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.
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.
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.