Tag Archives: Iranian Left

Green road to nowhere

iranpic1The sham presidential election of June 2009 has unleashed a rainbow of political forces, writes Yassamine Mather, including an increasingly strong red component. The task of the left is to support and strengthen the red component of this rainbow, the Iranian working class, as the only force capable of bringing about democracy, and the only movement conscious of the international complexities of the current situation

Every day for the last few weeks Iranian workers have been protesting, at times in their thousands – at their workplaces, outside government offices and provincial offices complaining about job losses, non-payment of wages, privatisation … Universities have been the scene of daily protests and ordinary people have used every opportunity, even football matches, to express their opposition to the regime. At the same time a new wave of exiles, including reporters, writers, professors of literature, are leaving the country, despairing of continued repression and the ineffective ‘reformist’ leaders.

For the overwhelming majority of Iranians, however, such an option does not exist. Tens of millions of wage-earners have no choice but to continue their struggles against the regime in their daily confrontation with factory-owners and the religious state that backs them. In the words of those at Wagon Pars, who went on hunger strike last week, workers have “nothing to lose but their unpaid wages”. The 1,700 employees of Wagon Pars, manufacturer of freight wagons and passenger coaches, have been in dispute with management and the state for months over unpaid wages. In August 2009 these workers went on strike and staged a sit-in protest on factory grounds, locking the gates and preventing managers from entering.

The factory had been privatised as a subsidiary of troubled car maker Iran Khodro, after Iran’s supreme leader changed article 44 of the constitution, removing the guarantee of public ownership for key industries. Protests and threats of strike by Iran Khodro workers forced the government to retreat, showing the vulnerability of the rulers when confronted by united working class action. Iran Khodro workers have now won five of their demands, including an overtime pay rise of 20% for all workers on the production line.

Last week there were also major workers’ protests over non-payment of wages in Louleh Sazi Khouzestan (manufacturers of pipelines) and a demonstration by Tractor Sazi workers in Kurdistan, where tens of workers were sacked, while others are expected to work longer hours. Managers in most of these disputes blame the world economic downturn for the new wave of job losses. Nearly four months after the huge demonstrations of June 2009, the continuation of protests in workplaces and universities proves that opposition to the regime goes well beyond the issue of the sham presidential elections.

Sanctions and the working class

Sanctions have compounded an already dire economic situation. In the South Pars oilfields almost 6,000 contract workers are threatened with job losses, as whole fields are abandoned following news that Total, Repsol and Shell are pulling out. The current protests should indeed be seen in the light of the world economic crisis – whose effects have been felt far worse in the countries of the periphery – as well as the impact of sanctions. Iranian workers are adamant that the dire economic situation is one of the main reasons why protests continue and evolve, despite the failures of the green movement. Some of their supporters talk of the “suffocating silence” of the green movement’s leadership.1

Of course, workers’ protests in Iran are nothing new. They have been going on for years. What is different is the massive increase in their number and the introduction of political slogans, such as “Death to the dictator” or “Tanks, bullets, bassij [militia] are not effective any more”, in workers’ sit-ins, protests and demonstrations. Workers were the first section of the population to confront unscrupulous capitalists and the religious state, and their audacity paved the way for the wider opposition to develop. Now they are showing themselves the most tenacious in continuing the protests, even if the western media do not find workers’ actions newsworthy. The problems they face are enormous. Unlike the myriad well funded NGOs, some with dubious links to US regime-change funds, the Iranian working class has no source of ready income. On the contrary, their protests cost workers their meagre wages.

Reporting workers’ struggles on radio and TV is considered ideological, while giving wall-to-wall coverage to the utterances of ‘reformist’ Islamists or bourgeois liberal politicians is deemed ‘impartial’. The state can identify and punish labour activists much more easily than demonstrators. Nowhere is the state’s control more severe than in the oil industry. Worker activists discussing possible strike action are moved from their regular posts to other areas.

Yet none of the state’s increasingly repressive measures seem to deter the Iranian working class, who are turning the defensive actions of last year into more aggressive forms of protest, establishing road blocks, taking managers hostage, bringing their families to occupy closed factories and workplaces. In order to overcome the lack of news coverage of their struggles, Iranian workers are setting up their own means of communication through internet sites and email.

But the combination of proposed new sanctions and the ‘new’ economic policies of the regime will make life even harder for the majority. Just when it became clear that Iran has no intention of adhering to a proposed deal for the ‘resolution’ of its nuclear crisis2 and the US began passing legislation to impose new unilateral sanctions, the majles (Islamic parliament) discussed regulations that would sharply reduce energy and food subsidies, in compliance with long-term demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In the US, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act (IRSA), approved by an overwhelming 414 to six margin in Congress, will allow local and state governments and their pension funds to divest from foreign companies or US subsidiaries with investments of more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector. And the house foreign affairs committee has scheduled a vote for October 28 on the Iran Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) bill. This will impose sanctions on companies involved in exporting refined petroleum products to Iran or expanding Tehran’s capacity to produce its own refined products. Similar sanctions are likely to be imposed by France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Meanwhile most US politicians and commentators agree that sanctions affecting the general population could actually bolster support for the Tehran government.

The new subsidies legislation in Iran will increase the prices of goods, including gasoline, natural gas and electricity. Similar legislation was proposed by ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami during his term (1997-2005), proving once more that, when it comes to major economic decisions, including compliance with IMF demands, the two main factions of the Islamic regime have identical policies. It is therefore no surprise that ‘reformist’ MPs, including supporters of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the main challenger in the June elections, back the measure.

With subsidies and the current rationing system, a litre of gasoline costs 100 tomans ($0.10). The new bill will raise the price to as much as 500 or 600 tomans per litre – before the effects of US/European sanctions start to bite. The measure could double Iran’s already astronomic rate of inflation, fluctuating between 15% and 30%. It will make the poor poorer, while the rich will be least affected. Ironically, legislative bodies in both the US and Iran are making sure the Iranian people will suffer this winter. Iran is the world’s fifth-largest crude oil exporter, but its eight refineries cannot produce near enough fuel for the home market.

Islamic values?

If anyone had any doubt about the reactionary nature of the ‘reformist’ leaders, this week’s meeting and joint statement from Moussavi and Khatami should have shattered their illusions. They called for “a return to the values of the Islamic republic and to the country’s constitution”. What values are we talking about? Air raids on inhabited villages in Kurdistan in the early 1980s, when Moussavi was prime minister? Or the massacre of peasants who sheltered leftwingers in Kurdistan? The values that led to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1987, or the values behind serial political murders during Khatami’s presidency? The list of ‘Islamic values’ under Khatami and Moussavi is indeed endless. These gentlemen and the ‘reformists’ as a whole are obsessed with calling recent events a coup, as their pleas for a return to the ‘glory days’ of the Islamic republic make clear: Iran had previously been a democracy, you see – at least when Khatami was president or Moussavi was prime minister – but then in June 2009 there was a coup!

In reality, the Islamic regime’s attitude towards any form of opposition has not changed much over the last few months. Opposition groups and labour activists, women and student protesters have been arrested, tortured and executed throughout the last 30 years. What has changed is a reduction in the executive power of the ‘reformists’, who have been part and parcel of the regime. It is hard to see how one could call the current state of affairs a coup when the major players claiming to be the victims still hold their positions. Former ‘reformist’ president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) remains chair of the council of experts and chair of the national security council. Khatami’s International Institute for Dialogue among Cultures and Civilisations is not under threat. Clerical allies of the ‘reformists’ in Ghom remain free to express their opinions.

None of this, of course, makes Iran a democracy. Iran remains a religious capitalist state with all the contradictions of such a combination. However, what we are witnessing is not a coup, but divisions amongst rulers.

Left illusions

The events of June 2009 have unleashed a whole set of new movements in Iran. One can no longer speak of a single movement. In the words of activists inside Iran, we see a rainbow of political forces, including an increasingly strong red component. As I said at the CPGB’s Communist University in August, the task of the left is to support and strengthen the red component of this rainbow, the Iranian working class, as the only force capable of bringing about democracy – but also as the only movement conscious of the international complexities of the current situation.

However, the events of the last few years, as well as the BBC’s obsession with the Iranian clergy and ‘ayatollogy’,3 has moved much of the exiled left and some of their supporters inside Iran further into liberalism and nationalism. For these forces, mesmerised by the euphoria of maintaining ‘unity’, class politics has become a dogmatic irrelevance. Yet there have been very few times in Iran’s history when the role of the working class has been so pivotal in the political arena as it is today – as sections of the Iranian working class, in particular in the oil industry, keep reminding us.4 They are the force that continues to fight for their jobs and their livelihoods, and in doing so they are in the forefront of the battle for democracy.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the pro-Soviet Stalinist left in Iran started its analysis of the political situation from an international perspective. According to the dogma, there existed two camps, imperialism and socialism, and from that followed tactics and strategy. In an almost total reversal of that old position, we now see an Iranian ‘left’, often with roots in organisations that had pro-Soviet tendencies, looking only at Iran and analysing the region and the world through the prism of nationalism. No wonder this ex-left has become so liberal in its attitudes towards imperialism, war and sanctions.

By identifying the main enemy as the current regime in Iran with its Islamic characteristics (as opposed to its capitalist nature), this section of the ‘left’ becomes, consciously or unconsciously, part of the rightwing agenda. It seeks justice for Iranian workers from pro-imperialist trade unions; it wants tribunals financed by the Pentagon for abusers of human rights and executioners of political prisoners; it sees nothing wrong with accepting funds from western capitalist organisations to set up NGOs; when it comes to imperialism, it supports ‘third campist’ positions, choosing to ignore the predominant role of the hegemonic forces in world capitalism (this malaise goes well beyond the disintegrating splinters of the Worker-communist Party of Iran, spreading to other sections of the exiled left like a contagious disease).

That is why, at a time of political upheavals which should see the radicalisation of this ‘left’, we hear the most astonishing comments, ranging from the sublime – ‘Both Israel and Palestinians are equally at fault over Gaza’ (the Palestinians presumably for being occupied), ‘We should support a third campist position’ – to the ridiculous – crediting the bourgeoisie in western Europe for “bringing about universal suffrage” (N Khorasani, feminist activist). Our liberal left is keen to talk of social movements rather than class politics, forgetting that social movements, in Iran as anywhere else, are so divided by class, nationality, religion and politics that it is impossible to consider them a single coherent force – the women’s movement being a clear example.

The heralded movement of movements in Iran will go nowhere unless the working class succeeds in putting its mark on current events. In so doing it will inevitably have to deal with the increasing ‘liberalism’ of sections of the ex-left.

We are at the beginning of such a struggle and it will take a long time. Nevertheless the signs from debates amongst workers inside Iran are encouraging. Car workers and oil workers who face international capital in their daily protests seem unaffected by the myth of bourgeois liberal heavens that will permit the development of trade unions, apparently a precondition for all workers’ struggles! The Iranian working class – and here one should include the millions who have lost their jobs because of the neoliberal policies of finance capital – are in daily confrontation with world capitalism.

No wonder, despite their hatred of the Islamic regime, they remain the only class aware of the objective interests of the United States and it allies in controlling the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. Unlike sections of the national minorities or the women’s movement, which have become pawns in imperialist games, Iranian workers have maintained their opposition to a regime which is subordinate to the US in the global pecking order, and are conscious that their movement must draw clear lines against bourgeois alternatives and imperialist plans.

They are already taking initiatives well beyond the limited horizons of our liberal left, talking of workers’ control in the thousands of abandoned factories and plants throughout the country. They are talking of the need for unity in organising employed and unemployed workers, of the need to set up neighbourhood organisations in working class districts. They are discussing the possibility of a general strike, its likely risks and potential rewards.

They certainly have no illusions regarding any of the shades of the green movement, even though they clearly understand the unprecedented opportunities presented by the current divisions amongst Iran’s theocratic rulers. Our solidarity and our support should be with the working class – and its many allies in the women’s movement, amongst students and in the national and religious minorities.

Show trials and apologetics

showtrialsJust as Iranian ex-leftwingers in the west call for reconciliation between the two wings of the Islamic regime, the ruling faction clamps down on its rivals. Yassamine Mather reports

The Stalinist show trial of Saturday August 1 – when a number of prominent ‘reformists’ appeared on Iranian state TV to ‘thank their interrogators’ before repenting – was not the first such event in the Islamic republic’s history. Leaders of the ‘official communist’ Tudeh Party were similarly paraded on Iranian TV to denounce their own actions in the 1980s, while in the 1990s we had the trials of ‘rogue’ elements of the ministry of intelligence.

However, this time the Islamic leaders forgot that a precondition for the success of such show trials in terms of imposing fear and submission on the masses is total control of the press and media. What made this particular effort ineffective – indeed a mockery – was that it came at a time when the supporters of supreme leader Ali Khamenei have not yet succeeded in silencing the other factions of the regime, never mind stopping the street protests. So, instead of marking the end of the current crisis, the show trials have given the protestors fresh ammunition.

The paper of the Participation Front (the largest alliance of ‘reformist’ MPs) stated: “The case of the prosecution is such a joke that it is enough to make cooked chicken laugh.” The Participation Front was one of nine major Islamic organisations which ridiculed the prosecution claim that the ‘regime knew of the plot for a velvet revolution’ weeks before the election. Some Tehran reformist papers are asking: in that case why did the Guardian Council allow the ‘reformist’ candidates to stand in the presidential elections? Perhaps the Guardian Council itself should be put on trial!

Former president Mohammad Khatami, candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi and other ‘reformist’ politicians have denounced the trial as “illegal”, yet they do not seem to realise the irony in this criticism. First of all, no-one but the ‘reformists’ within the regime has any illusions about Iran’s legal system (both civil and sharia law). Second, the time to oppose show trials was two decades ago, not when you yourself are a victim of the system and there is no-one left to defend you. It was not just in the 1980s that messrs Khatami, Moussavi, Karroubi, etc kept quiet about similar trials. As late as the 1990s, during Khatami’s own presidency, they did not exactly rebel against the show trials of the intelligence agents who ‘confessed’ to having acted alone in murdering opponents of the regime. Some of the most senior figures implicated in that scandal, a scandal that was hushed up by the Khatami government (‘for the sake of the survival of the Islamic order’) – not least current prosecutor general Saeed Mortazavi – are now in charge of the ‘velvet revolution’ dossier.

For the Iranian left the trial and ‘confessions’ have also been a reminder of the plight of thousands of comrades who probably faced similar physical and psychological torture in the regime’s dungeons in the 1980s, although only a handful of them ever made it onto TV screens – many died anonymously in the regime’s torture chambers. Of course, we do not know if the Iranian government has improved its torture techniques since those times, but some senior ‘reformist’ politicians appear to have broken down much more easily than those thousands of young leftwing prisoners.

Those ‘reformist’ leaders who are still at liberty are not doing any better. Despite facing the threat of arrest and trial themselves, they maintain their allegiance to ‘Iran’s Islamic order’, reaffirming their “commitment to the Islamic regime” (Khatami) and denouncing the slogan promoted by demonstrators, “Freedom, independence, Iranian republic”, as Moussavi did on August 2.

A couple of weeks ago there were signs that negotiations between Khamenei and another former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, had made some progress and once more there was the possibility that, as the two factions of the regime buried some of their differences, the mass movement could become a victim of reconciliation amongst senior clerics.

The show trials not only put an end to such illusions, but promised an unprecedented intensification of the internal conflict. But this came too late for the authors of the statement, ‘Truth and reconciliation for Iran’, signed by a number of academics and activists who are notorious apologists of the Iranian regime and published on a number of websites, including that of Monthly Review.1 The statement has one aim: to save the Islamic regime by advocating peaceful coexistence between the two warring factions or, in the words of the statement, “the vital unity of our people against foreign pressures”.

In explaining the background of the conflict with imperialism, the authors state: “… despite Iran’s cooperation in the overthrow of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, the administration of George W Bush labelled the Islamic Republic a member of the ‘axis of evil’.”2 I am not quite sure why Iran’s support for US imperialism in the terrible Afghanistan war should be put forward as an example of the regime’s reasonable and moderate behaviour by anyone who claims to be anti-war.

The statement goes on to praise the wonderful election process, failing to mention that only four candidates loyal to the regime’s factions were allowed to stand or that voting for a president of a regime headed by an unelected ‘supreme religious leader’ is a bit of a joke … But this marvellous ‘democratic election’ is used to legitimise Iran’s nuclear programme.

The statement contains some seriously false claims: “… we have advocated the human rights of individuals and democratic rights for various groups and constituencies in Iran.” I am not sure which universe they think the rest of us reside in, but until the escalation of the conflict between the two factions of the regime many of the authors of the statement were insisting that everything in Iran’s Islamic Republic was great.

According to the defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ amongst them, Iranian women enjoy complete political and social freedom – which no doubt would have come as a shock to tens of thousands of young women who joined the protests precisely because of their opposition to draconian misogynist regulations imposed by the religious state.

Many of the signatories are associated with Campaign Iran and the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, which have made a virtue of not advocating “democratic rights” for Iranians, since that would confuse those simple-minded ‘ordinary people’ at a time when Iran is under threat. They insisted that the existence of a women-only fire brigade was proof of gender equality in Iran and the fact that the ‘crime’ of homosexuality is punishable by death is no reason to declare the regime homophobic – after all, liberal Iran has a very high rate of sex-change operations.3 The signatories are mistaken if they think they can rewrite history and portray themselves as defenders of “human rights” in Iran – we will neither forgive nor forget their disgraceful pro-regime apologetics.

Our ex-leftists clearly fail to understand the significance of the street protests: “The votes of a great portion of the Iranian society for both Ahmadinejad and Moussavi show that the best solution is negotiations for reconciliation and creation of a government of national unity from the ranks of principlists and the green movement and reformists.” While even bourgeois liberals and Moussavi supporters admit that the protests have now reached the stage where the green movement has no alternative but to tail the masses and their anti-regime slogans, the signatories’ advice to the ‘reformists’ is to ‘negotiate’ with those who have killed dozens of demonstrators, tortured hundreds and imprisoned thousands, including some of Moussavi’s allies.

When the ‘Truth and reconciliation’ statement tries to look at the causes of the current unrest, it gets things wrong: “However, in the view of a considerable number of Iranians who are discontented and frustrated with the restrictions on civil and political freedoms, there were various irregularities in the elections, including the suspension of reformist newspapers and mobile telephone SMS service on election day. This caused mass public demonstrations in support of nullifying the election.”

In fact both wings of the Islamic republic have made a lot of people “discontented and frustrated” and restricted “civil and political freedoms” since the day the regime came to power. There have been disputed results in at least three previous presidential elections, but what differentiates the current crisis from previous ones is ‘the economy, stupid’. Not only is the global economic crisis being felt far worse in the countries of the periphery, but the effects in Iran are compounded by a government that based its 2008-09 budget on selling oil at $140 a barrel; a government that aimed to privatise 80% of Iran’s industries by 2010, thus creating mass unemployment, a government that printed money while pursuing neoliberal economic policies; a government whose policies resulted in a 25% inflation rate, while the growing gap between rich and poor made a mockery of its populist claims to be helping the common people.

Last week I wrote about the political stance of Stalinists who, by supporting Moussavi, are advocating, as they have done throughout the last decades, a stageist approach to revolution.4 The signatories of the ‘Truth and reconciliation’ statement have taken things a step further: they do not aim for the next ‘stage’ any more, advocating instead the continuation of the religious state with peace and harmony amongst its many factions. The protests might have pushed Khatami, Moussavi and Karroubi to adopt slightly more radical positions, but they certainly have failed to influence our conciliators.

The demonstrators in Tehran shout “Death to the dictator”, but the Casmii and Campaign Iran educators condemn “extremist elements who used the opportunity to create chaos and engaged in the destruction of public property”. Anyone who knows anything about events since the election is aware that it is the state and its oppressive forces that have used violence against ordinary people. How dare these renegades condemn the victims of that violence for resisting this brutal regime?

What is truly disgusting about the statement are the pleas addressed not only to leaders of the Islamic reformist movement in Iran (to make peace with the conservatives), but also their requests to Barack Obama and other western leaders to be more accommodating to the Iranian regime. As if imperialist threats and sanctions have anything to do with the good will, or lack of it, of this or that administration. The language and tactics might change, but just as a bankrupt, corrupt and undemocratic Islamic Republic needs external threats and political crisis to survive, so US and western imperialism needs not only to offload the worst effects of the economic crisis onto the countries of the periphery, but also to threaten and occasionally instigate war. Our movement must aim to stop this lunacy, but in order to do so we need to address the democratic forces in Iran and the west rather than pleading with imperialism and Iran’s reactionary rulers.

The open support of the supreme religious leader for the conservatives has radicalised the Iranian masses. Separation of state and religion has now become a nationwide demand and we must support the demonstrators’ calls for the dismantling of the offices and expropriation of funds associated with the supreme leader and of all other religious foundations. The abolition of sharia law, of the religious police and of Islamic courts is part and parcel of such a call. Even as the show trials were being broadcast, Iranian workers were continuing their struggles against privatisation (Ahmadinejad’s first economic priority in his second term is the privatisation of oil refineries) and the non-payment of wages.

These days capitalists who say they are unable to pay their workers blame not only the world economic situation but also current events in Iran itself. Yet many of them do make profits and quickly channel them abroad. Iranian workers have been demanding representation at factory level to monitor production and sales, and calling for the total transparency of company accounts. We must support these immediate demands as part of our own anti-imperialist strategy.

At a time of crisis it is inevitable that the bourgeoisie, both in the developed world and in the countries of the periphery, will act irrationally. However, it is sad to see sections of the ‘left’ adopting a different form of irrationality. If we are to expose the warmongering endemic to contemporary capitalism, we must base our approach on the independent politics of the international working class.

That is why the idiotic, class-collaborationist ‘theories’ of Casmii, Campaign Iran and the current dominant line in Monthly Review are such a disaster for the anti-war movement.

Out of step with the masses

outofstepWith the crisis-ridden Islamic regime wracked by divisions, what is the state of Iran’s opposition? Yassamine Mather surveys the sorry scene

Statements from some of the most senior clerics of Iran’s Islamic state has left little doubt that the Shia republic is in deep crisis.

First came the rather sad sermon of ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani at Friday prayers on July 17. His voice broke as he told the gathering he had devoted 60 years of his life to the establishment of the Islamic Republic and now he feared for the very survival of the regime. On the disputed elections, he said: “People became very hopeful. Everything was set for a glorious day. This glory was due to the people … I so very much wish that that path had been continued. But unfortunately, that was not the case.”

The hint in his call for unity was that he and he alone could save the present order from total collapse. We could almost feel sorry for the man – if we could forget the billions he and his immediate family have pocketed from dodgy deals, sanction-breaking contracts and sheer extortion.

A couple of days later the supreme leader himself, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seemed to echo Rafsanjani’s warning and he was followed by former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, whose call for a referendum (it was not clear which question this would address) caused further confusion.

Then came the predictable conflict between president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ‘principlists’. His nomination of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a relative by marriage, as first (and the only significant) vice-president prompted a chorus of denunciations by ultra-conservative clerics and politicians. In 2008 Mashaei had angered the supreme leader when he said Iranians were “friends of all people in the world – including Israelis”. He was also filmed watching a belly dancer during an official visit to Turkey.

It is now clear that, after receiving Khamenei’s short letter instructing him to sack Mashaei, who is the father-in-law of Ahmadinejad’s daughter, the president battled for a whole week to keep him as vice-president. Some time during that week he lost the support of key ministers in his cabinet and on Sunday July 26 he was forced to sack a close ally, minister of intelligence ayatollah Ejhei, while the minister for Islamic guidance, Saffar Farandi, resigned his post. When Ahmadinejad refused to accept the resignation, Farandi announced he would not attend further cabinet meetings.

In fact Ahmadinejad has lost so many ministers that, in the words of the conservative deputy leader of the Islamic majles, Mohammad Bahonar, “According to article 136 of the constitution, as half of Iran’s ministerial posts are vacant, the government is, strictly speaking, illegal.” The conservative newspaper Tehran Emrouz described it as a “chaotic” day for the government, while MP Ali Motahari called on Ahmadinejad to “control his nerves” and accused him of intentionally provoking tension.

Warning

By Tuesday July 28 it became clear that Ahmadinejad had lost the support of conservative MPs in the majles. Over 200 ‘principlists’ wrote a strong letter condemning the president and warning him that a fate similar to Abolhassan Banisadr (the disgraced first president of the Islamic Republic who was forced into exile) awaited him if he continued to disobey the supreme leader.

Meanwhile, following a report by a parliamentary commission, Khamenei ordered the closure of Kahrizak detention centre, where dozens of detainees died following torture. One hundred and forty political prisoners were also released from Evin. It should be remembered that death under torture is not a new phenomenon in Iran. What is different this time is that sons and daughters of the regime’s own officials are now amongst the victims.

Of course, this crisis amongst the Islamic Republic’s rulers – and, this week, the crisis within the faction in power – is only a reflection of the continuing rebellion and protests on the streets and in the workplaces in most Iranian towns and cities. Every day, as the relatives of young Iranians are informed of the death in custody of their loved ones, people gather on the streets of Tehran in spontaneous demonstrations. Dozens of bodies have already been returned to grieving parents, hundreds of people are in custody, yet the protests continue with no end in sight. Those arrested include 36 officers who had allegedly planned to attend the July 17 ‘protest’ Friday prayer in their uniforms.

What is significant in the last few weeks is the growing gap between the slogans, demands and aspirations of the protesters, whose anger has dramatically radicalised the movement on the streets and neighbourhoods of major cities, and the limited horizons of reformist leaders and their supporters, some of whom are amongst the most discredited sections of the Iranian opposition – in particular the former Stalinist, turned Islamist, social democrats. While reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi keeps talking of “legal means” in a desperate attempt to save the Islamic regime, the demonstrators’ slogans – ‘Death to the Islamic Republic’, ‘Wait until we are armed’ – clearly show the differences between the two.

The left’s influence is still limited. However, clear examples of its efforts can be seen in the last two weeks in protests at Tehran oil refinery, continuing actions against job losses, notably in the textile industry, leaflets by workers calling for a general strike, and the successful gathering at the tomb of socialist poet Ahmad Shamloo on Friday July 24. At this political meeting, students distributed dates, as is the custom at Shia funerals, joking that this was to mark the impending death of the Islamic regime.

In addition, supporters of a number of exiled communist organisations (including Rahe Kargar and Fedayeen Minority) issued a joint statement in Tehran announcing the formation of United Supporters of Left and Communist Groups.

Sad state

Yet, at a time when ordinary Iranians, losing faith in government reformists, might be open to the ideas of the exiled opposition, one cannot avoid despairing at the sad state of the latter – as shown by the superficial slogans, leaflets and statements put out for the united actions of July 25. They proposed a multi-class, liberal, ‘green’ coalition that will unite all Iranians under the banner of “democratic Islam”.

Iranians are still paying the price of the anti-dictatorship front of 1979; yet few of those who advocate ‘unity’ of the opposition seem to realise the irony of their call. Of course, inside Iran it has been both useful and at times desirable that opponents of the regime join forces with supporters of Moussavi and take advantage of the conflict within the ranks of the leadership in order to reduce the risk of repression at the hands of the security forces. Shouting “Allahu Akbar” (‘God is great’) is a manifestation of such tactics. However, there is no justification in uniting around that slogan in front of the Iranian embassy in London or Brussels. On the contrary, repeating this slogan in Europe is a retrograde step.

So who is involved in this Islamic-green rainbow coalition in exile? Let me describe some of its components, their recent history and some of the more laughable political positions they have taken.

Islamist reformists: Some of the founding ideologues of the Islamic Republic of Iran are currently in exile, having fallen foul of the current leadership, and, together with royalists, they represent the most backward sections of the opposition. Yet they have been given unprecedented coverage by the international media, including, worst of all, sections of the Farsi-speaking media.

First we have Akbar Ganji, promoter of a New York hunger strike and a man portrayed in the US media as a “human rights activist” who talks of Islam and democracy. An ironic description for someone who founded, and was a commander of, the dreaded Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and who played an active role in some of the worst mass executions of leftist and socialists under the Islamic regime.

Our former Pasdar is now a fully fledged supporter of western capitalism. This is what he said at a meeting in Berkeley in 2006: “A market economy allows you to create institutions separate from the government. A totalitarian regime, or a fascist regime, requires that all economic aspects of life must be controlled by the government. The communist economies have all been defeated. Once the free-market economy enters a society, the occurrence of fascism and totalitarianism become impossible.”

And in his acceptance speech for an award in Canada: “I consider western democracies to be the best option among the actually existing forms of government and ways of organising power.” Yet the Voice of America’s favourite Iranian ‘human rights activist’ has no regrets about his own past and defends everything that happened during and in the first few years after the February 1979 uprising!

The next ‘Islamist democrat’ propelled to fame on Farsi-speaking airwaves, broadcast both by the BBC Persian service and Voice of America, is the ‘philosopher’, Abdolkarim Souroush, who is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC. When the Islamic regime ordered the closure of all academic institutions in the early 1980s in what was called the ‘Islamic cultural revolution’, a new body was set up – the Cultural Revolution Institute – comprising seven members, appointed directly by the supreme leader. They included Soroush. Although he has now fallen out with his former allies, his anti-communist views are as strong as ever: “I was mainly interested in breaking Marxist philosophy,” he once said.

More recently he claimed that “the spectre of Popper is all over Iran”. Maybe someone should tell our Islamist friend that these days the spectre of Popper is actually riding high over Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib …

To this list we could add Ataollah Mohajerani, culture minister during Khatami’s time; former Islamic regime minister and now prominent journalist Mohsen Sazegara; and many others.

Former Stalinists: Probably the worst defenders of the green bandwagon and constant advocates of a “democratic Islamic state” are Iran’s ex-Stalinists turned social democrats.

The Fedayeen Majority and Rahe Tudeh (one of the splits from the ‘official’ communist Tudeh Party) are in the forefront of green gatherings outside Iran. They try to impose reformist slogans and ban all radical demands from their rainbow coalition. At a time when ‘Down with the Islamic Republic’ has become a regular slogan in Tehran and other Iranian cities, outside Iranian embassies in London, Paris and Amsterdam they decry this as “too radical” and “not in the interests of the movement”.

Of course, we all remember the days when the Fedayeen Majority and Tudeh, following Moscow’s disastrous analysis of the Khomeini regime, were cheerleaders for the black repression of the early 1980s; we remember how they called on Iranians to vote for current supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei when he became president in 1981. Throughout the last decade they defended successive incompetent Islamic reformists in power. Now they are a key force behind Moussavi and his rather discredited allies outside Iran.

Satellite TV and BBC Persian service: Around 40 TV channels broadcast into Iran. Some are from exiled groups, ranging from royalists to those claiming to represent communist organisations. Sadly, most of the programmes are so appalling (or so boring) that very few people pay any attention to them. Yet Iran’s official radio and TV news service is so unreliable that no-one takes it seriously.

In this situation, the slightly more informative BBC World Service, broadcast by satellite and on the internet, has suddenly become a main source of news and analysis for many Iranians, resulting in the supreme leader’s accusations of British involvement in the protests. In fact many Iranians consider the BBC to be too even-handed, giving too much time to supporters of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

The reporters and editors pride themselves in presenting an “unbiased, non-ideological” programme; yet the reality is that their so-called balanced programming inevitably appeals to the centre ground of politics – and that in itself is ‘ideological’. The perceived centre ground requires giving virtually unlimited time to ‘Islamic democrats’ Soroush, Mohajerani and Kadivar. Yet, for example, Soroush can spout about the spectre of Popper over Tehran, while at the same time defending the darkest days of repression under Khomeini, but is never challenged by an experienced interviewer.

Ends and means

While this is the state of the bourgeois Iranian exiles, sections of the ‘radical’ left in exile are not much better. On the one hand, we have those who are preaching a return to armed struggle in order to “empower the working class”. On the other hand, desperate to see the end of the regime, some believe ‘the end justifies the means’ – even if the means are provided by rightwing organ-isations, Zionist peace groups or pro-imperialist trade unions.

Yet the leaflets put out by the left inside Iran are very promising. Unlike our exiled social democrat ex-Stalinists in the Fedayeen Majority and Rahe Tudeh, they call for a fully democratic and uncompromising secularism. Not only the complete separation of state and religion – a demand that can only be achieved with the overthrow of the entire Islamic republic regime – but the expropriation of all vaghf (Shia charitable wealth), all property owned by religious foundations, the abolition of the bassij and Pasdaran, the right of every citizen to bear arms, and freedom for all political prisoners.

As for the Iranian working class, its militants are putting forward demands for an end to current neoliberal economic policies, an end to ‘white’ (short-term) contracts, the right to set up independent workers’ organisations and the right to strike. Rather than supporting holocaust deniers such as Ahmadinejad or tailing reformist Islamists, the radical left in Europe and the US must do all in its power to promote these demands – not only for the sake of the Iranian working class, but because what happens in Iran will be crucial for the future of the whole region.