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.
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.