Tag Archives: iran

The masses bear the brunt

Yassamine Mather assesses the latest extension of negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 powers

John Kerry: to the deadline and beyond
John Kerry: to the deadline and beyond

On November 24, for the second time in a year, Iran and the 5+1 world powers failed to reach an agreement over Tehran’s nuclear programme, and the deadline for finding a ‘comprehensive’ deal had to be extended yet again.

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Descent into regional chaos, horror and fragmentation

Last week, the leader of the Islamic state (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis) appeared in Friday prayers in Mosul addressing Muslims worldwide. At least this is what his supporters claimed after a week when the organisation had declared the territory under their control a “caliphate”.

On July 3 the Iraqi ministry of interior (not the most reliable source of information) put out a statement maintaining that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (otherwise known as Ibrahim al-Samarrai), the Islamic world’s new caliph, or Amir Almuminin (‘commander of the believers’), successor to prophet Muhammad, had been wounded in an air strike and had been transferred to Syria for medical treatment. Irrespective of whether this was the real Baghdadi or a double (as claimed by Iraqi government forces and the United States), Isis took no chances. According to Mosul residents, the city’s mobile network was closed down, presumably to stop any tracing of the movement of the Isis leader.

The same day the militant Sunni group also issued video footage showing the destruction of dozens of places of worship in Nineveh province in northern Iraq. Shia, Sunni and Christian sites were destroyed, with images placed on social media. In line with Isis’s claim that it is abolishing the arbitrary borders drawn up by Britain and France in 1916, the group symbolically blew up border posts between Syria and Iraq. On July 8 the Al Arabia news agency was reporting the circulation of a new Isis passport in the name of “the State of the Islamic Caliphate”.

The first caliphate, or succession to Islam’s prophet Muhammad, was established in the 7th century, when, according to Sunnis, Abu Bakr succeeded Muhammad as the commander of the believers. Sunni Muslims claim Abu Bakr was chosen by Muhammad in the last few days of his life – the prophet asked him to lead prayers and this indicated his choice of successor. However, according to followers of Shia Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, had been designated his successor and previous caliphs were irrelevant.

The Ottoman emperors (1451-1924) were originally secular conquerors. However, Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1481 claimed caliphal authority and his grandson, Selim I, who conquered and unified more Islamic territories, continued the title as the defender of Islam’s holiest shrines. The collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923 marked the end of the caliphate.

Over the last few centuries small fringe groups have, like Isis, declared their territory to be a caliphate and, of course, Iran’s Islamic Republic portrays itself as the true Islamic state for both Sunnis and Shias, while the Moroccan king calls himself “commander of the faithful”. The specific problem with Isis’s declaration is not just that it has left itself open to accusations of overreaching itself, but that it has put it on a collision course with al Qa’eda. The conflict between the two groups has been in the open for months and in Syria they have taken up arms against each other.

Stalemate

The government of Nouri al-Maleki has rightly been blamed for sectarianism and incompetence and it is certainly largely responsible for creating the political stalemate that paved the way for the current crisis in Iraq. Throughout his two spells as prime minister, the Iraqi leader made no serious effort to reach out to either the Sunnis or the Kurds. On the contrary, Maleki’s ‘counterinsurgency’ policies were aimed at reducing the influence of Sunnis in the state and the military – a policy that created dissatisfaction amongst the Sunni population of the northern provinces. The Iraqi army became dominated by incompetent, unpopular officers whose only quality was loyalty to the Shia prime minister.

Maleki ignored reports of corruption and torture made against his allies in the upper ranks of the military. One general close to the Iraqi premier was implicated in torture; another, already sacked in 2009 for failing to protect Baghdad from terror attacks, was put in charge of defending part of the northern territories and is believed to have been amongst the first deserters. As a result, the military was quickly sapped of morale and cohesion, and the local population lost confidence in the central government.

In the 2010 elections, the more or less non-sectarian, mainly Sunni Iraqiya coalition gained the largest number of parliamentary seats. However, Maleki used the courts to stop it from attempting to form a government. He later used delaying tactics, bringing false accusations of corruption against Sunni rivals to outmanoeuvre opposition politicians and eventually taking power himself. And now, nearly three months after the elections held on April 30 2014, the Iraqi parliament has failed to reach an agreement over nominations for the country’s top posts: president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament.

According to the Iraqi constitution, a new president should be chosen within 30 days of the election of parliamentary speakers and their deputies. Following this process, the new head of state will have two weeks to ask the political party/alliance with the most MPs to nominate a prime minister, whose responsibility it is to form a government. Maleki, who remains the prime minister-designate until August, is responsible for carrying the process through and it is his delaying tactics that are blamed for the current political chaos in Iraq – a stalemate that has paved the way for Isis’s military advances.

The Iraqi prime minister has now acquired some powerful enemies. The United States, Britain and some factions of Iran’s Islamic Republic are looking for an alternative figure. John Kerry, Tony Blair and senator John McCain all agree that Maleki needs to stand down before a unity government can take shape in Baghdad. In late June US deputy secretary of state William Burns discussed Iraq with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in Vienna. US officials claim Iran is sending out conflicting messages over whether it is prepared to support a new Shi’ite prime minister other than Maleki. Both Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Ahmed Chalabi, mentioned as possible replacements, are acceptable to Iran’s government. However, ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has publicly declared his support for Maleki and demanded the US stop interfering in Iraq’s political deliberations.

His views are supported by some commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In fact the Revolutionary Guards are heavily involved in military operations against Isis. For all the denials by Iran’s foreign ministry officials regarding the country’s military intervention in Iraq, there are a number of reports over the last couple of weeks of funerals held for Revolutionary Guards, as well as for Iranian airforce pilots, killed in Iraq and Syria.

Tribal leaders and Sunni politicians in northern Iraq have also been blamed for the crisis. Without the active cooperation or acceptance of locals, Isis would not have been able to capture so many cities. Those Sunni leaders who think they are preparing the ground for an Islamic state have clearly not thought through the implications of being part of an Isis-led ‘rogue state’, with little or no access to oil; a state where self-appointed ‘caliphs’ will interfere forcefully in every aspect of the private and social lives of Iraqi citizens in the cities under its control, irrespective of their religious and cultural background.

Kurdistan

In the midst of this political and military chaos, incompetent, corrupt and deluded Iraqi Kurdish leaders are also hoping to benefit from the situation, and are calling for Kurdish independence. Having secured temporary control of the Kirkuk oil refinery on July 1, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, told the BBC he intends to hold a referendum within months – Iraq was already “effectively partitioned”, he added. No sooner had Barzani spoken than the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, promised cooperation with any new state.

The news of Netanyahu’s support initiated postings on the internet and the social media of the historical background to Israeli-Kurdish relations, including photographs from the 1960s showing Massoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa, embracing the then Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan. In 2004 Israeli officials met with Kurdish political leaders when Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, publicly affirmed good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.1

Soon after the Israeli statement, social-imperialist groups, ranging from the Worker-communist Party of Iran to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Britain, echoed Israel’s position on the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

Iran’s response followed soon after, with a warning to its former allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not to declare independence, since Israel was plotting to divide Iraq. Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted as saying: “Undoubtedly the vigilant Iraqi people will not allow the Zionist regime and enemies of a unified Iraq to carry out their plots and realise their immature fantasies in the region.” Deputy minister for Arab and African affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the US is going for a Ukraine scenario in Iraq.

However, before anyone gets too excited about an ‘independent Kurdistan’ (limited to Kurdish territory in Iraq, of course), let me remind them that the biggest obstacle to such a plan will be economic considerations. Barzani clearly hopes to benefit from oil revenues generated from areas under his control, but the Kurdish authorities are currently in dispute with the central government and Baghdad is withholding payment of the share of the national budget allocated to the Kurdish regional government. Any serious attempts at separation will reduce the chances of the Kurdish authorities obtaining sufficient funds for economic survival. Moreover, the territory is landlocked, and the ‘independence’ plan is based on the income gained from the export of oil resources through Turkey. This will depend on the outcome of lengthy negotiations with Ankara. In other words, the new Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic survival will be in the hands of Ankara (not exactly the Kurds’ best friend) instead of Baghdad. Turkey’s support for such a state will no doubt include plans to control and silence aspirations for independence in Turkish Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, exaggerated stories about the role of KDP pishmargehs in fighting Isis in northern Iraq do not match reports from the region. Barzani’s initial order to his pishmargehs was to avoid conflict with Isis. It is the PKK and Pejhak guerrillas who have been taking the lead against Isis advances in Kurdish territory in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Barzani and his supporters should be well aware that Isis’s ambitions go far beyond defeating the Shia government in Baghdad. It is violently opposed to semi-secular Iraqi Kurdistan, where there is no state-imposed sexual segregation, where some women dare go out without a headscarf, where alcohol is openly sold and consumed …

There is also the question of Sunni Arabs living in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are fiercely nationalistic and will oppose any talk of independence. Iraqi Turkmen in and around Kirkuk are also unhappy about Barzani’s proposal and are threatening to unite against the Kurdish regional government’s attempts to fully integrate Kirkuk into the region.

No-one should take Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in the Iranian and the British left seriously when they talk of the “birth of a new Kurdish nation” in Iraq. Any unilateral attempt at declaring the current Kurdish region independent would unleash civil war.

Stability

For all the hype about Isis’s military gains in the last few weeks, we should remember that last time jihadists, in the shape of al Qa’eda forces led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, controlled a large chunk of northern Iraq, they did not keep hold of it for long, because their brutality alienated the majority of the local population and they also managed to alienate the Sunni tribes who had backed them. Reports from Iraq imply the new ‘caliph’ has not learned any lessons from the previous occasion. No wonder al Qa’eda has distanced itself from its former ally.

Having said that, clearly the unpopular Maleki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, does not believe he can stop Isis without huge support – and in the case of Iraq almost everyone is now involved: Russian jets, Iranian planes and ground forces, as well as US drones.

Although the governments in Iran and Iraq have publicly accused Saudi Arabia of funding the jihadi movement, the Saudis, together with Jordan and Morocco, are now concerned that it could endanger their own rule. In the case of Saudi Arabia there is clearly a feeling that the monster it has created is out of control. Nothing else would explain the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with talk of a possible visit by the chairman of Iran’s expediency council, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, to Riyadh.

On July 5 Rafsanjani proposed the following: “To fight extremism … a collective effort should be made by all Muslim countries, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, in order to prevent a perception that Islamic nations and governments depend on foreign powers to maintain their stability and security.”2

Once again it is clear that, far from securing ‘democracy and prosperity’, the ‘war on terror’ unleashed by Bush and Blair has created such chaos that the two most reactionary countries in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – could soon be widely seen as forces of moderation and “stability”.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. The Guardian June 21.

2. www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/07/06/370099/iran-ksa-must-unite-against-extremism.

Iran: Arrogance and the supreme leader

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The sharp improvement in the relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic (and subsequently between the United Kingdom and Iran) has been remarkable – Washington is seriously considering military cooperation with Iran over the civil war in Iraq.

Above all else, this is a reflection of the absence of any strategy by the western powers. All they are pursuing in the Middle East is short-term aims – a situation that goes beyond the politics of the current holders of power in Washington and London. Indeed there is unanimity regarding current tactics between Democrats and Republicans, as well as between Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

In 2003, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, the US claimed it would build democracy on the ruins of the Ba’athist regime – we were told that market forces would create the conditions for democracy. No other solution could be contemplated: the entire infrastructure, economic and political, together with the social fabric of the Ba’athist state, had to be destroyed to allow this new system to flourish. During subsequent years both Republican and Democrat politicians have proposed similar solutions for Syria and Iran.

Yet, more than a decade after the invasion of Iraq, we are witnessing a complete U-turn: a softening of attitudes towards Iran, an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria. Has anything changed in Iran or indeed in Syria to warrant this change of heart? The answer is clearly no. What has changed are immediate geopolitical priorities – the elevation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) to the position of the main enemy and the US need to ally with anyone as long as they oppose this group of jihadists.

Political commentators used to mock Kurdish organisations in Iranand Iraq for their shallow politics, for aligning themselves with the enemy of their enemy, irrespective of the consequence of such politics. Throughout the last five decades Iraqi Kurds have relied on Iranian support for fighting successive Iraqi governments and Iranian Kurds had, until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, relied on financial and logistic support from the government in Baghdad. Yet today we seem to be witnessing a superpower, the United States, following the same type of politics in the region.

A lot has been written about Isis and its religious ideas – the forced wearing of the hijab, the attacks on Christian communities in Syria, the banning of alcohol. Of course, in opposition all Islamic groups, Sunni and Shia, are puritanical, following the rules of amr bil maroof and nahi anil munkar (‘guidance for good’ and ‘forbidding evil’). It is when they come to power, as they did in Iran more than 35 years ago, that the population finds out they can be as corrupt and hypocritical as the secular states they replace. So, as Isis brands Shia Muslims ‘apostates’ who have brought Islam into disrepute, it is worth examining the position of religion in Iran – America’s best friend in the region.

Guided to heaven?

In the final stages of negotiations with the P5+1 powers over Iran’s nuclear programme, a serious row has broken out between president Hassan Rowhani and a number of conservative clerics about the role of the Islamic Republic in ‘guiding’ its citizens to heaven. The row is potentially serious, as it questions the very essence of the Shia state at a time of regional conflict and economic crises.

For more than 35 years the religious state in Iran has interfered in every aspect of the private and public life of its citizens. Iranians are regularly told what they can and cannot wear, what they can and cannot eat or drink, the kind of music that is suitable and the kind that provokes punishment. Senior clerics tell Iranians how many children they should have – a number that changes according to the state’s current needs. For example, at times of war and conflict Iranians are told they should have as many children as possible – the current desired number per family is 14, according to the supreme leader, ayatollah Ruhollah Khamenei. The clerics also tell Iranians when they must accept that the lives of their offspring must be sacrificed to ‘save Islam’. This was the message at Friday prayers during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. But in the immediate post-war period the recommendation was for only one or two children per family because of the general economic hardship. That policy dominated the post-war period – up until the recent calls by the supreme leader to increase the birth rate once again.

However, despite all the efforts of the religious state, the regime’s supporters and its opponents are united in their assessment of these policies: they have not worked. Iranian women, especially the young, do not like wearing the hijab. Every time the regime tries to impose harsher regulations, women of all ages, but once again especially the young, rebel by lifting their headscarves a few centimetres above their fringe.

The country has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world. According to a report in the conservative Etemaad newspaper, as many as 200,000 Iranians, mostly women, go to cosmetic surgeons each year.1 Both the clerical hierarchy and the state are well aware that sharia laws on the hijab, the ban on mixed gatherings, drinking alcohol, homosexuality, playing pop music … are broken every second of every day. Hence the dual lives of most Iranians – apparently observant of Islamic rules in public, but in reality ‘decadent’ (according to Shia clerics) in private. This has resulted in a situation where three decades after the coming to power of the first Shia Islamic state, lying is the norm for most Iranians.

As part of maintaining this facade of religious observance, conservative clerics in the judiciary constantly try to restrict the use of the internet. On the other hand, Rowhani and his foreign ministers use social media pages and appear on Facebook and Twitter. The use of social media has become a serious matter in recent weeks – a Facebook page with pictures of Iranian women wearing no headscarf in public places inside Iran went viral. The page, entitled Stealthy freedom, was started by an exiled journalist to support the right for individual women to choose or reject the hijab. It got half a million ‘likes’ in less than three weeks. Women in Iran have used it to post photos of themselves or friends after ‘stealthily’ taking their hijabs off in public. They have even dared remove headscarves in places of historic and religious significance. It is illegal for any woman to leave the house without wearing a headscarf and the current activities on social media are considered part of a civil disobedience campaign. As the campaign gained momentum, both opponents and supporters of the forced hijab have entered the debate.

On May 24 Rowhani used a speech to call for less intervention in people’s private lives, as well as more respect for the rights of individual Iranian citizens. “Let people live their lives in peace. Do not interfere so much in people’s lives even if you think you are being sympathetic … Let people choose their own path to heaven. We cannot send people to heaven by force or by using the lash.”2

Most Iranians know that the punishment commonly carried out by Revolutionary Guards for citizens caught drinking, partying, wearing a ‘bad hijab’ or for attending mixed-sex gatherings is flogging. However, if you are rich you can pay for someone else to take the punishment or bribe officials to avoid the lash. All this making a mockery of sharia rules. Rowhani’s comments therefore represented both an admission of the reality of life in Shia Iran and a questioning of the role of the state in leading “people to heaven”.

The ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan called the president’s comments “questionable”. But by the end of the month senior clerics were more open in their criticism. On May 20, ayatollah Ahmad Khatami used a sermon to reaffirm the state’s duty: “The mission is to smooth the path to heaven; therefore the government is duty-bound to pave the way … We have to protect our Islamic system; we do not want to send anyone to heaven by force, but, with your statements, do not straighten the path to hell for anyone.” In Mashhad, ayatollah Sadegh Alamolhoda also spoke against Rowhani: “We will stand against all those preventing people from reaching heaven with all our force, not only with a whip.”3

On May 31 the Iranian president hit back. In a speech full of sarcasm he said: “Some people have nothing better to do. They have no work, no profession. They are delusional, incessantly worried about people’s religion and the afterlife. They know neither what religion is nor the afterlife, but they’re always worried.”4 Continuing his comments on this subject, Rowhani referred to a story of his time as a seminary student in Qom: “There were two great events in Qom during those years. One was the bath becoming a shower – a tragic event in the minds of some – and the other was when they wanted to change the time, winter and summer hours. They said that this was to ‘eliminate religion’. They said, ‘How will we know noon prayers?’ Well, how did we know until then? We used to pray at 12.15, now we pray at 1.15.”

Rowhani went on: “A religious government is a very good thing, but a governmental religion? I don’t know: we need to discuss that. We must not give religion to the administration. Religion should be in the hands of the experts themselves: the clerics, the seminaries, the specialists. It is they who have to propagate religion, while the administration must support them, help them – all of this is right.”

While this is still a long way from the call for the separation of state and religion, it is an historic comment in the context of a cleric who holds the second highest position in the country.

Delusions

So how can we explain these dramatic statements at a time when the Iranian government’s attention should be focused on the nuclear negotiations?

In some ways the two issues are related. The president is well aware that the current round of negotiations is not going as smoothly as expected. Despite Iran’s concessions, it is still not clear if the nuclear deal with the 5+1 powers will be signed before the deadline of July 20. Ayatollah Khamenei gave him six months to complete the nuclear negotiations. That time period is about to come to an end. Rowhani is already facing a rebellion by conservative elements amongst the security forces and the basij (Islamic militia), so he is trying to build support amongst the overwhelming majority of the population who do want more personal freedom, less intervention in their private lives and who hate the forces of amr bil maroof and nahi anil munkar, Hezbollah and the rest of the god squad. Rowhani has nothing to lose. If the nuclear negotiations fail he will risk losing power and under those circumstances he could at least rely on the support of sections of the population. On the other hand, if he actually managed to strike a deal, however disadvantageous for Iran, he would win wide support amongst women and the youth – support he would need to confront the conservative and pro-nuclear lobby.

The Iranian president is not the only one facing problems. Iran’s supreme leader is trying to explain the contradiction between current economic pressures on the country caused by sanctions and his delusions about ‘national sovereignty and political independence’ in the era of global capital.

Two weeks ago Khamenei talked once more of “arrogant powers” when referring to the US and its allies. Of course, the supreme leader is right when he says western powers are not against Iran’s nuclear programme, but against the Islamic Republic in principle. However, he shows a level of self-deception when he says, “They were ruling the region without any worries. They had full control over a country like Iran, with its rich resources and numerous facilities … But now they have been deprived of all these things.”5

Well, not quite. Even if the US and its allies have lost friends in the region, as they did when the shah of Iran fell in 1979, they are not too concerned, because they exercise control over the financial and banking institutions. They also managed to bring oil-producing Iran to its knees. For all the talk of standing up to “arrogant powers”, Iran’s economy remains very much dependent. It is fully integrated into the system of international capital and can never gain full economic independence.

However, Khamenei’s recent utterances against the US, at a time when he might be considering an historic alliance over Iraq, show a different side of a ruler whose political history is unfamiliar to many outside Iran. For those of us who know of his close association with secular and leftwing forces in the 1960s and early 70s, his references to “justice, independence and self-sufficiency” sound like the delusions of an old third worldist.

Khamenei’s past

Ali Khamenei was born in Mashhad in north-east Iran in 1939 to a religious family. His father, of Turkish Azeri origin, was an Islamic scholar and Khamenei followed in his footsteps and became a seminary student in Qom. He attended religious school between 1958 and 1964. Both during this period and later, when he joined the opposition to the shah, the young cleric was associated with not only religious, but also secular and even leftwing, intellectuals. The foundations of his politics go back to that era – opposition to the regime in Iran and indeed opposition to the US from a third-worldist position.Both in Mashhad and later in Tehran, Khamenei attended underground circles that included some of Iran’s best known leftwing writers and intellectuals. The pioneer free-verse poet, Mehdi Akhavan Sales, was a close friend.

His political views were in particular influenced by the coup d’etat against the regime of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. He recollected those times in an address to university students in Tehran:

It is interesting to realise that America overthrew his government even though Mossadegh had shown no animosity toward them. He had stood up to the British and trusted the Americans. He had hoped that the Americans would help him; he had friendly relations with them, he expressed an interest in them, perhaps he expressed humility toward them. And still the Americans overthrew such a government. It was not as if the government in power in Tehran had been anti-American. No, it had been friendly towards them. But the interests of Arrogance [Khamenei’s term for the US] required that the Americans ally with the British. They gathered money and brought it here and did their job. Then, when they brought their coup into fruition and had returned the shah, who had fled, they had the run of the country.6

At the time Khamenei agreed with writers such as Dariush Ashuri, who famously said, “The third world is composed of the poor and colonised nations, which are at the same time revolutionary.”7 His criticisms of western liberal democracy derive more from third-worldism than his religious studies in Qom. While many of his ideas have changed, he remains of the opinion that the primary concern for the US is to bring about regime change either through ensuring the ascendancy of ‘reformists’ or via total destruction.

This is what he said in 1987, speaking to UN general assembly when he was Iran’s president:

The history of our nation is in a black, bitter and bloody chapter, mixed with varieties of hostility and spite from the American regime, culpable in 25 years of support for the Pahlavi dictatorship, with all the crimes it committed against our people. The looting of this nation’s wealth with the shah’s help; the intense confrontation with the revolution during the last months of the shah’s regime; its encouragement in crushing the demonstrations of millions of people; its sabotage of the revolution through various means in the first years of its victory; the American embassy in Tehran’s provocative contacts with counterrevolutionary elements; the aid to coup plotters and terrorist and counterrevolutionary elements outside the country; the blockading of Iranian cash and property and refusal to transfer goods whose payment had long been received or assets that the shah had taken from the national wealth and deposited in his own name in American banks; the striving to enforce an economic embargo and the creation of a united western front against our nation; the open and effective support of Iraq in its war against us; and, finally, an irrational, thuggish invasion of the Persian Gulf that seriously threatened the region’s security and tranquillity – all this is only part of our nation’s indictment against the regime in the United States of America.8

So Khamenei’s sermons about the evils of the west might be full of religious phrases, but they have roots that go back to the 1950s. That is why it would be a mistake to think that he is simply anti-Christian or anti-western. He has often praised aspects of western culture, literature, science and music. He rejects the idea that the Quran has answers to all the world’s problems. He certainly has a more sophisticated view of western culture than many of his followers, describing it as “a combination of beautiful and ugly things”.

An avid reader, he has been known to discuss classical literature with visitors. Apparently in 1996 he told an audience of Iranian writers to “read the famous book The grapes of wrath, written by John Steinbeck … and see what it says about the situation of the left and how the capitalists of the so-called centre of democracy treated them.” His favourite book is said to be Victor Hugo’s Les misérables. In 2004 he praised it is as a “miracle in the world of novel writing.” It is “a book of history, a book of criticism, a divine book, a book of love and feeling.”9

Anti-communist

However, for all this western cultural influence, at the end of the day his politics are very much nationalist and Islamic. Khamenei’s opposition to ‘Arrogance’ was influenced by nationalist writers such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad and liberal religious intellectuals like Ali Shariati. He is known to have studied the writings of the Sunni scholar and theorist of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Jamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.

As the debate in Iran between Islamists and Marxists raged in the 1970s, Khamenei was closer to the opinions of Qutb, who wrote of the western powers:

They need Islam to fight against communism in the Middle East and the Islamic countries of Asia and Africa … Of course, the Islam that America and the western imperialists and their allies in the Middle East want is not the same Islam that fights imperialism and struggles against absolutism; rather, it is that Islam that struggles against the communists. Thus, they do not want the Islam that rules and definitely do not want an Islamic government, since when Islam rules it sets up another ummah [Islamic community] and teaches the nations that it is obligatory to become strong, and that rejecting imperialism is a necessity, and that the communists, too, are like the imperialist pests, and that both are enemies …10

Indeed it is the anti-communist aspect of the Qutb doctrine that has dominated Khamenei’s politics since his rise to power. A trend that intensified after he became supreme leader.

In his youth Khamenei moved in the same opposition circles as founding members of the Fedayeen Khalq, as well as leftwing poets such as Shafiee Kadkani. There are reliable reports of Khamenei’s time as a political prisoner under the shah when he was being interrogated about, amongst others, Marxists activists. By all account he refused to cooperate with the authorities. Others have recalled Khamenei’s admiration for the young guerrilla leader, Massoud Ahmadzadeh.11

Recently a journalist asked me what I thought Ahmadzadeh would say about Iran’s supreme leader. I have no crystal ball, but after the execution of thousands of communists in the hands of the Islamic regime the answer is not difficult: Ahmadzadeh would be as committed to the overthrow of this dictator as he was committed to the overthrow of the shah’s regime. The reality is that the world will not remember the Ali Khamenei who as a young seminary student wrote a book entitled For a classless tohidi [single god] society. The lasting image of him will be that of a theocratic ruler who presides over a neoliberal capitalist economy, where the gap between rich and poor is wider than in most countries, where corruption is institutionalised, where the overwhelming majority of the population dare not express a political point of view, and constantly lie to conceal their unIslamic behaviour from the religious police.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/iran/130301/iran-has-highest-rates-nose-jobs-world.

2. http://en.trend.az/regions/iran/2277906.html.

3. www.pinfofeed.com/article/26176/in-iran-a-dispute-over-heaven.

4. http://freethoughtblogs.com/marginoferr/2014/05/31/rouhani-stands-firm-against-extremists-as-tension-escalates.

5. http://english.khamenei.ir/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1655&Itemid=4.

6. www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139643/akbar-ganji/who-is-ali-khamenei.

7. http://visrectevivere.tumblr.com.

8. http://issuu.com/iripaz/docs/foreignaffairs/53.

9. www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139643/akbar-ganji/who-is-ali-khamenei.

10. Ibid.

11. www.radiozamaneh.com/politics/2011/07/16/5474.

Iran: Boycott sham elections

 Yassamine Mather advocates a boycott and stresses the need for regime change from below

 

candidates

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.

Candidates

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.

Boycott

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.

 

Notes

1. www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/05/28/305892/rezaei-to-turn-hormozgan-into-trade-zone.

2. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/iran-private-sector-options.html#ixzz2UVDbYjYa.

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.

4. www2.macleans.ca/2013/05/28/the-islamic-republic-of-gangster-capitalism-payam-akhavan-on-iran.

5. The Guardian May 28

Iran: Election farce exposes regime’s crisis

The Iranian elections are a travesty

vote

Supporters and apologists of Iran’s Islamic Republic in Respect,1 Counterfire2 and the Socialist Workers Party3 have in the past told us that Iran is not a dictatorship. It has democratic elections to determine the president and the composition of its parliament …

The regime’s 11th presidential elections have demonstrated how far removed this is from reality. Having arrested and imprisoned all serious opposition, including the regime’s own ‘reformists’, the remaining factions, despite being at each other’s throats, are all agreed that only those candidates for president who completely uphold the line of the supreme leader may be permitted to stand. So not only has the favourite of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, been barred. So too has the moderate centrist and former president, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The omens were not good from the beginning. The supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had disowned his chosen candidate of 2009. Ahmadinejad, who came to power following a controversial vote in elections many Iranians believed to be rigged, is now considered an enemy. In fact, despite the careful vetting of candidates for this and other elected posts on religious grounds, as determined by the constitution, Iran’s clerical dictators, in the form of two supreme leaders, have ended up falling out with almost everyone who has occupied the presidency, beginning with ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who famously turned his back on the regime’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr.

Rafsanjani, who was Khamenei’s first president, fell out with the supreme leader. So did Mohammad Khatami, a vetted, obedient servant of the regime – he was out of favour by the end of his first term and definitely an enemy by the end of his second. Last but not least, for all his earlier support for Ahmadinejad against leaders of the green ‘reformist’ movement, the supreme leader fell out with his chosen president in the first months of his second term and in the end it could hardly be any worse.

What is different this year is that the entire electoral process has become a joke even before the election campaign has started. Because Khamenei was determined to reduce electioneering from months to only three weeks, it was not until May 21, just 24 days before the polls, that Iranians got to know the final list of candidates. However, Khamenei had apparently been concerned that the absence of any known figure, never mind a controversial one, might lead to a lacklustre campaign and no doubt this played a part in the supreme leader’s quiet encouragement of Rafsanjani to enter the foray.

His candidacy was hailed by both ‘reformists’ and opponents of the regime as a sign of ‘hope’ – the ‘saviour’ had come out of retirement. Even sections of the left believed he was therefore worthy of critical support. No-one was clear about how exactly Rafsanjani would save the nation – except by lengthening the rule of the religious dictatorship, that is – but in the euphoria that followed his registration as a candidate, none of this mattered. In fact it could well be that the unprecedented support for Rafsanjani by sections of the ‘reformist’ opposition convinced the Guardian Council to rule him out of the electoral process.

Clerical cars

The Guardian Council is supposed to make its deliberations in private. However, while the vetting process was going on, one of its leading figures, ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, commented: “Iranians do not want to elect a president whose car is a Mercedes Benz” – the model Rafsanjani arrived in to register his candidacy.

Rafsanjani’s supporters hit back by arguing that Jannati’s own modern Peugeot is far more expensive than Rafsanjani’s old Mercedes. BBC Persian service produced a short video of the cars used by several of Iran’s Islamic rulers, which shows Khamenei himself getting out of a bullet-proof BMW. It should be pointed out that Iran’s supreme leader and his family are embroiled in a scandal regarding the BMW dealership in Iran.

The issue of luxury cars is a touchy subject for Shia rulers. When young Iranians were asked in a telephone and internet poll what they associated with the phrase, ‘Islamic clerics’, a considerable number said “Mercedes Benz” or “BMW” (although the sons of the ayatollahs have long since preferred Maseratis and Porsches).

Once the car issue became just too embarrassing, the Guardian Council changed its tactics and focussed instead on the question of age. A candidate over 75 was apparently too old to occupy the presidency and, had the council been aware that a 78-year-old would put himself forward, they would have introduced an age bar.

However, this too was easy to counter by Rafsanjani supporters and others. A TV station listed the age of the Islamic regime’s current and previous leaders, starting with Khomeini, who became head of state aged 81, and the current supreme leader, who is 73. Jannati is 87 – the same age as one of his senior colleagues on the Guardian Council, ayatollah Mahdavi Kani …

Rafsanjani’s daughter has informed the world’s press and media that on May 21 senior figures of the regime had been trying to persuade her father to withdraw his nomination. But he had refused, saying he could not “betray the people’s trust”. However, earlier that day, as the Guardian Council was preparing to make its final announcement, security forces moved into action. Supporters of Mashaei and Ahmadinejad were arrested as a “precautionary measure”, and the offices of a ‘reformist’ youth organisation were ransacked and closed down.

Then the daughter of the founder of the Islamic Republic, ayatollah Khomeini, issued an open letter to Khamenei, declaring that her father had considered Hashemi Rafsanjani to possess all the qualities necessary to be not just president, but supreme leader. This was the first time anyone had quoted Khomeini’s thoughts concerning a possible successor to himself and obviously implied a serious criticism of the current supreme leader.

Once it became clear that Mashaei had been barred, Ahmadinejad absurdly announced he would contest the decision by asking the supreme leader to intervene. Apparently Ahmadinejad was the only person who did not know that it was Khamenei’s decision to bar both Mashaei and Rafsanjani.

There is a big difference between electoral cheating, such as ballot-rigging (as happened in 2009) and barring a very senior cleric like Rafsanjani, the man who is considered alongside Khomeini as a founder of the Islamic regime, the man who played a crucial part in writing the constitution of the clerical state, who has been one of the regime’s most powerful figures. As many have commented in Tweets and on Facebook, the ayatollah who chairs the expediency convention – a body answerable to the supreme leader with supervisory powers over all branches of government – is not considered fit to run for president!

This whole farce says everything about the crisis gripping the Islamic regime. It is true that some of Rafsanjani’s supporters might now switch support to a lesser known ‘reformist’, Mohammad Aref, or the centrist, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, but this is now a doomed electoral process. In many ways the events of the last few days have shown how pinning one’s hopes on the pseudo-dictatorial electoral process in Iran was a disaster.

The US might have considered negotiations with Iran under a Rafsanjani presidency, but the Obama administration is unlikely to take seriously whoever wins from the remaining, vetted candidates, however conciliatory the tone of those candidates may be. Ayatollah Khamenei and his Guardian Council might end up regretting the path they have taken.

As for the Iranian working class, it has two enemies: imperialism and its own rulers. The latter are not only remote from ordinary people, but so very clearly engulfed in personal struggles for wealth and power. When it comes to the presidential elections, any tactic other than a boycott is tantamount to offering support to this retrograde, reactionary regime.

Yassamine Mather

Notes

1. George Galloway commends the 2009 Iran elections 2009: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qL3yhzV2wWU

2. Press TV interview with John Rees: www.counterfire.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4198&Itemid=81

3. See report of 2007 Stop the War Coalition conference: ‘Lies cannot stop imperialists’ Weekly Worker November 8 2007.

Boycott the vetted election, not the mass protests!

The Islamic republic is bitterly divided at the top and subject to crippling international sanctions. Yassamine Mather analyses the political situation in the run-up to the June 14 presidential poll

(First published in the Weekly Worker)

Hashemi Rafsanjani: last-minute capitalist candidate
Hashemi Rafsanjani: last-minute capitalist candidate

On the last available day, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani arrived at the ministry of the interior to register himself as a presidential candidate. Rafsanjani was the Islamic republic’s fourth president, from 1989 to 1997, and is now once again standing as a ‘reformist’. In reality he is the candidate of capitalism and probably still one of the richest men in Iran. Despite that, the announcement that Rafsanjani had entered the race ‘to save the country’ generated an almost unprecedented hysteria.

There are two main explanations for his timing. The principlists (conservative, hard-line supporters of the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei) are accusing Rafsanjani (also known as the fox because of his political cunning) of holding back before making his dramatic, last-minute move in order to surprise and spread confusion amongst his opponents. There is some truth to this claim: confident of an easy ride, principlists entered the presidential elections with at least seven serious candidates, and another 14 less serious contenders. One assumes that, had they known they would be facing such a figure, they would have tried to rally round a single candidate.

Some of Rafsanjani’s allies have claimed he was waiting for the approval of the supreme leader before putting himself forward. Two weeks ago he said he would only go ahead if Khamenei wanted him to do so, but a few days later there was a slightly different version: he would only put his name forward if the supreme leader did not object to his nomination. His telephone conversation with Khamenei1 or one his close advisers2 (depending on which version you read) only took place at 4.30pm Tehran time on May 11 – less than one and a half hours before the deadline. Rafsanjani’s daughter confirms this.3

Whatever the truth, Rafsanjani, who is now benefiting from the full support of the ‘reformist camp’ led by Mohammad Khatami, is no opponent of the Islamic regime. In fact he does not even claim to be a reformist: he is, in his own words, a “moderate”. Some consider him to be a “pragmatist conservative”4 – someone who tried to mediate between the ‘reformists’ and the conservatives after the debacle of the 2009 elections. Now he has, according to Khatami (Iran’s last ‘reformist’ president) made a “major sacrifice” and come forward to fulfil his duty to the “nation, the Islamic Republic and the faith”.

It is clear then that, far from providing a challenge to Khamenei, Rafsanjani is standing to save the clerical system and with it its supreme leader, who, after all, owes his own position to Rafsanjani. According to a video released in 1989, soon after ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, “Rafsanjani took the lead in a meeting of the assembly of experts”. He described his last encounter at Khomeini’s hospital bedside, as well as an earlier discussion he had had with the Islamic republic’s first supreme leader over his succession. Rafsanjani claimed he had told Khomeini that no-one had “the stature to fill your shoes”, to which Khomeini had replied: “But why not? Mr Khamenei is the one!”5

Rafsanjani’s message to the supreme leader and the conservatives is clear: the regime is facing its most serious crisis ever, sanctions have paralysed the economy, international relations are at an all-time low, and then there are the idiotic holocaust-denial statements that still come from president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies. One needs to “drink the poison” – a reference to Khomeini’s famous statement when he accepted the resolution passed by the United Nations security council in 1987 to end the Iran-Iraq war.6 (Of course, many believe that it was Rafsanjani who, as commander-in-chief of Iran’s military forces during the eight-year war, convinced Khomeini to accept that ceasefire.) Iran’s “moderate” presidential candidate is also in favour of direct talks with the US to resolve the nuclear issue and there is a precedent for this: it is alleged that Rafsanjani was one of many Iranian politicians who got involved in ‘Irangate’, the secret deal with the Reagan administration which saw Iran being sold arms despite an embargo.7

Although it is unlikely that the Council of Guardians – the religious body responsible for vetting election candidates – will find sufficient reason to eliminate Rafsanjani from standing in the June elections, there are no guarantees that he would get sufficient votes, real or ‘engineered’, to win.

US victory

Now that his nomination is in, every one of his recent and not so recent statements is being analysed and it is clear that, like every other serious candidate (‘reformist’, ‘moderate’ or principlist conservative), he is advocating a U-turn as far as the nuclear issue is concerned. This is, above all, a victory for the United States, which it will use to demonstrate that sanctions against ‘third-rate rogue states’ work. Although we in Hands Off the People of Iran have always opposed Iran’s nuclear programme, we refuse to join those celebrating the US victory in bringing a country to its knees.

Iranians have paid a heavy price for the foolish policies of their leaders. Sanctions have immiserated the working class, impoverished the middle class, made the already disastrous unemployment situation even worse and caused spiralling inflation, currently estimated at above 32% by the Islamic parliament’s economic commission. As we predicted – in a neoliberal religious dictatorship, where the clergy and Islamic revolutionary guards are the main beneficiaries of privatisation – ‘targeted sanctions’ against the ‘rulers of the country’ are in fact sanctions against the entire population: 70 million Iranians are now facing the consequences of a deliberate, callous policy by a superpower to assert its authority. Yet most Iranians believe worse is yet to come – fear of becoming ‘another Iraq or Syria’ dominates people’s minds and that is one explanation why so many are willing to forget Rafsanjani’s horrific record.

Iran’s richest man is no friend of the Iranian working class. According to an updated biography on the BBC website, “Mr Rafsanjani has close links to Iranian industry and business … He was featured in the ‘Millionaire mullahs’ section of the Forbes Rich List in 2003”.8 Most of this fortune was accumulated after 1979, although he denies the fact that his political connections were in any way used to help him.

So far Rafsanjani has given no clue as to his economic plans, but his record is clear. He implemented the free market, privatisation and deregulation. Since Rafsanjani’s presidency, economic policy has been based on a reduction in government spending, itself fuelling inflation, as successive governments printed money to finance deficits and worsened the imbalance in foreign trade by encouraging imports and overall economic dependence on a single product: oil. It was immediately after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and during Rafsanjani’s presidency that the government started subsidising foreign goods to the benefit of the urban rich, while allocating resources to commerce and finance at the expense of production. So we can expect more of the same if Rafsanjani is returned to power. In other words, for all the promises of saving the economy, the nation and the Islamic republic, the population can expect better times for the rich but even worse times for the poor.

Rafsanjani is a firm supporter of the Islamic regime’s constitution and therefore believes democratic rights should be limited to those who support the current order. In the early 2000s he came in for a lot of criticism from the ‘reformist’ media inside Iran. In a series of articles, later published as a book, former revolutionary guard Akbar Ganji called him the “red eminence”9 – a reference to cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s prime minister, who was supposed to be a ruthless politician more powerful than the king. During Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), Ganji and others in the ‘reformist media’ presented Rafsanjani as the man behind the “serial political murders” of writers and intellectuals.10

In 2009, his lukewarm protest against the incarceration of ‘reformist’ activists and leaders angered the supreme leader and lost him his post as chairman of the powerful assembly of experts. Even then his proclamations were limited to ‘moderate’ statements on the poor state of some of Iran’s jails and the fact that the ‘reformists’ did not deserve quite such harsh treatment.

Principlist splits

Let me stress that principlist candidates also want ‘meaningful negotiations’ with the US. In fact, now that the crippling effects of sanctions is recognised by all, it is no surprise that they too are promising a speedy resolution of the nuclear issue.

Sections of the principlist factions have been in discussions to support a common candidate. However, continued ideological disagreements, as well as uncertainty about the calibre of the likely ‘reformist’ opponent, meant that they failed to come up with a single name, or at least just fewer candidates.

There is a Jewish joke about the propensity of Jews to fall out over religious issues, leading to one split after another: if there are two Jews in a village, they will need a synagogue each. Shia Muslims are exactly the same, it seems – the more religious they are, the more inflexible they appear to be regarding both theological and in consequence political matters. In Iran’s parliament we have the Principlist faction (not to be confused with the principlists), the Stability Front of the Islamic Revolution and five other major principlist groups. Since Rafsanjani’s surprise registration, there is talk of the supporters of Mohammad Qalibaf, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Ali Fallahian and Saeed Jalili trying to come up with a name. However, many doubt that all the conservative factions will be prepared to withdraw their candidates.

As for the current president, now totally at odds with the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad has over the last few months made a number of provincial visits accompanied by his relative and ‘heir apparent’, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. These unofficial pre-election occasions were mocked by state press and media loyal to Khamenei, especially when it became clear that very few people were attending. Going for smaller venues did not help much – there were lots of empty seats even when they were held in somewhere less ambitious than Tehran’s Azadi stadium, where the first such meeting was held. MPs in the majles (Islamic parliament) accuse Ahmadinejad of using state funds to pay for what they allege amounts to a countrywide election tour for Mashaei.

Over the last few months principlist/conservative MPs have tried on a number of occasions to dismiss the president or his close allies in the government. Whereas in 2009, at the height of the protest movement, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the full support of the conservative/principlist factions, today less than four years later, he and his supporters are openly called the “deviant faction”, mainly because Ahmadinejad believes Mashaei’s claims to have a special relationship with the 12th Shia Imam (who fell down a well 13 centuries ago and is soon going to be resurrected to save the world). This has led some prominent ayatollahs to call him a heretic – the claim is totally abhorrent to supporters of the supreme leader, who is, after all, the only human being capable of communicating with the imam. But, trying to broaden his appeal, Mashaei also claims to be a nationalist. He and Ahmadinejad have actually been promoting Iranianism over and above Islam – in 2010 Mashaei claimed that without Iran Islam would be lost and other Islamic countries feared Iran, which upheld the only “truthful” version of Islam.

However, like Rafsanjani and the principlists, Mashaei is also keen on improving relations with the US and Israel. In fact he has gone further than anyone else on the subject of Iran-Israel relations, making comments that have angered senior clerics: Iranians are “friends of all people in the world – even Israelis”, he said.11 A phrase that lost him his job as vice-president. In the early years of Ahmadinejad’s second term the conservative factions in parliament and powerful supporters of Khamenei tried their best to convince Ahmadinejad to distance himself from Mashaei, but he refused. This produced a conservative backlash. The head of the revolutionary guards, general Hassan Firouzabadi, branded Mashaei’s comments a “crime against national security”, while a senior ayatollah claimed that “equating the school of Iran and the school of Islam amounts to pagan nationalism”.12

To add insult to injury, on May 11 the Iranian president accompanied Mashaei to the ministry of the interior to register him as a candidate. As they were making their way to the relevant office, a scuffle broke out between Ahmadinejad’s entourage and conservative MP Hassan Ghadiri. The set-to was photographed on a mobile phone and immediately posted on Facebook. Then, to make matters worse, before Mashaei took the microphone to address his first election press conference as a candidate, Ahmadinejad, unaware a microphone was live, could be heard next to him whispering: “Say the president is on leave today”. Of course, Mashaei obliged and started the press conference exactly as instructed. Again this gaffe was filmed on YouTube and made it to most news broadcasts.13 If this was not enough, the guardian council announced on May 12 that it might charge Ahmadinejad with violating electoral rules by accompanying his protégée to the interior ministry.14

A total of 686 candidates have registered. No doubt the guardian council will reduce that to half a dozen or so. However, because of the large number, the council says the process may require more time.

First to be struck off will be the 30 women who have put themselves forward, unless they manage to prove to the guardian council that they have gone through transgender operations in the last few days. Iran’s Islamic constitution is quite clear on this. According to article 115, “The president must be elected from among religious and political male personalities (the Arabic word rejal is used) possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past record; trustworthiness and piety; belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country”.15

As if this vetting process were not enough for the religious rulers, they have other tricks up their sleeve. Following accusations of election- rigging in 2009, the Iranian regime has come up with a new term for state interference in the electoral process, which is now openly talked about as a possibility. In January one of Khamenei’s representatives, Hojat Al-Islam Saeedi, said that it was the responsibility of the revolutionary guards to “rationally and logically engineer the elections”.16

Boycott

There is considerable enthusiasm for Rafsanjani amongst the reformist left – all his past sins seem to have been forgotten. It is true that the threat of war against Iran persists; sanctions, another form of war, have paralysed the economy; the smell of partition is in the air; and the country is on the edge of a precipice. However, we should remind all those who believe Rafsanjani’s claim that better relations with the US will end the sanctions and the threat of war that there are two sides to this equation. The US and its allies have their own reasons for continued confrontation, especially at a time of severe economic crisis, irrespective of which ayatollah is in control.

Rafsanjani is a class enemy. We have the responsibility to remind everyone that the leaders of the Green movement, including Rafsanjani, acted like the grand old duke of York and there is no reason to believe they will behave differently this time. In fact this time there is a difference: in order to avoid upsetting the supreme leader, Rafsanjani does not want to encourage any mass protests. As one website put it, “Rafsanjani hopes to revive the enthusiasm of the 2009 election … minus the demonstrations!”17

It is not surprising that none of the candidates in Iran’s presidential elections, even before the vetting has weeded out those considered untrustworthy, mentions unemployment, mass non-payment of wages, ‘white contracts’ for temporary jobs and other issues that affect the majority of Iran’s population, the working class and the poor. If you read the various election manifestos issued in the last few days in Tehran, you would think that inflation, sanctions and the terrible economic conditions only affect the middle classes and the wealthy. In an election already known to be prone to “engineering” by revolutionary guards, where only male supporters of an Islamic constitution can become candidates, the genuine left has only one option: to boycott the elections and continue the call for the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime, together with all its myriad factions and tendencies.

For all the claims that these elections will ‘save Iran from the abyss’, improve relations with the outside world and end sanctions, three of the prominent candidates – Rafsanjani, Velayati and Fallahian – were implicated in the Mykonos trials18 of those accused of murdering Kurdish Democratic Party leaders in Berlin in 1982. Rafsanjani was president, Velayati foreign minister and Fallahian intelligence minister. So it is possible that Iran will end up with a president wanted by Interpol and incapable of travelling to many western countries. These factions might be at war with each other now, but let us not forget that were united in crime not that long ago.

Having said all that, it is very likely that protests against the guardian council’s vetting or vote-rigging, as in 2009, will cause anger and protests in Tehran and other large Iranian cities. We should not ignore such protests – boycotting the elections does not mean boycotting those who, in desperation, will try and vote for the ‘least worst’ candidate.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/05/130512_ir92_33_daysto.shtml.

2. www.akhbar-rooz.com/article.jsp?essayId=52706.

3. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/05/130513_ir92_32days.shtml.

4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3034480.stm.

5. www.spiegel.de/international/world/the-fight-for-iran-s-political-future-revolution-leaders-struggle-for-power-in-tehran-a-641967-3.html.

6. http://articles.latimes.com/1988-07-20/news/mn-6124_1_khomeini.

7. http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110810105707235.

8. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22494982.

9. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people6/Ganji.

10. www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/02/2012215164958644116.html.

11. www.haaretz.com/news/iran-vp-iranians-are-friends-of-all-people-even-israelis-1.251479.

12. www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/08/07/115966.html.

13. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/tv/2011/04/000001_ptv_newshour_gel.shtml.

14. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/05/130512_l10_ir92_ahmadinejad_mashai_reax.shtml.

15. www.iranonline.com/iran/iran-info/government/constitution-9-1.html.

16. http://iranpulse.al-monitor.com/index.php/2013/04/1721/chief-of-armed-forces-defends-engineer-elections-statements.

17. http://mikhak.info/?p=645.

18. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2012/09/25/the-verdict-that-shook-iran-and-europe.

Though watched and muzzled, independent labour unions are stirring

From The Economist

DURING a Persian new year’s party (in late March) at Iran’s flagship South Pars project in the Persian Gulf, where the world’s largest known gasfield is being tapped, a labourer called on Iran’s workers to unite. Behnam Khodadadi demanded better pay and conditions, and a proper trade union. Around 1,500 workers stopped security guards from detaining Mr Khodadadi. A week later he was fired from his job at Iran Industrial Networks Development, a contractor for the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company. Mr Khodadadi may have been muzzled, but disaffection is growing among Iranian workers as inflation outpaces wage rises and workers are laid off. At the same time attempts to organise labour are being suppressed in the run-up to June’s presidential elections.

“They haven’t paid us for at least four months and I have to keep borrowing money,” says Jamshid, a 32-year-old industrial worker in Tehran, the capital. Last month the minimum wage was raised by 25%, to 4.87m rials ($140) a month, but even by official criteria this is one-third of what is deemed to be a living wage in the capital. The drop in the rial’s value means that, when it comes to the imports on which Iran relies, Iranian cash is worth barely a third of what it was in 2011, before the United States imposed sanctions on the country’s financial system.

Iran does not recognise independent unions, so workers have to make do with Islamic Labour Councils, which must be approved by employers and the security services. Reckoning that these councils are in cahoots with the government, workers tend to keep their grievances to themselves for fear of being sacked as troublemakers. Labour leaders are often imprisoned.

Ali Nejati and Reza Shahabi, who led sugarcane workers’ and bus drivers’ unions respectively, were recently freed under surveillance. Mr Shahabi is now in prison again, as is Muhammad Jarahi, who stands for petrochemical workers, and Shahrokh Zamani, a painter, all of them guilty of “endangering national security”. “Not having independent workers’ unions guarantees things will stay the same,” Mr Nejati recently told an Iranian radio station based in Germany. “As a workers’ representative I complained and I went to prison for it and was fired.”

Despite the long history of Iran’s labour movement and the big part its oil workers played in deposing the shah in 1979, Iran’s workers have witnessed a steady erosion of their bargaining power. After the revolution, independent workers’ councils won rights to such things as a 40-hour week and lodging allowances. They got rid of people who had worked for the shah’s intelligence service. But during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) the unions’ independence was destroyed. Under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his successor, Muhammad Khatami, imports soared while Iran’s own manufacturing industry slumped. Unions have been further weakened by the reclassification of many workers as temporary.

Last month several bakers were arrested for allegedly organising their colleagues in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj. At the same time, workers at a tractor-making company in Tabriz, in the north-west, signed a letter accusing managers of “brutal treatment, intimidation and failing to pay wages”. “Authorities who always talk about justice in the Islamic republic should know that complete injustice prevails in this system,” they wrote.

“We are at the mercy of our employers,” says Mahmud, a Tehran street sweeper on his night shift, scraping rubbish out of an open gutter with a coarse wicker brush. “We almost never get the overtime pay we are entitled to but we can’t complain because we would be fired.” A senior municipal worker admits that thousands of non-unionised street sweepers, who clean the capital by night, often go months without pay. Last year the office of Muhammad Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor and a presidential hopeful, commissioned a film called “Those Who Wear Orange” about a brainy university graduate who becomes a street cleaner—for love of the job.

Blogger Sattar Beheshti dies in custody

Sattar Beheshti, who ran a blog critical of the Iranian regime, was arrested on October 30 for comments made on Facebook, and handed over to the ‘cyber police’. After a night in Evin prison, where he complained about threats and beatings, he was moved to an unknown location. By November 3rd he was dead, with evidence of torture all over his body.

Beheshti was apparently not well known as an activist, showing how far-reaching the regime’s clampdown on dissent has become.

More:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/sattar-beheshti-dead_n_2117945.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20259533

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/08/sattar-beheshti-dead-iran_n_2095075.html

Video: Yassamine Mather responds to her critics on the ‘Iran Tribunal’

Hands Off the People of Iran has been criticising the “Iran Tribunal” for its pro-imperialist agenda and links to funds that campaign for “regime change from above”, like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In this video, Yassamine Mather responds to some criticisms leveled against Hopi.