Sunday, August 2, 2009

Iran: Hope and anticipation

Hope and anticipation

Afshin is a student at Tehran University who was involved in the protests following the presidential elections. He spoke to the Weekly Worker

Can you explain what happened and the reaction from the authorities?

The protest at Tehran University was one of the first post-election movements. Students started to gather near the main gate chanting slogans such as ‘Death to the dictator’. This was the same day as Ahmadinejad’s celebration rally in Vali Asr Square - very close to the university. Afterwards some of his supporters, including plain-clothes bassiji, headed to the main gate chanting pro-Ahmadinejad slogans and throwing stones, injuring several students. They eventually forced open the gate and viciously attacked students with wooden sticks - several were killed.

That night bassiji and police stormed into the university dormitories whilst students were asleep, leading to more deaths and many arrests. Those held in Evin prison and the ministry of the interior’s underground jail were denied access to food, water and toilets and subjected to torture. They were released after about 30 hours, but not before they had been forced to give a detailed account of their political activities and beliefs.

What other protests do you know about?

Most were concentrated in the first two weeks after the election. At first there were rallies every day and also many silent protests. But there were reports of gunfire and deaths too. However, in the second week, after ayatollah Khamenei had declared his opposition to the protests, the repression and violence got a lot worse, with more beatings, shootings and arrests. Gatherings were banned.

Most people were waiting for Ali Akbar Rafsanjani to say something about the election. Not because they agree with him, but rather in the hope that he could stop the attacks on demonstrators. He finally spoke at the end of the second week and many people gathered at Friday prayers and in the streets nearby to hear him. But the speakers in the streets outside were cut off - which the authorities blamed on the protesters themselves. Once more people were attacked by police and bassiji, even though Friday prayers are supposed to be holy and many elderly and religious people in Iran consider it a sin to behave in such a way. Some now refuse to go because there don’t want to hear propaganda for the regime.

What is the current mood amongst students and the wider population?

There is a mixture of hope, fear and anticipation. No-one knows what is going to happen next. People follow the news every day and discuss the meaning behind every decision, every act of the regime. In this sense there is no difference between students, workers and left activists.

However, what people are hoping for differs drastically. Some are looking for the regime to collapse, some for Ahmadinejad to step down and some simply for things to get back to normal and carry on as they were before. However, we communists are talking about the mood of the Iranian people and the prospects for revolution.

Do Ahmadinejad and Moussavi both retain support amongst sections of the Iranian people?

First of all, it has to be stressed that most people have never been firm supporters of either Ahmadinejad or Moussavi.

When Ahmadinejad was elected the first time, large numbers of Tehran citizens voted for him. It appears that this support was greatest among the middle classes - it is not true that he is first and foremost president of the rural poor and working class, as he claims. At first he was able to depict himself as an outsider to the regime, who was not responsible for what had previously happened in the Islamic Republic - somebody who had been kept out of office by the powers-that-be. This image fits perfectly with the aspirations of the middle classes - they hoped he was the saviour they had been waiting for.

However, in the June 12 election, Ahmadinejad could no longer portray himself as an outsider and most of the middle class appeared to turn to Moussavi, even though he had always been identified with a wing of the regime. But now Ahmadinejad was the agent of the regime and so it was Moussavi, because he against Ahmadinejad, who was considered the potential saviour.

It is very difficult to say what support exists among the poor and working class - there was a huge amount of fraud in the election, and so much bribery: money and food were given away by the government. So their vote - both in the past and during the recent elections - is not a true representation of their views. But one thing is for sure - the hopes of the working class in Ahmadinejad had never been raised to the same extent as the middle class.

Ahmadinejad had promised to revive the values of the Islamic revolution, which he accused the previous president, Khatami, of neglecting, and this had appealed to some religious people. But that changed in the recent election, when religious concerns were less prominent compared to other issues like the economy and social rights. Moreover, it was Moussavi who attracted part of the religious vote, because of his background as part of the reformist wing of the religious regime.

On the other hand, there are also those who take their lead from Khamenei, including the bassiji and fundamentalist sections of the military. They continued to support Ahmadinejad.

Capital itself is divided. There is a traditional market based on imported goods, and this section provides Ahmadinejad with his main spiritual and financial support (and, of course, these are the people who have gained the most from his policies). Another section consists of technocrats with more liberal views, and these people tended to support Moussavi.

What I’m trying to say is that none of the candidates enjoyed firm, consistent support from the majority of Iranians, who are always looking to the candidate who seems to be standing in opposition to the regime. Previously that was Ahmadinejad; this time it was Moussavi.

However, not everyone who voted for Moussavi believes he can do the job. And not everyone who was protesting on the streets was a Moussavi supporter. Those who are against Ahmadinejad are hardly fully behind Moussavi, Khatami and Rafsanjani.

What is the attitude of left activists to the reformists?

The left was divided over the election itself: the majority were for a boycott, while others (myself included) decided to vote against Ahmadinejad.

But now there has been a major realignment. Some of the boycottists and almost all who had voted joined in the protests. Of course, there is a genuine fear that falling in behind a leader like Moussavi will produce the same result as after the 1979 revolution, when Marxists and socialists were jailed and executed. So it is important to stress that it’s the mass movement we support, not people like Moussavi.

Finally, let me thank you and your readers - we appreciate the support our international comrades have showed at this time.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Out of step with the masses

Out of step with the masses

With 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.


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.