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On Friday June 14, Iranians voted in large numbers for ayatollah Hassan Rowhani, a regime insider who was elected as Iran’s president with 50.71% of the vote. A centrist, not a ‘reformist’, he became the candidate of an unofficial coalition between ‘reformists’ and ‘centrists’ forged three days before the vote, after green leader and former president Mohammad Khatami asked the ‘reformist’ candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw from the elections.
Rowhani won not because of who he is, but as a result of a massive protest vote against the candidates associated with various ‘principlist’ factions of Iran’s Islamic regime. Iranians opted once more to use the electoral system to show their hatred for the conservatives and principlists who have been in power for the last eight years. These groups promised ‘social justice’ and a clampdown on corruption in 2005 and 2009, yet the gap between the rich and the poor is far wider than when they took office and corruption now engulfs every institution of the state. Nor is it surprising that the people blame them for the sanctions and Iran’s disastrous economic position.
This was a vote for the least worst candidate. And in desperation the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is now ready to compromise with the centrist factions of the Islamic regime. Last week former ‘reformist’ president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was not accepted as a candidate this time round, warned that Khamenei must wake up to the realities of Iran’s current situation. Whether because of this, or out of a concern that after a lacklustre electoral campaign turnout would be low, Khamenei intervened forcefully to encourage people to vote. Even those who “do not support the Islamic system” should come out and vote for the sake of the country, he said. That was an historic first – Iran’s top religious leader has never previously addressed opponents of the Islamic Republic in this manner.
In the last week of the campaign Khamenei went out of his way to emphasise that no-one around him knew his personal choice and, as far as he was concerned, all six candidates on the ballot paper were acceptable. Saeed Jalili, and to a certain extent Ali Akbar Velayati, had been touted as the leader’s favourites by their respective campaign offices. Khamenei’s statement meant that no cleric could whisper at a religious meeting or in a mosque that, although this was a ‘free vote’, the supreme leader had a particular candidate in mind. On election day itself, at many voting stations outside Iran in consulates or offices set up by the government, women were allowed to vote without wearing the compulsory headscarf. Even inside the country some women wearing only symbolic head cover rather than a proper hijab were allowed into voting stations.
However, the question on everyone’s mind is if the supreme leader and his close advisors were going to allow a centrist president, why was Rafsanjani barred from standing? One explanation is that he would have presented more of a challenge to the supreme leader, while Rowhani is less of a threat.
Then there is the issue of the vote itself. One thing is clear: the conservatives were so confident that at least one conservative would get into the second round that they refused to rally around a single candidate. Iranians have taught them a lesson and the recriminations have only just started.
Having said that, the way the results were announced by the ministry of interior raised questions. A psephologist or polling statistician would have been seriously concerned. The share of the vote for each candidate remained more or less static from the announcement of the first result in the morning through to the final declaration in the evening. Rowhani was standing at between 50.01% and 50.9%, while the tally for Mohammad Qalibaf in second place hovered between 15.77% and 15.9%. There was a similar standard deviation for the other five candidates.1 Yet the results were declared region by region, some from rural areas, others from cities. It was highly suspicious that there was so little variation – surely the percentage after each announcement should have vacillated far more, especially following the early results. I am sure that if any of the conservatives had won the ‘reformists’ would have accused the ministry of interior of cheating on the basis of these virtually unchanging percentages. That is what they did after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
I asked a reputed mathematician what he thought. “You don’t need to be an expert”, he told me, “to see that such stable figures stink. I have never seen anything like this in real elections. This is very unlikely, since I am pretty certain that the later sample is from a different part of the country, with a different political profile, than the earlier sample. If all the samples, early and late, came from areas with a similar profile, then the figures would be more believable.”
Let me emphasise that I am not saying Rowhani would not have won and that he would not have finished well above the runner-up, Qalibaf, who lost a lot of support after the final pre-election debate. However, a fraction over 50% is very convenient for the supreme leader. This way the country is seen as divided 50-50 between principlists and centrists/‘reformists’, the authorities are happy and the people are ecstatic – indeed there were major celebrations, under the slogan, “We have taken back our vote”. This is a reference to the disputed 2009 elections, when ‘reformist’ Mir-Hossein Moussavi was thought to be well ahead, yet Ahmadinejad was declared the winner.
If this was referendum on the state’s intransigence regarding the nuclear issue and the economic consequences that followed, then there is little doubt that the conservatives lost. Most significantly, demonstrators celebrating in the streets of Tehran and other major cities saw this as a victory against the supreme leader. Slogans ranged from “Death to the dictator” and “Free all political prisoners” to “Bye bye, Ahmadi” and “Martyred brother, martyred sister, we got back your vote”. This was a reference not just to disputed elections of 2009, but to the repression that followed, when hundreds were killed in the streets or in prison.2
These slogans demonstrated a level of maturity. For example, the chant, “Rowhani, we will guide you”, spoke volumes. Large sections of the population do not trust the centrists or ‘reformists’ and, given the little breathing space they have gained, they are expressing the widely held view that factions of the regime are only pro-reform because the population, in its opposition to the entire regime, pushes them in that direction.
This election was a major setback for exile groups of the left and the right who had not expected the regime to be able to assert itself in such a skilful way. Many had pinned their hopes on western funds for regime change, and ‘Marxists’ have been among those who have accepted financial support from the US as well as rightwing governments in Canada and the Netherlands. Clearly, for all their efforts in organising the Iran Tribunal, ‘human rights’ commissions and so on, they seem to have been outmanoeuvred, thanks to a small concession from the supreme leader. Ironically the jubilation following the election of a centrist lacking the imprimatur of the supreme leader is being used to demonstrate the regime’s adaptability.
As I have said time and time again to former comrades deluded by western contributions to their NGOs, for all its talk of ‘human rights’, ‘women’s rights’ and latterly even ‘workers’ rights’, imperialism’s first choice in Iran will always be to reach a solution with the existing regime. If this election has one consequence, it will be a period of renewed ‘negotiations’ and a substantial reduction in regime change funds at least for the next few years, and that in itself is not a bad outcome. On the negative side it is easy to predict how, like Khatami and Rafsanjani, Rowhani will act like the grand old Duke of York, failing to live up to any of his promises, while buying time for the Islamic regime.
Unlike Khatami, Iran’s last ‘reformist’ president, Rowhani is very much an insider of the regime who has held crucial posts since 1979, including membership of the Assembly of Experts (the body which selects and oversees the role of the supreme leader) since 1999, the Expediency Council (the administrative assembly appointed by the supreme leader) since 1991, and the Supreme National Security Council since 1989. Throughout the last 21 years he has also held a semi-academic post as head of the Centre for Strategic Research.
After attending a religious seminary, he studied law at the University of Tehran, continuing his studies later in Glasgow Caledonian University where in 1995 he gained an MPhil (his thesis was entitled ‘The Islamic legislative power with reference to the Iranian experience’), and in 1999 a PhD. In Tehran there are rumours that he speaks English with a Scottish accent – one young blogger has been ending his posts with the phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty”.
Rowhani’s alleged involvement in Irangate during the Iran-Iraq war came about because he was a member of the Supreme Defence Council (1982-88) and deputy commander of the war (1983-85), a close ally of Rafsanjani and already part of a faction later labelled ‘moderates’. During the second term of Khatami’s presidency, Rowhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, so it was no surprise that in an election campaign dominated by foreign policy, sanctions and their effect on the economy, he boasted about his skills as a negotiator. In one TV debate he said: “In my time we held talks with presidents and ministers” – it was Rowhani who invited Jack Straw to visit Iran, for instance. By comparison, his rival, Jalili, was reduced to talking to ‘managers’ and low-ranking officials.
Other candidates pointed out that, for all his desire for accommodation with the US, soon after he and Khatami supported western efforts in the Afghan war the Bush administration labelled Iran one of the axes of evil. During this time he was given the nickname, ‘diplomatic sheikh’, and he wrote his memoirs of the period in a book entitled National security and nuclear diplomacy. He will need all his diplomatic training to deal with the conservative-dominated majles (Islamic parliament) and the supreme leader.
The presidential elections started badly. Iran’s supreme leader had fallen out with his chosen president, Ahmadinejad, in the first months of his second term and had considered abolishing the post of president altogether. However, he was advised against this, as such a move would produce constitutional complications, so Khamenei’s initial reaction was to reduce the importance of the post.
Those who watched with dismay the TV quiz show style of the first round of presidential debates could not help thinking this was a deliberate act to make a mockery of the elections. The first debate between the eight vetted candidates who had been given the nod by the Guardian Council was compared to a kindergarten game. The presidential hopefuls were asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to complicated questions about the economy and foreign policy. Many refused, and the whole thing descended into farce. The second debate was no better and it was only in the last debate, just days before the vote, that candidates were allowed to challenge their opponents directly. Clearly by that time the regime was trying to inject some life into the process and by all accounts Rowhani was the winner of that third TV debate. He opposed the regime’s intransigent stance on its nuclear industry and advocated negotiations to lift sanctions and improve the economy.
At a time of economic hardship and political isolation, slogans such as “Save Iran’s economy” and “Reconciliation with the world” made him a popular figure. Then there was: “I have always been against radicalism. I have always followed moderation”; and “I have never acted as if in a garrison”; and the slightly more obscure: “Centrifuges should spin, but so should industries and people’s livelihoods.”
He was not the only one mocking the approach of Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Jalili, to the 5+1 talks. Velayati, Qalibaf and Rezaii expressed similar views. Following the elections, Rowhani said that the nuclear enrichment programme would continue. However, there were “many ways to build trust” with the west, and it was important for Iran to show that “its activities fall within the framework of international rules”.
Rowhani’s election has been cautiously welcomed by European countries, by the G8 and by most Middle Eastern countries with the exception of Israel. US president Barack Obama summed up the US position on June 18: “We may be able to move forward on a dialogue that allows us to resolve the problems with Iran’s nuclear programme.”
Having said that, any serious negotiation will face major obstacles. To start with, the current US-Iran conflict has two parties, so conciliatory noises from Iran alone will not lead to a resolution. At a time of economic crisis, the continuation of conflict with Iran has political as well as economic benefits for any US administration. Powerful voices in Washington, as well as in the pro-Israeli lobby, still want complete regime change, even a partition of Iran.
In addition there is the issue of Syria. Hours after the results were announced, the Syrian National Coalition called on Rowhani to review Iran’s support for the Assad regime. The “Coalition believes that it is its duty to call on the new president of Iran to rectify the mistakes made by the Iranian leadership.”
Rowhani is unlikely to oblige. Like the rest of the Shia clergy, he considers defending the current Syrian regime and Hezbollah an integral part of Iran’s foreign policy. While warning western powers against intervention, Iran has, of course intervened. Rowhani will face popular opposition over this, however. During Saturday’s celebrations crowds in Tehran and Kermanshah were shouting: “Leave Syria alone – deal with our problems”.
Coincidentally, on June 18, four days after the elections, Iran’s national football team defeated South Korea to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. This prompted further celebrations which quickly turned political in major cities. One of the main slogans was a call for the release of all political prisoners and an end to the house arrest of Moussavi and Karroubi. However, even if we accept claims made by some that Iran’s football win was linked to Rowhani’s victory, he will need to perform bigger miracles to get all Iran’s politician prisoners released.
On hearing the results of Iran’s elections, comrade Mike Macnair commented that after decades of repression and the terrible situation of the last few years, this could have the effect of a “crack in the dam”: ie, a trickle of concessions could lead to a flood. Revolutionary forces in Iran will certainly hope he is right, but the fear is that once more false hope generated by the promises of the centrist-‘reformist’ coalition will actually lengthen the life of the Islamic dictatorship. While there might be some relaxation in the interference of the religious state in the private lives of Iranians, poverty, unemployment, exploitation, the absence of basic workers’ rights, political repression – all look set to continue for the foreseeable future.
We are still a very long way from a resolution of the nuclear conflict and sanctions look likely to continue. Even if they were lifted tomorrow, it would take months, if not years, for the economy to return to some sort of normality. In the meantime, prices remain high and there is a serious shortage of basic foodstuffs and medicines.
The Iranian workers’ and democratic movement will continue to need international working class solidarity and we in Hands Off the People of Iran will do our utmost to show how this can be achieved.
1. All data from Iran’s ministry of information, reported at www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/06/15/309098/rohani-far-ahead-in-poll-results-so-far.
2. www.rahekarge.de 18 June 2013.
Hands Off the People of Iran has consistently identified the workers of Iran as the solid anti-imperialist force in that country, a force that has shown resilience in opoposition to the religious state . This is the section of Iranian society that the anti-war movement in the west must be a partisan of and ally with. This understanding explains why we have been implacably opposed not simply to any military attack on the country, but also the so-called ‘soft war’ option of sanctions: when the working class is distracted daily by the struggle to simply keep body and soul together, its ability to intervene in national politics with its own, radical agenda for democratic change is drastically restricted.
We therefore enthusiastically welcome news from Iran that May Day – international workers’ day – saw workers tenaciously defy military and security forces to organise illegal gathers and protests throughout the country. In Tehran and other major cities, slogans were raised against low pay, unemployment and the non-payment of wages. In an audacious symbolic act, the largest demonstration of all gathered outside the Islamic parliament, the Majles. We send our warm congratulations to all those who participated in these inspiring May 1 actions and re-commit ourselves to aid their struggles, first though mobilising the workers’ movement in this country to take a stand against war and sanctions and, second, through the direct provision of financial and other aid where we can.
The potential power of the workers is not simply recognised by Hopi, however. Increasingly, forces very far from the progressive movement – frustrated by the impotence of political groups such as the reformist Greens – are taking an interest in the class that has been the most persistent and courageous opponent of the Islamic regime.
For instance, the US journal Foreign Policy writes: “As Iran’s economy continues to deteriorate, the labour movement is a key player to watch because of its ability to pressure the Islamic Republic through protests and strikes … And thus far, Iranian labourers have not joined the opposition green movement en masse. But the economic pains caused by the Iranian regime’s mismanagement, corruption and international sanctions have dealt serious blows to worker wages, benefits and job security – enough reason for Iranian labourers to organise and oppose the regime …”. More ominously for today’s theocracy, it goes on to draw a parallel between the repression of today and “the Shah’s treatment of Iranian workers before his overthrow, particularly in the regime’s denial of the right to organize, the quashing of protests and strikes, and its refusal to address worker’s rights.”1
In the UK during the same week, The Economist published an article with the strap: “Though watched and muzzled, independent labour unions are stirring”.2
The new, restive mood amongst the working class coincides with turmoil at the very top of the regime:
* Confusion is rife about who will or will not stand as a candidate in the country’s forthcoming presidential elections and whether the Guardian Council will allow Mohammad Khatami (the last ‘reformist’ president) or Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anointed successor) to participate
* On April 29, the Guardian wrote that according to a unconfirmed report from a source in the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligent unit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been arrested and held for seven hours. This is yet to be confirmed, but what is true is that the man had threatened to release audio tapes proving there was fraud in the 2009 presidential elections. Before he was released, Ahmadinejad was apparently warned to keep silent about matters ‘detrimental’ to the Islamic regime – like presidential vote-rigging, for instance
* Iran’s press and media are dominated by speculation about ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani after he announced he is not ruling himself out as a candidate in the June 14 polls
In this fluid situation, what is the role of activists in solidarity with the workers of Iran? Hands Off the People Iran says we must:
1. Step up our efforts to block any military action against Iran. The regime is already using bellicose posturing from the US and Israel to depict its opponents as a fifth column for western imperialism. An actually military attack would dramatically derail the slow recomposition of the working class movement and give the theocracy a golden opportunity to unite the people around a ‘defence of the nation’ … led by itself, of course
2. Fight to end the form of war that is currently being waged on Iran – sanctions. The main victim of the these is the working class and the resultant poverty and desperate struggle for the basic necessities of life effectively excludes it from the political life of the country. The oil industry and parts of the manufacturing sector are on the verge of a complete shutdown and as a result tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs. Others have not been paid any wages for up to two years, yet they continue going to work so that they can keep their jobs. Workers make ends meet by taking up extra part-time work – anything from driving taxis to selling goods on the pavement.
We say it is our internationalist duty to provide solidarity and material aid to the working people of Iran. Their struggles, though defensive in the main, should be a source of pride for us in the resilience of our class. The key problems are the barriers placed in the way of workers organising as a political force. Given this vacuum, regime change forces of the right – both green ‘reformists’ within the religious state and the US-sponsored ‘republican and royalist’ champions of regime change from above – are now trying to hitch the social power of this section of Iranian society to their stalled reactionary projects.
So far they have had little success. But there is no room for complacency.
LONDON: Britain has blocked efforts by oil major Royal Dutch Shell to settle a $2.3 billion debt it owes Iran by paying in kind with grains or pharmaceuticals, industry sources said.
Shell has been trying for months to find a way to work around international sanctions that prevent it paying in currency for crude it bought from the National Iranian Oil Company before a European Union embargo on Iran that started last July.
The sources said the British government was reluctant to provide relief for the Iranian economy when Western powers are using sanctions to apply financial pressure on Tehran to dismantle its nuclear programme.
“The view is that doesn’t make sense to smooth the way for a payment that helps Iran when government is trying to press Iran to negotiate,” said an industry source.
A government spokesman declined comment on the Shell case but said: “The government fully backs the tough regime of EU sanctions that have been put in place against Iran.”
Talks earlier this month between Iran and six world powers including Britain failed to make progress in resolving a decade-old dispute around Iran’s nuclear progress. Another round of negotiations has been scheduled for May 21.
The industry sources said Shell in February explored with the British government the possibility of asking British pharmaceuticals maker GSK to deliver medicines to Iran in a payment-in-kind deal known as an offset agreement.
GSK said it had not been approached or held any discussions on the matter. Shell declined comment.
In October, the Anglo-Dutch oil company sought permission for an offset agreement that would have seen US agricultural trader Cargill deliver grain to Iran.
Following publication by Reuters, Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans in a letter to parliament acknowledged the proposal, saying: “As in all sanctions regimes there are some carefully defined exceptions applicable for which in certain cases an exemption can be granted by national governments.”
Meetings were held with Cargill but, said the industry sources, the proposal was turned down by the British government. Cargill and Shell both declined comment at the time.
MAINTAINING IRAN RELATIONSHIP
The sources said the oil company wanted to repay its debt to NIOC to maintain cordial relations with Iran, one of the biggest producers in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
“Politics come and go but it’s in the interests of Shell and its shareholders to pay its debts and maintain a relationship with a leading oil producer like Iran,” said one of the sources.
Shell revealed in a March filing to US regulatory authorities that it owed Tehran $2.3 billion and made a net loss of $6 million trading
Iranian oil in 2012.Unlike its rivals, Shell continued trading with Iran under a provision for pre-existing contracts close to the EU’s June 30 deadline before the embargo. The debt is for oil purchased in 2011 and 2012.
Iran’s oil revenues have fallen by about 50 percent since sanctions were imposed last year, and regional economists believe it has been forced to draw on its foreign reserves to help buy essentials like grains.
But with an estimated $100 billion of foreign reserves at the start of 2012, thanks to high oil prices, the Iranian economy is far from collapse.
The International Monetary Fund said last week that while sanctions had frozen Iran out of the international banking system, Tehran was avoiding a balance-of-payments crisis and should emerge from recession in 2014.
Food and medicine are among the humanitarian goods not barred by US and European sanctions but, isolated from international banking, Iran has been forced to pay a premium for grain imports.
Washington has tried to restrict countries like China, India, South Korea and Japan that still buy Iranian oil to paying for shipments by the barter of approved goods – including food and medicine.
US sanctions state that funds used to pay for oil must remain in a bank account in the purchasing country and can be used only for non-sanctioned, bilateral trade between that country and Iran. Any bank that repatriates the money or transfers it to a third country faces a US sanction risk.
Nevertheless, said the industry sources, it appears the British government would rather Iran be obliged to spend foreign reserves or use oil revenues to barter for essential imports than benefit from shipments of humanitarian goods paid for by Shell debt.
ISFAHAN, Iran — Protesters in the Iranian town of Varzaneh clashed with police this week after more than a month of demonstrations against the government’s diversion of water from central Isfahan Province to other regions.
Witnesses used social media to report that dozens were injured in the clashes with authorities and many were arrested.
The protesters say that a pipeline is diverting water from the Zayandehrood River and is leaving their area parched.
The protests reportedly first turned violent on February 27 after demonstrators damaged the pipeline.
“The Labour Representation Committee is an affiliate of Hands Off the People of Iran and I call on others to support its important work. With the war drums beating again in the Middle East and the imperialist pressure on the working people of Iran growing daily, principled international solidarity is vital.
Hopi is at the forefront of that activity and deserves the backing of activists and organisations in our movement”
John McDonnell MP
In Iran, presidential elections are looming, the economy is in freefall, the public hanging of small-time criminals is creating an atmosphere of terror, repression is worsening and workers are protesting throughout the country. There are unconfirmed reports of an explosion at the Fordo uranium enrichment plant and the infighting between factions of the regime is shown live on state-owned TV. Meanwhile, Israel has bombed a military facility in Syria, claiming it is used by Iranian Islamic guards, and civil war is breaking out in Iraq, Iran’s main Shia ally. Finally, the country’s aerospace agency has sent a monkey into space! All in all, as far as Iranians are concerned, it has been an eventful start to 2013.
A combination of sanctions and endemic economic mismanagement has resulted in a constant fall of the country’s currency, the rial. The Iranian press and media blamed “leadership confusion at Iran’s Central Bank”1 for the latest drop in the exchange rate. However, this fall is a continuation of a general trend. According to official statistics, the dollar was worth 33,000 rials on January 20, 36,250 rials on January 23 and 40,000 rials on January 31.2 As late as 2006, the exchange rate was 11,000 rials to the dollar.
Iran is failing to extract and sell sufficient amounts of oil, its major export, and sanctions are really beginning to take their toll, but the political elite are engulfed in a bitter internecine struggle, further eroding confidence in the future of the Shia Republic. The pious leaders of the religious state are busy converting their fortunes, often accumulated through corruption, into foreign currency and there is considerable speculative selling by clerics and high-ranking government officials, who see spiralling inflation devaluing their assets. The government has responded to the latest currency crisis by arresting money traders in Tehran and other major cities, but the reality is that senior ayatollahs and government officials – the main culprits, as far as the flight of capital and savings is concerned – do not use small traders: their currency exchanges are via banks and major corporations.
The governor of Iran’s Central Bank, Mahmoud Bahmani, an ally of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed he was investigating such transactions, when news agencies reported on January 20 that he had “resigned with immediate effect”.3 However, Ahmadinejad refused to accept the resignation and the next day Bahmani was sacked for making improper withdrawals from client accounts.4 All this was part of a major power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the ‘principlist conservatives’, both sides accusing each other of massive corruption. Allah’s first Shia government on earth has turned out to be one the most corrupt.
On February 3, German police arrested an Iranian man carrying a cheque issued by a Venezuelan bank worth €54 million. According to the weekly Bild am Sonntag, he was the former head of Iran’s Central Bank, Tahmasb Mazaheri, who was in charge until 2008.5 Only a few days later, and in retaliation for accusations against his appointees, Ahmadinejad used a live broadcast from the majles (Islamic parliament) to show a video allegedly proving the corruption of his arch-rivals, the four Larijani brothers. The Iranian president was trying to prevent the impeachment of the labour minister, claiming the majles speaker, Ali Larijani, was part of a corrupt clique. Despite the president’s efforts, MPs voted by 192 to 56 to impeach the minister for appointing Saeed Mortazavi, an Ahmadinejad supporter, as head of social security.
Mortazavi is a former prosecutor of the Revolutionary Islamic Courts who had been dismissed in 2009 following accusations of torturing prisoners. In 2010 the Iranian parliament published the findings of an investigation into the death of protestors arrested following the 2009 presidential elections. The report identified Mortazavi as responsible for the death of three political prisoners at Kahrizak detention centre and the abuse of dozens of others. By February 5 Mortazavi was in prison awaiting another trial!
While defending his temporarily rehabilitated ally, the Iranian president played a video which “showed Fazel Larijani, a younger brother of the speaker, negotiating with Mr Mortazavi over a deal to benefit from the sale of companies affiliated to the Social Security Organisation, while also asking for a 600 or 700 sq m villa.”6 Larijani senior accused Ahmadinejad of “immorality”, “mafia” behaviour and plotting to “blackmail critics”.7
The Larijani brothers are considered to be the most loyal political allies of the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and, according to rumour, Khamenei would like to see one of them as the next president. Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani is head of Iran’s judiciary, another brother was deputy foreign secretary and a fourth is a diplomat. Ahmadinejad and his supporters often refer to the Larijanis as the “smuggler brothers”.
This latest infighting between the president and the ‘principlists’ is particularly significant in that it indicates the decline in the authority of the supreme leader. Less than two weeks ago he called on both sides to stop insulting each other “at a time when the nation faces serious external threats”. The fact that his advice was so blatantly ignored by the factions of the regime is in itself an indication of the severity of the current political crisis. Khamenei showed his disapproval of Ahmadinejad’s antics by refusing to send his representative to the airport when the president flew to Cairo.
But the week was only ever going to get worse for Ahmadinejad. On February 5 in Cairo, a shoe was flung at him in a mosque and one of Sunni Islam’s most senior clerics, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, publicly criticised Shia Islam, warning the Iranian president not to interfere in the internal affairs of Sunni states. The “spread of Shi’ism in Sunni lands” must be halted.8
As the rival factions squabble about who has stolen what from state coffers, the Iranian working class is suffering unprecedented hardship. Iran imports most of its basic food items and this weekend the price of chicken rose by 23%, while rice and eggs were 37% and 23% higher than last week. There is no doubt that sanctions are biting hard and hitting workers and the poor. The minister of industry, mines and trade, Mehdi Ghazanfari, said the aim was “to paralyse our economy and to put people under pressure and in distress”.9 In early January, MP Gholam Reza Kateb, a leading member of the national planning and budget committee, admitted the whole economy was in trouble, as oil revenues have fallen around 45% in the last nine months because of western sanctions.10 Last month, Iran was forced to stop selling fuel to a number of airlines because of shortages.
This year, those lucky enough to have a full-time job will earn wages ranging between $240 and $320 a month, yet the official poverty line is set at $800. Many economists believe the recent monthly inflation rate is around 70%. So hyperinflation, mass unemployment and low wages for the employed and underemployed have created conditions where a majority of Iranians live in misery and have great difficulty putting food on the table. Iranian officials claim there has been an unprecedented increase in crime.
A recent report by the Majles Research Commission summarises the devastating situation: production fell by 40% between October 2011 and October 2012, while employment fell by 36% in the same period. The commission was set up to investigate the effects of sanctions and found that 566 industrial and service sector companies had closed down since March 2012. According to the executive secretary of Isfahan’s labour office, “Some employers, thinking that difficulties are short-lived and will be resolved in the near future, did wait for several months before cutting down their labour force. But now the continued chaos and fluctuations mean they have to either shut down their facilities completely or decrease their workforce considerably … the rate of lay-offs in production facilities will increase daily and [become] a worrying trend in the whole society.”11
Such an economic climate allows unscrupulous employers to factor in non-payment of wages as part of their economic calculations. Many Iranian workers have not been paid for months, but in several sectors they have started protesting. In January, factory workers in Saveh resumed their strike demanding back-payment of six months wages. Steel workers also went on strike, but ended their protest after management promised to pay one month of what they were owed. The following day, these workers took their protests to the offices of the local governor. In December, thousands of workers at the Fajr Petrochemical factory in Mahshahr were on strike in protest at the lack of job security. Their banner read: “We are hungry. We haven’t been paid for 22 months.” In the same province, hundreds of miners were facing job losses, as the government failed to pay for coal it had purchased.
The government’s response to the protests has been to increase repression. Labour activists arrested in July 2012 have just been handed long prison sentences, while at least 14 journalists were detained last week after security forces raided four newspapers. Several publications based in Tehran were closed down and the homes of individual journalists were searched, as authorities claimed they were working with spies based in the BBC’s Persian service. Leftwing students have also been arrested in Tabriz, while the January 20 public hanging of two petty criminals in a Tehran park was yet another attempt by the regime to impose an atmosphere of fear. The message is clear: no dissent will be tolerated. We don’t care about basic human rights and we care even less what others think. It has not escaped the attention of Iranians that, whereas the two executed men were guilty of stealing goods worth 70,000 tomans (less than £40), the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, who had stolen millions, was free to leave the country with his €54 million cheque.
As plans for immediate military operations against Iran are put on hold, it is clear that the United States and Israel are relying on disintegration from within, in a country gripped by political infighting and facing economic meltdown. While rightwing opponents of the regime base their hopes on imperialist intervention, amongst all this chaos our solidarity remains with all those fighting for regime change from below – the Iranian working class, student and women activists – and with all those held in prison as a result.
In this respect, there is positive news: Fariborz Raisdana, a Marxist economist who has been held in Evin prison since early summer last year, has been sending out valuable material about the living conditions of imprisoned labour activists. He has set up a political economy study group, apparently very popular with young prisoners, much to the fury of ‘reformist’ politicians who are also being held in Evin.
Meanwhile, another working class prisoner, Shahrokh Zamani, a member of the Council of Representatives of Labour Organisations, has sent an optimistic letter from Gohardasht prison, entitled ‘It is now our turn – the turn of democratic governance and workers councils’. The letter explains how, in the face of a major economic crisis, capitalism has launched an attack on workers throughout the world, and Iran is no exception to this rule. Zamani points out that the Iranian working class should have no illusions about ‘reformists’ within the Islamic regime, nor should it seek alliances with ‘liberals’ outside it. Instead workers should rely on their own strength. He ends his letter with the clarion call: “Workers have no alternative but to unite and organise. Long live the political general strike. Long live the revolution.”
Although it is difficult to share Zamani’s optimism at a time when the Iranian working class is far from being politically and organisationally strong enough to fulfil such wishes, one must admire his courage and determination for issuing such a positive call in the midst of the chaos and despair that grips Iran.
It was amidst all this chaos that Iran’s space agency reported sending a monkey into space. The US and Israel were quick to point out that this represented a worrying extension of Iran’s missile technology: “Any space-launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles.”12
However, on the “darker side of the internet” (to quote the phrase of a certain London professor) users noticed that the photo of the monkey launched into space did not match that of the one returning. Some speculated that the rocket had left Earth, but failed to return, while others suggested that the first monkey must have sought political asylum in outer space. Ironically help came from the ‘great Satan’ in the shape of Harvard academic Jonathan McDowell, who identified the first monkey as one who died “during a failed space mission in 2011”.
Just to add to the tragicomic news coming form Iran, Ahmadinejad proposed on February 4 (the day after his humiliating exit from parliament) that he was willing to “risk his life” and become the first human to be sent into space as part of his country’s space programme.13 Returning again to the darker side of the internet, a Facebook page – ‘In support of sending Ahmadinejad into space’ – got over 1,000 ‘likes’ within minutes of being set up. Users have posted encouraging messages, such as: “We will accompany him to the launch platform. We will even pay for the shuttle’s fuel costs”.
It is mid-summer in an election year, so we should not be surprised by the hawkish statements regarding Iran coming from the US – not just from the Republican contender, Mitt Romney, but also the current US president. However, even when we take into account the timing, some of the statements Romney has just made in Jerusalem are more than worrying – and they have been matched by Barack Obama’s promises to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on the despatch of bunker-buster bombs to the Gulf region.1
According to the Financial Times, in a keynote speech delivered in Jerusalem, Mitt Romney stated that the US has a “moral imperative” to stop Iran – the “most destabilising country in the world” – from developing nuclear weapons.2 Earlier in the day one of Romney’s advisors, Dan Senor, had said: “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision”.3
In March 2012 Obama had criticised the “bluster and big talk” of Republicans candidates about a possible war with Iran: “This is not a game. There is nothing casual about it.”4 However, with the polls suggesting a tight presidential race,5 the US president has himself joined the “bluster and big talk” about Iran, the suggestion that the use of bunker-busters may now be on the agenda representing a real escalation. It is sad reflection of our time that the fate of 75 million Iranians and the possibility of military air raids against Iran’s nuclear facility might be decided by the rise and fall of Obama’s ratings in the polls. Added to this are reports that the United States is sharing with Israel full details of its possible military plans in relation to Iran.6
As far as Iranians are concerned, the war started on July 1, when a combination of new EU and US sanctions came into effect. The result has been large numbers of job losses, long queues for basic food, riots and demonstrations – no wonder Iranians are convinced that the confrontation with the west has entered a new phase. Sanctions cover not just nuclear, missile and military exports to Iran, but also oil, gas and petrochemicals, plus refined petroleum products; shipping in general; and banking and insurance, including transactions with the Central Bank of Iran – its director, Mahmoud Bahmani, commented that sanctions are “no less than a military war”.7
But it does not end there. On July 30, negotiators from the United States Congress and Senate reached an agreement regarding a new round of sanctions. The Senate Banking Committee’s Democratic chairman, Tim Johnson, promised to do all he could to make sure the legislation passed before the August recess: “… unless Iranians come clean on their nuclear programme, end the suppression of their people and stop supporting terrorist activities, they will face deepening international isolation and even greater economic and diplomatic pressure”.8 In addition, on July 31 Obama announced new measures to penalise foreign banks that help Iran sell its oil.9
Clearly the reason for imposing sanctions and preparing for war has changed. It is no longer just about Iran’s nuclear programme. Now the US might go to war because the US has suddenly realised that the country’s rulers suppress the Iranian people and support “terrorist activities”. Iranians have every reason to ask, why now? The Islamic regime has been suppressing its own population since the day it came to power and in the last decade the bulk of the state’s most brutal repression has been directed at workers and labour activists who have campaigned against the religious capitalist state’s implementation of neoliberal economic policies dictated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
As for the regime’s “terrorist activities”, over the last 33 years its main victims have been the Iranian people themselves. However, there is no doubt that many of the US’s current and previous allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, can match Iran in this regard, but so far there have been no ultimatums issued against them.
The nearer we get to the presidential elections, the more we can expect both candidates to emphasise their support for Israel and declare further measures to punish Iran. Contrary to what some commentators are saying, this is not just about gaining more votes from amongst Jewish Americans: a lot more is at stake. In these times of economic crisis the hegemon capitalist power cannot tolerate regimes such as Iran or Syria and, contrary to what the Senate Banking Committee chairman says, the possibility of air raids against Iran would remain even if the country’s clerical dictators came “clean on their nuclear programme, end the suppression of their people and stop supporting terrorist activities”.
Inside Iran, after months of denying or playing down the effects of existing and future sanctions, the regime now admits that the current situation is not sustainable. The price of basic food items has shot up, the country can no longer export oil and the reaction of Iranian leaders over the last few days has only compounded the sense of panic.
As factions of the Islamic state continued blaming each other for the appalling economic conditions, with some now talking of a possible U-turn regarding the nuclear programme, supreme leader Ali Khamenei was forced to intervene. He urged all factions to stop bickering, reminding everyone that the current threat of war has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear programme. Referring to attempts at a rapprochement with the west during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Khamenei commented that such policies had failed in the past.
You know that military confrontation is looming when Iranian leaders call on the people to have more children. Echoing Ruhollah Khomeini’s infamous call to Iranians to defeat Saddam Hussein’s Iraq through population growth so as to create a “20-million-member army”, Khamenei blasted family planning programmes and urged his subjects to reproduce more. Of course, many Iranians would say that in the current economic climate they cannot afford to feed one or two children, never mind a much larger family. Iran’s population growth rate has fallen from 3.9% in 1986 to 1.3%. in 2011.10
US strategy is quite clear: sanctions are putting the reactionary rulers of Iran under severe pressure. The intended consequences are clear too: it is hoped that the pressure will drive Iranian rulers to take forceful countermeasures which the US will use as justification for military action, such as closing the Straits of Hormuz (through which 30 % of the world’s oil flows) or embarking on a terrorist adventure.
Some sections of the left, notably those influenced by US ‘regime-change funds’, claim that sanctions are actually a blessing. The population will be forced by the food shortages, absence of medical equipment and lack of jobs – not to mention the continued repression by the religious state – to rise up against the regime. Leaving aside the callousness of such wishful thinking, there is no direct correlation between the worsening of living conditions and the ability of the people to make revolution. The problem in Iran, as elsewhere, is in the absence of a truly nationwide organised working class movement, and in its absence the crisis could pave the way for the coming to power of the most dubious rightwing forces – or merely the transfer of power from one faction of the Islamic regime to another.
Hands Off the People of Iran activists have been discussing our intervention in the current situation. In counterposition to the disastrous CIA-funded Iran Tribunal, we are investigating the possibility of setting up a workers’ tribunal that will examine in depth both the crimes of the Islamic regime – not least the mass execution of prisoners in the summer of 1988, including aspects the Iran Tribunal is conveniently keeping quiet about – and the devastating effects of the current imperialist sanctions and military threats. This would help publicise not only the life-threatening shortages caused by sanctions, but also the psychological effects of war threats on millions of Iranians already under pressure from a repressive dictatorship.
This is a major project that may be beyond our current capabilities. However, we think such a proposal can gain momentum and in the meantime we plan to hold a symbolic event that will help us to judge how we can advance the possibility of a workers’ tribunal.
With this in mind we will be contacting those involved in the International Endowment for Democracy, such as professor Bertell Ollman, who exposed the pro-imperialist agenda of the National Endowment for Democracy during the war against Iraq. The idea is to bring together all those opposed to the pro-imperialism of the NED amongst US and UK academics, activists and trade unionists to put both the Iranian state and the imperialists in the dock.
We will also seek to work closely with those sections of the Iranian left taking a principled position on the issue of ‘regime-change funds’ – and in particular with those former political prisoners who took such a courageous stance in opposition to the sham Iran Tribunal.
1. ‘US adds 13.6-tonne bunker-buster to arsenal’: www.vancouversun.com/sports/adds+tonne+bunker+buster+arsenal/7005758/story.html.
2. ‘Romney forced to clarify Iran position’: www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c2012f06-d96d-11e1-8529-00144feab49a.html#axzz225sNjQMO.
4. ‘Obama warns of “loose talk” on Iran’: www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e9d579c0-6621-11e1-979e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz225mJnd6J.
5. The Presidential Tracking Poll for Sunday July 29 shows Romney on 47%, with Obama two points behind: www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/obama_administration/daily_presidential_tracking_poll.
6. ‘Panetta: US, Israel united in favour of more Iran sanctions’: http://news.antiwar.com/2012/07/29/panetta-us-israel-united-in-favor-of-more-iran-sanctions.
8. ‘Deal struck to tighten sanctions against Iran’: www.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/world/middleeast/deal-struck-to-tighten-sanctions-against-iran.html
9. ‘Obama announces new sanctions’: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/08/01/uk-iran-usa-obama-idUKBRE87006020120801.
10. ‘Iran urges baby boom’: www.newsday.com/news/world/iran-urges-baby-boom-1.3869460.
Debates about the Iran Tribunal – convened to put the Islamic regime in the dock for its massacre of 5,000-10,000 political prisoners in 1988 – continues to occupy a prominent place in the publications and websites of the Iranian left, both in exile and to a lesser extent inside Iran itself.
In a sense it is true that, given the current situation in Iran – not least the disastrous consequences of what the US calls “comprehensive sanctions” – this is a small, irrelevant issue. After all, this week alone another 400 workers lost their jobs in Iran’s main car manufacturer, Iran Khodro, as a direct consequence of sanctions: Malaysia, under pressure from the US, pulled out of a contract. It is also true that sanctions are not the same as cluster bombs, but their effect on the Iranian working class can be devastating nevertheless.
The first round of the tribunal, which took place last month in London, attracted very little publicity and was indeed an insignificant event. So why is Hands Off the People of Iran devoting so much attention to it? We exposed the fact that it was organised and paid for by the CIA-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy as another way of building up the momentum for a military attack on Iran. Yet some conspiracy theorists are saying that Hopi chose to do so because we are “supporters of the Islamic regime” – or alternatively we are part of a sectarian plot to discredit sections of the Iranian left. Well, to deal with the second accusation first, the leftwing cheerleaders of this tribunal have made a pretty good job of discrediting themselves.
In the week before the tribunal Hopi activists had been approached by a number of Iranian comrades (who no doubt were ignorant of the politics of the tribunal’s backers) asking us to help with publicity in the United Kingdom. We were asked to get involved in translating the proceedings and to encourage John McDonnell MP to support the tribunal. These requests forced us to look into the matter more carefully and indeed every page we turned, every piece of information we came across, made us more wary. So let me make it very clear: we had no hidden agenda. Had the supporters of the Iran Tribunal not tried to engage us in the event, we might not have written about it at all. We might not have been alerted to the highly dubious rightwing forces behind it.
However, once we found out what was going on, to have deliberately kept silent would have been totally unprincipled. Indeed, as I have said before, silence would have been a betrayal of the memory of the comrades who died in the dungeons of the Islamic regime. They would have been revolted by the thought of pro-imperialists making use of their deaths to further the aim of imposing regime change from above.
The issues surrounding this affair have a significance far beyond the question of the Iran Tribunal. We are living through a moment which for the radical left in Iran is comparable to the US embassy takeover of 1981. At that time sections of the ‘left’ argued that, as the regime had moved away from the west’s sphere of influence and was adopting an ‘anti-imperialist’ position, its anti-working class, undemocratic political characteristics should be downplayed, overlooked or even tolerated. Groups such as the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party and sections of the Fourth International abandoned working class independence and joined the bandwagon of pro-regime forces.
The taking of hostages in the embassy – itself an attempt by the new religious state in Iran to divert the ongoing struggles of workers, women and national minorities – marked a clear division between revolution and counterrevolution in the Iranian left. Those who fell behind the ‘imam’s line’, as it was called at the time, ended up spying for the regime, participating in repression and justifying it, all in the name of anti-imperialism; those who opposed the theocracy ended up fighting the regime at a colossal price, often losing their lives as a result of their political activities.
Today, the spectre of war hangs over Iran – indeed a form of war (economic siege) is already being conducted, and the Iranian people are facing mass unemployment and hunger as a result of severe sanctions. The US and its allies are committed to regime change, irrespective of whether Iran makes concessions or ends its nuclear programme. None of this is happening because the Iranian regime is ‘anti-imperialist’, but because the reactionary mullahs ruling Iran have dared to defy the US.
US regime-change policy has relied heavily on corrupting the opposition with offers of funding, and sections of the Iranian left have slowly but surely moved in the direction of excusing such financial aid. With or without the left, we have now arrived at a situation where NGOs, acting as torch-bearers for ‘human rights’ in Iran, are key agents of the US foreign policy apparatus – indeed they have become integral parts of the imperialist regime-change drive. Hence the sudden concern of openly rightwing agencies, neoliberal institutions and Conservative politicians about the execution of political prisoners in Iran in the 1980s (while, of course, failing to mention the leftwing politics of these prisoners).
So the Iran Tribunal is far more significant than it might first appear and the attacks on those of us who refuse to follow this descent of much of the Iranian ‘left’ into total surrender before imperialism, far from deterring us from speaking out, have made us more determined.
Some of its leftwing supporters have sought to justify the acceptance of imperialist aid by comparing it to Lenin agreeing to board a German sealed train for Petrograd in 1917. This is given as an example of the necessity of pragmatism by deluded sections of the left. It goes without saying that the analogy is ridiculous. Lenin did not meekly allow Germany to dictate the anti-tsarist agenda and act as a tool of German imperialism. He got on that train to Finland station in order to help lead a working class revolution, not to further German war aims.
Over the decades the Iranian left has gradually adopted a complacent attitude towards accepting financial aid from rightwing enemies of the Islamic regime. In fact this is a mirror-image of the position of some on the left in the west, who believe that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend. So if the US considers Iran’s Islamic regime an enemy, we must support it. By contrast, for some on the Iranian left for whom the main enemy is Tehran, all kinds of dubious forces who oppose Iran’s Islamic theocracy can be regarded as allies. Both positions are wrong and unprincipled.
During the 1960s when pro-Soviet parties dominated the political scene in Iran and Kurdistan, financial and material support from the USSR was part and parcel of the existence of the left. In the 60s pro-China Maoists could rely on Chinese funding. However, throughout the shah’s time Iranian left groups such as Fedayeen and Peykar tried to avoid compromising their independent political line by refusing the conditional assistance on offer from the USSR and China, relying instead on their own ability to organise, and financing their activities through bank robberies and other illegal operations. In fact the Fedayeen and Peykar were proud of this independence and the discipline it forced on members and cadres of the organisation.
During and immediately after the revolution of 1979, the left gained massive support. Fundraising at meetings of over 500,000 people was not exactly difficult. Those who worked at the first headquarters of the Fedayeen in Tehran remember how difficult it was to keep up with the sums of money ordinary people donated. Repression, of course, forced the left underground and changed all that. While Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority continued to benefit from extensive Soviet aid, the rest of the left had to rely on much more meagre income or what was saved from the heyday of 1979-80.
Later, in the mid-1980s, the question of the safety of cadres forced many organisations to move their central committee and editorial members to Kurdistan, and by late 1980s they were followed by most of the surviving members of these groups. Kurdistan had its own history of nationalist groups relying on funding from one dictator (Saddam Hussein) to fight another (the shah or ayatollah Khomeini) – and vice versa. Jalal Talebani, the post-occupation Iraqi president, was already accepting financial aid from Iran’s Islamic regime, so Iranian Kurds and later the Iranian left used that to justify their acceptance of support and later finance from Saddam.
When I was sent to Kurdistan to help set up a radio station for the Fedayeen Minority, I was shocked when I was told I had to travel via Iraq. Unknown to me, the Fedayeen had limited relations with the Iraqi regime, including the right of passage via Kirkuk to the Iran-Iraq border. As time went on, the assistance became more extensive. First the Fedayeen accepted a house in Kirkuk and later financial support from Baghdad. This at a time when Iran was at war with Iraq and sections of the international left considered the US to be using Iraq as its proxy. Of course, the radical left in Iran maintained that the Iraq-Iran war was a fight between two reactionary regimes and that neither was anti-imperialist.
Yet financial support was accepted from Iraq and this created many problems for the Fedayeen. First of all, it was considered a matter of security, kept secret and divulged only on a ‘need to know’ basis. So, although I travelled via Iraq to get to Iranian Kurdistan, no-one among the hundreds of supporters of the Fedayeen in Europe or the US was aware of this.
On one occasion the student paper Jahan (which was part of my political responsibility) published a cartoon mocking Saddam Hussein. Controlling the political content of the journal (in case younger comrades deviated from the ‘correct political line’) was one of my tasks. On this particular occasion I had been delayed overseas and returned to London the day after the paper had been sent to the printers. The organisation decided that the journal could not be distributed except in Europe and North America. I had the unenviable task of explaining to a bemused editorial group that we could not send the journal to Kurdistan and Iran, as our route was via Baghdad and this would endanger the lives of our militants. The cartoon was removed and we had the ridiculous situation where two versions of the journal were distributed in two parts of the world.
The production team – young comrades who spent countless hours putting together the 68-page monthly – were not told why there were two versions. Some of us broke organisational norms and told them what was what.
However, this incident was only the beginning of the corrupting influence of Iraqi money on the Iranian Fedayeen. It could be said that accepting financial support from Iran’s enemy paved the way for the kind of prostituted approach sections of the left displayed as soon as US regime change funds became available. This, and the understandable hatred of the religious state, have created circumstances where many on the Iranian ‘left’ see nothing wrong in accepting support and direction from the likes of the National Endowment for Democracy, Conservative Party members and the Dutch government.
One should point out, however, that the Islamic regime is so deeply hated by the overwhelming majority in Iran, and its anti-US rhetoric so discredited, that this lends a considerable credence to the west’s propaganda. Eg, ordinary Iranians just switch off when they hear of the latest evil action of the ‘great Satan’.
After 30 years in power the Islamic regime’s ‘anti-imperialism’ has no serious content whatsoever. Here there is a lesson for all those supporting, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: the pro-poor, pro-revolution, anti-Scaf slogans might appear radical, but if they are not accompanied by genuine economic and political change, they are a sure recipe for inoculating the population against all criticisms of the west. Imagine if you were a genuine anti-imperialist with illusions in the MB, what would you think when you saw Mohammed Mursi relaxing with Hillary Clinton and Egypt’s military leaders? Wouldn’t it cause confusion? After a few years, especially once Mursi turns to the repression that any ‘third world’ capitalist state (Islamic or otherwise) finds necessary, might you not end up becoming soft on the US?
Wide sections of ordinary Iranians, including the working class, fail to identify international capital as their enemy. They oppose everything the regime stands for. However, one would assume a radical left that has constantly identified the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as responsible for the Iranian state’s neoliberal economic policies would have no illusions in the National Endowment for Democracy or Tory lawyers fronting the Iran Tribunal.
In defending their unprincipled position, apologists for the tribunal have unleashed personal attacks on those like myself who have opposed this stunt. Yes, it is true, as they say, that I use my English married name. That is because I do not want to increase the dangers faced by members of my family, most of whom still live in Iran and have at times been under pressure because of my opposition to the regime, not to mention my political dossier as a member of the Fedayeen.
It is also true that my maternal family was not working class and that I attended a French private school. But let me respond to such points with an anecdote. Just before the 22nd congress of the Soviet Communist Party Chou En Lai visited Moscow and, as he arrived, Khrushchev told him: “There is a major difference between us – I am from peasant stock and you are from the aristocracy.” Chou said nothing in reply, but on the day he was leaving he turned to Khrushchev and, reminding him of his welcoming comment, said: “You were right about our class origins. However, we also have something in common: we have both betrayed our class.”
I have the same thing in common with those on the Iranian left who see nothing wrong with accepting funds from neoliberal organisations.
As the prospect of failure of the third round of talks between Iran and the 5+1 countries looms, the US-led soft war on Iran has been ratcheted up with the threat of further sanctions and the launching of a powerful computer virus targeting Iran’s nuclear research facilities. The virus has already spread to the commercial sectors, including the oil and banking industries.
According to an article in The New York Times, president Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on Iran’s computer systems at its nuclear enrichment facilities. The plan had originated during the Bush presidency, but its first successful use came with the spreading of the Stuxnet virus two years ago.
The new virus – code-named Sholeh (flame) – is supposed to be 20 times more disruptive to computer systems than Stuxnet. Flame’s main targets are in Iran and so far thousands of government and corporate computers have been affected. The threat from Flame is disguised by the fact that it appears to unsuspecting users as a legitimate Microsoft program.
The reaction of Iran’s ruling circles had been mixed. One faction of the regime claimed that the US and Israel are abusing a grey area in international law – that of Cyber warfare. They demanded that Iran should complain to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Kayhan newspaper, which is associated with supreme leader Ali Khamenei, followed his defiant line, delivered in a speech on June 3: “Any attack by Israel on Iran will blow back on the Jewish state like thunder.”
Last week saw the collapse of the latest round of talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency ahead of the June 18-19 5+1 talks with Iran. The IAEA wanted to visit Iran’s Parchin military base, where Iranian scientists are alleged to have tested explosive triggers for nuclear weapons. Iran denies that it has been conducting such experiments, but it has refused to allow IAEA officials near the site since 2005.
For the Iranian people, failure of the talks means continued sanctions, job losses and financial hardship. Bread prices rose by 20% on June 9 and Iran’s Central Bank has released a chart which shows a steep rise in the price of most basic foodstuffs during the past year. The price of chicken is 57.1% more than last year, and that of red meat has increased 39% (beef has gone up by 48.5%). The price of vegetables by 78.6%.
Iran’s oil sales are down by about 600,000 barrels per day and shipments of Iranian crude are expected to drop further when a European Union oil embargo comes into effect on July 1. Tehran is already estimated to have lost more than $10 billion in oil revenues this year.
Sanctions and malware are not the only weapons being used in the soft war against Iran. The US, Canada and the European Union are allocating considerable sums of money for propaganda against the current regime and for regime change from above.
Various ‘alternative governments’ and campaigns (for human rights, women’s rights and even workers’ rights) are being funded. Several websites, radio and TV stations have come up with proposals for workshops or a tribunal on the regime – fronted by a rainbow of the Iranian opposition, but backed by US/Canadian and EU regime change funds. A number of comrades at the Hands Off the People of Iran conference in April of this year raised the need to name and shame such groups. This article is an attempt to start a debate on the subject.
In the past we had become used to the ‘usual suspects’ being among the beneficiaries of regime change largesse: the Iranian opposition headed by those nouveaux riches Pahlavis, the family of the former shah; liberal bourgeois alternatives, headed nowadays by former supporters of the Islamic regime; and individuals whose fierce support for the market has positioned them in the extreme right of the political spectrum. There are ‘personalities’ such as Mohsen Sazegara (former Islamist politician turned neoliberal ideologue, a darling of both the Bush and Clinton administrations); and groups like the People’s Mujahedin (MEK), rightly compared by Owen Bennett-Jones with the Iraqi National Congress, whose cooperation with the US paved the way for the 2003 invasion.
However, what is new and more worrying is the way in which sections of the left (to be precise, the Stalinist left) attempt to justify acceptance of financial support from US/EU regime change funds. Of course, regime change against Iran has a long history: a lot has been invested in it and it works in mysterious ways.
As we know from our experience in Hopi, political campaigns, publishing journals and bulletins, organising broadcasts, etc all cost money and clearly the weaker, more spineless sections of the Iranian left have been lured by the prospect of regime-change funding. In general the Iranian beneficiaries of regime change funds can be divided into two distinct categories:
1. Those who admit accepting foreign funds: mainly liberal and rightwing forces, such as monarchists, bourgeois republicans, former Revolutionary Guards like Sazegara and former Islamist greens (nowadays social democratic or liberal activists). These groups and individuals may publicise the source of their funding to ‘prove’ their importance, their relevance.
2. Those who receive such funds, but refuse to admit it, mainly because they still would like to masquerade as part of the left. These include sections of the Fedayeen Minority, Kurdish groups such as Komaleh, various splits from what was Iran’s Communist Party and a number of well-meaning, but dubious campaigns.
Those who supply the funds are often keen to unite this spineless ‘left’ into single campaigns alongside rightwing forces keen to brag about the source, and that is why even the most secret donations are eventually exposed. One such example is the International Tribunal for Iran, which manages to unite sections of both the left and right, including those proud of their connections with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (see below).
Hopi activists have been approached a number of times to lend their support to this campaign. In the past our response, in line with Hopi’s aims and objectives, has been: ‘We can only support campaigns against the Iran regime that have a clear policy in opposition to the US-led war drive. Can you give us the assurance we need – for example, by adding a clear statement against war and sanctions?’ This simple request has often been met with silence. In the meantime sections of the Iranian left – mainly comrades formerly associated with the Fedayeen Minority – have traced the funding for this tribunal and denounced its association with regime change from above.
Recent attempts to get Hopi involved in publicising and participating in this event led us to look more closely at the tribunal and its steering committee. Most of what is produced below is from the tribunal’s own website, as well as articles written by comrades involved in campaigns to defend political prisoners in Iran, and ex-members of the Fedayeen Minority. I am particularly grateful to former Fedayeen comrade Homayoun Ivani, who has written extensively on this subject.
Starting in July 1988 and lasting about five months, the systematic execution of political prisoners inside Iranian jails took place. Thousands of supporters of left groups, including the Fedayeen, Peykar, Rahe Kargar and the Tudeh Party of Iran, as well as members of the Mujahedin, were slaughtered.
Leading figures within the Islamic regime, including ayatollahs Hossein Ali Montazeri and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, have admitted that such a massacre took place and many of us who lost comrades during those terrible few months want to hold leaders of the Islamic regime to account for this and other crimes. However, we do not wish to be associated with some of the forces involved in the tribunal. On the contrary, we see their involvement as an insult to the memory of communists and socialists who sacrificed their lives in defence of the Iranian working class.
The original idea behind such a tribunal came from the left and many of us in Workers Left Unity Iran supported something like the Russell Tribunal from the 1960s to investigate the mass murder of political prisoners in Iran. However, one of the of the main contributors to the funding of this tribunal is the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, whose founder, Payam Akhavan, chairs the tribunal’s steering committee. The IHRDC until 2009 received large sums from the US state department’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund.
Akhavan is also associated with Human Rights and Democracy for Iran, known as the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, which, according to its own website, relies on the “generous support of a diverse array of funders”. Approximately 50% of its support comes from US foundations, 34% from European foundations, and 16% from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an NGO funded by the US Congress. The NED was set up in 1983 during Ronald Reagan’s presidency to ‘promote democracy’. It has supported more than 1,000 projects abroad that are ‘working for democratic goals’ in more than 90 countries. Other beneficiaries of the NED’s Iran donations include the Centre for International Private Enterprise, which aims to “raise awareness among Iranians of means in which civil society can pursue reforms that address their economic, social and political problems”.
So who is on the steering committee of the International Tribunal for Iran?
Payam Akhavan himself was a legal advisor to the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague (1994-2000) and has served with the United Nations in Cambodia, East Timor and Guatemala. He has appeared as counsel in leading cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In 2005, he was selected by the World Economic Forum as a “young global leader”. One would have thought all that would be enough for the left to keep well clear of him.
John Cooper QC, chair of the tribunal, has advised the government of Slovakia on human rights policy and the Cambodian regime on war crimes trials. In 2004 he was invited to present a paper on human rights in Beijing by the British Council.
Sir Geoffrey Nice QC has prosecuted several cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. His main claim to fame results from the cases against Dario Kordi? and Goran Jelisi? – both found guilty of war crimes. Both were undoubtedly criminals, but we all know the US/EU agenda regarding these trials.
In summary, the tribunal is yet another example of a potentially worthy cause corrupted by regime change funds. One day the Iranian people themselves will investigate the massacre of the political prisoners in 1988, but no-one on the left should touch the current ‘tribunal’. As Homayoun Ivani has put it, the executions cannot be investigated in a vacuum: the historical background and its occurrence at the end of the cold war should be taken into account. In the tradition of such liberal institutions, there is no mention of the politics of the victims by the organisers. I could not find a single reference on the tribunal’s website to the fact that many were communists.
One of the ‘left’ broadcasters that is publicising the tribunal is Shahrzad News, which is a ‘feminist news agency’ running a Persian and English-language website. Shahrzad was one of 11 organisations to benefit recently from a €15 million EU fund to “improve reporting of human rights issues”, distributed via the Dutch government. Its international solidarity activities include gathering messages of support for the Iranian people from a group of Dutch parliamentarians. These include Liberals and Christian Democrats, not to mention out and out racists.
It is difficult to understand what possessed an organisation, formally of the left and indeed still claiming to be of the left, to broadcast messages of solidarity from MPs whose opposition to the Islamic regime has nothing to do with support for the Iranian people, still less for the Iranian working class, but is driven by nationalistic Islamophobia. The left, and in particular the Iranian left, should steer well clear of such forces.
While some comrades find it difficult to comprehend how sections of the Iranian the left could sink so low as to accept such funding, those of us who remember these individuals’ eagerness to accept Soviet and Iraqi money are not surprised. These are no defenders of the working class: they have no understanding of class politics. For them revolution is the act of a vanguard ‘leading the masses’ at whatever cost: the end justifies the means. Many of us have now witnessed how in reality the dubious means they use can turn out to define the end.
In remembering comrades executed not just in 1988, but throughout the 1980s and later, we should first and foremost remember the ideals and the politics of those who were executed. Many were Marxists, defenders of the Iranian working class, anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists. They would be horrified to discover the kind of funding used to set up a tribunal in their name.
The genuine left in Iran is staying well clear of such temptations. We cannot and will not tarnish the memory of comrades who died so courageously in the dungeons of the Islamic regime.
2. O Bennett-Jones, ‘Terrorists? Us?’: www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n11/owen-bennett-jones/terrorists-us.
6. See ‘Dutch parliamentarians address the Iranian people’: www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4NDuWcmAf0.