Fallout from the June 2009 Protests in Iran
Political Inconsistencies and Pressing Questions
The fraudulent election results of June 2009 have now become a social fact in Iran. Fueled by a series of violent clampdowns by the security forces of the Iranian state, the convergence of dissenting elements within the Iranian population led to the development of a national opposition, popularly referred to as the “Green Movement.” On key national occasions since the hotly contested June elections, various voices of opposition inside Iran have taken to the streets, university campuses, school classrooms, public squares, community centres, highways, mosques, police headquarters, prison institutions, cemeteries and rooftops to demonstrate their opposition to the ruling regime, and their refusal to accept both the legitimacy of the electoral process and the credibility of the declared results.
On all of these occasions, and thanks to the state’s interpretation of anti-government rallies as “illegal gatherings,” protesters were faced with a heavy presence of armed and under-cover government vigilantes known as Basij. Since the election, in an effort to dissolve opposition and further suppress criticism, the government has engaged in a long and ongoing campaign across Iran of mass arrests, executions, simulated mass trials, forced confessions after extensive torture, rapes of both males and females in prisons, raiding of houses, abductions, violent attacks on the streets, and detentions in prisons and solitary confinement without charge by the security forces.1 Yet, in their struggles, Iranian protesters have illuminated the hypocrisy of the Islamic Republic: a government positing itself as a speaker against imperialism, oppression and exploitation has become the biggest violator of the fundamental rights of its own people.2
The development of the increasingly vocal and visible opposition voices in Iran sparked various responses from Zionist- interventionist and liberal-democratic camps in Europe and North America – each fraught with its own obvious problems. That defenders of neo-liberal governmental policies, campaigns of socio- political repression, racist ideologies and military interventions adopted problematic positions on movements of dissent in Iran is not surprising. Our concern is the expressed positions of many leftists, anti-imperialists, and social justice figures whose opposition to military intervention in Iran prompted idealized depictions of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with apologist positions on the regime’s multifaceted tactics of repression.
In this article, we look at the political inconsistencies and pressing questions that surfaced among some leftists, both Iranian and non-Iranian, and ask: how should leftists understand the mass movement in Iran against the political backdrop of anti- imperialism? How can the Iranian struggle push leftists to conceptualize social movements outside of familiar and expressed dichotomies of imperialist/anti-imperialist and secularism/Islamism? And finally, how can leftists establish consistent politics and make their solidarity with the Iranian protesters accord with with their solidarity for other anti-oppression struggles, particularly those in the Middle East? Overall, we seek to expand on the existing and very limited discussion on these issues in both Iranian and non- Iranian solidarity circles.
Hypocrisy Across the Political Spectrum
Responses to the protests came from across the political spectrum, each motivated by its own geo-political vision and economic interests. The Zionist-interventionist camp and the Hebrew media framed the Iran protests by posing the question: who is better for Israel, Ahmadinejad or Mousavi? The Hebrew press, both left and right, covered the protests as they were developing, with photos, YouTube video links, and testimonies on websites such as Facebook, Friendfeed, and Twitter.3
Predictably, elements within the Zionist political establishment protested the election results, pointing to the country’s dismal human rights record. Within a week after the election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Iran protesters and said Tehran’s “aggressive and violent” behavior made it “the greatest threat to peace.”4 Similar voices in the Zionist-interventionist camp believed that the ongoing demonstrations in Iran would eventually lead to a revolution. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon praised Mousavi for bringing “a new spirit of openness and freedom” in Iran, and Israeli President Shimon Perez praised the “revolt.”5 Of course, the inaccuracy of such simplified readings of Iranian society and politics only propelled Zionist ideologues to push for increased sanctions once they realized that a swift revolution would be more difficult to execute.6
Ironically, disturbed at the prospect that a victory for Mousavi might have led to better relations with the US, a large part of this Zionist-interventionist political camp supported Ahmadinejad in the run-up to the Iranian elections and was pleased with the results. In a speech at the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation, Daniel Pipes said that he would vote for Ahmadinejad if he were allowed to vote in Iran, arguing that it is better for Israel to have Ahmadinejad in power than “a sweet-talking Mousavi.”7 Moreover, Jerusalem Post writer Yaakov Katz wrote that members of the Israeli military establishment were “silently praying” for an Ahmadinejad victory, concerned that a Mousavi win would decrease the pressure on Iran and its nuclear program. Meanwhile, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff write in H aaretz that a victory for Ahmadinejad is preferred because a government led by Mousavi would only “paste an attractive mask on the face of Iranian nuclear ambitions.”8
All in all, what developed after the June 2009 protests was a change in behaviour of American and Israeli officials. Having formerly placed their campaign for foreign intervention and the economic starvation of Iran under the umbrella of “concern over Iran’s nuclear intentions,” they now viewed the increasing political tensions within Iran as an opportunity for change. They amended their campaign of foreign intervention under the platform of “solidarity with the Iranian protesters.”9 Of course, the chronic hypocrisy of these and similar statements of solidarity are evident to those aware of the political and legal violations of the State of Israel under the patronage of the US.
Saturated with a righteous and pragmatic discourse of non- violence, human rights, and democratic citizenship, voices of solidarity with the Iranian protesters from the liberal-democratic camp allied themselves with right wing, and sometimes Zionist, lobby groups, think-tanks, university administrations, mainstream media outlets and government agencies. Yet, the liberal-democratic analysis was different. Limiting all of the voices of opposition in Iran to the Green Movement, artists, writers, academics, lobbyists, politicians, and analysts in this camp, mainly Iranians, depicted themselves the Movement’s leaders and spokespersons abroad. Liberal-democratic voices of support largely depicted a simplistic image of the social and political structures and dynamics in Iran: one that does not differentiate between, and uncritically supports, the politics of the various opposition candidates, sets lofty and unrealistic goals for the demonstrations, such as the claim that the Islamic Republic will simply be overthrown if people show up on the streets, neglects the deep ties of elements within the Green Movement to the repressive Iranian establishment, and one that believes that serious involvement by the Obama administration and especially American neo-conservatives, is necessary to strengthen voices of opposition within Iran. While the position on economic sanctions differs among those in the liberal democratic camp, many of these individuals – mostly Iranians with close connections to Washington – have spoken about the necessity of imposing sanctions under the uncorroborated premise that the so-called leadership of the Green Movement is warming up to the idea.10
In addition to an un-nuanced and simplistic reading of voices of opposition in Iran, solidarity activists in the liberal-democratic camp posited a discourse of non-violence that was very damaging to the representation of Iranian protesters. Despite correctly pointing out that Iranian protests against the election results were largely in the form of non-violent civil disobedience, liberal-democratic supporters nevertheless painted a rigid pseudo-Gandhian picture by refusing to acknowledge that violent resistance was exercised – and necessary given the overwhelming brutality of government forces – at various times since the June 2009 unrest.
Granted, numerous YouTube videos from the streets of Iran have shown scenes where government-vigilantes armed with sticks or on motorcycles are at one moment brutally attacking protesters and then captured by protesters who instead of exerting violence upon their oppressors, strip them of their pain-inducing gadgets, give them a green scarf and shower them with chants of “we are all together” to invoke their solidarity.11 But footage has also shown that, particularly during the Ashura protests in December 2009, unarmed protesters did engage in unrestrained resistance, forcefully confronting violent security officers on the street.12 The sophistication and integrity of protesters who, after being violently dispersed and beaten with batons, later reorganize, charge, capture, and disarm the officers, set fire to their tools of oppression, and then actually move the officers away from the justifiably angry crowds is not questioned here. What is strongly condemned is the deluded liberal-democratic reading of a multifaceted and dynamic opposition movement as a totally non-violent initiative. Such an analysis paints an unrealistic picture of the nature of the movement, conditions solidarity on the use of non-violent tactics, and significantly limits its potential avenues of resistance. That oppressed populations decide to engage in violence in an already violent situation should not deter persons of conscience from genuinely supporting their important claims and condemnations of their oppressors.
Among the problematic voices and forms of solidarity that developed across the political spectrum, those among some radical leftists, activists, and social justice figures were particularly troubling, and immediate responses developed into three interrelated analyses.
First, and similar to the liberal-democratic camp, established leftists ascribed an identity to the opposition movement. Leftists presented the situation in Iran as a battle between an upper and middle-class bourgeoisie from the neighbourhoods of Northern Tehran who support Mousavi and whose command of the English language somehow makes them sympathetic to Western-Zionist imperialist interests, and an impoverished lower class collective of workers, loyal to Ahmadinejad and his condemnation of the elite “privatization and deregulation drive.”13 Here, Ahmadinejad is depicted as a leftist, anti-imperialist, and at times even a pseudo-feminist.
Crudely positing Ahmadinejad’s so-called “working class, low income, community based supporters of a ‘moral economy’” against “upper-class technocrats supported by Western-oriented privileged youth who prize individual lifestyles over community values and solidarity,” established leftist scholar James Petras asserted the impossibility of illegitimate elections. Writing as if the brutal violence of government-sponsored vigilantes was not present within what he called “the privileged gates of Tehran University,” Petras indiscriminately limited all criticism of the regime’s severely repressive measures against the protesters to those of the problematic Zionist and liberal-democratic camps.14
Even exiled Palestinian Member of Knesset Azmi Bishara equated poor Venezuelans who support Hugo Chavez with Ahmadinejad’s support base.15 Although he offered a more nuanced reading of the uprisings than Petras, Bishara went so far as to argue that “Ahmadinejad is less a representative of Iranian conservatives than a rebel against them from within their own establishment.”16 Such assertions sharply contradict Ahmadinejad’s strong political backing from Iran’s elite in the military establishment, and his record of neo-liberal privatization campaigns.
More devastating, however, was the coverage of the Iranian protests as posited by the online leftist magazine, MRZine. With articles presenting Iranian state repression against the protesters under the title “The Islamic Revolution defeats Western hopes for regime change,” MRZine adopted a political line based on two misguided assumptions: that most Iranian protesters support Ahmadinejad and the existing regime and that the protester minority opposing the regime is composed of pro- Western and pro- imperialist Iranians.17 These assumptions enabled bizarre narratives in which Ahmadinejad is depicted as “quite popular among women from all walks of life” and is lauded for vacuous statements such as: “the government has ‘no role’ in the fight against ‘bad veiling.’”18 Such contentions insult the struggles of jailed Iranian feminist activists and repressed women’s rights organizations.
Overall, these positions are inaccurate totalizations of the complex and dynamic opposition movement in Iran as one completely devoid of lower-middle class student and worker participation. Their patronizing, almost neo-Orientalist reading of the protests as a mere offshoot of Western imperial interests ignores two pressing political realities. The first is that an opposition movement in Iran is of great concern for the many authoritarian regimes on which Washington relies, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, and others.19 The second is that the Islamic Republic is itself a proto-imperialist force in the region, regularly meddling in the internal political affairs of its neighbours for national economic gains, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.20WhileIranianinterferencedoesnotparallelWestern military presence in the region, the Islamic Republic’s actions have immensely destabilizing consequences for these states, reinforcing the continued suffering of their respective populations.
The second major contention among leftists was a reading of the Islamic Republic of Iran both as a democratic state, and as an anti- imperialist and revolutionary beacon in the Middle East. Grounded in the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist statements and political stances presented by the Islamic Republic since 1979, this reductive analysis implies that any force opposed to American and Zionist machinations should be supported for playing a progressive and revolutionary role.
British MP and human rights activist George Galloway endorsed this approach with alarming and unrelenting descriptions oftheIslamicRepublicasademocraticstate.Whileacknowledging some limitations within the Iranian Regime, Galloway adopted his own neo-Orientalist and apologetic position that the repression against Iranian protestors was simply “Iranian-style democracy.” In a one-hour special on Iran’s national English language news channel Press TV, Galloway declared: “[Iran’s] form of democracy is its form of democracy. And they are entitled to their form of democracy as I am entitled to the democracy in my own country… It is the democracy that the Iranian people’s constitution provides for.”21 He continued: “Everything has to be looked at in its context. In the context of the Persian Gulf there are no elections anywhere, in any of the other countries.” Galloway implies that the lack of transparent, functioning democracies in the region is a fair basis for denying Iranians the right to resist their own devastating political system. He ignores decades of struggles of Iranians motivated by the perverse dynamics of the existing repressive state apparatus. Moreover, the contention that the regime’s legal constitutional sanction of the existing state system renders inept any condemnation of its founding and expression is unfounded, in principle and practice. Indeed, Galloway’s argument that having “as many as” four candidates for the Presidency, showing public presidential debates on state television, and extending the right to vote to Iranians in the diaspora demonstrate “the fact that there is a democracy in Iran” conveys that he bestows Iranians with a deformed and dysfunctional version of democracy.22
At one point, Galloway even reprimands an Iranian caller from London who says he does not recognize Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s unelected and life-long religious-political post as the Supreme Leader. “That is a title you are not entitled to deny him, I can assure you of that,” Galloway exclaimed.23 It seems that to Galloway, the Iranian people are unqualified to select their own religious and political representatives. Further, it seems that his neo-Orientalism makes him qualified to censure Iranians on this point.
The above political sympathies with the Islamic Republic are premised upon a blatant disregard for the historical record. Between 1979 and 1983, with increasingly repressive attacks against leftist organizers, the Islamic Republic established its rule over a broad-based social justice and anti-imperialist revolution.24 By 1983, all left-wing parties had been banned, and tens of thousands of activists – from different contingents of the reformist, nationalist, and revolutionary left – had been killed.25 With this in mind, describing the Islamic Republic as a legitimate anti-imperialist authority on the rights of oppressed peoples is like praising the Israeli Defense Forces for building a makeshift hospital in Haiti after the devastating earthquake.26
Finally, leftist responses to the unrestrained resistance of Iranian protesters against heavily armed government vigilantes were also deeply problematic. In a similar vein to the liberal- democratic camp, some leftists urged the use of non-violent tactics by Iranian protesters. The difference between the two positions, however, is that the argument made by leftists on this point was against the warped backdrop of having read the Islamic Republic as a democratic state system.
At an event hosted by the Hamilton Coalition Against the War in January 2010, long time anti-war activist Phil Wilayto distributed a booklet,Wer entitled “An Open Letter to the Anti- War Movement – How Should We Respond to the Events in Iran?”27 It included claims that the 2009 Iranian election results, which renewed Ahmadinejad’s presidential title and inspired mass protests, were legitimate despite evidence to the contrary. In the same booklet, Wilayto contended that Iranian protesters were West-sponsored, English speaking and of high income, and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the champion of the working class.
Revealing the extent of his faith in Ahmadinejad, Wilayto’s booklet included a startling focus on determining “who started the violence” during the protests. He argued that because a study of Western media outlets indicated that “it actually was the protesters who initiated the violence,” one cannot condemn the Iranian Regime’s security establishment for its severe repression.28 “What exactly was the government supposed to do?” asks Wilayto, ignoring that the situation was violent for decades before the contested June 2009 elections, and also abandoning democratic principles to defend a notoriously repressive regime. Indeed, the devastating capacities of Wilayto’s political position are further revealed when one notes that the same argument is actually employed by the Islamic Republic itself. The Iranian government’s reading of its own democratic benevolence allowed its spokespersons, on multiple occasions, to publicly declare and justify the state’s security establishment’s brute response to the protesters.
The analyses summarized above reveal a few major challenges for radicals. First, it is clear that many solidarity activists in the West simply do not know how to navigate the complexity of internal discontent in Iran in the context of US-Israeli regional machinations. This inability (or unwillingness) to align with progressive and radical voices within the repressed Iranian population results in the adoption of neo-Orientalist positions and political inconsistencies. Consequentially, leftists align themselves, sometimes unintentionally, with Zionist-interventionist and liberal-democratic voices.
Understanding Iranian Politics and Activism
Radicals in the west must understand three fundamental realities about the political situation in Iran. First, the Islamic Republic was (and continues to be) built upon the criminalization and intense repression of radical leftist and socialist organizing. Second, despite readings of the Green Movement as a people’s movement, its reformist leaders have deep ties to the existing establishment. Finally, the regime’s current primary targets are the more radical issue-based struggles, which have longer histories of dissent and work outside of the reformist camp.
Iran’s repressive political climate emerged immediately after the 1979 Revolution. The broad-based opposition to the US-supported monarchy had included many groups: socialists, militants, secular activists, liberal-nationalists, constitutionalists, radical and liberal Islamists, Marxists, and marginalized ethnic minority intellectuals and groups. Initially supportive of the provisional government – led by Khomeini – most of these organized factions subsequently experienced a wave of repression unprecedented in the Middle East.
As a result of the Khomeini-led offensive, leftists were squeezed out of the provisional post-monarchist government. During the 1980s – especially after the establishment of the Revolutionary Guards – the government marginalized, liquidated, purged, and repressed leftist, socialist, Marxist, and other dissidents. The government jailed tens of thousands, conducted mass executions and assassinations, institutionalized second class status for girls and women, forced many into exile, and enforced regulation on political thought, expression, speech, dress, and behaviour. Leftist intellectuals and activists imprisoned under the preceding Pahlavi government found themselves imprisoned again under the newly established Islamic Republic, which continues to criminalize organized leftists, socialists, and Marxists. Not surprisingly, in Iran the idea of leftist or socialist support for Ahmadinejad is today an absurd notion, as the political establishment with which Ahmadinejad is intimately tied continues to solidify its rule through the oppression, execution, imprisonment, and exile of thousands of leftists.
Yet under severely repressive and controlled circumstances, and despite the fundamental lack of toleration for any party or group with leftist tendencies, social movements in the form of feminist, worker, peasant, and student organizations, along with those representing marginalized ethnic minority groups such as Kurds, Bahais, and Balooch have continued to organize. Often criminalized by the government, these groups are not treated as legal associations and face intense financial, social, and political limitations along with periodic campaigns of intense confrontation with the security forces of the state.
This record of repression underscores the operations of both the reformist and conservative branches of the Iranian government. As a centralized authoritarian clerical establishment ruled by a political elite, the decisions, practices, and directions of the Islamic Republic are largely conducted with the exclusion of a large majority of the population who exist outside of its conservative state structure. Indeed, even the reform movement (often touted among liberal- democrats outside of Iran) that mainly took hold in 1997 after Mohammad Khatami’s landslide presidential election victory, is an extension of the regime’s existing power dynamics. Reaching its zenith between 1997 and 2005, the duration of Khatami’s two terms in office, the reform movement changed the key terms of public discourse, focusing on issues of political participation and social rights. After almost a decade of political rule, there was a realization among many that the circular and centralized structures in the Islamic Republic cannot be “reformed” into a more inclusive, egalitarian and accessible social system – even when the political will is seemingly present. Despite their intimate political, financial, and institutional ties to the Islamic Republic, reformists began experiencing periodic repression from the security forces. At the same time however, the women, workers, student, and ethnic minority movements, for whom the establishment-tied reformist camp remained largely inaccessible, faced even more severe silencing.
It’s important to understand that macro policies among those operating within the Iranian establishment, whether reformist or conservative, are the same. Mousavi and Ahmadinejad largely agree on the most contentious issues associated with Iran: both are in favor of Iran’s development of nuclear technology, both seek to maintain the existing state system of the Islamic Republic, both have anti-Zionist political platforms, and both pledge the continued implementation of privatization and economic reforms. They are different in their rhetoric, their image in the international community, and their respective political allies in Iran, but, in the end, they operate within the same political establishment.
The composition of the Green Movement is hotly debated. The “different shades of green” are divided into two main groups: those who revere official reformist leaders as the movement’s sole representatives and leaders and those who view it as a people’s movement and read the struggle as a broad popular uprising against a brutally repressive establishment. Regardless of one’s reading, however, the movement’s deep formal and informal ties to the governmental establishment and its political figures are undeniable. As such, the more radical voices of opposition mentioned above are outside the Green Movement. Similar to Ahmadinejad, the Green Movement (and Mousavi for that matter) has yet to initiate and develop any significant ties to the women, workers, and ethnic minority movements in Iran. At the same time, it is these radical groups that are experiencing the most suppression. Indeed, the state system of which Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are both an extension has – since the June 2009 protests – taken advantage of the increased visibility of the protests to intensify and focus its repression on the leaders, participants, and supporters of these issue-based movements.
Notably, major Iranian trade unions did not support the Green Movement. Almost all trade unions in Iran are government affiliated, and rather than representing worker demands these unions are employed by the state to monitor, repress, and control the working class. The exception to this system are independent unions such as the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, whose prominent leader Mansour Osanloo is heavily targeted by the government and is currently in prison, along with other independent trade union leaders. Independent trade unions and worker’s rights activists organized strikes and other actions long before, during, and after the 2009 protests, and have historically opposed government policies. As a result, while many working class people oppose Ahmadinejad and were active in the 2009 protests, radical grassroots organizations and independent trade unions were unable to find a political space for participation within the leadership of the Green Movement.
Rebranding Neoliberal Policies
Similarities in the macro and micro policies of the reformist and conservative political camps also extend to the Iranian economy. To outside observers, the Islamic Regime is superficially defined by its anti-imperialist and anti-Western foreign policy with Ahmadinejad depicted as an anti-corruption champion of the working class. Yet, a sober reading of the over three-decade economic trajectory of the Islamic Regime reveals that underneath its sloganeering facade lies an autocratic clerical state system with a sharp neoliberal economic orientation – one which has severely intensified under Ahmadinejad’s administration.29
Under Ahmadinejad, the regime’s neoliberal economic doctrines and subsidies have developed at an even faster pace, with a crushing effect on issue-based movements, particularly the Iranian worker’s movement. Two major economic initiatives under Ahmadinejad’s administration deserve attention here, exposing this rogue champion of the working classes. First is the government’s Economic Reform Plan, introduced in March 2008 and followed up with a Subsidies Rationalization Plan.30 A significant gain by the Iranian working class after the 1979 Iranian Revolution was a constitutionally-guaranteed right to make free use of billions of dollars in state-subsidized assistance in the areas of gasoline, public transportation, and public utility use, among others. In January 2009, however, this 30-year arrangement ended as the regime began implementing large incremental cuts to national subsidies. Ahmadinejad’s Subsidies Rationalization Plan established a price liberalization process that follows International Monetary Fund (IMF) prescriptions for neoliberal restructuring.31 Initiated soon after Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005, this major structural adjustment economic endeavor privatizes state-controlled industries, with devastating consequences for poor and marginalized people in Iran. Following the IMF model of structural adjustment, this initiative involves the large scale privatization of state-controlled industries. Here, the aim of the regime was “to privatize 80% of state-owned industries by 2010.”32 Under Ahmadinejad, privatization has so far extended to the postal service, state-run banks, and shares in publicly owned steel companies.33 All in all, since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, the state ministry overseeing privatizations – the Iran Privatization Organization – has absorbed 247 industries and enterprises.34
Moreover, with the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad signed a directive amending Article 44 of the Constitution to further deregulate the private sector. Allowing the private sector to enter previously constitutionally prohibited sectors, this amendment ordered the government to annually decrease its share by 20 percent and privatize around 80 percent of its assets in mining, heavy industry, downstream oil and gas, banking, insurance, energy, communications, and some security industries.35 In fact, statistics released by the Iranian government itself reveal that, by 2008, one third of the state-controlled industries had already been privatized, and 78 percent of this occurred under the Ahmadinejad administration.36
Most troubling here is the interplay between neo-liberal market reforms and an increasing role played by the security establishment. The Revolutionary Guards, key backers of the Ahmadinejad administration, have been the main economic beneficiaries of his extensive privatization campaigns. In fact, important state assets have gone to the Revolutionary Guards and its subsidiaries, not the private sector. Acting as a mega-corporation that is both politically and militarily armed, commanders of the Revolutionary Guards are able to resort to both lawful and unlawful means, including intimidation and direct force, to expand their financial empire.37 This is not a self-empowering project to nationalize state assets. The reality is that, in Iran, the Revolutionary Guards are becoming the only powerful economic sector, and, as a privatized organization, they have no responsibility to redistribute funds to the Iranian people. In the absence of any kind of supervisory body or mechanism to ensuring the distribution of benefits and assets to the general population, the working class and marginalized groups in Iran are faced with an increasingly privatized economy. And as the Revolutionary Guards are one of the main forces of oppression within the society, their extensive economic foundation only empowers their repressive capacities.
Evident in the economic and social record is that Ahmadinejad’s seemingly leftist Robin Hood-style rhetoric in favor of the working classes and increasingly poorer segments of the Iranian population is, in reality, a re-branding tool for the intensification of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing neoliberal economic orientation.38
Challenging Outdated Dichotomies
The 2009 upsurge in Iran changed the political landscape in the Middle East, inspiring new forms of opposition, action, and communication. In so doing, the movement forced shifts in prevailing dichotomies that juxtapose “secular” and “Islamic,” “imperialist” and “anti-imperialist.”
Through their appropriation of religious symbols – including chanting Allah akbar, attending Friday prayers, and using the color green, which is associated with Islam – the protesters clarified that their struggle is not against Islam. The use of religious symbols, statements and spaces indicates that voices of opposition in Iran have subversively appropriated the regime’s tools of repression and are now using them against their oppressors in government. Thus, reading the Iranian protests along the familiar frame of struggle of Islamic hardliners versus pro-Western liberal reformists is insufficient, and placing Ahmadinejad as a rebel in a political axis of struggle between two invented evils is simply incorrect.
More significant is how Iranian protesters clarified that a simple imperialism versus anti-imperialism frame does not summarize political reality, and does not permit us to devise strategies of international solidarity. Iranians who are part of the national opposition are on the streets, the blogs, and the academic panels because they want social and political freedoms for themselves, not because they want the best for Western governments.They are not calling for regional or foreign intervention; instead, the protests are widely considered an internal national issue between the opposing population and their repressive establishment.
Thus, for anti-imperialist leftists in the West to be politically consistent, they must extend their condemnation of anti- Western imperialism, and anti-Zionist colonialism, to include an account of the Islamic Republic’s own devastating role in the region. Leftists must imagine an alternative international dynamic that is not centered around European and North American forces of imperialism. Instead, leftists must do the even more difficult work of building supportive alliances with more marginal labour and issue-based activist networks.
Attention to such dynamics is crucial in light of the recent mass uprisings across the Middle East. What became apparent in the early days of these important uprisings was a blatant hypocrisy among leftists. Leftists (correctly) viewed the use of anonymous online videos, blogs, political limericks, poems, and open letters as a vital form of creative resistance in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet, in the case of Iran, the same use of online forums for organizing and dissent were used as arguments to reduce the Iranian uprising to an upper class movement, even going so far as to deem these forms of expression as non-credible, illegitimate, or non-representative of Iranian grievances. Leftist must follow the example of some observers of the protests in other Arab states who have pointed to the similarities between their demands, tactics, and demography and those of the precursor Iranian protests in 2009.39 Similar to dissenting voices in Iran, the people of Tunisia and Egypt are not asking for foreign military or economic intervention. Indeed, it is clear that in all these cases, the uprisings are about domestic questions of autocratic leaderships, their monopolies on power, repressive security apparatuses, and unsolvable economic and social contradictions.
Distinct from Tunisia and Egypt, the political situation in Libya presents a particular set of challenges for solidarity activists. After weeks of demonstrations in Libya and reports of Muammar Qaddafi using fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and military tanks against the Libyan people, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya on March 18, 2011.40 Resolution 1973 created an opening for a multi- national coalition of Western states to launch a military operation, allegedly to prevent Libyan army tanks and vehicles from reaching the opposition movement’s strongholds. As a result of the Western military intervention (and similar to what happened in 2009 with the protests in Iran), solidarity activists are pressured to orient more to the dynamics of imperialism than to the nuances of internal Libyan politics. In the cases of Iran and Libya, leftists must not be distracted from a guiding principle of solidarity: the right of a people to resist an oppressive leadership.
In both Iran and Libya, this is not equal to supporting Western imperialist interests. Rather than a genuine concern for grassroots resistance, Western intervention in both Iran and Libya has been designed mainly to propagate leaders who support their regional political and economic agendas. As such, solidarity with dissenting Iranians and Libyans entails maintaining a critique of those within the growing opposition movements who attempt to establish themselves as new and future leaders. Whether it is Mousavi or Karroubi in Iran, or former members of the Qaddafi government in Libya, leftists must be critical of rising opposition figures and coalitions, particularly those propped up by Western states.
All in all, what it means to stand in solidarity with dissenting Iranians is a complicated question, with an answer that continues to evolve. In the case of opposition movements in countries like Iran, where a number of local, regional, and international political factors are simultaneously at play, dichotomous analyses only serve to limit radical voices of opposition to the formal governmental rhetoric. This is not only detrimental to any kind of emancipatory movement developing in Iran, but also signifies the presence of a deep inconsistency that remains unaddressed in leftist circles.
Our incapacity to stand in solidarity with Iranian dissenters only confirms our inability to imagine a different type of social movement. A social movement that does not fall within the familiar frameworks compels us to amend our political language and demands a different type of solidarity. Leftists must devise genuine and responsible ways of supporting the more radical anti-oppression movements in Iran. A starting point would be to develop a political position that adapts to Iran’s complexities and changing dynamics. An effective, critical and genuine solidarity requires nothing less.
1 T. Erdbrink and W. Branigin, “Iranian security forces raid opposition offices, arrest key dissidents.” Washington Post online. http://www.washingtonpost. com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/28/AR2009122800290.html; http:// latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/01/iran-.html; S. Molavi, “The Need for Consistent Politics In the Wake of 22 Bahman.” Socialist Project. http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/311.php.
3 Haaretz on protests: http://www.haaretz.com/meta/Tag/Iran%20election%20
4 A. Fisher-Ilan and D. Flynn, 23 June 2009. “Israel PM salutes Iran protests, deplores violence.” Reuters online. http://www.reuters.com/article/ idUSLN829372.
5 Moshe Ya’alon on Iran protests: http://www.haaretz.com/news/ya-alon-iran- protests-will-lead-to-revolution-1; Shimon Perez and more: http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=-w1GgeLlkuA. Also see 2010 Herzliya Conference: http://www.herzliyaconference.org/_Uploads/3019Agenda10.pdf.
6 A. Harel and A. Issacharoff, 12 February 2010. “Iran revolution failed, sanctions are West’s only hope” H aaretz. http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/ iranrevolution-failed-sanctions-are-west-s-only-hope-1.263186.
7 Daniel Pipes admitting support for Ahmadinejad: http://www.msnbc.msn. com/id/21134540/vp/31315699#31276653 found in Talking Points Memo. “US/ Israeli Neocons Celebrate Ahmadinejad Victory as Iran Burns.” 14 June 2009.
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8 http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/features/analysis-ahmadinejad-win- actually-preferable-for-israel-1.277889.
9 S. Molavi, “Zionist Claims of Solidarity with the Iranian Protesters are Absurd.” Socialist Project. http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/267.php; J. Solomon, “U.S. Shifts Iran Focus to Support Opposition.” http://online.wsj.com/article/ SB126300060937222569.html.
10 M. Sahimi, 4 March 2010. “Different Shades of Green.” PBS Frontline. http:// www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/03/different-shades-of- green.html.
12 G. Esfandiari, “Ashura Violence Marks Turning Point For Opposition.” Radio Free Europe – RadioLiberty. http://www.rferl.org/content/Ashura_Violence_ Marks_Turning_Point_For_Opposition/1915996.html. Ashura protests: http:// tehranlive.org/2009/12/27/war-in-tehran-streets-on ashura-day/.
13 EricWalberg,July12,2009.“Venezuela&Iran:Whithertherevolutions?”http:// www.zcommunications.org/venezuela-and-iran-whither-the-revolutions-by- eric-walberg.
14 J. Petras, 18 June, 2010. “Iranian Elections: The ‘Stolen Elections’ Hoax.” Global Research Online. http://www.globalresearch.ca/index. php?context=va&aid=14018. A similar position was asserted by leftist Eric Walberg in an online article in Znet. In a devastating comparison with the political situation in Venezuela, Walberg not only limited the anti-government protests to a “US/Israeli agenda,” but also depicted them as an elite “stand against the clearly populist, essentially leftist Ahmedinejad.” The last three words of this characterization of Ahmadinejad indicate a clear ignorance of the Islamic Republic’s decades-long record of leftist repression. Emphasis added.
15 A. Bishara, “An Alternative Reading.” Al Ahram English Online. 25 June - 1 July 2009. Issue No. 953. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/953/op1.htm.
17 See: “Iran: The Islamic Revolution Defeats Western Hopes for Regime Change.” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/iran110210.html.
18 See: “What Really Happened in Tehran on June 12? Did Human Rights Watch Get It Wrong?” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2006/pourzal180606.html; “Iran: Ahmadinejad Says No One Has Any Right to Bother Women about Hijab or Couples about Their Relationship.” http://mrzine.monthlyreview. org/2010/esfandiari170610.html.
19 “The events in Iran: Arab reactions.” Bitter Lemons Online. Edition 24 Volume 7 - 25 June 2009. http://www.bitterlemons-international.org/previous. php?opt=1&id=278#1137 .
20 Iranian interference in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries was recently revealed in the Wilikeaks Cables released in late 2010. For instance, see: Jon Boone, “WikiLeaks: Afghan MPs and religious scholars ‘on Iran payroll.” 2 December2010.TheGuardian.http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/02/ afghan-mps-scholars-iran-payroll.
122 upping the Anti, number twelve
21 G. Galloway, 18 June, 2009. “Elections in Iran – Live Questions to George Galloway.” Press TV Online. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11B_CTF5JvQ. 22 Ibid.
24 Excellent response to the depiction of the Islamic Republic as a revolutionary force: “Solidarity with the movement of the Iranian masses – Statement of the Revolutionary Marxist Current (Venezuela).” http://www.marxist.com/ venezuela-solidarity-iran-statement-cmr.htm.
26 S. Molavi, “The Need for Consistent Politics In the Wake of 22 Bahman.”
27 P. Wilayto, 10 July, 2010. “An Open Letter to the Anti-War Movement – How Should We Respond to the Events in Iran?” Noted from a US Peace Delegation’s Journey through the Islamic Republic PDF.
29 J. Ahmadi, “Iran’s neo-liberal agenda.” The Morning Star online. http:// morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/91445.
30 Network of Iranian Labor Unions (NILU). 2 February, 2010. “Ahmadinejad a Progressive?” http://iranlaborreport.com/?p=1.
32 B. Wharton, “Selling Iran: Ahmadinejad, Privatization and a Bus Driver Who Said No.” http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/06/selling-iran-ahmadinejad- privatization-and-a-bus-diver-who-said-no/.
33 Iran Daily, 14 February 2008 from B. Wharton, “Selling Iran: Ahmadinejad, Privatization and a Bus Driver Who Said No.” http://dissidentvoice. org/2009/06/selling-iran-ahmadinejad-privatization-and-a-bus-diver-who- said-no/.
36 Ibid. Pro-market policies are merged with the argument of anti-imperialism, and presented as a tool to fight US-led economic sanction. However, the facade of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Western ideas is revealed in his desire to incorporate foreign investors in Iran’s economy. At a 2008 meeting of the Islamic Development Bank, Davoud Danesh-Jafari, Ahmadinejad’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance touted the administration’s ability to increase foreign direct investment by 138% since 2007. Indeed, in a 2007 report, the IMF applauded this process in Iran, arguing that it is “managing the transition to a market economy.”
37 J. Ahmadi, http://morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/91445.
39 Slavoj Zizek in discussion with Tariq Ramadan on the future of Egyptian politics, Al Jazeera English. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29NffzEh2b0.
40 Ibid; Al Jazeera English. 18 March 2011. “UN authorizes no-fly zone over Libya.” http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/201131720311168561.html.