Shades of Gray in Iran


Recently, as the question of Iran and its relationship to the United States has pushed itself back into the front pages of the west’s newspapers, a debate has been simmering among antiwar and progressive types as to what their position should be on the threats directed at Tehran by the United States. Simon Jones recently wrote an article that appeared in the online version of Counterpunch that essentially argued that western progressives should support the Iranian theocracy in the battle between Tehran and Washington, DC. His argument assumes that there are only two sides to this question: support for the reformers or support for the mullahs. Using the example of the Cold War period, when he was among those lefties who sympathized with the Soviet Union because it was at least socialist in name (despite its authoritarian political practices) and was therefore in opposition to US imperialism, Jones suggests that progressives consider the current situation with Iran in the same light. Unfortunately, not only does this type of thinking create a situation where we find ourselves excusing tyrannical behavior, it also limits the possibilities that exist. There is a solution to the Iranian conundrum that does not require supporting the clerical dictatorship or the liberal reform movement. This solution is to continue the revolution that was brutally hijacked by the reactionary forces around the Ayatollah Khomeini in the early years after the Shah’s fall and exile.

One of the arguments made by those who support the regime in its contest with the US, a good reason for progressives to support the Iranian government is because it is, in Jones’ words, a “socialism-averse socialist state” and it is the reformers who are intent on handing the Iranian economy over to the IMF. Consequently, it is these reformers who are the enemy, exchanging the tyranny of the mullahs for the tyranny of the IMF and its structural adjustments. This statement conveniently ignores a portion of the economic history of Iran since the end of its war with Iraq. According to Behzad Yaghmaian in his 2002 book Social Change in Iran, ever since the revolution there have been at least two factions competing for control of Iran’s economic policy. One faction represented a socialist tendency, nationalizing industry and calling for controls on the price of such things as food and housing, while the other came from the bazaar and represented a free market approach based on competitive pricing. It was Rafsanjani, who took over in the first election after the Iraq-Iran war, who invited the IMF and its adjustment policies into the country. These policies favored the free marketers who took advantage of the restructuring and profited mightily. Meanwhile, just like in every other country that the IMF intrudes in, the poor grew poorer and their safety net collapsed, leaving many wage earners and peasants impoverished and homeless. If one adds the corruption and cronyism that runs rampant throughout Iran’s economy, they will discover an economic system that benefits a very small part of Iranian society.

This small clique is composed of a handful of clerics and their associates who operate behind the scenes with Rafsanjani at their helm. How do they do this? After the revolution, Iran’s banks and most of its industries were nationalized. This process put the profits of these companies into various charity foundations that were supposed to distribute the wealth to the poor in line with Islamic legal strictures. What happened instead was the accumulation of this wealth into the hands of a relatively small number of corrupt clerics and their associates. In addition, much of these monies were placed into currency markets where these individuals not only made money from their speculation, they also forced the value of Iranian currency downward. Foremost among these men was Rafsanjani, who is now the chair of the so-called Expediency Council-a group that resolves disputes between the legislature and the mullahs who run things behind the scenes. Rafsanjani was also the man who restarted Iran’s nuclear program, reopened the stock market, brought in the IMF, and opened up the oil industry to foreign corporations. These so-called reforms have made a few men very rich, while the average wage earner brings home an average of $1800 a year.

As far as the reformist wing of the government goes, they have not stated a strong position regarding the economy. The president, Khatami, is in favor of neoliberal policies and has supported the role of the IMF. Other opposition to the government includes various clerics who have spoken out against the profiteering of the elements in the government that grew wealthy since the revolution, believing that this acquisition is against the tenets of Islam. It also includes a number of (legal and illegal) groups formed during and after the revolution and comprising a variety of ideologies and philosophies. In addition, many of the students and their supporters oppose the regime independent of any organization. The more revolutionary among these groups and individuals believe that Khatami and those who hope to reform the Iranian government are doomed to failure, given the nature of the regime. That is, no matter who is elected, their presence in the government at any level is in the hands of the so-called Guardian councils. It was these councils who manipulated the results of the 2000 elections, resulting in a number of results being thrown out. In addition, the councils have consistently overturned and resisted decisions made by the elected bodies where the reformists held power.

Those individuals and organizations that have given up on the likelihoood of reform within the system seem to be growing. This includes organizations that existed before and during the 1979 revolution and individuals and groups new to the resistance. It is also these groups that the warmongers in the U.S. government hope to enlist in their drive to overthrow the government in Tehran. This interest by the neocon cabal in Washington, DC is why some western progressives argue that leftists should support the Iran regime-precisely because the war hawks don’t. This type of reasoning is shortsighted and illustrates a lack of comprehension of the complexities and many facets of Iranian politics and US-Iranian relations. At the same time, the US government exhibits a similar lack of comprehension.

First and foremost, the organizations and individuals working to overthrow the theocracy in Tehran have indicated in their statements that they have no desire to be part of any US project to install a client regime in their country. They have also made it clear that they want to continue the revolution of 1979 that they believe has been hijacked by the reactionary and corrupt wing of the Islamic leadership in Iran. While members of the opposition hold a number of political and economic philosophies, they are united around the idea of a secular and independent Iran. Secondly, a worldview that dichotomizes US-Iranian relations into a simple scenario that puts those who oppose empire into an alliance with the theocratic despots in Tehran ignores the complex nature of these countries’ historical relationship and the long history of US duplicity in its dealings with Iran over the years.

As I write this, my email box is filling up with messages from Iranian acquaintances about protests and confrontations with police that are occurring on this day-July 9th-to commemorate the 1999 uprising against the theocracy. These protests are occurring around the world, but especially in Iran and Europe. They were called by a myriad of organizations, with the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) and People’s Mujahedin (PMOI) issuing the broadest call, most likely in response to the recent crackdown on this organization by the French government. This crackdown saw the arrest of hundreds of its members, including their president Maryam Rajavi. Many news organizations and some French politicians speculate that the crackdown is one of the conditions placed on the French government as part of a recent trade deal between the French and Iranian governments. Of course, the French deny this. However, the timing is, to say the least, suspect.

This crackdown has once again thrust the PMOI and NCRI into the spotlight, with most of the attacks on them labeling them as terrorist and without any genuine support. As an outsider, it is hard to gauge the latter, but the former accusation seems to be a case of how one defines terrorist. Indeed, in a bit of irony, one of the advisors to the reformist Khatami is the former spokesperson for the group of Iranians who took over the US Embassy in Tehran back in 1980. Indeed, he has been a member of the government since its inception. According to Iranian sources, he was involved in the planning of the war on Iraq, even encouraging youths of high school age to join the military so they could become part of the human wave attacks on Iraqi forces. These were essentially suicide missions, since oftentimes the youths’ weaponry was non-functioning or, even more callously, the fields they were commanded to run across were minefields. Yet, Khatami is one of those whom the US supports. If nothing else, this fact is a small example of the complexity of the situation. If one takes a look at the NCRI website, they will discover that this organization includes in its membership a variety of left organizations, Iranian athletes and artists, former military men, a women’s organization, and some progressive clerics, along with thousands of others.

Who should progressive anti-imperialists support then? If they are uneasy with the idea of supporting the PMOI and other organizations on the left who oppose the mullahs in Tehran, yet do not want to support the regime or its neoliberal opposition, then what is left? Simply put, the most important position we can take is to demand that the United States keep its government and its military out of Iran and let the Iranian people decide their own future. From my understanding, more and more of them hope that it is a future free of the dictatorship imposed by the theocracy and an empire imposed by the US. In addition, it is essential for progressive forces to familiarize themselves with the Iranian resistance and its politics, and defend the right of these groups and individuals to speak freely and to organize in Iran and internationally.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: