Apologia and controversy

SWP actually aids the imperialists, writes Ben Lewis

Around 200 people crammed into the School of Oriental and African Studies on April 27 for a Campaign Iran public meeting entitled ‘Obama and Iran’. Doubtless the high turnout was partly due to the fact that - alongside the CI, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran and Socialist Workers Party speakers - Channel 4 news presenter John Snow was also on the platform.

Before the meeting began, I was selling the Weekly Worker and handing out Hands Off the People of Iran ‘Smash the Sanctions’ leaflets and could observe the people coming into the building. Amongst them was Iranian blogger and member of the Confederation of Iranian Students, Potkin Azarmehr. He believes “the best way forward for Iran” should “be based on four pillars of democracy, secularism, nationalism and meritocracy”.1 He was quite aggressive towards me and the Socialist Worker seller, saying that he “fucking hates you supporters of the ayatollah”.

I pointed out that I did not support the Islamic regime, but he was in a bit of a rush and did not take a leaflet from me. Later, his heckles were to cause a lot of controversy.

Chair Haleh Afshar set the tone of the meeting by decreeing that any questions to the panel should revolve around “what the audience hears” and not on “political points” prepared in advance. Political discussion on Obama and Iran? God forbid.

The first speaker was Ali Fatollah-Nejad, who talked of a “major shift” in US foreign policy and “Obama trying to take a different approach” to the question of Iran than that of the “regime change” hawks around George Bush. At this point Azarmehr’s first heckle came - “What is wrong with regime change?” he wanted to know.

During the first round of questions, with Afshar looking distinctly uncomfortable, I asked: “Given that the Iranian regime brutally suppresses anti-war demonstrations and is more than willing to play ball with the US imperialists in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan, does the speaker think that the Iranian regime is our ally in the struggle against war or rather the secular movements of workers, women and students?”

My question was not answered, even indirectly, with Fathollah-Nejad preferring instead to lose himself in musings about the opposition between civil society and government. But the real controversy came when Azarmehr spoke, saying that it was the mullahs, not the US, who were unwilling to negotiate, and this sparked off the first bout of extended heckling.2

The next speaker was Dr Mehri Honarbin-Holliday, author of the recent book on women in Iran. The title, Becoming visible in Iran, should give you some sort of idea of her political perspectives. Although she spoke of the “US hand of aggression” and gave many sound arguments against the sanctions programme, including the fact that it is the poor that suffer the most, she did not make the obvious point that sanctions hinder the ability of the oppressed to organise and struggle, and actually play into the hands of the Iranian regime.

Azarmehr’s heckles now made it quite clear that he was in favour of sanctions: “It worked in South Africa!” he shouted.

At this point, there was quite a kafuffle at the entrance to the hall. What seemed to be one of Azarmehr’s comrades was trying to get in and was having a bit of a stand-off with Somaye Zadeh (yes, the Campaign Iran activist who, at the 2007 Stop the War Coalition conference, notoriously commended Iran for its high rate of sex change operations for gay people) and others. The meeting was interrupted for a good five minutes because of the shouting.

Then SOAS security arrived and, together with some Stop the War Coalition organisers, removed the newcomer from the room, to cries of “Out, out, out!” The argument was between objective pro-imperialists and apologists for the Iranian regime.

As Honarbin-Holliday was speaking of the need to focus on the “real Iran” which she regularly saw in her travels, a huge screen showed images of smiling, attractive Iranian women voting, playing golf and even cuddling up to their loved ones (male, of course) in public parks. Many around me - including an Iraqi student and a very friendly Iranian woman - were disgusted with the picture of the woman happily voting.

The Iran of working class struggle, of the boycotting of sham elections, of student protests and women’s sit-ins is obviously not sufficiently “real” for those looking to defend the Iranian theocracy.

Next up was SWPer John Rees - introduced as a “peace activist” - who gave the best speech he could within the ideological parameters of his unholy alliance with the regime’s apologists. He outlined why, in spite of the rhetoric, the increasing influence of Iran as an undesired outcome of the ‘war on terror’ was posing an “intractable problem” for the US, which would in all likelihood lead to a more hawkish stance in the future. He rightly hammered home the argument that democracy cannot come from above or “at the point of the bayonet”.

Whatever we may think of the Iranian regime (he did not give his own opinion of it, although he did specify that he had “disliked” the regime of Saddam Hussein), comrade Rees argued that the “Iranian people could do without the support of any US president or British prime minister” and that the best way to defend them would be to oppose sanctions and war. He also touched on my question, referring to the Iranian regime as “anti-imperialist - not out of principle, but out of conjuncture”. He did not, however, attempt to reply about what the US and Iran had both been up to in Afghanistan recently.

This aside, Rees is quite right about the US exporting destruction and barbarism - not democracy. But this begs the question of where democracy comes from and who we should support to bring it about. Indeed, although he distances himself from Saddam’s regime now, he was not willing to do so at the time when the anti-war movement needed to adopt an independent anti-imperialist position in solidarity with the Iraqi people.

Maybe when the Iranian theocracy is overthrown he will also distance himself from that - but this is not good enough. It is precisely the absence of anti-imperialist solidarity from the workers’ and anti-war movement which is allowing the imperialists (and their stooges in the trade union bureaucracy) to expropriate the banner of democracy and cause huge problems for our comrades in Iran.

Take this year’s May Day demonstrations in Tehran. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions is calling for the right of workers in Iran to protest freely and for the release of union activists arrested by the regime. But it fails to even mention the threat of war or the fact that Iran is currently being strangled by US sanctions. Such ‘solidarity’ from the international trade union bureaucracy is pernicious - an integral part of the war drive.

By contrast, Hands Off the People of Iran deems it absolutely necessary not only to intransigently oppose imperialist war and sanctions, but to make clear that the only genuine anti-imperialists in Iran - our real allies - are the working class, democratic and secular activists.

Jon Snow had missed all of the controversy, turning up rather late. He gave a fairly impressionistic account of his time in Iran during the revolution, arguing that things might have been a lot better now, “had the talking not stopped” between the US and Iran. He recalled broadcasting Channel 4 News from Iran in 2006, and expressed his “passion for Persia” as a result of his time there. Although he argued that Iran was often seen as “one-dimensional” and the whole situation was “redolent with misunderstanding”, he did want to emphasise that his crew were arrested and detained so that the regime could go through all of their pictures and shots. Apart from striking this uncomfortable note, he was rather on message for Campaign Iran.

Following Snow’s talk, chair Haleh Afshar brought the discussion to a prompt end, insisting that we had been through “a difficult meeting” and it was therefore unwise to open it up to further questions. Having some sort of discussion on the nature of the regime that these people apologise for in front of Snow would obviously have been embarrassing. There was another small confrontation at the end, but I left the hall to leaflet and talk to those who had attended. Encouragingly I encountered some quite considerable sympathy for Hopi’s perspectives.

The meeting in essence summed up the real problems that our movement faces. By not taking a clear stance on two fronts both against war and sanctions and in support of secular opposition to the regime, and by smearing those who are, the SWP actually aids the imperialists, the liberals and the pro-war, pro-sanctions milieu, allowing them to expropriate the banner of democracy for their own ends. It is about time it broke with these apologists and ended its campaign to discredit Hopi and other anti-imperialist defenders of the Iranian working class.

As the SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff, might have said: ‘Neither Washington, London nor Tehran: but international socialism!’


1. azarmehr.blogspot.com
2. Press TV was there, and there is footage of some of the ruckus here: mms://