What Progressives Should Think About Iran

We must take with a grain of salt the recent sensational reports of thousands of students demonstrating in Teheran. True, Iranians appear to be frustrated with the democratization process, with low turnouts in recent local elections and frustration with both the clerics and the ‘reformers’. But there is more than a bit of confusion about what the focus of the recent demonstrations is.

Ostensibly, it is the privatization of the universities, but this is in fact one of the ‘reformers’ latest policies, and the main student organizations are closely associated with the reformers. To the extent that they represent traditional student leftist concerns, they are protesting the failure of the 1979 revolution to deliver its promise of a more prosperous and egalitarian future. But some demonstrators have gone as far as calling for the hanging of spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei and others for the resignation of President Khatami, so it’s hard to take them as more than the Teheran elite letting off steam. Confused?

The Real Threat to the Neocons

What is clear is that actively destabilizing Iran is shaping up to be the key to the neocon strategy of eliminating any ‘third way’ for Islamic countries, all of which are in crisis, whether it be direct occupation by the US (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, et al.), or stuck in an authoritarian time-warp, either secular (Syria, Egypt, et al.) or religious (Saudi Arabia and, Iran).

Iran is the only of these that has made substantial steps toward some kind of representative democracy. Despite its own traumatic upheaval and revolution in 1979, plus invasion by Iraq and a raging civil war next door in Afghanistan, not to mention an ongoing vicious insurgency supported by the US in Iraq, its human rights record is without a doubt the best of the lot. It has a healthy independent culture, and is eager to rejoin the world. The West must act to bring it in on its side.

Unholy Alliance of Progressives and Neocons

Still, Iran has a murky reputation among progressives, as did the Soviet Union in its day, ironically, largely for the same reasons (human rights, censorship, ideological rule). By unthinkingly supporting the often shrill human rights campaigns of Amnesty International and the US State Department, without a broader understanding or awareness of the consequences of this hostility, one unwittingly serves the real ‘Evil Empire’, US imperialism, allowing it to control the shots when the ground begins to shift. The peace movement, we are told, is the second superpower now, so let’s not shrink from developing our diplomacy skills, be it stopping bulldozers in Palestine or reaching out to members of Washington’s latest Axis of Whatever.

Let us review our past in this respect. The attitudes of progressives towards the Soviet Union were at best disdainful, at worst downright hateful, except for a very few brave ‘naÑOfs’ as Einstein [/cite1]. Sure, it was far from a perfect place, but it was one not based on the world capitalist system, and Western imperialism spent 70+ years actively trying to undermine it. If the peace movement had only been able to reach out more resolutely to allay well-grounded Soviet fears of subversion, and perhaps even promote some modest democratization (not just Westernization), we would still have a powerful counterweight to capitalism, and, hey, maybe by now even a half-decent one.

Islam’s platypus

OK. Lost that one. Move on. Which brings me to Iran. It is best described as a socialism-averse socialist state, but one where the ‘reformers’ are hell-bent on jettisoning the remnants of socialism and obediently following the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Strangely, the ‘reformers’ do not seem to be aware there is a massive world movement against US imperialism and globalization afoot, which should ideally constitute their natural allies.

The reformers are also doing their utmost to accommodate the US, whether Rumsfeld et al. have bothered to notice (apparently their ‘intelligence’ sources are less than perfect). Stressing his reform credentials, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told Der Spiegel on May 31: “Unlike Iraq under Saddam we are not a dictatorship, but a democracy. Furthermore we are not disregarding any international laws. So we are not worried about being the next victim of a military strike.” Considering the fact that the US has recently invaded and occupied two of their neighbors, and has military bases in just about all the others, such a conciliatory statement is not surprising, though Kharrazi’s apparent lack of concern might be.

“The Americans include us in the ‘Axis of Evil’. We consider the United States as ‘the Great Satan’,” Kharrazi went on to say, rather incongruously. I doubt very much he would have added that without the so-called reactionary clerics backing him up. Bravo, Ayatollahs! Just look at our fair weather friends, France, Germany, Canada et al. these days.

During the Cold War, I was mocked as a Sovsymp for promoting detente. Call me an Iransymp, or worse yet, an Ayatollahsymp if you like. ‘Sticks and stones …,’ I always used to say. But be clear: my ‘ideology’ is anti-imperialism, critical support, sympathy, open-mindedness.

Complex domestic political dynamic

The collapse of the Shah in 1979 found Iranian lefties divided and naive, and after 2 years of botched attempts to take power, they lost or were forced to submit to the clerics. Thousands were executed along with former supporters of the Shah, others went into exile or gave up. The Islamists were mightily assisted by two factors: the invasion of Iran by idiot Saddam Hussein, and the civil war in Afghanistan, where godless communism had fleetingly triumphed, propped up by the Soviet Union (to its posthumous and everlasting regret).

Ironically, despite its denunciations of communism, the Iranian revolution produced many quasi-socialist features: the nationalization of banks, prohibition of interest, and ‘4-year’ plans. Education and health care are also state-provided. Importantly, the currency is not part of the international speculative system and is state-fixed. These advantages over an IMF-produced economy are not to be scoffed at. Just ask Argentina.

In recent years, along with a genuine democratic upsurge, hundreds of NGOs have been formed. A perusal of Amnesty International’s reports shows a very passionate and vocal opposition, defiantly organizing, striking, and speaking out. Of course, this means lots of arrests, but it seems the hardest times are over -the execution of political dissidents has stopped, replaced by lots of angry threats and then reprieves and amnesties. Death penalty, yes; floggings, yes. Amputations (mercifully), no longer.

The point with approaching a country like Iran is to show as much respect and support as possible, to be willing to deal with the powers-that-be rather than just going for the high profile Solzhenitsyns or Ali Afsharis/ Hashem Aghajaris (who often have their own personal agendas), and to make any criticisms in a non-threatening way.

Furthermore, as the Iran English Daily freely admits, the alignments politically are much more subtle than just conservative vs. reformers. Khatami is in fact a bit of a Trojan horse, privatizing and working closely with the IMF and World Bank. As we should know by now, embracing the IMF is the kiss of death to any hope of real democracy.

Furthermore, while the pro-Palestine, anti-Bush and antiwar movement is ‘progressive’ in the West, the same ‘movement’ in Iran is dubbed by our newspeak as ‘reactionary’. True Iran is a notoriously prickly country, and has all sorts of undercurrents at work (anti-Arab, anti-Kurd, anti-Turk, anti-Pashtun) -its brand of Shi’ite Islam is even rather isolated in the Muslim world, but no one ever said politics was for the squeamish or obtuse.

Khatami: Another Gorby?

And, just wait a minute. Is it possible that Khatami is another Gorbachev, being courted by the West, only to preside over a civil war between naive Westernizers, ready to sell their birthright to foreign investors and embrace Disney-manufactured myths about the American Dream, battling a troubled mix of uptight, narrow-minded clerics and sensible anti-imperialists (dare I say socialists)?

Sensible Iranian lefties, such as Ardeshir Mehrdad editor of Iran Bulletin, take the position of critical support of the Islamic Republic and extreme caution with respect to Khatami’s economic reform agenda. He cites the blossoming of NGOs, groups and circles relying on self-help, which fight poverty, addiction, prostitution, the problem of street children, homelessness, and environmental pollution. “These are nothing less than the creation of the primary infrastructure for a participatory government by the people. The fact that they are there is the expression of a society that seeks the answers to its needs outside the commodity market, competition and profit. It shows that people prefer to take decisions that affect their lives to the streets, schools, factories, and neighborhoods.”

In a nutshell, a democratic government is in the making in Iran, but faces two serious obstacles: the despotism of the ruling clerics and the despotism of American imperialism.

We should develop strategies on both fronts: go to Iran without a list of do’s and don’ts to find a common platform, and, well, it’s pretty clear what needs to be done on the other front.

And while Amnesty International’s reports are invaluable, I would maintain it is less of an injustice to be jailed in Iran (where torture is minimal) for swearing or wearing lipstick in public than to be in jail, say, in Uzbekistan (where torture is the norm) for saying anything critical aloud or for being a bit too religious. But the debate and level of real democracy arguably surpasses that in most countries, certainly the US in its present neo-McCarthyite incarnation. I’ll go for the ‘Axis of Evil’ over the ‘Great Satan’ any day.

Politics and morality

Consider one of the features the West finds most amusing about Islam -the prohibition of interest or (let’s call a spade a spade) usury. Usury amounts to the highest form of exploitation for such disparate figures as Muhammad and Marx. The latter condemns the extraction of surplus as totally independent to the means of production and the labor process. “Ha, ha,” you may snicker, “how quaint!” But this is in fact a very important remnant of morality embedded in the economy, which Judaism and Christianity abandoned when capitalism took hold.

And it was prohibited in Iran not without good reason. It is in fact the root cause of the current world financial crisis, characterized by massive currency speculation (90 per cent of all financial transactions), unstable governments blackmailed by the World Bank and the IMF, not to mention environmental devastation and outright war and piracy. As more and more failed states are ‘conquered’ by the American Empire and chained to the international financial system, we are slowly being brought us to the brink of Armageddon. The Judaic prophets, Christ and Muhammad knew what they were talking about.

If we advocate the IMF road for Iran, it is clear whose ‘human rights’ will flourish: the current elite’s. The gap between the rich and poor will rapidly widen, and there will be no room for social welfare. No, rather than rooting for the reformers to take what little morality is left out of their economy and join the Great Satan’s imperial marketplace, I would argue it is time to put morality back into our own economy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating compulsory prayer at work or mass conversion to Islam. Rather, social justice for God’s children.

The secular experiment to do this failed in the Soviet Union, though it’s still struggling on in Venezuela, Cuba, etc. How about rooting for an Islamic third way in Iran instead of blindly watching Khatami pull another Gorby, or passively watching the Great Satan actively undermine Iranian future?

As for censorship, that battle is being fought vigorously at this very moment, and judging by the films that Iranian directors (especially women) have produced in the past decade, we could learn a great deal from the nasty clerics about nurturing a healthy culture within socially determined constraints on commercialism and pornography.

And as for women’s rights, more than 50 per cent of university students are women, and while there’s no body-hugging dresses or lipstick in public, no erotica, few ads on TV, and no abortion on demand, every newly married couple must take a compulsory course on family planning, and condoms are widely available and cheap. Irritating, if you like lipstick and tight miniskirts, but it is not the end of the world. Give me an inefficient society with basic social justice over the pornographic neoliberal concentration camp any day.

Madness of King George?

From the US point of view, Iran played along on Afghanistan (that’s a tough one for Iran without a doubt), and is showing admirable restraint with respect to Iraq (even tougher), whereas by all rights Iran should be encouraging an Islamic revolution against the American Empire in both.

So, if Khatami is really a secret ally of Dubya, already playing the game more or less by US rules, why does the latter want to invade?

My guess is these neocons can’t see past their noses on this one. Maybe they are gambling on a hat trick. Or is it possible that this is just another proof that the tail (Israel) is wagging the dog?

Typical of the Bush clique, truth is stranger than fiction: in lieu of immediate attack, Plan B is to use Iranian exiles to beam in Radio Free Iran programs and provoke spontaneous uprisings (not to mention the myriad covert activities no doubt already in place). Wake up, George! Iranian ÑImigrÑIs travel back and forth from the US to Iran every day. There is no Berlin Wall (unlike in Palestine).

Anyone who knows modern-day Iran will tell you Iranians are more open and less reluctant to speak out about things than citizens of any other Muslim state. I have no doubt that many are naively pro-Western, just like many Soviets (especially young people) were, to their eternal chagrin now that they’ve joined our Brave New World. Along with a few honest and brave human rights dissidents, the budding capitalists crave the commercial freedom of the West and are eager to join the American Empire as junior partners. They will be the first to send their profits offshore, scoop up state industries, and repress workers and students when the last remnants of morality are swept from the economy. These are not my allies, thank you very much.

Time for citizen diplomacy

Once again we are the new superpower. Let us show some solidarity with the most powerful anti-imperialist country around, which has no designs on other nations, is actively striving for peace and is very much in the sight of the US war machine for these very reasons. This should be our latest stop in the struggle to turn the tide of US militarism and get back on the road of peace and disarmament. Our activism must be based on building trust, even when we disagree on many issues with our potential allies.

It would be possible for the Evil Empire to ‘make up’ with Iran and let it benignly evolve in its own. Maybe even let Iran provide a positive example for such deathbed cases as Afghanistan and Iraq. Let us prepare the way for Dubya’s successor next year to begin undoing the horrendous damage of the past.

SIMON JONES is a Canadian freelance journalist and translator living in Central Asia. In the past he taught economics and later worked for Greenpeace in their Moscow office. He is also a life-long peace activist.

[/ref1] “At present, the non-democratic countries constitute less of a threat to healthy international developments than the democratic nations, which enjoy economic and military superiority, and have subjected scholars to military mobilization.” Einstein in interview with the Overseas News Agency, 20 January 1947 (Just replace Communist with Muslim for an update.) and “While it is true that in the Soviet Union the minority rules, I do not believe that its internal conditions constitute a threat to world peace. If I had been born a Russian, I believe I could have adjusted myself to this situation.” Einstein in “Atomic War or Peace,” Atlantic Monthly, November 1945.

Copyright 2003 by SIMON JONES