With HOPI’s Yassamine Mather, on Opposition Radio.
Iranian workers should be careful about who they associate with, writes Yassamine Mather
In the aftermath of the protests of late December and early January, there is a consensus that the majority of Iranians face a dire economic situation, while the poorer sections of the working class face hunger and complete destitution. Yet exiled royalists and interestingly sections of the Iranian ‘left’ outside Iran still maintain that the protests were only about democracy and against the ‘Islamic character’ of the Iranian state. As a result of this, amongst exiled leftwing groups we are witnessing yet another attempt at creating unprincipled alliances. The last time round, in 1979, uniting with clerics and Islamists against the shah’s regime ended in tragedy. This time, an alliance with royalists, US neocon republicans, Iranian supporters of Donald Trump, including the loony People’s Mojahedin sect, is truly a farce.
We are told that, since the current battles are about ‘democracy’ (necessary before the working class can get organised) and because the Shah’s son has told us he is not “seeking power”, unity of all opposition forces is necessary. Well, you might remember that ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini also promised he would not take power before he returned to Iran and look where we are now.
In the era of global capital, when we talk about democracy, especially in war-torn Middle East, we need to explain what we mean. This matters. Since 2001, the peoples of the region are weary of the ‘democracy’ delivered through regime change from above. In addition, unless we understand the reasons behind the protests and rebellions in Iran’s Islamic Republic against both factions of the regime, we will not be able to build a genuine solidarity movement and will end up betraying the aspirations of the people we claim to defend.
But first let me give a very brief summary of the state of Iran’s economy and the role of both factions of the regime in creating the disaster that is Iran’s neoliberal capitalism.
Since the late 1990s the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been senior partners in Iran’s economy, partly because of the country’s international debts and partly because capital, even in a Shia republic, is global. Finance, trade and industry are all completely intertwined with global capital. Every year representatives of the major international financial organisations go to Iran to assess what progress has been made regarding privatisation, the abolition of subsidies and so on. Ironically the first time the Iranian government was actually congratulated for meeting IMF requirements was in the second term of the populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, despite claims of leading the government of ‘the disinherited’ and looking after the poor, was in fact presiding over a period where the gap between the rich and the poor widened dramatically, as privatisation (be it in the strange form it takes in Iran, as I will explain later) was implemented.
The supreme leader, Iran’s revolutionary guards and even the ‘reformist’ government of Hassan Rouhani have all played their part. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei went as far as changing the constitution to allow the privatisation of crucial sectors of the economy, including transport, telecommunication, oil, gas and petrochemicals. The privatised and semi-privatised industries have adopted all the ‘reconstruction’ adjustments that accompany such policies, making thousands of workers unemployed and reducing most jobs to short-term contracts, some with draconian conditions. The reduction – in some cases abolition – of subsidies, the most constant demand put forward by the IMF, has created additional poverty.
No doubt new sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies helped impoverish the country, yet they enriched the leaders of the revolutionary guards, as well as the heads of those privatised companies associated with them. These groups have monopoly access to foreign markets and enjoy good rates of exchange for foreign currencies. They were therefore able to increase their private and collective wealth at the expense of the majority of Iranians.
In view of all this, how ironic it is that in the current situation some are seeking support from international capital and its internal allies – in other words, the very forces which imposed privatisation on Iran’s Islamic Republic – to ‘defend’ Iranian workers. I must admit, even by the standards of exiled politics, this takes some beating – relying on capitalism itself to relieve the economic hardship caused by the neoliberal economic policies imposed by its institutions!
There is no doubt that the privatisations, which were ‘legitimised’ by Khamenei when he changed the constitution to allow private ownership of key industries, are not carbon copies of the privatisations carried out in advanced capitalist countries, in that well-placed individuals and agencies associated with the organs of power – in particular the military and security forces – benefit from them. However, they are quite close replicas of what happens worldwide in terms of effects felt, especially in less developed countries.
Currently Iran’s economy is formed of three parts: the private sector, the state sector and the semi-state/private sector. Yet the three parts work closely with each other and, although at times there is some conflict between them, on the whole the three constituent parts coordinate their functions in line with their common interests. Meanwhile, royalists, along with bourgeois liberal politicians, tell us that Iran’s economy would prosper if only there was ‘proper’ privatisation! I can only assume they mean a privatisation where they would benefit instead of elements of the regime. Every study of the current situation shows that sections of industry belong to Iran’s old aristocracy, some of whom did not like the Pahlavis (a short-lived dynasty – 1925-79 – as opposed to the Qajar dynasty that lasted from 1785 to 1925) and did not do so well under them. Other sections of capital are owned by wealthy Iranians who returned some of their money for investment following the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Another section of the super-wealthy exploiters of the working class are former members of the revolutionary guards who became private capitalists a decade ago. Many of these and their offspring are the ‘new rich’ in Iran and, although they benefited from connections with those in power, their ideological and political connections to the ideals of the religious state have been replaced by the pursuit of personal and family interests and the accumulation of more and more wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth than the image of Iran portrayed by bourgeois liberals (including constitutional royalists!) as a country where everything is owned by the public sector and it is only the likes of the revolutionary guards who benefit.
That is why the ‘united front for democracy’ alongside bourgeois liberals, proposed by the reformist soft left (those who not surprisingly see no harm in accepting US or European funds for their political campaigns, those who openly or covertly support imperialist intervention, those who are allegedly on the left, yet seek further sanctions against Iran for its violation of human rights) is pie in the sky. It is a bit like asking PFI managers benefiting financially from the privatisation of sections of the NHS to join the campaign to save the health service. Yes, I know it sounds mad.
This week on social media a video has appeared which was apparently taken during a meeting of Iranian activists who are addressed via Skype by a former Iranian leftwinger in exile in London, who tells them how neoconservatives in the United States and Canada have invested a lot of time and money in “campaigns to support the Iranian working class”. I assume his advice to his new allies is to take the grievances of the poor and working class seriously.
As disgusting as this intervention is – equating genuine protests by tens of thousands of Iranians with sections of the right – it is certainly true that some of those claiming to be supporters of the Iranian working class have actively sought the support of rightwing CIA-sponsored ‘trade unions’ for a good part of the last two decades, yet our constant efforts to expose such individuals and groups have largely fallen on deaf ears.
An ideological response comes from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. This is truly amazing: “The fight for a secular democracy is a way to help workers develop their economic struggles and organisations, and to grow strong enough to pose and win support for socialist aims”.1
The AWL, together with virtually every other group from the Trotskyist tradition worldwide, has spent most of the last two decades attacking the Iranian left for supporting a stagist theory of revolution and therefore being responsible for the failure of the uprising in February 1979. Yet now it tells us that we must first have a democratic secular state in Iran courtesy of what they call “regime change”. These people must think the Iranian people are complete fools: having witnessed regime change and ‘democracy’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, can anyone seriously come out with such nonsense with a straight face? Post-2011 Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by some to be ‘democracies’, yet I am sure (with the exception of a small minority of idiot royalists, most of them in exile) there are no Iranians who envy the kind of ‘democracy’ currently to be seen in Iraq or Afghanistan.
There are groups on the Iranian left with a line similar to the AWL, ranging from those who are soft on Zionism to those who openly act as apologists for the state of Israel, who are also involved. Ignoring the plight of the Palestinians is one thing, but claiming that Israel is a ‘democracy’ and therefore there is nothing wrong with its nuclear programme (both military and non-military) is another matter. Let me remind you that nuclear programmes – especially those pursued by religious states in the Middle East, such as Iran and Israel – are more dangerous than anywhere else because of the clandestine nature of nature of their installations. This makes them even more of a danger than other nuclear plants, both for their own citizens and the peoples of the world. We already know that the age of Dimona (a ‘textile factory’ which is in reality is a nuclear plant) represents a serious threat. However, our soft Zionists are adamant that in the democracy that is the occupation state none of this matters. In other words, nuclear technology in the hands of religious states are OK as long as they are not Islamic.
Of course, no-one should take the Iranian groups associated with this soft Zionist agenda seriously – the ones I looked up are splits from splits of small organisations with names that are straight out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I really like the addition of “official faction” to otherwise identical names to distinguish yet another split. These groups truly belong to the dustbin of history, but we should not underestimate the damage their ‘solidarity’ does to those labour activists in prison in Iran who are falsely accused of being associated with foreign powers. No wonder elements among the genuine left are becoming weary of ‘solidarity campaigns’ with Iran’s workers.
یاسمین میظر- برگردان: ماهان نوری
در پی اعتراضات دی ماه، اتفاق نظر عموم بر این بود که اکثریت ایرانیان با وضعیت اقتصادی وخیمی مواجهاند، در عین حال که پایینترین لایههای طبقه کارگر با گرسنگی و فقر کامل دست به گریباناند. با این حال، سلطنتطلبان تبعیدی و در میان شگفتی بخشی از «چپ» مقیم خارج، همچنان اعتراضات را فقط حول مسئله دموکراسی و علیه «ماهیت اسلامی» دولت ایران میداند. در نتیجه، در میان گروههای چپگرای تبعیدی شاهد تلاشی در ایجاد اتحادهای بی قید و شرط هستیم، چنین اتحادی آخرین بار در سال 1979 با روحانیون و اسلامگرایان در برابر رژیم شاه شکل گرفت که فاجعه به بار آورد. این بار، اتحاد با سلطنتطلبان، جمهوریخواهان نومحافظه کار آمریکایی، حامیان ایرانی دونالد ترامپ، از جمله فرقه مجاهدین خلق، واقعا خندهدار به نظر میرسد. Continue reading نه به اتحادهای غیراصولی
There has been a considerable amount of fake news about the demonstrations that started in Mashad and other towns in Khorassan province on the 28th of December 2017. These demonstrations have continued, five days later in Tehran, as well as in many other towns and cities across the country. The protesters are angry and fearless, and their grievances are reasonably clear. What began with outrage against rising prices, unemployment and poverty has evolved into more political slogans against corruption and against the dictator, Ayatollah Khameini.
Basic food prices have sky-rocketed in the last few weeks, with the price of eggs rising by 40% in a matter of days. In some of Iran’s major cities, rents have risen by 83% in the last 3 years alone. Mass unemployment is a big issue – particularly in the provinces where the protests emerged. The rate of inflation may have fallen from 35% under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it remains at unsustainable levels.
Despite being controlled by the factions of the Iranian regime, the relative diversity of the media inside Iran has ensured that most Iranians are aware of, and indeed well-informed about, the multi-billion dollar corruption scandals in which all factions of the regime are implicated. Rouhani’s government, senior ayatollahs associated with more conservative factions of the regime and the former populist president Ahmadinejad (who claimed to be the defender of the disinherited) are all embroiled in corruption and embezzlement. Ahmadinejad and his close allies are currently facing criminal charges of serious corruption in Iranian courts. But the upshot of both factions exposing their opponents’ bribery and fraud is that Iranians are increasingly conscious of the venality of the entire Islamic regime.
Contrary to initial claims by Rouhani’s allies, the protests are definitely not part of a plot by ‘conservative factions’ to discredit his government. In Mashhad and other cities in Khorassan province, the slogans were clear that the main target of most demonstrators was Ayatollah Khamenei. In the last few days, the most common political slogans were: ‘marg bar dictator’ (Death to the Dictator!) , ‘Khamenei haya kon mamlekato raha kon’ (‘Khamenei you should be ashamed – leave the country alone’) and the more polite slogan, requesting that Khameni stand down: ‘Seyed Ali (Khamenei), excuse us. Now we have to stand up’.
In the northern city of Rasht there were initially anti-Rouhani slogans, but they soon became focused on the dictator himself. In Tehran, the student protesters’ chants were far more radical: ‘na eslahtalab na ossoul gara’ (‘No to the Reformists, no to the Conservative Principalists’); ‘Student-Worker Unity’ and ‘No Longer should there be a Choice between Bad and Worse’.
For all the claims of exiled groups in the extended publicity they receive from sections of the media, including BBC Persian radio (but, interestingly, not BBC Persian TV), these protests have nothing to do with the Royalists or the Mujahedin. Following the slogans of protesters on social media, it is apparent that pro-Shah slogans have only appeared in very isolated cases, such as in the religious city of Ghom. On one occasion, in Rasht, some in the crowd shouted slogans in favour of the Shah, prompting others to respond by calling for an Iranian republic (as opposed to an Islamic Republic). Indeed, protesters are countering possible Royalist influence by shouting ‘na mir na rahbar ,na shah na rahbar’ (‘No Kings, No Shahs, No Supreme Leaders’).
The fact that the protest in Mashad coincided with a call to protest on television made by (one of) the pretender(s) to the throne, Reza Pahlavi, should not be taken seriously. He issues such calls on a daily basis and these are very rarely heeded. No, the catalyst for the demonstrations is the hunger and suffering experienced by Iranians, lead several protesters to claim that dying is better than continuing to live as they are now.
No future in the past
However, for those Iranians who think that there was no poverty or hunger under the Shah, it might be worth reminding them of a quote by Empress Farah Diba. When informed by her advisers that ordinary people were complaining that they couldn’t afford to buy meat, she responded in true Marie Antoinette style by telling the nation that it would benefit from vegetarianism.
As for corruption, it is true that the Shah’s mistrust of everyone, including former ministers, meant that only a limited circle of individuals close to the Shahs and the court benefited from rampant state fraud. The multiplicity of factions in the Islamic regime means that a far larger group of individuals and their families are beneficiaries of global capital’s riches for the wealthy in the third world. Moreover, the so-called ‘targeted sanctions’ imposed by the West between 2007 and 2015 period allowed sections of the Islamic Republic with access to both foreign currency and internal black markets to amass astronomic fortunes. As such, the Islamic Republic is in many ways even more corrupt than the Shah’s Iran. But we live in different times.
And corruption is certainly not unique to Iran or even just to developing countries. However, in most other countries, those fed up with corrupt leaders have a chance to elect political rivals. And although it takes a relatively short time before the new rulers surpass their predecessors’ corruption , the whole process at least provides the illusion that the population has some control and can again test new leaders. But after 39 years of being in power, all factions of the Islamic Republic are steeped in corruption – even when they are in opposition.
As for democracy under the Shah, he merged what he called the ‘Yes’ and the ‘Of course’ party into one: Hezb Rastakhiz. Iran had only two daily papers, Keyhan and Etelaat. Both were pro-Shah and the lack of oppositional factions within the regime ensured that there were no exposés of dodgy dealings by the Shah’s opponents.
When it comes to repression, let us remember that the shah’s security forces, SAVAK, shot Catherine Adl, the paralyzed daughter of his own physician, while she was sitting in a wheel chair, for opposing inequality and injustice in Iran. You can guess what he did to opponents with whom he wasn’t acquainted.
Some Iranians, no doubt prompted by constant Saudi, Israeli and Western-sponsored media outlets, blame Iran’s interventions in Syria and Yemen for the worsening economic situation. This has led to nationalist slogans such as ‘No to Gaza, no to Yemen’. The regime is not blameless here either: promoting General Soleimany as an ‘Iranian’ warrior and conqueror certainly has ramifications. However, the students and youth of Tehran responded to these slogans with their own: ‘ham iran, ham ghazeh zahmtkesh taht setame’ (‘The Poor are Oppressed both in Gaza and Iran’).
The real reasons behind Iran’s economic situation are more complicated than military expenditure in the Middle East. The promised economic boom following the nuclear deal has not materialised and now doubts about the future of the deal – particularly given Trump’s outspoken opposition – have created despair, especially amongst young Iranians. In responding to the riots, Rouhani claims that poverty, unemployment and inflation are not unique to Iran. This is certainly true, but what he failed to mention is that, for all its anti-Western rhetoric, the Islamic Republic is an ardent follower of the neo-liberal economic agenda. Rouhani’s government of technocrats is rightly blamed for obeying the restructuring programmes of the IMF and the World Bank, which is one of the reasons behind the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This gap is reflective of a government that constantly strives to keep up with global capital’s demands for restructuring, for the abolition of state subsidies and for privatisation. Food subsidies have been slashed. The official rate of unemployment (12%) is a joke – the real figure is much higher, even if we take into account low-paid, precarious employment. No one has job security, unless, of course, they are associated with a stable faction the regime or the security forces.
2017 might go down as the year when neo-liberalism faced serious challenges in advanced capitalist countries. But until the recent protests, in Iran 2017 was a year in which neo-liberalism was going well – Rouhani’s government was praised for its economic performance by the World Bank and the IMF. There can be no doubt, then, that this wave of opposition took the government completely by surprise. The Ministry of Information’s pathetic calls on the population to request ‘permits to organise protests’ seems to have been ignored, for nobody believes that the state will allow such protests.
And it will certainly not allow the working class to begin to assert itself: there are calls for strikes by teachers and steel workers, but the reality is that the ‘capitalist mullahs’ (as people are calling them in the streets of Tehran) have managed to decimate the organised working class. Steel and oil workers are no longer employed by single state-owned industries. Large industrial complexes are sub-contracting every aspect of work to smaller contractors. As a result, organising industry-wide strikes, let alone nation-wide strike action (a significant factor in the overthrow of the Shah’s regime) are no longer possible.
As things stand, therefore, the protesters’ demands are quite diffuse and there is no single organising and coordinating force which can set out an alternative for the struggle. As events unfold, this factor will become all the more necessary.
There are three main things that we can do in order so support the protests in Iran:
Show solidarity with those arrested, support the relatives of those killed by the security forces and draw attention to the government’s repressive measures.
Remind anyone with illusions about the previous regime that it was no better than this one and provide clear examples rather than just repeating slogans or insulting those who entertain illusions in the past.
Expose the true nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while reminding those hypocrites like Trump that “it is the economy stupid” – the source of the current rebellion in Iran is precisely the neo-liberal economic model which he and his allies are seeking to enforce across the globe.
Beirut is now the focus of the burgeoning Saudi-Iranian rivalry
The political saga involving Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to make headlines and we are nowhere near a resolution of the situation. In the meantime, the war in Yemen – scene of another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia – is entering a more dangerous phase. Some 10,000 Yemenis have died in the fighting, while Yemen’s population is suffering from Saudi sanctions, which are stopping food and medicine from getting in – and stopping the Yemenis from getting out.
So it was no surprise that in his first TV interview since his resignation, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri gave stark warnings about the real threat posed to the economy if the Saudi kingdom imposes new economic sanctions on Lebanon. Hariri denied he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will, claiming he was there to serve Lebanon’s interests, to protect the country from Iran and Hezbollah – who, he repeated, were trying to take over the country.
Before the interview Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Christian president, had said Hariri’s situation in Saudi Arabia was creating doubts over anything that he had said or might say, and his statements could not be taken as an expression of his free will: he was living in “mysterious circumstances” in Riyadh which were restricting his freedom and “imposing conditions on his residency and on contact with him, even by members of his family”.
According to TheAtlantic website, the Lebanese prime minister “appeared uncomfortable”:
At times, he and his interviewer, from his own television station, looked to handlers off camera. The exchange ended abruptly, after Hariri implied that he might take back his resignation and negotiate with Hezbollah, seemingly veering from the hard-line Saudi script. “I am not against Hezbollah as a political party, but that doesn’t mean we allow it to destroy Lebanon,” he said. His resignation does nothing to thwart Hezbollah’s power; if anything, a vacuum benefits Hezbollah, which doesn’t need the Lebanese state to bolster its power or legitimacy.1
The World Pro News website claims: “Nearly 55 minutes into the interview Sunday, there was a mysterious man, caught briefly on camera, holding a piece of paper in Hariri’s line of sight.”2
The TV interview itself became quite dramatic. According to the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, at one point Hariri burst into tears, saying:
I know that there are a considerable number of Lebanese who are concerned about me. I am here with the clear message that Lebanon comes first. There are countries that I am visiting that care more about Lebanon than factions within Lebanon and that pains me very much.
Referring to his contact with an aide of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Hariri said:
In my conversation with an advisor to the Iranian spiritual leader in Beirut before [my] resignation, I made it clear to him that Iran must not intervene in the affairs of Arab countries, including Lebanon via Hezbollah. I am in favour of pluralism and the political activity of parties in Lebanon from every [religious] community, but those parties need to work for the good of Lebanon, not other countries. We in Lebanon have adopted a policy of non-intervention on the subject of other countries, and this policy has been eroded in recent years.3
Khamenei’s advisor was Ali Akbar Velayati, who was quick to deny the allegations. Referring to his meeting with Hariri in Beirut only one day before the latter’s surprise resignation, he said that, contrary to Hariri’s claims, the talks were not “tough, violent or involving threats”. Velayati denied that Iran had been interfering in Lebanon’s affairs, adding that in the meeting Hariri had tried to play the role of mediator between Tehran and Riyadh.
Change in attitude
In Lebanon the resignation has provoked anger against the Saudi royals. According to the BBC Persian Service,
The taxi driver in Beirut said that if he realises he has picked up a Saudi passenger he will ask them to get out of his car. He refers to Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, as “Ya elbal shom” (that disgraceful shame). He then raises his arms to the sky and says: “God, this mad child wants to bring war to our country, so that we become lost in the mountains. Let us hope that all you [Arabs] of the Gulf burn in the fires of your own oil.”4
The reporter adds that the taxi driver’s opinion is typical of views expressed by Lebanese of all religions. For example, on November 12 Beirut was hosting a marathon and many runners and spectators were carrying Hariri themed placards: “Waiting for you – we don’t believe your resignation.”
By November 13 there were rumours that Bahaa Hariri, the former prime minister’s brother, was going to replace him. However, interior minister Nohad Machnouk dismissed the idea: “In Lebanon things happen through elections, not pledges of allegiance.”
Those who have contacted Hariri in Riyadh claim he does not sound like himself and replies to all questions about his wellbeing with one short sentence: “I am fine”. Asked if he is coming back, he replies: “Inshallah” (God willing).5
The Beirut-based Al Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, claimed that the plan is to send Saad Hariri back to Beirut to submit his official resignation letter, from where he will go to a European capital – most likely Paris – and leave politics altogether.
In those sections of the Arab press and media not directly paid for by the Saudis, reporters and commentators are also pouring scorn over the other headline grabbing Saudi measure: fighting corruption. According to Odeh Bisharat, writing in Ha’aretz:
It’s ridiculous to hear about the young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman throwing dozens of members of the royal family and other senior figures into jail on suspicion of corruption. After all, the kingdom was founded on corruption. Everywhere a spring of corruption gushes forth; near every oil well, a spring of corruption flows. This is not a kingdom that has corruption: Saudi Arabia, under the obliging administration of the royal family, is corruption that has a kingdom ….
Saudi oil has become a tool for repressing progressive culture, for blocking advancement of the status of women and, above all, for supporting fundamentalist tendencies, from the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the establishment of al Qa’eda and other killing organisations. And all with the blessing and embrace of the developed west.6
As elsewhere in the Arab world, Saudi influence in Lebanon is directly related to its economic power. Saudi Arabia imposed economic sanctions on Lebanon in 2015, froze $3 billion in aid for the Lebanese army and business deals between the two countries dwindled. The economic threat Hariri mentions in his TV interview is reference to further sanctions by Saudi Arabia and other countries on remittances sent by 400,000 Lebanese citizens who work in the Persian Gulf. It is estimated that Lebanon gets around $2.5 billion from money sent by Lebanese workers in the oil-rich emirates to their home country.
To many Lebanese citizens, the new approach, which comes after a decade of failed Saudi efforts to bolster Hariri’s pro-Saudi Future Movement, looks like revenge against all of Lebanon. According to this view, Saudi Arabia no longer distinguishes between friendly Sunnis, hostile Shias and the Christian community: Riyadh has decided to take a position against the interests of the country as a whole.
The economic situation in Lebanon is not very different from that of many other countries in the region. Since the 1990s it has faced a shortfall in income (Lebanon’s balance of trade deficit was running at $15.65 billion in 2016), leading to serious international debt. Uncertainty about the future have led to poor rates of growth, while an all-encompassing corruption is adding to the country’s economic woes. According to the World Bank, the war in Syria and the relocation of 1.5 million Syrian refugee is costing Lebanon about $7.5 billion a year.
While existing Saudi sanctions have clearly damaged the Lebanese economy, any new sanctions – including attempts to stop remittances from workers in the Persian Gulf countries, restricting tourism, and cutting off the burgeoning Lebanese finance sector from access to Arab capitals – will no doubt bankrupt the country. According to a report on the website of the Washington Institute,
… 80% of foreign direct investment in Lebanon comes from the Gulf, 40% of which is in the real estate sector. While Gulf investment in Lebanon has not increased since 2012, despite periodic political problems, investors have not, en masse, sold off their investments either and thereby harmed the economy. Lately, however, Lebanon has witnessed a reported 10-20% drop in real estate values. To be sure, a Gulf sell-off would have further serious consequences for Lebanon’s formerly robust real estate market ….
Most notable, however, is Saudi Arabia’s potential impact on the critical Lebanese banking sector. Saudi deposits at the Banque du Liban, as the Lebanese central bank is known, are about $860 million, the sum originally placed there to help stabilise the Lebanese lira when Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s late father, was first elected prime minister in 1992. To support Hariri and his economic plans for Lebanon, Saudi Arabia agreed to keep these deposits in the Central Bank.
Now that Saudi Arabia has expressed its view of a Lebanese “declaration of war” and that Saad Hariri has resigned, concerns have arisen that Riyadh could withdraw these deposits. While overall the deposits account for only about 2% of Lebanon’s foreign reserves, their removal could shake confidence in the Central Bank, if not destabilise the lira.7
In this respect Hariri is right in predicting doom and gloom for the country in his latest televised interview.
Riyadh is also continuing to exercise its influence over the rest of the region. Egypt’s economy, like that of Lebanon, has historically been tied to Saudi Arabian and Gulf capital from the time of Sadat and Mubarak to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and now general Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Last week el-Sisi announced that the second round of reconciliation talks between representatives of the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, will take place in Cairo on November 21.
Egypt is supposed to have found a solution to the difficult issue of who will control the Palestinian security forces. The proposed plan involves the creation of a national security council, in which Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will have equal representation, with direct involvement from Egyptian military officials, who will have the final say on any disagreement between the two factions.
One of the reasons why Egypt (prompted by Saudi Arabia) is taking such an interest in bringing about a Hamas-Fatah deal is the desire to reduce Iran’s influence in that part of the Middle East. In early November, the Saudi king summoned Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, to Riyadh, where he was reminded of the importance of a deal with Hamas – one that would reduce Iranian influence in Palestinian affairs and presumably increases Egypt’s role.
So at a time when Islamic State is steadily losing all its former territory in Iraq and Syria, the zone of conflict between Saudi Arabia (supported by the United States and to a certain extent Israel) and Iran’s Islamic Republic (supported by Russia) has expanded to cover most of the Middle East – from Lebanon, Syria and the occupied territories to Yemen and Afghanistan.
The conflict has many facets – economic, political and military. Its victims are the ordinary people of the region, who are excluded from any role when it comes to decisions on foreign policy and war.
And, as if that was not bad enough, they have to endure the relentless media propaganda onslaught waged by both sides. Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, make use of a number of Arabic TV stations, such as Al Manar and Al Kawthar, plus Press TV in English, while Saudi princes and their acolytes are financing a range of Persian satellite TV stations. These range from the trashy Channels based in Los Angeles, to the more respectable news channel, Iran International. This claims to be an ‘independent’ news broadcaster, yet is apparently run by a consortium of Saudi financiers.
In response to Trump’s ever more bellicose anti-Iran campaign, Putin has strengthened Russia’s links with the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis of resistance. The world is getting ever more dangerous, warns Yassamine Mather
Touching the orb: Egypt’s president Sisi, Saudi king Salman and Donald Trump
Last year, when Donald Trump was elected US president, old-order defenders of imperialism were telling the citizens of poor third-world countries run by dictators that the ‘checks and balances’ in the wonderful democracy that is the US will stop Trump’s mad policies from becoming reality.
Unfortunately, although the claim could well have some truth in relation to internal policies, when it comes to international politics and the Middle East in particular, many of his most irrational election statements are becoming a reality. Amongst them the pro-Israeli, pro-Saudi policy goes well beyond traditional US neoconservative positions. Here Trump’s unelected son in-law, Jared Kushner, is playing a crucial role advising simultaneously both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
This week we had confirmation from the Israeli army’s chief-of-staff, Gadi Eizenkot, of the scale of Saudi-Israeli cooperation. In his first ever interview with a Saudi newspaper, Alaf, Eizenkot told the world that Israel is ready to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran. Also for the first time, Israel co-sponsored with Saudi Arabia a resolution against Syria in the UN Human Rights Council. Furthermore, Israeli communications minister Ayoub Kara extended a warm invitation to Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, for what he said were his friendly comments about the country. All this follows a period during which Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman has undertaken a number of unprecedented steps, which include the arrest of scores of princes and ministers, and direct intervention in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs.
To ‘legitimise’ steps taken to normalise relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia summoned Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh last week, to convince him to accept a peace plan put forward by Kushner. Of course, Saudi-Israeli collaboration is an important part of that plan. According to the New York Times, the proposal could include, among other normalisation measures, “overflights by Israeli passenger planes, visas for business people and telecommunication links” with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.1
In Yemen civil war continues and the Saudis have the support and cooperation of the US as well as the UK. In the words of Ron Paul writing in the New American:
And why is there a cholera epidemic? Because the Saudi government – with US support – has blocked every port of entry to prevent critical medicine from reaching suffering Yemenis. This is not a war. It is cruel murder.
The United States is backing Saudi aggression against Yemen by cooperating in every way with the Saudi military. Targeting, intelligence, weapons sales, and more. The US is a partner in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen crimes.2
Then we have the public revelations of Israeli-Saudi cooperation. Of course, no-one had any doubt that it had entered a new phase since Trump’s election. However, the open admission of such relations implies a new era in the politics of the Middle East. On November 20, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s energy minister, confirmed there had been contact between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but said that Riyadh was eager to keep the cooperation a secret: “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually [we are] the party that is not ashamed.”
This claim is in direst contradiction to the official Saudi statement – foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir has said several times in the last two years that Saudi Arabia has “no relationship” with Israel and there have been no secret back channels. Yet last year, after his visit to Riyadh, Mr Trump told the world that he found king Salman and the Saudi leadership to be “very positive” towards Israel.
So less than a year since Trump took office we are seeing new alliances in the Middle East. There is no longer a major war against Islamic State and no-one wants to mention al Qa’eda or its offshoot, Al Nusrah. The ‘enemy’ is Iran – uniting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the majority of the Persian Gulf states.
What we are witnessing is the formation of a new imperialist-led alliance against Iran’s Islamic Republic. Under such circumstances it is bizarre that we keep hearing about a Sunni-Shia conflict. Typical of such ignorant articles is one by Paddy Ashdown in The Independent:
The greatest threat to world peace coming out of the Middle East now is not terrorism, but the danger of a wider Sunni-Shia religious conflict, into which the great powers are dragged.3
The great powers aren’t dragged into this war: they are behind it. To think that Liberal Democrats were once speakers on Stop the War Coalition platforms.
A firm supporter of the new alliance is Trump’s best friend in Europe, Emanuel Macron. Alain Badiou calls Macron a “neoliberal phantom” and a “leader of a democratic coup d’etat”, who is losing support fast amongst those who voted him president in preference to the much hated Marine Le Pen.
To divert attention from his failures at home Macron has become super-active on the international scene – after all, France is the ‘legitimate’ foreign power which has ‘Lebanon’s interests at heart’. That is why he invited Saad Hariri to Paris and appeared on the steps of the Elysée Palace with the ‘former’ premier of Lebanon – a man who only days earlier had resigned from his post while in another country, Saudi Arabia, on a TV channel owned by Saudis, by all accounts reading a text written for him by his hosts, in which he complained about Iran’s influence in his country!
You might have thought that this was a scene from some comedy, but unfortunately it was all too true – and all too dangerous: the lead players in the drama, Trump and Macron, are so ignorant of regional sensitivities and historical facts that we could be entering a truly catastrophic period for the Middle East. In the last few days Macron has had talks on Lebanon with president Abdel el-Sisi of Egypt, prince Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Donald Trump himself.
All this because Iran has what they regard as ‘undue influence’ over Hezbollah. Yet despite concerted Saudi/US/French efforts, there is no sign of civil war in Lebanon. The Christian president, Michel Aoun, remains critical of Hariri’s resignation and in fact as soon as the ‘former’ premier landed on Lebanese territory, he decided to ‘temporarily suspend’ that resignation:
Today I presented my resignation to his excellency the president, and he asked me to temporarily suspend submitting it and to put it on hold ahead of further consultations on the reasons for it … I expressed my agreement to this request, in the hope that it will form a serious basis for a responsible dialogue.4
So on what basis did France believe it had the right to intervene in Lebanon’s affairs? Macron – who, by the way, likes to hold cabinet meetings in Versailles – acts as if France is still the colonial protector of Lebanon and Syria. No wonder France is a recruiting ground for IS and other jihadi terrorist groups.
However, many Sunnis in Lebanon believe the Saudi ‘plot’ has already failed. Reports from Beirut talk of the anti-Saudi sentiment expressed by the Lebanese Sunni community. According to Joe Macaron, who is a policy analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, “Riyadh’s risky gambit had no realistic endgame or allies to execute it. It has failed miserably, no matter the outcome.”5
According to Sunniva Rose, Al-Monitor’s reporter who visited the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli,
The escalating regional tensions and Saudi Arabia’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric have direct and dangerous implications for Lebanon. Mustafa Alloush, a former member of parliament from Tripoli and a member of the political bureau of Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, is pessimistic. “The only way to get out of the situation is through a major clash. If there is enough money funnelled into Lebanon from abroad, a civil war can happen again” …
But in the streets of Tripoli no-one wants to hear this … In the main square, dozens of taxis stand in line waiting for customers. “I never vote,” taxi driver Mohammad Badra told Al-Monitor … “I would only vote for a politician who offers new job opportunities, and no-one has done that recently.”
For jeweller Omar Namel, the political scene in Lebanon is an “embarrassment” … Lebanon “deserves better than politicians like Saad Hariri, or anyone else”, he told Al-Monitor.6
In the meantime another world power, Russia, is building its own alliance. Within one week the Black Sea resort of Sochi has been host to a summit between Bashar al-Assad of Syria and president Vladimir Putin, and a conference where Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey joined Putin and Assad to discuss the future of Syria and presumably Lebanon.
Every one is fighting over influence and control post-IS, but the reality is that, contrary to claims by general Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, IS remains a danger not just for the countries of the region, but also for the rest of the world. The new instability fuelled by Trump, Macron and all the rest is precisely what IS needs at a time when it has lost 95 % of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria.
How can we achieve principled communist unity in the Middle East? We spoke to Mohammad Reza Shalgouni, a member of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar)
How do you see the current situation in the Middle East and in Iran itself following first the nuclear deal and then its ‘decertification’ by Donald Trump?
Over the last few years the Middle East has been torn apart by a destructive crisis – caught in the midst of a full-scale international conflict. All sides have played a crucial part in initiating and continuing this situation, but of course the United States, Britain, France and their regional allies – in particular the kingdoms in the oil emirates of the Persian Gulf – have played a crucial role in the ensuing tragedy.
This disastrous situation entered a new phase with the Republican Party’s victory in last year’s US elections and, given the declared aims of the Trump administration, one cannot see an end to it. Let us not forget that the Trump administration is the first US government that openly admits it is seeking ‘regime change’ (be it in a ‘peaceful manner’) in Iran. It also wants to transfer the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and with unprecedented clarity declares in a gathering of Arab leaders that it is not concerned about human rights, that its only preoccupation is the defeat of Islamic terrorism (and, of course, only the anti-US version of this phenomenon).
In the current situation in the Middle East a number of issues have special significance.
Following the events of the last two decades, the house of Saud sees its future in danger and is therefore employing a more active and aggressive foreign policy – attempting to impose its hegemony over other Arab states and creating a situation where the Saudi dynasty is secure. However, this policy means the Saudis themselves are facing major crises.
Firstly, their attempt to confront Shia movements has not only increased the confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran: it has also created an extraordinary situation in Yemen, Bahrain and even the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia (where the country’s major oil reserves are to be found), to such an extent that it is difficult to see how they can control this situation. For example, the catastrophic situation in Yemen is far worse than the tragedy in that engulfed Syria.
Secondly, Saudi attempts at eradication of various networks associated with the Muslim Brotherhood have led them to a confrontation with Qatar, and as a result the Gulf Cooperation Council is on the verge of destruction. It has also led to a situation where Saudi and Arab Emirates relations with Turkey have soured to critical levels.
Thirdly, in the Syrian civil war the intervention of the Russian airforce has changed the balance of forces in favour of the Assad regime and, as a result of this, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.
In Turkey itself, after decades of Kemalism and its emphasis on secularism, with the formation of a personal dictatorship by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the separation of state and religion has become meaningless, and repression against the Kurds has increased. This might lead to longer and more serious confrontations in that country, thereby increasing the Middle East’s many crises.
As for Iran, which in the past wanted to unite ‘all Muslims’ against both the ‘east and the west’, it now has to confine itself to uniting various Shia sects against the Sunnis and to relying on sectarian divides to become a regional power. However, the creation of groups similar to Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria will in the long run weaken the current rulers of Iran.
The Iranian regime is engulfed in deep sectarian wars with Sunnis (who encompass nine tenths of the world’s Muslims) and in the longer term victory against such forces is impossible. This also increases the threat of military confrontation with the United States and its allies. We should not forget that right now in Iraq we are witnessing a situation where some Shia groups are distancing themselves from Iran and in Syria, where the majority of the population is Sunni, there is increasing antipathy towards the Iranian regime.
Under such circumstances the Trump administration is trying to use a number of punitive measures to render the nuclear deal with Iran meaningless. It is hoping to reverse George Bush’s failure to change the map of the region.
What is your analysis of the referendum that took place in Iraqi Kurdistan and what effect has it had on Iranian Kurdish groups?
Iraqi Kurdistan is already benefiting from a solid, all-encompassing autonomy and within Iraq’s federalist constitution that situation would have been maintained.
In the most optimistic scenario, separation from Iraq would lead to complete dependence on one or other of the neighbouring states. Such dependence would be dangerous even in the European Union, never mind in the kind of jungle rule prevalent in a crisis-riddled Middle East. Following separation from Iraq, the Kurdish regional government would inevitably become another little oil state, similar to those of the Persian Gulf, but even more fragile than them: unlike those kingdoms, Iraqi Kurdistan is land-locked.
The separation of Kurdistan would inevitably lead to further nationalist and regional wars in the Middle East and we know that nationalist struggles can lead to the same kind of cannibalistic confrontations that religious infighting causes. The Kurdish vote for independence immediately prompted anti-Kurd sentiment in Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
The separation of Kurdistan from Iraq would no doubt increase tensions amongst various Kurdish groups both inside Iraq and in neighbouring countries – firstly because establishing democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan would face many obstacles and secondly because the regional government would undoubtedly have to compromise with one of the neighbouring countries – oppressors of Kurds within their own borders – in order to survive. Here it is not accidental that Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, had (until recently) good relations with Turkey – a vicious enemy of the Kurds both in Turkey and Syria.
The separation of Kurdistan would make the coexistence of Sunnis and Shias more difficult in Iraq and would lead to the complete destruction of Iraq as a nation-state – a situation that would no doubt increase the reactionary influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia amongst opposing religious sects, leading to more widespread religious-based violence. In addition, let us remember that separation from Iraq would not be as peaceful as the separation of the Czech and Slovak republics, in that it would lead to ethnic cleansing in some areas. For example, the issue of the control of Kirkuk, Khaneghin and even Mosul would lead to further confrontations, causing deeper, unresolvable divisions.
The Kurdish referendum took place at time when, after years of struggling for independence, the majority of the Kurdish population had come to the conclusion that the peaceful coexistence of nationalities was the best way of achieving democracy and exercising the right to self-determination. This way of thinking is currently dominant amongst Kurds in Turkey (the largest group of Kurds within a country in the Middle East).
The result of the 2015 elections showed how such an attitude can strengthen the alliance between progressive forces and the workers’ movement. In those elections, the Peoples Democratic party (which had only had come into existence three years earlier) united the Turkish Kurds with a number of leftwing tendencies in Turkey, and managed to get the best result ever achieved by the left in Turkey. If it had not been for the manifold plots of Erdoğan’s security forces and the mistakes of the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), this would have undoubtedly changed the political scene in Turkey in favour of democracy.
All this shows clearly that the solution is not separation, but voluntary, democratic coexistence of all nationalities and peoples of the region, which can pave the way for democracy in the entire Middle East. This is the path that progressive Kurdish forces will have to accept sooner or later.
However, unfortunately the majority of Iranian Kurdish groups, under the influence of nationalist sentiments and slogans, supported the Kurdish referendum. They essentially interpret the right to self-determination as separation.
Your organisation has recently left the ‘Council of Cooperation’ of Iranian left and communist groups. You have stated that this was related to the illusions held by certain groups that ‘regime change from above’ could lead to ‘democracy’ or even ‘socialism’. Can you explain your reasons for leaving this alliance?
From the outset our organisation was in favour of a powerful class bloc created through an alliance of the left and for more than two decades we have defended our line in favour of the unity of supporters of socialism. It was in this context that we joined the Council of Cooperation in Iran.
The reality is, however, that our understanding of socialism was always different from the majority of the groups in this alliance, mainly because most of them do not draw a clear line between themselves and the ‘socialist states and communist parties’ of the Soviet era. These were parties that did not believe in the participation of the majority of the population in shaping the transition to socialism. Nevertheless, we defended our line within the alliance, inviting others to debate such issues, while participating in joint activities.
However, the change in the line of the Communist Party [mainly a Kurdish organisation – translator], towards an alliance with those Iranian Kurdish forces associated with US-sponsored ‘regime change from above’, made it impossible for us to remain in the Council of Cooperation. In response to our opposition to this line, the Communist Party denied that the US had any plans for regime change from above. This comment was made in circumstances when after Trump’s victory the United States openly talks of such plans – indeed some of the groups that the Iranian Communist Party wants to ally itself with are openly seeking financial support from Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States itself.
So the Communist Party wanted to remain in the alliance of the left, while participating in a Kurdish unity front, advocating regime change from above. This would have meant the Council of Cooperation becoming a junior partner of the US in blatant contradiction to the first principle of the alliance of left and communist forces: ie, “commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic republic” – from below and by the majority of the Iranian people.
In a single speech on October 13, lasting just a few minutes, Donald Trump managed to succeed in doing what had seemed impossible for decades – uniting the Iranian government and the almost all the opposition to the regime (ironically including sections of Trump’s own ‘regime change from above’ gang), as well as the majority of Iranians inside and outside the country.
Having turned a deaf ear to pleas from European leaders, members of Congress and the Senate, as well as a large chunk of his own administration, the president’s ‘decertification’ of the Iran nuclear deal was, at least in the short term, in effect a gift to the Islamic regime in Tehran. As sections of the Iranian left have maintained, the country’s religious leaders thrive in situations of crises provoked by US threats – it could be argued that they owe their survival to them.
Over the last 16 years the US ‘war on terror’ has provided helpful conditions – not only by getting rid of its main regional enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but internationally the Islamic regime loves to present itself as a victim of global injustice. Trump has given Tehran a helping hand on this one, with Britain, Germany and France united in their opposition to the US president’s stance. In the British parliament, condemnation of Trump’s statement united Blairites with Corbyn supporters, pro-Brexit Tories with ‘remainers’, and the Democratic Unionist Party with the Scottish nationalists. Meanwhile, European politicians did not shy away from expressing their disappointment.
A joint statement by British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – was “the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy” and “a major step toward ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is not diverted for military purposes”.
Of course, the European Union’s main concern is the economic benefits of the Iran nuclear agreement and the possibility of lucrative deals, which they hope will open up new markets. Having said that, many European firms have in the past faced huge penalties for trading with Iran and, at a time when we are witnessing renewed trade wars, Trump’s line on Iran could become a serious matter of contention between the EU and the US – although at this stage, of course, no-one can predict where the UK will stand, if such a situation occurs. However, if the US Congress agrees to new sanctions, it is also possible that European countries – not only threatened with potentially heavy penalties, but also eager to maintain economic relations with the US – would toe the line of the world hegemon.
Can we deduce from all this that there is consensus in opposition to Trump’s position? Not really. As always there are those in the US administration whose only purpose in politics seems to be taking revenge on Iran, and more particularly on the Iranian people, for the 1979 revolution, which saw the overthrow of the US stooge, the shah of Iran. Former chief strategist Steve Bannon may have left the White House, but Trump is surrounded by neoconservatives whose central political ambition seems to be the enforcement of regime change from above in Iran: John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani and even Trump’s main Republican opponent, John McCain, agree with this particular piece of Trump lunacy. And, of course, there remains amongst Iranians a minority under the illusion that regime change from above will bring about ‘civil society’, democracy and the rule of law (presumably with the return of the shah’s son or the rule of the loony religious cult known as the Mojahedin).
Within minutes of Trump’s speech Iranian president Hassan Rouhani appeared on TV with his response: “As long as our rights are guaranteed, as long as our interests require, and as long as we enjoy its benefits, we will respect the JCPOA within the framework of the interests of our nation.” However, Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned of a different outcome:
If they revive the sanctions and we face an inability to use the deal in oil, gas and shipping arenas, and for bringing our money to the country, we have the right to make a decision about the continuation of our presence in the JCPOA.
If Congress imposes new sanctions, the first victim will be Iran’s multi billion-dollar contract with US plane manufacturer Boeing. On this, Zarif said: “In our view, there is no problem, but if the US government impedes this contract, then they haven’t honoured their commitments under the JCPOA.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, confirmed that Tehran would not willingly abandon the internationally backed nuclear deal – he welcomed the reaction of its European signatories to Trump’s decertification.
Iran’s relations with Hamas and Hezbollah are often mentioned as a source of ‘instability’ in the region. Apparently this is what Trump means by claiming Iran is breaching the “spirit” of the deal.
I have been a life-long critic of Hezbollah and I have no illusions about its ‘social’ activities in south Lebanon. I blame it for events that led to Irangate. As far as Hamas is concerned, after the 1967 war with Egypt, Israel hunted down secular Palestinian Liberation Organisation factions, but in Gaza it dropped what had been Egypt’s policy for many years: the imposition of restrictions against Islamist activists. This relaxation played a crucial role in the creation of Hamas (influenced ideologically by the Muslim Brotherhood) and its subsequent evolution into a major political force.
In fact, for many years Israel tolerated and at times encouraged such activists as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO and its dominant faction, Fatah, and this inevitably strengthened the position of Hamas – although Iran’s own relations with Hamas has had its ups and downs.
We have to remember that, as far as Iran’s Islamic republic is concerned, sending arms to both Hamas and Hezbollah is a form of insurance. Iranian nationalists, who keep telling us that ‘Iran should stop arming these terrorists’ and ‘concentrate on the country’s own interests’, forget that, had it not been for fear of retaliation by Hezbollah, Israel would have bombed Iran’s nuclear installations a long time ago. That would have had disastrous consequences not just for Iran, but for the entire region. Of course, now that Egypt’s Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, not Khamenei, is Hamas’s best friend, Trump claims Iran is supporting the Taliban.
Here a bit of history might help the US president. When the Taliban were in power in Kabul their main religious/political opposition was from Iran’s Islamic Republic. In 2001, as far as the war against the Taliban was concerned, Iran’s then reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, gave all the political and logistic support he could to the US under its neoconservative president, George W Bush. What was Bush’s response? Naming Iran as a “rogue state”. So if there is any ‘cooperation’ between Iran and the Taliban, we know how that came about.
As for the claim that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (or Pasdaran) are a terrorist organisation, up until a few months ago when Iran was fighting Islamic State in Syria, the Pasdaran were hailed in the US media as the most effective force fighting ‘Jihadi terrorists’ and all this culminated in the Guards’ commander, major-general Qasem Soleimani, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine, which welcomed Pasdaran’s military operations.
Of course, all this is related to the current situation in Kirkuk. As we predicted, while Islamic State is losing territory in Syria as well as Iraq, the battle for the areas ‘evacuated’ by the jihadi group is creating new conflicts. The Kurdish regional government tried to take advantage of all this by organising a referendum on Kurdish independence, but this week Baghdad government troops, accompanied by Shia militias, have moved into Kirkuk.
This is a rather sad end to the silly miscalculation of Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani, but it also reflects the worries of both the Iranian and the Iraqi governments about the current White House incumbent and his closest ‘advisors’. As Trump keeps saying, they are not into ‘nation building’, so the claim that they want regime change in Tehran is in reality code for their preference to see the destruction of the current states of both Iran and Iraq, and their replacement with smaller, national/regional governments more subservient to US foreign policy.
Of course, as far as economic policy is concerned, both Iran’s Islamic Republic and the Shia government installed in Baghdad in 2003 work entirely within the frameworks of neoliberal capitalism. However, when it comes to politics, Iran is not exactly in the US sphere of influence and current thinking on Iraq in the White House seems to be: ‘Let us get rid of the problem once and for all, by overturning the entire national set-up – Iraq can be divided into three separate entities surely.
In these circumstances one can only laugh at ‘leftwing’ Iranian Kurdish leaders who claim that a future ‘independent’ Kurdistan (‘liberated’ from Iran and Iraq thanks to US military and financial help) will be a step towards socialism. Global capital is already up in arms about the soft anti-austerity economic programme of the Corbyn/McDonnell opposition in the UK, because it challenges neoliberal economic dogma (it definitely does not challenge capitalism, as so many Corbynistas keep telling us). So how can anyone imagine that imperialism would tolerate ‘socialist’ economic policies in a tiny, land-locked Kurdish republic?
The US state department (not just Donald Trump) is the main sponsor of the attacks of the Labour Party right and the UK media on Corbyn’s soft anti-war stance. So are we really saying that it will allow a new ‘independent’ Kurdistan to exercise a ‘socialist’ foreign policy? One that might challenge Israel’s nuclear programme, for example? One that will be in solidarity with the Palestinians? The answer is, of course, in the negative. The Iranian Kurdish groups propagating such ideas have lost touch with reality – they are now part of the problem rather than the solution to the upheavals in the region.
The Kurdish regional government (KRG) in Iraq will be holding a referendum on the issue of independence on September 25. There have been appeals for it to be delayed and the date has changed a number of times, but at the moment it looks like the vote will go ahead.
In 2014, at the time when Islamic State was gaining ground in northern Kurdistan, Kurds accused the Iraqi army of abandoning the territory lost to the jihadists. Ironically it is the ‘liberation’ of Erbil, Mosul and other northern cities that has precipitated the referendum. Last week in an interview with BBC Persian, Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, indicated that it will draw up the borders of a future Kurdish state if Baghdad does not accept a vote in favour of independence. However, what was significant in the BBC interview was Barzani’s insistence that the vote will also take place in “areas of Kurdistan outside the region’s administration”, including Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Sinjar. The oil-rich Kirkuk has large Arab and Turkmen populations, which prompted Barzani to add:
We don’t say that Kirkuk only belongs to Kurds. Kirkuk should be a symbol of coexistence for all ethnicities. If the people of Kirkuk vote ‘no’ in this referendum we will respect their vote, but we don’t accept that anyone can prevent us from holding a referendum there. If any group wants to change the reality of Kirkuk using force, they should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight over it.
It is not difficult to envisage a future where Barzani’s threats would lead to yet another bloody civil war in Iraq.
Of course, Kurdish leaders claim the vote will not necessarily lead to independence – their aim is to strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Baghdad. But the Iraqi government response came on September 12, when parliament voted to reject the referendum as “unconstitutional” and authorised the prime minister to “take all measures” to preserve Iraq’s unity.
The official US and UK position is a recommendation that the vote for Kurdish independence should be delayed in view of the ‘dangerous situation’ so soon after the defeat of IS. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson made that point on a visit to the KRG in August, but more hard-line neoconservatives in the US and their allies in Israel believe that any referendum would be the first step in a much wider scheme: one that would go beyond Iraq and encompass all Kurdish areas in Syria, Iran and Turkey.
As far the Zionist regime and sections of the Trump administration are concerned, an independent Kurdish state would accelerate the disintegration of Iraq, paving the way for more independence movements: Sunnis in Iraq and Syria; Arabs, Baluchis and maybe Azeris in Iran. They hope this would result in a complete neo-imperial remapping of the region, replacing the borders drawn up in the early part of the 20th century.
So why would anyone want to destroy current states and in the process create further devastation and chaos? Because the new imperial order is interested not only in ‘regime change from above’, but would actually prefer chaos and anarchy to ‘rogue states’ capable of challenging US hegemony in areas where the majority of the population (ironically with the exception of Iran) are no longer the superexploited masses of the global ‘market’ economy.
Of course, we all know that since the US invasion, Iraq is a much weaker power in the region. But the proposed referendum will pave the way for the kind of civil wars that will make the current situation in Libya or Afghanistan look like a tea party. For Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his advisors such a plan would enable Israel to become a regional superpower – no wonder the KRG is ‘benefiting’ from Israel’s continuous advice.
No-one in their right mind can imagine that the ‘greater Kurdistan’ promised by Kurdish nationalists will happen peacefully – the existing brutal regimes will fight to the bitter end to stop it and prevent their own demise. And in reality the creation of such a state would produce further inter-Kurdish battles.
A long time ago, in very difficult circumstances in Iranian Kurdistan, I was witness to a bitter conflict between supporters of northern Kurdistan and of southern Kurdistan. On a snowy night, at a time when I had been given temporary responsibility as political leader in the camp where we were staying, I was woken up by a comrade asking me to return to the base (as the only female member of the peshmergeh group, I was staying outside the base in a peasant’s house – part of our organisation’s attempt to respect Kurdish sensitivities regarding gender segregation).
Two groups – both ‘Marxist’ Kurdish peshmergehs – had got into a bitter argument over whether northern Kurdistan (capital: Mahabad) was more radical and revolutionary than southern Kurdistan (capital: Sanandaj) and the two groups seemed ready to open fire on each other. The old comrade who came to wake me up, Kak Omar, was a wise old man who could see where all this could lead. I put on my uniform, went to the base and attempted to fulfil my duty as a political leader by giving a talk on ‘internal contradictions’, based on a booklet issued by a small group called the Union des Communistes de France Marxiste-Léniniste, written by a then much less famous Alain Badiou, whose Théorie de la contradiction was an attempt to understand and come to terms with the many “linear”, “circular”, “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic” contradictions.
I think I managed to bore the comrades sufficiently and by the time I had finished very few felt like entering into a midnight shooting match. Yet the incident demonstrated to me how narrow-minded nationalism can be, how easily it can turn to regionalism. And, once you go down that route, there is no end to the divisions that can be exploited by the enemies of the working class. After all, the civil wars of the Middle East have not harmed US or Israeli interests in the region and no doubt the destruction of the current state of Iran would also serve them well. Anything that can pave the way for such a scenario is a bonus for them.
Even if we imagine the establishment of a unified Kurdish state, how would its economy work? As KRG leaders know, without Kirkuk such a state would not be viable, but even with Kirkuk it is difficult to foresee a prosperous future in the current world capitalist order for a country composed of the least developed regions of four underdeveloped countries … and with no access to the sea. Of course, the blame for such underdevelopment lies squarely with the current and past rulers of the respective countries and no doubt it is this, combined with the constant suppression of national rights in Kurdish areas, that has led to the current wave of nationalism. Both the right and the left should take note of the dangers such a new state would face.
Let me add a few comments about the current Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Those of us who are familiar with its current leaders find it difficult to take them seriously. There was nothing positive in their foreign policy – from when Mustafa Barzani (the father of the current president) became an ally of the shah of Iran, to their support for the Islamic Republic (all because Iran was opposed to Iraq’s Ba’athist regime), to their current mesmerisation by US and Israeli ‘advisors’. This is a government based on tribalist politics. For all its claims about ‘women’s rights’, the organisations leading the KRG, as well as their allies in Iran, are mainly corrupt, misogynist forces, whose power and wealth often relies on extortion and corruption.
If you are in the west, at a time when fundamentalists still force women to wear the burqa or hijab, it is easy to be impressed by female peshmergehs filmed in Kurdish areas, brandishing guns. However, you will forgive me for being cynical about such images. All too often both in Kurdistan and abroad I have had to deal with women peshmergehs whose bruises and battered bodies tell the story of domestic abuse.
The proposed Kurdish referendum has initiated a number of debates amongst the Iranian left about the implications of the right to self-determination at a time of aggressive, destructive imperialist policy in the region. No-one can deny the fact that the Kurds have been victims of discrimination, repression and military aggression in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In this respect the call for independence is very attractive.
However, the question is, ‘After independence what next?’ We know how the current regional powers will react, and how the already weakened working class movement will further be divided along nationalist lines.
Some time ago, Robert Fisk wrote a book on Lebanon entitled Pity the nation. Unfortunately in the current situation this is the phrase that keeps coming to mind when I think of Kurdistan.
In late July around 50 political prisoners in Iran’s Rajai Shahr prison were moved to new cells, where windows are covered by metal sheets, access to drinking water is limited and prisoners complain of suffocation and dehydration. In protest 17 of them began a hunger strike.
One of them is labour activist Reza Shahabi. He has gone without food for more than 20 days and, according to his family, his physical condition has deteriorated considerably in the last few days. Shahabi is the treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and has been in and out of jail since 2010. In the spring of 2012 he was sentenced to six years by an Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran – five years for “conspiracy against state security”, and one year for “propaganda against the system”. He was also fined and banned from all trade union activities for five years.
Many Iranians have compared his plight with that of former presidential candidate and leader of the 2009 ‘green’ movement protests, Mehdi Karroubi, who is currently under house arrest. He recently staged a hunger strike, which succeeded in its aim of removing members of the security forces from his house. Karroubi’s plight was widely reported by a number of media outlets, including the BBC Persian service and Voice of America, and was also widely reported inside Iran. However, when it comes to Shahabi’s hunger strike, there is a deafening silence.
Of course, the charges against him are nonsense: a trade unionist who has constantly opposed war and regime change from above is not a threat to “state security”. However, he is a threat to the regime, as he symbolises workers’ protests against the neoliberal economic policies of successive governments, both ‘reformist’ and conservative.
In the midst of all the publicity for regime change from above (boosted no end after Donald Trump’s election) it is often difficult for those opposing both the Islamic regime, together with its oppressive, neoliberal form of capitalism, and the threat of war and new sanctions to make themselves heard. But in fact Shahabi is not alone. Every day there is news of demonstrations and protests by Iranian workers across the country.
A comrade reminded me recently that many of the younger supporters of the conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who stood against Hassan Rouhani in this year’s presidential elections, believe corruption and the current problems of Iran’s economy – in particular the financial hardship faced by the overwhelming majority of the population – is down to the specific capitalist path taken by ‘reformists’ like Rouhani. Such elements genuinely believe that a fairer economic system is possible within the framework of Iran’s Islamic Republic and blame the unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor, as well as the all-encompassing corruption, solely on policies followed by the ‘reformist’ faction. They have illusions in the likes of Raisi and in supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s so-called ‘resistance’ economics.
Although it is correct to say that the implementation of neoliberal economic policies started with ‘reformist’ president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) and both the Khatami and Rouhani governments have implemented the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in terms of ‘privatisation’, casualisation of work, the imposition of ‘white’ contracts (where the employee signs a blank sheet of paper regarding terms of employment), etc, we should not forget that it was Khamenei himself who decided overnight to rewrite article 44 of the constitution, removing any legal barriers to full-scale privatisation of the state sector. The original constitution anticipated state ownership for key economic areas – although, of course, this was never enforced strictly by the market-loving clerics who came to power in 1979: after all, their social base was in the bazaar and amongst the property-owning classes.
However, as time went on, the role of the private sector gradually increased. By 2004, an amendment to this article, approved by Khamenei, allowed for 80% of state assets to be privatised. The IMF and World Bank have constantly encouraged Iran to pursue these polices and in fact it was under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported by the conservative factions of the regime, together with Khamenei, despite his claims of being “on the side of the poor and the deprived sections of society”, that Iran was heralded by the IMF as a ‘model’ country following its economic liberalisation programmes. Over the last few years a government body called the Iran Privatisation Organisation has pursued an aggressive policy, aiming to ensure that the remaining state-owned enterprises are privatised.
Successive governments have declared the aims of Iran’s economic policies in terms that include “economic competition through the market”, an “increase in labour productivity”, the shrinking of government through privatisation, and a reduction in subsidies and budget costs.
For all their talk of a ‘resistance economy’, the conservatives consist of individuals and institutions overseeing billion-dollar private organisations. During the presidential elections, Raisi told voters: “I own nothing but a 140-square-metre apartment and a private bank account”, but the reality is, he is head of the multi-billion-dollar religious foundation, Astane Quds Razavi.
In 2013 Reuters revealed that Khamenei is head of an organisation created to help the poor that is now a major business worth tens of billions of dollars. In the last decade it has become a conglomerate that holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and farming.1
Of course, the idea of a third-world economy surviving independently of global capital is either day-dreaming or a deliberate lie – in the case of Iran’s supreme leader and his claims of building a ‘resistance economy’ clearly the latter. It is true that, like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, Khamenei claims he is in favour of ‘delinking’ Iran’s economy from western capital (his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, famously declared that dependence on Japanese capital was acceptable, as Japan was not part of the west!). But the reality is that his own ‘charitable’ multi-billion-dollar organisation, not to forget the partly privatised banks and industries owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are actually part and parcel of global capital.
A few months ago Khamenei complained about the gap between the rich and the poor in Iran. But, despite the fact that the Islamic regime has been in power for over 38 years, there are many reasons why that gap keeps growing. First of all, those sections of the Iranian aristocracy and bourgeoisie that were not directly involved with the shah’s regime have retained their wealth, their capital and their land: and, thanks to Iran’s extremely high interest rates, that wealth grows daily. In addition the exploiting classes have been augmented by a whole new layer of nouveaux riches. What Iranians call aghazadeh-ha(sons and daughters of the ayatollahs) spend money at levels comparable to Saudi princes – driving sports cars and generally displaying their wealth.
As elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism, there is no ‘trickle-down effect’. During the years of sanctions senior clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters made billions from sanction-busting and the black market, while ordinary Iranians faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to a shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. Shahrzad Elghanayan, a New York Times reporter, was astonished by what she saw in a programme screened by the pro-government Press TV: “It was not just the wealth that struck me, but how freely Iran’s one percenters flaunted the symbols of western decadence without fear of government retribution.”2
Nowadays no-one denies that the nuclear deal was promoted and managed by Khamenei every step of the way. One of its main aims was the further integration of Iran’s economy within the global order and in this all factions of the regime, irrespective of their rhetoric, are united. The warnings of both supporters of regime change from above – who keep telling us that the supreme leader wants to isolate Iran and turn it into another North Korea – and the conservative factions – who claim they want to save Iran from globalisation – are nonsense.
The Islamic Republic is and will remain an integral part of global capitalism. That is why the idea that somehow a bourgeois government (either one composed of ‘more committed’ reformists or one imposed by regime change from above) would introduce democracy and workers’ rights is also a complete nonsense. Freedom of movement for capital has its rationale and the post-war commitment to democracy, trade union rights and public services has ended. There is a need more than ever for uninterrupted free movement of capital to the cheapest zones of exploitation. In the advanced capitalist countries concessions to workers are threatened, while trade unions have been considerably weakened by membership losses, as well as draconian legislation.
Under such circumstances it is criminal for the Iranian left to sow hopes that bourgeois democracy can save workers such as Reza Shahabi from arrest, intimidation and long prison sentences. It is irresponsible to offer Europe or the USA as models to be followed. The gains won in the advanced capitalist countries came at the expense of the superexploited third world. We live in the era of new imperial practices – as Alain Badiou puts it, “the policy of destroying states rather than corrupting or replacing them”3 – and that is the kind of future ‘regime change from above’ will bring to Iran.
As for Reza Shahabi, we have a duty to support his struggle, calling for his immediate, unconditional release and building support for his case amongst the international working class. But we should have no illusions in the rightwing, pro-regime-change NGOs, political groups, charities and other organisations which also claim to support him. They are an insult to the Iranian working class, which, despite severe hardship, has maintained its principled opposition to foreign intervention, while pursuing class-based struggles against Iran’s Islamic Republic and its internal and external capitalist allies.
3. A Badiou Notre mal vient de bien loin Paris 2015.
Last week Iran’s Islamic Republic tested a ballistic missile – at a time when US military threats against Iran have dominated Middle Eastern news. The test was unsuccessful, but its political repercussions were serious.
After months of restraint, maybe the country’s rulers thought that president Donald Trump – under attack for the Russia dossier and beleaguered by enemies inside and outside the White House – might not retaliate. If that was their thinking, they were mistaken. On July 28 US state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the test a “provocative action” that violated the “spirit” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal struck in 2015 between Iran and the world’s 5+1 powers to control Iran’s nuclear programme. The US and its European allies claim Iran’s ballistic programme is designed to carry nuclear warheads.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal claimed Trump has ordered his subordinates to prove that Iran is not complying with the JCPOA, which would presumably provide him with the excuse to scrap the accord. Advocates of the deal persist in arguing that Iran is in compliance with its provisions, while opponents make claims like: “It takes considerable credulousness to believe that over the course of this agreement the Iranian military won’t adapt technical knowledge gained about launch and guidance from projects like its ‘satellite missile’ programme. With or without compliance, Iran is making progress as a strategic threat.”1
On July 28, US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin imposed a whole set of new sanctions against 18 individuals and entities for supporting what he said were “illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity”. And there are continued rumours that the Trump administration is considering imposing sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – a move that would have serious implications for the country, given the Guards’ involvement in every aspect of the economy. Trump has also claimed that Iran is violating the nuclear deal and there will be “an American law aimed at ensuring Iranian compliance”.
It should be pointed out that the JCPOA deal does not cover Iran’s ballistic missile programme. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told news agencies last week that the US is not complying with the “letter and spirit” of the deal: “Rhetoric and actions from the US show bad faith”. By August 1, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, was accusing the United States of “breaching the 2015 agreement”.
Iran’s leaders are well aware of Trump’s comments during the 2016 presidential election campaign, when he repeatedly promised to “rip up” the “worst deal ever made”. So whether or not the Trump administration finds evidence of a lack of compliance, the Islamic Republic is trying to make sure it is the US and Trump who are blamed if the agreement fails this autumn. The headline from Iranian daily, Hamshahri, sums up the mood in Tehran: “Iran is preparing for the day when US walks out of the nuclear deal” (August 2).
The only voice expressing doubt in Washington is that of secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who, according to one headline, “acknowledges ‘differences’ with Trump on Iran deal”.2 According to Tillerson, because Iran had been “rewarded upfront” for signing the deal, the US had “limited levers available” and so was working with its allies to put “collective pressure” on Iran to “amend its behaviour”.3
Of course, given the current civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya – all consequences of the US policy of ‘regime change from above’ – it is unlikely that the Trump administration will launch an all-out war against Iran. However, with the growing conflict between the factions of the Islamic Republic, both the tactic and the strategy are clear. Increasing pressure on Iran will worsen the tensions within the regime, and at some stage an element in the Revolutionary Guards will be provoked into, say, firing on a US frigate in the Gulf, Israel will be given the green light to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations and the ensuing mini-war would open the opportunity for regime change from above. Less intelligent sections of the Iranian opposition – both on the right and increasingly many on the ‘left’ – have been placing their hopes on such a catastrophic eventuality.
As someone who has opposed Iran’s Islamic Republic throughout its 37-year rule, I remain – as the regime calls us – sarnegouni talab: one who supports its overthrow. However, I want that to happen through a revolutionary movement inside the country, not a crisis engineered by a US president who cannot even see the fundamental flaws in his proposed ‘regime change’ scenario, not least the complete absence of a viable alternative inside or outside the country. The disastrous consequences are all predictable: the creation of yet another failed state in the region; endless civil wars between Tehran and national minorities (Kurds, Arabs, Balouchis, Turkmen …). The result would make Syria and Iraq look like safe havens.
Under these circumstances it is important that a genuine solidarity movement takes shape, both in the UK and internationally, to oppose any US aggression, while at the same time standing against the repression meted out by Iran’s Islamic Republic. It is a regime that does not tolerate opposition from within its own ranks. Ex-premier Mir-Hossein Moussavi, together with Mehdi Karroubi, former speaker of majles (parliament), remain under house arrest, eight years after the demonstrations they organised in 2009. They are loyal ‘reformists’, who have never challenged the continued rule of the clerical regime or its supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
No need to guess the plight of those who have dared to call for the overthrow of clerical rule and its relentless drive towards neoliberal capitalism under successive governments. Through their strikes, protests and demonstrations, Iran’s workers remain the only hope for progressive change in the region. Yet, in the absence of any mass political organisation and at a time when the left is forced to remain underground, their struggles are limited to defensive actions: keeping their jobs, demanding unpaid wages, retaining their pension rights, etc.
It is in the light of such a situation that I read Jane Green’s article in the Morning Star on the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (Codir).4 Of course, I agree with some of the points made in the article regarding Trump’s regime change agenda, the hypocrisy of US and western governments, with their claims of defending ‘human rights’ in Iran, and the need to build solidarity with the Iranian people. However, as always when it comes to Codir – and Tudeh, the Iranian ‘official communist’ party behind it – there is a level of amnesia about previously held positions , with no hint of a regret or apology.
Jane Green tells us: “Codir has vehemently opposed the Iranian theocratic regime for over 30 years. We have consistently opposed the imprisonment, torture and execution of political activists, women and trade unionists over that period.” Thirty years takes us to 1987, but Iran’s’ Islamic Republic came to power in 1979, and some of the worst years of repression, which left their physical and psychological scars on the opposition forces, were at the very start of its rule. In fact it was only in the late 1980s that Tudeh came over to the opposition. It is not just that Tudeh – and by extension its solidarity campaign, Codir – kept quiet about the repression of the radical left and Mojahedin in those early years: they actually collaborated and cheered on the ‘anti-imperialist’ regime under ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in its endeavours to crush the left opposition.
While I was among those fighting the Revolutionary Guards in Kurdistan, Tudeh, which at the time was following Moscow’s line of support for Khomeini’s anti-US policy, was calling for the same Revolutionary Guards to be armed with heavy weaponry (the Iranian army was attacking us with helicopter gunships , but in the early years of the regime the Islamic Revolutionary Guards were the junior partner in the new government’s military aggression in Kurdistan.
It was their support for Khomeini’s line that made Tudeh and its allies, the Fedayeen Majority, partners in crime. To Iran’s workers Tudeh’s message was clear: ‘Produce more – this is an anti-imperialist war and a war economy. But Iran is moving towards the socialist camp!’ By contrast, the radical left’s message was that, while they fought imperialism, they also had to fight the Islamic government. They emphasised the need for revolution, as opposed to the transfer of power from one section of the ruling class to another. Even at that time it was clear that the regime had no intention of dismantling the old state. The Islamic Republic would also, of course, protect private property.
The claim that Iran was moving towards the ‘socialist camp’ was based on Khomeini’s rhetoric, with its endless repetition of meaningless anti-US slogans. No-one within or outside the ruling circles believed a word of it and in fact by the early 80s it was clear that, contrary to the slogans, while claiming to be fighting an anti-imperialist war against Iraq (which, by the way, was armed by Nato, yet maintained good relations with Moscow), senior Iranian clerics were negotiating with the United States for the delivery of Israeli-produced arms – payment for such weapons was made via dodgy Swiss bank accounts to the rightwing Nicaraguan Contras!
For all its faults the radical left (Fedayeen Minority, Peykar, Komaleh, Rahe Kargar …) had mass support amongst rank-and-file workers – especially in the oil industry, where some major strikes took place against the Islamic regime in the early 1980s.5 There can be no doubt that Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority’s support for Khomeini – what they called the ‘Imam’s line’ – played a part in the crushing of the leftwing opposition and the stabilisation of the Islamic government. So omitting the first seven years in the regime’s history is not an oversight. Jane Green has very good reasons to do so, even if she hopes Morning Star readers will not notice the gap between 1979 and the start of Codir’s solidarity action.
Nor was it just a question of praise for the Islamic Republic. Tudeh and the majority Fedayeen (Aksariyat) actually collaborated with the regime and supplied it with the names of socialists and communists. They considered this to be their ‘anti-imperialist duty’ in support of a regime that was heading for socialism. The results are well known: after the regime had dealt with the rest of the left Tudeh itself was targeted.
I would like to ask Jane Green and Codir the following questions:
- Who supported the trials of the left organised by ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali in the early 1980s – trials where prisoners were sent to execution merely for membership of or support for the organisations of the radical left? It was Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority. The online archives of their own newspapers prove this.
- When student followers of the Imam’s line (Khomeini supporters) took over the US embassy in 1979 – another event that helped stabilise the regime – who declared it an anti-imperialist act and claimed that opposition to it was “treason”? Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority.
- Who attacked relatives of Iranian socialists and communists opposed to the Islamic Regime, even outside Iran? The supporters of Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority in Codir.
So please don’t expect us to accept your amnesia about those years, when your support for the Islamic Republic cost the lives of a generation of leftwingers. New Codir supporters might have not be aware of this history, but the Iranian people are only too familiar with it.
Codir also takes pride in Tudeh’s record prior to the shah’s downfall, but there is little to be proud of in that era either. I remember as a child hearing the words hezb Tudeh khaen from the left, the right and the nationalists. In fact for many years before I knew anything about the political significance of the term khaen (which means ‘traitor’) I thought it was part of the party’s name. There are good reasons for this and I have written extensively on the issue in an article for Critique, but, to sum up a long story, khaen refers mainly to events that led to the 1953 coup against the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh.6
Iranian Marxists have long blamed Tudeh and its military organisation for inaction during the 1953 coup. Many believe that, even if – as party loyalists argue – defeat was inevitable, it would have been preferable for Tudeh officers and the party to be defeated resisting the coup.
Ervand Abrahamian notes that none of the Tudeh officers were in the “crucial tank divisions around Tehran” that could have been used for a coup and that the shah had screened them carefully:
Ironically, a Tudeh colonel had been in charge of the shah’s personal security – as well as that of vice-president Richard Nixon when he visited Iran. The Tudeh had the opportunity to assassinate the shah and the US vice-president, but not to launch a coup. The officer corps’ other main task was to protect the party. Its decimation in 1954 rendered it useless regarding this task.7
There can be no doubt that the Tudeh (and by extension the Soviet Union) did not come out of this period well. The Tudeh’s labelling of Mossadegh as a CIA agent, followed by periods when it was giving unconditional support to Mossadegh, was very similar to the attitude of pro-Soviet communist parties throughout the Middle East – parties which supported Ba’athist or nationalist rulers one day, only to oppose them the next, because Soviet relations with the given country had soured. The difference with the 1953 coup in Iran was that it was a more dramatic event and its consequences affected the region for decades to come.
From the onset the dismantling of what was Iran’s Communist Party (originally set up in 1920 in Gilan province in northern Iran) in favour of a new ‘mass party’ (Tudeh) was a controversial step, with many Iranian communists blaming Soviet interference for the change in both the name and the character of the party. Historian Cosroe Chaqueri has summarised these debates in his article, ‘Did the Soviets play a role in the founding of Tudeh?’8 Chaqueri quotes a report by Colonel Seliukov of the Red Army intelligence division about his meeting with Solyan Mirza Eskandari on September 29 1941. They discussed setting up a “national-democratic party” to “obtain democratic liberties and an easier life for the Iranian people”.
In 1945, when the Soviet Union decided to remain in the northern provinces of Iran, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, the Tudeh branches were dissolved and party members were instructed – presumably by the USSR – to join either Firqua Democrat Azerbaijan or Firqua Democrat Kurdistan (both left-nationalist organisations). Although the leader of the Azerbaijan Republic, Sayyed Pishevari, had joined Tudeh in the early 1940s, he had independent links with Moscow and did not obey party orders. Tudeh, for its part, having portrayed itself as the champion of patriotism and constitutional liberties against foreign imperialism, was forced to change tack and support the partition of northern Iran with oil concessions to the Soviet Union. Predictably, many Tudeh members resigned in disgust.
In April 1946 the Iranian government of Ahmad Ghavam signed an oil agreement with the Soviet Union and agreed to appoint Tudeh ministers in exchange for a promise of Soviet troop withdrawal from Iran’s northern provinces (in a reversal of policy, Moscow now favoured Tudeh once again). Partly as a result of pressure from the United States and Britain, Soviet troops withdrew from Iranian territory and Ghavam took three Tudeh members into his cabinet. Later the same year, however, he was able to reclaim his concessions to the Soviet Union, using the excuse of a tribal revolt in the south to dismiss Tudeh cabinet members.
When Ghavam and the shah’s troops arrived in Azerbaijan in December 1946, the Firqua Democrat government, deprived of Soviet support, collapsed and Pishevari fled to the Soviet Union. Stalin’s letter of May 8 1946 to Pishevari sheds light on aspects of their disagreements:
It seems to me that you misjudge the existing situation, inside Iran as well as in the international dimension.First, you wanted to meet all revolutionary demands of Azerbaijan right now. But the existing situation precludes realisation of this programme. Lenin used to put forth revolutionary demands as practical demands, as practical demands only when the country experienced a grave revolutionary crisis aggravated by the unsuccessful war with an external enemy. Such was the case in 1905 during the unsuccessful war with Japan and in 1917 during the unsuccessful war with Germany. You here want to emulate Lenin. This is very good and laudable.
However, the situation in Iran today is totally different. There is no profound revolutionary crisis in Iran. There are few workers in Iran and they are poorly organised. The Iranian peasantry still does not show any serious activism. Iran is not waging a war with an external enemy that could weaken Iran’s reactionary circles through a military failure. Consequently, there is no such situation in Iran that could support the tactics of Lenin in 1905 and 1917.
Second, certainly, you could have counted on a success in the cause of the struggle for the revolutionary demands of the Azerbaijani people, had the Soviet troops continued to remain in Iran. But we could no longer keep them in Iran, mainly because the presence of Soviet troops in Iran undercut the foundation of our liberationist policies in Europe and Asia. The British and Americans said to us that if Soviet troops could stay in Iran, then why could not British troops stay in Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, Greece, and also the American troops – in China, Iceland, Denmark. Therefore we decided to withdraw troops from Iran and China, in order to seize this tool from the hands of the British and Americans, to unleash the liberation movement in the colonies and thereby to render our liberationist policy more justified and efficient. You as a revolutionary will certainly understand that we could not have done otherwise.
Third, all this said, one can come to the following conclusion with regard to the situation in Iran.
There is no profound revolutionary crisis in Iran. There is no state of war in Iran with external enemies, and, consequently, no military failures which could weaken the reaction and aggravate the crisis. So long as Soviet troops stayed in Iran, you had a chance to unfold the struggle in Azerbaijan and organise a broad democratic movement with far-reaching demands. But our troops had to leave and left Iran. What do we have now in Iran? We have a conflict of the government of Qavam with the Anglophile circles in Iran, who represent the most reactionary elements of Iran. As reactionary as Qavam used to be in the past, now he must, in the interests of self-defence and the defence of his government, carry out some democratic reforms and seek support among democratic elements in Iran.
What must be our tactics under these conditions? I believe we should use this conflict to wrench concession from Qavam, to give him support, to isolate the Anglophiles, thus, and to create some basis for the further democratisation of Iran. From this assumption stems all our advice to you. Of course, one could adopt a different tactic: to spit on everything, to break with Qavam and thereby ensure there a victory of the Anglophile reactionaries. Yet this would not have been a tactic, but stupidity. This would have been in effect a betrayal of the cause of the Azerbaijani people and Iranian democracy.
Fourth, you, as I found out, say that we first raised you to the skies and then let you down into the precipice and disgraced you. If this is true, it surprises us. What has really happened? We used the technique here that every revolutionary knows. In the situation similar to the situation of Iran today, if one wants to achieve a certain minimum of demands pursued by the movement, the movement has to run ahead, to progress beyond the minimal demands and to create a threat for the government, to ensure a possibility of concessions on the part of the government. Had you not run far ahead, you would not have had a chance in the current situation in Iran to achieve these ‘concessions’ that the government of Qavam has to make now. Such is the law of revolutionary movement. There could not be even mention of any disgrace for you.
It is very strange that you think that we could have let you down in disgrace. On the contrary, if you behave reasonably and seek with our moral support the demands that would legalise essentially the existing factual position of Azerbaijan, then you would be blessed both by the Azeris and by Iran as a pioneer of the progressive democratic movement in the Middle East.9
As this demonstrates, the dismantling of the Communist Party in Iran in favour of Tudeh, followed by the adventures of the Stalinist regime in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan and then the support for nationalist separation, resulted in confusion, anger and frustration amongst the ranks of Tudeh, the two Firquas and communists and socialists in Iran. In Azerbaijan, Firqua Democrat made some progress towards land reform and fighting corruption amongst civil servants, but its rule was short-lived and the shah’s army ensured a speedy reversal of these policies. There are contradictory reports about the level of local support for Pishevari and his government; however, there can be no doubt that military occupation encouraged the growth of rightwing, royalist and later fundamentalist tendencies in the region. In 1948 the Tudeh Party faced a large split under the leadership of Khalil Maleki, who blamed the central committee for the Azerbaijan crisis.
After 1953, Tudeh advocated a policy of ‘survival’, refraining from taking aggressive action in order to avoid arrest and imprisonment. Codir’s post-1979 message of ‘peace and democracy’ often reminds me of Tudeh and the Moscow broadcasts of the 1970s and 80s.
To summarise, given the current threat of war, the struggles of the Iranian working class, the continuation of repression by Iran’s Islamic Republic, the need to defend national and religious minorities in Iran, the necessity to publicise and defend the women’s movement in Iran, we need to build a genuine solidarity movement. However, such a genuine movement cannot be tarnished by the presence of those who have supported the Islamic Republic or those who accept funds from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates of the Persian Gulf, Israel, the US or the European Union. All these forces, whether they are aware of it or not, are actually part of Trump’s ‘regime change’ agenda and are contributing to the threat of war. They have certainly lost all credibility inside Iran.
As for those who supported the Islamic Republic in the early 1980s, I have not seen a single speaker from the Tudeh Party in an open political meeting of the left. (I am sure Tudeh and Codir hold many internal meetings, but by ‘open’ I mean a public meeting). Iranian progressives in the audience would simply not allow such a speaker even to get to their feet, given the despicable collaboration they were guilty of with this reactionary regime.
The campaign we need is Hands Off the People of Iran, not Codir. The unprecedented support we have gained amongst Iranians and non-Iranians is proof of this. Our stance against the sham trial of those accused of involvement in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners by the Islamic Republic (in what became known as the Iran Tribunal, paid for by Saudi funds and supported by the US National Endowment for Democracy and a plethora of dubious ‘regime change’-funded organisations) gained us new and welcome support worldwide, particularly in the United States.
Hopi activists originating in Iran are comrades who have a clear conscience – most of us opposed the Islamic Republic from the day it came to power. Amongst us are also comrades who openly admit their political mistakes and have produced discussion documents explaining their previous positions and their current ones – as opposed to those who seek to hide what they said or did in the recent past. We address the British and international working class movement when we seek solidarity.
Unlike Codir, which claims it has been “fighting a long battle to persuade western leaders to condemn the human rights record of the Islamic Republic and to bring pressure to bear on the regime to allow free and independent trade union and political activity”,10 we have no illusions in western leaders and governments, whose position on ‘human rights’ (itself a dubious term) in Iran depends entirely on their immediate political and economic interests in Iran and the region.
By addressing trade union and political organisations and activists of the left in the UK and elsewhere, we aim to build a principled opposition movement against both the threat of war and the anti-working class, repressive measures of Iran’s Islamic Republic. We will continue to address working class organisations with the aim of strengthening the campaign both in UK but also in Europe and in North America.
Now is the time to strengthen solidarity with the Iranian people – and Hopi is the only organisation capable of building a serious, principled campaign.
4. Morning Star July 27.
5. See the interview with one of the leading figures of the time, Ali Pichgah: http://etehadbinalmelali.com/ak/maghaleh-ali-pichgah.
6. See Y Mather, ‘Iran’s Tudeh Party: a history of compromises and betrayals’: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2011.621250.
7. E Abrahamian A history of modern Iran Cambridge 2008, p122.
10. Morning Star July 27.