Genuine, consistent solidarity
The clerical regime was reactionary from the start, writes Yassamine Mather - even though there were those who claimed it was ‘moving towards the socialist camp’
Last week Iran’s Islamic Republic tested a ballistic missile - at a time when US military threats against Iran have dominated Middle Eastern news. The test was unsuccessful, but its political repercussions were serious.
After months of restraint, maybe the country’s rulers thought that president Donald Trump - under attack for the Russia dossier and beleaguered by enemies inside and outside the White House - might not retaliate. If that was their thinking, they were mistaken. On July 28 US state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the test a “provocative action” that violated the “spirit” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal struck in 2015 between Iran and the world’s 5+1 powers to control Iran’s nuclear programme. The US and its European allies claim Iran’s ballistic programme is designed to carry nuclear warheads.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal claimed Trump has ordered his subordinates to prove that Iran is not complying with the JCPOA, which would presumably provide him with the excuse to scrap the accord. Advocates of the deal persist in arguing that Iran is in compliance with its provisions, while opponents make claims like: “It takes considerable credulousness to believe that over the course of this agreement the Iranian military won’t adapt technical knowledge gained about launch and guidance from projects like its ‘satellite missile’ programme. With or without compliance, Iran is making progress as a strategic threat.”1
On July 28, US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin imposed a whole set of new sanctions against 18 individuals and entities for supporting what he said were “illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity”. And there are continued rumours that the Trump administration is considering imposing sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards - a move that would have serious implications for the country, given the Guards’ involvement in every aspect of the economy. Trump has also claimed that Iran is violating the nuclear deal and there will be “an American law aimed at ensuring Iranian compliance”.
It should be pointed out that the JCPOA deal does not cover Iran’s ballistic missile programme. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told news agencies last week that the US is not complying with the “letter and spirit” of the deal: “Rhetoric and actions from the US show bad faith”. By August 1, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, was accusing the United States of “breaching the 2015 agreement”.
Iran’s leaders are well aware of Trump’s comments during the 2016 presidential election campaign, when he repeatedly promised to “rip up” the “worst deal ever made”. So whether or not the Trump administration finds evidence of a lack of compliance, the Islamic Republic is trying to make sure it is the US and Trump who are blamed if the agreement fails this autumn. The headline from Iranian daily, Hamshahri, sums up the mood in Tehran: “Iran is preparing for the day when US walks out of the nuclear deal” (August 2).
The only voice expressing doubt in Washington is that of secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who, according to one headline, “acknowledges ‘differences’ with Trump on Iran deal”.2 According to Tillerson, because Iran had been “rewarded upfront” for signing the deal, the US had “limited levers available” and so was working with its allies to put “collective pressure” on Iran to “amend its behaviour”.3
Of course, given the current civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya - all consequences of the US policy of ‘regime change from above’ - it is unlikely that the Trump administration will launch an all-out war against Iran. However, with the growing conflict between the factions of the Islamic Republic, both the tactic and the strategy are clear. Increasing pressure on Iran will worsen the tensions within the regime, and at some stage an element in the Revolutionary Guards will be provoked into, say, firing on a US frigate in the Gulf, Israel will be given the green light to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations and the ensuing mini-war would open the opportunity for regime change from above. Less intelligent sections of the Iranian opposition - both on the right and increasingly many on the ‘left’ - have been placing their hopes on such a catastrophic eventuality.
As someone who has opposed Iran’s Islamic Republic throughout its 37-year rule, I remain - as the regime calls us - sarnegouni talab: one who supports its overthrow. However, I want that to happen through a revolutionary movement inside the country, not a crisis engineered by a US president who cannot even see the fundamental flaws in his proposed ‘regime change’ scenario, not least the complete absence of a viable alternative inside or outside the country. The disastrous consequences are all predictable: the creation of yet another failed state in the region; endless civil wars between Tehran and national minorities (Kurds, Arabs, Balouchis, Turkmen …). The result would make Syria and Iraq look like safe havens.
Under these circumstances it is important that a genuine solidarity movement takes shape, both in the UK and internationally, to oppose any US aggression, while at the same time standing against the repression meted out by Iran’s Islamic Republic. It is a regime that does not tolerate opposition from within its own ranks. Ex-premier Mir-Hossein Moussavi, together with Mehdi Karroubi, former speaker of majles (parliament), remain under house arrest, eight years after the demonstrations they organised in 2009. They are loyal ‘reformists’, who have never challenged the continued rule of the clerical regime or its supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
No need to guess the plight of those who have dared to call for the overthrow of clerical rule and its relentless drive towards neoliberal capitalism under successive governments. Through their strikes, protests and demonstrations, Iran’s workers remain the only hope for progressive change in the region. Yet, in the absence of any mass political organisation and at a time when the left is forced to remain underground, their struggles are limited to defensive actions: keeping their jobs, demanding unpaid wages, retaining their pension rights, etc.
It is in the light of such a situation that I read Jane Green’s article in the Morning Star on the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (Codir).4 Of course, I agree with some of the points made in the article regarding Trump’s regime change agenda, the hypocrisy of US and western governments, with their claims of defending ‘human rights’ in Iran, and the need to build solidarity with the Iranian people. However, as always when it comes to Codir - and Tudeh, the Iranian ‘official communist’ party behind it - there is a level of amnesia about previously held positions , with no hint of a regret or apology.
Jane Green tells us: “Codir has vehemently opposed the Iranian theocratic regime for over 30 years. We have consistently opposed the imprisonment, torture and execution of political activists, women and trade unionists over that period.” Thirty years takes us to 1987, but Iran’s’ Islamic Republic came to power in 1979, and some of the worst years of repression, which left their physical and psychological scars on the opposition forces, were at the very start of its rule. In fact it was only in the late 1980s that Tudeh came over to the opposition. It is not just that Tudeh - and by extension its solidarity campaign, Codir - kept quiet about the repression of the radical left and Mojahedin in those early years: they actually collaborated and cheered on the ‘anti-imperialist’ regime under ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in its endeavours to crush the left opposition.
While I was among those fighting the Revolutionary Guards in Kurdistan, Tudeh, which at the time was following Moscow’s line of support for Khomeini’s anti-US policy, was calling for the same Revolutionary Guards to be armed with heavy weaponry (the Iranian army was attacking us with helicopter gunships , but in the early years of the regime the Islamic Revolutionary Guards were the junior partner in the new government’s military aggression in Kurdistan.
It was their support for Khomeini’s line that made Tudeh and its allies, the Fedayeen Majority, partners in crime. To Iran’s workers Tudeh’s message was clear: ‘Produce more - this is an anti-imperialist war and a war economy. But Iran is moving towards the socialist camp!’ By contrast, the radical left’s message was that, while they fought imperialism, they also had to fight the Islamic government. They emphasised the need for revolution, as opposed to the transfer of power from one section of the ruling class to another. Even at that time it was clear that the regime had no intention of dismantling the old state. The Islamic Republic would also, of course, protect private property.
The claim that Iran was moving towards the ‘socialist camp’ was based on Khomeini’s rhetoric, with its endless repetition of meaningless anti-US slogans. No-one within or outside the ruling circles believed a word of it and in fact by the early 80s it was clear that, contrary to the slogans, while claiming to be fighting an anti-imperialist war against Iraq (which, by the way, was armed by Nato, yet maintained good relations with Moscow), senior Iranian clerics were negotiating with the United States for the delivery of Israeli-produced arms - payment for such weapons was made via dodgy Swiss bank accounts to the rightwing Nicaraguan Contras!
For all its faults the radical left (Fedayeen Minority, Peykar, Komaleh, Rahe Kargar …) had mass support amongst rank-and-file workers - especially in the oil industry, where some major strikes took place against the Islamic regime in the early 1980s.5 There can be no doubt that Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority’s support for Khomeini - what they called the ‘Imam’s line’ - played a part in the crushing of the leftwing opposition and the stabilisation of the Islamic government. So omitting the first seven years in the regime’s history is not an oversight. Jane Green has very good reasons to do so, even if she hopes Morning Star readers will not notice the gap between 1979 and the start of Codir’s solidarity action.
Nor was it just a question of praise for the Islamic Republic. Tudeh and the majority Fedayeen (Aksariyat) actually collaborated with the regime and supplied it with the names of socialists and communists. They considered this to be their ‘anti-imperialist duty’ in support of a regime that was heading for socialism. The results are well known: after the regime had dealt with the rest of the left Tudeh itself was targeted.
I would like to ask Jane Green and Codir the following questions:
- Who supported the trials of the left organised by ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali in the early 1980s - trials where prisoners were sent to execution merely for membership of or support for the organisations of the radical left? It was Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority. The online archives of their own newspapers prove this.
- When student followers of the Imam’s line (Khomeini supporters) took over the US embassy in 1979 - another event that helped stabilise the regime - who declared it an anti-imperialist act and claimed that opposition to it was “treason”? Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority.
- Who attacked relatives of Iranian socialists and communists opposed to the Islamic Regime, even outside Iran? The supporters of Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority in Codir.
So please don’t expect us to accept your amnesia about those years, when your support for the Islamic Republic cost the lives of a generation of leftwingers. New Codir supporters might have not be aware of this history, but the Iranian people are only too familiar with it.
Codir also takes pride in Tudeh’s record prior to the shah’s downfall, but there is little to be proud of in that era either. I remember as a child hearing the words hezb Tudeh khaen from the left, the right and the nationalists. In fact for many years before I knew anything about the political significance of the term khaen (which means ‘traitor’) I thought it was part of the party’s name. There are good reasons for this and I have written extensively on the issue in an article for Critique, but, to sum up a long story, khaen refers mainly to events that led to the 1953 coup against the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh.6
Iranian Marxists have long blamed Tudeh and its military organisation for inaction during the 1953 coup. Many believe that, even if - as party loyalists argue - defeat was inevitable, it would have been preferable for Tudeh officers and the party to be defeated resisting the coup.
Ervand Abrahamian notes that none of the Tudeh officers were in the “crucial tank divisions around Tehran” that could have been used for a coup and that the shah had screened them carefully:
Ironically, a Tudeh colonel had been in charge of the shah’s personal security - as well as that of vice-president Richard Nixon when he visited Iran. The Tudeh had the opportunity to assassinate the shah and the US vice-president, but not to launch a coup. The officer corps’ other main task was to protect the party. Its decimation in 1954 rendered it useless regarding this task.7
There can be no doubt that the Tudeh (and by extension the Soviet Union) did not come out of this period well. The Tudeh’s labelling of Mossadegh as a CIA agent, followed by periods when it was giving unconditional support to Mossadegh, was very similar to the attitude of pro-Soviet communist parties throughout the Middle East - parties which supported Ba’athist or nationalist rulers one day, only to oppose them the next, because Soviet relations with the given country had soured. The difference with the 1953 coup in Iran was that it was a more dramatic event and its consequences affected the region for decades to come.
From the onset the dismantling of what was Iran’s Communist Party (originally set up in 1920 in Gilan province in northern Iran) in favour of a new ‘mass party’ (Tudeh) was a controversial step, with many Iranian communists blaming Soviet interference for the change in both the name and the character of the party. Historian Cosroe Chaqueri has summarised these debates in his article, ‘Did the Soviets play a role in the founding of Tudeh?’8 Chaqueri quotes a report by Colonel Seliukov of the Red Army intelligence division about his meeting with Solyan Mirza Eskandari on September 29 1941. They discussed setting up a “national-democratic party” to “obtain democratic liberties and an easier life for the Iranian people”.
In 1945, when the Soviet Union decided to remain in the northern provinces of Iran, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, the Tudeh branches were dissolved and party members were instructed - presumably by the USSR - to join either Firqua Democrat Azerbaijan or Firqua Democrat Kurdistan (both left-nationalist organisations). Although the leader of the Azerbaijan Republic, Sayyed Pishevari, had joined Tudeh in the early 1940s, he had independent links with Moscow and did not obey party orders. Tudeh, for its part, having portrayed itself as the champion of patriotism and constitutional liberties against foreign imperialism, was forced to change tack and support the partition of northern Iran with oil concessions to the Soviet Union. Predictably, many Tudeh members resigned in disgust.
In April 1946 the Iranian government of Ahmad Ghavam signed an oil agreement with the Soviet Union and agreed to appoint Tudeh ministers in exchange for a promise of Soviet troop withdrawal from Iran’s northern provinces (in a reversal of policy, Moscow now favoured Tudeh once again). Partly as a result of pressure from the United States and Britain, Soviet troops withdrew from Iranian territory and Ghavam took three Tudeh members into his cabinet. Later the same year, however, he was able to reclaim his concessions to the Soviet Union, using the excuse of a tribal revolt in the south to dismiss Tudeh cabinet members.
When Ghavam and the shah’s troops arrived in Azerbaijan in December 1946, the Firqua Democrat government, deprived of Soviet support, collapsed and Pishevari fled to the Soviet Union. Stalin’s letter of May 8 1946 to Pishevari sheds light on aspects of their disagreements:
It seems to me that you misjudge the existing situation, inside Iran as well as in the international dimension.
First, you wanted to meet all revolutionary demands of Azerbaijan right now. But the existing situation precludes realisation of this programme. Lenin used to put forth revolutionary demands as practical demands, as practical demands only when the country experienced a grave revolutionary crisis aggravated by the unsuccessful war with an external enemy. Such was the case in 1905 during the unsuccessful war with Japan and in 1917 during the unsuccessful war with Germany. You here want to emulate Lenin. This is very good and laudable.
However, the situation in Iran today is totally different. There is no profound revolutionary crisis in Iran. There are few workers in Iran and they are poorly organised. The Iranian peasantry still does not show any serious activism. Iran is not waging a war with an external enemy that could weaken Iran’s reactionary circles through a military failure. Consequently, there is no such situation in Iran that could support the tactics of Lenin in 1905 and 1917.
Second, certainly, you could have counted on a success in the cause of the struggle for the revolutionary demands of the Azerbaijani people, had the Soviet troops continued to remain in Iran. But we could no longer keep them in Iran, mainly because the presence of Soviet troops in Iran undercut the foundation of our liberationist policies in Europe and Asia. The British and Americans said to us that if Soviet troops could stay in Iran, then why could not British troops stay in Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, Greece, and also the American troops - in China, Iceland, Denmark. Therefore we decided to withdraw troops from Iran and China, in order to seize this tool from the hands of the British and Americans, to unleash the liberation movement in the colonies and thereby to render our liberationist policy more justified and efficient. You as a revolutionary will certainly understand that we could not have done otherwise.
Third, all this said, one can come to the following conclusion with regard to the situation in Iran.
There is no profound revolutionary crisis in Iran. There is no state of war in Iran with external enemies, and, consequently, no military failures which could weaken the reaction and aggravate the crisis. So long as Soviet troops stayed in Iran, you had a chance to unfold the struggle in Azerbaijan and organise a broad democratic movement with far-reaching demands. But our troops had to leave and left Iran. What do we have now in Iran? We have a conflict of the government of Qavam with the Anglophile circles in Iran, who represent the most reactionary elements of Iran. As reactionary as Qavam used to be in the past, now he must, in the interests of self-defence and the defence of his government, carry out some democratic reforms and seek support among democratic elements in Iran.
What must be our tactics under these conditions? I believe we should use this conflict to wrench concession from Qavam, to give him support, to isolate the Anglophiles, thus, and to create some basis for the further democratisation of Iran. From this assumption stems all our advice to you. Of course, one could adopt a different tactic: to spit on everything, to break with Qavam and thereby ensure there a victory of the Anglophile reactionaries. Yet this would not have been a tactic, but stupidity. This would have been in effect a betrayal of the cause of the Azerbaijani people and Iranian democracy.
Fourth, you, as I found out, say that we first raised you to the skies and then let you down into the precipice and disgraced you. If this is true, it surprises us. What has really happened? We used the technique here that every revolutionary knows. In the situation similar to the situation of Iran today, if one wants to achieve a certain minimum of demands pursued by the movement, the movement has to run ahead, to progress beyond the minimal demands and to create a threat for the government, to ensure a possibility of concessions on the part of the government. Had you not run far ahead, you would not have had a chance in the current situation in Iran to achieve these ‘concessions’ that the government of Qavam has to make now. Such is the law of revolutionary movement. There could not be even mention of any disgrace for you.
It is very strange that you think that we could have let you down in disgrace. On the contrary, if you behave reasonably and seek with our moral support the demands that would legalise essentially the existing factual position of Azerbaijan, then you would be blessed both by the Azeris and by Iran as a pioneer of the progressive democratic movement in the Middle East.9
As this demonstrates, the dismantling of the Communist Party in Iran in favour of Tudeh, followed by the adventures of the Stalinist regime in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan and then the support for nationalist separation, resulted in confusion, anger and frustration amongst the ranks of Tudeh, the two Firquas and communists and socialists in Iran. In Azerbaijan, Firqua Democrat made some progress towards land reform and fighting corruption amongst civil servants, but its rule was short-lived and the shah’s army ensured a speedy reversal of these policies. There are contradictory reports about the level of local support for Pishevari and his government; however, there can be no doubt that military occupation encouraged the growth of rightwing, royalist and later fundamentalist tendencies in the region. In 1948 the Tudeh Party faced a large split under the leadership of Khalil Maleki, who blamed the central committee for the Azerbaijan crisis.
After 1953, Tudeh advocated a policy of ‘survival’, refraining from taking aggressive action in order to avoid arrest and imprisonment. Codir’s post-1979 message of ‘peace and democracy’ often reminds me of Tudeh and the Moscow broadcasts of the 1970s and 80s.
To summarise, given the current threat of war, the struggles of the Iranian working class, the continuation of repression by Iran’s Islamic Republic, the need to defend national and religious minorities in Iran, the necessity to publicise and defend the women’s movement in Iran, we need to build a genuine solidarity movement. However, such a genuine movement cannot be tarnished by the presence of those who have supported the Islamic Republic or those who accept funds from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates of the Persian Gulf, Israel, the US or the European Union. All these forces, whether they are aware of it or not, are actually part of Trump’s ‘regime change’ agenda and are contributing to the threat of war. They have certainly lost all credibility inside Iran.
As for those who supported the Islamic Republic in the early 1980s, I have not seen a single speaker from the Tudeh Party in an open political meeting of the left. (I am sure Tudeh and Codir hold many internal meetings, but by ‘open’ I mean a public meeting). Iranian progressives in the audience would simply not allow such a speaker even to get to their feet, given the despicable collaboration they were guilty of with this reactionary regime.
The campaign we need is Hands Off the People of Iran, not Codir. The unprecedented support we have gained amongst Iranians and non-Iranians is proof of this. Our stance against the sham trial of those accused of involvement in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners by the Islamic Republic (in what became known as the Iran Tribunal, paid for by Saudi funds and supported by the US National Endowment for Democracy and a plethora of dubious ‘regime change’-funded organisations) gained us new and welcome support worldwide, particularly in the United States.
Hopi activists originating in Iran are comrades who have a clear conscience - most of us opposed the Islamic Republic from the day it came to power. Amongst us are also comrades who openly admit their political mistakes and have produced discussion documents explaining their previous positions and their current ones - as opposed to those who seek to hide what they said or did in the recent past. We address the British and international working class movement when we seek solidarity.
Unlike Codir, which claims it has been “fighting a long battle to persuade western leaders to condemn the human rights record of the Islamic Republic and to bring pressure to bear on the regime to allow free and independent trade union and political activity”,10 we have no illusions in western leaders and governments, whose position on ‘human rights’ (itself a dubious term) in Iran depends entirely on their immediate political and economic interests in Iran and the region.
By addressing trade union and political organisations and activists of the left in the UK and elsewhere, we aim to build a principled opposition movement against both the threat of war and the anti-working class, repressive measures of Iran’s Islamic Republic. We will continue to address working class organisations with the aim of strengthening the campaign both in UK but also in Europe and in North America.
Now is the time to strengthen solidarity with the Iranian people - and Hopi is the only organisation capable of building a serious, principled campaign.
4. Morning Star July 27.
5. See the interview with one of the leading figures of the time, Ali Pichgah: http://etehadbinalmelali.com/ak/maghaleh-ali-pichgah.
6. See Y Mather, ‘Iran’s Tudeh Party: a history of compromises and betrayals’: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2011.621250.
7. E Abrahamian A history of modern Iran Cambridge 2008, p122.
10. Morning Star July 27.