There has been a renewed campaign of anti-Iran propaganda and threats of more severe economic sanctions by the US and its imperialist allies, including Australia, following the mass protests in Iran triggered by the June 12 presidential election and the charges by defeated candidates of electoral fraud. The first responsibility of supporters of democracy, that is, of popular sovereignty, in Iran is to oppose the imperialist campaign against the Iranian nation’s right to self-determination, its democratic right to conduct its affairs without foreign interference. It is only within this context that opposition to the Iranian capitalist regime’s repression of the mass protest movement can avoid falling in behind imperialism’s anti-Iran campaign.
The recent upsurge of mass protest, which included the largest demonstrations since the 1979 Iranian revolution, took advantage of the open factional battle over the election result within the Iranian capitalist political elite, between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on the one hand and Mir Hossein Mousavi and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on the other. This open factional battle provided the political space for the movement to give voice to a wide range of demands.
The bus drivers’ union, for example, released a statement on June 18 noting that “the fact remains that demands of almost an absolute majority of the Iranians go far beyond the demands of a particular group. In the past, we have emphasised that [so long as] the freedom of choice and right to organise are not recognised, talk of any social or particular right would be more of a mockery than a reality”. The bus drivers faced the Islamic Republic regime’s restrictions on the right to organise during their strike campaign of 2005-2006, in which harsh state repression led to hundreds of drivers being arrested. In July 2007, the union’s president, Mansour Osanloo, was arrested on politically motivated charges and remains in jail on a five-year sentence.
The post-election protests have faced similar state repression, with more than 2000 arrests, and 40 people killed, most by the government-organised militia, the Basij. Differences within the ruling political elite have emerged over how to quell the protests, with the Mousavi-Rafsanjani faction attempting to contain the movement under their leadership without challenging the regime, in which they both have a long history.
The pro-democracy movement in Iran has a long history. Its first major achievement was the revolutionary overthrow in February 1979 of the despotic regime of the US-backed Shah who had been bought to power in a CIA coup in 1953. However, in the wake of the victory of the revolution the Islamic clergy, which had stood with the masses against the Shah, carried out a brutal and prolonged political counter-revolution that decimated the left and working-class organisations.
Among the first victims of this counter-revolution were women. Millions of poor Iranian women had joined the 1978-’79 rebellion against the rule of the Shah. However, in order to impose its control over and demobilise the revolutionary movement the Islamic clergy imposed by law its sexist outlook toward women, beginning with the hijab (“head cover and modest dress for women”).
Women resisted these attacks. On March 10, 1979 there was a massive International Women’s Day protest against the compulsory wearing of the hijab in the workplace (which would later be extended by the regime to all public areas). The rally was brutally attacked, heralding the beginning of the Islamic regime’s repression of dissenters which would later be extended to unionists, national minorities, gays and lesbians. Today, the official penalty for women wearing “improper” attire – exposure of any part of the body other than the face and hands, is 70 lashes or 60 days prison. In 2007, the Tehran police under orders of Supreme Leader Khamenei launched a crackdown with thousands of women being cautioned and hundreds arrested.
US rulers’ hostility to Iran
Washington’s hostility to Iran has nothing to do with the anti-democratic features of its Islamic regime, as is shown by Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s far more repressive Islamist regime. Rather it is explained by what is one of the remaining gains of the 1979 revolution – the nationalised oil industry. Iran is the world’s fourth largest exporter of oil. The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) is the world’s second largest oil company – and is entirely government owned. While the regime has embarked on a program of privatisation of the oil industry, the privatisation plans exclude the NIOC – and it excludes the US oil corporations, favouring contracts with Chinese, Russian and Indian oil companies. This has earned Iran a place in the US government’s “axis of evil”.
Like the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, the “nuclear threat” from Iran is a propaganda fraud, designed to dampen down public opposition in the West to US preparation for a future Iraq-style “regime change” intervention. Washington’s public support of the protest movement in Iran is also a propaganda ploy to fuel anti-Iran sentiment within the US. This also explains the blanket coverage of the protests by the Western corporate media, whose hypocrisy is stunning as they remain all but silent about the brutality of the occupation of Palestine – carried out by the nuclear-armed Israeli state.
But the US rulers and their imperialist allies don’t want to give too much of an impetus to international solidarity within the US with those facing state repression in Iran, which is why even at the height of the post-election repression, US President Barack Obama chose to maintain the focus on the supposed Iranian “nuclear threat”, telling the G8 summit in Rome on July 10 that Washington is “not going to wait indefinitely and allow for the development of the nuclear weapon” by Iran. The day before, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that if Iran does not abandon its nuclear energy program by the end of the year, “we would ask the world to join us in imposing even stricter sanctions on Iran”.
Iran is surrounded by US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 220,000 US and allied troops, and a fleet of US warships in the Persian Gulf. On June 6, US Vice President Joe Biden told the US ABC television that Washington would not stand in the way of an Israeli attack, declaring it was Israel’s “sovereign right” and that Israel is “free to do what it needed to do”.
Some commentators on the left have dismissed the Iranian protest movement as a front for US imperialist interests. This fails to recognise that the struggle for the freedom of working people to organise and protest is crucial to strengthening the struggle to resist imperialist aggression. But to ignore the attempts by Washington to turn the mass protest movement into an opportunity to prepare the groundwork for intensifying imperialist intervention is extremely dangerous. This was highlighted by the support given by some left and anti-war groups for the July 25 International Day of Action organised by the coalition United4Iran.
Playing into Washington’s hands
While explicitly rejecting military intervention, a July 8 media release by United4Iran included the demand “that member states and civil society organizations of the international community give sustained attention to the Iranian people’s human rights as a matter of international concern, and that the UN should immediately initiate an investigation into grave and systematic human rights violations in Iran, including the fate of prisoners and disappeared persons, unlawful killings, and torture and other ill-treatment”. Such a demand denies the national sovereignty of Iran. What right does the UN have to send an investigations team? To whom would such a team be accountable? What action would be proposed by a report from such a team? Who would enforce any of its recommendations? The only UN body with such authority is the imperialist-dominated Security Council.
On investigation of the groups behind United4Iran, the intention of such a demand becomes clear. One of the main groups behind United4Iran is the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which since its formation in 1978 has provided public relations support for Washington’s phony “human rights” campaigns, initially in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and in its interventions in Latin America and the Middle East. Its funding comes from the likes of the Ford Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Time-Warner corporation.
HRW is also closely linked with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In his 2000 book Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, former State Department employee William Blum wrote: “The NED, like the CIA before it, calls what it does supporting democracy. The governments and movements whom the NED targets call it destabilization.” The NED also contributes to Reporters Without Borders, one of the other main instigators of the United4Iran rallies.
While many who have supported the United4Iran rallies have simply sought an avenue to express their opposition to the repression of the mass protest movement in Iran, the demands and intention of United4Iran betray that movement. While many who attended the rallies would not have known United4Iran’s background, those on the left should know better. In the US the United for Peace and Justice anti-war group supported the United4Iran rallies. The Australian Socialist Alliance also gave uncritical support to the rallies. A July 25 report in its newspaper Green Left Weekly printed, without comment, the United4Iran claim that it is “a non-partisan collaborative of individuals and human rights organizations”. The GLW report also made no mention of the rally’s demand for a UN investigations team claiming that the rallies opposed “foreign interference” in Iran.
This departure from the principle of support for self-determination of nations oppressed by imperialism is also reflected in the Socialist Alliance statement distributed at the rallies, which calls for the Australian government to pressure the Iranian government to hold “fresh elections” – completely contradicting the SA’s stated opposition to Western intervention. Nor does the SA statement make any call for an end to Australian government sanctions on Iran. An earlier version of the statement, released on June 26 did not even make mention of the imperialist campaign against Iran. Such an approach and support for propaganda initiatives such as United4Iran gives left cover for the war preparations of Washington and its allies.
Standing in solidarity with Iranian working people’s struggle against the repression of the Islamic regime means standing 100% against any imperialist intervention. It means demanding an immediate end to US and Australian government sanctions. These sanctions have the same intent as the brutal UN sanctions on Iraq from 1990 to the start of the US-led war on Iraq in 2003 – to weaken the ability of an oppressed nation to resist US-imposed ‘regime change”.
The recent comments of the Obama administration in “support” of “democracy” in Iran are reminiscent of the comments by then-president George Bush senior in 1991 calling on the Iraqi people to “take matters into your own hands and force Saddam to step aside”. This is precisely what happened in the south of Iraq, where a popular uprising led to the collapse of the regime’s power structures. The uprising was crushed – with the assistance of the invading US military forces, which prevented the rebels from reaching arms depots and gave Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard safe passage through US lines. The US rulers did not want a genuinely democratic Iraq; they wanted a regime that would do their bidding. It took them 12 more years to prepare the groundwork and find the pretext for an invasion to install the regime they wanted.
The US rulers know that large numbers of those who have protested on the streets of Tehran against the officially declared outcome of the presidential election would be among the first to resist any Iraq-Afghanistan style regime change. The people of Iran know from their own history and the recent history of Iraq and Afghanistan the nature of the “democracy” that is sought by the US rulers. This, along with the “overstretch” of the US military as it combats ongoing resistance movements in Afghanistan and Iraq, is one of the major factors staying Washington’s hand. While the possibility of the US rulers embarking on such a expansion of their war efforts may seem remote, that does not mean they are not preparing to do so. The Project for a New American Century vision that guided the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is far from being realised – and it is mere delusion to imagine that Obama is any less committed to the “project” of US domination of the oil-rich south-west Asian region than his predecessor.