee of these two bodies, protesting against the fallacies and dangers of political Zionism. After declaring their adherence to Lucien Wolf’s position, the writers went on to say that“establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine, founded on the theory of Jewish homelessness, must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands and of undermining their hard-won positions as citizens and nationals of those lands”.
They point out that the theories of political Zionism undermined the religious basis of Jewry to which the only alternative would be “a secular Jewish nationality, recruited on some loose and obscure principle of race and of ethnographic peculiarity”.
They went on:
But this would not be Jewish in any spiritual sense, and its establishment in Palestine would be a denial of all the ideals and hopes by which the survival of Jewish life in that country commends itself to the Jewish conscience and Jewish sympathy. On these grounds the Conjoint Committee of the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association deprecates earnestly the national proposals of the Zionists.The second part in the Zionist programme which has aroused the misgivings of the Conjoint Committee is the proposal to invest the Jewish settlers [in Palestine] with certain special rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population …
In all the countries in which Jews live the principle of equal rights for all religious denominations is vital to them. Were they to set an example in Palestine of disregarding this principle, they would convict themselves of having appealed to it for purely selfish motives. In the countries in which they are still struggling for equal rights they would find themselves hopelessly compromised … The proposal is the more inadmissible because the Jews are and probably long will remain a minority of the population of Palestine, and might involve them in the bitterest feuds with their neighbours of other races and religions, which would severely retard their progress and find deplorable echoes thought the orient.10
A new Hebrew nation
As the Zionist colonisation of Palestine proceeded – beginning with the first aliyah (Jewish immigration) of 1882-1903 and the second aliyah of 1904-14; and then, following World War I, gathering momentum under British protection – a new Hebrew settler nation was forming in that country.
There is nothing exceptional about this. As a general rule, colonisation where the settlers’ economy did not depend on the labour-power of the indigenous people led to the formation of a new settler nation; think, for example, of North America or Australia. The only exceptional feature of the Hebrew settler nation is that Zionist ideology denies its distinct nationhood. As we have seen, according to this ideology the settlers are part of a pre-existing Jewish nation, encompassing all Jews everywhere. For this reason the self-awareness of this nation is schizophrenic. At the informal everyday level, persons who are not Jews according to the rabbinical definition, but are socially and culturally integrated in Hebrew society, are regarded – at least by secular Hebrews – as belonging to this new nation; but according to the dominant ideology they cannot be accepted as such.11 To borrow Marx’s distinction regarding the different senses of the term ‘class’, the Hebrew nation is a nation an sich (in itself) but not quite für sich (for itself).
Ironically, bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist Palestinian ideology mirrors its Zionist counterpart in denying the existence of a new Hebrew nation. It finds it difficult to come to terms with the existence of this nation and prefers to conceptualise it as a confessional Jewish community, similar in kind to (albeit larger than) Jewish minorities that existed for centuries in the Arab world, which were indeed essentially confessional communities. This conception is encoded in the formula, “secular, democratic Palestine, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims will live in equality and without discrimination”, proposed for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.12
However, readiness to step outside these ideologies will lead anyone familiar with the realities on the ground to conclude that a new Hebrew nation has indeed come into being. The first to do so were the Young Hebrews (better known as ‘Canaanites’, as they were pejoratively labelled by Zionists, who rightly regarded their views as heretical). This was a group of artists and writers that formed in 1939 a Committee for Consolidation of the Hebrew Youth. Although its rightwing Hebrew nationalism found little political acceptance, this group had a major impact on modern Hebrew literature and art.13
The Young Hebrews were by no means the first to designate the settler community in Palestine as ‘Hebrew’. This term was in fact commonly used by the Zionists themselves, who, while refusing to accept that this community was a distinct new nation, were quite willing to recognise its distinctiveness and newness – albeit as part of the alleged worldwide Jewish nation. Let me give a few examples of this common usage.
It is widely known that the pre-1948 settler community in Palestine was referred to as the ‘Yishuv’. But as a matter of fact the full term used at the time was the ‘Hebrew Yishuv’ (or, less commonly, the ‘new Yishuv’) – as distinct from the ‘old Yishuv’, the pre-Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land. The first Zionist feminist organisation in Palestine, founded in 1919, called itself the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Yisrael.14 The notorious Zionist campaign for excluding Arab workers from employment in the settler economy was conducted under the slogan “Hebrew Labour!” And I remember witnessing, as a young boy growing up in Tel-Aviv during the rift between the Zionist movement and the British government, mass Zionist demonstrations in which the main slogans displayed and chanted were “Aliah hofshit!” (free Jewish immigration) and “Medinah Ivrit!” (Hebrew state!).
Of special significance is the usage in a quintessentially Zionist text, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, promulgated on May 14 1948. In its two references to the settler community, the Hebrew text of this document uses the term, “Hebrew Yishuv”:
In World War II, the Hebrew Yishuv in this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations …Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Hebrew Yishuv and of the Zionist movement, … hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.
Even more significantly, in the official English translation, provided by Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, the term “Hebrew Yishuv”, which I italicised in this quotation, is falsely rendered as “the Jewish community”.15
‘Nation-state of the Jewish people’
This fudge – or, let me call a spade a spade: falsification – in the translation of a key document is not accidental. Since 1948, Zionists have been increasingly reluctant to use the term ‘Hebrew’ in referring to the so-called ‘Israeli Jews’ and have preferred the latter term. This terminological back-pedalling has a definite ideological, political and propagandist purpose.
It is well known that Israel defines itself officially as a “Jewish and democratic state”: this is enshrined in constitutional legislation adopted by the knesset.16 But most people are not fully aware of the import of this formula. It is widely recognised by critics of Israel that this official definition privileges its Jewish citizens and relegates its Palestinian Arab citizens – approximately one fifth of its population – to an inferior status. This is true, but by no means the whole truth. What the formula is intended to mean is that Israel is a state of the entire Jewish ‘nation’: not just of its own Jewish citizens, but of all Jews everywhere.
To prevent any ambiguity, it is now proposed to enact a basic law declaring Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.17 Moreover, senior Israeli politicians have already made it abundantly clear that any accord between Israel and the Palestinians must be based on acceptance of this formula. Thus, Ron Prossor, Israel’s envoy to the UN, asserted on April 26 2013 that “peace must be built on a clear recognition that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people”.18
So Israel officially presumes to be the state not only of Binyamin Netanyahu but, willy-nilly, also ‘of’ Ed Miliband and Michael Howard, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, as well as Alan Dershowitz.
Clearly, to promote this breathtaking pretension it is necessary to repress Hebrew identity, suppress any reference to it, and blur the distinction between it and Jewishness at large.
This political and ideological strategy is by no means new. In the May 1967 issue of Matzpen – the last one to appear before the June war – I published an article entitled ‘New premises for a false conclusion’, whose English translation is included in my book.19 This was a polemic against the leading Zionist historian and ideologue, Yigal Elam, who proposed exactly this strategy. Begging the reader’s indulgence, let me quote from my 46-year-old article:
The kernel of Zionism [according to Elam] is “the linkage of the State of Israel to the Jewish people … It is only this linkage that gives the State of Israel a sense and a raison d’être; it is only from this linkage that it developed, and only with this linkage can it exist and sustain itself in the world’s consciousness.” Israel is a Zionist state so long as it is not a political instrument of its inhabitants, but of all the world’s Jews; and the world’s Jews must be harnessed for pro-Israel activity …
He therefore proposes that Israel’s Zionist character be given an official, constitutional and institutional expression:
“The State of Israel will be accepted as the political project of the Jewish people, in the domain of responsibility of the Jewish people everywhere. This means that responsibility for the State of Israel and for whatever happens in it will not be confined to the citizens living within its borders. The Israelis will have to assert this issue in their constitution and give it immediate institutional expression (original emphasis).”
In order to secure the “permanent linkage between the Jewish people and the State of Israel” Elam proposes the following two institutions: (a) a written constitution that will proclaim the linkage between the State of Israel and the Jewish people; (b) a senate, in which the Jews of the diaspora will sit, and which will act alongside the knesset and will be empowered to prevent or delay legislation that is contrary to the constitution of the State of Israel or to Jewish public opinion around the world.
To the objection that it is unacceptable for the destiny of a country to be decided by those living abroad, Elam has a ready response: this is nothing new; this is precisely what Zionism has always practised. Indeed, the colonisation of Palestine was carried out without consulting its inhabitants, so the very existence of the Zionist state is based from the start on the premise that the destiny of Palestine ought to be determined not by its inhabitants, but by the entire Jewish people.20
The background to this proposed strategy was a crisis of Zionism in the period just before the 1967 June war: Jewish immigration had dwindled to a trickle, and the Zionist leadership was worried that in the long run Israel’s small size would turn the balance of power between it and the Arab world to its disadvantage.
Following the 1967 war, Israel greatly expanded its territorial domain, and has gained a large inflow of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. But it is now ruling over a Palestinian Arab population of roughly the same size as its Hebrew citizenry; and the sources of potential new Jewish immigration seem to be virtually exhausted. So the long-term anxiety about an adverse change in the balance of power is still haunting Zionist strategists. Plus ça change …
Politics of the two identities
In some progressive circles in the Jewish diaspora there are attempts to promote an alternative Jewish identity – secular and non-Zionist, in some cases pointedly anti-Zionist. I assume that this is motivated partly by nostalgia for the murderously extinguished progressive and proletarian tradition of east European Jewry, and partly by outrage at Israel’s pretension to speak and act for all Jews and thus implicate them in its misdeeds.
It is not my business to tell those who pursue such an alternative identity how to define themselves. It is entirely up to them. Even nostalgia is a legitimate sentiment (although, alas, it is no longer what it used to be …). And a progressive Jewish identity deployed against Zionist propaganda certainly plays a positive role.
But I believe that diasporic Jewish secular identity does not have a long-term future, because it lacks an objective basis. The condition of Jews in virtually all parts of the diaspora are not at all like those in eastern Europe around 1900, but more like – in fact, considerably more advanced than – those reflected in the quotes from Naquet, Wolf and the Montefioris. Jews enjoy equal rights, are well integrated in their respective homelands, speak the languages of their compatriots and have no separate culture. There are, of course, famous Jewish authors, writing ‘Jewish’ novels; but these are part of the general culture of their linguistic communities, just like the English novels of immigrant writers from the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, as I noted before, secular Jewish identity in the diaspora tends to dissipate within a very few generations.
Turning now to Hebrew national identity, it should be clear from my earlier discussion that I think it is very real and – at least potentially – a positive counter to Zionism. The Hebrew nation exists, and those who deny this fact are misguided by ideology. There are also some who claim that this nation is an oppressor not just due to present circumstances, which are mutable, but inherently and inexorably. I find this view quite mistaken. It is no truer of the Hebrew nation than of its American or Australian counterparts.
I think it is vital to recognise this fact, because no eventual benign democratic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be possible unless it is acceptable to a considerable majority – primarily the working class – of both national groups; and a precondition for this is recognition of their national existence, and right to exist on equal terms.
What a nation finds acceptable depends, of course, to a large extent on real objective circumstances. Under present conditions no benign resolution of the conflict is possible, because the balance of power is so overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour that what a large majority of Hebrews find acceptable falls far short of what can be acceptable to the Palestinian masses. Yet, even given Israel’s massive power, and despite the brutality of its attempts to impose an unjust outcome on the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nation of which they are a component part, it is unable to achieve this. The strong do what they can, yet the weak can still resist so long as they are alive. Only a total massacre can eliminate their resistance.
And even if the balance of power were to be totally reversed – a very big ‘if’ – the Hebrew masses would resist to the death any attempt to deny their nationhood or subjugate them as a nation. This is not an outcome that socialists ought to advocate.
I have outlined elsewhere a socialist resolution of the conflict, so I need not expand on it here.21 Suffice it to say that it looks beyond the narrow box of Palestine to a regional revolution that will overthrow Zionism as well as the oppressive Arab regimes and establish a socialist Arab east, within which both Palestinian Arab and Hebrew national groups can be accommodated by democratic consent and on equal terms.
1. Translated by Yael Lotan, London 2009.
2. Matzpen’s long-held view on this is reiterated in my 2006 public lecture Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution, included as chapter 33 in my book by the same title (Chicago 2012). See also the review of Sand’s book in chapter 32.
3. It is estimated that before World War II over 90% of all Jews were Ashkenazim (see S DellaPergola, ‘Demography’ in Encyclopaedia Judaica Philadelphia 2006, table 2. Also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazim). At the end of the 19th century a large majority of Ashkenazim were in the Russian empire and its periphery, although from about 1888 there was mass migration of Jews from that part of the world to the US and elsewhere.
8. Lenin is quoting from Alfred Naquet’s article, ‘Drumont and Bernard Lazare’, published on September 24 1903 in the Paris La Petite République. Édouard Drumont was founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France.
9. Photocopy of typewritten original in B Destani (ed) The Zionist movement and the foundation of Israel 1839-1972, Cambridge 2004, Vol 1, p727.
16. Passed in 1985 as amendment 9, clause 7a to the Basic law: the Knesset 1958. Israel has no written constitution, but ‘basic laws’ are supposed to be elements of a future constitution and have constitutional force.
19. Israelis and Palestinians (op cit), chapter 18.
20. Elam’s words quoted and paraphrased above are from his article, ‘New premises for the same Zionism’ Ot No2, winter 1967. Ot, of which Elam was an editor, was an official journal of the Labour Alignment.
Over the weekend of May 4-5 Israel launched air raids against targets in Syria. Yassamine Mather and Moshé Machover, two members of the Hands Off the People of Iran steering committee, discuss the issues raised by this latest development
YM: The two Israeli air raids into Syrian territory have to be looked at in the context of the current Syrian civil war and realignment of regional powers. However, there is an Iranian dimension to all this. According to some Iranian military strategists, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to appropriate either Syria or Khuzestan [in southern Iran], the priority is that we keep Syria.”1
According to ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most senior foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, “Syria has a very basic and key role in the region of promoting firm policies of resistance … for this reason an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”2
Until May 4-5, there could have been no doubt that, in the event of a military attack by US or Israeli forces, Iran’s first line of defence would be a retaliation against Israel using Hezbollah, who in turn would rely on Syrian military support. The Israeli bombings have clearly changed the situation and weakened Iran’s position considerably. What do you think? Am I right or is this a very Iran-centric analysis?
MM: You can regard these air raids as a narrow intervention in the Syria civil war, but this is not the way to understand their wider significance. If you look at it only in this way, it appears very paradoxical. If it was aimed at helping the forces opposed to president Bashar al-Assad, there was no logic to it.
First of all, it compromises the Syrian opposition, which is very heterogeneous. Some elements are genuine popular forces, others are supported from the outside by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and indirectly by the US. Those sponsors don’t mind collaborating with Israel, but the forces on the ground, even the forces supported by Qatar, the Islamists, are not happy being in a common front with Israel. In this respect, it gives Assad a means to denigrate the opposition and he has taken it. So this is not the context in which to understand the logic of these attacks.
I think that context is a wider regional one. Israel is doing everything it possibly can to widen the confrontation and there are several reasons for this. A couple of weeks ago there was a hoo-ha about weapons of mass destruction, specifically poison gas. The Israeli intelligence agency alleged that poison gas had been used, knowing that president Barack Obama had said this was a “red line” for intervention. Clearly the intention was to draw Obama into a more direct intervention in Syria: in other words, to widen the confrontation.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not working hand in hand with the Obama administration, but with some more rightwing forces in the US. The announcement about poison gas was very much welcomed by senator John McCain and various other rightwing elements. It turns out that Obama and his administration were not very keen to take up this infringement of the “red line”. (Let me add there is no serious proof about the use of poison gas: it isn’t clear how much was used and who actually used it. There are even reports that it was sections of the opposition who were responsible.)
This attempt to widen the conflict failed, so now Israel has embarked on a new adventure. Following the weekend attacks, all commentators are saying this was an attempt to stop Syria delivering missiles to Hezbollah. This may or may not be true. However, I don’t think this is the whole answer. The key point is that Israel is trying to widen the confrontation. This is expressed well by a cartoon I saw, showing Israeli planes spouting petrol over the flames of the civil war.
Why? I think there are two parts to this. First, there is an attempt to prevent a settlement both in Syria and more generally between the US and Iran. There are various attempts at arriving at a modus operandi in both the limited Syria context and with Iran. There is a long history of this and I don’t need to go into details about it. Some elements within the Obama administration would like to achieve a compromise and the same is true of elements of the Iranian regime, but the more hawkish circles in the US, with whom Netanyahu is allied, want to prevent it.
Israel wants to prevent it because for it an upgrading of relations between Iran and the US via a settlement of their conflict would mean that Israel loses its position as the unique and most reliable franchise-holder of US imperialism in the region. It would be a relative loss of status for Israel.
The other issue is more strategic. Netanyahu is doing everything he can to create a major conflagration in the region. I have conjectured several times that this is because he would like to use it to perpetrate massive ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and with a big war, win or lose (whether the Iranian regime were overthrown or not), that one thing can be achieved. The chances are improved if the war is widened sufficiently and if it creates regional upheavals; under those conditions it offers an effective smokescreen for ethnic cleansing.
I think this is his plan and for this he would be ready to accept casualties on the Israeli side – a real possibility for which there are already various estimates. For this strategic aim of securing Israel’s future as a Jewish ethnocracy, Netanyahu is prepared for sacrifices, as such a war would solve Zionism’s historical dilemma, the so-called ‘demographic peril’. Israel is holding occupied territories with a Palestinian population that is roughly the same size as the Israeli Hebrew population. Israel has done everything to prevent a Palestinian state; it wishes to annexe territories, but without a large Arab population. Logically, expelling a large part of the indigenous population in the West Bank would solve the demographic problem and a major regional conflict would present the opportunity. This is my interpretation: it is only a conjecture, but it relies on facts.
YM: Sections of the Iranian press are saying that Israel has accepted responsibility for, or at least hinted strongly that it was behind, the air raids. An unusual admission, but intended to provoke Iran into retaliation.
In fact, an Iranian retaliation seemed to be very likely and, let me stress, I am glad it did not materialise. It would have provided the perfect excuse for military attacks against Iran by the US and Israel. However, the fact that this did not happen is both a reflection of the weakness of the Iranian state and, indeed, an expression of the weakness of the supreme leader, Khamenei. There are two reasons for this: the terrible economic situation in Iran and the political chaos in the country.
Iran’s currency continues in free fall. Sanctions, combined with economic mismanagement, have crippled the economy. The US department of energy estimates that Iran’s oil exports fell by 27% from $95 billion in 2011 to $69 billion in 2012.3 Inflation is estimated by Iran’s central bank to be around 40% and there is a zero growth rate.4
The political situation is fraught. We are in the middle of a presidential election that was supposed to be a fait accompli. However, all predictions of the make-up of the future government are on hold, as the conflict within the regime widens. The supreme leader’s relationship with his former protégé, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is at an all-time low. Rumours circulate that Ahmadinejad was arrested for seven hours last week. The supreme leader is accusing him of trying to delay the elections. Until a couple of weeks ago, everyone expected the nomination of Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to be rejected by the Guardian Council, which would have allowed the uncontested election of a ‘principlist’ candidate loyal to the supreme leader.
This was before it became apparent that Ahmadinejad was not giving up power so easily. His determination to hold on has gone as far as threatening the very foundations of the regime. He has hinted at possession of tapes purporting to show electoral fraud in 2009 and the corruption of ‘principlist’ candidates. To add to the turmoil, in the last week before the deadline for registration of presidential candidates, two ‘reformist’ leaders, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, issued statements indicating that one of them might stand.
Candidates have to register by May 11. Those putting forward their name will be vetted by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council and no-one expects a ‘reformist’ to win. However, it is conceivable that the Israelis are concerned that the new Iranian president, whether a reformist, a ‘principlist’ or even Ahmadinejad’s favoured candidate, will move the negotiations with the ‘P5+1’ countries forward. Even some of the supreme leader’s close supporters have made conciliatory comments about the nuclear issue.
Sanctions are destroying the country and the expectation is that the presidential elections will not solve anything. One could say that Iran’s Islamic Republic is politically and economically weak and the timing of the Israeli attacks against Syria cannot be a coincidence. And, of course, when it came to the threat of war, an important weapon in Iran’s hand was Hezbollah and the potential danger it poses to Israel. The Syrian bombings allegedly destroyed deliveries of heavy artillery from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah. This is a major blow to the Islamic Republic of Iran, making it far more vulnerable to a serious attack by Israel or the United States.
MM: Let me stress that there has not been an official Israeli admission that it was responsible for the weekend’s air raids. However, Israeli military experts and other commentators have made comments which are as good as an admission. Not that there was any doubt about it anyway.
There is a little twist to this. There were two attacks. There is good reason to believe that Israel got approval from the Obama administration for the first attack, which was relatively minor. The second was a much more powerful explosion – the ground around Damascus shook. I think Israel got the green light to attack – in fact, the announcements about the May 4 attack were first made by the US. But, as so often happens, it seems that in the second attack Israel exceeded the prior agreement.
YM: On the other hand, all the current and potential candidates in Iran’s presidential election (reformists, ‘principlists’ or Ahmadinejad’s favourite, Mashaei) are united on one issue: they all want to negotiate an end to the nuclear debacle. So the question of the timing of these bombings against Syria is very indicative.
MM: Yes this timing question is very important – why now? All bourgeois commentators are happy to look at the issues country by country – Israel versus Syria and Hezbollah, etc – but they cannot see that all the issues are linked. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, with Iran and with Hezbollah – all are interconnected; and in that context the best explanation for the timing of the attacks on Syria is the forthcoming presidential election in Iran.
Yassamine Mather reports on the chaos that is the Islamic Republic
In Iran, presidential elections are looming, the economy is in freefall, the public hanging of small-time criminals is creating an atmosphere of terror, repression is worsening and workers are protesting throughout the country. There are unconfirmed reports of an explosion at the Fordo uranium enrichment plant and the infighting between factions of the regime is shown live on state-owned TV. Meanwhile, Israel has bombed a military facility in Syria, claiming it is used by Iranian Islamic guards, and civil war is breaking out in Iraq, Iran’s main Shia ally. Finally, the country’s aerospace agency has sent a monkey into space! All in all, as far as Iranians are concerned, it has been an eventful start to 2013.
A combination of sanctions and endemic economic mismanagement has resulted in a constant fall of the country’s currency, the rial. The Iranian press and media blamed “leadership confusion at Iran’s Central Bank”1 for the latest drop in the exchange rate. However, this fall is a continuation of a general trend. According to official statistics, the dollar was worth 33,000 rials on January 20, 36,250 rials on January 23 and 40,000 rials on January 31.2 As late as 2006, the exchange rate was 11,000 rials to the dollar.
Iran is failing to extract and sell sufficient amounts of oil, its major export, and sanctions are really beginning to take their toll, but the political elite are engulfed in a bitter internecine struggle, further eroding confidence in the future of the Shia Republic. The pious leaders of the religious state are busy converting their fortunes, often accumulated through corruption, into foreign currency and there is considerable speculative selling by clerics and high-ranking government officials, who see spiralling inflation devaluing their assets. The government has responded to the latest currency crisis by arresting money traders in Tehran and other major cities, but the reality is that senior ayatollahs and government officials – the main culprits, as far as the flight of capital and savings is concerned – do not use small traders: their currency exchanges are via banks and major corporations.
The governor of Iran’s Central Bank, Mahmoud Bahmani, an ally of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed he was investigating such transactions, when news agencies reported on January 20 that he had “resigned with immediate effect”.3 However, Ahmadinejad refused to accept the resignation and the next day Bahmani was sacked for making improper withdrawals from client accounts.4 All this was part of a major power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the ‘principlist conservatives’, both sides accusing each other of massive corruption. Allah’s first Shia government on earth has turned out to be one the most corrupt.
On February 3, German police arrested an Iranian man carrying a cheque issued by a Venezuelan bank worth €54 million. According to the weekly Bild am Sonntag, he was the former head of Iran’s Central Bank, Tahmasb Mazaheri, who was in charge until 2008.5 Only a few days later, and in retaliation for accusations against his appointees, Ahmadinejad used a live broadcast from the majles (Islamic parliament) to show a video allegedly proving the corruption of his arch-rivals, the four Larijani brothers. The Iranian president was trying to prevent the impeachment of the labour minister, claiming the majles speaker, Ali Larijani, was part of a corrupt clique. Despite the president’s efforts, MPs voted by 192 to 56 to impeach the minister for appointing Saeed Mortazavi, an Ahmadinejad supporter, as head of social security.
Mortazavi is a former prosecutor of the Revolutionary Islamic Courts who had been dismissed in 2009 following accusations of torturing prisoners. In 2010 the Iranian parliament published the findings of an investigation into the death of protestors arrested following the 2009 presidential elections. The report identified Mortazavi as responsible for the death of three political prisoners at Kahrizak detention centre and the abuse of dozens of others. By February 5 Mortazavi was in prison awaiting another trial!
While defending his temporarily rehabilitated ally, the Iranian president played a video which “showed Fazel Larijani, a younger brother of the speaker, negotiating with Mr Mortazavi over a deal to benefit from the sale of companies affiliated to the Social Security Organisation, while also asking for a 600 or 700 sq m villa.”6 Larijani senior accused Ahmadinejad of “immorality”, “mafia” behaviour and plotting to “blackmail critics”.7
The Larijani brothers are considered to be the most loyal political allies of the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and, according to rumour, Khamenei would like to see one of them as the next president. Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani is head of Iran’s judiciary, another brother was deputy foreign secretary and a fourth is a diplomat. Ahmadinejad and his supporters often refer to the Larijanis as the “smuggler brothers”.
This latest infighting between the president and the ‘principlists’ is particularly significant in that it indicates the decline in the authority of the supreme leader. Less than two weeks ago he called on both sides to stop insulting each other “at a time when the nation faces serious external threats”. The fact that his advice was so blatantly ignored by the factions of the regime is in itself an indication of the severity of the current political crisis. Khamenei showed his disapproval of Ahmadinejad’s antics by refusing to send his representative to the airport when the president flew to Cairo.
But the week was only ever going to get worse for Ahmadinejad. On February 5 in Cairo, a shoe was flung at him in a mosque and one of Sunni Islam’s most senior clerics, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, publicly criticised Shia Islam, warning the Iranian president not to interfere in the internal affairs of Sunni states. The “spread of Shi’ism in Sunni lands” must be halted.8
As the rival factions squabble about who has stolen what from state coffers, the Iranian working class is suffering unprecedented hardship. Iran imports most of its basic food items and this weekend the price of chicken rose by 23%, while rice and eggs were 37% and 23% higher than last week. There is no doubt that sanctions are biting hard and hitting workers and the poor. The minister of industry, mines and trade, Mehdi Ghazanfari, said the aim was “to paralyse our economy and to put people under pressure and in distress”.9 In early January, MP Gholam Reza Kateb, a leading member of the national planning and budget committee, admitted the whole economy was in trouble, as oil revenues have fallen around 45% in the last nine months because of western sanctions.10 Last month, Iran was forced to stop selling fuel to a number of airlines because of shortages.
This year, those lucky enough to have a full-time job will earn wages ranging between $240 and $320 a month, yet the official poverty line is set at $800. Many economists believe the recent monthly inflation rate is around 70%. So hyperinflation, mass unemployment and low wages for the employed and underemployed have created conditions where a majority of Iranians live in misery and have great difficulty putting food on the table. Iranian officials claim there has been an unprecedented increase in crime.
A recent report by the Majles Research Commission summarises the devastating situation: production fell by 40% between October 2011 and October 2012, while employment fell by 36% in the same period. The commission was set up to investigate the effects of sanctions and found that 566 industrial and service sector companies had closed down since March 2012. According to the executive secretary of Isfahan’s labour office, “Some employers, thinking that difficulties are short-lived and will be resolved in the near future, did wait for several months before cutting down their labour force. But now the continued chaos and fluctuations mean they have to either shut down their facilities completely or decrease their workforce considerably … the rate of lay-offs in production facilities will increase daily and [become] a worrying trend in the whole society.”11
Such an economic climate allows unscrupulous employers to factor in non-payment of wages as part of their economic calculations. Many Iranian workers have not been paid for months, but in several sectors they have started protesting. In January, factory workers in Saveh resumed their strike demanding back-payment of six months wages. Steel workers also went on strike, but ended their protest after management promised to pay one month of what they were owed. The following day, these workers took their protests to the offices of the local governor. In December, thousands of workers at the Fajr Petrochemical factory in Mahshahr were on strike in protest at the lack of job security. Their banner read: “We are hungry. We haven’t been paid for 22 months.” In the same province, hundreds of miners were facing job losses, as the government failed to pay for coal it had purchased.
The government’s response to the protests has been to increase repression. Labour activists arrested in July 2012 have just been handed long prison sentences, while at least 14 journalists were detained last week after security forces raided four newspapers. Several publications based in Tehran were closed down and the homes of individual journalists were searched, as authorities claimed they were working with spies based in the BBC’s Persian service. Leftwing students have also been arrested in Tabriz, while the January 20 public hanging of two petty criminals in a Tehran park was yet another attempt by the regime to impose an atmosphere of fear. The message is clear: no dissent will be tolerated. We don’t care about basic human rights and we care even less what others think. It has not escaped the attention of Iranians that, whereas the two executed men were guilty of stealing goods worth 70,000 tomans (less than £40), the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, who had stolen millions, was free to leave the country with his €54 million cheque.
As plans for immediate military operations against Iran are put on hold, it is clear that the United States and Israel are relying on disintegration from within, in a country gripped by political infighting and facing economic meltdown. While rightwing opponents of the regime base their hopes on imperialist intervention, amongst all this chaos our solidarity remains with all those fighting for regime change from below – the Iranian working class, student and women activists – and with all those held in prison as a result.
In this respect, there is positive news: Fariborz Raisdana, a Marxist economist who has been held in Evin prison since early summer last year, has been sending out valuable material about the living conditions of imprisoned labour activists. He has set up a political economy study group, apparently very popular with young prisoners, much to the fury of ‘reformist’ politicians who are also being held in Evin.
Meanwhile, another working class prisoner, Shahrokh Zamani, a member of the Council of Representatives of Labour Organisations, has sent an optimistic letter from Gohardasht prison, entitled ‘It is now our turn – the turn of democratic governance and workers councils’. The letter explains how, in the face of a major economic crisis, capitalism has launched an attack on workers throughout the world, and Iran is no exception to this rule. Zamani points out that the Iranian working class should have no illusions about ‘reformists’ within the Islamic regime, nor should it seek alliances with ‘liberals’ outside it. Instead workers should rely on their own strength. He ends his letter with the clarion call: “Workers have no alternative but to unite and organise. Long live the political general strike. Long live the revolution.”
Although it is difficult to share Zamani’s optimism at a time when the Iranian working class is far from being politically and organisationally strong enough to fulfil such wishes, one must admire his courage and determination for issuing such a positive call in the midst of the chaos and despair that grips Iran.
It was amidst all this chaos that Iran’s space agency reported sending a monkey into space. The US and Israel were quick to point out that this represented a worrying extension of Iran’s missile technology: “Any space-launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles.”12
However, on the “darker side of the internet” (to quote the phrase of a certain London professor) users noticed that the photo of the monkey launched into space did not match that of the one returning. Some speculated that the rocket had left Earth, but failed to return, while others suggested that the first monkey must have sought political asylum in outer space. Ironically help came from the ‘great Satan’ in the shape of Harvard academic Jonathan McDowell, who identified the first monkey as one who died “during a failed space mission in 2011”.
Just to add to the tragicomic news coming form Iran, Ahmadinejad proposed on February 4 (the day after his humiliating exit from parliament) that he was willing to “risk his life” and become the first human to be sent into space as part of his country’s space programme.13 Returning again to the darker side of the internet, a Facebook page – ‘In support of sending Ahmadinejad into space’ – got over 1,000 ‘likes’ within minutes of being set up. Users have posted encouraging messages, such as: “We will accompany him to the launch platform. We will even pay for the shuttle’s fuel costs”.
On Wednesday January 9 three members of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), including Sakine Cansız, a founding member of the organisation, were murdered in Paris. There are many theories about who was behind the execution-style killings and most of them relate to conspiracies to derail the current talks between the PKK and Turkey.
It could be that hard-line nationalists or Islamists within the Turkish security forces were behind the murders, although it is far more likely that Iranian or Syrian security forces, anxious about recent progress in negotiations between the Kurdish group and the Turkish state, were responsible. Iran’s security forces have already killed a number of the regime’s opponents in France and got away with it. One thing is clear: whoever was responsible for the murder of the three Kurdish activists made it look like an internal execution. PKK supporters say that in death as in life. Sakine Cansız was an equal to any of the organisation’s men. Others might argue that the ‘macho militarist’ culture of the organisation had another victim.
Although she was a loyal supporter of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, she was no ‘yes woman’. There are unconfirmed reports that she had fallen out with the leadership in the past and that her partner, Mehmet Şener, was killed in the early 1990s as a result of PKK factional infighting. But she engaged in self-criticism and was rehabilitated. Former PKK members recount an incident in the 1990s when Öcalan made fun of prisoners who had just ended a hunger strike, saying: “They sold out the revolution for a bowl of shorba [soup]”. But Sakine, who had just been released from a 13-year prison sentence, stood up against the ‘leader’ and defended the prisoners. A courageous act that, according to the same reports, actually impressed Öcalan.
PKK supporters often claim that the large number of female fighters in their ranks is testimony to the group’s determination to fight patriarchy and Cansız is quoted as saying that that women’s participation in the PKK’s armed struggle was no “token gesture”.
Critics will point out that masculinisation of women in guerrilla organisations is no path to women’s liberation and in many ways I would not disagree with this view. Having said that, Sakine’s life and her commitment to socialism have lessons for all of us. I did not know her, but, reading about her life, I was struck by the similarities with the lives of so many of the Fedayeen women fighters in Kurdistan. I felt I had known her all my life. And in a week when British left politics has been dominated by allegations of sexism in the Socialist Workers Party, it could be that the successes and mistakes of some of the Middle East’s main radical left organisations have lessons for the challenges facing women activists in leftwing European organisations.
For all the PhD theses (usually written by men with little first-hand experience or knowledge of the Fedayeen) about the plight of women in the Organisation of the Iranian People’s Fedayeen, I maintain that my experience as a candidate member, member and full cadre of the OIPFG contradicts all the stereotypical accusations. I am not implying that a militarist organisation with confused politics had overcome sexism. However, given the patriarchal, religious backdrop of the first Islamic regime in the Middle East, or in the case of eastern Turkey, given the predominance of Islamic fundamentalism, the practises of the Fedayeen in the 1980s and the PKK reveal surprising achievements regarding women’s equality. I believe these advances were achieved because members of these organisations took their politics and their commitments to revolutionary change seriously and, despite the serious flaws in their political outlook, their organisational practice was superior to that of the radical left in Europe.
No amount of reading or quoting Engels or Kollontai, no repetition of standard texts about the dual exploitation of women, can help us deal with the current debate about sexism in the SWP. One can safely assume that left activists, and certainly members of the SWP central committee, are familiar with such texts – indeed they quote them regularly and, at least on paper, there is no major difference between the opponents of sexism on the left and those they accuse of sexism. That is why in trying to find answers we might do well by looking at the limited and indeed isolated achievements of the Fedayeen and PKK. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to use the SWP fiasco to revisit the issue of sexism on the left, but the fact that this aspect has dominated internet discussions on the subject is regrettable – especially as we now have the Daily Mail lecturing us about ‘feminism’!
Of course, the specific conditions of leftwing military operations in the snowy mountains of Iran or Turkey cannot be duplicated. But it is important to establish what can be learnt from the positive and negative aspects of those experiences. This article is not concerned with the shambolic behaviour of the SWP’s CC in relation to allegations of rape (although I would say that sexism was not the cause of that particular problem – more the inevitable consequence of other shortcomings: a rudderless political outlook, lack of strategy, cronyism, and the absence of democracy). No, this article concerns the practices of the Middle Eastern left and the way those practices impact on women’s equality.
The Fedayeen imposed notoriously stringent membership conditions and, although these were often criticised by other groups, I do think the idea of recruiting ‘revolutionaries’ on the basis of a passing expression of sympathy on a demonstration or protest is far more ridiculous – unless one is only interested in membership quantity, as opposed to quality.
In order to become a member of the Fedayeen, a supporter with a reasonable understanding of its politics would have to pass one, preferably two, tests: emerging from jail with a ‘‘courageous prison record” and surviving a couple of cold winters in the battlegrounds of Kurdistan. These qualifications were obviously specific to a particular era in Iran. However, fighting capitalism in the 21st century is not a dinner party and it is certainly time for the organisations of the radical left to revisit their minimum conditions for membership. There must be happy medium between these two extremes.
Those that think they can build a serious organisation by distributing membership cards at various protests are badly mistaken. It is not surprising that members recruited on such a basis bring with them all sorts of retrograde predispositions or prejudices, including sexist attitudes. It is not surprising that such recruits are ‘impressed’ by the powerful men (or women) in the organisation they have joined.
The membership requirements of the SWP – and indeed many of the other organisations of the radical left – appear to me to be less demanding than those of a gym (you may not actually show up for a workout, but at least you have to pay your subscription). So why are we surprised when ‘yes men’ and indeed ‘yes women’ are the ones who get promoted in the SWP?
The other side of the coin is the cavalier attitude towards lethargy. For all the talk of action to bring about the overthrow of capitalism, we are not talking about a combatant membership: a large chunk of the 7,000-plus men and women who are supposed to be SWP members cannot be considered activists, let alone serious revolutionaries, so why should we expect them to have conquered sexism?
One reason why guerrilla organisations have a better record of combating sexism is because they are isolated from society. Their members do not interact within normal society. The claim that Fedayeen women activists of the 1980s were totally ‘liberated’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, there is no doubt that separation from day-to-day family tasks did present unparalleled ‘opportunities’ for women. We live in a patriarchal society and removal from it at least presents us with the possibility of creating conditions where sexism can be more easily combated.
By definition guerrilla women did not have household responsibilities. Either we were childless or those with children had their offspring looked after by parents or relatives in cities and villages far from the battlefield. We did not have any gender-specific duties, so, in that respect, living in a collective military base was to a very limited extent like living in post-revolutionary conditions. Female comrades in European leftwing organisations (maybe with the exception of a few full-timers) spend the majority of their time in a sexist environment – as wage-earners (often on lower wages than their male counterparts), as carers for children and the elderly, as unpaid workers doing housework (and, in the vast majority of cases, spending many more hours on housework than the men they live with). At the best of times it would be impossible to expect a political organisation to deal with the day-to-day discrimination women activists face in society – discrimination unrelated to party activity.
To overcome this situation there are difficult personal, social and political choices to be made and in my opinion those who put politics in command often come out of it stronger. As women, we may vent all our frustrations about sexual inequality within the political organisations to which we belong. It is certainly easy to play the role of the victim, but for a revolutionary such attitudes are cop-outs. If we are to combat sexism within our organisations, we must start by building female comrades’ self-confidence.
Women activists are often their own worst enemy when it comes to their own capabilities, organisationally and politically. On this issue we must rebel against stereotyped work. We need to consider the possibility of ditching housework and reducing care duties so that we have enough time to write articles, to participate in meetings, to organise. But many female comrades are not in a position to do so – who would look after their children? Who would care for their elderly parent? Some do not want to do so, yet all of us expect miracles from our political organisation.
Physical and mental
Even guerrilla organisations take note of the fact that there are physical differences between men and women, and some tasks are more suited to women’s physical capabilities.
However, life in a combat zone leaves little room for chivalry. Women might be issued with lighter guns and in the case of the Fedayeen, female combatants had to come to terms with the company of a dedicated male bodyguard, who would have his gun pointed to her head when they ventured into dangerous areas. This bizarre custom was meant to ensure that the organisation would never allow a female fighter to fall into the hands of the Islamic regime. Upon arrival in Kurdistan, my immediate reaction to this practice was to condemn it as an insult. But a few weeks into my stay, having heard about the kind of torture Islamic Guards reserved for communist women, I actually found it reassuring that my bodyguard would make sure I was dead rather than taken prisoner. It was a practical step taken to deal with a specific issue.
However, with the exception of this single practice, men and women wore the same uniform, performed the same tasks, were treated more or less equally in the camp, in battle and in the division of labour.
In Kurdistan, maybe because we lived so far from reality (away from capitalist commodity fetishism, away from the false modesty imposed by the Shia state) our appearance seemed to have no significance and this in itself had a liberating effect. Qualities such as the ability to debate, organise and, yes, shoot accurately, were considered far more important than looks – our military uniform did not leave much room for coquetry. Both in Kurdistan and later as the representative of the organisation abroad, I was well aware that using make-up and spending time on one’s appearance in other ways were considered serious flaws.
I know this will be frowned upon by modern feminists, but if revolutionary women are to be equal with men there must come a time when we stop becoming victims of commodity fetishism – a time when we refuse to be concerned about our appearance. Apart from anything else, this will leave us more time for politics, its theory and practice. Whether we like it or not, the inequality in terms of the time we spend on non-political tasks – be it family, housework , childcare or our appearance – does contribute to our lack of confidence. It does make us victims of a sexist culture, sexist society. It is up to us individually and collectively to change this – we cannot expect men to do it for us.
Power and sex
Throughout their clandestine life in Iranian cities, the Fedayeen banned sexual relations of any kind between members of the organisation. Both the pre-1979 Fedayeen and the PKK have been accused of executing comrades for breaking such rules, and the shah’s secret police and some on the Iranian left keep repeating the allegation that the Fedayeen would impose the death penalty for initiating a relationship with another member of the organisation. Although this allegation is completely false, the sex ban does reveal the kind of discipline considered necessary to confront the dangers presented by clandestine political activity in a police state.
Of course, such a ban would both be ridiculous and represent an interference in the private lives of comrades under any other circumstances, but there is no doubt that the left has to deal with the issue of the abuse of power by men, and occasionally women. However, the simple answer must be to combat bureaucracy, privilege and kowtowing to those in positions of power. It is wrong – and counterrevolutionary – to encourage an admiration of senior cadres simply because of the position they hold, or to promote myths about their intellectual or organisational capabilities to encourage respect for their rank. Such practices can result in a cult of personality – to the detriment of the building of a serious political organisation.
The issue is not one of sexual abuse, pure and simple (although elements of such abuse exist). It is one of unaccountable power. That is what the members and supporters of all working class organisations must constantly be on their guard against.
When is a political tribunal ‘non-political’? Hands Off the People of Iran national secretary Mark Fischer responds to the latest salvo of pro-imperialist apologetics
Hands Off the People of Iran and the Weekly Worker have been sent a document authored by Dariosh Afshar, associate member of the Iran Tribunal’s International Communications Work Group. The Iran Tribunal, set up by exiled anti-regime Iranians, was convened to investigate Tehran’s massacre of some 15,000 political prisoners in the 1980s, but has been shown by Hopi and this paper to be a body that objectively aids the US-led drive to impose – by military or other means – regime change from above on Iran.
The long, rambling and self-contradictory document, entitled ‘What the “friends of the people” are, and how they fight the social power of the people’, is presented as a response to a situation where allegedly “professor Norman Paech, a renowned and well respected German politician of Germany’s ‘Left’ party, who had earlier offered his support to Iran Tribunal, was compelled to withdraw his support …”1 Its stated aim is to refute the criticisms of the IT that soured comrade Paech’s attitude and – pursuing that – the document makes a whole series of counter-accusations against Hopi and one of its leading figures, Yassamine Mather, as well as the Weekly Worker.
We have been challenged to publish the 16,000-word document in our paper, which we have no intention of doing. However, Hopi has reproduced it on its website,2 so comrades can judge its quality for themselves, and we intend – in due course – to comprehensively unpick its amateurish dishonesty and clumsy apologetics. This article will confine itself to presenting some answers to the main political charges that Afshar – presumably with the tacit consent of other members of the IT – has laid against us.
There are other, more involved questions: for example, the funding links of individuals and organisations involved in the IT. These we will take up subsequently in a longer, more detailed reply. Here we will content ourselves with a few observations. For example, the web of influence through which imperialism pursues its global agenda is, naturally, not transparent. It is opaque, highly complex, subtle and circuitous: it is pushed forward financially, through academic patronage, personal pressure/inducement and the ideological cooption of useful dupes. Simply stating that there are no direct, bank-account-to-bank-account transactions that can be highlighted in yellow marker is an idiotic defence – or perhaps, more accurately, a defence that is designed to satisfy no-one but fools.
More often than not, the simplest questions are the most profound. So comrade Paech is to be congratulated for prompting the production of this long, self-contradictory screed with his plainly put request for clarification: “Can the tribunal take a clear position against war and sanctions?” he asked.
No it cannot, Afshar answers. More tellingly, this apologist suggests that its very nature dictates that it should not. This is because the Iran Tribunal is “non-political”, he insists. Comrades who plough through his document online will note that he returns repeatedly to this challenge and – interestingly – provides different definitions of “non-political”.
Most absurdly, he actually suggests in one place that the IT is non-political because “upholding justice and human dignity and values doesn’t mix with politics. This is one of the main elements which Yassamine Mather cannot see or appreciate.”
On two levels, it is a little difficult to respond to something as silly as this. Historically, the notion that categories such as ‘justice’ and ‘human dignity’ have not been rather hotly contested political concepts should not really detain us too long – Liberté,égalité, fraternité anyone …?
The more pertinent point here is the way contemporary imperialism promotes its interventions as ‘humanitarian’ gestures – Afshar asks whether “any war between two or more reactionary forces” has “ever been motivated, or been used as a pretext, to defend or even pretend to defend or protect human rights”. A smarter question would perhaps be – particularly since Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the second cold war – when have they not?
With this is mind, the recommendations of the IT’s second sitting (ending on October 29) make ominous reading. As others have pointed out, they sound very much like the conclusions reached by the kind of tribunals that preceded the ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the former Yugoslavia – conclusions that conveniently paved the way for the military intervention of Nato. In this context, there is an irony that this final session of the IT was staged in the Hague, where former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić is currently on trial.
Afshar’s insistence that “no-one’s political or ideological views play any role whatsoever” in the IT and that “this is absolute” assumes that his audience are morons. A tribunal – with, rather obviously, no powers whatsoever – is specifically set up to investigate the crimes of a particular regime and we are meant to believe that politics do not come into it?
What is more, the Iran Tribunal takes place against the background of sanctions, warmongering and attempts to impose regime change from above. Meanwhile, the international anti-war movement (for which Afshar consistently expresses contempt throughout his document) is very much weakened, compared to its zenith in 2003, and seems incapable of mounting a serious challenge to imperialism’s plans.
Then in this particular historical moment, the ‘non-political’ IT steps forward with its condemnation of the barbaric Tehran regime and its ear-splitting silence concerning the looming danger of another disastrous war in the region. It ignores the ongoing horror of ‘soft war’ sanctions that are fraying the fabric of Iran’s society and making life hell for ordinary people. The evasions of Afshar are worthless – it is clear whose interests are being served by his tribunal. The “absolute” ban on “political or ideological views” is meaningless: what other conclusion are we supposed to draw from the evidence than ‘something must be done’? Moreover, those participating in the stunt who supported sanctions and war had vast resources deployed daily outside the hall to make their case for them.3
The ban is exclusively directed against the left, against anti-imperialist forces – something that has been documented in some detail. For example, in two highly critical statements the Norwegian IT support committee describes how all tribunal witnesses who arrived in London on June 17 were taken to a briefing, where they were explicitly asked not to ‘raise any politics’ during their evidence. One witness wanted to challenge the tribunal and at the end of his 30-minute session made an anti-imperialist statement. Outrageously, his whole evidence was excluded from the record.
In the current world context, to remain silent on sanctions and the threat of war is to play the role of willing dupes; it is to constitute yourself as the ‘human rights’ wing of imperialism’s reactionary campaign.
Possibly the most absurd argument is Afshar’s attempt to prove that Hopi generally and Yassamine Mather specifically are in effect supporters of the Islamic regime. It is worthwhile examining his text here. A quote from comrade Mather is cited: “without clear opposition to war and sanctions, the tribunal effectively strengthens the hand of all those reactionary forces contemplating a military attack on Iran … I am a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran – but a war would be disastrous for the forces in Iran that have a real interest in democracy: the workers, women’s groups and social movements in that country.”
Absurdly this is taken to show that “Yassamine simply cannot see through her tunnel vision that there is a third force: ie, the people of Iran. They are the ultimate power who could stop any potential war by overthrowing the regime and establishing their own secular and democratic system. Being ‘a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran’ doesn’t mean that one should see the welfare and democratic aspirations of the people through maintaining the balance of power between two reactionary and warring states.”
At this point, some readers may start to doubt the man’s sanity. It is possible to fill a barn with Hopi and Mather quotes that exactly make the point that the working people of Iran are the focus of our work, our hopes for democracy and socialism – indeed the quote used by Afshar himselfdoes that. However, very quickly it becomes clear that what Afshar actually takes offence to is the anti-war component of Hopi’s work.
“Yassamine only sees the US and the rulers of IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran],” he writes, in contradiction to the words he is actually quoting. “She only worries about weakening or strengthening one or the other. People don’t come into Yassamine’s equation and have no place in her ‘anti-war’ politics. And when people do something collectively and form a social power institution such as Iran Tribunal, she smears it with lies and accusations.”
“[Mather] has focused the main part of her activism on ‘anti-war’ campaigning. Isn’t the balance of power between the USA and [Iran] the main issue with Yassamine? Doesn’t she just want to play ‘anti-war’ games within the ‘anti-imperialist camp’ of some of the mind-twisted so-called ‘Marxists’? Where do the people of Iran come into Yassamine’s active politics?”
Given world politics and relations between Israel, the US and Iran over the last few years, one might have expected that someone like Afshar (who self-defines himself as a ‘Marxist’ in the document) would see anti-war agitation and propaganda in a period like this as rather more than a ‘game’.
In truth, and despite his protestations otherwise, Afshar’s politics lend themselves to, if not active support for sanctions and the war drive, at least indifference. He imagines a scenario where “Yassamine Mather had a successful campaign and not only she prevented the war, but the sanctions were also lifted. Wouldn’t the best achieved outcome and scenario be similar to the time when Khatami or Rafsanjani had the upper hand within the Islamic Republican of Iran factions?”
In contrast, Afshar appears to see the present, dire situation in today’s Iran as preferable. The “country’s disastrous and catastrophic circumstances” mean that “all the right conditions for a revolutionary regime change are ready … The great majority of the Iranian population is faced with unprecedented harsh and unmanageable economic and living conditions, and as far as social unrest is concerned, Iran right now is a massive time bomb waiting to go off at any time …” An important source of the pressure that has produced these apparently propitious conditions for the struggle of the people of Iran is imperialism itself, of course – its vicious sanctions and the threats of a military strike.
In stark contrast, Hopi’s anti-war/anti-sanctions campaign has nothing whatsoever to do with restoring the hegemony of this or that faction in the theocracy, still less a “balance of power” between US-led imperialism and Tehran. (When on earth did that ever exist, by the way? The United States is the world’s policeman, massively more powerful militarily than its main imperialist rivals, let alone Iran). Our fight to remove the crippling sanctions (which disrupt and demoralise the working people primarily) and to stop the drive to war (which would be a disaster for ordinary people and which facilitate oppression in the here and now) is intended to give the working class and its allies the maximum space and opportunity to impose its own progressive democratic agenda.
Finally, Afshar reaches a truly bizarre conclusion about the motivations of Yassamine Mather and Hopi (comrade Mather has by now clearly become the personification of the campaign for him: any accusation he throws against her holds good for the organisation as a whole in his mind):
“Yassamine doesn’t want Iran Tribunal to succeed because she doesn’t want [Iran] to be exposed with yet another one of its horrific scandals on the international scene. The reason for this is that [Iran] has, of course, taken full advantage of the concept of being ‘anti-war’, and has marked its own devious influence by launching organisations … to act as impostors within [the anti-war movement] in order to steer and direct the whole of the ‘anti-war’ movement toward its own political advantage. As far as the ‘anti-war’ movements are concerned, the point to make should be that both the USA and Islamic Republic of Iran are reactionary forces who pursue their own agendas.”
Hopi has always said that Iran’s Islamic Republic must be held accountable for its crimes, including the massacre of political prisoners that the IT was convened to look into. Nor has Hopi ever argued that the threat of war means we should ignore or delay such investigations.4 However, to condemn the Iranian regime for its myriad crimes in the current political situation without making crystal-clear at the same time your implacable opposition to any external interference in the country, either in the form of ‘soft war’ sanctions or a military strike, is to effectively make yourself a dupe of imperialist reaction. There were plenty of them in the war in former Yugoslavia; plenty of them cheered on the assault on Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. So, despite Afshar bleating about the unique and principled nature of the Iran Tribunal, it is actually joining a very long, very disreputable line.
Lastly, two points about the IT’s final report:
1. It seems that the gagging order on the left and anti-imperialists is to be applied retrospectively even to the victims of the Islamic regime’s executions in the 1980s. It is not mentioned that many (if not the majority) of the victims were socialists and communists who would have been appalled by the pro-imperialist use their sacrifice is being put to. Not even an echo of their voices is to be allowed; not even from beyond the grave.
2. The IT’s recommendation “that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation mandate its Independent Permanent Commission of Human Rights to designate these violations a ‘priority human rights issue’ and ‘conduct studies and research’” into it is truly jaw-dropping. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is made up of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – they are being asked to monitor Iran’s human rights record!
Clearly, however, the deciding factor here is not these countries’ own democratic credentials. For example, Saudi Arabia is an undemocratic hell-hole, but it is one of the main allies of imperialism in the region. A coincidence? We think not …
Comrades in Hands Off the People of Iran do not take great pleasure in being proved right about the IT. We took a potentially controversial decision to oppose it so energetically. The only gratifying aspect of the whole affair has been that our stance has been vindicated so quickly and so completely – something rare in leftwing politics. However, the fact that important elements of the Iranian left chose to cooperate with it makes this a sad and worrying ‘victory’ for us.
3.The IT’s ‘chief prosecutor’, Payam Akhavan, is a keen supporter of sanctions on Iran. For many years, Akhavan has been pushing his sponsors’ agenda for ever harsher sanctions. He is one of the authors of the international report published by the Responsibility to Prevent Coalition, which calls for “a comprehensive set of generic remedies – smart sanctions – to combat the critical mass of threat, including threat-specific remedies for each of the nuclear, incitement, terrorist and rights-violating threats”. This 2010 report was, incidentally, also signed by Tory MP Michael Gove and Carl Gershman, president of the US-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy.