On May 22, the US moved closer to imposing a full trade embargo against Iran, as the Senate reaffirmed US support for Israel – should it be “compelled to attack Tehran’s nuclear programme in self-defence”.
The Senate voted unanimously to adopt a non-binding resolution urging Barack Obama to fully enforce existing economic sanctions against Iran and to “provide diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel “in its defence of its territory, people and existence”.
On the same day the Republican-dominated foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives unanimously approved new proposals for sanctions. If passed into law, these would blacklist all countries or companies that fail to reduce their oil imports from Iran to virtually nil in the next 180 days. In other words, it aims to close off Iran’s main source of income.
All this is happening in the middle of an election farce in Tehran. A day before the Senate resolutions, Iran’s religious supervisory body, the Guardian Council, announced the final list of eight candidates it deemed acceptable to contest the presidential elections on June 14. It did not include either the former president and main hope of the ‘reformists’, Hashemi Rafsanjani, or the outgoing president’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Although the remaining candidates all promise to ‘resolve the nuclear issue’, the US administration has made up its mind: bar a miracle, conflict with Iran, most likely in the form of Israeli air attacks, is now inevitable. Even if one of the remaining centrist or ‘reformist’ candidates gets elected, Washington does not believe such an individual will be strong enough to convince the country’s supreme leader of the need to compromise. By all accounts, Rafsanjani was the only candidate capable of arguing the case for ayatollah Ali Khamenei to ‘drink the poison’ and make a U-turn either on the nuclear programme or on Syria.
Whoever gets elected on June 14, Iranians are resigning themselves to the fact that confrontation with the west will continue, and so crippling sanctions and devastating economic hardship will persist. The supreme leader had promised an ‘epic year’, when massive participation in the elections would prove the nation’s tenacity in confronting the foreign enemy. But the final list of mediocre candidates will make it difficult for even the most hard-line supporters of the regime to muster any enthusiasm.
No-one should underestimate the severity of the current situation. Iran is completely isolated internationally and regionally, while its support for the Syrian government has brought it into direct conflict with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to the usual suspects. Economically the country is bankrupt.
Life is getting excruciatingly hard for most Iranians – even some among the middle classes are finding the price of basic goods beyond their means, and one can only imagine the hardship faced by the increasingly unemployed working class.
When ‘targeted’ sanctions were proposed by the US, its supporters claimed only the rulers of the regime would suffer and ordinary Iranians would hardly notice the effects. Reality could not be further from this pledge. For example, in theory medicines were exempt from sanctions. However, the current rate of exchange means that many are beyond Iran’s means. In addition most pharmaceutical companies have stopped exporting to Iran. The consequence is that Iranians are dying because of acute shortage of medicine and surgical equipment – not to mention dangerous black market fakes and imitations. The US war against Iran has long started.
Now that the TV debates and official campaigning have begun, all the candidates claim they will deal with the country’s economic problems. Speaking at an election conference at the University of Tehran, Ali Akbar Velayati, who is one of the supreme leader’s senior advisors, said if he wins the election he will prioritise the resolution of economic issues.
Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, brags about a new system of “economic federalism”. He will “fight poverty and unemployment” by empowering the provinces to manage their own economy.1 Mohammad Qalibaf, who is appealing to the middle classes and the private sector, is defending “positive competition” and “better integration into the global economy” through “expertise-oriented” economic management.2
Ayatollah Khamenei keeps saying he has no favourite candidate – it must be difficult to choose from amongst all those trusted nominees. The final list of presidential candidates includes not only Velayati, but Haddad Adel, who is Khamenei’s son’s father-in-law, and two of Khamenei’s personal appointees to the Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili and Hassan Rohani. Qalibaf is a former police chief appointed by Khamenei, who is currently mayor of Tehran, while Rezai was the longest serving head of the Revolutionary Guards (1981-97).
All the presidential candidates except one, Jalili (ironically Iran’s main negotiator in the current talks with the 5+1 countries), claim they will resolve the nuclear issue. Jalili, who is said by some to be the supreme leader’s favourite and did his PhD thesis on “the foreign policy of the prophet Muhammad”, is himself a ‘living martyr’ (having lost a leg in the Iran-Iraq war) and his supporters’ slogan is: “No compromise. No submission. Only Jalili.” Clearly Iran’s chief negotiator is a master of diplomatic language, but at least Iranians now know why negotiations are going nowhere.
None of these candidates explain how, in the absence of a political solution and an end to sanctions, they will achieve the promised economic miracles. Iran cannot get payment for the limited oil it sells and the country’s banks have been excluded from the global banking system. Swift, which facilitates the majority of global payments, has disconnected Iranian financial firms from its messaging system. Food prices have gone up by 60% compared to last year, while factories are closing down every day, as transnationals move out of Iran (Peugeot, Saipa and Citroen have all closed down or reduced production); smaller service and spare parts suppliers are going bankrupt and do not pay their workers. The slogan dominating recent workers’ protests sums up the situation: “We are hungry”.
Of course, it would be wrong to blame all Iran’s economic problems on sanctions. For all the promises of moving away from a single-product economy, 34 years after the Islamic regime came into being, Iran remains a rentier state relying solely on oil exports. For many years Bank Markazi, Iran’s central bank, has used all the country’s income from oil exports to prop up the currency, the rial, causing hyperinflation, so it comes as no surprise that the oil embargo, combined with unprecedented increases in food prices, has brought Iran’s economy to its knees.
However, as I mentioned earlier, Iran’s economic problems are completely intertwined with its international political relations and here lies the problem.
Of course any conflict has two sides and there are many reasons why the United States is committed to regime change in Iran: revenge for the overthrow of the shah, the US embassy hostage seizure, punishing a rogue state, the benefits of a rumbling conflict at a time of economic crises.
However, most Iranians, struggling to feed their families, are desperate to see the end of the current conflict and expect more from their ‘negotiators’. In this context it is understandable that sections of the Iranian opposition, mainly amongst the ‘reformist’ left, were tempted by Rafsanjani’s claims that he would start serious negotiations and ‘save the nation’. It is inevitable that sections of the population will ignore calls for a boycott of these elections and vote for Mohammad Aref or Hassan Rohani (the two remaining ‘reformists’). But ‘reformist’ leaders, including Rafsanjani and another former president, Mohammad Khatami, have yet to make up their mind if they will recommend a vote for any of the vetted candidates. They are considering running a poll amongst members/supporters of the green movement on whether they should stage a boycott.
There are a number of issues to consider when coming to that decision. First of all, there is no reason to believe that the US and its western allies would compromise. Supporters of participation would look pretty stupid if air raids or regime-change attempts happened under Aref or Rohani.
The second consideration relates to the left. Surely it would be completely compromised if it recommended voting for one of the above. This does not mean we should fall into the blind alley of always calling for a boycott when there is no working class candidate, irrespective of circumstances. The Bolsheviks debated and indeed participated in electoral processes where the choices were limited and the processes entirely undemocratic. However, choosing from amongst a religious dictator’s close advisors and nominees would certainly bring the left into disrepute.
The deteriorating situation has persuaded sections of the Iranian left to openly support regime change from above. In early May the Canadian government held a two-day ‘global dialogue conference’ at the University of Toronto, where foreign minister John Baird said: “The people of Iran deserve free and fair elections. Not another version of ayatollah Khamenei’s never-ending shell game of presidential puppets. Not the rise of a regressive clerical military dictatorship.”3 Also attending was Iran Tribunal prosecutor Payam Akhavan, who was quoted as saying: “Canada should continue to explore every avenue of assistance to civil society with a view to facilitating non-violent change.”4 Last weekend “republicans, leftists, constitutional monarchists and the green movement”5 joined forces to hold a two-day conference in Stockholm, at the invitation of the Swedish Democratic Party. They decided to form an umbrella organisation: United for Democracy in Iran.
In Hands Off the People of Iran we have always maintained that the Iranian people have to confront simultaneously two enemies: imperialism and their own rulers. Any compromise with either of these camps will tarnish the left and represent a betrayal of the interests of the working class. Adherence to this principle is as important today as it was in 2007, when Hopi was founded.
3. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/10/john-baird-reaches-out-directly-to-iranians-encouraging-them-to-end-clerical-military-dictatorship; http://munkschool.utoronto.ca/blog/gdfi-opening-statement-from-john-baird.