Warmongers and lost causes

Yassamine Mather looks at some of the groupings among Iran’s corrupted exiled opposition.

At a time when Donald Trump’s administration is facing the worst crisis of his presidency, it is worth considering the deluded sections of the Iranian opposition (left and right), who had banked on his policy of ‘regime change from above’.

Of course, even before the current fiasco, anyone with an iota of intelligence would have realised that the US administration’s declared policy of “maximum pressure” was failing - Iran’s economy has not collapsed despite severe sanctions. However, as Trump’s recent eagerness to make a deal with Tehran implies, sanctions and “maximum pressure” were never intended to bring about regime change, but to serve as a means of improving the US position in future negotiations. By all accounts even the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has given up any hope on Trump’s Iran policy.1

It looks like the Saudis have also decided in the last few weeks that Trump is unlikely to fight a war with Iran on their behalf. So the kingdom - one of the main funders of the Iranian ‘regime change’ opposition - has sent a number of mediators to Tehran, all with conciliatory messages aimed at reducing tension between the two countries.

It is in such circumstances that you have to pity those groups and individuals - from royalists to supporters of ‘humanitarian intervention’ - who had pinned their hopes on military intervention organised by Trump. They failed to realise that their constant calls for ‘action’ - in some cases pleading with Trump to launch a military attack - make them the most hated section of the opposition amongst people inside the country.

I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of some of these groups, judging by the poor attendance and the low morale (not to mention the infighting) witnessed at some recent gatherings. Trump’s consistent attempts to avoid military confrontation anywhere in the world certainly contradicts his aggressive rhetoric.

I shall concentrate on three groups of exiled Iranian oppositionists: the Transition Management Council (Shoraye Gozar), the constitutional monarchists and the Alliance of Iranian Republicans (Etehad Jomhourikhahan Iran).

In late September-early October, just a few days before what the Iranian ‘regime change’ crowd have called ‘Trump’s betrayal’ for withdrawing US troops from Syrian Kurdistan, we saw in a number of conferences these exiles trying to explain their vision of an alternative government in Tehran.

First we had the ridiculous ‘Transitional Council’ - an alliance between former high-ranking members of the Islamic Republic with ‘constitutional’ royalists, a number of nationalist groups, three Kurdish organisations, a Pan-Arabist group and a pro-independence Baluchi group, as well as a couple of ex-members of the Fedayeen majority. Given the limited support for any of the groups or ‘personalities’ in this alliance, the fact that such a conference took place is very likely to be thanks to Saudi/US funds. However, the attendees did not seem to realise the irony of opposing “corruption” in Iran’s Islamic Republic, while at the same time supporting the son of the ex-shah, who by all accounts stole billions of dollars from the country before fleeing in January 1979 - funds that have allowed his son and extended family to live in luxury for more than 40 years.

Clearly these people have no connection with reality inside the country - otherwise they would know that their support for ‘more sanctions’, or in some cases their failure to condemn US-imposed sanctions, results in them being despised by ordinary Iranians. In fact, the more they present their views on BBC TV, Voice of America, Radio Free Iran, not forgetting the Saudi-funded Persian channels, the more they aid the Islamic Republic. So they might have to wait a long time to reach their ‘transitional’ era.

The second group, which attacks Shoraye Gozar for diluting a commitment to the monarchy, are the true royalists. They might claim some allegiance to a ‘constitutional monarchy’, but in reality they just want the son of the ex-shah on the throne. This is the group which wants to demonstrate how close it is to Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo - although in the last few week the US president and his secretary of state have been too busy with all the talk of impeachment to have time to attend photo opportunities with this crowd.

I should add that there are a number of so called ‘leftist’, pro-‘human rights’ groups which either support one of the above opposition alliances or at best do not talk about them, as they too accept direct or indirect funds from the US, EU and international ‘pro-democracy’ think tanks.

Left opponents

The third group, which has just held a conference in Berlin, is Etehad Jomhourikhahan Iran - an alliance of sections of the reformist left (and some ‘personalities’ formerly associated with the radical left) with nationalist ‘republican’ groups. Amongst the participants of this gathering were those who advocate reform inside the current regime. They often give advice to some of the many factions within the Islamic Republic about ‘moderating’ the country’s foreign policy and ending overt oppression, while at the same time making sure this is seen as ‘constructive’ advice to guarantee the survival of the Islamic Republic.

Their problem is a failure to learn from contemporary history - a failure to understand what is going on inside the country. Most of those gathered in this alliance have in the past pinned their hopes on one of the reformist factions of the regime. Although president Hassan Rouhani cannot be blamed for Trump walking out on the nuclear deal, he should be blamed for the country’s many other serious problems. The relentless perseverance with neoliberal economic policies (itself a continuation of the policies followed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the previous president) has led to a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and a huge level of corruption. Meanwhile, the regime’s response to anyone raising their voice to demand basic rights, such as the right to work, is severe repression - possibly under Rouhani’s presidency the worst since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Workers who demonstrated against factory closures on May Day 2019 are now in prison - some have been given sentences of 10-15 years! Yet Rouhani’s brother, who was charged with corruption and given a five-year jail sentence, was released on ‘leave’ the day he was supposed to be locked up, while Mohammed Ali-Najafi, a former reformist ally of the president, who admits shooting to death his second wife, is likely to be freed after a few months, as he has paid ghassass (retribution) to her relatives. Faced with criticism, Iran’s current president always blames the competing factions of the regime, but these examples are the responsibility of his own ‘reformist’ faction.

In recent years on many occasions ‘left’ reformists have directed their advice, especially on international issues, to the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the last few weeks, for instance, they have been telling him that the international situation is now favourable to negotiate with the US. I am not sure if such attempts result from complete amnesia, a lack of understanding of the politics that have dominated the thoughts of Iran’s supreme leader for decades, or just wishful thinking.

These well-wishers also recommend caution when it comes to interventions outside Iran’s borders. Such advice ignores the fundamental reasons why it is unlikely the supreme leader will change his position on ‘open’ negotiations with the US: it would be a negation of everything he has said in the last three decades. Of course, as always, he would have no hesitation in approving a deal struck in secret negotiations, especially if he could present it in a face-saving manner.

What you have to remember at all times is that for all its claims, the Islamic Republic remains a totally unequal society. The only way it can maintain any legitimacy as a ‘revolutionary’ regime is to repeat the rhetoric that implies adherence to an ‘independent foreign policy’. Of course, there is no doubt that Iran has pursued a foreign policy independent of the line of the US - it does not obey the world hegemon’s dictates. However, contrary to accusations levelled against it by Saudi Arabia, some US think tanks and dubious Iranian academics, far from wanting to create a regional ‘Shia empire’, Iran’s foreign policy is pragmatic and opportunist - at least so far there have been no signs that it intends to create, or indeed is capable of creating, an ‘empire’.

On the contrary, this attempt to maintain an independent foreign policy, in circumstances where the country’s economy is fully integrated with global capitalism and follows every twist and turn of the neoliberal economic agenda, has come at a heavy price. The eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the rhetoric in support of the Palestinians, the refusal to act as one of the US’s obedient servants in the region - all this has led to devastating economic penalties. On three occasions - in 2001 prior to the invasion of Afghanistan, in 2003 and before the Iraq war, and in 2015-16 - the Iranian government went out of its way to help the US. In the case of Afghanistan we have US generals’ memoirs telling us how Iran shared logistical information helping them target Taliban military strongholds. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Tehran was hosting the leaders of all the Shia and Kurdish groups that came to power after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Then in the war against Islamic State, Iran was clearly on the same side as western powers. In all the above cases the US accepted the help, but continued to label Iran a ‘terrorist state’ - a gift for Khamenei.

Who is Khamenei?

To understand Khamenei’s vision of pursuing an independent foreign policy and his current isolation from reality, we must remember his political background.

In short we can say that he is a product of the 1960s and 70s - a nationalist who remains anti-American. However, he accepts the limits. His contemporaries who espoused a non-aligned foreign policy have either been deposed, are dead or have now accepted that in order to survive they have to comply with the political order imposed by the US. The long list includes Nasser, Castro, Kaunda, Mandela, Mugabe ...

Although Khamenei now hates the left, that was not the case when he was in opposition to the shah’s regime. In fact it is his persistence on remaining a religious nationalist that stops him understanding the contradiction of abiding by neoliberal economic policies while at the same time attempting to maintain a degree of independence in foreign policy. When your economy is so dependent on International Monetary Fund loans and global finance capital, when in order to satisfy their demands you privatise major industries and services, make all jobs insecure and create mass unemployment, you cannot maintain the support of your own people. Then when the superpower intervenes and punishes you with severe sanctions, you will face a serious crisis.

That is why no amount of ‘advice’ from the reformist and religious/nationalist figures inside or outside the country will change Khamenei’s politics. He stubbornly wants to remain the ‘non-aligned’ leader of a thoroughly corrupt capitalist state. So far constant political crises in the US, economic help from China and political and military support from Russia have helped him survive, but it is difficult to predict how long the current situation will last.

Back in 1964, Khamenei attempted to expose the referendum called to support the shah’s phoney ‘White Revolution’. He talked of the “satanic American policies of the Pahlavi regime”.2 It is not clear if he opposed the granting of voting rights to women in the same way as his predecessor, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did. Either way, the shah’s secret police arrested him and he was flown to Tehran to spend two months in solitary confinement, during which he was tortured.

Before his arrest he was part of a small group that met regularly in Mashhad, in north-east Iran, which included Massoud Ahmadzadeh and Amir Parvis Pouyan - two of the founding members of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fedaian. Those familiar with the group recall Khamenei’s admiration of the bravery and determination shown by Ahmadzadeh and Pouyan, although he was always antagonistic to their professed Marxism.

It is difficult to imagine what would have become of Iran’s radical activists of 1970s - heroes to many in my generation - had they survived. However, one thing is certain: they would have realised the irreconcilable contradiction between a dependent capitalist economy and attempts at following an independent foreign policy. I have no doubt that they would have despised their former friend in the same way as many of his other former collaborators now do.

A detailed analysis of what remains of the Iranian left requires a much longer article, but I must admit that I personally despair of the majority of the exiled groups. With some exceptions, these groups (including those which have retained ‘e Fedayeen’ in their names and the many splits from Tudeh, the Workers Communist Party of Iran and one of the two groups with the name Rahe Kargar) do not read anything except their own outdated formulations from 30-40 years ago. Occasionally younger supporters have made them aware of new social movements - of which they then become uncritical cheerleaders - so in the last 40 years they have become pro-feminist, LGBT supporters, activists against climate change … while at the same time moving to the right. Almost all of them are soft on royalists and other ‘regime change from above’ alternatives, and blindly repeat US accusations against the Islamic regime.

Unfortunately many of the left groups in exile accept funds from the US or European states and are therefore shy supporters of imperialist ‘humanitarian intervention’, while making no effort to analyse or understand Iran’s economic integration within neoliberal capital.

It would be no exaggeration to say their continued existence does more harm than good to the current struggles of the Iranian workers.

  1. See, for example, www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/israel-netanyahu-security-iran-saudi-arabia-alliance-us.html.↩︎

  2. http://english.khamenei.ir/news/2130/Biography-of-Ayatollah-Khamenei-the-Leader-of-the-Islamic-Revolution.↩︎