Defending tyrants past and present

Darya Homan slates Povey's Shah Abbas encomium

Writing in The Guardian on May 13, the Socialist Workers Party’s favourite Iranian, Elaheh Rostami Povey, described a blood-drenched 16th century ruler of Persia as “inspirational”.

Cooing over Shah Abbas I (1571-1629) as a “visionary”, Povey says that “under his rule Iran became a great political power, transforming international trade and diplomacy. His legacy, however, goes beyond political ambition and culminates in a clear and decisive vision for cultural and artistic expression and development”.

So who was Abbas? Yes, he forged a united Persian state - but only by bloodshed, destruction and mass murder of opponents, be they political or religious. He was placed on the throne in 1587 at the age of 16 after chaotic internal fighting within the ruling elite, but within a short time had taken full control.

He ruthlessly suppressed internal dissent and became notorious for killing his eldest son and blinding two others. He was sexually obsessed with his granddaughter. Abbas was responsible for the bloody massacre of Turks, Georgians, Armenians and many others.

Povey does not mention any of this in her article. She focuses on the coming together of cultures and peoples in the new state under this ‘visionary’. Povey also fails to mention Abbas’s role in aiding British interests in the region against imperial competitors such as Portugal - British mercenaries helped train and supply his army, and thanks to aid furnished by the East India Company Abbas seized the trading base of Hormuz from the Portuguese.

Today Shia academics and supporters of the Iranian theocracy, whether from the conservative or reformist tendencies, defend Abbas I because of his adherence to Shia Islam and his wars against the Sunni, whose followers suffered appalling repression. Thousands were slaughtered and displaced. And Povey, for her part, defends the Iranian theocracy as being democratic and progressive.

It is worthwhile quoting her garbage at some length:

“The process of Islamisation has grassroots support. The leaders, a range of very different political figures with very different political views, have won the support of the majority of the population through the electoral process.

“Therefore, and contrary to a false perception in the west, both state and society in Iran are modern and legitimised, based on dialogue between those who wish to preserve traditional conservative Islam and those who wish to embrace democratic modern Islam. Socioeconomic and sociopolitical circumstances have constantly shifted the boundaries between conservative Islam and liberal-democratic Islam.

“Today the majority of the population supports the prevalence of modern ideological thinking in the context of Iran and Islam. Today the democracy movement seeks a balance of power between state institutions and civil society, to guarantee the rule of law, good governance, accountability, and collective and individual freedoms - as well as the role of religion in politics. For many such a modern political structure was made possible by Shah Abbas. In the Iranian national consciousness, it was he who offered a vision of the way forward.”

There are so many half-truths, wrong interpretations and outright lies contained within these three paragraphs, that it is hard to decide where to start.

Not a word from Povey when it comes to the crimes of the Islamic Republic. The regime’s prisons hold communists, trade unionists, students, women’s activists, religious minorities and dissident poets and artists. Unmarked graves hold many more. Currently, over 40 people remain in prison for celebrating International Workers’ Day.

The demonstrations that took place in Tehran and Sandanaj in March were attacked by the police, who arrested over 150 and injured scores. This is what Povey is seeking to cover up with her talk of democracy and the allegedly progressive nature of the current order.

Iran is not a democracy. There is no “electoral process” that allows free and fair elections. It is not exactly a secret that hundreds of candidates get barred from standing. In the run-up to the current elections, the reformist and conservative factions have ensured that no other force will be seriously represented - certainly not working class and democratic forces.

The ministry of the interior has published regulations on election material which ban such “counterrevolutionary organisations” (ie, those that oppose the Islamic Republic), along with boycott campaigns and the depiction of women in electoral publicity.

It is a lie that the theocracy maintains majority support from the grassroots. Thousands of workers have been striking up and down the country, as conditions worsen thanks to sanctions and the economic crisis. The student movement is a consistent beacon of hope and is fighting hard against violent repression. Students in Iran have suffered greatly at the hands of the regime - ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, the ‘mullah with a smile’ who was president between 1997 and 2005, bought off large sections of the old student movement and then killed its leaders in July 1999.

The promises made by the clerics during the Iranian revolution have all been broken and now the Islamic Republic is fighting for its survival against the young and growing social movements in the factories, classrooms and localities. Rather than support these democratic movements, Povey and her ilk use their position as academics to spread disinformation - and support the mealy-mouthed reformist ‘opposition’.

Povey has in the past proclaimed her support for ‘Islamic feminism’ - by which she means an enhanced role for modestly attired women within the current order. But many working class women, who are amongst the worst victims of Islamic repression, have joined forces with the re-emerging workers’ and students’ movements to fight for equal rights, free of the interference of the Islamists.

To paint current and past tyrants in progressive colours is to betray progressive struggles. It also weakens our opposition to imperialist threats against Iran, allowing the warmongers to dismiss us as apologists for a ruthless regime.