on two fronts
On one hand there is imperialism and on the other are the
October 16, 2006
Twenty-five years ago we had a battle with the left in terms of
how to deal with regimes like Iran. We won that battle ideologically,
but at a price which was really disastrous, with tens of thousands
of people killed, including over 400 from my own organisation,
and 8 from our central committee. Having to fight the same battle
yet again is almost like a sick joke, but it is one we are going
to have to fight.
There are those who today find themselves standing
in defence of the Islamic republic - equating, for instance, Mahmoud
in Iran with Chávez or Castro. In order to counter this,
it is important to show where this regime came from, how it developed
and what it means in terms of economic and social policy. I would
also like to look at the way it is opposed by those various movements
that the left in Europe and America seems to completely ignore
and to examine the potential of those movements.
Defeat of revolution
1978-79 saw perhaps the largest mass movement ever in history,
in the sense that it involved virtually the entire population of
the country at that time - around 55-60 million people rose in
revolt under the slogans of 'freedom', 'independence' and
the 'Islamic Republic'. The first two were progressive
and democratic, demonstrating that this was an anti-dictatorial
and anti-imperialist movement, which was in the process of time
subsumed under the third slogan.
Of course, large sections of the
population came to realise that the Islamic Republic was not the
answer and had not fulfilled the
promises of that revolution: true independence and freedom. Before
1981, with its the mass arrests and executions, the organs of suppression
had not yet been built and the left and democratic movements were
becoming fully active. When we had street demonstrations, instead
of watching us from the sidewalk, people were beginning to actually
join us under the slogan of freedom.
What happened in 1981 was by
no means preordained. There were three key factors that aided the
counterrevolution. First of all there
was the issue of the war, instigated by Iraq, which was essentially
pushed by the United States as a means to throttle a major mass
movement with truly anti-imperialist potential. That had the effect
of halting the process whereby people were wavering and breaking
away from the Islamic movement and the mullahs and moving towards
the democratic camp.
The second was the charade of the occupation
of the US embassy in Tehran. That gave a section of the left the
excuse to fall behind
the so-called anti-imperialism of the Islamists and their opposition
to the 'great Satan'. The Tudeh Party, although not
a mass party in terms of numbers, was ideologically very powerful
and was able to split the largest left movement in Iran - which
had not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands behind it
- into three separate parts: the majority, minority and the third
group (the left-wing of the majority).
Even so, that democratic
movement could have won were it not for the fact that the Mujahedin
made the tactical mistake of making
a military uprising prematurely, allowing the Islamists to launch
a major crackdown on the left, killing and imprisoning tens of
thousands of us. Almost every left organisation was destroyed,
with those who escaped forced into exile. Those that stayed behind,
such as Tudeh, called us 'radishes' - red on the outside,
but white inside. They were in turn imprisoned and killed three
That was the end of the left as a force in Iran.
The war ended in disaster, supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini drank
of poison" and within a year or so died, having ordered the
massacre a thousands of prisoners. What was left of the working
class and democratic forces was decimated. The ideological battle
that we had with the Tudeh, the majority, about the anti-imperialist
nature of the Islamic regime, was won - but in the process we were
killed in out thousands. Yet now we have to fight this whole battle
again - what a tragedy.
I want now to concentrate on the 'reconstruction programme' at
the time of Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency of Iran - Rafsanjani
was, of course, defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2005. Although Rafsanjani
was president, Ali Khamenei, who was Khonmeini's successor
as the supreme leader was very much running the show, as he still
does. He has control over all the major organs of the state, including
the armed forces, security forces, judiciary and prisons, and he
also has representatives in almost every other organisation. Khamenei
stands on top, but he does not have the charisma of Khomeini.
essence of the reconstruction was the neoliberal programme of
the International Monetary Fund. It means privatisation, urbanisation
and all the things that go with it -- poverty, hunger, destitution.
The reconstruction drove the population of Iran into a series of
revolts between 1992 and 1995. In some cities like Qazvin the people
took over for two or three days. In Mashhad they had to be shot
down in the streets from helicopters. It was interesting to see
the 'anti-imperialist' government implementing this
neoliberal policy. In 1995-1997, stung by the urban riots, foreign
exchange controls were abandoned (another IMF dictat), causing
a huge crash in the value of the rial, the Iranian currency. The
price of bread and housing soared and essentially forced the regime
to change course. The 'reformist' Khatami was elected
However, those who tell us the Islamic republic is
reformable should listen to the words of Mohammad Ali Abtahi. Ali
for legal and parliamentary affairs after Khatami's landslide
re-election in 2001. He chaired the national security council and
was deputy minister of information, so he knows what he is talking
about. He said: "We initiated the reform movement because
we heard the sirens of danger."
For this regime, reform, if it does
occur, has to be pushed from below and this is really what happened
- a 'landslide' movement
from below. But Khatami continued the neoliberal policies of the
previous regime. Therefore the poverty, the increasing encroachment
on people's livelihood, privatisation, unemployment, layoffs
- and all those things which we have learnt to recognise as part
and parcel neoliberal policy across the globe - continued. The
reformist movement gradually crumbled, because it was unable to
answer the very questions posed by the people. They wanted freedom
- there was some superficial movement, but it was limited and the
regime would not allow more. They wanted an answer to the poverty,
but inflation went up and things actually got worse. This was a
time when a whole generation born in the period after the revolution
came of age, but they had no jobs and nothing to do.
created an oligarchy, or 'clericarchy', of rich mullahs, including
Rafsanjani himself, who is one of the
hundred richest people in the world. About 100 families were able
to use the changes brought by privatisation, abolition of exchange
controls, etc to accumulate immense private wealth. The Iranians
call them aghazadeh ha ('sons of lords') - the whole
new class of super-rich that is concentrating the wealth of the
country in their hands.
They went into things that in countries
like Iran were never previously privately owned. For instance,
Rafsanjani owns the new Mahan airline.
They took over shipping and private banks begin to appear, where
they were previously state-owned. In particular they went where
the real money is - oil and gas. Lucrative deals involving new
oilfields in the Persian Gulf were struck with companies under
the control of the aghazadeh ha.
In Khomeini's time the military had no political role. The
army was specifically barred from involvement in politics and military
personnel could not stand as candidates or for office unless they
resigned their post. Khomeini wanted all power in the hands of
the mullahs. He also made sure the military had very little economic
power - although heroin smuggling from Afghanistan was at this
time run by the security forces.
During this whole period from 1997
onwards, the military started encroaching upon the power of the
mullahs and began a process of
rivalry. Initially they tried to undermine the reformist programme
of Khatami by kidnapping and killing progressive writers and intellectuals,
and later assassinating reformist intellectuals and leaders, such
as publisher Saeed Hajjarian (who was shot and left in a come,
but did not actually die).
Gradually changes were made which allowed
the military to engage in politics. For example, for the first
time it was possible for
them to contest elections and leading army personnel were elected
onto town councils, which do have some power, and won the mayorships
of many towns. In the last parliamentary elections, which saw the
end of the reformist majority, a number of military candidates
won seats and some were appointed to posts such as deputy minister.
in the military became involved in smuggling goods in a big way -- consumer
goods, banned videos, and drugs. Along the entire Persian Gulf
coastline countless unofficial jetties
are used for smuggling on a mass scale.Unlike the mullahs and the
aghazadeh ha who engage in legal trade, these military elements
are importing illegally and not paying tax (and by not paying tax
they are indirectly weakening the theocratic state).
The aim is
to institutionalise militarisation and channel the resources of
the country into military hands. They were first of all able
to undermine the reformist movement by gaining control over the
security apparatus and the courts. It was largely through their
efforts that Khatami's vote fell and eventually he was defeated.
Last year saw a head to head fight with the clericarchy in the
presidential elections, when Ahmadinejad came to power.
oligarchy made a big mistake in putting forward Rafsanjani as their
candidate. Rafsanjani is the most hated and detested figure
in Iran, corrupt from head to toe. He looks like a crook, behaves
like a crook and everyone knows he is a crook. People refused to
vote for him as the reformist candidate and there was a huge abstention.
contrast, Ahmadinejad's election was brilliantly orchestrated like
a military campaign. Firstly, his supporters ignored television
and other media and went out directly to shanty towns, selling
Ahmadinejad as a man of the people. They distributed hundreds of
thousands of videos and CDs showing the corruption of the oligarchs.
Secondly they mobilised the basij militia, ordering each member
to bring 10 people to vote. There are one million basij members,
so even if they only succeeded in bringing seven, that would still
be seven million guaranteed votes.
It was, if you like, a silent,
clean and bloodless coup. In a way it completed the militarisation
process. Today all the major ministries,
all the major deputy ministries, governorships, city councils,
etc are in the hands of military or ex-military people. They are
using this power to shift over ownership to themselves (their possession
of the means of violence gives them an additional ability to do
so, of course). Let us give some examples.
The new international
airport in Tehran is absolutely state of the art. The intention
was to put the construction contract out
to tender, but the military argued that, being an airport, it was
a security matter and took it over without tender. A Turkish firm
won the tender to supply mobile phones to Iran, but again the military
argued this was a security risk and took it over. You may ask,
how is the army able to do this? Linked to various ministries are
thousands of companies which are actually part of the military
establishment. The military in Iran is a major economic force.
We know where all the revenue will be going from the airport and
The military has also been to where the real money
is: oil and gas. But in order to mount a takeover they had to get
rid of the
mullahs. Firstly, a series of corruption cases were instigated
against Rafsanjani, who is still one of the most powerful people
in Iran. Apart from his wealth, he is head of the expediency council,
which is supposed to stand above all the institutions of the state
and resolve disputes amongst them. There has been an attempt to
bring Rafsanjani before a clerical court on charges of corruption
and a huge amount of detail has been published about his practices.
Through this process the military camp was able to remove Rafsanjani
and others connected to the mullahs from the national oil company.
give an example of what this means in terms of money, the $9 billion
contract to build an gas pipeline from Iran to India has
been awarded to a military-connected engineering firm, without
tender. The sum of $9 billion dollars from the foreign exchange
reserves has now been transferred into the military coffers in
an extra-budgetary transaction that did not have to go through
parliament. $36 billion has actually disappeared from the reserves:
it is not noted in any of the official accounts and has presumably
also gone into military hands.
This battle is still going on. The
old clerical oligarchy is now being seriously challenged by a new
military oligarchy in terms
of the possession of the wealth of the country. Recently there
was a change in the constitution. There was an article that ring-fenced
a whole series of key industries and services deemed to be essential
for the running of the state. So, for instance, health, banks,
shipping, airports, railways, oil and steel, etc could not be privatised.
A year ago, before Ahmadinejad came to power, the expediency council
changed the interpretation of that article. To change the constitution
a referendum is supposed to be held, but, of course, after parliament
refused permission, the article was re-interpreted in any case.
Yet the change was only announced after Ahmadinejad was elected.
The whole sphere of neoliberal policies, and the degree of misery
that comes with it, is a battlefield between the two rival power
There are some differences in the way the two sides
have approached privatisation. Control of the strategic heights
economy is one of the key aims of the military. This is in part
a preparation for a war they know is coming, a perspective of war
economy. It is able to use the income from the sale of these industries
for whatever purposes they deem fit. There are now between 1,000
and 2,000 companies linked to the military. In addition, a certain
number of shares are made available to the public. This is a way
of paying back those who voted the right way.
What about the political
dimension? I think in the long term, or even the shorter term,
the aim is almost certainly to simplify
the power structure and to have a much more governable system than
we have had in Iran hitherto. Remember, there are at present two
parallel systems - one elected from below and the other imposed
from above - and they have often come into conflict with each other.
Although power has mostly remained in the hands of the unelected,
clerical-controlled top-down structure, sometimes the lower, elected
structure has been able to intervene, has been able to push, as
we have seen in the reforms of the last eight years.
I think the
aim of current policy is to remove the mullahs once and for all
and to institutionalise a military government headed
by one single mullah at the top. This can be done through winning
control of the 'Assembly of Experts', which has the
power to elect the supreme leader and votes every eight years.
The next vote is due within a year. If they can control this assembly,
as they now control parliament, they will then remove and put in
their own man. The removal of the government of the clergy and
its replacement by the military will in some senses make it more
fascistic. Previously, institutions below had some role. There
was always a battle over the exclusion of people who were not deemed
Islamist enough, or who did not have the 'right kind' of
Islam. Such people were always liable to be purged, but they did
have some access to power and this power actually increased during
the time of the reformist movement.
In a sense then this government
is closer to fascism than even Khomeini's was. The whole aim is
to exclude the people from
any process where they can have any direct role in decision-making.
People are pulled into the political scene as a mass, but not as
an organised mass. Any independent organisation or action is to
be banned. The only place where people can be organised is through
the military -- eg in the Basij.
Look at it from a historical
perspective, this was the only response that the Iranian regime
could give to the crisis in that country,
a crisis that had its roots in a mammoth waking up from the distant
past, trying to organise a modern state in a modern world with
rules that are inherited from a time of shepherds and camels.
What is happening down below in Iran? No-one seems to talk about
the movements. As with most other countries in the Middle East,
people talk about Islam and imperialism, but you would think there
is nothing else 'down there'. This is not so. Iran's
many movements are becoming more organised.
The women's movement has always been highly active, but it
has become even more so now. More and more independent women's
movements are forming, and they have gained new courage, as on
the March 8 celebration of International Women's Day this
year. A mass gathering of women came together in one of the major
squares of Tehran, but was attacked by thugs in civilian clothes
and suppressed. Iranian women have become, and will become, much
* The student movement, which was actually almost
entirely in the hands of Khomeini, became disillusioned, mostly
and became the motor force behind the organisation of the reformist
camp. However, students have lost their illusions in the reformists
too and are now developing their own independent organisations.
For an example see an article one of these students recently published
in the Weekly Worker (July 27). I urge those of you who have not
done so to read it to see the radical views these people are taking
up. They are forming independently, separately and radically -
some of them radically left. This is something which is new.
regime understands that, which is why it is trying to stamp out
the student movement. They have arrested and tortured student
leaders, provoking hunger strikes -- in some cases to the death.
They have expelled them from university and imprisoned them, but
the movement continues.
* The working class movement in Iran has changed
radically and there is a very good article in the latest issue
of Iran Bulletin
the developments in the Iranian
workers' movement over the
last year and the way it is beginning to think of itself and organise
There have been at least three gatherings of national representatives
in attempts to form free trade unions.
This was the demand of workers
at the Sherkat-e Vahed bus company in Tehran, which employs
a huge number of people. They went on
strike, among other demands, for the right to form independent
unions. The leaders were arrested in February and the chair of
the union, Ossanlu, was only released in August. This strike
caught the attention of the international working class and shows
pressure can be applied and that true solidarity does make a
difference. Workers at the Giant Khodro car plant have also been
But the list is much, much longer than this. The Iranian working
class is fighting for its life and workers are destitute - many
have not been paid for some time, so the action taken is over
really basic demands. Increasingly, though, they are addressing
like the right to form trade unions and other organisations.
* Then there are the nationalities. In the early
days of the revolution, the Kurdish national movement and then
brutally suppressed. More recently the Azeri, Baluchi and Arab
movements have been active. Armenians and Assyrians are also beginning
to demand more rights.
Remember, Iran is a multilingual and multinational
state and all the regimes that have been in power since the last
suppressed the independent voice of these nationalities. Interestingly
the Islamic regime, because of its very nature in emerging from
a revolution, was actually less repressive. For instance, whereas
in the time of the shah Turkish-language newspapers were not
permitted, there are now a number that are publishing. For the
Arabs the clampdown
is more severe - the regime claims for security reasons. On the
whole, although there is strong repression, it is slightly less
than before - which explains why the national movements are much
It is usually the case that in conditions of repression
democratic demands have tended to be channelled around one question
- in Iran
it has been the nationalities movement. It is the one area over
which it is possible to some extent to organise, meet and even
write. The national movement is both a movement for the right
to be educated in one's own language, etc, but it is also a
focus for some of the other resentments.
This is also a field where
imperialism can operate. Imperial aggression may well take the
form not of a direct attack, but of fomenting
fragmentation - that is a very real danger. A strong, single
Iran is not part of the neoliberal agenda for the Middle East and
are using the nationalities as a means of splitting up or at
least weakening Iran. Some of the nationalist movements - for example,
elements in the Azerbaijani movement - are highly chauvinistic.
The nationalist movement is alive and potentially very dangerous,
if its legitimate demands are not addressed by progressive forces.
the religious minorities. The majority of Iranians are shia,
but there is also a large sunni minority, who are denied
For the Socialist Workers Party and the Stop the
War Coalition it is as though these movements down below are of
or do not even exist. Yet they are essentially the force which
can genuinely resist imperialist aggression. Not just in Iran,
but also in Iraq and Syria, by ignoring such movements they are
missing out on those very forces that can genuinely block, prevent
and perhaps reverse imperial aggression. If we, the left, do
not support these movement, then the monarchists will - and they
When the Tehran bus workers went on strike, Radio America was
the first to gave them a voice. When the International Women's
Day protestors were attacked, Radio Israel were the first to
report it. But the left in Europe and the USA was strangely silent.
just two sides
This is the second time this ideological battle
has been fought. First time round it ended in tragedy, and we must
ensure that does
not happen the second time. Yet much of the anti-war movement
major sections of the American and European left see only two
sides. On one hand there is imperialism and on the other are the
fail to see that within these societies there are major movements,
which are excluded by the Islamists. You could scour their voluminous
publications in vain. There would be pages and pages comparing
Ahmadinejad to Castro and Chavez, but not a word on the working
class demanding its basic rights from this Ahmadinejad -- and
getting a bloody nose and more.
The Islamist movement in Iran
is different from Hamas, different from Hezbollah, different
from the Taliban, different from Rifah
Party in Turkey - there is no question they are different.
But what do they have in common? We must look at all political
and decide what are the key factors allowing us to assess them.
When it comes to their political and economic programme there
is one thing that unites these movements - they are all repressive
and when in power all have pursued neoliberal policies.
it possible to fight imperialist aggression with these forces
as your only ally? It is so short-sighted and so stupid.
are able to mobilise the left behind a much more logical and
combative programme, we are going to perpetuate the cycle of
and terrorism, and more war, massacres and terrorism, spreading
to other areas of the Middle East and perhaps central Asia. Comment
Mehdi Kia is co-editor of Iran
Bulletin - Middle East Forum.
This article first appeared in Weekly Worker no 641 September
It was a transcription of a talk given at the Communist