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Protests in Iran: The international dimension

January 19, 2018
Fifth fleet

U.S. Fifth Fleet is based 200 km. from Iran’s seacoast.

By John Riddell: The four articles on social protests in Iran published on January 2 and 9 in Socialist Project’s online blog, The Bullet, offer little on-the-spot news but raise major issues of political analysis that deserve attention. In particularly, the articles do not link progressive struggles by worker and social movements within the country to issues raised by the external threats against Iran.

For the Bullet articles, see:

I have been a partisan of the national and social liberation process in Iran for half a century, but always from afar. I lack close knowledge of conditions in Iran and cannot judgment on workers’ and social struggles there. Still, I am concerned regarding the four Bullet articles’ treatment of external threats.

Some other significant recent articles on Iran are referenced below in the appendix to this post. Among them is a fifth article in Bullet: “The Iran Protests: A Third Path to Political Change,” posted on January 17. Its thrust is different from the first four; I comment on it briefly in appendix 2.

Danger from the Right

All four Bullet articles are supportive of anti-governmental protests in Iran but warn of the danger that they may be co-opted by rightist forces.

  1. The International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran stresses that they “strongly oppose and condemn” interference by Trump and his allies and call for increased efforts “in identifying and isolating the right-wing, nationalist and pro-imperialist elements.”
  2. The Tudeh Party also warns that an alliance of forces outside Iran led by Trump seeks to “replace the current reactionary regime with another reactionary regime.”
  3. Writer Frida Afary warns that the protest movement “faces the danger of being taken over by right-wing populists or monarchists and becoming a pawn in the imperialist rivalries.”
  4. For Araz Bağban, “It is possible that the reactionary forces of society would confiscate the gains of such a protest movement.”

A lack of clarity on imperialist pressures

However, all of the texts, in different ways, downplay the grave threat to the Iranian people and nation posed by the U.S.-led imperialist alliance (in which Canada is fully engaged). Thus:

  1. The International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran, while opposing war moves against Iran, warns that “what has taken place between U.S. imperialism and its allies and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran and its allies has no progressive sides.”
  2. Araz Bağban cautions against “an abstract anti-imperialist approach” without suggesting any substitute.
  3. For Frieda Afary, “Deepening the content of the current protest movement is the best way to challenge and oppose imperialist war drives.”
  4. In calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic (“mobilization of all the national, anti-dictatorship and freedom-loving forces to abolish the despotic and anti-people theocratic regime”), the Tudeh Party does not include any proviso regarding defense of national sovereignty. Like the International Alliance, it opposes war moves against Iran but does not link this stand to its proposals for the protest movement.

The threat against Iran

It’s useful to briefly review the nature of the warlike threats by the Western imperialist countries. Despite the international agreement in 2015 to normalize relations between Iran and the West, which resolved the main point under dispute between the two sides, the U.S. and Canada have maintained their sanctions against Iran. To the north and east of Iran in central Asia, the U.S. has been obliged to abandon its military bases, but U.S. armed forces continue to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran’s east and west and to bomb areas of Pakistan near Iran’s border. The seas to Iran’s south are heavily patrolled by the U.S. navy. U.S. and Israeli forces are aggressively armed with nuclear weapons and have drawn up plans to use them against Iran.

South of Iran, Saudi Arabia has been waging a brutal war against the people of Yemen with U.S. and UK backing and, more recently, with direct U.S. participation. The Saudi regime is trying, through embargo, to force Qatar to break relations with Iran. To the west, the NATO powers waged war against the Libyan state and succeeded in shattering it; there has been no recovery. The Israeli regime is increasingly brazen in locking Palestinians into limitless apartheid.

The Western sanctions against Iran have been in place for 39 years, ever since the 1979 revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. monarchy. The hostile actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran continue despite the absence of any significant issue in dispute between the two sides.

Socialists need to take sides

The statement by the International Alliance in Defense of Workers in Iran (“no progressive sides”) suggests a neutral stance in the conflict between imperialism and Iran. We must reject such a “third camp” position; against U.S.-led attacks, we stand with Iran. Yes, the Iranian regime has a lot to answer for. Yes, it could conceivably accept an offer from imperialism harmful to Iran’s interests, but at present it has not done so. The government’s refusal to bow to imperialist threats sets an example for other countries and peoples and creates political and economic space for the survival of other countries that also choose to assert their independence.

Araz Bağban’s warning against “abstract anti-imperialism” is linked to comments regarding Iran’s engagement in struggles in the region. So let us be more specific: What is this engagement?:

  1. Iran collaborates with the recognized government of Iraq and thereby clashes with the U.S. desire for a completely subservient Iraqi government.
  2. Iran supports Palestinian and Lebanese forces (Hamas and Hezbollah) resisting the assaults of the U.S.-subsidized Israeli army. The U.S. and Canada, with no justification, term those forces “terrorist.”
  3. Iran supports one side (the “Houthis”) in the civil war in Yemen, which faces an armed intervention from Saudi Arabia, backed by the U.S.
  4. Iran gives assistance to the internationally recognized government of Syria in its resistance to insurrectionary and interventionist forces.

There is little cause for objection in the first three points. The key point here is Iran’s role in Syria, which is repugnant to many socialists. This deserves discussion. But whatever criticisms one may make of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is not Iran that has shredded peace and stability in the region but rather, above all, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and their allies. Criticism of Tehran’s foreign policy is no reason to deny support to the nation of Iran against imperialist attacks.

Afary’s confidence that the protest movement will necessarily weaken imperialist pressure is contradicted by her report of “a strong nationalist tone to some of the slogans [in recent protests] such as ‘Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran.’” In criticizing such comments, Afary confirms that the protest movement’s attitude to imperialism is not pre-determined and will be defined by its political orientation. An openly anti-imperialist stance by protesters helps assure that their movement stands as an obstacle to Trump and his warmakers.

Alone among the four statements, that of the Tudeh Party calls for the overthrow (“open fight against the rule”) of the government of Iran. The statement does not say what Tudeh proposes in place of this government. Its phrasing could be interpreted as a call for insurrection. Yet the recent protests, for all their promise, were relatively small in size, lacking in cohesion, and unclear in program; they provide no mandate for overthrowing the Islamic Republic.

Indeed, the Tudeh statement appears to concede this point by simultaneously explaining that the task of socialists is to patiently explain their views to the protest movement to avoid it being “hijacked by a bunch of reactionary opportunists.”

Frieda Afary delivers a cogent warning on this point with reference to experience elsewhere in the region: “For those Iranians opposed to all these actors and genuinely hoping for a liberatory movement, it is extremely important to learn from the lessons of the Syrian revolution.” She could also have pointed to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, or Ukraine. In all five cases insurrectional movements ended in either a rightist pro-imperialist consolidation, imperialist intervention, the state’s collapse into murderous anarchy, or all of the above.

Defense of Iran

What is missing from all four statements is a recognition that, while Iranian workers and capitalists are contending for influence in the Iranian state, there is a third force at work: U.S.-led imperialism. Scores of nations around the world suffer from imperialist domination. For socialists, the strategic remedy is well known and has often been tested: strive for social justice and democracy while simultaneously standing firm against the foreign oppressor. In line with this concept, anti-imperialism in Iran has nothing to do with support of the regime in Tehran and is a necessary component of a working-class program.

This insight is missing from the four Bullet articles. True, there is some criticism of U.S. sanctions and threats, but these passages are disconnected from the process in Iran. They fail to explain that the people in countries in the West have an urgent obligation to build an international solidarity movement with Iran. There are warnings against a right-wing takeover in Iran, but the external point of support of this threat is not identified. Missing is a vital strategic principle: working-class struggle in Iran needs to be fused with resistance to imperialist attacks on Iran and the entire region.

The unmentioned revolution

Notably absent from the four articles is any mention of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which was inspired by goals of national independence and social justice (see appendix 3). It shattered the pro-U.S. monarchical dictatorship, ended a quarter-century of effective U.S. trusteeship over the country, and established Iranian national sovereignty.

A few months later, the Islamic Republic was approved by overwhelming vote in a popular referendum. In the years that followed, a partial counterrevolution unfolded in which repressive capitalist rule was firmly established. The 39 years of U.S. hostility to Iran has nothing to do with Islam or Iran’s form of government—it is founded in U.S. hatred of the Iranian masses for daring to rise up and overthrow a U.S. client regime.

The various spurious charges during the past 39 years (“rogue state,” “axis of evil,” “revisionist,” “terrorist,” “nuclear weapons,” etc.) and the uproar over Iran’s nuclear energy program all speak to the fact that, however much the Iranian government may desire an accommodation with the West, the spirit of 1979 is still alive among the Iranian people.

The goal of Washington and its allies from the start has been to reverse the Iranian revolution and bring the country back into compliance as a subordinate unit of the imperialist world system. The regime in Tehran is already applying aspects of imperialism’s favoured neoliberal policy in the form of austerity. That is what triggered the recent protests. U.S. policy does not exclude an accommodation with Tehran, but does seek to extirpate the remaining legacy of 1979 by dealing devastating blows to Iranian sovereignty and the livelihood of working class people in the cities and countryside.

The authors in The Bullet are right to argue for a progressive vision of Iran’s future, as opposed to reactionary and monarchist alternatives. But such a progressive vision needs to encompass explicitly upholding Iranian sovereignty against imperialism. All the world’s people have a stake in upholding this principle.

End Canada’s sanctions

The Bullet articles do not address Canada’s policy on Iran. Yet Canadian policy is the link through which all of us in Canada are tied to the struggle over Iran’s future

Canada maintains a formidable list of prohibitions against various forms of economic relations with Iran. Such punishment contrasts with the Canadian government’s unyielding approval of arms sales to warlike Saudi Arabia. Sanctions against Iran should be opposed in their totality, and this issue should be encompassed in any collective expression of support for the Iranian people. Pressure to end the reprisals and war drive against Iran offer the best way for us in Canada to help Iranian people in their efforts to achieve social justice.

Appendix: Six additional views on Iran

  1. Among the many comments on the left about the Iranian protests, few originate from within Iran. One notable exception is “Statement by a Number of Labour Organizations about the Recent Protests,” which presents a hard-hitting program of democratic and social demands, although without reference to international factors.
  2. The fifth Bullet article on Iran this month, “The Iran Protests: A Third Path to Political Change,” by Fouad Oveisy and Behnam Amini, is principally a criticism of the reformist wing of Iran’s bourgeois mainstream. Otherwise, it does not add significantly to the four texts reviewed above, except in that it omits any reference to dangers from rightist currents or to imperialist pressures.
  3. On January 11, Jacobin published “The Moral Economy of the Iran Protests,” an insightful commentary of the social and historical roots that highlights the achievements and legacy of the 1979 revolution. The commentary also describes ecological devastation in Iran. Again, imperialist threats are not discussed.
  4. The ecological roots of protest are discussed in compelling detail in “A Long-Simmering Factor in Iran Protests; Climate Change,” by Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim, which appeared in The Los Angeles Times on January 17. It does not address, however, the international or national political dimension of the protest movement.
  5. Patrick Cockburn’s article, ”The Destabilizer: Trump’s Escalating Threats against Iran” (Counterpunch, January 18) surveys Iran’s present international situation.
  6. Barry Sheppard, writing in Green Left Weekly January 18 (“Reflecting on the Iranian Protests from the West”), calls for demands to end sanctions against Iran and to re-establish diplomatic relations as a concrete way to aid the protest movement.
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7 Comments
  1. Isn’t it time we kept our noses out of other countries business!! While the so-called left in the imperialist world coudn’t fight its way out of a paper bag, we’re forever telling people elsewhere how to fight their fight! I’m sick and tired of it! Tariq Ali telling Syria that Assad has go and now telling the workers of Iran how they should behave. When will these social imperialists pack iit in?

  2. Anne McShane permalink

    Dear John

    I am surprised that you have not included any articles from Yassamine Mather leading Iranian expert and activist. I attach a link to a number of her articles which are important to include in any survey of left wing analysis.

    http://hopoi.org/

    Best wishes

    Anne McShane

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Richard Fidler permalink

    Some Canadian government sanctions have been relaxed. Here’s the inventory: http://www.international.gc.ca/sanctions/countries-pays/iran.aspx?lang=eng So it is not completely correct to state that “the U.S. and Canada have maintained their sanctions against Iran.” In fact, one of the grievances voiced in the mass protests in Iran is precisely that because of the regime’s class corruption, the anticipated beneficial social effects of that relaxation of sanctions have not materialized.

    I always thought the united front, anti-imperialist or otherwise, included “marching separately” with our own class-based positions while “striking together” against the common enemy. The Arab Spring, and now the Iranian upsurge, are putting these concepts to the test, and illustrating in new ways some of the possible applications. It is significant that an important demand raised in the Iran protests is for an end to Tehran’s military intervention in support of Assad in Syria, and for solidarity with the Palestinians in their opposition to Israel.

    Richard

  4. I take John, that you don’t intend to publish my responses? Democracy. in action?

    • Thanks for your contributions. WordPress no longer permits me to respond to you offline, so I’ll take this occasion to reply.

      The Iran discussion among socialists is deformed by a great deal of personal abuse, and so I feel compelled to apply this website’s Comments Policy to exclude that. I hope you will resubmit your useful comments in that framework.

      https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/about-2/comments-policy/

  5. My first reaction to POTUS Trump’s tweets voicing his supposed support for the demonstrations was: this is the worst thing Trump can do to the demonstrators, his “support” is actually the kiss of death for that mobilisation. And I think that this vociferous “support” by imperialist powers was a factor strengthening the counter-mobilisation of the regime and to end the demonstrations against it.

    Generally, it has long been my position regarding calls for e.g. “down with Bashar Assad” or “down with Saddam Hussein”, that those semi-colonial countries surely need a new leadership, namely one which is better able to mobilise the whole nation against the imperialist infringements of the country’s sovereignty and independence.

    And that this is possible only on the basis of the interests of the poorest and most oppressed layers of the population.

    • I remember a TV interview given in the early months of the “Arab Spring” rebellion in Syria by Bashar Assad to, if I remember correctly, to a French TV programme.

      The interviewer challenged Bashar Al-Assad for the violent suppression of the mass demonstrations, including by shooting with live bullets, and Assad replied “But I have to keep the nation together!” — by shooting on the people?

      No, the unity of the nation can only be the result of free decisions for a free association.

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