Iran next in line?

Mehdi Kia and Ardeshir Mehrdad of 'Iran Bulletin-Middle East Forum' look at the pressures on the islamic republic and call for a democratic solution from below

In the last few weeks the Islamic Republic of Iran has had to endure two major blows. One was the International Atomic Energy Agency’s deadline of October 31 for the country to provide a complete account of its past nuclear activity or face UN-approved sanctions. The other was the award of the Nobel peace prize to the human rights activist and female lawyer, Shirin Ebadi.

The ultimatum shook the regime to its core. Rohani, secretary to Iran’s national security council, called it the “greatest threat to the country”. Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani said: “We are involved in one of the most crucial moments for our country.” Iran had been on a confrontation course with the IAEA over whether its nuclear programme was for weapons or merely energy use. In the event the Iranians blinked after a visit by the three main EU foreign ministers.

The threats were too serious to ignore. A UN security council resolution imposing economic sanctions would have been the last straw for a regime that has little room for manoeuvre and cannot offload the pressure onto a population already on the point of explosion. Moreover, there was a distinct likelihood of a US-Israeli attack on its nuclear installations, a possible prelude for a Yugoslav-type solution to the ‘Iran problem’. Government leaders had not misheard the many utterances, including the unequivocal threats of regime change made by US state department deputy chief John Bulton during a visit to the UK earlier in the year. More recently Michael Leeden, a prominent member of American Enterprise, submitted a proposal to the US administration for a government in exile, which has for the present been shelved.

From the point of view of the left the issues, as in every aspect of life, are not black and white. Let us examine the facts.


Countries which themselves possess nuclear weapons are telling others that they cannot have them or, as in the case of Israel, are dividing prospective nuclear states between friend and foe. What this amounts to is that some governments and people have sovereignty, while others do not. In international terms, there are two kinds of states: fully sovereign and semi-sovereign. This two-tier global order is at the root of the neo-conservative project for our planet.

It is also clear that the US is using Iran’s nuclear programme as a pretext to bring about  regime change - by ‘peaceful’ means or otherwise. The overthrow of the “axis of evil” - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - and the ‘taming’ or toppling of the next tranche - Cuba, Syria and Libya - is central to the imperial ambitions of the neo-conservatives ruling the US.

Iran has been developing a nuclear energy programme since the days of the shah. The first step was the building a reactor in Bushehr. Despite the protestations of the regime then and now, this had, and has, little to do with environmental or economic issues. Nuclear energy is not more eco-friendly than fossil fuel, nor is Iran, with one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, worrying its head about running out of fuel.

Iran has long pursued a nuclear weapons programme. No one can be in any doubt of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of regimes such as Islamic Republic of Iran. Regimes that feel no responsibility to their people or to the international community are a clear danger to their citizens and the world when armed to the teeth. For this reason forces of democracy in Iran cannot watch the prospect of a potentially nuclear Iran with equanimity. Hence any pressure designed to prevent this outcome cannot be entirely unwelcome.

Neither are the pressures working to topple the regime. It is in the plans for a substitute regime that the obvious differences and clear conflict of interest appear. The US and its allies are pursuing their own agenda - the imposition of an alternative regime of their choice. Democratic forces in Iran must clearly oppose this, even though they too fight for a regime change. Therein lies the paradox.

The solution is clear. It is not for the US or even the UN security council to decide what armaments the country may or may not have. This is an issue for the people of Iran. At the international level, nuclear non-proliferation is only understandable, and feasible, as part of a global nuclear disarmament programme. Anything less is gunboat diplomacy.

One need only imagine a genuinely democratic national government in Iran - something that is clearly outside the agenda of the global US empire for ‘rogue states’ - to see that it has to have the means to protect itself against US and other imperialist designs on it. Iranian left and democratic forces, while they cannot oppose legitimate pressures on Iran to prevent its nuclearisation, can only fight for disarmament as a global process, not as a selective tool in the hands of empire builders and global capital.

Nobel duality

The Nobel peace prize, with a few exceptions, has been used as a political tool for particular political ends with little benefit to the people of this planet. The awarding of the prize to Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi might perhaps be viewed as one of the few exceptions. The Nobel peace committee at one level was targeting religious despotism and the fundamentalists dominating the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ultra-conservatives, who control virtually the entire repressive organs of the state, showed how they felt about their country winning a Nobel prize through a barrage of hostile commentaries in the media.

The honouring of Ebadi, however, confronts us with the same inherent duality as the IAEA ultimatum. On the one hand Ebadi, a lawyer working within the constraints of the islamic regime, has been extremely active in fighting for human rights. Admittedly she has a limited definition of human rights - one within the liberal islamic tradition with which she identifies herself. Yet it is worth recalling that this is a regime which denies even the most elementary human rights accepted in most societies. Moreover, the ultra-conservatives are not averse to imposing a massive clampdown. Indeed over the last year there has been a wave of arrests and repression, largely ignored by the outside press. We must understand the limitations of those who want to fight for democratic changes openly in such a society. Ebadi fits within the framework of the liberal islamic reformists, many of whom are trying to change the regime from within.

Within this framework she has fought untiringly for the rights of women and children. In the ideology of the islamic republic childhood ends at the age of nine for girls and 12 for boys. Thus what the rest of humankind would consider as children cease to be protected here by laws and rights aimed at protecting minors.

On the other hand the Nobel committee was clearly giving a prize, and with it the green light, to a particular political grouping - the reformists within the islamic regime: those who want to grind down some of the harsh corners of the regime. In that sense giving the award to Shirin Ebadi was a clear signal by the ‘international community’ that they would prefer piecemeal reforms from above to a genuine democratic and participatory movement from below.

Yet Ebadi’s prize provides a clear opening for the democratic movement. And the people were not slow to take this up. Thousands gathered at the airport to welcome her arrival with slogans that were clearly an attack on reformism: “Khatami, shame on you” - a reference to the reformist president’s lukewarm response to the Nobel prize; “Ebadi, enemy of apartheid” - meaning sexual apartheid; “Equality for all languages” - in a multinational-multilingual country, Farsi is imposed as the only official language. There were also slogans demanding freedom for political prisoners and in favour of federalism; and the now standard chant heard in any protest: “Bombs, tanks, militia work no longer; the islamic republic will not last”. An increasing number of people are clearly not fooled by the reformists any more.

Under these pressures the mullahs ruling Iran have chosen to play their Iraq card and use their influence among the shi’ites in Iraq to deflect the pressures being brought to bear on them. And perhaps they are hoping to take a small bite of the Iraqi apple themselves. It is in this light that we must view the participation of Iran in the Madrid conference to pay for ‘reconstruction’ in Iraq.

On the one hand, Iran did not want to lose out in the rush for contracts and salivated over the profits that might be made out of the chaos in Iraq. On the other hand, however, the regime cannot afford regional isolation. The pledge of $300,000 is an attempt to buy time for a moribund regime. Whether it will succeed is doubtful.

A regime under threat from outside and from below cannot sit on the knife edge for ever. What replaces it, however, is dependent on whether the forces of participatory democracy can organise themselves. Otherwise the country will end up under the tutelage of one or another demagogue.