“The Iran upheaval – what do socialists say?” Ian Donovan

Below is the text for a talk that Ian Donovan gave at a meeting in Birmingham and for Southwark Respect.


Originally when I was asked to do this presentation, I was planning to speak about the history of the Iranian revolution and the Islamic republic, where it came from, to help people understand where it is going. I was not planning to address immediate issues quite so up-front, but the current upheaval has obviously forced me to address them. Later in my talk, I will deal with the origins of the regime, and hopefully give people something to think about concerning the history of Iran in a longer time-frame.

What should our attitude be to the current upheaval? What we appear to be seeing is a split in the theocratic regime. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, now appears as Ahmedinejad’s protector. His opponent, Mousavi also has a senior protector, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a very senior cleric, former president and the key figure in the regime who favours a neo-liberal policy of rapprochement with the West. How effective a protector Rafsanjani actually is is now unclear, however, as Khamenei has the stronger hand through his position as the symbol of the regime. Whether there is a serious possibility of Rafsanjani unseating Khamenei in the future is not clear.

However, what is also not clear is the character of the upheaval, where it is going. Large numbers of people have been mobilised behind Mousavi claiming that the Presidential election was stolen.

I don’t think it is possible to prove either way who won the election. It is clear that there is mass support for Ahmedinejad’s sometime left-talking, sometimes right- talking populism among the poor who provided the social base for his unexpected victory in the Presidential election in 2005. Ahmedinejad is not a cleric, and has been able to demagogically attack the privileges and corruption of the clergy. And while apparently handing over more economic clout and assets to associates in the Revolutionary Guard corps, he has at the same time distributed income gained from oil revenue to the very poorest, to war veterans’ families, through increasing pensions and other social benefits.

There is also obviously mass support for Mousavi, as the demonstrations show. It looks as though the opposition movement has two components – a socially more liberal, but also to some extent ‘yuppie’ movement that wants to get rid of many of the austerities of the Islamic republic, join the West and get rich like their counterparts in China and other emerging powers. And most likely, a component with more sincerely democratic aims, that really do want to democratise the revolution, that take Mousavi’s rhetoric about more openness seriously. This may include sections of organised workers, there have been some reports of workers organising collectively and demonstrating – though how effectively is not clear.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Obama’s recent change in rhetoric towards Iran notwithstanding, the US still has the project of ‘regime change’ in Iran and installing a pliable client regime to replace the massive, strategic loss that the overthrow of the Shah represented. It is possible that there is some level of collusion between elements of the regime that want to improve relations with Washington, and Washington itself. American organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy have been very active in the last few years in destabilising states such as Ukraine, Lebanon and Georgia, fomenting ‘colour-coded revolutions’ in these countries to help friendly elites oust ‘unfriendly’ regimes and install US-backed ones. If the latter were true, then the advent of Mousavi could be the prelude to something considerably worse than the Islamic Republic, likely another dictatorship, perhaps thinly disguised.

It should be remembered that Mousavi’s movment, no less than that behind Ahmeninejad, is a form of political Islam. Political Islam is a radical middle class ideology, and that can take many forms. There have been forms of political Islam that have been pro-Western, there have been radical forms of it which have been actutely hostile to Western or Israel interests. But that reflects the political mood and outlook of the middle class layers that provide the backbone of the movement at a particular time – and sometimes, pressure from below, from the working class and plebeian poor. Religion, as an ideology, can be tailored to fit almost any mood.

It has to be said that there is evidence that US ruling circles have been planning some kind of destabilisation of Iran for a long time. A recent article in Counterpunch – American radical muckraking magazine – quoted several sources on this including Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, among other things. The evidence is circumstantial, but after the ‘red’ revolution, the ‘yellow’ revolution, the ‘cedar’ revolution, it is not really far-fetched that a ‘green revolution’ could be prepared in the same way in Iran.

I think we on the left should be concerned to defend democratic rights, to oppose repression and killing of the Iranian people; that is obvious. In that sense, we should be for solidarity with the masses. This may well become even more crucial in times to come in order for the left not to be seen as apologists for the regime – in order to prevent pro-imperialists from hegemonising protest and opposition. But we cannot take sides between the factions of the regime – we should certainly not be calling for Mousavi to be installed as president. Re-running the poll might be a useful demand – but also the lifting of restrictions on who can stand, so that a genuine free choice can take place – including candidates of the left. We don’t want to be seen to be calling for a pro-American regime in Iran.

In any case, one point I would make is that Iran is probably at present the country most under threat from imperialism on the globe. It has been threatened with nuclear attack by Israel very recently, and though there has been a shift in US rhetoric by Obama, the threat level against Iran is still high. As a socialist and anti-imperialist, though I do not approve of the current regime at all in Iran, I am opposed to any ‘regime change’ that would put it back into the hands of imperialist powers. Hence the caution in my analysis. I now want to turn to the historical background to all this.

* * *
The Islamic Republic of Iran is both a product of, and a reaction against, imperialist domination of the Middle East region. By imperialist domination I mean in particular oil imperialism. I am talking about something highly specific to the Middle East at this point in time. This is, I would argue, the region of the world at this point where the developed capitalist countries are most obviously carrying out, in an unreconstructed fashion, key aspects of the imperialism of Lenin’s time. That is, the division of the world into spheres of influence, and the export of capital – aimed at appropriating the natural resources of whole countries and using them for the benefit of huge monopoly capitalist enterprises in the advanced countries.

In much of the world, colonial rule no longer exists. Formal political independence has been granted to numerous former colonies, in many of them, there is at least a semblance of democracy … or at least where there is not democracy, at least some control by native capital over their polities and natural resources. This is not generally true in the Middle East. Because its main natural resources, oil and gas, are so strategic for Western capital, particularly the US, that wars for those natural resources are on the agenda the moment this control is threatened, as Saddam Hussein found to out in 1990-91.

One only has to look at the Persian Gulf, easily the most oil-rich geographical feature in the world, and the regimes that surround it. A gaggle of emirates and sheikdoms, whose hereditary absolutism still maintains itself unlike virtually anywhere else on earth. From Saudi Arabia to Kuwait to Dubai and Bahrain, to the former monarchies of Iran and Iraq, this encirclement strategy has had its problems with democracy. Notably in Iran in 1953 – where democracy was crushed by the Shah, the CIA – and the British. It had even more problems when the intervention of the masses, firstly in 1958 with the Iraqi revolution, then the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, blew away the northern part of the encirclement. A key aim of imperialism since these two revolutionary events – separated by 20 years – has been to re-establish what they see as ‘stability’ – pliable puppet regimes. We have seen how that has been done in Iraq, though it is very unstable. But that has proved even more difficult with Iran.

That is all background to an analysis of the Iranian regime, and how the movement that gave birth to it came to lead the Iranian people in one of the great mass actions in history. One has to look at the demonstrable incapacity of secular, ‘democratic’ capitalist politics, in Iran meaning the National Front, the party of Mohammad Mossadeq, which came to power constitutionally in 1953 and was then brutally overthrown by the Shah and CIA, to achieve tangible progress towards realising the national and democratic aspirations of their people.

The movement behind Ayatollah Khomeni in 1979 was an Islamist movement. Its ideology is a modified form of pan-Islamic, or in some ways pan-Middle Eastern nationalism, and a product of the destruction of the earlier secular forms of pan-Arabism and its Iranian relative around Mossadeq. Incidentally, I tend to refer to Iran as broadly within the Arab cultural orbit, even though it is a Persian-speaking country. I know that Iran also has a considerable non-Islamic history, referring to Zoroastrianism, but would point out that Islam became dominant within Iran very early in Islamic history, and Shi’a Islam for around five hundred years. Shi’a Islam, although Iran is the strongest Shi’a state in history, was originally an Arab religious movement, and indeed, the three most important specifically Shi’a shrines are in Arab Iraq.

Conventional wisdom in the West is that movements like the Iranian revolution are designated as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. This is equated by some with European fascism. Also, since 9/11 and the beginning of the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ we have seen an attempt to bracket together entities like the Iranian regime, with Al Qaeda. This notwithstanding the fact that the Iranian regime is regarded, due to its Shi’ism, with contempt by Al Qaeda, as heretics and apostates, and that the Iranian regime, partly due to this enmity, has aided the West in Afghanistan – indeed Iranian intelligence was crucial in the overthrow of the Taliban after 9/11. This policy is now being modified by Obama, but nevertheless it is still very influential in America.

The equation of the Iranian regime, and other Islamist movements with European fascism is completely wrong. Which is not to say that they are often not extremely reactionary and repressive, but they have a very different origin and attract support for different reasons. In terms of confronting national oppression, these movements can be very radical and attract many of the most determined fighters. But they are also deeply socially conservative. Particularly regarding women, gays, sexuality etc.

However, the fact that these are, insofar as they have a mass character, movements directed against oppression, can give rise to some interesting contradictions. For instance, since the 1979 revolution there has been a massive expansion of the education of Iranian women and youth. Even as the headscarf and even the chador became ubiquitous in Iran in the 1980s, this was happening. This has had paradoxical results for the regime, with the rise of more liberal women’s and youth movements, and their mobilisation behind Khatami during the late 90s early 00s period of reform – which has echoes in today’s movement. Whatever the contradictions and conflicts that have resulted, this is hardly analogous to European fascism.

The involvement of a nationalist clergy in mass struggles for democratic and social reform or even revolution in Iran did not begin in the 1970s. The constitutional revolution of 1905-7, which was very much influenced by events to its north in Russia, used a demand for democratisation – for a ‘House of Justice’ that came from an interpretation of the Sharia – to force the then Shah (of the Qajar dynasty) to concede the first parliament (Majlis) . In the heyday of more secular kinds of nationalism – e.g. Mossadeq – this clerical activism tended to be less obvious, but reasserted itself in the 1970s.

Some on the left say that the involvement of the clergy means that the Iranian revolution represented a reactionary development. I think we should reject that idea.
Iran, for instance, is far from a fascist dictatorship. It is a highly contradictory society, where elements of theocratic autocracy (wilayet-e-faqih, or guardianship of god’s representatives) exist and mutually interact with a restricted but strongly contested bourgeois democracy. Highly favoured incumbents and establishment candidates can and do lose Iranian elections. Both Khatami (from the liberal left) and Ahmadinejad (from the populist right) defeated candidates favoured by the clerical establishment for the presidency. It is that fact that again, leads to some scepticism about the current claim of outrageous election rigging.

Yet the Iranian regime is highly repressive towards the left and some oppressed groups – gays, some national minorities, etc, and the working class is highly repressed. It is necessary to oppose those things firmly – but at the same time keep in mind the understanding that part of the political basis of the regime’s mass base is a response to past (and threatened future) national oppression. This has to be taken into account when dealing with many questions that arise these days – we need to be firm in opposing demonisation of the regime while effectively fighting for something better. We need to win mass support for the working class acting as the real liberator from national oppression – and recognise that the mass base of the Islamist movements will be a key part of such a development.

I think this is the key in orienting ourselves when dealing with movements like the Iranian revolution and the Islamic republic that grew out of it, as well as other Islamist movements such as Hamas, Hizbollah. We have to recognise that, conjuncturally, socialism as a movement has appeared to be discredited from the experience of the Soviet Union. It is worth noting that the authority of the USSR was far greater in the Middle East than in any of the advanced capitalist countries. This had contradictory results – it meant betrayals at various points – probably the most notorious being the Kremlin’s support for the creation of Israel.

But earlier than that, great authority had accrued to the USSR in the Middle East by such actions as the Bolsheviks exposure of imperialist machinations by publishing the Sikes-Picot agreements for the partition of the former Ottoman Arab provinces between France and Britain. The USSR’s coming to the aid of Nasser in the 1950s also increased the authority of official communism – and led not merely to the growth of official Communist Parties – but also a infusion of Stalinist concepts such as two-stage revolution into the more radical nationalist movements against oppression. The decline and eventual collapse of the USSR conversely had a great disintegrating and demoralising effect on what was left by then of secular nationalism in the Middle East, Arab and indeed Persian, and laid the basis for radical Islam to appear as the only force still intact that could take the lead in the struggle against oppression.

However much we socialists would like things to be different, the fact is that this is the world we live in. We cannot escape the consequences of this, we must deal with reality as it is. And the fact is that the consciousness of many in the Middle East region, which I would reiterate is the most strategic contested areas of the world today, the consciousness of many who genuinely want to fight against national oppression, which quite credibly appears to many to completely block social progress in the region, is an Islamic consciousness. This something socialists have to grapple with and deal with the contradictions in the situation through real engagement, struggle, solidarity and political argument.

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