Revolt in Iran: Which side are you on?

August 12, 2009

Lee Sustar looks at the arguments of Ahmadinejad's apologists on the left.

A REPRESSIVE government crushes independent unions, steals an election, shoots down unarmed protesters, tortures detainees and stages a show trial of opposition leaders. For the left, it should be a no-brainer: support for the pro-democracy movement against an increasingly despotic regime.

But not in the case of Iran.

Incredibly, sections of the U.S. left have teamed up with neoconservatives to pronounce that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the legitimate winner of the June 12 elections, despite the ludicrous claims of the Iranian government to have achieved an overwhelming majority in the first round of a hotly contested vote.

For the right, the agenda is clear enough. The neocons are out to rehabilitate their careers, and they need Ahmadinejad to shore up what remains of the "axis of evil" cited by George W. Bush as the pretext for an aggressive new phase of U.S. imperialism. As Daniel Pipes, the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab intellectual hit man for the right, wrote on his blog: "better to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahmadinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep, even as thousands of centrifuges whir away. And so, despite myself, I am rooting for Ahmadinejad."

A silent protest in Tehran against repression by the Ahmadinejad regime
A silent protest in Tehran against repression by the Ahmadinejad regime (Hamed Saber)

But why are individuals and organizations on the U.S. left--such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Workers World Party--rooting for Ahmadinejad as well? How can a respected left-wing Web site, MRzine, debase itself by becoming a platform for apologists for a dictatorial, corrupt and murderous regime?

The arguments of the pro-Ahmadinejad left are based on essentially five claims: (1) the election returns are in fact legitimate; (2) Ahmadinejad is a populist with the support of the poor; (3) Ahmadinejad is a frontline leader in the struggle against U.S. imperialism; (4) Ahmadinejad is the representative of a progressive revolution; (5) the opposition led by Mir Hussein Mousavi is the cat's paw of U.S. imperialism.

None of these arguments holds water. Let's look at each in turn.

A stolen election

Claims that the Iranian election results are legitimate are based largely on two grounds: a poll taken two months before the election by two conservative pollsters that anticipated a 2-to-1 Ahmadinejad win, and second, the supposed lack of evidence of fraud. "I will pay $10,000 to the first person or organization that presents a coherent story for how the Iranian election was stolen," declared Robert Naiman, national coordinator of the liberal organization Just Foreign Policy, in a June 25 blog post.

Naiman should have paid up weeks ago. The British organization Chatham House found substantial evidence of irregularities--including a swing toward the right that simply beggars belief in view of previous elections, not to say the mass pro-Mousavi elections in Tehran and other cities before the election.

"The plausibility of Mr. Ahmadinejad's claimed victory is called into question by figures that show that in several provinces he would have had to attract the votes of all new voters, all the votes of his former centrist opponent and up to 44 percent of those who voted for reformist candidates in 2005," Chatham House said in a statement.

Critics say that because Chatham House receives funding from the British state, its findings must be suspect. But researchers were analyzing official Iranian government reports. Pro-Ahmadinejad leftists point to the fact that Iranian voters can cast ballots wherever they happen to be, so vote totals may exceed registered voters in a given area. But that hardly explains how two entire provinces--Yazd and Mazandaran--could have turnout of greater than 100 percent.

And if Naiman is looking for "coherent stories" of how the election was stolen, he could avail himself of the numerous reports of Mousavi election monitors who reported results that sharply diverge from the official totals.

Ahmadinejad the pseudo-populist

James Petras, a leading left-wing author, vigorously supported the government's official election return. In a June 18 post on his Web site, he wrote: "In general, Ahmadinejad did very well in the oil- and chemical-producing provinces. This may be a reflection of the oil workers' opposition to the 'reformist' program, which included proposals to 'privatize' public enterprises."

In fact, Ahmadinejad has accelerated the privatization process begun under the previous administration of reformer Mohammad Khatami. The Iran Privatization Organization, a government ministry, reported that 247 state enterprises have been partly or fully privatized since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. Ahmadinejad has already privatized the postal service, sold stocks in two state-owned banks and sold 5 percent of shares in a state-owned steel company.

Many of these state assets are sold through a "justice shares" program that puts the stock in the hands of the poor. But as the Iranian-American analyst Kaveh Ehsani points out, the poor, who need cash, are compelled by their circumstances to sell the shares to businessmen at low prices. The model is the rigged privatization process in Russia and Eastern Europe, where Stalinist apparatchiks bought up stocks initially sold to workers in order to create vast, private corporate empires.

Ahmadinejad's leading attorney on the U.S. left, Phil Wilayto, a longtime contributor to Workers World newspaper, shuts his eyes and ears to all this. In his "Open Letter to the Antiwar Movement" about Iran, Wilayto writes: "Ahmadinejad has retained this class support through his promotion of services and subsidies to the poor--programs which depend on the continued state ownership and control of the oil and gas industries."

In fact, as Ahmadinejad's second inauguration day neared, state-controlled media announced that the privatization plan would accelerate with the sale of 40 percent of government stock in 14 state-owned companies, including: "the National Iranian Gas Company, National Petrochemical Company, Iran Air, Iranian Oil Terminals Company, Iranian Tobacco Company, National Iranian Oil Products Distribution Company and 10 percent of its shares in a number of oil refineries."

To be sure, Ahmadinejad has spent some government money on the poor to build a political base on a clientelist basis, Latin American style. Conveniently ignored by Ahmadinejad's leftist champions is the fact that the Iranian president tried and failed to pass legislation last December to cut subsidies to the poor. Pre-election bonuses to state employees and handouts of potatoes to the poor are simply a cover for his pro-business, pro-privatization policies that are ignored by Ahmadinejad's leftist supporters.

Then there's the question of the regime's denial of the right of workers to form independent unions, about which the pro-Ahmadinejad left is silent. In researching their 2006 book, Iran on the Brink, Swedish journalists Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian interviewed worker activists involved in the 2004-2005 strike wave in the country. Workers braved beatings, bullets and arrest to organize--and sometimes won. The struggle of Iranian bus drivers to form a union--their leader, Mansour Osanloo, is imprisoned--has been widely publicized.

But for the Ahmadinejad-loving leftists, such struggles are either slandered as CIA operations or passed over in silence. Perhaps that isn't surprising for the likes of Phil Wilayto. He's associated with the Workers World political tradition, which has supported tanks and Stalinist repression against worker and popular uprisings going back to Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and China in 1989. But with few Stalinist regimes left for that crowd to support, it seems that Ahmadinejad's Islamist authoritarian state will do just fine.

A collaborator with imperialism

Iran has been in the crosshairs of U.S. imperialism since the revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of the Shah in 1979. It was at the behest of the U.S. that Iraq's Saddam Hussein launched the Iran-Iraq war, an eight-year slaughter that killed a million people on both sides. Sanctions have caused considerable economic damage--and such measures have only increased since the U.S. sought to prevent Iran's nuclear industry from enriching uranium.

There is also evidence of U.S. interventions in Iranian Kurdistan and tolerance for a Pakistani-based Sunni extremist group that has carried out bombings of civilians in Iran. Moreover, a cadre of neocons in the George W. Bush administration pushed for a military strike against Iran, either directly by U.S. armed forces or by Israel. And the U.S. and Iran did fight a kind of proxy war in 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon in its failed attempt to crush the Iran-aligned Hezbollah organization.

All this may seem clear enough--the U.S. is out to achieve regime change in Iran, so therefore the regime must be anti-imperialist. But this logic is fallacious--and it doesn't describe reality. Iranian governments of all sorts have tried to achieve a kind of accommodation with the U.S., dating from the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s when the Iranian government used its influence to obtain the release of Western hostages in Lebanon. In exchange, the Iranians were able to purchase U.S. weapons via Israel to fight Iraq--and the money used to buy the hardware was sent to the right-wing Contra guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Trita Parsi, author of a book on post-revolution Iran's dealings with the U.S. and Israel, wrote, "Throughout the 1980s, when Iran's strategic interest compelled it to cooperate with Israel in order to repel the invading Iraqi army, the [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini government sought to cover up its Israeli dealings by taking Iran's rhetorical excesses against Israel to even higher levels."

Moreover, Iran effectively supported the 1991 Gulf War. A decade later, Iran provided invaluable support in securing Western Afghanistan for the occupying forces following the U.S. invasion; the Taliban had been seen in Tehran as a major threat. And even after being denounced by Bush as part of the axis of evil alongside North Korea and Iraq, Iran again collaborated with a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in order to help achieve the removal of Saddam.

Ahmadinejad's supporters at home and abroad claim that it was Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessors who surrendered too much to the West, whereas Ahmadinejad pushes back. In fact, Iran continues to collaborate with the U.S. in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As an Iraqi official told journalist Patrick Cockburn last year, "There really is an Iranian-American condominium ruling Iraq these days." One can explain Iran's foreign policy as realism in the name of regime survival--but anti-imperialist, it's not.

A progressive society?

The Iranian Revolution did bring some social advances over the Shah's dictatorship. As noted by historian Ervand Abrahamian, a left-wing critic of the clerical regime, the ayatollahs have maintained power through a kind welfare state. This involved seizing and subsidizing factories abandoned by pro-Shah capitalists, reducing illiteracy from 53 percent to 15 percent, expanding education, increasing life expectancy, improving rural infrastructure, implementing land reform, expanding affordable housing and boosting consumption of the masses with subsidies.

But these gains for the mass of people came not because of the clerics' rule, but in spite of it. The Iranian Revolution saw one of the greatest working-class mobilizations of the 20th century, but it was hijacked by Ayatollah Khomeini and the middle-class merchants in the market, or bazaar. Khomeini's rule was established through a counterrevolution that involved taking over workers' councils and repressing the revolutionary left through jailing and executions.

Most women's rights were eliminated as the supposed norms of Islamist behavior became enforced by the state. And the regime was willing to extend social benefits during the 1980s--measures carried out by Mir Hussein Mousavi, then the prime minister. These policies were undertaken in large part due to the pressure of the war with Iraq, which required the new regime to mobilize broad support.

Some defenders of Ahmadinejad are willing to acknowledge the anti-working-class, capitalist character of the Iranian regime. Thus Mazda Majidi, writing on the Web site of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), states that, "The Islamic Republic, from the very beginning, was strongly opposed to forces representing the working class," and describes the repression against the left.

Majidi goes on to correctly restate the socialist position against defending any government from imperialist intervention, despite its capitalist character: "Imperialism is the enemy of working people everywhere, including within the imperialist countries. This forms the basis of the PSL's approach toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and other bourgeois national states and forces." (PSL is a splinter of the Workers World Party and shares its theoretical framework).

But even after admitting that Mousavi was an "acceptable" candidate for president for the Iranian ruling class, Majidi leaps to the conclusion that the mass protest of 3 million people could only benefit U.S. imperialism: "What would have happened had the street demonstrations overthrown the Islamic Republic regime? Would we now have a more independent, a more anti-imperialist, a left-leaning government with more benefits for the working class? There is a reason that 'left' forces supporting the opposition do not ask this question. There is not the slightest bit of evidence to think this 'revolutionary' movement would result in a leftward shift in the Iranian state and every reason to think the contrary.

"If the opposition had toppled the Islamic Republic, this would have been another example of a U.S.-sponsored color revolution--this time, green. It would likely have resulted in the overthrow of a nationalist regime in favor of a client state implementing neoliberal policies."

Let's get this straight. Any successful mass opposition to what Majidi admits is a reactionary regime would automatically lead to the victory of U.S. imperialism. According to this logic, it's in the demonstrators' interests to passively submit to the basij militia's clubs and snipers' bullets rather than struggle and risk a comeback for private capital?

The problem with this argument is that it is Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who are driving the neoliberal agenda. In fact, it was Mousavi's camp that was arguing for a different approach: using the state oil and gas revenues for investment to rebuild the economy in key sectors, following the example of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. In a document posted on his campaign Web site, Mousavi declared that to achieve these development aims, it will be necessary to "re-nationalize" Iran's oil.

Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, one of Mousavi's key spokespeople, made a similar point during the post-election protests before he was elected. "They [Ahmadinejad's government] are selling the gas to India at lower and worse prices than even the Turkmanchai Treaty," he said in a reference to the 1828 treaty that gave Russia control over much of old Persia. "...They [Ahmadinejad and his backers] are throwing everything to the wind. So of course they have to arrest us. If a government that is conceding everything that is ours to foreigners--if it can't show it can arrest a few students, and arrest a few activists--then how can it call itself a government [in front of foreigners]?"

Ramezanzadeh was one of the 100 opposition leaders put on trial this month. In a rather bizarre advertisement to international capital, the prosecution's indictment against the men said that the crackdown showed that Iran was open for business: "This election [became] a real democratic performance [and a source of] pride; and is a message to worldwide people that Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most secure and stable countries in the world for investment and progress in economical projects."

That's what people like Wilayto, Maijdi and others are signing up to support--a regime that cynically uses populist gestures to cover up a grab for even more economic and political power. The real threat to U.S. imperialism in Iran comes not from Ahmadinejad, the right-wing clerics and security forces, but from a mobilized, politically conscious mass of people fighting for democratic rights.

The popular struggle in Iran is the most important to emerge since the onset of the world economic crisis. It has the potential to go beyond the split between sections of the ruling class headed by Ahmadinejad and Mousavi and to revive the left and working-class forces that made the revolution of 1979. Such developments would give a boost to the left internationally. It deserves our unstinting support.

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