Our duty to Iran's working class

Speaking at a CPGB meeting in Manchester in support of Hands Off the People of Iran, Yassamine Mather makes the call for urgent and principled solidarity

Oil: Iran’s main source of income

It seems such a long time that there have been threats of military action against Iran without them being followed through that some people may have become a bit blasé. It is a bit like the boy who cried wolf too many times perhaps. However, the reality is that his time the threats are very serious.

The reasons why there are serious threats now have very little to do with the Iranian nuclear programme. Most people agree that the Iranian government exaggerates the stage it has reached and the west also exaggerates this - in regard to uranium enrichment, for example - both for their own reasons. I am not dismissing the nuclear issue altogether, but I do not think it is the reason why we are facing these serious threats.

There are other reasons. First and foremost there is the world economic crisis and the fact that the United States is in economic decline. It is feeling the pressure of both the crisis and the partial erosion of its hegemonic position - not to the extent that its hegemony is threatened by some competitor seeking to take over that role, of course. Because of that it cannot tolerate states like Iran - despite the fact that it follows every neoliberal instruction dictated by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on. The problem is that politically Iran is not playing the game that the hegemonic power wants it to play. For that reason it has to be taught a lesson.

Let me stress here - because within the Iranian left and opposition in general there is some confusion on this issue - I am not saying that the United States is threatened by China as a new emerging political power. China’s economic dependence on the US is well known, but, most importantly of all, China’s economic reserves are held in US dollars and in US banks: it would not be in the interest of the Chinese to wage an economic war against the United States; quite the reverse. And China too is very much affected by the economic crisis, just as many countries in the developing and emerging economies are facing its effects.

Leaving aside the effects of the economic crisis, the political reason the US needs to exert its power in the region arises from the fact that its position has been damaged by the two wars it has waged in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I am not using the word ‘defeat’ in this context, as it is more complicated than simply saying the US was defeated in Iraq: clearly it was not. But the outcome is certainly not what anyone in the US political establishment would have wanted: a political regime totally allied to the Iranian government. That must have been the worst-case scenario for American strategists. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq under the Ba’athist regime was a staunch opponent of the Iranians and its downfall has strengthened Iran. The same is also true of Afghanistan. Iran was no friend of the Taliban, but the Karzai regime has distanced itself at times from the US and has moved to find better relations with Iran - both with the supreme leader and with Ahmadinejad. The rapprochement between Iran and Afghanistan gives Iran influence in a very strategic part of the world. This strategic importance is not simply about oil (though there is the additional issue of the oil-rich Gulf region), but about its geopolitical significance.

As the Saudis keep telling the US, the two wars have produced Shia governments all the way from the borders of Iran to the Levant, and that is a serious matter. In the regional context I know that some people in the Stop the War Coalition have said that if Iran is attacked we will see demonstrations in every Arab country, not least Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood will be up in arms. The reality is that there is now another very forceful voice in addition to Israel telling the United States to go to war against Iran, and that voice is Saudi Arabia - and, by extension, some of the Sunni Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Anyone who has any understanding of the Gulf, who knows the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, will understand that would be their position as well - the MB has expressed this in various interviews. The opposition to Iran from the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is poisonous and vehement: you can hear it and you can feel it if you watch Al Arabiya television for 10 minutes. For them it is clear that Iran is the main enemy; they have forgotten about Israel. In fact Israel, Saudi Arabia and the GCC now have a common enemy: Iran.

Also we have now seen Hamas distancing itself from both Syria and Iran, contrary to what hopeful, and I assume uninformed, members of the STWC are telling us. Hamas has been issuing statements saying that if there is a war between Iran and Israel it will stay neutral. As someone who has never supported Hamas it frightens me that it would make such a statement. But that is the reality of the regional context and no manner of wishful thinking can change this. Iran has influence in the Middle East, but also many enemies, and the United States knows it.

In addition to all this the US is in an election year and there is not a single primary where the Republicans do not voice concern about Obama’s ‘irresponsible’ attitude and ‘softness’ on Iran, which adds to the pressure. It is not simply a matter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee supporting a Republican candidate instead of Obama: I assume AIPAC-influenced votes are divided between both parties. But constant allegations in an election year that the administration is not doing enough, that it is not showing its muscle and that it is displaying weakness can be added to the reality of a superpower feeling threatened by the economic crisis and its political position.

Sanctions

So the threat of war should be taken seriously. The people of Iran are certainly taking it seriously and for them it is a nightmare, a disaster. Whatever political opinion Iranians may hold, they consider the threat of military action a terrible reminder of the Iran-Iraq war - but they realise that this time it could be far worse and on a far larger scale. And in many ways it seems the war has already started because the majority of the people are suffering from the severity of the sanctions. These are not sanctions like those applied against South Africa. They are really affecting ordinary people in their day-to-day lives.

The effects are both psychological and material. For a few years there have been shortages of surgical equipment, of medication, of certain types of spare parts for cars and planes and so on. If your car needs a spare part and the part is on the US list of equipment which could potentially be ‘used for nuclear arms acquisition’, you will just have to write off your car. Alternatively people have attempted to make their own spare parts - and the state has attempted to do the same thing for aircraft - which has made things extremely unsafe. There have been serious accidents, with people endangering their own lives and their surroundings, as they try to work round the sanctions in various ways.

However, the most serious effects of the sanctions have been felt since January and there are two reasons for this. One is that the banking and foreign exchange measures have really hit home. Swift (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), through which credit/debit transactions are run via member-banks, is now removing Iran from its list, which means that credit cards can no longer be used in Iran from next month. This is problematic for ordinary Iranians, but also makes it difficult for industry to buy raw materials. I was talking to some people who work in a factory and they were saying that the owner cannot get any of the material he used to buy. They said that usually the capitalists make up such stories as an excuse to sack workers, but in this case the stories are true - they cannot perform the necessary transactions. There have been some smaller banks prepared to bypass these sanctions, but these are being forced to comply.

Banking sanctions have affected the Iranian currency dramatically since January of this year. This was added to the EU decision to stop buying Iranian oil from July. But just the announcement of the banking sanctions brought the Iranian currency to its knees - it lost half its value in 10 hours. Apart from the psychological effect, this shows us how the capitalists both within and outside government circles have been losing confidence in their own state - so much so that suddenly nobody wants to keep their money in tomans (one toman equals 10 official Iranian rials). One dollar is now worth 2,000 tomans - up from 1,200 before the announcement. The state intervened, restricting currency trading and increasing interest rates, but, of course, none of this has had the desired effect and the value of the rial has almost been halved.

Iran’s economy is now one of an importing country, apart from oil. This has resulted from neoliberalism, as well as the land reform and privatisation that has taken place. Agriculture in Iran has been destroyed. The country now imports most of the fruit and vegetables that used to come from within. In most ‘third world’ countries you can usually say, at least food staples are relatively cheap, but this is not the case in Iran. Land reform has driven the peasantry off the land and into shanty towns in the urban areas. What is left of mechanised agriculture is utilised for export crops, which provide good foreign currency returns. Privatisation has resulted in widespread destruction of sections of the food industry, affecting staple foods. The price of rice doubled in January and the same is true for other grains.

In addition to that, imported food is being held up. Shipping companies have been told that if they offload their goods in Iranian ports they will be put on sanction lists. They are taking this very seriously and mostly complying. There are reports, for example, of a ship full of grain from the Ukraine refusing to offload its goods once it had docked. Its owners had second thoughts and told the crew to leave. It was better for the company to do this than be on the US blacklist.

These sanctions have nothing to do with stopping Iran’s nuclear programme. They are for regime change. The US has made up its mind to flex its muscles in the region and install a more compliant regime in Tehran. Now, many Iranians are very sympathetic to the idea of regime change, but they most certainly do not want this to come about through outside interference. Ironically a notion that is so distasteful to ordinary people inside Iran has appealed to certain organisations in exile, some of whom are so desperate for regime change that they do not stop and think about the implications of military action, or what would come afterwards. Could it be worse than the current situation? Yes, it could. The examples of Iraq and Afghanistan prove it.

National fragmentation

Things are indeed very bad for workers in Iran. Unemployment has rocketed, with youth unemployment particularly serious. Many workers are on contracts that allow for instant dismissal, and are often not paid for months. In addition to this, the struggle of Iranians against their own religious state is intensifying. What was, in some senses, a pluralistic dictatorship, is now becoming much more monolithic. This can be seen in the recent election results, combined with the defeat of the green movement in 2009.

Of course, there is strong opposition to the regime. But people do not want another state to decide the fate of their country, and in that sense I think the opposition to the war is so strong that it might actually strengthen the regime and help it survive. It is one of those cases where one does not know how far that process might go. Some say that the US is betting on the fact that the stepping up of sanctions will make the people so desperate they will rebel. But in my view they are wrong: it could have completely the reverse effect.

In some ways we saw this in the election results at the beginning of March. Of course, the regime exaggerated the turnout - I would say that at most one third of the electorate voted. This was despite the fact that the government did its best to make it an election against the war, claiming that voting was a matter of honour, of preserving the nation. One can see the how serious the situation is by the following conundrum: on the one hand, the regime stays in power and the threats increase. On the other hand, the regime change planned by the US would almost certainly involve the dismantling of the country we currently know as Iran.

Take Balochistan. The US is clearly looking to separate it off. It has emerged that Israeli Mossad agents have approached the Balochi opposition pretending to represent the CIA and it was only a year later that the US found out. Then, of course, there was the flood of denials. The US is doing this with more subtlety than the Israelis, but the idea remains one of creating a ‘greater Balochistan’ standing between and in opposition to both Iran and Pakistan.

The Kurdish issue is also an obvious one. There is strong opposition to the repression of the Iranian state. But some of the Kurdish groups would be happy to see a Kurdish republic created under US supervision, presumably not realising where that would lead. It would be a worse outcome for the Kurdish people than the terrible situation they already have to endure under Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

It goes without saying that I support the Kurds’ right to self-determination. Kurdish areas in Turkey and Iraq, as well as in Iran, have been deliberately kept more undeveloped than any other part of those countries, first by western client regimes and then by subsequent governments. As a result there is a very small working class in these regions. For example, working class Iranian Kurds tend to seek employment in Tehran or Azerbaijan.

I would argue for a united socialist Iran with a united, autonomous Kurdistan as a federated part of it. That is a much more attractive proposition for the Kurdish working class than the establishment of a small independent country based on three separate, economically undeveloped regions all with a very weak proletariat. Because of the absence of a strong working class, the Kurdish nationalist parties tend towards pre-capitalist, feudal methods in order to maintain their support. It would be possible to unite these three enclaves into a single state, but that state would be dominated by reactionary forces. Would that be progress for the Kurdish people or the Kurdish working class? I do not think so. As much as I defend the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination - and it must be their choice - I would advocate a federal arrangement within a socialist Iran. That would be better in the long run than a small, impotent Kurdistan state.

Similarly the separation of the Arab regions of Iran has always been on the agenda of neighbouring Arab countries. There is strong sentiment involved: Iranian Arabs speak a different language, they have been repressed. Even when oil prices were at their peak the region was deprived, with people being racially abused and so on. However, becoming part of Saudi Arabia or other states of the Gulf Cooperation will not do them any good either, yet that is the plan. And then there is the idea that a big chunk of Iran should be incorporated into Azerbaijan - there is an understandable sentiment amongst some Azeri Turks in Iran that the idea of joining a bigger Azerbaijan republic would be better than remaining part of Iran.

But all of these scenarios would be profoundly negative - not just for the Iranian peoples, but for the broader region and the world as a whole. Decimating a country in order to make sure that the hegemonic state remains powerful and has no headaches in the region is not a solution. The fact that national minorities in the region have been badly treated is well established and this is a serious issue that must be resolved through the right to self-determination. However, as communists we must be honest and state clearly that the fragmentation of Iran into small, weak units would produce a far worse situation than the present one. As in occupied Iraqi Kurdistan, it is likely that lackeys of the US would be in charge - no-one can claim that Kurds in Iraq are in control of their own destiny. The demand should be for the voluntary union of Iran’s peoples on the basis of democracy and equality.

Anti-regime, anti-war

There are those on the left who say that now is not the time to raise our voices against the Islamic Republic. But opposing this war does not mean suspending our opposition to the theocracy. Within the Iranian opposition there are very few - whether on the left or right - whose opposition to the war leads them to cease opposing the regime. It is the Islamic regime which has created this appalling situation for its own people. The regime itself has imposed neoliberal economic policies that have produced the situation where sanctions are so effective now. It is the state that is responsible for this economically disastrous situation, where the country is becoming utterly dependent on imports for every basic food item. So we cannot say that it is not about the regime.

Then there is the idea that I hear from some Stop the War people that the streets of London are not the place to fight the Islamic Republic. This is an insult to us Iranians. I fought the Islamic Republic in Tehran, but I was forced into exile. I fought the Islamic Republic in Kurdistan, but I could not stay because of the war being waged there. It is my right and my internationalist duty to fight the Islamic republic on the streets of London and no-one from Stop the War can tell me otherwise. Yet it is very often the same people who then tell us that “We are all Greeks today” when it comes to the protests in Athens and elsewhere. What is the logic of that? How come we are “all Greeks”, or “all Egyptians”, but we must not be all Iranians. Oh no - better not say anything about the Islamic regime! Needless to say, I do not accept this argument.

However, I also do not underestimate those sections of the Iranian opposition that are soft on the threat of war. The danger posed by such oppositionists is a very serious one for the Iranian people. I have no expectations otherwise of the right - the royalists have been dreaming from their comfortable homes in Washington or California of regime change imposed by the US for 33 years. But there are groups even among left opponents of the regime that now say, maybe the sanctions are a good idea, because perhaps it will force the hand of the Iranian government. Whether they have that effect or not, they may well destroy the country and starve millions of Iranians in the process. Hardly a useful way to change a regime. You might end up with one that is even worse - perhaps a military dictatorship with a ‘reformist’ Islamist figurehead. Would this be a solution to the problems facing Iran?

There are also sections of the Iranian left that take the opposite stance. Time and time again we have told organisations that defend the Iranian working class - and there are many who have done a good job in raising the issue of workers being attacked and arrested, etc - you cannot do this effectively unless you also raise the issue of war and sanctions. They never took this seriously until this year. However, I am very glad that the International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran has now issued a very clear statement against war and against sanctions. That is a good step. However, I must say that if they had joined us two or three years ago to build a serious campaign in defence of Iranian workers, while at the same time opposing war and sanctions, we would have been in a much stronger position.

I think, because of our principled position, Hands Off the People of Iran is in a unique position to lead the fight against this war. Now is the time to build Hopi, not as an alternative to the Stop the War Coalition - what a ridiculous suggestion - but as an organisation that has built up a reputation precisely because of that principled position. Personally I thought there was no point in Hopi applying yet again to affiliate to STWC, to be honest. But we can build Hopi because the Iranian working class needs us to and it is our duty to provide them with internationalist support and solidarity. But this is not just about Iran. It is about maintaining principle in terms of internationalism, in terms of dealing with the crisis, in terms of not falling for superficial slogans.

This is not just a repeat of the Iraq war: it is perhaps even more serious in some ways. These threats come at a time of economic crisis and it could turn out to be a war aiming to save capitalism. So let us build Hopi, make it stronger. Let us go nationwide. We have the politics, we have the comrades who have stayed loyal to the campaign and we have the correct arguments.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk