Iran and the US Anti-War Movement

By Manijeh Nasrabadi

Originally posted on Jadaliyyah.com

[This article is based on a talk given at the United National Anti-War Coalition (UNAC) Conference on 24 March 2012 in Stamford, Connecticut. It was part of a workshop called, “Solidarity Not Intervention,” organized by Raha Iranian Feminist Collective. Just before this workshop, the conference overwhelmingly voted down a resolution put forward by Raha and Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions, and State Repression that read: “We oppose war and sanctions against the Iranian people and stand in solidarity with their struggle against state repression and all forms of outside intervention.”]

The popular struggles against dictatorship known as the Arab Spring have transformed the notion of self-determination for people in the Middle East from an abstract ideal into a concrete reality. This ideal has long inspired anti-war activists in the US who have worked to expose US claims of spreading democracy, liberating women, or relieving humanitarian crises through military intervention. When organizing against justifications for war in Afghanistan and Iraq that centered on the oppressive policies of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s rule, we have argued: the people can liberate themselves and will be more able to do so when sanctions and bombs don’t threaten their very existence. Of course, it was hard to sway many people who ended up supporting these invasions as a painful but necessary form of “liberation,” as some kind of lesser evil to local forms of oppression.

Most recently, in the case of Libya, we saw some sections of the anti-war movement embrace the idea that Western bombs could be used to support self-determination—at best an oxymoron and at worst a plan for more civilian deaths and the reassertion of US control over the direction of popular rebellions. In Syria, this debate continues to rage, with the US already providing forms of support for some opposition groups. In this context, an anti-war movement that wants to oppose all forms of foreign military intervention—including wars in the name of democracy and human rights—must have something to say about the state repression that greets any genuine struggle for self-determination if our support for this ideal is to have any concrete meaning.

The increased sanctions and growing threats of military intervention against Iran—all those options President Obama keeps reminding us are “on the table”—demand that we rise to the occasion and urgently rebuild an anti-war movement that can resonate with millions of people in the US, in Iran, in the Arab countries, and around the world. This article offers perspectives for not just opposing war but also standing in solidarity with a new wave of popular struggle.

The Green Movement and the Arab Spring

To many ordinary Iranians, the link between the Green Movement and the Arab Spring was immediate and obvious. “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyed Ali,” was the chant that echoed in the streets of Tehran on 14 February 2011, when Iranians risked their lives to demonstrate in solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. “Sayyed Ali” is a reference to the Supreme Leader of Iran, and they were calling, not for new elections as in 2009, but for altering the very foundations of the government. That same government paid lip service to supporting uprisings against US-allied states, but sent riot police and militias out to prevent its own citizens from taking that support to its logical conclusion. Unable to gather in central squares as they did in the summer of 2009, protesters took to the streets in neighborhoods around the city. The neighborhoods that saw the most activity that day were in the poor and working class sections of southern Tehran. This should be no surprise: ordinary Iranians have been suffering from neoliberal austerity measures, high unemployment, inflation, government corruption, censorship, and the brutality of security forces—a list that could just as easily describe the conditions that led to revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

We need to write the story of the Green uprising back into the story of the Arab Spring in order to understand the internal dynamics of Iranian society and to see clearly where the lines of solidarity must be drawn. Most media coverage hasn’t made this link; instead, reporting has tended to reflect the nationalist divisions in the region and to assume there is a hermetically sealed entity called the “Arab World.” Any mention of Iran during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was made only in regard to the Iranian state and debates over its relative influence in the region; Iranian people have been rendered invisible.

But the reality is that when millions of Iranians took to the streets in 2009, the election results were just the latest outrage; they provided an opportunity for people to demonstrate their frustration with the overall conditions of their lives. At this time, there was already a student movement, a women’s movement, a labor movement—all struggling to survive. The popular uprising of that summer was not controlled by any politician; it was not funded or controlled by US agencies or any other outside power (accusations that Mubarak made as well, and that the Egyptian military continues to make). Imperialist countries always have their spies and covert operations, but it would be a travesty to the Iranian people, or the Egyptian people for that matter, to credit foreign governments with having that much power and to so grossly distort what actually happened—and the lasting impact on Iranian society.

The Green uprising was a collective decision to resist, a decision to face down fear of police and prisons and torture and death, a willingness to risk everything for the chance to transform an intolerable present into hope for a very different future. It drew in people from the working and middle classes, in cities across the country, and it shook the government to its core. In response, the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown of arrests, lengthy prison sentences, gang rapes and other forms of torture, expulsions of students and faculty from universities, curriculum purges, and executions. Many activists have been forced underground or into exile.

In short, the crisis within Iranian society led millions of people to want to do, to try to do, what Tunisians and Egyptians have since done; the difference in Iran is that the movement was crushed. It is our hope that this is temporary, and that the Iranian people have the chance to try again.

Unfinished Business

The Green Movement and the Arab Spring derive from the same crisis: the nation states that came to power after the decolonization movements of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s maintained class, gender, and other hierarchies and enriched a ruling clique at the expense of the majority of people. The hopes and promises of decolonization have largely been deferred, as people have had to face the double burden of national dictatorships and the relentless interference of the US (among other imperial nations). The Green uprising and the Arab Spring are post-colonial revolts and we have think through how to relate to them. We have to ask: what are the continuities with the past and what are the new conditions we face? The continuities are easier to see: we have the ongoing aspirations and violence of US imperialism and we have growing inequality driven by capitalist competition and crisis. What is new is the form resistance has taken: in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, the popular revolts that emerged have largely targeted national governments, not imperialism. They have not been led by traditional political parties and have opened up space for mass participatory democracy and new forms of organizing. Neocolonialism and neoliberalism have created new splits within different sections of local ruling classes (see, for example, Paul Amar’s analysis of the Egyptian military’s business interests), and made it possible for the grievances of poor, working, and middle class people to coalesce in mass movements against authoritarianism.

Formal, national sovereignty failed to meet people’s needs and the long-deferred demands for democracy, dignity, and equality are back on the agenda. We also have new possibilities for solidarity, as we have never before had so much potential for interconnection and identification among and between our different struggles. Who would have thought union activists in Madison, Wisconsin or anarchists in New York City would cite Tunisian and Egyptian people as their inspiration for a renewed resistance to oppression and inequality in the US? Since September 2011, Occupy Wall Street has carried the message of a conflict between a global one percent and a global ninety-nine percent into the mainstream, evoking Tahrir Square again and again to legitimize its own tactics of taking public space.

What Kind of Anti-War Movement?

In many ways, it was easy to support the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, whether you were a long-time leftist or someone watching the news who found the power and dignity of the protestors deeply compelling. Because these revolts were massive, non-violent, and against corrupt US-backed dictators, solidarity was instinctive and immediate among those who consider themselves part of the anti-war left in the US. The question of whether or not to take a position on an internal struggle within a country not our own was not an issue anyone raised.

However, this does become an issue, it seems, when the dictatorship people are resisting is not a US ally. Many of the activists who work together in UNAC have made precisely this argument when it comes to the case of Iran, that we should simply say “US hands off Iran” and leave it at that. But it is precisely in these cases, where things don’t line up so neatly, that one must put formulaic responses aside and apply some fresh thinking.

Given that US imperialism is often packaged as an intervention on the side of the oppressed, I very much understand the recourse to a position that we should simply stay out of other people’s business and focus on the actions of our own government. People will liberate themselves, period. Of course, even non-military forms of western “aid” can work to undermine self-determination. The complicity of many NGOs, of the Peace Corps, and of other organizations originating in US Cold War foreign policy has been well documented. Supporting these “soft” forms of interventionism, however, is entirely different from offering solidarity to an indigenous, grassroots movement. Solidarity has long been a slogan among labor and the left. The case of Iran tests our ability to make this word meaningful.

I want to challenge, from within the anti-imperialist left, the idea that we, activists based in the US, shouldn’t take a position on internal affairs of Iran.

If we don’t support Iranians struggling in Iran for the same things we fight for here, such as labor rights, abolition of the death penalty, and freedom for political prisoners, we risk a politically debilitating form of cultural relativism. At best, we are hypocrites; at worst, we show an inability to imagine Iranians as anything other than passive victims of western powers. Ironically, this echoes racist and Orientalist stereotypes of the kind that most anti-war activists would hasten to decry. And yet, by what name do we call this refusal to recognize the full humanity of Iranian people and their heroic struggle against state repression? How do we say we are against imposing the privations of sanctions, against subjecting the Iranian people to the violence of US/Israeli bombs, but are willing to take no position when those same people are subjected to violence by the Iranian government? This would make us an anti-war movement disconnected from social justice and life on the ground for ordinary Iranians; it would mean we have lost our moral compass.

At a time when America’s overseas empire is threatened by popular uprisings in West Asia and North Africa and is trying to figure out how to regain control over the region, we can no longer formulate our position solely in national terms, solely in relation to the US state; this is a cop out and it is not an adequate response to the actual demands of global solidarity.

The phrase “solidarity” is empty if we are not permitted to imagine or care about the lives of people different from ourselves, if their lives and struggles and aspirations can never become as real as our own. This is not about mapping our political programs or cultural biases on to anyone else; it is about recognizing that you may be different from me—I may be in the belly of the beast and you may be in a country targeted by the US—but our liberation is inextricably linked. As you go, I go, and even if I don’t know you and can’t pretend to fully represent you, I am as responsible to you as you are to me as we are to that very notion of basic human dignity that governments everywhere trample upon daily. It means that the outrage I feel when an Egyptian woman is stripped and beaten in Tahrir Square is part of the outrage I feel when an American woman is beaten into a seizure by the NYPD in Zuccotti Park. And this is part of the outrage I feel when Iranian women’s rights activist Bahareh Hedayat issentenced to nine and a half years in prison. Solidarity means acknowledging that, even though we are all different, none of us can absolve ourselves of the responsibility to fight for a world where no one is imprisoned for resisting inequality and oppression.

Strategic Imperatives

If we agree with this perspective in principle, we then have to think strategically about the best way to build a large and effective anti-war movement. Some people think the way to do this is to have points of unity that cater to the lowest common denominator. This is sometimes called the united front approach. But when it comes to Iran, we have an example of how any strategy, when undertaken without thinking through the actual politics involved, can produce the opposite of its intended results. By voting against standing in solidarity with the Iranian people’s struggle against foreign intervention and state repression, UNAC has prioritized unity with supporters of the Iranian government (such as the American Iranian Friendship Committee and the Workers World Party) over the potential to build a broad anti-war movement. Refusing to say anything about repression in Iran cuts the anti-war movement off from the majority of Iranians (in Iran and in the diaspora) as well as the majority of people in the US who will need an answer to their concerns about human rights violations in Iran that is more compelling than the one coming from pro-interventionist circles. UNAC’s application of the united front keeps the movement small by ceding the moral high ground of human rights to the same forces that used this human rights rationale as an excuse for occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, unity with supporters of the Iranian government means that every anti-war rally is turned into pro-government propaganda broadcast on Iranian state television—a slap in the face to millions of Iranians whose resistance and suffering both become invisible once again.

In 2009, when many Iranians and others in the US came out in solidarity with the Green uprising, we in Raha saw our role as doing all we could to channel that solidarity away from support for any outside intervention on behalf of human rights, freedom, or democracy. We argued for the need to free all political prisoners, from Guantanamo to the Iranian prison Evin; to end the death penalty in the US and in Iran and everywhere; in other words, to build solidarity between our movements here and the movements there. Our role was to always point out that the best way to support women’s rights in Iran, for example, is to build a thriving movement for women’s rights here that will then be in a position to do joint, grassroots solidarity, rather than looking to the UN or NGOs or any government. That summer, the US had engineered a coup in Honduras, so we went on the green solidarity marches in New York City with signs that said “No to militarism from US to Iran to Honduras” and a banner that read “Liberation Comes from Below.”

We believe there should be some relationship between an anti-war position and social justice. For example, Ron Paul is against war on Iran, but we probably wouldn’t consider him welcome in UNAC. We cannot say we don’t want people to be starved or bombed, but if they are imprisoned and tortured we have no comment.

We need to connect with the concern and outrage that millions of people, from all backgrounds, feel about the repression in Iran and channel it away from intervention into solidarity. In order to develop a political perspective adequate to the challenges we face, we must draw from our theoretical traditions and adapt them to the present.

Nothing Less Than Liberation

For ordinary people throughout the Middle East, there have long been two sources of oppression. Throughout modern Iranian history—from the Constitutional Revolution beginning in 1905, to the movement for nationalization of oil in the early 1950s, to the Iranian revolution in 1978-79—Iranians have had to fight against both colonialism, or “estema’ar,” and despotism, or “estebdaad.” Often imperialism and despotism work hand in hand, as in Egypt under Mubarak and in Iran under the Shah; but sometimes these interests conflict over who will primarily benefit from the exploitation of the people and resources of the nation and region.

As a feminist collective, Raha stands in another long tradition of women of color feminists, in the US and around the world, who have faced multiple sources of oppression that are not the same but that are both intolerable. Women have had to resist male domination coming from imperialist and state policies that affect our most intimate relationships. For example, just because we don’t think the solution to patriarchal violence against women in the US can be found in the prison-industrial complex doesn’t mean we should silently submit to it either. Feminists have had to think dynamically about the connections between different forms of oppression, and have refused to accept that they must settle for any of them.

The unfinished struggle for national liberation that began with movements for decolonization and that continues today is also the unfinished struggle for women’s liberation. Women played a central role in overthrowing the Shah but were then told that their equality was secondary to the fight against imperialism. Over and over again, women have been told to wait. But we have seen that when national sovereignty is consolidated at the expense of women, we are no longer talking about a project of self-determination, but instead, of transferring power to a new patriarchal ruling class. Anti-imperialism has since become the cynical rhetoric of the Iranian state; thus, this rhetoric alienates the majority of the people who suffer under its rule.

If anti-imperialism is going to become meaningful again to people in the region AND to people in the US—and indeed it must if there is any hope for genuine democracy—than it cannot be severed from the larger struggle for human liberation.

A feminist anti-imperialist perspective maintains that it is not only possible, but imperative, to simultaneously stand against all forms of outside intervention in Iran and against all forms of domestic oppression targeting ordinary Iranian people. We are committed to building the broadest movement possible to stop the US government, the European Union, and any other foreign power from further destabilizing and threatening the lives of our brothers and sisters in Iran. But this must be an ethical movement that makes no apologies for the torture and imprisonment of dissidents and that expresses solidarity with popular resistance in Iran. Here and everywhere, we must oppose militarism, prisons, censorship, torture, and the death penalty. In Raha, we believe that genuine liberation comes from below—from the self-activity of masses of ordinary people—and that this is the broadest, most compelling starting point for organizing an effective opposition to empire.

[For more global feminist voices against war on Iran, click here. Contact Raha at rahanyc@gmail.com or Rahacollective.org.]

New Perspectives for the Anti-War Movement

A Discussion with Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions and State Repression

When: Wednesday, May 16 at 7 pm – 9 pm
Where: 365 Fifth Ave. CUNY Graduate Center, Segal Theater, First Floor.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Place, Culture and Politics

Havaar* is a coalition of Iranians, Iranian-Americans, and allies formed in response to the U.S. government’s escalating attacks on Iran and to the Iranian government’s ongoing repression of people’s progressive movements (http://havaar.org).

At a time when crippling sanctions and threats of war bear down on people in Iran, there is an urgent need for people in the United States to organize against these policies advanced in our name. As global solidarity between people in the United States and other parts of the world gains new momentum, how can we support grassroots struggles in Iran that oppose both outside intervention and domestic authoritarianism?

Join us for a discussion about how to rebuild an anti-war movement that is centered around people-to-people solidarity.

Plus video testimonies from activists in Iran and around the world.

*Havaar means “cry of emergency” in English.

Speakers:

Ali Abdi is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Yale University. He was engaged in the student movement and women’s rights movement in Iran for five years, and participated in post-2009 presidential election protests in Iran. The Iranian democratic movement, globally known as the Green Movement, has informed his activism since then.

Arang Keshavarzian is an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is currently on the editorial board of the International Journal of Middle East Studies and was on the editorial committee of the Middle East Research and Information Project (www.merip.org) from 2005 to 2011. His book, Bazaar and State in Iran: Politics of the Tehran Marketplace, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2007.

Bitta Mostofi is a nonprofit, immigrant rights attorney. She has also worked as a civil rights attorney and served on the board of directors of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Bitta has participated in anti-war and anti-sanctions campaigns, and was a co-coordinator for the Voices in the Wilderness; Iraq Peace Team from 2002-2003. In recent years Bitta has co-founded and worked with Where is my Vote, New York, which formed in the after math of the highly disputed 2009 Iranian presidential elections. WIMV-NY strives to raise the level of international solidarity with the citizens of Iran in their movement towards social justice and democratic change and to speak out against the Iranian state’s human rights violations.

Manijeh Nasrabadi is an American Studies Ph.D. student in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. Her essays and articles have appeared in Comparative Studies of the South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Social Text online,About Face (Seal Press, 2008), Hyphen Magazine, Tehran BureauCallaloo and vidaweb.org. She is a founding member of Raha: Iranian Feminist Collective in New York City.

Moderator:

Maia Ramnath organizes with Adalah-NY, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, and the Occupy Wall Street-Global Justice working group. She is on the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and is the author of two recent books: Haj to Utopia and Decolonizing Anarchism.
She is currently an adjunct history instructor at NYU.

Solidarity and Its Discontents

by Raha Iranian Feminist Collective

Originally posted on Jadaliyyah.

While building solidarity between activists in the U.S. and Iran can be a powerful way of supporting social justice movements in Iran, progressives and leftists who want to express solidarity with Iranians are challenged by a complicated geopolitical terrain. The U.S. government shrilly decries Iran’s nuclear power program and expands a long-standing sanctions regime on the one hand, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes inflammatory proclamations and harshly suppresses Iranian protesters and dissidents on the other. Solidarity activists are often caught between a rock and a hard place, and many choose what they believe are the “lesser evil” politics. In the case of Iran, this has meant aligning with a repressive state leader under the guise of “anti-imperialism” and “populism,” or supporting “targeted” sanctions.

As members of a feminist collective founded in part to support the massive post-election protests in Iran in 2009, while opposing all forms of US intervention, we take this opportunity to reflect on the meaning and practice of transnational solidarity between US-based activists and sections of Iranian society. In this article, we look at the remarkable situation in which both protests against and expressions of support for Ahmadinejad are articulated under the banner of support for the “Iranian people.” In particular, we examine the claims of critics of the Iranian regime who have advocated the use of “targeted sanctions” against human rights violators in the Iranian government as a method of solidarity. Despite their name, these sanctions trickle down to punish broader sections of the population. They also stand as a stunning example of American power and hypocrisy, since no country dare sanction the US for its illegal wars, torture practices and program of extrajudicial assassinations. We then assess the positions of some “anti-imperialist” activists who not only oppose war and sanctions on Iran but also defend Ahmadinejad as a populist president expressing the will of the majority of the Iranian people. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s aggressive neo-liberal economic policies represent a right-wing attack on living standards and on various social welfare provisions established after the revolution. And finally, we offer an alternative notion of and method for building international solidarity “from below,” one that offers a way out of “lesser evil” politics and turns the focus away from the state and onto those movement activists in the streets.

We hope the analysis that follows will provoke much needed discussion among a broad range of activists, journalists and scholars about how to rethink a practice of transnational solidarity that does not homogenize entire populations, cast struggling people outside the US as perpetual and helpless victims, or perpetuate unequal power relations between peoples and nations. Acts of solidarity that cross borders must be based on building relationships with activists in disparate locations, on an understanding of the different issues and conditions of struggle various movements face, and on exchanges of support among grassroots activists rather than governments, with each group committed to opposing oppression locally as well as globally.

The spectrum of protest

Numerous protests and actions took place over the week of Ahmadinejad’s UN visit in September 2010, with at least eight activist groups organizing protests on the day of his General Assembly address–all  claiming to speak in the interests of the Iranian people. However, despite some commonalities, these voices represented very different political approaches and agendas. Whether clearly articulated or not, one major fault line was on the question of the appropriate US and international role in relation to Iran, especially on the issues of sanctions and war. 

The protests gaining the most media attention were organized by a newly-formed coalition called Iran180 and by the Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI). Both take a hard line, pro-sanctions position on Iran. Iran180, launched by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, organized a press conference under the banner “human rights, not nuclear rights.” The PMOI on the other hand, held a large rally of reportedly 2000 participants from far and wide. The PMOI is an organization known for its militant opposition to the Iranian regime and its anti-democratic, cult-like structure; it has been largely discredited among Iranians and is also listed as a “terrorist” organization by the State Department. Speakers included former mayor Rudy Giuliani, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and British Tory MP David Amess, all calling for a hard line on Iran and apparently positioning the PMOI as the legitimate diasporic alternative to the current Iranian leadership.

 

By contrast, Where Is My Vote-NY (WIMV), an organization formed to express solidarity with Iranian protests after the contested election in 2009. They mobilized around a platform that called for holding Ahmadinejad accountable but also took an explicit no war and no sanctions position, making them the only organization to do so. WIMV’s strong anti-sanctions stance has been controversial among some human rights activists in the US who have supported sanctions that are supposed to target individual Iranian human rights violators. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International pulled out of a WIMV-organized protest in September 2009 because they refused to endorse the WIMV platform. Below we size up the efficacy of “targeted” sanctions that claim to be in support of the human rights of Iranians.

 

The record of “targeted” sanctions

From 1990 until 2003, a United States-led United Nations coalition placed what amounted to crippling financial and trade sanctions on Iraq in an ostensible effort to weaken Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime. Sanctions, we were told, amounted to a humane way of combating intransigent authoritarianism around the world while avoiding mass bloodshed. The results of that strategy should have shattered these illusions for good. The complete collapse of the Iraqi economy during thirteen years of sanctions coupled with the inability of ordinary Iraqi people to access banned items necessary for their day-to-day survival–such as ambulances and generators–led to over half a million Iraqi civilian deaths. Furthermore, the sanctions were an utter failure in their purported primary goal—thwarting the Hussein regime while avoiding full-scale war. Not only was Hussein not dislodged by the sanctions, but he also managed to consolidate power throughout the ’90s while resorting to increasingly autocratic means of suppressing dissent. Finally, in March 2003, the United States and a small “coalition of the willing” began a full-scale military intervention in Iraq, which has shredded the fabric of Iraqi society and left a network of permanent US military bases–and Western oil companies–behind.

Despite the benefit of this hindsight, we are being told again to trust in the human rights agenda of a state-sponsored sanctions effort as an alternative to war, this time against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, some form of sanctions against the Islamic Republic have been in place with little effect for over thirty years. But since President Barack Obama took office, the sanctions have been amped up to new heights. In June of 2010, a US-led United Nations coalition passed the fourth round of economic and trade sanctions against the Islamic Republic since 2006. The stated goal: limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Soon after, the European Union imposed its own set of economic sanctions. A month later, President Obama signed into law the most extensive sanctions regime Iran has ever seen with the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).

It should not be surprising, given the United States’ historic attempts at controlling Iranian oil, that CISADA’s primary target is the management of the Iranian petroleum industry. These sanctions would penalize any foreign company that sells refined petroleum products to Iran, which are a necessity for Iran’s primary industry as well as for the everyday functioning of modern life. This winter, shortages of imported refined gasoline forced the Iranian government to convert petro-chemical plants into makeshift refineries that produce fuel loaded with dangerous particles. As a result, the capital city of Tehran has been plagued by unprecedented levels of pollution, shutting down schools and businesses for days at a time and leading to skyrocketing rates of respiratory illnesses and at least 3,641 pollution-related deaths.

 

Further, Iran’s ability to import and export vital goods has been profoundly curtailed because the most powerful Western-based freight insurance companies—many of which worked with Iran until these most recent sanctions—can no longer do business with any company based in the Islamic Republic. Without insurance coverage, most international ports refuse any Iranian ships entry because they are not covered for potential damages. The current round of U.S.-led sanctions have had the effect of cutting off more of Iranian businesses because foreign companies are simply unsure of whether or not their business is sanctioned. As a stipulation of the US, EU, and UN sanctions, no corporations or private individuals can do business with the majority of Iranian banks or industries. Parts and supplies for a great deal of machinery—and not only those potentially associated with nuclear industry—are denied entry into Iran; indeed, one of the deadly examples of the effects of these sanctions in recent years has been the spate of commercial Iranian aircrafts that have crashed due to faulty or out-of-date parts. These measures have already had disastrous effects on the Iranian economy and the health ordinary Iranian citizens, adding to historic levels of inflation, unemployment and pollution-related illness.

 

Despite mounting evidence warning against the humanitarian disaster of unilateral, state-engineered sanctions, many people outside of Iran are still compelled to support them as a diplomatic alternative to war. The operating principle behind such a belief is that these sanctions—unlike those wielded against Iraq, which limited all facets of the economic life of the nation—only target certain individuals, groups, and aspects of economic life. In the case of the Islamic Republic, the argument goes, these individuals and groups are directly linked to the state, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC–or Sepah Pasdaran) and the paramilitary Basij forces, which do indeed command much of the economic resources of the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the reality of even “targeted” sanctions is not nearly so rosy. To see why this strategy is almost certain to be a failure, we consider the recent example of Zimbabwe.

 

Since 2001, there has been a similar set of so-called “smart” sanctions in place against Zimbabwe in an effort to weaken President Robert Mugabe and to force him to join a coalition government with his principal political opponents. In the decade after the imposition of these sanctions, Zimbabwe has suffered enormously, experiencing one of the most cataclysmic instances of hyperinflation in history, skyrocketing unemployment rates, a startling lack of basic necessities, a rapidly growing income disparity, and the rise of a black market for goods that only an elite few can access. Indeed, the story in Zimbabwe is remarkably similar to that in Iraq: in both cases the authoritarian state only increased its power as a result of the economic stranglehold on the country due to its monopoly over all of the available wealth and resources in the nation. As the Iraqi and Zimbabwe cases demonstrate, sanctions are not an effective means to avoid war, nor do they inevitably undermine repressive and authoritarian states. Most importantly of all, they further immiserate the very people they claim to be helping.

 

Often, these failed examples are countered by one historic success story, namely, the divestment and sanctions movement against apartheid South Africa–a very compelling instance of international solidarity with a mass domestic opposition movement. Is this an apt analogy for the Iranian case? A crucial difference is that sanctions against South Africa came only after a divestment campaign led by South African activists, which succeeded in convincing a great deal of private capital to flee the country before US or UN involvement. As a tactic developed and deployed within South Africa, sanctions were not the result of power machinations between antagonistic states or a strategy that enhanced US global dominance.

 

Iran presents a very different situation. No member of any Iran-based opposition group—from leaders of the “green” movement, to activists in the women’s and student movement, to labor organizers—have called for or supported the US/UN/EU sanctions against the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, leaders from virtually all of these groups have vocally opposed the implementation of sanctions precisely because they have witnessed the Iranian state grow stronger, and the wellbeing of ordinary Iranians suffer, as a result. Imposing sanctions in the name of “human rights,” as the US did for the first time this fall, doesn’t alter these outcomes. The US government’s long record of either complicity with or silence regarding the treatment of dissidents in Iran–from the 1950s when it helped train the brutal SAVAK torture squads right through to the post-election crackdown in 2009–makes it nothing if not hypocritical on the issue of human rights in Iran.

The spectrum of support

In stark contrast to the range of groups protesting the Iranian president and the Islamic Republic’s policies, some 130 activists from anti-war, labor and anti-racist organizations took an altogether different approach in September 2010, attending a dinner with Ahmadinejad hosted by the Iranian Mission to the UN. According to one attendee, the goal of the dinner was to “share our hopes for peace and justice with the Iranian people through their president and his wife.” During two and half hours of speeches, activists embraced Ahmadinejad as an ally and partner in the global struggle for peace and, with few exceptions, ignored the fact that his administration is responsible for a brutal crackdown on dissent in Iran (click here for one notable exception).

 

Rather than listening to the millions of Iranians who protested unfair elections and political repression, these activists heard only the siren song of Ahmadinejad’s “anti-imperialist” stance, his vehement criticism of Israel and his statements about US government complicity with the September 11th attacks. Their credibility as consistent supporters of social justice has been shipwrecked in the process. Many of these groups are numerically small organizations with histories of denying atrocities carried out by heads of state that oppose US domination.[1] But some attendees are national figures, such as former US Congresswoman and 2008 Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, who has been a beacon of principled opposition to neo-liberalism and the “war on terror.” While it is important not to lump all of the groups and individuals together as sharing the same set of political ideologies or organizing strategies, we need to investigate the reasons that these activists showed up to express support for the current Iranian regime. Below we take up the most common reasons attendees expressed for standing with the regime–that it has populist economic policies benefiting workers and the poor, is anti-imperialist and pro-Palestine.

Do Ahmadinejad’s policies support Iranian workers and the poor?

One of the most bewildering misrepresentations of Ahmadinejad outside Iran has been around his economic policies, which are often represented by the US left as populist or even pro-working class. In reality, the extent and the speed of privatization in Iran under Ahmadinejad has been unprecedented, and disastrous, for the majority of the Iranian people. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s report on the Iranian state’s neo-liberal policies glows with approval, confirming once again that the Fund has no problem supporting undemocratic attacks on the living standards of ordinary people. Privatization in Iran has happened under government/military control. State-affiliated actors, mainly Sepah, have bought a huge share of the country’s economic institutions and contracts–from small companies all the way to the largest national corporations such as telecommunications, oil and gas. Recently, despite vast opposition even from the parliament, the government annulled gasoline and food subsidies that have been in place for decades. Gas prices quadruped, while the price of bread tripled, almost overnight. This is an attack on workers and the poor of historic proportions that had been in the works for many years but was delayed due to fear of a popular backlash. It was only under conditions of extreme militarization and suppression of dissent that Ahmadinejad’s administration could finally implement this plan. Arguing that subsidies should go only to those the regime decides are deserving, the government will now be able to use this massive budget to reward supporters and/or buy loyalty. The massive unregulated import of foreign products, especially from China, has made it impossible for agricultural and industrial domestic producers to survive. Import venues are mainly controlled by the government and Sepah, which profit enormously from their monopolies. These hasty and haphazard developments have severely destabilized Iran’s economy in the past few years, leading to rocketing inflation (25-30%) and growing poverty. Unemployment is very high; no official statistics are available but rough estimates are around 30%, creating fertile ground for recruitment into the state’s military and police apparatus (similar to the “poverty draft” in the United States).

Is the Ahmadinejad administration anti-imperialist?

The 1978–79 revolution was one of the most inspiring popular uprisings against imperialism and homegrown despotism the world has seen, successfully wresting Iran away from US control over Iranian oilfields and ending its role as a watchdog for US interests in the region. Denunciations of American imperialism were a unifying rallying cry and formed a key pillar of revolutionary ideology. However, in the more that thirty years since, the Iranian government has, like all nations, ruthlessly pursued its interests on the world stage. Despite its anti-American/anti-imperialist rhetoric, Iran cannot survive without capital investment from and trade with other “imperial” nations, without integration into a world market that is ordered according to the relative military and economic strength of various states. Witness the large oil, gas, and development contracts granted to Russia and China, and the way that these countries, as well as France and Germany, have cashed in on the Iranian consumer goods market. The Islamic government has even cut deals with the US, such as during the infamous Iran-Contra episode, when it served its interests. US opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, and multiple rounds of sanctions, should be understood as part of the American effort to re-exert control over this geo-politically strategic country and re-enter the race for Iranian energy resources and markets from which it has been shut out.

Iran’s foreign policy cannot and should not be reduced to one individual’s inflammatory speeches. In fact, the same Ahmadinejad who grabs western media headlines by criticizing the US is the first Iranian president to send a letter directly to a US president requesting a new era of diplomacy, something unthinkable under previous administrations. Diplomacy, to be clear, carries with it the goal of re-entering a direct relationship with the so-called “Great Satan.” Far from acting as an outpost of anti-imperialism, the Ahmadinejad administration is maneuvering to cut the best deal possible and to renegotiation its place in the global hierarchy of nations. Given its massive oil and gas resources and strategic location, Iran would likely be playing a far more significant and powerful role if not for decades of isolation, sanctions and hostility from the US. It is in the Iranian governments interests to break this stranglehold. Its strategy is to play all cards possible in extending its regional influence in smaller and weaker countries, such as Lebanon and the occupied territories of Palestine. As Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the UN told the New York Times, Iran is a regional “heavyweight” and deserves to be treated as such.

The Iranian government’s support for Palestinians also scores it major points with many leftists in the US and around the world. Again, it is crucial to see through the rhetoric and examine the more complex aims and effects of Iran’s policies. While the Iranian government does send material aid to Palestinians suffering under Israeli blockades and in refugee camps in Lebanon, they have also manipulated the situation quite cynically for purposes that have nothing to do with Palestinian liberation. Using money to buy support from Palestinians, and financing and arming the Hezbollah army in Lebanon, are crucial ways the Islamic Republic exerts its influence in the region.

There is no mechanism for Palestinians or Lebanese people, who are impacted by Iran’s actions, to have any say in how Iran intervenes in their struggles, even when the results are harmful. For instance, Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denials undermine the credibility of Palestinian efforts to oppose Israeli apartheid by reinforcing the false equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. At the 2001 UN conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, an anti-Zionist coalition emerged and got a hearing. But at the 2009 conference in Geneva, Ahmadinejad’s speech on the first day overshadowed the whole conference and undermined any possible critique of Israel, creating a serious set back for the anti-Zionist movement.

Relentless state propaganda about Palestine coming from an unpopular regime has tragically resulted in the Iranian people’s alienation from the Palestinian’s struggle for freedom. Leaving aside the hypocrisy of Ahmadinejad claiming to care about the rights of Palestinians while trampling on those of his own citizens, the policy of sending humanitarian aid to Palestinians while impoverishing Iranians has produced massive domestic resentment. In an article on The Electronic Intifada, Khashayar Safavi attempted to link the pro-democracy Iranian opposition to broader questions of justice in the region. “We are not traitors, nor pro-American, nor Zionist ‘agents,'” he wrote, responding to Ahmadinejad’s verbal attacks on the movement, “[W]e merely want the same freedom to live, to exist and to resist as we demand for the Palestinians and for the Lebanese.” Unfortunately, sections of the US left support the self-determination of Palestinians while undermining that of Iranians by supporting Ahmadinejad’s government. We now look at some of the key problems of Ahmadinejad’s government, exposing the high cost of aligning with repressive state leaders.

Harsh realities for labor and other social justice organizing in Iran

Currently no form of independent organizing, political or economic, is tolerated in Iran. Attempts at organizing workers and labor unions have been particularly subject to violent repression. The crushing of the bus drivers’ union, one of the rare attempts at independent unionizing in the last few decades, is one of the better-known examples. The story of Mansour Osanloo, one of the main organizers of the syndicate, illustrates the incredible pressure and cruelty labor organizers and their families experience at the hands of the regime. In June 2010, his pregnant daughter-in-law was attacked and beaten up by pro-regime thugs while getting on subway. They took her with them by force and after hours of torture, left her under a bridge in Tehran. She was in dire health and had a miscarriage. These unofficial security forcescontinued to harass her at home in order to put psychological pressure on Osanloo, who is still in prison and is not yielding to the government’s demands to stop organizing. Currently, even conservative judiciary officials are complaining about violations of their authority by parallel security and military forces who arrest people, conduct interrogations and carry out torture, pressure judges to issue harsh sentences, and are implicated in the suspicious murders of dissidents. (In the past few months, not only political dissidents, but even physicians who have witnessed some of the tortures or consequences of them, have been murdered.) 

No opposition parties are allowed to function. No independent media–no newspapers magazines, radio or television stations–can survive, other than websites that must constantly battle government censorship. The prisons are full of journalists and activists from across Iranian society. Conditions in Iran’s prisons are gruesome. Prisoners are deprived of any rights or a fair trial, a violation of Iranian law. After the election protests, killing, murder and rape of protesters and prisoners caused a scandal, which resulted in the closing of the notorious Kahrizak prison. Executions continue, however, as the government has meted out hundreds of death sentences in the last year. Iran has the second highest number of executions among all countries and the highest number per capita. In January 2011, executions soared to a rate of one every eight hours.

The women’s movement has been another major target of repression in the past few years. Dozens of activists have been arrested and imprisoned for conducting peaceful campaigns for legal equality; many have been forced to flee the country and many more are continually harassed and threatened. Women collecting signatures on a petition demanding the right to divorce and to child custody are often unfairly accused of “disturbing public order,” “threatening national security,” and “insulting religious values.” Ahmadinejad’s government employs a wide range of patriarchal discourses and policies designed to roll back even small gains achieved by women.

Ahmadinejad’s anti-immigrant positions and policies are the harshest of any administration in the past few decades. The largest forced return of Afghan immigrants happened under his government, ripping families apart and forcing thousands across the border (with many deaths reported in winter due to severe cold). Marriage between Iranians and Afghan immigrants is not allowed and Afghan children do not have any rights, not even to attend school. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s government has been repressive toward different ethnic groups in Iran, particularly Kurds. It is promoting a militarist Shia-Islamist-nationalist agenda and escalating Shia-Sunni divisions.

Given these realities, how is it that large parts of the US left can support Ahmadinejad? We now look at the confusions that make such a position possible.

US left support for Ahmadinejad

Despite the many differences between the individuals and groups represented at that dinner with Ahmadinejad a few months ago, what the overwhelming majority of them have in common is a mistaken idea of what it means to be anti-imperialist or anti-war. The sycophantic speeches at the dinner can be understood as an enactment of the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There are two problems with this approach. The first is that it equates governments with entire populations, the very mistake the activists at that dinner are always saying we shouldn’t make when it comes to US society. The second problem is that support for Ahmadinejad means siding with the regime that crushed a democratic people’s movement in Iran. This position pits US-based activists who want to stop a war with Iran against the democratic aspirations and struggles of millions of Iranians. 

Part of the confusion may stem from a distorted notion of what it means to speak from inside “the belly of the beast.” In other words, the argument goes, those of us in the United States have a foremost responsibility to oppose the actual and threatened atrocities of our own government, not to sit in hypocritical judgment over other, lesser state powers. But in the case of the vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent inside Iran, not judging is, in practice, silent complicity. If anti-imperialism means the right to only criticize the US government, we end up with a politics that is, ironically, so US-centric as to undermine the possibility of international solidarity with people who have to simultaneously stand up to their own dictatorial governments and to the behemoth of US power. The fact that the US is the global superpower, and therefore the most dangerous nation-state, does not somehow nullify the oppressive actions of other governments. China, for example, is increasingly participating in economic imperialism across Asia and Africa, exploiting natural resources and labor forces well beyond its borders. There is more than one source of oppression, and even imperialism, in the world. The necessity to hold “our” government accountable in the US must not preclude a crucial imperative of solidarity–the ability to understand the context of other people’s struggles, to stand in their shoes.

If any of the activists defending Ahmadinejad would honestly attempt to do this, they might have some disturbing realizations. For example, if those same individuals or groups tried to speak out and organize in Iran for their current political agendas–against government targeting of activists, against ballooning military budgets, against media censorship, against the death penalty, against a rigged electoral system, for labors rights, women’s rights, the rights of sexual minorities and to free political prisoners–they would themselves be in jail or worse.

Given that these are the issues that guide the work of these leftists in the US, we must ask: don’t the Iranian people also deserve the right to fight for a progressive agenda of their choosing without execution, imprisonment and torture? As we demand rights for activists here, don’t we have to support those same rights for activists in Iran?

Solidarity: concrete and from below

In the tangle of conflicting messages about who speaks for the “people of Iran”–a diverse population with a range of views and interests–what has been sorely lacking in the US is a broad-based progressive/left position on Iran that supports democratization, judicial transparency, political rights, economic justice, social freedoms and self-determination.

There is no contradiction between opposing every instance of US meddling in Iran–and every other country–and supporting the popular, democratic struggles of ordinary Iranians against dictatorship. Effective international solidarity requires that the two go hand in hand, for example, by linking the struggles of political prisoners in Iran and with those of political prisoners in the US, not by counterposing them. Iranian dissidents, like dissidents in the US, see their own government as their main enemy. The fact that Iranian activists also have to deal with sanctions and threats of military action from the US only makes their work and their lives more difficult. The US and Iranian governments are, of course, not equal in their global reach, but both stand in the way of popular democracy and human liberation. US-based activists must not undermine the brave and endangered work of Iranian opposition groups by supporting the regime that is ruthlessly trying to crush them.

We are calling for a rethinking of what internationalism and international solidarity means from the vantage point of activists working in the US. Internationalism has to start from below, from the differently articulated aspirations of mass movements against state militarism, dictatorship, economic crisis, gender, sexual, religious, class and ethnic oppression, in Iran, in the US and all over the world. For activists in the US, this means being against sanctions on Iran, whether they are in the name of “human rights” or the nuclear issue. It means refusing to cast the US as the land of progress and freedom while Iran is demonized as backward and oppressive. Solidarity is not charity or pity; it flows from an understanding of mutual–though far from identical–struggle. It means consistent opposition to human rights violations in the US, to the rampant sexism and homophobia that lead to violence and destroy people’s lives right here. But we don’t have to hide another state’s brutality behind our complaints about conditions in America. We have to be just as clear in condemning state crimes against activists, journalists and others in Iran, just as critical of the Iranian versions of neo-liberalism and oligarchy, of attacks on trade unions, women and students, as we are of the US versions.

For solidarity to be effective, it must be concrete. US-based activists need to educate ourselves about Iran’s historic and contemporary social movements and, as much as possible, build relationships with those involved in various opposition groups and activities in Iran so that our support is thoughtful, appropriate to the context and, ideally, in response to specific requests initiated from within Iran. It is our hope that these struggles may be increasingly linked as social justice activists in the US and Iran find productive ways of working together, as well as in our different contexts and locations, towards the similar goals of greater democracy and human liberation.


[1] For example, Workers World, ANSWER and several other groups who share the same political tradition have historically supported Soviet crackdowns against popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Chinese state’s massacre of unarmed protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the ethnic cleansings carried out by ultra-nationalist Milosevic throughout the 1990s.