Saturday, March 12, 2011

'Islamic feminism' and women's emancipation

'Islamic feminism' and women's emancipation

Yassamine Mather examines the reality of the continuing struggle against the regime's oppression

On March 8, for the second time in a week, demonstrators gathered in the streets of Tehran and other major cities in Iran to protest against the regime - despite its attempts at suppression, its armed security forces, its tear gas and its arrests.

Thirty-two years ago, on March 8 1979, tens of thousands of Iranian women took part in the first major demonstration against the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, following the forced imposition of the hijab. The women’s slogans were: “I say it every moment, I say it under torture: either death or freedom!” “Freedom is neither eastern nor western: it is universal!” “Death to censorship!” “In the dawn of freedom, the place of women is empty: revolution is meaningless without women’s freedom - we do not want the hijab!”

Since that day and for over 30 years hard-line fundamentalists have tried to impose their rules on Iranian women and youth. However, even these clerics agree that they face a cultural crisis. The majority of the youth and the women’s movement openly reject fundamentalist Islam, and the generation born after the Islamic regime came to power is amongst the most secular sections of Middle Eastern society, campaigning for the separation of religion from the state.

A lot has been written on the unprecedented increase in the political and academic activities of Iranian women over the last two decades, but it should be emphasised that the overwhelming majority of these activities have taken place despite the clerical regime, and often against it. The women’s movement is independent of the factional fighting inside the Islamic Republic and independent of the Islamic ideology which is the basis of the state. This movement has also been an anti-war movement, adamant in its opposition to US-style ‘women’s emancipation’, as witnessed in occupied Iraq and ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Most of the women who have taken an active part in this struggle do not consider themselves Islamist; quite the contrary.

Second class

There is no doubt that, with the exception of a minority of the middle and upper classes, Iranian women have traditionally suffered from patriarchal laws and practices both within the family and at work.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, however, the plight of Iranian women has worsened, the rigid imposition of the veil (hijab) has reinforced discrimination and prejudice against women. Many families refuse to send their daughters to high school. In higher education girls are discouraged or prevented by the state from studying or working in fields and activities considered ‘masculine’, such as engineering, mining, the judiciary ... It is in opposition to the state that many women pursue such studies.

There is discrimination against women in sport and recreation. Participation in some sports is discouraged, and in recreation most facilities are rigidly segregated and rarely available to women. Many have called this a system of apartheid against women. The ministry of education in the Iranian government recently reported that 94% of schoolgirls were unfit, as they did not participate in sport or physical education.

The combination of enforced hijab wearing and segregation is used to limit women’s access to state education, sports and other facilities. In other words, the system is geared to institutionalise women’s confinement to the home. These policies facilitate the objective of turning women into second-class citizens.

As they become teenagers, girls are driven more and more into a world dominated and manipulated by their male relatives. They can be given away in legal marriage without their knowledge or consent while still in their childhood. The legal age of marriage for girls is nine.

Discriminatory Islamic laws govern the private and public life of women: they have to follow a very specific and restrictive set of dress codes - a full veil or complete headscarf and long overcoat are the only accepted forms of dress. The law discriminates against women in inheritance, giving them at most half of the share of their male counterparts. According to the laws of Hodud and Qessas (talion[1]and punishment) the life of a woman is worth half that of a man, with the implication that a man killing a woman and sentenced to death may only be executed if the victim’s family pays the murderer half of his death dues. Article 6 of this law states that the bereaved family has to pay the murderer’s family to get “Islamic justice” (a life for a life). Article 33 of the Hodud and Qessas states that women’s testimony is not valid in homicide cases unless it is supported by at least one male witness. According to Iran’s Islamic laws, women are considered generally unfit to be witnesses; their power of observation is considered half that of a man. And women have officially been considered too emotional and irrational to be judges.

Of course, in other religions equally anti-women rules and regulations are to be found. What differentiates Iran or US-occupied Iraq from other Islamic states, however, is that the Qur’an dictates civil and judicial law. In other words the basic democratic demand of separation of state and religion does not apply - quite the opposite.

Unequal marriage

Islamic marriage laws as applied in Iran are amongst the most repressive in the world in terms of discrimination against women. While men are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time in permanent marriage, plus an unlimited number of women in what is known as “temporary marriage” (siqeh), women who do not adhere to strict monogamy are considered criminal and may be brutally and savagely stoned to death in public. This legal Islamic punishment for extra-marital affairs is carried out regularly in Iran.

Men control the lives of their wives, their daughters and their unmarried sisters. In Islamic societies women need a male guardian throughout their lives, to give them legal permission to travel, to study, to marry, etc ... As no consent is required for sexual relations inside marriage, wife-rape is common and even wife-beating is tolerated in the process (with a Qur’anic verse that legitimises wife-beating in the case of “disobedient women”). Abortion is illegal, but the rising number of terminations is testimony to its use as a form of contraception.

Until 1996, as far as divorce was concerned, the man had almost a free hand to divorce his wife, while the woman had only a limited recourse to the legal system. Even after reform of the laws regulating separation, a woman can only file for divorce in exceptional circumstances. The extent of this discrimination was best exemplified by reports recorded by the Iran Human Rights Working Group[2]: a court had taken 14 years to approve a divorce request from a woman who complained she was tortured by her husband. She was reporting new incidents of abuse every year. She had agreed to drop all financial demands against her husband, and finally had to contact Iran’s prosecutor-general directly (who reported that she “shivered violently” whenever her husband was mentioned) to get her divorce. In another case, the process took eight years.

The divorce law is also designed to punish recalcitrant women, bringing them poverty and destitution, and leading them to resort to unusual tactics in order to obtain minimum maintenance for their children. In most cases women have to forfeit financial claims in order to obtain divorce, even if the proceedings were initiated by the man. Iranian law states that a male child above the age of two and a female child over the age of seven must live with their father. Even the father’s father is given priority over the mother in custody matters.

In marriage, discrimination against women goes still further. A virgin woman (whatever her age) has no right to marry without her father’s consent (or her paternal grandfather’s, in the absence of the former). A Muslim woman has no right to marry a non-Muslim (a right her male counterparts have - with some limitations). And a divorced woman has to wait for a set period before remarriage (but there is no waiting period for a divorced male). These Islamic practices and laws have created a suitable environment for widespread abuses and atrocities against women.

Most women do not report incidents of rape outside marriage because the victim has more to lose. First she will be accused of bringing dishonour to her own family and in some cases might even be killed by family members. Second, she fears prosecution under the morality laws: the punishment for “unIslamic” behaviour is to be flogged or stoned to death, especially if a woman is judged by the court as being a willing partner.

While the laws of Hodud and Qessas prescribe “equal” punishments for men and women, it is women who suffer from these barbaric measures. A married man having an affair with an unmarried women can always claim they were “temporarily married”. But a woman in a parallel position has no such defence and would face the horror of death by stoning.

The discriminatory laws regarding women’s rights cover a wide range of areas in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, in addition to the anti-women labour laws and social policies. These have had devastating results, causing economic deprivation and the social isolation of women and their children. Iranian women have been fighting hard against these injustices, but have had very limited success in the face of the overwhelming power of the religious state and its many institutions.

Whatever interpretation of Islam we take, the Qur’an is quite specific that women who disobey their men may be beaten. Should we accept this on the pretext of respecting Islamic values, and in order to combat racism? To do so would be to ignore what has been done to secular women in Islamic societies - to women who choose not to obey the rules. In Tehran teenagers who do not abide by the full Islamic dress code (showing a fringe under their headscarf, for example) are regularly arrested, flogged and made to sign a statement saying they will cease to “behave as a prostitute”.

Secular resistance

Women have never forgotten that in the 1960s one of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s main objections to the shah’s regime was that voting rights were given to women. While it is true that during that dictatorship the right to vote was meaningless, Khomeini objected in principle to a woman’s right to be elected or to elect.

One of the first demonstrations against the Islamic regime was the women’s demonstration of March 8 1979. Khomeini’s decree that women should cover their hair rallied women of many classes and backgrounds in a major show of opposition against the new regime. Since then women have constantly opposed the erosion of their social and political rights.

In return the Islamic clergy and its government have consistently used medieval morality laws to suppress women. Especially in urban areas, women have fought back in an ongoing struggle that is only now beginning to bear fruit, very often despite the array of Islamic women’s magazines and organisations. Inevitably some of the tolerated women’s journals, publications and institutions have tried to catch up with this movement. However, they are at best tailing it, doing too little, too late.

The history of women’s struggles in Iran goes back to the early years of the 20th century. Iranian women participated in the constitutional revolution (1906-11), they were active in the nationalist movement of the 1950s and throughout the shah’s repression, when they formed a large part of leftwing underground organisations, as well as the Mujahedin-e Khalgh resistance. Hundreds of thousands of women participated in the demonstrations against the shah’s dictatorship and no-one could have forced them back into the middle ages. Economic factors, the role of women in production and the development of productive forces have all played a part.

In the early years of the Islamic regime, Iranian women fought expulsion from the workplace through enforced redundancy, and they refused to adhere to the strict Islamic dress code. It took over 18 years for the more enlightened members of the regime to realise that it was impossible to keep the clock turned back. It is an insult to the courage and perseverance of Iranian women to label this long and complex struggle an Islamist movement, as the officially tolerated women’s magazines do.


In Shia Islam the most revered woman is the daughter of Mohammed, who died at the age of 18, having already given birth to three sons. Her short life symbolises the ideal woman. As a result, in Iran secular, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i and Zoroastrian women are all forced to wear the veil against their will. Their basic right to dress as they please is taken away because some Muslim men find it insulting to see non-veiled women.

Islamists claim that the veil, far from restricting women’s social activities plays a liberating role, as it maintains a woman’s ‘purity’. But most women know that the primary role of the hijab is to subjugate them, segregate them and classify non-veiled women as evil temptresses whose sole role on earth is to corrupt men. It is also argued that the veil, like a uniform, hides class differences. Anyone who has seen the elaborate veils in the affluent suburbs of Iranian cities, as opposed to the hijabs worn by working class women, can see how absurd such statements are.

Hammed Shahidian asserts: “Defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ in the west have founded their arguments in cultural relativism - a dangerous precedent both for feminists and human rights activists.”[3]Indeed it is claimed that any attack on the veil is a form of western racism. One has to point out that combating racism has nothing to do with accepting double standards - women’s rights for white/western women; Islamic ‘rights’ for Muslim/eastern women.

The main problem for Islamist women and Islamist moderates is that the reinterpretation of Islamic ideas regarding women to show them in a progressive light is impossible within the framework of the Islamic state. Mohammed is the final prophet in the long line of prophets, his book is the most complete message from god. The Qur’an’s clear and explicit anti-women message cannot be changed. The current bitter struggle between the moderate and the conservative Islamists in Iran can either lead to the overthrow of the Islamic state or to a compromise with the conservatives at the expense of any ‘moderation’.

Islamists, however, have by no means a monopoly on Iranian culture. Twentieth century Iran was dominated by a strong secular/progressive, non-Islamic culture. Iranian women’s limited achievements against Islamic law, both under the rule of this regime and in the past, has its roots in this tradition. Yet defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ write extensively on the relative freedom and status of women in Iran compared to women in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, as part of their defence of moderate, progressive Islam.

Here it is important to remind ourselves that in Iran’s contemporary history the level of development of the productive forces has played a far more significant role than ‘moderate’ Islam. Traditions of secular politics have also had a far more significant role to play. Islamist women in Iran, as part of the ‘reformist’ faction of a brutal dictatorship, will try to give some women better opportunities in education and government. They will try to improve family legislation, but within the limits of sharia law in all its anti-women facets.

Iran’s so-called ‘Islamic feminists’ are middle and upper class professional women in stable, traditional, family relationships. Many are immediate relatives of the highest-ranking clerics. They have no intention of challenging the religious state. As long as the basic demand for the separation of state and religion remains unfulfilled, as long as non-Muslim, Sunni and non-religious Iranians are considered second-class citizens, there can be no improvement in the plight of the majority of Iranian women.

Over the last few years, a minority of these Islamist women have taken up in a limited way some of the issues concerning women’s rights. Many have advocated minor reforms - too little, too late. These women are identified as political supporters of one of the factions of the Islamic regime (that of ex-presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani). They do not represent an independent women’s movement, but, on the contrary, form part of the ruling establishment and are considerably annoyed when western academics refer to them as feminists. The ‘reformist’ faction they belong to has not even challenged the medieval laws of Hodud and Qessas or the supreme rule of the religious guardian of the nation, the velaayat-e faghih. By contrast, the newspaper Zan, which dared to question the stoning to death of women, has faced enforced closure and bans. In other words, Islamist women are not feminist and feminist women are not Islamist. The term ‘Islamist feminist’, created by western academics, remains an abstract idea, as far as Iran is concerned.

Of course, arguments within Islam on issues regarding women’s rights are not new. For decades reformist Islamists have tried to present more moderate interpretations of Islamic laws and teaching. And, although it is true that over the last few years urban Iranian women have succeeded in asserting themselves and influencing aspects of their lives and the country’s politics, any improvement in their plight is due mainly to their perseverance and courage, and the tradition of struggle against dictatorship - despite the majority of Islamic clerics.

The defenders of so-called ‘Islamic feminism’ occasionally challenge us to define what we mean by progress, if we say it has not taken place in Iran thanks to their efforts. How about an end to the stoning of women for adultery, to the flogging of teenage girls for daring to show a fringe, to the Hezbollah’s practice of throwing paint at women who wear colourful scarves, to the segregation in hospitals, buses, schools and universities?

It is ironic that political correctness has discouraged many western liberals from challenging ‘Islamic feminism’. Iranian women, who are amongst the worst victims of Islamic fundamentalism, have no intention of following this trend and indeed over the last couple of years have stepped up the fight against the forced wearing of the hijab, for freedom and equality.

March 8 2011 saw a new generation taking up the same slogans.


  1. Talion: law that criminals should receive as punishment precisely those injuries and damages they had inflicted upon their victims.
  3. H Shahidian Islamic feminism and feminist politics in IranSpringfield 2009.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Iran Film Showing & 'Free Panahi! Free all political prisoners!' Discussion.

Hands off the People of Iran (HOPI) will host a film & discussion night on Thursday 10th March at in the Teacher’s Club, Parnell Square, Dublin 1.

The Circle (information below), a film directed by Jafar Panahi will be shown and the 'Free Panahi! Free all political prisoners!' campaign will be launched. Jafar Panahi has had a savage six-year jail sentence imposed on him, plus a 20-year ban on making films and travelling abroad, for the 'crime' of planning to make a film about the mass movement for democracy that spilled onto the streets of major iranian cities in 2009.


Following the film there will be a discussion on how to build solidarity with the Iranian People who are struggling against a dictatorial regime. The Iranian regime has used its militias to murder protesters who have come out in solidarity with the people of Egypt. The Iranian people are just as entitled to democracy as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya.

The film, ‘The Circle’, is a hard-hitting and critical stance against the Iranian regime and its brutal treatment of women. ‘The Circle’ is a weaving of women’s stories whose lives intermingle for one day around each of their difficult and personal stories. On its release in 2000 it was denounced from the state authorities for it’s protrayal of life in Iran but won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Since then Jafar Panahi has been targetted for his work and was imprisoned in March 2010 but due to a worldwide public protest he was released in May. However on 20 December 2010, Jafar Panahi was charged again but with a harsher sentence of six years imprisonment. He has also been given a 20-year ban for the following: making or directing any movies; banned from communicating with Iranian or foreign journalists and the state authorities have also banned him from leaving the country. His other works include: Offside, Crimson Gold & the White Balloon.

The recent protests in Iran highlight the inhumane force and ferocious brutality that the dictactor Ahmajinedad has inflicted on his people. On February 14th one protestor was killed by riot police while hundreds of peace activists have been jailed. State Militias again attacked protesters on February 21st and another demonstrator was murdered by state forces. Since the overthrow of corrupt Egyptian ruler Mubarak, Iranian authorities have been in preparation for further protests especially with the upcoming two-year anniversary of the presidential election in June 2009 where hundreds were killed]. HOPI are highlighting their support for those suffering under the regime and for those protesting for their basic human rights.

Hopi has recently launched the 'Free Panahi! Free all political prisoners!' campaign that fights for:

Freedom for all political prisoners and an end to all executions.
Stop the medieval prison sentences imposed against political opponents of the regime.
No sanctions or military threats against Iran and for radical change from below.

For further information and how to get involved please contact:

Further reading on Jafar Panahi:

Release all political prisoners

Release all political prisoners

John McDonnell MP launched the new campaign, 'Free Jafar Panahi and all political prisoners in Iran', at the February 12 annual conference of Hands Off the People of Iran

This campaign is at the heart of Hopi’s work for the coming year. We formed Hopi at a time when there was a real danger of imminent attack on Iran, right after the war on Iraq. While opposing any imperialist attacks, we positioned ourselves in clear, active solidarity with the people of Iran who are fighting against their theocratic regime. That also led us to clearly oppose all sanctions on the country, because in our view that is just another form of imperialism attacking the people of Iran. I think we have successfully engaged others in that discussion.

It is clear that threat of a military attack and an invasion has still not gone. For example, you will have heard Tony Blair’s speech before the Chilcot enquiry. With his last words he effectively called on the imperialist powers to invade Iran. And, of course, we have seen the recent cyber-attacks on the country. The threat continues and the imperialists will not give up.

However, at the moment there is a certain quietude. Partially this has to do with other activities in their spheres of influence that the imperialists are anxious about, for example in Afghanistan. And there is an acceptance that, as long as the Iranian regime is quiet, ‘maybe we can turn a blind eye’. And that is why we have not had any major political leader in the west take on the question of Iranian political prisoners in a serious way. We have not heard any British politician in government raise the issue of Jafar Panahi, for example.

There is a certain acquiescence that the barbarity will go on and, as long as this barbarity in Iran does not affect the rest of the Middle East or the rest of the world, it is almost acceptable - very much in line with what goes on in other barbaric countries in that region. There is a real vacuum on the question of human rights in Iran, whereby those who look can easily discover the brutality of the executions, the hangings, the tortures, the arrests, the denials of human rights. But the media and mainstream politicians are not interested.

Just as Hopi had to stand up and put forward a principled position against war and against the theocratic regime, we now have to stand up and fight for the freedom of all political prisoners. The responsibility falls on our shoulders, because nobody else is doing it.

We are focusing on Jafar Panahi, because campaigns like this need a symbolic figure - in the same way that in the anti-apartheid campaigns we focused on Nelson Mandela, but, of course, we fought for the freedom of all political prisoners. By focusing on a well-known name like Jafar Panahi, we will be able to raise the campaign to a higher level.

We all have to set time and resources aside for this campaign and approach it in a systematic manner. Just like when we launched Hopi, we again have to focus on the union and labour movement, get articles in their journals and websites, organise for resolutions and fringe meetings at union conferences, and conduct discussions with MPs and political parties.

The parliamentary wing of Hopi, which includes myself, Jeremy Corbyn and a few others, will put forward early day motions and will try to lobby other MPs, including those who are now in government. We are also trying to organise some activities in parliament - for example, show some of Panahi’s films and get along intellectuals and artists to discuss the campaign and the issues. In other words, we will also run a parliamentary campaign.

Of course, we also need to mobilise artists and film makers to act in solidarity with Panahi. In addition to that, we also want to reach wider civil society and in that respect I think last year’s film showing in the Soho Theatre was a breakthrough, which attracted a whole new audience. We should also not shy away from engaging with religious groups, for example, who are working on human rights matters.

All the way through we have to discuss with these forces on how the theocratic regime can be got rid of. Clearly, this can only be achieved through the actions of the working people of Iran themselves. The only consistent force that can bring about long-term stability in a secular society is the workers’ movement.

That is a fairly extensive range of work. But we have done it before and I think we can do it again.

The situation in Egypt provides an ideal opportunity to raise these issues. I attended a demonstration in Trafalgar Square and, although the organisers had printed their placards only 24 hours earlier, they were already out of date and still contained the call for Mubarak to go. But this shows what is possible, how quickly things change and that this can also be achieved in Iran.

Only the people of Iran can bring down this regime. Our task is to assist them as best as we can. If our campaign brings just one release for one political prisoner, if just one prisoner can get some hope from a clipping about our activities smuggled into prison, then I think our campaign is already successful.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Renewing solidarity

Renewing solidarity

James Turley reports on the annual conference of Hands Off the People of Iran

The recent revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and many other parts of the Arab world have had a profound effect on global politics. Given the enormous strategic importance of the region, all manner of political forces will try to turn events to their advantage. The need for principled anti-war and solidarity work has never been greater.

It was thus a good time for Hands Off the People of Iran to hold its annual general meeting - there is the possibility of the ‘north African contagion’ reaching Iran, with the explosive popular movement against Ahmadinejad that sprung up in 2009 standing as a portent.

Discussions on the day were wide-ranging. Hopi secretary Mark Fischer started proceedings with a report on our work over the last year. Comrade Fischer pointed out that we had not been the only ones to salute the 2009 protests - we welcomed the apparent overnight conversions of Campaign Iran, the Socialist Workers Party and others from slavish support for the regime to some degree of solidarity. Nonetheless, we had warned against tailing the ‘reformist’ leaders of the green movement; a perspective confirmed by the “dissipation and betrayals” of 2010. With the regime divided, the US and its allies have pounced, imposing ever tougher sanctions - and open warfare, perhaps waged by the US’s Israeli proxy, should not be ruled out.

Hopi has responded to these developments. Comrade Fischer noted that, in the past year, the focus of our solidarity work has shifted from student protestors to workers. The working class in Iran is increasingly militant, and economic demands have begun to interweave with political ones. All this confirmed our basic perspectives of opposing war, opposing the theocracy and supporting the working class and its allies as the only consistently anti-imperialist force in society.

Comrade Fischer noted the increasing desperation of the Stop the War Coalition in its efforts to prevent Hopi affiliating, and suggested we draw up a “balance sheet” of our involvement with it. He noted the impact made by our solidarity campaign with the imprisoned film-maker, Jafar Panahi, stating that we should make him into a symbol for all political prisoners in Iran.

Much discussion from the floor focused on the question of Stop the War. Charlie Pottins said that we had tended to identify the politics of the coalition with that of the SWP - but now it was more dominated by the Communist Party of Britain. However, Andrew Coates noted that the latter had been affected to an extent by the Iranian protest movement.

Another comrade suggested that we should try to see things from Stop the War’s point of view - since its aim was to build broad opposition to the war, open criticisms of the Iranian regime may not be appropriate. Moshé Machover replied to this, saying that we have not attempted to commit the STWC to any such position - it was the fact that Hopi was openly critical of the regime which seemed to animate their hostility. John Bridge went further - the fact that we had been turned down for affiliation gave the lie to the coalition’s claims of inclusiveness. He noted that the rejection of our application had been filmed by Press TV, the English-language channel owned by the Iranian state.

International context

The second session of the day was on ‘Wikileaks, whistleblowers, revolution and war’. Comrade Machover opened the session by talking about the recent series of leaks relating to the Middle East - most prominently, the Wikileaks-released batch of American diplomatic cables, but also the work of whistleblowers in both the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority. He claimed that these revelations were a case of “the dog that didn’t bark” - they merely clarified what we already knew.

Crucially, these leaks confirmed that Israel has been involved in a sustained, guerrilla-style campaign against Iran, encompassing espionage, sabotage and outright assassinations. Several scientists working on Iran’s nuclear programme have been killed - so, possibly, has former deputy defence minister Ali-Reza Asgari, who disappeared in Turkey under mysterious circumstances.

An equally significant feature of the Wikileaks cables was what was not revealed - most importantly, there is no more evidence that Iran actually plans to produce nuclear weapons. Comrade Machover considered it more likely that Iran was aiming for nuclear capability - ie, the infrastructure required to produce weapons at some later date - than an arms programme proper.

Moving on to the question of revolution, comrade Machover indicated the momentous significance of the upheavals in Egypt and elsewhere, placing them in the context of the decline of the US, which is already losing control in Latin America. The Middle East is a critically important region in the world, due to its oil reserves and shipping routes. Egypt has been the key country in the Arab world in recent history - not only is it the most populous country in the region, but it controls the Suez Canal. Not for nothing was the 1956 Suez crisis a key turning point in relations between the major imperialist powers.

The US has been caught off guard, and can hope to recoup some of its control, but not the overwhelming influence it enjoyed with Mubarak in the top job. For Israel, meanwhile, Mubarak’s overthrow is a very dangerous proposition. It has already lost a key ally in Turkey, which was finally confirmed by the Mavi Marmara massacre last year. Now Egypt may go too - and Egyptian acquiescence has been critically important for maintaining the siege on the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defence Force has benefited from troop redeployments away from the Egyptian border; should Egypt present a less friendly face in the future, even the already bloated military budget will prove insufficient.

Comrade Machover concluded by pointing out that the losers in international reconfigurations can behave in unpredictable ways, and that we should not rule out even the most counterproductive and irrational of military adventures on Israel’s part. We must remain vigilant.

The second speaker in this session, the CPGB’s Mike Macnair, focused more on the American angle. The events in Egypt and Tunisia are best characterised as a “revolutionary crisis” rather than a revolution - though the dictators have fallen, the general feeling is that “this is just the start”. The US therefore still has some room for manoeuvre. It has gone into this crisis underprepared, rather than unprepared - it is not like the fall of the shah in 1979, which by all accounts came as a complete surprise to the US.

The US has some reason to suppose that it will succeed in restoring its influence in these countries. Under Jimmy Carter, it successfully dropped most of the military dictators it supported in Latin America, with the result that the new ‘democracies’ were even more reliant on international capital than the tyrants they replaced - the state department simply bought off those parties that had a chance of power.

This is why, despite the lack of smoking-gun revelations, it was the release of diplomatic cables that provoked the US into its full-scale attacks on Wikileaks. In order for bourgeois democracy to function in this way, it is necessary for governments to lie - and to lie, it is necessary to maintain secrecy.

Comrade Macnair argued that the policy of the United States towards Israel has always been irrational. The US relies on Iran to provide any workable regime in Iraq; more generally, the disruption caused by constant sabre-rattling and sanctions is much greater than the disruption which would be caused by a deal with the Islamic regime. Taking into account the inherent irrationality of a superpower in decline, there were “irrational reasons” for us to expect war - but revolutionary crisis in the Middle East has at least had the effect of throwing all these tendencies temporarily up in the air.

After some debate, the conference passed - with minor amendments - a resolution reaffirming our opposition to imperialist intervention in Iran and support for the democratic struggles of the Iranian people.

Workers in Iran

The next session was centred on workers’ struggles in Iran. Ruben Markarian of the Iranian group, Rahe Kargar, began his contribution by pointing out two anniversaries - the overthrow of the shah on February 11 1979, and the formation of the Fedayeen guerrilla organisation in early 1971. The 1979 revolution had ultimately been a loss for the left, and the protestors in Egypt must learn the lessons of that defeat.

The protests in 2009 had ushered in a new era in the Iranian revolution, but it has not reduced the Iranian state’s repression. In particular, there is an execution every eight hours in Iran - some resulting from openly political charges, some for ‘crimes against Islam’, and others simple frame-ups. The regime’s desperation is heightened by the crippling effects of sanctions, and the popular unrest at its own policies, such as the end of ‘targeted subsidies’ and mass lay-offs.

Street demonstrations, he argued, cannot win alone. Demonstrators must be backed up by the workers’ movement, which can organise strikes against the regime - crucially, a general strike. Strikes can materially disrupt the repressive actions of the state, as well as causing the security forces to overreach in attempting to respond to all threats. Creating such a movement is easier said than done, but it is necessary. The job of the Iranian left is to organise the mass of workers on a socialist and internationalist basis. The comrade was confident that the Egyptian masses would learn from the Iranians - and vice versa.

Hopi chair Yassamine Mather highlighted the similarities between the Egyptian unrest and the protests in Iran two years ago. Both had been preceded by significant outbursts of labour unrest. Prior to 2009, however, Iranian workers had concentrated on narrower economic issues, concerning working conditions at particular factories. The organised working class was late to the party in 2009 - and this, combined with the misleadership of the green ‘reformists’ and organised battalions of counterrevolutionary thugs, emboldened by religious ideology, meant that the protests ended in defeat.

Since then, however, the workers have been raising more political demands, including the issue of political prisoners, and even organising the first political strikes since 1979-81. Workers at the Iran Khodro car manufacturing concern, as well as the traditionally militant oil workers, had been engaging in serious discussion about the value of strikes, the nature of the green movement and the shora (workers’ councils). Comrade Mather concluded by echoing Markarian’s point on the significance of the Fedayeen - it was the first time in the Middle East that a section of the left had rejected the peaceful road to socialism, as well as highlighting the importance of internationalism.

Debate was largely centred on the international response to the 2009 protest movement, with comrades commenting on the support offered to Ahmadinejad by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, British anti-war figurehead George Galloway and the American leftist journal, Monthly Review. The importance of Islam in the protest movement was also highlighted. Summing up, comrade Mather noted that Chávez’s support had led to splits on the left, notably in the International Marxist Tendency, whose Iranian section had departed over the issue. Comrade Markarian also criticised Chávez for his support for the Islamic Republic. The meeting then unanimously passed a motion calling for solidarity with Iranian workers.

Political prisoners

Then followed the launch of Hopi’s campaign in defence of political prisoners. Lisa Goldman introduced the session by talking about her experience in Iran, and her contact during the visit with Panahi, concluding by reading from a letter he sent to the Berlin International Film Festival - an eloquent plea for an end to tyranny and testimony to the power of artistic imagination in opposing it.

Leftwing Labour MP John McDonnell launched the campaign formally, applauding the success of Hopi in engaging people on its basic message. The threat to Iran continues - sanctions and the Stuxnet cyber-attack being the most visible manifestations of it at the moment - though the imperialist world has been less forthcoming in bellicose rhetoric. Acts of barbarity, it seems, are fine, as long as the west is unthreatened.

He echoed Mark Fischer’s call to make Panahi a symbol for all political prisoners, and argued that we should canvass for support in every sphere of life - in parliament, of course, but also in the trade unions (where Hopi has already had some success, with unions like PCS and Aslef affiliating). The stature of Panahi allows us also to reach out to wider civil society, and argue for its greater involvement with the workers’ movement. The upsurge in Egypt symbolises what is possible in Iran - meanwhile, if our campaign secures even one release of one political prisoner, comrade McDonnell argued, it will be worth it.

In the following discussion, Victoria Thompson argued that we should add a call for an end to executions to the statement, which was accepted by the meeting. We also resolved to challenge Jeremy Corbyn to end his involvement with Press TV.

Though relatively small, the meeting was high-spirited. We left optimistic that our work can be stepped up, and that more people can be engaged in support of our message.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Revolution spreads to Iran

Revolution spreads to Iran

Yassamine Mather reports on the effects of the Egyptian upsurge

As early as Sunday February 13 riot police and the bassiji militia took up positions in the main streets of Tehran in preparation for the demonstration called for the following day. ‘Reformist’ leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi were put under house arrest and internet connection to many sites was blocked.

Then, as darkness fell, all over Tehran people went onto their rooftops, shouting, “Allah-o-akbar” (God is great) and “Marg bar dictator” (Down with the dictator).

Videos of the night-time demonstration appeared quickly online and by the morning of Monday February 14 many Iranian were aware that anti-government protests were taking place. Tehran residents were surprised to find that mobile phones were working (they had been blocked at around 4pm the previous day) and protestors could organise routes, points of assembly …

However, even taking into account all these positive signs, no-one could have predicted the size and extent of the demonstrations - the most significant anti-government protest since security forces cracked down on a series of massive events in 2009. Indeed, a leaked document from the pro-Khamenei Islamic parliament security committee puts the number of Monday’s protestors in Tehran at one million.

Revolutionary guards used tear gas, wielded batons and opened fire to disperse protestors, yet large numbers gathered, particularly in central and poorer districts of Tehran. The majority of the demonstrators were young working class men and women. There were clashes between police and demonstrators, and dozens of arrests, in Isfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Mashad and Rasht.

Iranians had been frustrated for weeks, as they witnessed demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Young Iranians were convinced their protests of summer of 2009 had inspired these demonstrations. Many were arguing why, in comparison with Egypt, their own larger demonstrations then (three million in Tehran alone) had failed to overthrow the regime, when smaller protests led to Hosni Mubarak’s departure. There had been an element of despair, although the events in Tunisia and Egypt had certainly put to rest claims made throughout 2009 and early 2010 by leaders of the green movement, as well as by the reformists of the ‘official communist’ Tudeh Party and Fedayeen Majority, that the ‘era of revolutions is over’, that one should be realistic and demand the ‘possible’: ie, reform within the regime.

Other apologists for the Iranian regime, such as the Socialist Workers Party’s Elaheh Rostami-Povey, must also feel embarrassed by recent events in Arab capitals, as well as in Tehran. Her recent book, entitled Iran’s influence across the Middle East and the world, is described by her SWP comrade, Alex Callinicos, as a “fascinating study of the evolution of the Islamic Republican regime in Iran, of its complex and increasingly conflictual relationship with popular and social movements, and of its impact on the wider Middle East. This fine product of Elaheh Rostami-Povey’s critical scholarship is essential reading for anyone who refuses to settle for mythological and demonising representations of post-revolutionary Iran.” The author claimed that Iran’s clerical regime and its president has considerable support in the “Arab street”.

Amongst the many protests in Egypt and Tunisia not only were there no signs of support for the Islamic Republic, but protestors in Tahrir Square called on Iranians to follow their example and continue their protests for democracy. Indeed every time Iran’s rulers tried to imply that Arab protestors were following in the traditions of the revolution led by ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, secular and religious protestors united to denounce such comparisons. The reaction of Iran’s Islamic rulers was predictable: they jammed Al Jazeera TV’s broadcasts to avoid ‘revolutionary contamination’.

Last week Iran’s Islamist hardliners’ desperate efforts to downplay the democratic thrust of the Egyptian revolution and present it as an Islamic, Iran-inspired uprising backfired, when even the Muslim Brotherhood protested at this falsification. By February 14 worse was to follow (for the regime). Tens of thousands of Iranians were shouting: “Mubarak, Ben Ali - Seyed Ali - it’s your turn” (referring, of course, to supreme leader Seyed Ali Khamenei alongside the departed rulers of Egypt and Tunisia). Other prominent slogans were “Khamenei - buy a one-way ticket out of Iran”; and “Poor Seyed Ali - the movement is still alive” (referring to Khamenei’s claims that the opposition had now gone away).

In central Tehran large posters of Khomeini and Khamenei were torn down and set on fire. As night fell, youths gathered in many neighbourhoods and set fire to bins. Despite the fears of the days preceding February 14, the protests were a huge success. According to eyewitness Hamid Farokhnia, a staff writer at Iran Labour Report, “People were smiling with joy for the first time in a long while. Likewise, many bassiji and [police] officers looked positively confused and crestfallen.”

A day after the street protests members of the Iranian parliament called for opposition leaders Karroubi and Moussavi to be prosecuted and sentenced to death for stirring unrest. Despite this, Moussavi’s spokesperson called the protests a major success and did not condemn the anti-Khamenei slogans, as was the case on previous occasions. While the ‘reformists’ have evidently not joined the revolution, this shows just how far the movement has been radicalised. Unlike in 2009, there is now a clear and unambiguous call for the overthrow of the entire regime.

After months of despondency, optimism has returned. Students and workers we contacted were enthused by this week’s events, even though some opposition groups believe up to 1,500 people have been arrested during the protests. In fact two were killed and in a Kafkaesque attempt at falsification the regime claimed 26-year-old Sane Jaleh, killed on February 14, was a member of the bassiji. Sane’s friends have posted photos of him alongside the dissident ayatollah, Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who died in 2009, to prove that he was in fact a Moussavi supporter.

Acting police commander general Ahmad Reza Radan said dozens of people, including nine members of the security forces, had been injured. It is true that in a show of confidence protestors attacked a number of bassiji - Radan might yet regret exaggerating the protestors’ success in confronting security forces.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Egyptian success inspires protesters

Iranian opposition leader Mousavai and his wife were stopped today and their car keys taken from them as they tried to join protestors today in Tehran city centre. The state authorities have unleashed the riot police and tried to shut down people’s access to the outside world in the hope of hiding the growing fever for protest.

It was rumoured that the Iranian state authorities had taken the former prime minister of Iran and placed him under house arrest alongside Mehdi Karroubi.There have been attempts to quickly and quietly pull the two opposition leaders from public view in light of the upcoming anniversary of street protests in Iran after the disputed re-election of Ahmadinhad in 2009. Many people were killed and a media blackout resulted to hide the turmoil from the rest of the world. The President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now has a lot to fear after seeing Egyptian dictator Mubarack dramatically pulled from power by the people. The success of the Egyptian people has inspired people to take to the streets in other countries creating fear in their governments.

In 2009 thousands took to the streets at the re-election of Ahmadinejad with the encouragement of Mousavei and those in the Green Movement. Ahmadinejad won the presidential election even though his rival Moussavei had proved to be more popular with the voters and many commentators doubting the results because of the incredible speed of the ballot slips returned. However the strength of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard quickly crushed the protestors and since then the lack of dissent has been visible but with an increase of imprisonment for those who speak out.

Ahmadinejad a clever leader of media spin and with his grip on the national media stated that the fall of Mubarack was similar to the fall of the Shah in 1979 and with no sense of irony has previously compared the opposition leaders to Adolf Hitler. He is unlikely to comment about the imprisonment in his own regime of trade union leaders, women lawyers and activists being tortured, beaten and killed. Even the Egyptians have stated that they are baffled by his comparison with the Egyptian foreign minister stating that Ahmadininejad was ‘distracting the Iranian people's attention by hiding behind what is happening in Egypt.’

Even at this point with one eye on the streets of Tehran Ahmadinejad has the other on the new Egyptian State in the hope of cementing relations with the new authorities.  Recently a trade agreement between Iran and Turkey was announced increasing political and business ties as the continuation of US sanctions is hurts the state. The fallout of the Egyptian’s dictatorship will leave Ahmadinejad and his followers ready to crush similar action and looking for allies. Ahmadinejad is aware that it’s not just the American vultures ready to criticise and attack the country in an Iraqi-style swoop taking its resources but concerned protestors are ready including exiled Iranians declaring the right to protest. All eyes will be on the opposition in the coming weeks fighting for freedom. Today one person has been killed, three injured and hundreds of protestors arrested by the riot police. Let the ripples of the Egyptian revolution spread but without the creeping hands of imperial powers stealing from Iran and its people.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Amadinejad slapped as factions turn on each other

Amadinejad slapped as factions turn on each other

Yassamine Mather looks at the growing tensions in the Islamic regime

Last week's stalemate in nuclear talks between Iran and the so-called 'five plus one' countries (US, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany) came at a time when a number of events had already promised a turbulent start to the new year for Iranians: a plane crash for which sanctions must have been partly responsible; the execution of 53 prisoners, including four political prisoners, in less than three weeks; accusations by the 'principlist' faction of the regime that president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest ally, chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, is an "agent of foreign powers" (Israel); that vice-president Rahimi is corrupt; stories that Ahmadinejad was slapped in the face by a revolutionary guard commander; confirmation that Israel and US jointly sponsored the Stuxnet computer worm; the escalation of US sanctions against Iranian shipping companies; Afghan protests over Iran's month-long near blockade of cross-border fuel shipments; the passing of harsh sentences against film maker Jafar Panahi, 'human rights' lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and journalist Shiva Nazar Ahari; and a wave of workers' strikes demanding the release of all political prisoners ...

Seventy-five people were killed on January 9 when an Iran Air flight with 105 passengers and crew aboard crashed near Orumiyeh in north-western Iran. The US-made Boeing 727 plane, bought 37 years ago, broke into pieces when it attempted to make an emergency landing in a snowstorm near Orumiyeh in Iranian Azerbaijan. The incident led to a spontaneous anti-sanctions campaign when a Facebook page got the support of 25,000 Iranians - US sanctions prevent Iran from purchasing new aircraft and spare parts. Iran's ageing civilian air fleet (and, one assumes, military aircrafts) use spare parts bought on the black market or taken from older aircraft. In 2005 the International Civil Aviation Organisation warned that sanctions on Iran were "placing civilian lives in danger" by denying Iranian aviation the necessary spare parts and aircraft repair, and the situation has inevitably become worse in the last few years.

Following the accident, transport minister Hamid Behbehani, still in denial about the effect of sanctions, said that the number of aviation accidents in Iran was low compared to the world average. The Iranian press and media derided Behbehani's statement. Farda, a website associated with one of the conservative blocs, claimed that the minister's remarks showed complete disregard for public concern over the unacceptable number of aviation accidents. The website said that Iranians killed in plane crashes in the past 30 years made up nearly 30% of the world's total aviation accident fatalities (1,610 out of 5,416 people killed) - 795 people had been killed in the past seven years alone, about 23% of the global total in the same period.


Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where corruption is characteristic of secular, pro-western governments, Islamists claim to lead the battle against it (and overconsumption), at times pointing to Ahmadinejad as their champion. However Iranians are well aware that, for all his election promises of combating corruption, Ahmadinejad presides over one of the most rotten governments Iran has experienced - and this is quite an achievement, given the depth and spread of corruption during the Rafsanjani/Khatami presidencies, not to mention the pre-1979 Pahlavi era.

Allegations of corruption against first vice-president Mohammad-Reza Rahimi were first published by the conservative 'principlists' in April 2010. They claimed to possess evidence proving Rahimi was the ringleader of a corruption band known as the 'Fatemi circle'. Eleven people implicated in a government-linked embezzlement case are already in jail awaiting trial. A number of prominent conservative MPs have called for Rahimi be put on trial as well. Last week, in an open letter to chief justice Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, Ahmad Tavakoli wrote: "Is it fair that a low-ranking defendant in the Iran Insurance Company case ... should be jailed … when [Rahimi] is not even indicted?"

There are also allegations that the first vice-president spent large sums of government money bribing legislators to vote for a government bill when he was the parliamentary liaison deputy. Had it not been for the fierce internal battles between various factions of the Islamic regime, all this would have been forgotten, like many similar allegations. However, last month, the prosecutor general, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, confirmed that Rahimi faced charges of corruption that needed to be investigated and, of course, if he is put to trial this would indicate a major shift in policy. According to journalists inside Iran, it would signify that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has finally decided to stop giving his entire support to the president and ignore the complaints of the principlists.

Clearly the infighting between the Ahmadinejad and conservative camps has risen to a new level in recent months. They disagree on every subject from foreign policy to nuclear development and economic policies, from the never-ending issue of women's headscarves to cultural freedoms. However, the conservatives have chosen Ahmadinejad's seemingly unconditional support for Rahimi and Mashaie as the battleground.

'Liberal' Ahmadinejad?

According to Wikileaks documents released on December 31, at a meeting of Iran's supreme national security council (SNSC) held in early 2010 to discuss steps in dealing with protests, Ahmadinejad surprised other SNSC members by taking up a liberal posture. According to sources quoted by Wikileaks, Ahmadinejad claimed that "people feel suffocated" and argued that in order to defuse the situation it may be necessary to allow more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press. The source claimed Ahmadinejad's statements infuriated Revolutionary Guard chief of staff Mohammed Jafari, who said: "You are wrong! It is you who created this mess and now you say, give more freedom to the press?!" Allegedly Jafari then slapped Ahmadinejad in the face, causing an uproar.

Of course Iran's Revolutionary Guards have subsequently denied the report. However, even if one doubts the veracity of the slapping incident it is certainly true that the conflict within the state has now engulfed various factions of Iran's militia and, like members of the majles (Islamic parliament), they are expressing their disapproval of Ahmadinejad's new-found liberal and nationalist (as opposed to Islamic) posturing in the open.

Perhaps it was inevitable that, faced with major demonstrations and envious of the apparent popularity of the nationalist reformists, Ahmadinejad would try and steal their policies. In this he has relied heavily on the controversial opinions of chief of staff Mashaei (to whom he happens to be related).

Mashaei was first vice-president of Iran for one week in July 2009. His appointment was heavily criticised by the hard-line conservatives and he resigned following the direct intervention of Khamenei. Today Mashaie is still under attack for his unorthodox religious views and for allegedly influencing the president's decisions in other matters, including the appointment and firing of cabinet members.

Mashaie belongs to a group that believe the return of the 12th Shia Imam is imminent, while senior Shia clerics are opposed to such views, as 'nobody knows when the imam will return'. Mashaei has also expressed controversial views about an 'Iranian school of thought', as opposed to an 'Islamic school of thought', about the hijab, the religious ban on music and more recently about cultural freedom.

In fact on most of these issues, in particular the emphasis on Iranian nationalism, he and Ahmadinejad echo the views of the 'reformist' leaders, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mohammad Khatami. All this because Ahmadinejad is apparently grooming Mashaie to be his successor in the 2013 presidential elections - alarming news for conservative hardliner and senior ayatollahs.

Mashaei controversies

Over the last few years Mashaie has been blamed for a number of comments and incidents considered unacceptable by Ahmadinejad's enemies, who have been busy compiling them:

  • July 2008: Mashaei is quoted as saying: "Today, Iran is a friend of the United States and Israeli nations. No nation in the world is our enemy. This is an honour." For the first time since the 1979 revolution, an Iranian regime politician acknowledged the Israelis as a nation. In response 200 MPs released a statement calling for Mashaei to be "dealt with seriously" and ayatollah Khamenei denounced his remarks in Friday prayers. The day before, Ahmadinejad had said that Mashaei's opinions were also those of the government.
  • November 2008: In Iran, opening ceremonies for public events almost always begin with the recitation of a few verses of the Qur'an by a qari (reciter). The reciter of the international conference on investment in Iran's tourism industry had to wait for the Qur'an to be delivered to him by women dressed in Kurdish traditional clothes playing frame drums (dafs). Two senior clerics from Qom were outraged at the incident, but Mashaei blamed his deputy, who was subsequently sacked.
  • September 2009: At the inauguration of the minister for higher education, Mashaei told the audience: "God ... created the human ... if the human were removed, there is no need to remove god." While it is not clear exactly what this meant, it was considered blasphemous by senior clerics.
  • November 2009: The hard-line newspaper, Kayhan, quoted Mashaei as saying: "God cannot be the fulcrum of unity for humankind". The paper commented that his remarks were "unjustifiable" and paved the way for malicious propaganda.
  • January 2010: Following Mashaei's presence at a photo exhibition with actress Hedieh Tehrani, there were rumours that she was his mistress (as opposed to his sigheh - a Shia 'temporary wife') and that the Organisation of Cultural Heritage had loaned her $200,000 for the event. Mashaei claimed that the picture taken of him sitting side by side with Tehrani had been doctored to make the two appear intimate. The actress denied rumours that Mashaei had bought one of her most expensive photo works. However, the incident prompted some bloggers to compare the "scandal" with the "decadence" of the last years of the shah's rule.
  • July 2010: Mashaei invited a number of Los Angeles-based Iranian singers - most of them from the pre-Islamic Republic era - back to Iran. Supporters of the supreme leader slammed Mashaei, claiming that he wanted to "invert the situation" (favour supporters of the monarchy). Mashaei had said that expatriate Iranian singers would have no problem returning to the country if their activities were legal.
  • August 2010: In a speech at the Razi Medical Research Festival, Mashaei said that the 'god-sent prophet' Noah failed to undertake a "comprehensive management style" since he did not establish justice. He reiterated similar remarks regarding other prophets in his subsequent speeches.
  • August 2010: In the closing ceremony of a conference of expatriate Iranians, Mashaei made what was perhaps his most controversial remark to date: "Some criticise me for refusing to talk of the school of Islam and instead preferring the school of Iran. There are diverse interpretations of Islam, but our perception of the essence of Islam is the school of Iran, which we should promote to the world." Former head of the judiciary ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi accused Mashaei of parroting the words of monarchists, while general Hassan Firouzabadi, joint chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, went further, claiming the remarks were an act against national security, and an attack on the tenets of the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution. Yazdi threatened: "If someone turns away from Islam, we warn him, and then, if that does not work, we beat him."

Conservative cleric Ebrahim Nikoonam referred to the "possibility that the 'incitement' created by the presidential chief of staff might be rooted in foreign agendas". Previously, some high-ranking officials had insinuated that Ahmadinejad's office had been infiltrated by a foreign state (this is usually taken to mean Israel). Nikoonam said: "Such words might be said by those who are not part of the government, but when they are said by those who are they cause serious concern." Yazdi called on Ahmadinejad to "beware of letting anyone infiltrate the government who might later turn out to be an agent of foreigners".

Pure theatre

On January 11 theatregoers queuing outside Tehran's City Theatre to watch Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler were informed by police that the play, which had been running for a week, had been suspended.

One of the play's characters is a former alcoholic, but in the Tehran production there was no mention of alcoholism, and male and female characters were kept away from each other on stage. However, the Fars News Agency reported that conservative papers had claimed the theatre was promoting "nihilism, licentiousness and vulgarism as the main points of the play", which has "nothing to do with national and Islamic ideas and is based on western nihilistic philosophy".

All artistic activities in Iran are controlled and regulated by the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, and the Iranian version of Hedda Gabler had apparently passed its vetting procedures following changes to the original script imposed by the censor. The subsequent news that a new body to regulate cultural affairs was to be created came amid a very public row between the ministry of culture and the regime's more conservative elements. Culture minister Mohammad Hosseini said there was "no moral issue" with the play and accused its critics of "exaggeration", while Mashaei himself used the incident to reassert Ahmadinejad's new-found 'reformist' credentials.

Mashaei also commented that Ahmadinejad was not in favour of the jailing of renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Panahi was handed a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year work ban for making propaganda against the Islamic establishment. The work ban covers writing scripts, film-making and travel abroad, as well as giving interviews to local and foreign media. Mashaei added: "The sentence was issued by the judiciary and reflects neither my opinion nor that of the president."

Crisis? What crisis?

The history of Iran's Islamic regime has been one of permanent crises and constant conflict between various factions of the regime. However, over the last 30 years they have agreed to share power in accordance with their respective votes in elections (the choice being limited, of course, to factions of the Islamic Republic) and subsequent negotiations. Last year's rigged presidential elections broke this pattern and for the first time since 1979 there is no precedence for resolving the current conflict. Hence the paralysis that has overtaken decision-making and the total uncertainty regarding the forthcoming majles poll. In December, former president Mohammad Khatami warned that 'reformist' parties would not take part in future elections "unless prisoners are freed and the elections are clean".

The battle lines for 2011 have already been drawn, with unprecedented animosity not just between conservatives and 'reformists', but more significantly within both groups. It is important to emphasise that these divisions are expressions of the inability of the religious state in its entirety to rule the country. The current crisis of government - mainly between the president, his advisers and ministers, on the one hand, and the conservative principlists in the majles and revolutionary guards, on the other - has brought the state to a standstill and it is unlikely that this crisis, coinciding as it does with the escalation of sanctions, will be resolved as easily as previous ones.

For example, the appointment of the governor of Iran's central bank has become a battleground between the warring factions. The majles voted in November in favour of a bill authorising a change in the composition of the bank's board to block government "interference" and ensure its "independence". The bill effectively removed the president's executive control over the central bank, highlighting the intensity of the infighting between parliament and government at a time of discontent over price rises, the ending of subsidies and mass unemployment. Parliament, strengthened in recent months by the backlash against the crippling impact of the latest round of UN sanctions, seemed to have wrested day-to-day control of monetary policy from the government, but Ahmadinejad simply refused to accept the bill, creating deadlock.

In another development, the ministry of foreign affairs has barred Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, from attending an awards ceremony in Washington in an attempt to prevent a rival to the Iranian president from gaining international publicity. The inability of the regime to agree on peaceful coexistence between its factions has led to renewed speculation about regime change through military intervention by one section of the Revolutionary Guards against another or through the US escalation of sanctions combined with cyber war and armed insurrection amongst national minorities.

Iranians have been looking at events in Tunisia with envy and websites have compared the success of the protests in overthrowing Ben Ali's government with the failure of larger, more militant protests last year in Iran to achieve similar results. Answering the question, "Why Tunis, not Iran?", one cartoonist sums up the feelings of frustration and anger amongst young Iranians: "Moussavi talks about the 'golden years' under Khomeini, Karroubi is nostalgic for the 'dear imam', Khatami supports velayate faghih [religious guardianship of the nation], Rafsanjani addresses Khamenei as the 'dear leader' ... Now do you get why Ben Ali fled and Seyyed Ali [Khamenei] is still in power?"

In the words of Mohammad Reza Shalgouni, a leading comrade of Rahe Kargar, the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran, "The situation in Iran is such that even the resolution of a most modest demand, that of the position of a headscarf a few millimetres above or below the woman's eyebrow, cannot be resolved by 'reform'. Such a simple demand requires a revolution."

At a time when leaders of the green movement have reached a dead end, their failure is also that of their leftwing supporters. A recent battle between Farrokh Negahdar, a leading figure of the Fedayeen Majority, and other members of that organisation's central committee shows the bankruptcy of both sides. Negahdar was criticised for the content of his open letter to Khamenei, which could have been written, word for word, by Hashemi Rafsanjani or any other leading 'reformist' supporter of the supreme leader. It warns Khamenei that he will lose power unless he listens to the calls for reform!

Although the letter is an appalling text, it is difficult to understand the anger of other members of Majority Fedayeen central committee. After all, what Negahdar has written is the inevitable consequence of the policy advocated by that organisation for more than a decade of tailing Islamist 'reformists'. No doubt Negahdar's text is shameful, but so are the policies of all those who advocate accommodation with a wing of this brutal religious dictatorship.