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.