Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear’

Iran: Arrogance and the supreme leader

Friday, July 11th, 2014

khaThe 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.


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


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.











10. Ibid.


Iran: Reform and Revolution

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

8mars2Recent news about Iran has been dominated by U.S. attempts to increase sanctions, and one could be forgiven for thinking the world hegemonic capitalist power is preparing war against a major nuclear power. The reality is far different: all the fuss is about a country where nine months of mass protests have not only weakened the state but also divided the ruling circles, making reconciliation at the top impossible. We are talking of a country where neoliberal policies and sanctions have created a serious economic crisis, with inflation projections of 50 percent this spring and youth unemployment estimated at 70 percent. So why are the U.S. and world media obsessed with the “threat posed by Iran”? — a threat that must be curtailed with “severe” sanctions or war? And what is the future for the protest movement in the midst of all this?

Current threats against Iran have little to do with nuclear issues. Iran is still two to five years away from achieving nuclear weapons capability. The drive for new sanctions cannot be understood unless one looks at the history of U.S. relations with Iran’s Islamic regime. The 1979 revolution deprived Washington of one of its most important allies in the Middle East, and the world superpower cannot be seen to be losing control in such a strategic area. Iran’s territorial waters include the Straits of Hormuz through which 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments flow. Also, at a time of world economic crisis the United States and its allies need a place to assert their authority. Yet since the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq they have inadvertently increased Iran’s regional influence and strength.

The continuation of the conflict has another major cause. Iran’s Islamic regime has relied on crises and foreign enemies to survive. Otherwise how could it explain its failure to achieve any of the basic demands of 1979 after 31 years in power? The “external” enemy is also essential for justifying continued repression.

Iranian workers and political activists (with the possible exception of supporters of the former Shah) are unanimous: new “crippling” sanctions, bombing Iranian nuclear sites, or a military attack would be a disaster. Sanctions will let the regime off the hook, as the regime will blame severe economic conditions entirely on the embargo.

In April of this year Washington unveiled its new nuclear policy, which limits its use of nuclear weapons but excludes from its pledge “outliers” such as Iran and North Korea. Protests and demonstrations inside Iran should be seen within this context. The protests continue due to the tenacity and courage of thousands of Iranians, though more sporadically in the face of severe repression. But everyone, from government to “reformists” to revolutionary opposition, now agrees that the protests are no longer about who should be “president,” but about the very existence of the religious state.

Reports from some recent protests suggest that for the first time in the last 30 years many women demonstrators didn’t wear head-scarves or hijabs. On December 27, 2009, security forces at a number of locations had to retreat, as demonstrators burned police vehicles and basij posts and erected barricades. Videos show instances where police and basij were captured and detained by demonstrators and three police stations in Tehran were briefly occupied. Demonstrators also set fire to Tehran’s Bank Saderat.

Since early 2010 basij and Revolutionary Guards have been unleashed to further impose an atmosphere of terror. Hundreds have been incarcerated, arrested worker activists have been fired, and leftists have been rounded up and in some cases issued death sentences.

Conservative Divisions

Despite the bravado of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the demonstrations of 2009-10 have divided the conservatives. While supporters of Ahmadinejad openly call for more arrests and even execution of political opponents, the parliamentary “principalists” preach caution.

In January 2010, a parliamentary committee publicly blamed Tehran’s former prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, a close ally of Ahmadinejad’s, for the death of three prisoners arrested in June. The committee found that Mortazavi had confined 147 opposition supporters and 30 criminals to a cell measuring only 70 square meters. The inmates were frequently beaten and spent days without food or water.

Ali Motahhari, a prominent fundamentalist parliamentarian, told the magazine Iran Dokht: “Under the current circumstances, moderates should be in charge of the country’s affairs.” He suggested holding Ahmadinejad accountable for the prison deaths and for fuelling the post-election turmoil. Iranian state television broadcasts debates between “radical” and “moderate” conservatives, in which some blame Ahmadinejad for the crisis. There are two reasons for this dramatic change in line:

  1. The winter demonstrations were a turning point, in that both conservatives and “reformists” came to realize how the anger and frustration of ordinary Iranians was taking revolutionary forms.
  2. The principalists are responding to a number of “proposals” by leading “reformists” — as a last attempt to save the Islamic Republic. Fearful of revolution, “reformists” — from June 2009 presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi to former president Mohammad Khatami — have made conciliatory statements, and the moderate conservatives have responded positively.

In a clear sign that “reformists” have heard the cry of revolution, Moussavi’s initial response to the winter 2009 demonstrations was to distance himself from them, emphasizing that neither he nor Mehdi Karroubi had called for them. His January 1 statement “Five stages to resolution” was a signal to both his supporters and opponents that this was truly the last chance to save the regime.

Western reportage of the statement concentrated on his comment “I am ready to sacrifice my life for reform.” Iranians are well known for their love of “martyrdom,” from Ashura to the Fedayeen Islam in 1946, to the Marxist Fedayeen (1970s-80s). Iranians have been mesmerized by the Shia concept of martyrdom, a yearning to put their lives at risk for what they see as a “revolutionary cause.” But Moussavi will no doubt go down in history as the first Iranian to put his life on the line for the cause of “reform” and compromise!

Moussavi’s plan was seen as a compromise because it did not challenge the legitimacy of the current president and “presents a way out of the current impasse,” demanding more freedom for the “reformist” politicians, activists and press, as well as accountability of government forces, while reaffirming allegiance to the constitution of the Islamic regime, as well as the existing “judicial and executive powers.”

Moussavi’s statement was followed on January 4 by a “10-point proposal” from the self-appointed “ideologues” in exile of Iran’s Islamic “reformist” movement: Akbar Ganji, Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, Abdolali Bazargan and Ataollah Mohajerani.[1] Fearful that Moussavi’s plan will be seen as too much of a compromise, the five call for the resignation of Ahmadinejad and fresh elections under the supervision of a new independent commission to replace that of the Guardian Council. Later Khatami and another former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, publicly declared their support for the compromise, while condemning “radicals and rioters.” Khatami went further, insulting demonstrators who called for the overthrow of the Islamic regime.

All in all, winter was a busy time for Iran’s “reformists,” terrified by the radicalism of the demonstrators and desperate to save the clerical regime. Inevitably the reformist left, led by the Fedayeen Majority, is submissively following the Moussavi-Khatami line. However, inside Iran there are signs that the leadership of the Green movement is facing a serious crisis. None of the proposals address the most basic democratic demand of growing numbers of Iranian protestors: separation of state and religion.

On the Iranian left, arguments about the “principal contradiction” and “stages of revolution” seem to dominate current debates. While some Maoists argue for a “democratic stage” of the revolution, citing the relative weakness of the organized working class, the Coordinating Committee for the Setting Up of Workers’ Organizations (Comite Hahamhangi) points out that the dominant contradiction in Iran, a country where 70 percent of the population lives in urban areas, is between labor and capital. They say that the level and depth of workers’ struggles show radicalism and levels of organization and that the Iranian working class is the only force capable of delivering radical democracy.

Leftwing organizations and their supporters are also discussing the lessons of the recent demonstrations. Sections of the police and soldiers are refusing to shoot demonstrators and the issue of organizing radical conscripts in order to divide and reduce the power of the state’s repressive forces must be addressed. In some working class districts around major cities the organization of neighborhood shoras (councils) has started.

Official celebrations of the 1979 uprising that brought down the shah’s regime stood in total contrast to the events of 31 years ago. The state’s lengthy preparations for the anniversary of the revolution included the arrest of hundreds of political activists, hanging two prisoners (for “waging war on god”), and blocking internet and satellite communications. The government brought busloads of basij paramilitaries and people from the provinces to boost the number of its supporters — it considers the majority of the inhabitants of Tehran to be opponents.

The 48-hour internet and satellite blackout was so comprehensive that the regime succeeded in stopping its own international media communications. The basij blocked all routes to Azadi Square by 9 a.m. and dispersed large crowds of oppositionists who had gathered at Ghadessiyeh Square and other intersections, preventing them from reaching the official celebration. From the speakers’ podium, surrounded by basij and Revolutionary Guards, many dressed in military uniform, Ahmadinejad produced yet another fantastic claim. In the two days since his instruction to step up centrifuge-based uranium enrichment from 3 percent to 20 percent, this had already been achieved! Nuclear scientists are unanimous that such a feat is impossible. The crude display of military power, typical of the state-organized shows that dictators have always staged, together with the severe repression in the run-up to the anniversary, had nothing to do with the revolution it was supposed to commemorate.

In fact, the events of February 11, 2010 were the exact opposite of February 10-11, 1979, when the masses took to the streets and attacked the regime’s repressive forces, when prison doors were broken down by the crowds and political prisoners released, when army garrisons were ransacked and the crowds took weapons to their homes and workplaces, when the offices of the shah’s secret police were occupied by the Fedayeen, and when air force cadets turned their weapons against their superiors, paving the way for a popular uprising.

The show put on by our tin-pot dictators was an insult to the memory of that uprising. Yet despite all the efforts and mobilization preceding the official demonstration, despite the fact that confused and at times conciliatory messages of “reformist” leaders had disarmed sections of the Green movement, the regime could muster only 50,000 supporters. Meanwhile tens of thousands in Tehran and other cities took part in opposition protests — even in the streets close to Azadi Square, despite the presence of large numbers of basij. The protests were so loud that, according to Tehran residents, the state broadcast of Ahmadinejad’s speech had to be halted and instead TV stations showed the flags and crowds to the accompaniment of stirring music. Fearing that the basij might not be able to control the protesters gathering in neighboring squares, the government decided to start its extravagant ceremony early and then cut it short.

Attempts at compromise by Green movement leaders in open and secret negotiations with the office of the “supreme leader” failed.[2] By early February, it was clear that no deal was in the cards. As always, the main problem with our “reformists” is that by remaining loyal to the “supreme leader,”[3] by condemning the popular slogan, “Down with the Islamic regime,” they fail to understand the mood of those who have taken to the streets. The movement is adamant in its call for an end to the current religious state — the repeated shouts of “Death to the dictator” are directed at the so-called “supreme leader” himself.

The February protests marked a setback for Moussavi and Karroubi — not just in their politics, but also in their tactics. First, it is foolhardy to organize demonstrations to coincide with the official calendar of events, as it allows the regime to plan repression well in advance. Second, it was absurd to call on people to join the regime’s demonstrations and, third, opposition to a dictatorship cannot simply rely on demonstrations. The state has unleashed its most brutal forces against street protesters, and we need to consider strikes and other acts of civil disobedience.

A lot has been written by Persian bloggers about the “lack of charisma” of Moussavi and Karroubi. However, the truth is their main problem is not personality, but dithering. This has cost them dearly at a time when opposition to the regime in its entirety is growing. The Islamic version of capitalism has brought about much harsher conditions for the working class and the poor. The state’s own statistics show a constant growth in the gap between rich and poor. The impoverishment of the middle classes, the abject poverty of the working class, the destitution and hunger of the shantytown-dwellers — these are reasons why the urban protests continue.

On February 15 Hillary Clinton cited the economic and political power of the Revolutionary Guards as a sign that “Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship.” Yet there is nothing new in the power of the Revolutionary Guards. Since 1979 they have been the single most important pillar of the state, involved in every aspect of political and military power. What is new is their involvement in capitalist ventures, empowered by the relentless privatization plans driven by the IMF and World Bank.

In recent years Revolutionary Guards have accumulated vast fortunes through the acquisition of privatized capital — precisely the pattern seen in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Those in power, often with direct connections to military and security forces, are able to purchase the newly privatized industries. That is the case with many U.S. allies, yet we have not heard the State Department criticize “creeping military dictatorships” in those countries.

No doubt, as repression increases, Iranians’ hatred of the basij and Revolutionary Guards will increase. However, they don’t need the crocodile tears of the U.S. administration — indeed interventions like those of Clinton and condemnations of the repression coming from the U.S. and European governments tend to damage the movement. Iranians are well aware of the kind of “democratic havens” created by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the last thing they want is regime change U.S.-style.

Working Class Response

As repression increases and mass demonstrations are replaced with localized protests, many point out the significance of workers’ strikes in the overthrow of the Shah’s regime and attention is turning towards the unprecedented levels of worker protests. In the words of one labor activist, “a Tsunami of workers’ strikes.”[4] Even before the new sanctions, the economic situation has worsened. Hundreds of car workers — the elite of Iran’s working class — are being sacked every week.

The involvement of the working class in the political arena has increased qualitatively. Four workers’ organizations — the Syndicate of Vahed Bus Workers, the Haft Tapeh sugar cane grouping, the Electricity and Metal Workers Council in Kermanshah, and the Independent Free Union — published a joint statement declaring support for the protests and specifying what they call the minimum demands of the working class. These include an end to executions, release of imprisoned activists, freedom of the press and media, the right to set up workers’ organizations, job security, abolition of all misogynist legislation, declaration of May 1 as a public holiday, and expulsion from workplaces of government-run organizations. Meanwhile, Tehran’s bus workers have issued a call for civil disobedience to protest against the holding of Mansour Osanloo in prison.

Workers involved in setting up nationwide councils have issued a radical political statement regarding what they see as the priority demands that Iranian workers ought to raise. Emphasizing the need to address the long-term political interests of the working class, they also call for unity based around immediate economic and political demands.

There are reports of strikes and demonstrations in one of Iran’s largest industrial complexes, Isfahan’s steel plant, where privatization and contract employment have led to action by the workers. Leftwing oil workers/employees are reporting disillusionment with Moussavi and the “reformist” camp amongst fellow workers and believe there is an opportunity to radicalize protests in this industry, which is critical to the regime’s survival.

In March 2010, many prominent labor activists, including Osanloo, who are currently in prison, were sacked from their jobs for “failing to turn up at work,” prompting protests in bus depots and the Haft Tapeh sugar cane plant. In December 2009 Lastic Alborz factory workers struck for unpaid wages. There have been protests at dozens of other workplaces.

Future of the Protests

Even if the two main factions of the regime had achieved a compromise, it was unlikely that such a move could have defused the movement. However Moussavi, Karroubi and Khatami have failed to gain anything from their attempts at “reconciliation”; they are well aware that any additional talk of compromise will further reduce their influence amongst protesters. That explains recent statements by Moussavi, who in early April told a group of reformists in Parliament that the Iranian establishment continued to lose legitimacy: “One of the problems is that the government thinks that it has ended the dissent by ending the street protests.”[5]

Moussavi said that people have lost confidence in the state because of widespread corruption, incompetence and mismanagement since the presidential election. He said the movement needed to expand its influence among social groups like teachers and workers. “Our interests are intertwined with their interests, and we need to defend their rights,” he said. Khatami echoed this message: “If the authorities do not come up with effective policies the coming year will be the year of social crises.”[6]

Iran is bracing itself for another turbulent year, and most observers believe the working class and youth will play a greater role in the coming protests.

By Yassamine Mather: from New Politics

Threats over uranium enrichment aid regime

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009
We don’t want nuclear power - we don’t want huge salaries. We work so that we can live - we don’t live to work.

We don’t want nuclear power - we don’t want huge salaries. We work so that we can live - we don’t live to work.

Ahmadinejad uses the ‘enemy without’ to justify increased repression, arrests and the torture of the ‘enemy within’, writes Yassamine Mather

The dramatic statements by Obama, Brown and Sarkozy about Iran’s undisclosed nuclear enrichment plant, made in a ‘breaking news’-style press conference on the first day of the G20 gathering in Pittsburgh, were clearly intended to prepare the world for a new conflict in the Middle East. The presentation of the ‘news’ and the language used in delivering the threats were reminiscent of the warnings about Iraq’s ‘45-minute’ strike capability.

According to Obama, “Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on October 1 they are going to have to come clean, and they will have to make a choice.” The alternative to sticking to ‘international rules’ on Iran’s nuclear development, would be “a path that is going to lead to confrontation”.

Yet in some ways the existence of a second uranium enrichment plant is old news. By all accounts US and UK secret services had known about this plant for at least three years – Israel and France also knew about it for some time and had delivered their finding to the International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this year. The ‘dramatic’ disclosures came at a time when Russia was already on board regarding further sanctions. Given its billion-dollar trade with Iran, China – one of Iran’s major commercial partners – is unlikely to change its opposition to further sanctions.

So what was the main purpose of the Obama-Sarkozy-Brown show on September 25? Could it be it was directed mainly to audiences in the US, UK and France, to convince them that, at a time of economic uncertainty, western leaders have to deal with a ‘major external threat’ posed by Iran’s nuclear development?

But the elephant in that press conference room was the Israeli nuclear programme. While Iran might be approaching nuclear military capability by 2010-15 (no-one is claiming it has such capability now), another ‘religious’ state in the Middle East is exempt from IAEA regulations and possesses between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads (this according to US estimates), yet it maintains a policy of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ on whether it has nuclear weapons.

Former IAEA director general Mohamed El Baradei regarded Israel as a state possessing nuclear weapons, but there has been no IAEA inspection, hence the ambiguity over the number of warheads it possesses. Strictly speaking, as a beneficiary of the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since World War II, Israel is not supposed to have any. Yet every year the US congress approves billions of dollars of US military aid to Israel. For the fiscal year 2010, Obama is requesting $2.775 billion.

The Symington and Glenn amendments to foreign aid law specifically prohibit US aid to nuclear states outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has signed the NPT. Israel has not.

Of course, none of this justifies the Iranian rulers’ obsession with reaching a stage where they can produce nuclear weapons. Unlike middle class nationalist Iranians, who even in their opposition to the regime, favour the government’s nuclear programme, the Iranian working class has been clear on this issue, as shown by placards on recent demonstrations: “We don’t want nuclear power – we don’t want huge salaries. We work so that we can live – we don’t live to work.”

Millions of Iranian workers have not been paid for months, while capitalists and the religious government keep telling them of Iran’s economic crisis and shortfalls in both the state and private funds, yet the Islamic regime seems to have sufficient funds to equip one more nuclear enrichment plant, paying billions – presumably to dubious sources – for black market equipment. The current escalation of the conflict also exposes the stupidity of the Iranian rulers who only admitted to the existence of this ‘secret’ plant after its existence was ‘exposed’.

Of course, Iranians have become so used to hearing total lies from the leaders of all factions of the Islamic regime that the revelation of the existence of this facility, hidden not far from the capital, did not come as a surprise. After all, this is the same government that used Photoshop to pretend a failed rocket did succesfully launch, the same government that cheated in the presidential elections, then lied about the number of people killed in the subsequent protests, and the same government whose president claims to have seen a white light descending from another world while he was addressing the UN assembly in 2007.

Further sanctions will bring more poverty for Iranian workers and it will be the Iranian people who will pay the price for the foolishness of the very leaders they have been protesting against for over two months. The US is keen on sanctions against companies exporting refined oil to Iran (which imports 60% of its requirements). It now looks like France and Germany are sceptical about such sanctions. They refer to the Iraq experience and the ease with which petrol can be smuggled across land borders.

The Iranian government has already indicated that it will cut petrol subsidies. It is blaming the west and hopes such a move will unite the country against the ‘foreign enemy’. Contrary to the pessimism of sections of the Iranian left in exile who ‘despair’ of the growth of the ‘Green’ movement or who have joined the bandwagon behind ‘reformist’ presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi, workers in oil refineries in Iran are well aware of the historic role of their class in the current situation and there have been discussions regarding strikes in this industry for the last few weeks. These workers have two valid concerns: (1) that their strike should not benefit Moussavi (he is hated by these workers, some of whom remember his time in power); and (2) that their strike should not help US efforts for regime change from above.

Western countries are also considering options including an embargo on investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector, an end to loan guarantees to all companies investing in Iran, a ban on Iranian businesses trading in euros, and a ban on foreign companies insuring Iranian shipping and air transport. All of these measures will target the Iranian people, the majority of whom hate the clerical state.

UN lies

If the Iranian government lied about its nuclear installations, Ahmadinejad’s speech last week at the UN was also full of deceit. His holocaust-denial comments, repeated in every interview he gave while in the US, were a deliberate attempt to divert attention from mass protests at home and to heighten the tension with the rest of the world. This regime and this president rely on foreign crises to survive – he desperately needs enemies abroad to divert attention from problems at home, and the Obama-Brown-Sarkozy trio gave him that.

However, his speech contained other lies. The man who has printed money in an attempt to solve Iran’s economic problems told the world: “It is no longer possible to inject thousands of billions of dollars of unreal wealth into the world economy simply by printing worthless paper assets, or transfer inflation as well as social and economic problems to others through creating severe budget deficits.” He also criticised “liberal capitalism” (as opposed to clerical capitalism?). After all, this is the president of a government that is busy privatising every industry in Iran, from services in the oil industry to car plants and Iran’s national telecommunications. The telecom company was privatised and sold to the ‘revolutionary guards’ in the last week of September, although Iran’s ‘monopoly regulatory commission’ is now said to be investigating this.

However, such actions by Iran’s Sepah Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) do not imply that the country is under military capitalist rule: they are controlled by the most conservative sections of Iran’s clerical elite. The Pasdaran ownership of the telecommunication services is only another success for supreme leader Ali Khamenei, his son and the clerics around him, as this ideological military force has no life and no significance without clerical rule.

The few delegates in the UN assembly hall who heard Ahmadinejad condemn the excesses of “liberal capitalism” might have thought Iran is an egalitarian religious society. Nothing could be further from reality. After 30 years in power Iran’s Islamic regime has created one of the most unequal, corrupt societies of the region, where the gap between the rich and the poor is amongst the highest in the world. As Ahmadinejad was speaking, Iran’s car workers (amongst the best paid sections of the working class) were protesting at long shifts causing ill health and workers throughout Iran were on strike or demonstrating against non-payment of wages. While factory closures due to privatisation continue, Aryaman Motors, a Tehran-based company specialising in reproducing classic cars, launched a new series of replica vehicles based on the original design of the earliest Rolls Royce models at $120,000 each – wealthy Iranians have already pre-paid for the first models that will be finished later this year.

In his speech Ahmadinejad also referred to the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, failing to mention Iran’s role in support of US aggression in both – as leaders of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran keep reminding us! The Iranian president then referred to breaches of human rights in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Of course, it is inevitable that abuse of human rights by the ‘torch holders’ of liberal democracy in the US and the UK will be used by every tinpot leader in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere to justify the torture and execution of opponents. The Iranian president is the leader of a government that has killed at least 72 civilians and tortured hundreds in the last two months alone, yet the actions of western governments allow him to stand up in New York and give moral lectures about ‘human right abuses’. We truly live in irrational times.

Protests and divisions

The first days of the new university term in Iran saw major protests on campuses throughout the country – the largest being at Tehran University on September 27-28. Students shouted “Death to the dictator” and booed the new minister of higher education. Security forces retreated from the campus. On Tuesday September 29 students protested at Sharif University, once more causing the minister for higher education to abandon plans to speak. Meanwhile, security forces are warning football crowds not to chant political slogans at the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis on October 2.

As former president and leading ‘reformist’ Ali Akbar Rafsanjani continues his efforts to find a compromise between the regime’s warring factions, the first signs of a rift amongst ‘reformists’ has appeared. In an open letter addressed to Rafsanjani, another ‘reformist’ presidential candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, writes: “What is your answer to the people who, under dangerous conditions, question the actions of the Assembly of Experts under your leadership? … By what measure have you preserved the ideals of the revolution in your role as chair of the Assembly of Experts, whose first duty is fighting injustice?”

Moussavi’s latest statement on September 28 is also predictably uninspiring. Its repeated references to the “wisdom” of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, confirmed his continued allegiance to the ‘imam’s line’. But this will not gain him much support amongst young Iranians, who will not accept any solution short of the overthrow of the entire regime. Moussavi’s call on his supporters to “avoid any radical measures which could damage the achievements so far made by the opposition” expose once more his fear of radical change and his determination to save the religious state.

All this is very good news for the revolutionary forces. However, the threat of sanctions and war only strengthens Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. In the words of UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, any “rush to punitive sanctions – tightened to the point where ordinary Iranians, already suffering the effects of chronic unemployment, had to endure petrol shortages or big fuel price hikes – could backfire spectacularly”.

Hands Off the People of Iran has always condemned sanctions and threats of war against Iran. We oppose them not only because we want to see imperialism defeated, but because they increase patriotism and nationalism, thus helping the reactionary regime. The government will use the ‘threat of the enemy without’ to increase repression, to arrest and torture its ‘enemy within’. Sanctions disorganise the working class, as people are forced to squander their fighting energies on day-to-day struggles to keep their jobs and feed their families – Iranian oil workers are right to be concerned about going on strike at a time when sanctions will also target ‘imported refined oil’.

The proposed US-European sanctions dramatically degrade the ability of the working people to struggle collectively on their own account, to organise and to fight. In other words, for the sake of Iranian working class we must continue our opposition to war, sanctions and regime change from above, while increasing our solidarity with the revolutionary movement inside Iran.