Why the left has to stand with Iran’s uprising

February 1, 2018

The last month of Iranian protests for democracy and against austerity have posed an old test for the left. Ashley Smith explains why some left voices are still failing it.

WHICH SIDE are you on? The Iranian state or the wave of class and social struggles that have rocked the country in recent months?

Donald Trump claimed again in his State of the Union address that he stands with ordinary Iranians in support of democracy. But those words are as hypocritical and false as anything that comes out of his mouth.

Trump's "support" is opportunistic--the result of the Iranian government being the main regional power that rivals U.S. imperialist interests. But Trump's record of sickening Islamophobia and anti-democratic measures shows he is not a genuine ally of the protests.

The question should be easier for the left to answer. But unfortunately, it isn't. A section of socialist and radical individuals and organizations has used the specter of U.S. imperialist manipulation of the protests as justification for betraying--in the name of anti-imperialism--the socialist principle of international solidarity.


IRAN'S LATEST wave of working-class protests swept through Iran's provincial cities starting at the end of December. These came on the heels of an upsurge in strikes staged by independent unions against private and state corporations.

Workers and youth join a wave of anti-government protests in Iran
Workers and youth join a wave of anti-government protests in Iran

Both expressions of discontent were triggered by government austerity measures such as cuts to fuel and food subsidies that drove prices up by as much as 40 percent. But the marchers' slogans during December and January protests quickly escalated to challenge Iran's regional imperialism in Syria and Lebanon, and some went so far as to call for the overthrow of the state itself.

The demonstrators' chants combined economic and political grievances, building from simple demands like "Bread, work, freedom" and "Freedom for political prisoners" to "Death to [President Hassan] Rouhani," "Death to the dictator [Ayatollah Khamenei]," "Down with the regime," "They turned Islam into a stepping stone and made people desperate" and "Leave Syria alone and think about us."

Unsurprisingly, the government responded with brutality. While President Rouhani, a leader of the moderate wing of Iran's rulers, mouthed support for people's right to protest, he warned that any violence would be met with heavy repression.

The regime did just that against both violent and nonviolent demonstrations. It shut down the social media app Telegram that protesters used to organize and promote the actions. Security forces and militias arrested 4,000 people and killed 25. Four of the deaths were of Iranians in custody--the state covered up these executions with claims that the victims committed suicide.

Trump claimed to support the demonstrations, tweeting at one point: "Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime's corruption & its squandering of the nation's wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people's rights, including right to express themselves."

Few people anywhere in the world believed Trump--with his routine contempt for people's rights in the U.S. and abroad--especially in Iran, but also in the U.S.

His administration, which is stuffed full of Islamophobes, has threatened to bomb Iran people, promised to re-impose sanctions and repeatedly attempted to ban Muslims and specifically Iranians from entering the country, cutting off roads to escape from the regime's repression.

But Trump's alleged support for the protests was taken as evidence among those on the left who failed to stand with masses.

This pro-regime attitude is nothing new for U.S. organizations such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Workers World.

They took a similar position on Iran's pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009, which turned out millions in mass demonstrations against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's theft of the presidential election. PSL and Workers World slandered the movement as a cat's paw of U.S. imperialism and supported Ahmadinejad's electoral coup.


HOW COULD anyone on the left side with the Iranian state and its use of repression and violence against popular movements for democracy and equality? The roots of this betrayal of solidarity lie in the politics of "campism" that developed in left organizations that represented the politics of Stalinism during and after the Cold War.

These organizations supported the state capitalist systems in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China, not only as opponents of U.S. imperialism, but as positive models of socialism. The bloc of these countries was misnamed the "socialist camp"--hence the term "campism."

This meant supporting Russia's crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring in 1968 and Poland's Solidarity union uprising in 1981. They also backed Mao's China and its repressive measures during the Great Leap Forward, subjugation of Tibetans in a decades-long occupation and, later, the assault on democracy activists in Tiananmen Square.

Even today, when all the world's states are obviously capitalist, these leftists support oppressive regimes as "anti-imperialist" so long as they oppose the U.S. in some way. Under the faulty logic that "the enemy of my enemy must be my friend," they denounce popular struggles for democracy as the work of U.S. imperialism if they protest the "wrong" regime.

This has distorted the left response to popular uprisings in the Middle East, even for some organizations that reject Stalinism. The campists and those they influenced supported rebellions in countries that are U.S. allies, but opposed them--and even supported state repression of them--in nations that were outside Washington's sphere of influence.

Thus, the "campists" sided with the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria against the popular uprising that began during the 2011 Arab Spring.

And now, the protests against repression and poverty in Iran are portrayed as reactionary.


TO JUSTIFY their attitudes about Iranian politics, these Western socialist organizations distort the history, nature and policies of the Iranian state, as well as the resistance to it.

The Islamic Republic of Iran was the product of the country's revolution in 1979 against a monarchy that had been, along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, a key pillar of American imperialist domination of the region.

The Shah of Iran enforced brutal inequalities with a police state. Outrage over these conditions drove the masses, especially the country's powerful working class concentrated in the oil industry, to rise up and topple the Shah.

The revolution, however, lacked a large revolutionary socialist organization committed to establishing a new workers government.

The Maoist wing of the left advocated a guerilla strategy in isolation from the working class's power at the point of production. The Stalinist Tudeh Party didn't believe a workers' revolution was on the agenda, only a bourgeois revolution, so it supported the so-called progressive bourgeoisie--in this case, organized around the Shia Islamic fundamentalist clergy.

After the Shah fell, this clergy, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, hijacked the revolution, establishing the Islamic Republic, which then repressed the left and the workers' movement.

The new rulers of Iran nationalized sections of the economy as state capitalist enterprise, but they also defended private capitalists Khomeini used the rhetoric of anti-imperialism to disguise what can only be called a counterrevolution against the far more radical aspirations of the country's working class, which had toppled the Shah.

Since the consolidation of the Islamic Republic, Iran's ruling class has been divided between a conservative wing with a base among the provincial poor and a reformist wing with a predominantly middle-class base.

Initially, these wings possessed different economic strategies. But over the last two decades, both united around a program of austerity and crony privatization to increase the competitiveness of Iranian capitalism in the region and world system.

When in power, both factions have overseen the restriction of democratic rights, impoverishment of the working class, and systematic oppression of women, LGBT people, and ethnic and religious minorities.

At the same time, the Islamic Republic has stood as an opponent of U.S. imperialism and its regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. As a result, the U.S. has seen Iran as an enemy state and conducted a whole series of measures designed to undermine the Islamic Republic, which it labeled an exporter of terrorism.

The U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Iran, supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in his war against Iran in the 1980s, and conducted all sorts of military operations, both covert and open.


WHILE LEFT-wing supporters of the Iranian state admit that it is capitalist, they view Iran as an oppressed nation and opponent of American imperialism. For example, Mazda Majidi writing for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, lionizes the Shia fundamentalist conservative faction for "projecting confrontation with imperialism."

In reality, the Iranian ruling class has never been a principled opponent of the U.S.--and it cannot today simply be called an oppressed nation. In fact, Iran has turned itself into a regional imperialist in its own right, and it happily collaborates with imperialist powers such as Russia and China.

In the 1980s, Iran worked hand in glove with none other than the Ronald Reagan administration--leading to the Iran-Contra Scandal, in which the U.S. secretly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to bankroll the Nicaraguan "contra" war against the left-wing Sandinista government.

More recently, Iran took advantage of the U.S.'s disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to project itself as a regional power.

While the Bush administration had hoped to overthrow the Iranian state after regime changes in Baghdad and Kabul, it got bogged down in brutal counterinsurgency warfare and was unable to fulfill its fantasies of regional regime change.

In an ironic twist of history, Iran emerged from those U.S. wars not only freed of two enemies--Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan--but with a new ally in the new Shia fundamentalist-dominated government in Iraq. This was added to Iran's established power in Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah, as well its alliance with Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Iran demonstrated its newfound regional power and counterrevolutionary nature in Syria. It deployed its own forces and those of Hezbollah in alliance with Russian imperialism to back Assad in crushing the Syrian Revolution.

Now, Iran is locked in a regional imperial competition with Saudi Arabia, as these two poles of counterrevolution engage in proxy wars throughout the region.

Oblivious to these facts, the campist left continues to call Iran anti-imperialist. Just like Iran's regime, they use the threat of U.S. imperialism to excuse the exploitation and oppression of the Iranian people.

For example, Workers World leader Sara Flounders claims that "a major, if not the major, cause of economic problems is U.S. and European Union sanctions, which were imposed many years ago to create and increase internal dissension...and have decreased the government's ability to provide subsidies for food, fuel, housing and education."

This is a distorted view at best. Since the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. and European Union have loosened the sanctions regime, and capital has begun to flow into the country. This has actually deprived the regime of its key alibis for austerity. It can no longer say "the devil made me do it."

This is one factor underlying the recent strikes and demonstrations--workers are realizing that Iranian capitalists and their regime adopted these policies to enrich themselves and improve the competitiveness of Iranian capitalism, not because they were forced to.


THE CAMPISTS similarly repeat the Iranian regime's propaganda against the developing working-class movement. They imply that the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel are manipulating the rebellion to turn it into a so-called "color revolution" that would install a client government in Tehran.

For example, Independent journalist Robert Fisk repeats the claims of Iranian leaders that the uprising is a conspiracy hatched by Trump's CIA director Mike Pompeo and his henchman assigned to Iran, Mike D'Andrea:

The most powerful leader--supported by state militias--complains that the unrest is fomented by foreigners, traitors, spies. The most senior leader in the state puts it all down to "money, weapons, politics and intelligence services." America, Britain and Saudi Arabia are named as the principal suspects.

The rest of the article fails to substantiate this conspiracy theory.

Similarly, the PSL's Mazda Majidi alleges: "[R]egardless of the wishes of the individual participants, they have also provided space for the grown initiative of counterrevolutionary, pro-Western armed elements."

There is little doubt that U.S. imperialism and its regional allies are happy to see Iran plagued with domestic problems. But the last thing any of these powers want is a working-class uprising that could trigger another round of revolts, like the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt did during the Arab Spring back in 2011.

The U.S. and its allies have good reason to be fearful. As Gilbert Achcar, author of The People Want and Morbid Symptoms, argues, the region is locked in a protracted revolutionary crisis, rooted in the nature of its dictatorial rentier states, their societies' blocked development, and the collapse in oil prices driven by the sluggish global recovery after the Great Recession that has weakened their economies.

Despite the victories for counterrevolution just a few years following 2011, the region is already exhibiting signs of renewed struggle--not only in Iran, but also in Morocco and Tunisia. All of the regimes, including Saudi Arabia, are worried that these are the early signs of an oncoming rebellion.

As Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi points out:

Many Saudis must find it contradictory for their media to hail Iranians protesting price increases in Iran, while Saudis are banned from protesting the approximately doubled cost of fuel and the introduction of a sales tax for the first time in the country (which took effect January 1 )...Perhaps Arabs--and Saudis--will dare to say that they also want some of that Iranian freedom.


THE LEFT defenders of the Iranian regime have another frankly elitist argument: They impugn protesters for not possessing what they deem to be the correct revolutionary slogans and leadership.

For example, one slogan that emerged during last month's protests--"Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran"--is criticized for being nationalist.

While not the way revolutionary Marxists would state opposition to Iranian regional imperialism, the slogan does voice elemental aspirations of such a posture. It isn't far from the chants raised in the U.S. antiwar movement--including by PSL and Workers World--against George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq: "Money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation."

As in any largely unorganized and development movement, both desperate people and consciously right-wing elements will put forward questionable slogans.

Thus, whether out of despair or reactionary intent, some Iranians in the protests called the return of the monarchy. But this has been the exception to the more radical chants heard in Iran--few, if any, Iranians want the return of the Shah's police state.

The campists are, in reality, holding the movement to such standards in order to discredit it, not help it.

Thus, Mazda Majidi asks, "What is the political character of the opposition movement? Does it have an anti-capitalist character? Is it a working-class movement? Does it represent an expansion of the country's independence or does it promote its submission to the dictates of multinational corporations?"

If such questions were universally applied, the left would disapprove of the vast majority of social movements anywhere in the world.

After impugning the protest movement, however, Mazda Majidi celebrates "demonstrations in support of the Islamic Republic, not in opposition to it...totaling millions across the country."

This can't be taken seriously as evidence of majority support in Iran. Of course, the regime has a social base, and can mobilize it--just like all regimes, including Trump's.

All this shows is that Iranian society is polarized: The question remains: Which side of this polarization should the left support? Campists like Sara Flounders support the regime against the people because "the U.S. State Department and numerous imperialist secret agencies...make every effort to immediately impact their political character and weaken the state."


GENUINE INTERNATIONALISTS should adopt a very different position: one of solidarity with the workers' movement and its fight against social inequality and regional imperialism.

The abandonment of such a principled left position will further discredit campists, whose politics have already been called into question for many by their bankrupt position of support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria. The campists appear to be nothing more than regime apologists.

The revolutionary internationalist left should stake out a different position and campaign for it. We can't counterpose the twin principles of anti-imperialism and internationalist solidarity from below.

The imperialist powers must be opposed--especially Washington, for those of us in the US, because it has proven itself the biggest enemy of freedom and justice in the world. At best, it supports struggles for liberation as pawns in the imperialist game--they are quickly sold out when it suits U.S. interests, as the experience right now of the Kurds in Syria proves.

In Iran, the U.S. has conclusively--from its decades of support for the Shah's dictatorship to the sanctions, covert operations and other attacks--that it is an enemy of the Iranian people. That's why we must expose and oppose any and all forms of U.S. intervention in Iran.

But internationalists should also oppose the rival imperialist powers of Russia and China, as well as regional powers like Iran or Saudi Arabia. While not as lethal as the U.S., all of these are no less oppressive predatory, at home and abroad.

Genuine anti-imperialism must be joined to the principle of international solidarity with all struggles that are for national liberation, democracy and working-class revolution, , regardless of which country or camp they are in.

That means standing in solidarity with the Iranian working class in its strikes and protests. This is the way we can hope to build bridges with Iran's workers and oppressed, both to learn from their struggles and to contribute to them. The possibilities for such collaboration are visible in initiatives like the Alliance for Middle Eastern Socialists.

The new left needs to break with the Stalinist tradition of campism, as part of rediscovering the tradition of socialism from below and its vision of a society that will end capitalism and the inter-imperial rivalry over the division and redivision of the globe.

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