Sealed trains and class traitors
Yassamine Mather interrogates the excuses used by leftwing supporters of the Iran Tribunal
Debates about the Iran Tribunal - convened to put the Islamic regime in the dock for its massacre of 5,000-10,000 political prisoners in 1988 - continues to occupy a prominent place in the publications and websites of the Iranian left, both in exile and to a lesser extent inside Iran itself.
In a sense it is true that, given the current situation in Iran - not least the disastrous consequences of what the US calls “comprehensive sanctions” - this is a small, irrelevant issue. After all, this week alone another 400 workers lost their jobs in Iran’s main car manufacturer, Iran Khodro, as a direct consequence of sanctions: Malaysia, under pressure from the US, pulled out of a contract. It is also true that sanctions are not the same as cluster bombs, but their effect on the Iranian working class can be devastating nevertheless.
The first round of the tribunal, which took place last month in London, attracted very little publicity and was indeed an insignificant event. So why is Hands Off the People of Iran devoting so much attention to it? We exposed the fact that it was organised and paid for by the CIA-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy as another way of building up the momentum for a military attack on Iran. Yet some conspiracy theorists are saying that Hopi chose to do so because we are “supporters of the Islamic regime” - or alternatively we are part of a sectarian plot to discredit sections of the Iranian left. Well, to deal with the second accusation first, the leftwing cheerleaders of this tribunal have made a pretty good job of discrediting themselves.
In the week before the tribunal Hopi activists had been approached by a number of Iranian comrades (who no doubt were ignorant of the politics of the tribunal’s backers) asking us to help with publicity in the United Kingdom. We were asked to get involved in translating the proceedings and to encourage John McDonnell MP to support the tribunal. These requests forced us to look into the matter more carefully and indeed every page we turned, every piece of information we came across, made us more wary. So let me make it very clear: we had no hidden agenda. Had the supporters of the Iran Tribunal not tried to engage us in the event, we might not have written about it at all. We might not have been alerted to the highly dubious rightwing forces behind it.
However, once we found out what was going on, to have deliberately kept silent would have been totally unprincipled. Indeed, as I have said before, silence would have been a betrayal of the memory of the comrades who died in the dungeons of the Islamic regime. They would have been revolted by the thought of pro-imperialists making use of their deaths to further the aim of imposing regime change from above.
The issues surrounding this affair have a significance far beyond the question of the Iran Tribunal. We are living through a moment which for the radical left in Iran is comparable to the US embassy takeover of 1981. At that time sections of the ‘left’ argued that, as the regime had moved away from the west’s sphere of influence and was adopting an ‘anti-imperialist’ position, its anti-working class, undemocratic political characteristics should be downplayed, overlooked or even tolerated. Groups such as the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party and sections of the Fourth International abandoned working class independence and joined the bandwagon of pro-regime forces.
The taking of hostages in the embassy - itself an attempt by the new religious state in Iran to divert the ongoing struggles of workers, women and national minorities - marked a clear division between revolution and counterrevolution in the Iranian left. Those who fell behind the ‘imam’s line’, as it was called at the time, ended up spying for the regime, participating in repression and justifying it, all in the name of anti-imperialism; those who opposed the theocracy ended up fighting the regime at a colossal price, often losing their lives as a result of their political activities.
Today, the spectre of war hangs over Iran - indeed a form of war (economic siege) is already being conducted, and the Iranian people are facing mass unemployment and hunger as a result of severe sanctions. The US and its allies are committed to regime change, irrespective of whether Iran makes concessions or ends its nuclear programme. None of this is happening because the Iranian regime is ‘anti-imperialist’, but because the reactionary mullahs ruling Iran have dared to defy the US.
US regime-change policy has relied heavily on corrupting the opposition with offers of funding, and sections of the Iranian left have slowly but surely moved in the direction of excusing such financial aid. With or without the left, we have now arrived at a situation where NGOs, acting as torch-bearers for ‘human rights’ in Iran, are key agents of the US foreign policy apparatus - indeed they have become integral parts of the imperialist regime-change drive. Hence the sudden concern of openly rightwing agencies, neoliberal institutions and Conservative politicians about the execution of political prisoners in Iran in the 1980s (while, of course, failing to mention the leftwing politics of these prisoners).
So the Iran Tribunal is far more significant than it might first appear and the attacks on those of us who refuse to follow this descent of much of the Iranian ‘left’ into total surrender before imperialism, far from deterring us from speaking out, have made us more determined.
Some of its leftwing supporters have sought to justify the acceptance of imperialist aid by comparing it to Lenin agreeing to board a German sealed train for Petrograd in 1917. This is given as an example of the necessity of pragmatism by deluded sections of the left. It goes without saying that the analogy is ridiculous. Lenin did not meekly allow Germany to dictate the anti-tsarist agenda and act as a tool of German imperialism. He got on that train to Finland station in order to help lead a working class revolution, not to further German war aims.
Over the decades the Iranian left has gradually adopted a complacent attitude towards accepting financial aid from rightwing enemies of the Islamic regime. In fact this is a mirror-image of the position of some on the left in the west, who believe that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend. So if the US considers Iran’s Islamic regime an enemy, we must support it. By contrast, for some on the Iranian left for whom the main enemy is Tehran, all kinds of dubious forces who oppose Iran’s Islamic theocracy can be regarded as allies. Both positions are wrong and unprincipled.
During the 1960s when pro-Soviet parties dominated the political scene in Iran and Kurdistan, financial and material support from the USSR was part and parcel of the existence of the left. In the 60s pro-China Maoists could rely on Chinese funding. However, throughout the shah’s time Iranian left groups such as Fedayeen and Peykar tried to avoid compromising their independent political line by refusing the conditional assistance on offer from the USSR and China, relying instead on their own ability to organise, and financing their activities through bank robberies and other illegal operations. In fact the Fedayeen and Peykar were proud of this independence and the discipline it forced on members and cadres of the organisation.
During and immediately after the revolution of 1979, the left gained massive support. Fundraising at meetings of over 500,000 people was not exactly difficult. Those who worked at the first headquarters of the Fedayeen in Tehran remember how difficult it was to keep up with the sums of money ordinary people donated. Repression, of course, forced the left underground and changed all that. While Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority continued to benefit from extensive Soviet aid, the rest of the left had to rely on much more meagre income or what was saved from the heyday of 1979-80.
Later, in the mid-1980s, the question of the safety of cadres forced many organisations to move their central committee and editorial members to Kurdistan, and by late 1980s they were followed by most of the surviving members of these groups. Kurdistan had its own history of nationalist groups relying on funding from one dictator (Saddam Hussein) to fight another (the shah or ayatollah Khomeini) - and vice versa. Jalal Talebani, the post-occupation Iraqi president, was already accepting financial aid from Iran’s Islamic regime, so Iranian Kurds and later the Iranian left used that to justify their acceptance of support and later finance from Saddam.
When I was sent to Kurdistan to help set up a radio station for the Fedayeen Minority, I was shocked when I was told I had to travel via Iraq. Unknown to me, the Fedayeen had limited relations with the Iraqi regime, including the right of passage via Kirkuk to the Iran-Iraq border. As time went on, the assistance became more extensive. First the Fedayeen accepted a house in Kirkuk and later financial support from Baghdad. This at a time when Iran was at war with Iraq and sections of the international left considered the US to be using Iraq as its proxy. Of course, the radical left in Iran maintained that the Iraq-Iran war was a fight between two reactionary regimes and that neither was anti-imperialist.
Yet financial support was accepted from Iraq and this created many problems for the Fedayeen. First of all, it was considered a matter of security, kept secret and divulged only on a ‘need to know’ basis. So, although I travelled via Iraq to get to Iranian Kurdistan, no-one among the hundreds of supporters of the Fedayeen in Europe or the US was aware of this.
On one occasion the student paper Jahan (which was part of my political responsibility) published a cartoon mocking Saddam Hussein. Controlling the political content of the journal (in case younger comrades deviated from the ‘correct political line’) was one of my tasks. On this particular occasion I had been delayed overseas and returned to London the day after the paper had been sent to the printers. The organisation decided that the journal could not be distributed except in Europe and North America. I had the unenviable task of explaining to a bemused editorial group that we could not send the journal to Kurdistan and Iran, as our route was via Baghdad and this would endanger the lives of our militants. The cartoon was removed and we had the ridiculous situation where two versions of the journal were distributed in two parts of the world.
The production team - young comrades who spent countless hours putting together the 68-page monthly - were not told why there were two versions. Some of us broke organisational norms and told them what was what.
However, this incident was only the beginning of the corrupting influence of Iraqi money on the Iranian Fedayeen. It could be said that accepting financial support from Iran’s enemy paved the way for the kind of prostituted approach sections of the left displayed as soon as US regime change funds became available. This, and the understandable hatred of the religious state, have created circumstances where many on the Iranian ‘left’ see nothing wrong in accepting support and direction from the likes of the National Endowment for Democracy, Conservative Party members and the Dutch government.
One should point out, however, that the Islamic regime is so deeply hated by the overwhelming majority in Iran, and its anti-US rhetoric so discredited, that this lends a considerable credence to the west’s propaganda. Eg, ordinary Iranians just switch off when they hear of the latest evil action of the ‘great Satan’.
After 30 years in power the Islamic regime’s ‘anti-imperialism’ has no serious content whatsoever. Here there is a lesson for all those supporting, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: the pro-poor, pro-revolution, anti-Scaf slogans might appear radical, but if they are not accompanied by genuine economic and political change, they are a sure recipe for inoculating the population against all criticisms of the west. Imagine if you were a genuine anti-imperialist with illusions in the MB, what would you think when you saw Mohammed Mursi relaxing with Hillary Clinton and Egypt’s military leaders? Wouldn’t it cause confusion? After a few years, especially once Mursi turns to the repression that any ‘third world’ capitalist state (Islamic or otherwise) finds necessary, might you not end up becoming soft on the US?
Wide sections of ordinary Iranians, including the working class, fail to identify international capital as their enemy. They oppose everything the regime stands for. However, one would assume a radical left that has constantly identified the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as responsible for the Iranian state’s neoliberal economic policies would have no illusions in the National Endowment for Democracy or Tory lawyers fronting the Iran Tribunal.
In defending their unprincipled position, apologists for the tribunal have unleashed personal attacks on those like myself who have opposed this stunt. Yes, it is true, as they say, that I use my English married name. That is because I do not want to increase the dangers faced by members of my family, most of whom still live in Iran and have at times been under pressure because of my opposition to the regime, not to mention my political dossier as a member of the Fedayeen.
It is also true that my maternal family was not working class and that I attended a French private school. But let me respond to such points with an anecdote. Just before the 22nd congress of the Soviet Communist Party Chou En Lai visited Moscow and, as he arrived, Khrushchev told him: “There is a major difference between us - I am from peasant stock and you are from the aristocracy.” Chou said nothing in reply, but on the day he was leaving he turned to Khrushchev and, reminding him of his welcoming comment, said: “You were right about our class origins. However, we also have something in common: we have both betrayed our class.”
I have the same thing in common with those on the Iranian left who see nothing wrong with accepting funds from neoliberal organisations.