HOPI: Grappling with the new situation

How to meet the challenge presented by the US-Iran deal? Peter Manson reports on Hopi’s day schoolIranoilworker small

Around 40 people attended the school organised by Hands Off the People of Iran on January 25. As Hopi secretary Mark Fischer explained in introducing the day, the election of a new Iranian president and the subsequent negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear capability had “changed the context of our work”.

But it had not changed the underlying principles. Hopi, he said, has “laid down a marker” for anti-imperialist, anti-war work, in that it makes clear that the allies of the solidarity movement must be the Iranian working class and democratic movement, not the oppressive regime. We must now “take stock” of the new situation after the election of Hassan Rowhani.

The day featured sessions on an overview of the Middle East, looking at the role of imperialism and Israel; on the position of Iran’s working class; and on the country’s national minorities. The school ended with a brief discussion of Hopi’s priorities on how to build solidarity. In every session there was plenty of time for debate and engagement with the platform speakers.

Starting the ball rolling was Mike Macnair of the CPGB, who opened the session on the Middle East. He was sharing a platform with Israeli communist Moshé Machover, who dealt with Zionism’s particular interest in provoking conflict with Iran. I will not report in detail on what comrade Macnair said, since his whole contribution can be read elsewhere in this issue,1 but his wide-ranging speech dealt not only with Iran, but Syria and Egypt too. He warned that sections of the US establishment see the current negotiations with Iran as part of a strategy to launch a full-scale attack – although he stressed that an invasion was ruled out. Comrade Macnair also commented briefly on the political-economic background – the decline of capitalism and in particular of the US hegemon.

Israel and Iran

Comrade Machover began his contribution by saying that it followed on from what Mike Macnair had just said about the unlikelihood of an invasion. Invasions, he said, “no longer work”. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – all had gone very badly. Which is why he agreed with comrade Macnair that there would be no imperialist troops sent into Iran.

Comrade Machover made the point that it is a truism to say the ruling class pursues its own interests. But it is also an oversimplification: it pursues what it thinks are its interests. And imperialism is not monolithic, containing within it sharply conflicting interests. For example, war in the Middle East might be good for the oil companies and arms suppliers, but it would be very bad for other sections. Having mentioned oil, he agreed with comrade Macnair that any war would not be about access to oil, although it would partly be about control of it.

Comrade Machover reminded the school that, while Tehran has agreed to roll back its nuclear programme, that does not mean that Iran was now reduced to being a client state – far from it. Which is why Israel still has an interest in provoking a conflict. Iran’s influence in the Middle East diminishes Israel’s hegemony in the region.

However, there is a second reason why a war with Iran would be useful from Israel’s point of view. As comrade Machover has explained on several occasions, including in the Weekly Worker,2 it would provide it with an opportunity to “ethnically cleanse” the West Bank under cover of the crisis and chaos produced by war, as outlined in the ‘Sharon plan’ of 2002. In that sense the US war on Iraq was “finished too soon” for Israel. From the US point of view, an attack on Iran would not only “deal with” that country: it would “take the lid off” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Comrade Machover noted that in Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not just demanding recognition of Israel: he is demanding recognition of its status as the “nation-state of the entire Jewish people”. In other words, endorsement of Israel’s’ racist immigration policy. However, as with Iran, we are very far from “complete capitulation”. So the situation could end in a new conflagration, involving Israel and both Iran and Palestine.

During the debate, one comrade disagreed with the platform speakers on Iraq: the invasion had accomplished what the US wanted to achieve, she said. To which comrade Macnair replied that, yes, Saddam had been overthrown, but that had been followed by utter devastation; comrade Machover added that as a result the US had “lost control”.

There was also discussion about US motives for a possible attack. One comrade from the Iranian left group, Rahe Kargar, commented that it would be the “last mistake of a declining hegemon”. John Bridge from the CPGB pointed out that the US no longer has a “grand strategy”. For example, having sought a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood following the ‘Arab spring’, the US now seems to be operating in a strategic void.

Charlie Pottins from the Jewish Socialists Group believed that Netanyahu’s “state of all the Jews” would require the help of anti-Semitic elements in the west – comrade Machover pointed out that Israel’s immigration policy was actually a “limiting factor”, meaning that the Zionist state could never pull in the necessary numbers: in fact the sources of potential immigration were “now exhausted” – one reason why Zionism can never achieve complete victory.

Working class

Opening the session on the struggles of workers in Iran, Hopi chair Yassamine Mather first of all looked at the effect of sanctions on the working class. They had adversely affected the everyday life of the mass of the people, producing mass unemployment and dire poverty. Recent figures show that Iran is registering -8% growth, combined with 40%-plus inflation.

Of course, it is untrue to say, as regime propagandists claim, that all Iran’s ills result from sanctions. The economic hardship and the repressive apparatus can hardly be laid in their entirety at the door of the imperialists. Few buy into those claims and comrade Mather was sure that “people will rebel”. Nevertheless, it is clear that sanctions were aimed at the mass of ordinary people and it is they who have indeed suffered as a result.

Comrade Mather pointed out that seven out of the eight candidates standing in last year’s presidential elections favoured making a deal with the US. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had effectively accepted it as a necessary evil. So there can be no doubt that sanctions in the end forced change – not regime change, but a government ready to concede on nuclear development. So now Iran has agreed to limit its uranium enrichment programme and destroy certain stockpiles – otherwise it will face the reimposition of the small proportion of sanctions that have been relaxed.

However, in parallel with the softening in relation to nuclear capability there has been a toughening of the regime’s economic policy and its attitude to the working class. While previous president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was hardly the workers’ friend, Rowhani had stepped up the regime’s neoliberal policies: the aim is to eliminate “residual socialist practices”. There is a drive to attract foreign investment on the basis of Iran’s cheap labour. Repression in some ways is being stepped up too.

Comrade Mather concluded her speech on an optimistic note: the regime “still fears the working class” and she was sure those fears were justified.

Next to speak was Torab Saleth, who was a socialist activist during the Iranian revolution of 1979. At that time there were limited numbers of workers, although the working class population was constantly being expanded, thanks to migration from rural areas – there were half a million people living in shanty towns in Tehran alone, he said. But by the late 70s working class confidence was rising, as was the number of strikes – the general strike at the end of 1978 was a key factor in the crumbling of the shah’s regime, which finally fell in January 1979.

Comrade Saleh talked about the creation of neighbourhood committees, which linked up with the strike committees to form a formidable component of the revolution. But, despite this, the working class suffered from a “lack of leadership” resulting from the weakness of the organised left. It was little wonder that the committees often used mosques as their local bases from which to organise. However, at this time, he emphasised, the working class was “not dominated by Islamic ideology”.

During the course of the insurrection the strike committees, or shora, took up arms. The workers took over the factories, as the owners fled. They began to take over the distribution of essential supplies – much to the consternation of the bazaaris. However, noted comrade Saleth, these shora did not really link up beyond the individual workplace or district, which led him to conclude that the situation was “nowhere near dual power”.

It was the Islamists who realised the potential – students “following the imam’s line” took up the idea of uniting the shora, and the working class did not challenge the new regime. Islamic “storm troops” were recruited from among the urban poor and within a year all the councils were in Islamic hands. The working class was facing not just defeat, but a long period of retreat.

Comrade Saleth went on to talk about the debate on the left on the way forward. Should we attempt to reignite the factory committees? Should we just become trade union activists? His view had been that clandestine workers’ committees and a clandestine national union should be set up, “along the lines of the Polish Solidarity”.

Turning to the current period, he said that lately there has been a “huge upsurge” in working class struggles, but there is little to show from them organisationally, either in the shape of mass unions or a workers’ party. Nevertheless, in the new period following the easing of relations with the west, there were possibilities for the workers’ movement. Like comrade Mather he was “optimistic” – he was enthusiastic about “new elements” in the class, and about the state “being less able to repress”.

There were questions from the floor about old and new forms of oppression, about the role of the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party and about the influence of US-backed international union federations. On repression, comrade Saleth warned that we should not expect any weakening of the regime’s apparatus – the ‘legitimacy’ endowed by imperialist recognition might actually strengthen it.

On the Tudeh party, he said that fortunately it had lost almost all influence – but that did not mean other left organisations were making any kind of progress. Comrade Mather concurred: Tudeh had “called Torab and me imperialist agents”, but it had “lost all credibility” in the eyes of a whole generation. You could be generous and say it had been “a mistake” to support the regime, as Tudeh did. But it had been quite another thing to actually collaborate with it in fingering left activists, many of whom were subsequently killed by the regime.

On the question of the influence of pro-imperialist organisations such as the American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations, comrade Mather explained that some workers’ leaders in Iran take the view that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend. They have been prepared to collaborate with regime change projects. Fortunately most such ‘leaders’ quickly lose their rank and file base and become seen as mere imperialist stooges.

Nevertheless, both comrades were confident that it was only a matter of time before we would see real working class organisations getting off the ground.

Nationalities

The final session in the school proper was opened by Nasrollah Ghazi of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar), who discussed the question of Iran’s national minorities. He pointed out that only 67% of the Iranian population have Farsi as their first language and there are many thousands of Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis. They suffer official discrimination, when it comes to language, traditional and religious rights, and, of course, they are denied any form of national representation.

However, it is clear that the struggles of these minorities are entirely led by the various nationalists, who are not interested in linking up with each other, let alone in promoting an all-Iran struggle. As a result, many are easily courted by the imperialists, who have an interest in the breaking up of Iran. For comrade Ghazi the solution is not separation, but centralism. Yes, there must be the right to self-determination, but the influence of imperialism must be strongly resisted. He finished his contribution with the call to “End the Islamic regime” and “For a democratic republic”.

There were some useful points added from the floor. For example, comrade Mather pointed to the weaknesses of the national struggles: the Kurds in Iran, for instance, were ‘served’ by four main nationalist organisations – two close to the US, and one linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Comrade Bridge thought we ought to say more than just “self-determination”. With the imperialists attempting to redraw the map of the Middle East, we should emphasise the necessity of working class leadership and the struggle for socialism.

In summing up, comrade Ghazi said he was not for a federation. There was “no solution without socialism after the demise of the Islamic republic”.

The day ended with a brief discussion on ‘Building solidarity’, introduced by comrade Mather. She reminded comrades that Hopi organised in Sweden and Germany as well as Britain, along with the charity set up by Hopi, Workers Fund Iran, which raised funds for those in struggle. She recommended that Hopi organise a campaign around political prisoners in particular. To this end Hopi would give greater priority to its website and Facebook page.

 

Petition: End the siege of Yarmouk Camp

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A group of eleven of us, including Noam Chomsky, Mazin Qumsiyeh and As’ad Abukhalil have sent a letter to the Iranian government asking them to talk to the Assad government of Syria and insist that it end its siege of the Yarmouk refugee camp.

We start off the letter by explaining we are opponents of any warfare or sanctions against Iran and that we opposed President Obama’s plan to bomb Syria.  We want to make it clear that we are not cooperating is U.S. or Western imperial plans for Syria.

On the other hand we’ve been asked by Palestinians in Syria to speak out against the literal starvation going on inside Yarmouk camp just a few miles from downtown Damascus.  There are tens of thousands left inside the camp facing a siege by pro-Assad forces that has gone on for more than 180 days.  A siege directed mostly against civilians is cruel and illegal.

An appeal to the Iranian government might seem a hopeless, useless effort, but at this time Iran might not want to be embarrassed on this issue. The Iranian government is seeking to make agreements with the U.S. so does not want bad publicity.

Join us in an open letter to the Iranian government.  Click here:

150 signers after the first day online

Iran: End sanctions now

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Details of Iran’s proposals at the much heralded negotiations with the P5+1 powers that took place last weekend in Geneva were supposed to be secret. However, rumours about what has or has not been agreed have filled the Iranian and international press. The destiny of 75 million Iranians, if not the entire population of the Middle East, is at stake, yet they, like the rest of the world, have to rely on media leaks or unofficial briefings from one side or the other to know whether life-threatening sanctions will be reduced or the conflict will continue or even escalate.

In fact, for all the claims of secrecy we now know what the interim concessions made by Iran are:

  •  to stop the 20% enrichment of uranium for three months, until regular International Atomic Energy Agency inspections can resume, and in the long term reduce uranium enrichment to 3.5%;
  •  to reduce its stockpiles of 20% uranium through oxidisation;
  •  to halt the installation of new centrifuges at the Arak facility and allow full inspection there.

That amounts to a complete reversal of Iran’s nuclear policies for most of the last two decades. No wonder the five foreign ministers, including John Kerry and William Hague, changed their plans and hurried to Geneva. In return Iran will get access to government funds frozen in Asia, estimated at around $20 billion, plus the end of sanctions on the sale of gold, some petrochemical goods and aeroplane spare parts.

Not much to boast about in exchange for what are major concessions by the Islamic Republic – and definitely not the “sale of the century” for Iran, as Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was claiming even before the talks started. On November 9 supreme leader Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to pray for the delegation in Geneva and newspapers in Tehran were generally welcoming the deal that seemed to have been reached.

But by all accounts France withheld its signature at the 11th hour on November 10. The ‘socialist’ government in Paris was clearly acting as Israel’s representative – any deal requires the signatures of all the P5+1 powers or it cannot proceed. According to the Financial Times, “By blocking a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, France has achieved the unusual feat of annoying the American and Iranian governments simultaneously.”1

The Times of Israel elaborates: “French members of parliament telephoned foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Geneva at the weekend to warn him that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if the P5+1 nations did not stiffen their terms on a deal with Iran … Netanyahu’s angry public criticism of the emerging deal, and his phone conversations with world leaders … had played a crucial role in stalling the deal.”2

The next round of talks is due to start on November 20, but 10 days is a long time in politics and even longer in the Middle East. Israel started its campaign against any deal even before the last round had begun and is clearly using every minute of those 10 days to add to what John Kerry refers to as “fear tactics”. On the very day the talks broke down, Netanyahu was warning American Jewish leaders that “an Iranian nuclear weapon is coming to a theatre near you”. Of course, the elephant in the room amongst all this is Israel’s own semi-secret nuclear programme.

By November 12 Republican Senator Mark Kirk was echoing Israel’s position and proposing new sanctions: “The American people should not be forced to choose between military action and a bad deal that accepts a nuclear Iran.” This prompted the White House to warn the US Senate and Congress that tightening the sanctions on Iran could “box America into a march to war” and derail current negotiations.

So if France did raise objections in the last minutes before the signing of the agreement, what were the reasons?

The French economy has been adversely affected by sanctions on Iran – car makers Peugeot and Citroen have practically closed their respective plants in Iran as a result. But France still considers itself the colonial guardian of Lebanon and Syria (a French mandate following the demise of the Ottoman empire). It has a history of supporting the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and has very much resented Iran’s role in that country since the early 1980s. Paris also wants the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad removed and is unhappy that there has been no military intervention to achieve that. Last but not least, the French government is very unpopular at home and thinks it can regain popularity by acting as a major world power.

What about Israel? As Moshé Machover explained in a recent Weekly Worker article, “A war with Iran would present a golden opportunity for large-scale expulsion of Palestinians, precisely because (unlike the Iraq invasion of 2003) fighting would not be over too soon, and major protests and disturbances are likely to occur among the masses throughout the region, including the Palestinian Arabs under Israeli rule. What better way to pacify such disturbances than to ‘expel many people’?”3

Two Irans

Of course, the negotiations have shown a different image of the Iranian government. Its ‘moderate’ foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, gave an interview to the BBC, the very organisation accused of being an integral part of British intelligence by various factions of the regime until a couple of weeks ago. During this interview he denied that sanctions had played any role in moderating the nuclear stance of the Islamic Republic – after all, Iran has managed to produce 35,000 centrifuges.

Whatever the truth of this claim, it is certainly the case that some Iranian institutions seem to have been unaffected by sanctions. For example, a Reuters investigation has discovered that a major foundation controlled by ayatollah Khamenei, Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam (literally the Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam), despite running a $95 billion empire, has escaped scot free. The $95 billion refers to official holdings of real estate, corporate stakes and official assets, but in fact the recent revelations do not show all of Setad’s assets and it largely remains a clandestine financial organisation.

The foundation was created in the aftermath of 1979 revolution, selling the expropriated properties abandoned by allies of the ancien régime. However, its more recent wealth comes from the privatisations carried out under former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, making it one of the richest financial groups in the Middle East. It is amazing that Setad, with major interests in Iran’s industrial and financial sector, in petrochemicals, oil and telecommunications, has not been hit by sanctions.

Western governments clearly knew that Setad had gained control of large chunks of the Iranian economy and were aware that it was directly controlled by the supreme leader. Yet for some unknown reason Setad seemed to be exempt from sanctions. In July 2010, the European Union included Mohammad Mokhber, president of Setad, in a list of individuals and entities it was sanctioning for alleged involvement in “nuclear or ballistic missiles activities”. But two years later, it mysteriously removed him.

This summer, as another 37 companies were added to the list of companies facing sanctions, treasury officials reminded the US Senate committee overseeing them that Setad was under the direct control of the supreme leader, yet the US decided to exempt it from sanctions. During recent revelations, when Reuters asked officials to explain the rationale behind this decision, they replied that they did not want to be accused of “attempts to topple the government”.

The Reuters exposé confirms what we in Hands Off the People of Iran and other opponents of sanctions have always said: the Iranian people are the real victims. Sanctions, heralded as ‘targeted’ and ‘intelligent’, have had little effect on the nuclear programme – and certainly not on the accumulation of wealth by Islamic foundations controlled or owned by senior clerics.

Meanwhile millions of Iranians are suffering because of the unavailability of essential medication. Although drugs are not on the sanctions lists, restrictions on Iranian banks and financial institutions have produced such a drastic devaluation of the currency that Iranian pharmacies and hospitals have not been able to buy western medication for years. As stocks have run out, patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes, thyroid malfunction and asthma have developed major complications or even died, having been forced to reduce the dosage of the drugs they need or use cheaper equivalents made in Asia or Africa. Thousands of cancer patients have died in the absence of medication that saves patients’ lives daily in the rest of the world.

Operating theatres have been making do with faulty devices, because some types of surgical equipment have been deemed to be ‘dual use’ (ie, having a potentially military purpose), and this has caused fatalities, according to medics in Tehran and other major cities. Iranian babies have become ill as a result of the injection of out-of-date vaccines.

So next time we hear talk of ‘intelligent’ sanctions that will only affect the rulers of this or that country, let us remind them of the horrible consequences of the undeclared war between the west and the reactionary rulers of the Islamic Republic.

Even if the talks due to resume on November 20 end in the signing of an agreement, the three-stage negotiation will take at least another year to complete. In the meantime, most of the existing sanctions will remain in place. Iranians will still die as a result, but the multi-billion dollar institutions under the patronage of the supreme leader will continue to flourish.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. Financial Times November 11.

2. www.timesofisrael.com/israel-will-attack-if-you-sign-the-deal-french-mp-told-fabius.

3. ‘Netanyahu’s war wishWeekly Worker Febru­ary 9 2012.

Iran executions: Brutal signal to opponents

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Iranian Workers: “we don’t want nuclear energy”

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Iran’s Islamic government might be taking a more ‘moderate’ approach regarding nuclear negotiations, but as far as internal repression is concerned its stance is as bad as ever before – as bad as the worst periods of the rule of the last president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In the last week of October alone, Iran’s judicial system ordered the execution by hanging of at least 20 political opponents, all from national minorities (16 Baluchis and four Kurds), and the regime banned the ‘reformist’ daily, Bahar, for publishing an article questioning the historical veracity of events involving the first Shia imam.

The Baluchi separatists were executed in retaliation for an attack by a group of armed men on a border post that took the lives of 14 government soldiers in the south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Meanwhile, in West Azerbaijan province two Kurds who had been sentenced to death following brief trials were executed. But two other Kurdish political prisoners, both serving 30-year prison sentences for opposition to the regime and membership of an illegal organisation, suffered the same fate. The family of one, summoned to collect his body, were told he was executed in the prison’s visitors area.

The brutal hanging of those prisoners carried a deliberate message for all the regime’s opponents. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei might have ‘drunk the poison’ when he made his U-turn as far as international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear facilities are concerned, but he has no intention of tolerating any opposition or dissent. On the contrary, it appears that political prisoners and the opposition in general will be made to pay the price for the failure of the regime’s foreign policy.

Opposition groups have warned that last week’s terror reprisals have all the signs of the type of repression the regime imposed immediately after the end of Iran-Iraq war in 1987. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s version of ‘drinking the poison’ (peace with Iraq) was followed by the execution of tens of thousands of political prisoners, some nearing the end of their jail sentences. Such measures are intended to demonstrate that, just because the Islamic republic has been forced to make foreign policy concessions, that does not mean it is weakening in its attitude to its internal opponents.

A number of leftwing political prisoners in Evin prison have started a hunger strike in protest at this new wave of terror. In September, just before president Hassan Rowhani’s trip to New York, the supreme leader ordered the release of more than 80 ‘prisoners of conscience’. However, only 42, many of them approaching the completion of their prison terms, were freed. Hundreds remain behind bars.

The ‘moderate’ Rowhani has said nothing. It is clear that the new president does not want to jeopardise his relationship with the conservative factions of the regime, and the security forces they control. Of course, we should not forget that while in New York Rowhani spent a considerable amount of time discussing Iran’s economy with the International Monetary Fund and, as the latest ‘economic restructuring programme’ takes shape, control of the working class and the population at large remains high on the government’s agenda.

In another attack on freedom of expression, the authorities shut down Bahar on October 28, five days after the publication of a controversial article that cast doubts on whether the prophet Mohammed had appointed a successor. The newspaper’s punishment was predictable, since the article contradicted one of the fundamental beliefs of Shia Muslims. The head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, warned that any publication taking up an “unacceptable stance” would face suspension or a ban.

This venture into theological history was something of an exception for the ‘reformist’ media, which has been mainly concentrating on the continuing house arrest of the leaders of the green movement. However, the victims of the worst aspects of the regime’s repression are not under house arrest and their families are not allowed regular prison visits. Although no-one can justify the continued house arrest of the ‘reformist’ leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (especially when you consider that Rowhani was supposed to be their ally), for us in Hands Off the People of Iran the urgent task is to save political prisoners whose life is in danger – incarcerated labour activists whose only crime is defending their fellow workers; national and religious minority activists, whose only crime is not to be Shia.

We also need to publicise and support the struggles of thousands of workers who have had the courage to protest outside their factories, outside the Islamic majles (parliament) or in front of provincial offices, demanding payment of their withheld wages; workers at the Qazvin car manufacturing plant, workers in the petro-chemical industries, workers who have demonstrated in their tens of thousands against the drying up of the river Karoun in Khuzestan province.

Not surprisingly Iran’s new-found allies within the ‘international community’ are not condemning this wave of repression and the Iranian organisations tied to (at times dependent on) US and European money are not in a position to do much. As we have said time and time again, UN institutions, and imperialist-funded ‘human rights’ NGOs do not campaign for these imprisoned Iranian workers. If last year they were queuing up to support women’s rights, and to try leaders of the Islamic regime for crimes committed in the past, they are showing no interest in the recent executions up and down the country. That is why we need a different kind of solidarity: workers’ solidarity from trade unionists and labour activists independent of US-sponsored labour organisations and free of any associations with Zionism, Sunni fundamentalists or other reactionary religious or nationalist forces. In this respect we also need to point to the illusions of large sections of the Iranian left in ‘international law’, the United Nations and its institutions.

Our solidarity

All in all, not a good week for Iran’s new government both internally and internationally. However, the question many comrades ask is, what can we in Hopi do?

The answers are neither simple nor straightforward. Our numbers are few and our resources limited. However, we have been able to give a comprehensive analysis of the current nuclear negotiations, explaining the obstacles and the loopholes of the process, and we have continued our adherence to revolutionary principles when it comes to building solidarity with the Iranian working class. As uncertainty and political change have provoked increased protests against the regime, as state repression is stepped up, we need to do a lot more in building support from trade unionists and workers’ organisations, keeping in mind the damage already done by those who have failed to take a clear line on imperialism and indeed global capitalism.

More than ever before, supporters of the Iranian working class must take a principled stance in opposition to imperialist intervention. But campaigns in solidarity with Iranian workers should not be tarnished by association with pro-imperialists, such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations, which have a history of collaboration with successive US administrations.

In the last few weeks during various discussions with labour activists inside and outside Iran, these comrades have expressed their continued concerns about irresponsible attitudes regarding solidarity with Iranian workers. On the one hand, we must do all we can to help incarcerated comrades. On the other hand, at no time can we afford to lower our guard vis-à-vis institutions and organisations associated with US and European powers. It is not an easy task, but we must be aware that anything else endangers the very lives we want to save. So let us concentrate on finding allies amongst activists and organisations that share our concerns about imperialist intervention, who like us understand Iran’s complicated politician landscape.

Support for the Iranian working class must include a call for the immediate, unconditional release of labour activists held in prison. In the current climate their lives are in danger.

These include:

  •   Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, a member of the Committee for the Establishment of Workers’ Organisations in Iran (CEWO), who has served three years of a six-year sentence.
  •   Reza Shahabi, member of the coordinating committee of Vahed bus workers, still in jail for his part in the 2006 strike and for organising workers in this sector. Shahabi is very ill and his condition is deteriorating daily.
  •   Shahrokh Zamani, a Painters Union militant and another CEWO member. He is currently serving an 11-year sentence and has been tortured on a number of occasions. Zamani is held in Rajaei Shahr prison, one of the worst detention centres in Iran, because he is accused of “insulting the leader”, a charge that was added six months into his sentence.
  •   CEWO member Mohammad Jarahi, who was arrested in January 2012. He, like fellow-prisoners, has had a number of serious health issues, but has been refused release on health grounds.
  •   Worker activists Pedram Nasrollahi, Mohammad Mohammadi and Abdolreza Ghanbari are also in prison and their lives are in danger.
  •   In Kurdistan province, in addition to nationalist prisoners, worker activists Vafa Ghaderi, Khaled Hosseini and Ghader Hosseini all face jail sentences and on November 4, hours after the execution of the Kurdish prisoners, Vafa Ghaderi was arrested.

Solidarity with the Iranian working class

The political landscape of the Middle East is an increasingly complicated place.  In this video, Yassamine Mather of Hands Off the People of Iran looks at the conflicting interests that have driven the United States and Iranian governments to seek some form of modus vivendi with each other and the implications this may have both for the wider politics of the region and the respective domestic balance of class forces in these countries.

 

 

Iran: Step up solidarity

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After weeks of speculation about Iran-US relations and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, Iran’s foreign minister and his deputy finally made their initial proposals clear on October 15-16 in closed talks with the ‘P5+1’ countries in Geneva. Those proposals will come in stages, coinciding with a gradual reduction of western sanctions. Despite Iran’s denials it is clear that at some stage during this process Iran will reduce the level of uranium enrichment and may “allow unannounced visits to its nuclear sites as a ‘last step’”.1

Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament who is close to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, had hinted in an interview with CNN that Iran might concede to P5+1 demands for stopping the enrichment of uranium, or at least that Iran is willing to discuss the thorny issue of its ‘surplus’ enriched uranium. However, he seemed to contradict this a few days later with a statement “clarifying that current achievements in the nuclear programme cannot be reversed”, but it looks like Khamenei has swallowed the poison and a variation of the above is part of Iran’s proposal. Larijani was also quoted by Associated Press as saying that Iran has ample enriched uranium to use as a bargaining chip with the west. Later the quote was labelled “false”, “fundamentally inaccurate” and “baseless” by his official office in the majles (parliament).

In early October there were reports that Iran might volunteer to close its Fordo plant. However, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, strongly rejected “western media reports”, adding that the underground uranium enrichment facility is essential to the country’s nuclear programme: “The closure of the Fordo site is a sheer lie.”

Never mind Iranian officials speaking with one voice – it is clear that each voice has two or three opinions! But this apparent disarray is in fact part of the supreme leader’s strategy to claim victory if the talks achieve any reduction in the current level of sanctions, while remaining deeply pessimistic about the discussions. The regime has put all its hopes in an immediate relaxation, at least in terms of the country’s banking and finance systems, as well as the lifting of insurance and shipping restrictions that would allow an increase in the country’s oil exports.

However, given the fact that sanctions have clearly brought about a U-turn in Tehran, it is unlikely that they will be lifted shortly. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US hawks are clearly warning against any relaxation. On October 10, in calls to David Cameron and French president François Hollande, Netanyahu is supposed to have warned that “Only our pressure brought Iran to this point, and only the continuation of that pressure and its strengthening can bring them to dismantle their nuclear programme.”2

The Israeli premier was given a unique opportunity to speak directly to the Iranian people in a long interview with the BBC Persian service on October 3. And he managed to do something that former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never achieved: unite Iranians against the Zionist government. In condescending, arrogant comments that were supposed to mobilise young Iranians in support of the Zionist regime, the Israeli premier told Iranians they “deserve better” than their current government adding the now infamous statement: “I think if the Iranian people had their way, they’d be wearing blue jeans, they’d have western music, they’d have free elections.”3

The response was unprecedented. Social media and the blogosphere was inundated with pictures of Iranians wearing jeans. Thousands of Iranians took to social media to publish photographs of prominent Iranians, including some of the supreme leaders’ closest allies, so attired. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that poking fun at the Israeli prime minister has become a favourite online pastime for Iranians over the last couple of weeks. One presumes his advisers must be eating humble pie.

However, all this has not stopped Netanyahu, nor has it lead to any moderation in his utterances. By October 13, as the prospects of some progress in the Geneva talks loomed, he was comparing himself to Winston Churchill and presenting himself as virtually the sole opponent of ‘appeasement’ of the Iranian ‘fascists’.

U-turns

One has to ask, what brought about Iran’s U-turn? And what happened to the US policy that Iran must be punished?

The Iranian retreat is easier to explain – although, contrary to all the claims of the US and its allies, sanctions have not affected the private fortunes of Iran’s clerical leaders or their immediate relatives. However, it is clear that the country is facing a major economic crisis, leaving its rulers powerless, and the current situation is unsustainable. This week, the central bank announced that the rate of inflation had exceeded 40%: According to its figures, “The cost of food and drink rose by 51%, shoes by 60%, and utilities, water and fuel by 21%. Healthcare was 43% more expensive and transport 45%.”4

Manufacturing is at a standstill. Whereas in the heyday of its growth many had commented that the rise in car output was stunning, today the collapse of the industry is just as marked. This year alone car production is down by 40% and production is 10% of what it was before the latest round of sanctions. Workers in this industry say they go to work even if they are not paid – in the hope that the industry will pick up once sanctions are lifted. The car industry, like aerospace, has been deprived of many essential engineering software packages, which are listed as computing software capable of having ‘dual use’. For example, a package called Abaqus, used extensively in the car and aerospace industries for mesh analysis, allows testing for cracks. But because it could also be used for the same tests to nuclear reactors it cannot be exported to Iran. The same is true of many other industries.

Meanwhile, thousands of workers are not being paid. Last week there were dozens of workers’ protests up and down the country, including at the Kian tyre factory near Tehran, where the slogan was: “Our families are hungry”. In Boroujerd in western Iran more than 1,000 public-service workers in municipal services have not been paid for two months. But, as I have said time and time again, why is a country that claims it has no money to pay its public-sector workers paying billions of dollars for black-market nuclear devices?

If Iran’s apparent agreement to scale down its nuclear programme was predictable, there is a lot of speculation about the reasons for what looks like a softening of the US position. A comrade in Hands Off the People of Iran has offered a possible explanation. Having traditionally relied on Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their Sunni allies, the US might be concerned that these countries have no control over Islamic military groups they finance in the region, Libya and Syria being obvious example of this phenomenon. So the US might be pursuing a twin-track policy of establishing better relations with Shia Iran (a country that has firm control of the Islamist groups associated with it), while maintaining its links with the Sunni states.

In Iran speculation about US inconsistencies dominate sections of the media. The state TV network, Jaam-e-Jam, has gone so far as to quote this writer on its website, when it reproduced part of what I had said on the weekly news/analysis programme of the BBC Persian service.5 (Incidentally it describes the Persian service as a den of spies, part of a Zionist conspiracy and paid for by MI5 on other pages of its website). Inevitably only those sections of the programme where I referred to the US and the effect of sanctions are reported: the rest of the discussion, when I talked about Iran’s ambitions in the region and the regime’s need for crises in order to survive, did not make it onto Jaam-e-Jam’s web pages. This in itself shows the desperation of the Iranian regime – it is not as though it is unaware of my life-long opposition.

And the battle between conservatives and ‘reformists’ has moved up a gear, with foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claiming that false reporting of his comments about president Hassan Rowhani’s visit to New York has caused him so much stress that he was almost paralysed on the eve of the Geneva talks. To prove it, Zarif tweeted a picture of himself lying in bed with backache. But our Twitter-using foreign minister is a firm believer in secrecy. No details of Iran’s presentation in Geneva have been made available to the Iranian people.

The other contentious issue inside Iran is the debate around the slogan, ‘Death to America’. In line with the needs of Rowhani, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani revealed that Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini once commented – in private – that people should abandon the slogan. ‘Death to America’ became popular with both Islamists and their reformist apologists, the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party and the Majority Fedayeen, in 1979 and the early 1980s. In fact the radical left always opposed it, because it is non-political and was deliberately chosen to undermine the left’s anti-imperialist slogans.

According to Rafsanjani, Khomeini had confessed: “I did not agree with the call for anyone’s death during public meetings. For example, in our meetings, ‘Death to Banisadr’ was a popular chant and I told people not to chant it after Friday prayers. There was ‘Death to Bazargan’ and I told them not to say that … As for ‘Death to America’, I said the same thing. I personally am opposed to strong and offensive rhetoric – I do not find it constructive.”6

It was inevitable that Rafsanjani’s comments would raise fierce opposition inside Iran. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that the Iranian people just would not believe that Khomeini did not approve of the slogan. In fact after a week of attacks on him, Rafsanjani decided to backtrack. He said that the republication of one of his interviews in which he had recalled Khomeini’s comments had been a “mistake”.7 Rafsanjani did not, however, deny the truth of what he had said.

Solidarity

What does all this mean for solidarity work? Clearly there is a possibility that some sanctions will be lifted in the next few weeks. This will not change the economic situation much for the majority of Iranians. However, if workers can get back to their jobs, if some of the money owed in salaries is paid, we might see an upsurge in the class struggle. Similarly, if the threat of foreign attack is lifted, we might see student demonstrations against the religious dictatorship once more – in fact we saw a glimpse of such protests this week as Rowhani was addressing students in one of Iran’s main campuses.

Now more than ever Iranian workers, students, women and minority nationalities need international working class solidarity. At a time when all eyes are on Iranian government officials and the prisoners of the green movement, we must redouble our efforts to secure the unconditional, immediate release of all labour activists, for the right of workers to set up their own organisations, and in support of workers’ struggles for the payment of the wages they are owed.

In other words, Hopi’s work has only just started.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24542216.

2. www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.552031.

3. www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=5991.

4. www.irandailybrief.com/2013/10/08/cbi-annual-inflation-rate-exceeded-40/#sthash.qAq1EIfw.dpuf.

5. Iranian state TV: www.jamnews.ir/TextVersionDetail/234097.

6. www.majalla.com/eng/2013/10/article55245894. Abolhassan Banisadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic, while Mehdi Bazargan was the regime’s first prime minister.

7. www.aawsat.net/2013/10/article55319235.

Telephone diplomacy riles Israeli hawks and Iranian conservatives

Last week’s phone conversation between the presidents of the United States and Iran, the first direct talks between the two heads of state in more than 30 years, has been the cause of major controversy amongst conservatives both in the US and the Islamic Republic.

Although both countries have declared a willingness to work together to “break the deadlock” over Iran’s nuclear programme, in hindsight it is easy to understand why Hassan Rowhani avoided a handshake or a ‘casual meeting’ in the corridors of the UN with Barack Obama. He did not have permission for a face-to-face meeting and there is some dispute as to whether or not he had the supreme leader’s blessing even for the now (in)famous phone call. According to Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, supreme leader Ali Khamenei approved of everything he and Rowhani did, and Hossein Naghavi, a ‘reformist’ spokesperson on foreign policy in the majles (parliament), claimed the president had received “the necessary permission from the system” for his telephone diplomacy with Obama. “System” is considered by most commentators to be code for ‘supreme leader’.

Khamenei’s foreign affairs representative was at the airport to welcome back Rowhani – another sign that overall the supreme leader was happy with the outcome. State TV only showed pro-Rowhani demonstrators at the airport, so the Iranian people only found out about the eggs and shoes thrown at the presidential vehicle from the western press and media. Having said that, Khamenei is a complicated character and it is possible that those voicing opposition to Rowhani might also have been prompted by the supreme leader’s office.

Khamenei is making sure that, whatever happens, he will not be blamed if things go wrong. That is why general Mohammad Ali Jafarione, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and a close ally of Khamenei, said on September 30 that the telephone diplomacy was “a tactical mistake”. Probably the same can be said about Hossein Shariatmadari, a notorious rightwinger and editor of the Tehran daily Kayhan. He was derisive: “Mr Rowhani has not achieved anything in New York … the telephone conversation with Mr Obama was the most regretful part and the biggest advantage Iran … gave to the rival.”1

Obama was clearly delighted, calling the week’s negotiations between representatives of the two countries a “unique opportunity” to seal a deal: “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”

But that was before the visit of Binyamin Netanyahu. During a meeting with the Israeli premier the US president assured Israel that a military option on Iran remains on the table. A week is long time in politics, but in terms of US foreign policy it seems to be getting longer by the hour. The reaction from Tehran was swift. Foreign minister Zarif wrote on Twitter: “President Obama should avert contradiction in order to win the confidence of the Iranian people. Flip-flop and contradictory positions will destroy trust and discredit the United States. President Obama’s presumption that Iran has entered negotiations due to his threats and illegal sanctions is an insult to a nation, bullying and wrong.”2 Reacting to Netanyahu’s claims that Iran was building a nuclear bomb, Zarif was quoted as saying: “For 22 years Israel has claimed that Iran’s nuclear programme will reach military capability in six months and they keep repeating the same lie. How many six months is that?”

Of course, Rowhani and Zarif have every reason to be concerned. The conservative factions of the Islamic Republic regime have been very active in the last few days – not just seeing to it that shoes were thrown at the presidential convoy, but preparing a more serious challenge, referred to by former ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami as “threats of the return of terror”. The protests were not spontaneous, said Khatami, but staged. “Their number was few, but their power is plenty” (I assume this is a reference to the serial political murders during his presidency, when secular writers, translators and political activists were assassinated by ‘rogue’ elements of the ministry of intelligence).3

Misconceptions

Clearly both states are keen to press ahead with nuclear negotiations as soon as possible and if Islamic conservatives and hawks in the US are both kept at bay we can expect some progress in that area. However, before anyone gets too excited, let me point to some of the current misconceptions being propagated by both sides:

 

  • The Iran-US conflict is all down to Iran’s nuclear programme. Not true: US sanctions predate the nuclear issue. Iran has long been a US enemy. After all, the country dared rid itself of the shah’s regime, the main ally of the US in the region. Just as bad from a US point of view was the taking of American hostages and support offered by the Islamic Republic to Hezbollah and Syria. The nuclear programme was always an excuse which would allow the US to bring this ‘rogue state’ to heel.
  • US-Iran negotiations have only become possible because Iran persevered with its nuclear programme. This is what supporters of the Islamic Republic, including pro-Rowhani forces, have claimed, but it is completely false. The comparison that comes to mind is that of a customer who takes a hand grenade to a bank in order to discuss his overdraft. It might draw attention in the short term, but it is hardly likely to resolve the problem with the account.
  • Nuclear negotiations will pave the way for better Iran-US relations. Another myth. The US’s Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are already raising further demands: for example, curtailing Iran’s role in the region, starting with Syria, then Iraq and Lebanon.

There is even renewed talk about the islands in the Gulf whose sovereignty is disputed. The United Arab Emirates has called on the UN general assembly to pressure Iran into settling the dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. A spokesman denounced the “continued Iranian occupation”. This is in line with the position of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has declared that the UAE owns the islands (although they are uninhabited, they are strategically important because of their position close to the Strait of Hormuz).

Bargaining

Both the Iranian and the international left have in the past shown considerable confusion regarding the nuclear issue. Deluded western and Middle Eastern ‘anti-imperialist’ supporters of the last Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his crude anti-western rhetoric, went as far as defending the ‘Iranian bomb’.

While others have stopped short of that, there seems to be growing support among sections of the reformist left deluded by nationalist sentiments for “Iran’s right to nuclear technology”. They ask, why shouldn’t Iran want to become a regional power? After all, it is the most important country of the Gulf. Such classless analysis is beyond disdain. I have said before, it is criminal for a country that claims it cannot pay its employees (even before recent sanctions), where many public-sector workers have not been paid for months, where 60% of the population live below the poverty line, to spend billions of dollars every year on dodgy, unreliable, black-market technology to keep its nuclear programme progressing for the sake of ‘national pride’.

The Iranian left’s illusions about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should also be confronted. As Iranian socialist Reza Fiyouzat has written, “This treaty – the biggest international lobby on behalf of the operators of nuclear power plants and military contractors – seems to have completely gone over the heads of those among the western left who, through their positioning vis-à-vis Iran’s regime, support and venerate the NNPT.”4

For the talks to succeed, the US will have to distance itself from Netanyahu’s demands and take a position similar to that of the European Union. The EU is keen to see the back of international sanctions mainly due to its own economic interests. However, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s ‘high representative’ for foreign affairs and security, is taking a conciliatory position regarding talks with Iran planned for October: “I would like to get to Geneva with the best possible atmosphere … and that means, in all sorts of ways, we need to show willingness and good faith to sit down and talk and expect the same in return.”

But the two sides are still a long way apart. The Iranian regime has no intention of closing down any of its plants. It is adamant it will continue to mine, process and enrich uranium up to 20% (a figure that allows a jump to weapons-grade material within a few months).

Israel and American hawks want Iran to: stop all uranium enrichment; remove existing enriched uranium from the country; close the Fordo enrichment plant near Qom; and halt the development of its reactor at Arak, Iran’s plutonium plant. The EU would accept Fordo if Iran allowed regular inspections (so far it has not mentioned the removal of existing nuclear material) and is taking a softer line on Arak.

The Fordo plant is buried deep underground and so cannot be destroyed by conventional means. But for ordinary Iranians it represents a serious danger. Fordo is located on a notorious geological fault line and, of course, is a prime target for bunker-buster air attacks. The possibility of attack or earthquake keep many awake at night. There is no doubt that revolutionaries should call for the immediate closure of this facility – not because of US and Israel demands, but because of the risk it poses to the population.

What about the plant at Arak, again close to Tehran, where an estimated 14 million people live? Arak is a heavy water production and reactor plant. Iran claims it is undertaking research there involving the development of radioisotopes for medical and agricultural purposes. However, the US insists that the plant is used for producing weapons-grade plutonium. The demand for Asrak’s closure or even inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency will be another source of conflict.

Why is 20% enrichment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) important? The fissile uranium used in nuclear weapons usually contains 85% or more of uranium235. However a crude, inefficient weapon can be produced with uranium enriched to just 20%, the minimum for weapons-grade. In that sense Iran’s boasting about 20% enriched uranium contradicts its repeated statement that it would never develop nuclear weapons, as they are anti-Islamic. This will also become a difficult point in any negotiations, as the Islamic Republic is unlikely to agree to reduce either current levels of uranium enrichment or its stockpile of HEU.

The one question that goes unmentioned by all sides is the disposal of nuclear waste – a major problem in highly developed countries, let alone somewhere like Iran. All indications are that the authorities are taking major risks. The Bushehr plant, one of its largest nuclear power plants, uses Russian-made fuel and its radioactive waste is allegedly returned to Russia, travelling thousands of kilometres. There are, however, persistent rumours about it being buried in the central Iranian desert. That would be par for the course. The Islamic regime has proved both unable and unwilling to pay serious attention to basic health and safety issues, whether in the workplace or society at large. Add to this the secrecy and corruption, and no-one in their right mind should trust Tehran to follow the basic safety precautions necessary when it comes to nuclear waste and radiation.

Sanctions

The demonstrators who welcomed Rowhani were not interested in international relations. They were concerned with the economy. What they want to know is how quickly sanctions can be removed, how soon prices will go back down.

Most of the severe sanctions, including those directed against financial institutions, have taken years to be fully implemented. Contrary to what the majority of Iranians believe – and indeed contrary to what the Rowhani government promises – the removal of sanctions will not come about overnight. Some of the UN embargoes imposed on Saddam Hussein following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait are still in place, 22 years after the first Gulf war and 10 years after US occupation of Iraq and the coming to power of another government! This is partly because all the conditions set in the original sanctions, including compensation to Kuwait, have not been met. So you can see why no-one should expect the reduction (never mind the removal) of sanctions against Iran to happen overnight. In addition, the passing of any US legislation to implement such a move would inevitably be hindered, if not prevented, by both Republican and Democrat hawks.

However, European Union institutions have begun to move over a number of new sanctions on Iranian banks and corporations. On September 16 the Luxembourg-based General Court ruled that embargoes against the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) cannot be justified, as there is no evidence of its alleged involvement in nuclear proliferation. The court’s ruling means the removal of “restrictive measures” on all Iranian shipping firms connected to IRISL.

Moreover, the psychological effects of better Iran-US relations are already improving aspects of the economy. Following his own experience of a long trip to the US, Rowhani is promoting the idea of direct flights between Tehran and major US cities. For its part, the US has returned to Tehran a historic treasure, a silver griffin rhyton, which had been seized by customs a decade ago. And after a lot of discussions in Tehran it is very likely that Ayatollah Khamenei’s website will be toned down. Any easing of sanctions will certainly reduce the power of rightwing Mafia-type groups associated with the Revolutionary Guards, who profit enormously from the black market.

None of this is likely to change the daily lives of ordinary Iranians in the near future, however. Manufacturing will take years just to reach pre-sanctions levels – Iran’s car and petrochemical industries have now lost most of their outlets and it will be very difficult to find replacements in the current economic climate.

Having said that, the alternative – continued sanctions and the threat of a military attack – is even worse. Contrary to what ‘left’ supporters of regime change from above keep saying, this level of hardship does not lead to revolutionary opposition. Far from it: poverty saps the energy of workers and deprives them of the ability to engage in class struggles.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2f2cffb6-28e5-11e3-ab62-00144feab7de.html#axzz2gY9lV4RZ.

2. www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/10/01/327020/obama-flipflop-destroys-trust-zarif.

3. www.labournet.net/world/0101/iran01.html.

4. http://dissidentvoice.org/2007/10/an-anti-imperialist-case-against-iran%E2%80%99s-nuclear-program.Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran

Iran: Edging towards a settlement US sanctions appear to have produced results for imperialism

kerry-zarif

As Iranian president Hassan Rowhani addressed the UN general assembly on September 25, there seemed to be no end to the charm offensive unleashed by the new government in Tehran. Following a number of conciliatory articles in US papers1 and a TV interview during which he emphasised Iran’s commitment to “peaceful nuclear development”, the Iranian president arrived in New York, accompanied by Iran’s only Jewish MP – apparently a supporter of the new government.

Two days into the UN’s 68th general assembly, Iran’s foreign minister had already met William Hague, Rowhani had shaken hands with French president François Hollande and it was announced that Iran will take part in negotiations with the ‘five plus one’ countries on September 26, along with US foreign secretary John Kerry. The proposed meeting between Kerry and Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will be the highest-level US-Iran contact for more than 30 years and, according to media reports,2 the UN was buzzing with rumours that there might be a Rowhani-Obama handshake in the corridors of the United Nations.

The ‘accidental’ meeting would not have been the first time the US administration had used the general assembly for communicating with moderate Iranians. According to Bruce Riedel, who was a senior director at the National Security Council and adviser to Bill Clinton on Iran, in September 2000 Clinton instructed aides to arrange a face-to-face encounter with Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami. At the secretary general’s lunch, the two presidents were supposed to be seated not too far from each other so that an ‘accidental’ meeting could be arranged. Thirteen years later, the Americans apparently made very similar efforts.

However, there was no handshake. According to the New York Times, “After two days of discussions between American and Iranian officials about a potential meeting of the leaders, a senior administration official said the Iranian delegation indicated that it would be ‘too complicated’ for Mr Rowhani and Mr Obama to bump into each other.” Rowhani decided he could not attend the lunch organised for heads of states “because alcohol was being served”. The truth is Rowhani can only test supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s tolerance of his ‘diplomacy’ so far and clearly a handshake with Obama would have been too much. However Rowhani did manage a meeting that was just as important – with an unveiled woman, International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde, to discuss “how the partnership with the IMF might be deepened”. At the end of the day, after all the hype, Obama and Rowhani both spoke of improved relations and backed the resumption of nuclear talks.

Of course, we have been here before during the Khatami presidency, when similar gestures were hailed as signs of a thaw in US-Iran relations, yet little came out of it. In fact in an editorial The Guardian drew attention to this, warning that this time the west must not turn its back on diplomacy: “Failure now to create an atmosphere of trust and meaningful dialogue will only boost extremist forces on all sides. The consequences of such a failure will be not only regional, but global.”3

As I wrote last week, Rowhani has less than six months to bring about a resolution of the nuclear issue and an end to sanctions.4 After that he will surely lose the supreme leader’s support for negotiations. Before Rowhani left Tehran, Khamenei gave his blessing to his president’s efforts, speaking of Iran’s “heroic flexibility” and “tactical diplomacy”. Revolutionary Guard leaders echoed the supreme leader’s message.

Clearly sanctions are taking their toll and forcing the Iranian regime to compromise. Ironically, the super-rich clerics who run the country, as well as their immediate families and allies, have been relatively immune from the disastrous consequences of sanctions. However, the majority of Iranians are facing severe hardship caused by food and medical shortages, spiralling prices and the destruction of Iran’s economy – no wonder the country’s religious leaders fear losing power. So Khamenei and his obedient servants in the Revolutionary Guards have been forced to make a U-turn, be it for a limited period – in the words of former supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini, they have accepted that they must “drink the poison” of negotiations.5

Defeat

No-one should be under any illusion: the reality is that a superpower, the US, has defeated a ‘third world’ religious dictatorship by using its economic power. It has stopped Iran’s oil exports, paralysed its banking and financial systems, destroyed an important part of its manufacturing and petrochemical industries. Indeed Iran’s economy is in a worse situation now than during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. So, before anyone starts celebrating the prospects of peace, let me remind you that these negotiations, like the conflict that preceded them, are part of a reactionary process. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, the current hype about a rapprochement in US-Iran relations should be recognised for what it is: tortuous negotiations on the nuclear issue while long-term tensions persist.

In their respective speeches to the UN both Obama and Rowhani made clear references to the history of the last three decades. Obama spoke of Iran’s hostage-taking, of its labelling of the US as the main enemy and of its threats against Israel. Rowhani gave what could be described as a ‘third-worldist nationalist’ speech, complaining about inequality amongst states, and the misconceptions about the ‘civilised’ west and ‘uncivilised’ countries like Iran. So even if nuclear negotiations progress – and that is a big ‘if’ – the conflict will continue.

Throughout the last three decades both sides have fuelled this confrontation: in the case of Iran for internal reasons; and in the case of the US for global reasons – to prove the power of the hegemon. Now, in desperation, a wrecked Iran and a weakened US are looking for a settlement. It will not lead to ‘peace’ in the region. Far from it – it might fuel further conflicts between an enraged Israel and an empowered Iran; or between a Sunni alliance and the Shia/Alawi axis of Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Of course, all this also shows a level of incoherence in the US approach to the Middle East in general. The ousting of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and the coming to power of a Shia government in Baghdad had the inevitable consequence of increasing Iran’s influence in the region. The US’s immediate reaction was to strengthen its allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supporting their interventions in Syria, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards were taking part in the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

But the Israeli lobby and hawks amongst US Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are very concerned. The joke in Tehran is that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the only person on earth who wishes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still Iranian president. According to Benny Avni, writing in the New York Post, “Iranian president Hassan Rowhani will undoubtedly play the well-dressed matinee idol in this year’s UN annual gabfest, which begins Tuesday. But will Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu be the only one to note that this emperor has no clothes?”6 Only hours after Rowhani’s UN appearance, Netanyahu described him as making “a cynical speech full of hypocrisy”.7

Some have argued that the current situation proves ‘sanctions’ have forced Iran to ‘engage in nuclear negotiations’. Nothing could be further from the truth. For all the talk of peace and moderation, Iran’s Islamic regime maintains a commitment to pursue nuclear development – so as far as the nuclear issue is concerned, not much has changed. What is different is the new government’s willingness to negotiate with the US.

Sanctions against Iran date back to 1979 and, contrary to Obama’s claims, they have always been about regime change. In this respect the US has succeeded, in that sanctions forced all candidates in this year’s presidential elections in Iran to take a ‘moderate’ line vis-à-vis US relations. This was as true of the more conservative candidates as it was of the centrist, Rowhani. No wonder Iranian royalists, the Mujahedin and others who hoped to be the main beneficiaries of US regime-change policy are furious with the Obama administration. However, as we in Hands Off the People of Iran have said, the US plan A was always about regime change – and that meant a change in policy, not necessarily a change in personnel.

Clearly Iran hopes that improved relations with the US will result in the lifting of some of the harshest sanctions, allowing the sale of Iranian oil, a gradual reacceptance of Iran’s banks and financial institutions into the world economy, and that in turn these measures will improve the rate of exchange for the Iranian currency. Will this improve life for the Iranian working class? Not very likely.

Working class

As the world media pontificates about the significance of this week’s events in New York, it is worthwhile listening to the words of Labour activist Ali Nejati, a member of the Haft Tapeh sugar workers’ union: “Workers should not be under any illusion that change in the management of the state, within the confines of the existing order and for the purpose of maintaining this order in power, will bring about any change in the economic, political and social situation of the working class, nor does this change represent any move in that direction. It is no secret that our class, despite encompassing the overwhelming majority of the population, plays no role in the country’s politics – as far as the government is concerned, our only role is to produce more, accept lower wages and become cannon fodder.”8

By contrast, Iranian reformists, even when the most radical among them address working class issues (and that in itself is a rare event), consider the class as a minority and they talk of “the necessity of raising the demands of all minorities: women, national minorities and workers”.9

What they fail to realise is that:

  •  the majority of the population of Iran are workers of one kind or another;
  •   this majority, the working class, remains the only force capable not only of freeing itself, but of winning the emancipation of other oppressed sections of the population;
  •   woman and national minorities are themselves divided into antagonistic classes.

So what can the working class do under difficult economic conditions at a time when repression remains as bad as it was in the worst years of the Ahmadinejad period? The reformist left is telling everyone that now is the time for ‘national reconciliation’, to give peace a chance, and the nation has to be united!

Labour activists such as Ali Nejati are absolutely right to combat such ideas. On the contrary, this is precisely the time for workers’ protests – not just over economic demands, but for political freedom and the end of the dictatorship. In Hopi we will do our utmost to support such demands – as long as the forces putting them forward are not tainted by western or Arab funds for regime change from above.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. See, for example, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-19/opinions/42214900_1_violence-world-leaders-hassan-rouhani.

2. www.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/world/middleeast/obama-and-iranian-leader-miss-each-other-diplomatically.html?_r=0.

3. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/23/iran-west-not-turn-back-diplomacy.

4. ‘More than Syria in its sights’, September 19.

5. www.nytimes.com/1988/07/21/us/khomeini-accepts-poison-of-ending-the-war-with-iraq-un-sending-mission.html.

6. http://nypost.com/2013/09/22/will-us-get-suckered-in-by-iran.

7. www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.548957.

8. http://rahekargar.de/browsf.php?cId=1033&Id=487&pgn=

9. Interview with exiled reformist activist Mostfa Khosravi: www.bbc.co.uk/persian/tv/2011/04/000001_ptv_newshour_gel.shtml.