Iran, Kurdistan and the left

How can we achieve principled communist unity in the Middle East? We spoke to Mohammad Reza Shalgouni, a member of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar)

Voting for separation - and client status

How do you see the current situation in the Middle East and in Iran itself following first the nuclear deal and then its ‘decertification’ by Donald Trump?

Over the last few years the Middle East has been torn apart by a destructive crisis - caught in the midst of a full-scale international conflict. All sides have played a crucial part in initiating and continuing this situation, but of course the United States, Britain, France and their regional allies - in particular the kingdoms in the oil emirates of the Persian Gulf - have played a crucial role in the ensuing tragedy.

This disastrous situation entered a new phase with the Republican Party’s victory in last year’s US elections and, given the declared aims of the Trump administration, one cannot see an end to it. Let us not forget that the Trump administration is the first US government that openly admits it is seeking ‘regime change’ (be it in a ‘peaceful manner’) in Iran. It also wants to transfer the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and with unprecedented clarity declares in a gathering of Arab leaders that it is not concerned about human rights, that its only preoccupation is the defeat of Islamic terrorism (and, of course, only the anti-US version of this phenomenon).

In the current situation in the Middle East a number of issues have special significance.

Following the events of the last two decades, the house of Saud sees its future in danger and is therefore employing a more active and aggressive foreign policy - attempting to impose its hegemony over other Arab states and creating a situation where the Saudi dynasty is secure. However, this policy means the Saudis themselves are facing major crises.

Firstly, their attempt to confront Shia movements has not only increased the confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran: it has also created an extraordinary situation in Yemen, Bahrain and even the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia (where the country’s major oil reserves are to be found), to such an extent that it is difficult to see how they can control this situation. For example, the catastrophic situation in Yemen is far worse than the tragedy in that engulfed Syria.

Secondly, Saudi attempts at eradication of various networks associated with the Muslim Brotherhood have led them to a confrontation with Qatar, and as a result the Gulf Cooperation Council is on the verge of destruction. It has also led to a situation where Saudi and Arab Emirates relations with Turkey have soured to critical levels.

Thirdly, in the Syrian civil war the intervention of the Russian airforce has changed the balance of forces in favour of the Assad regime and, as a result of this, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.

In Turkey itself, after decades of Kemalism and its emphasis on secularism, with the formation of a personal dictatorship by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the separation of state and religion has become meaningless, and repression against the Kurds has increased. This might lead to longer and more serious confrontations in that country, thereby increasing the Middle East’s many crises.

As for Iran, which in the past wanted to unite ‘all Muslims’ against both the ‘east and the west’, it now has to confine itself to uniting various Shia sects against the Sunnis and to relying on sectarian divides to become a regional power. However, the creation of groups similar to Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria will in the long run weaken the current rulers of Iran.

The Iranian regime is engulfed in deep sectarian wars with Sunnis (who encompass nine tenths of the world’s Muslims) and in the longer term victory against such forces is impossible. This also increases the threat of military confrontation with the United States and its allies. We should not forget that right now in Iraq we are witnessing a situation where some Shia groups are distancing themselves from Iran and in Syria, where the majority of the population is Sunni, there is increasing antipathy towards the Iranian regime.

Under such circumstances the Trump administration is trying to use a number of punitive measures to render the nuclear deal with Iran meaningless. It is hoping to reverse George Bush’s failure to change the map of the region.

What is your analysis of the referendum that took place in Iraqi Kurdistan and what effect has it had on Iranian Kurdish groups?

Iraqi Kurdistan is already benefiting from a solid, all-encompassing autonomy and within Iraq’s federalist constitution that situation would have been maintained.

In the most optimistic scenario, separation from Iraq would lead to complete dependence on one or other of the neighbouring states. Such dependence would be dangerous even in the European Union, never mind in the kind of jungle rule prevalent in a crisis-riddled Middle East. Following separation from Iraq, the Kurdish regional government would inevitably become another little oil state, similar to those of the Persian Gulf, but even more fragile than them: unlike those kingdoms, Iraqi Kurdistan is land-locked.

The separation of Kurdistan would inevitably lead to further nationalist and regional wars in the Middle East and we know that nationalist struggles can lead to the same kind of cannibalistic confrontations that religious infighting causes. The Kurdish vote for independence immediately prompted anti-Kurd sentiment in Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

The separation of Kurdistan from Iraq would no doubt increase tensions amongst various Kurdish groups both inside Iraq and in neighbouring countries - firstly because establishing democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan would face many obstacles and secondly because the regional government would undoubtedly have to compromise with one of the neighbouring countries - oppressors of Kurds within their own borders - in order to survive. Here it is not accidental that Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, had (until recently) good relations with Turkey - a vicious enemy of the Kurds both in Turkey and Syria.

The separation of Kurdistan would make the coexistence of Sunnis and Shias more difficult in Iraq and would lead to the complete destruction of Iraq as a nation-state - a situation that would no doubt increase the reactionary influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia amongst opposing religious sects, leading to more widespread religious-based violence. In addition, let us remember that separation from Iraq would not be as peaceful as the separation of the Czech and Slovak republics, in that it would lead to ethnic cleansing in some areas. For example, the issue of the control of Kirkuk, Khaneghin and even Mosul would lead to further confrontations, causing deeper, unresolvable divisions.

The Kurdish referendum took place at time when, after years of struggling for independence, the majority of the Kurdish population had come to the conclusion that the peaceful coexistence of nationalities was the best way of achieving democracy and exercising the right to self-determination. This way of thinking is currently dominant amongst Kurds in Turkey (the largest group of Kurds within a country in the Middle East).

The result of the 2015 elections showed how such an attitude can strengthen the alliance between progressive forces and the workers’ movement. In those elections, the Peoples Democratic party (which had only had come into existence three years earlier) united the Turkish Kurds with a number of leftwing tendencies in Turkey, and managed to get the best result ever achieved by the left in Turkey. If it had not been for the manifold plots of Erdoğan’s security forces and the mistakes of the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), this would have undoubtedly changed the political scene in Turkey in favour of democracy.

All this shows clearly that the solution is not separation, but voluntary, democratic coexistence of all nationalities and peoples of the region, which can pave the way for democracy in the entire Middle East. This is the path that progressive Kurdish forces will have to accept sooner or later.

However, unfortunately the majority of Iranian Kurdish groups, under the influence of nationalist sentiments and slogans, supported the Kurdish referendum. They essentially interpret the right to self-determination as separation.

Your organisation has recently left the ‘Council of Cooperation’ of Iranian left and communist groups. You have stated that this was related to the illusions held by certain groups that ‘regime change from above’ could lead to ‘democracy’ or even ‘socialism’. Can you explain your reasons for leaving this alliance?

From the outset our organisation was in favour of a powerful class bloc created through an alliance of the left and for more than two decades we have defended our line in favour of the unity of supporters of socialism. It was in this context that we joined the Council of Cooperation in Iran.

The reality is, however, that our understanding of socialism was always different from the majority of the groups in this alliance, mainly because most of them do not draw a clear line between themselves and the ‘socialist states and communist parties’ of the Soviet era. These were parties that did not believe in the participation of the majority of the population in shaping the transition to socialism. Nevertheless, we defended our line within the alliance, inviting others to debate such issues, while participating in joint activities.

However, the change in the line of the Communist Party [mainly a Kurdish organisation - translator], towards an alliance with those Iranian Kurdish forces associated with US-sponsored ‘regime change from above’, made it impossible for us to remain in the Council of Cooperation. In response to our opposition to this line, the Communist Party denied that the US had any plans for regime change from above. This comment was made in circumstances when after Trump’s victory the United States openly talks of such plans - indeed some of the groups that the Iranian Communist Party wants to ally itself with are openly seeking financial support from Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States itself.

So the Communist Party wanted to remain in the alliance of the left, while participating in a Kurdish unity front, advocating regime change from above. This would have meant the Council of Cooperation becoming a junior partner of the US in blatant contradiction to the first principle of the alliance of left and communist forces: ie, “commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic republic” - from below and by the majority of the Iranian people.