Military Threats, Opposition, and Solidarity in Iran
In the past months, Iranians have woken up every day to news of further military threats and new sanctions. Anyone you contact in Iran will tell you how the constant media analyses of if/when the bombing will start is affecting the national psyche, how morale is down, and how the current situation is reminiscent of the terrible days of the Iran-Iraq war.
One Iranian blogger summarized the frustration of many Iranians when he lambasted callous statements by United States and Israeli officials debating the likely timing of air raids and military attacks. He wrote, “These people discuss the timetable for bombing Iran as if they were deciding on dates for family holidays.” The following headlines, translated into Persian and broadcast daily to Iranian audiences, give a flavor of what he means:
- “The U.S. and Israel are publicly disagreeing over timing for a potential attack on Iran’s disputed nuclear facilities, as that nation’s leader said it won’t back down”
- “Obama: U.S. and Israel ‘in lockstep’ to stop Iran becoming nuclear power”
- “U.S. expects Israel to attack Iran”
- “United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta believes there is a growing possibility Israel will attack Iran as early as April”
- “U.S. admiral warns Iran: we are ready today”
The first point to make is that, as far the U.S. and its allies are concerned, the current threat of war/sanctions has little to do with Iran’s nuclear capabilities. True, Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate further advances in Iran’s nuclear program and a few months before the U.S. presidential elections, pro-Israeli lobbies are busy exaggerating the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. However, there are more significant factors pushing the U.S. toward conflict with Iran.
First and foremost is the need of a superpower in decline, damaged by two unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to assert its authority against all those who have dared to oppose aspects of its foreign policy. This is true even of countries that have followed the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as Iran’s Islamic Republic has done.
Iran’s 1979 revolution deprived the U.S. of a strategic ally in the region and, although the posturing of the U.S. embassy takeover had nothing to do with anti-imperialism, it did show to the world and the U.S. that the new regime in Tehran was going to be a nuisance—30 years of U.S. sanctions are proof of this.
Secondly, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in both the coming to power of a Shia government in Baghdad which takes orders from Iran’s religious regime and a government close to Tehran in Kabul. This has dramatically changed the balance of forces between Shias and Sunnis in the region and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have complained to the U.S. that, as a consequence of the war with Iraq, Shia influence covers a vast section of the region from Iranian Baluchistan in the east to Levant in Lebanon in the west.
Next, the Arab Spring has changed the map of the region and the U.S. can no longer rely on the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Shias in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are rising against local dictators, while in Iran the Sunni Arab population is accused of being part of a plot by Saudi Arabia to divide Iran. In many ways the civil war in Syria could be seen as a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and so, in addition to Israel, the Saudis and the Gulf states have joined the chorus calling for the U.S. to bomb Iran.
Last but not least, the Islamic regime in Iran, frightened of its own population and faced with continuing anti-dictatorial protests, seems incapable of stepping away from the abyss. Tehran needs a war, or at least an ongoing conflict situation, as much as does the U.S. and Israel. What better diversion from the terrible economic political situation sustained by severe repression. In Tehran people say the regime is playing a dangerous game of chicken with a superpower.
At the moment, it seems the conflict is being conducted on the level of individual terror. According to news agencies, it was the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, that trained and financed a group that has carried out a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. An unnamed U.S. official has alleged that the dissident group the People’s Mujahedin of Iran actually carried out the killings.
Iran is said to have retaliated with car bomb attacks on Israeli officials in India, as well as other incidents in Georgia and Thailand. A man thought to be Iranian had both legs blown off after attempting to throw a bomb at police in the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quick to blame Iran hours after the attacks, claiming that Israel will “continue to act against the international terror Iran produces.” This is a bit rich, coming so soon after the assassination of Iranian scientists for which the Israeli secret service had been patting itself on the back. However, this demonstrates how the U.S./Israeli tactic of putting pressure on Tehran to provoke an irrational response is working and how Teheran’s leaders are falling into the trap. The plan is clear: if the West keeps up the pressure, the clerical dictatorship in Iran will eventually do “something stupid,” providing the perfect excuse for military intervention.
In addition to the constant psychological pressure, Iranians have to cope with the hardships caused by the new wave of sanctions. Malnutrition, plus lack of medical and surgical equipment, are taking their toll. The new international sanctions against Iran look set to shrink its economy, force inflation and erode the value of the country’s currency. These sanctions have little to do with curtailing the nuclear industry, they are part of a policy of “regime change from above.”
Few areas of Iran’s economy remain untouched by sanctions: because of payment difficulties, Iranian ships have stopped loading imports of Ukrainian grain; the United Arab Emirates has told its banks to stop financing Iran’s trade with Dubai; and Iranians are finding it more difficult to obtain hard currency to travel abroad.
Fariborz Raees Dana, professor of economy at Tehran University, explained to Hands Off the People of Iran last week how proposed oil sanctions starting in July are already affecting Iran’s economy. They have eroded confidence, causing the currency to plummet. He pointed out how Iranian capitalists, both within the state/military apparatus and in the private sector, have brought the economy to a standstill as they bought up dollars, creating a serious crisis.
The state has acted aggressively to try to stabilize the rial, raising interest rates on long-term bank deposits to as high as 21 percent. That may have eased pressure on the currency for now, but, as the rich—including those within the religious bureaucracy—continue to move their capital out of Iran, the currency crisis looks set to continue.
In separate developments, major shipping groups controlling more than 100 supertankers said they would stop loading oil cargoes from Iran. Overseas Shipholding, based in New York, said on February 10 that 45 supertankers will no longer go to Iran. Nova Tankers and Frontline, with a combined 93 vessels, said they will no longer ship Iranian crude oil.
Previous efforts to curb Iran’s oil income failed because vessels owned by the shipping industry are often managed by companies from outside the U.S. or European Union. All this changed in January 2011, when an EU embargo on Iranian oil extended the ban to shipping insurance. With about 95 percent of tanker fleets insured under rules governed by European law, there are now fewer vessels able to load in Iran.
Sanctions have put major oil buyers, including China, Japan, and India, under pressure to reduce crude imports from Iran. The sanctions lockdown has left some payments for Iran’s oil stranded. South Korea pays for its oil in its own currency, but Iran has hit a wall trying to transfer the money back to Tehran, leaving the equivalent of $5 billion sitting in South Korea banks.
In its assessment of the Iranian economy published last July, the International Monetary Fund estimated energy exports would amount to $103 billion in 2011-12, or 78 percent of total exports. The EU decision to halt imports of Iranian oil from July will hit hard, as EU countries had been taking a fifth of the country’s shipments; other big buyers such as Japan and South Korea, each with about 10 percent, may also be pressured into reducing purchases. Iran might have to sell its oil at hugely discounted prices in order to find buyers.
Yet crude oil remains Iran’s major source of the foreign exchange it needs to pay for critical imports, such as food staples. What was left of Iran’s agriculture and food industry has been destroyed in the last few years. Iran imported 62 percent of its maize, 45 percent of its rice and 59 percent of its sugar in 2010-11. But exports to Iran of such staples are falling, as the collection of payments from buyers becomes ever harder. Indian exporters and rice millers say that Iranian buyers have defaulted on $144 million in payments for rice imports from its biggest supplier. Vijay Setia, the president of the All India Rice Exporters’ Association, called on members to cease exports to Iran on credit terms. Malaysia has already halted palm oil exports to Iran because of payment problems. The sanctions have made it difficult for Iranian palm oil buyers to use letters of credit and make payments via middlemen in the United Arab Emirates.
Bread and rice dominate the diet of most Iranians, many of whom can no longer afford to buy meat, now selling for about $30 a kilogram in Tehran. However, bread prices have tripled since December, while rice costs about $5 per kilograms. Iranians earn about $350 a month on average, while the official poverty line is set at $800. The official inflation rate has jumped from single digits to around 20 percent in the past 18 months (analysts think the real rate is higher). The rise is mostly because of economic “reforms,” which cut energy and food subsidies at the end of 2010, but also because sanctions make imports more expensive.
High inflation is adding to a collapse of confidence in the Iranian rial, boosting its black market rate to above 20,000 to the dollar from roughly half that level a year ago. The rial has plunged, as the west has increased sanctions, raising the price of imports and making it difficult to find Dubai-based middlemen who can process payments to keep the country’s trade flowing.
Iran held parliamentary elections on March 2 and in the absence of the “reformists,” who called a boycott—and at a time when president Ahmadinejad’s own supporters are facing exclusion—these elections are even more of a joke than previous attempts by the Islamic Republic regime to present the electoral process as proof of “democracy.” On February 9, the Council of Guardians announced that just 3,320 out of the 5,395 individuals who registered for the elections would be permitted to stand.
Demonstrations called by the Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope for February 14—marking the anniversary of protests called by “reformist” leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi in support of the people of Egypt and Tunisia—were brutally repressed. The Coordination Council gave the worsening economic conditions and governmental mismanagement of Iran’s resources as reasons why people should protest, declaring it was “the human, legal and legitimate right of Iranians to show their protest against the state of their lives and their country.” However, the green movement of the “reformists” is now more discredited than ever and the call for a silent protest was the last straw for many former supporters of Moussavi/Karroubi.
Sporadic protests did take place in Tehran and other major cities. However, the presence of hundreds of heavily armed security forces frightened many off, leaving the green leaders looking even more isolated. Instead Tehran experienced two days of organized traffic jams (demonstration by cars) on February 13-14.
Although virtually no one in the Iranian opposition is stupid enough to call for direct military intervention, regime change via sanctions has its supporters even among sections of the left. The vanguardist sects with their self-appointed leaders, who until 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, supported socialism from above, are these days reduced to one or two foot soldiers. No wonder some are eyeing U.S./EU funds designated for regime change in Iran.
The threat of war has divided the Iranian opposition into three distinct groups:
1. A minority—mainly splits from Maoist groups—are edging towards support for the regime, given the kind of threat Iran faces. It should be added that none of these groups have yet expressed open support for the regime: they have just toned down their opposition.
2. There are, in contrast, regime-change forces both within and beyond the green movements. Last week some 50 exiled members of the Iranian opposition and civil society gathered in Stockholm. According to the organizers, the Unity for Democracy in Iran conference aimed to “make it possible for different parts of the opposition to meet and discuss how they can coordinate their efforts for democracy.” The participants included social democrats, nationalists, republicans, and sections of the green movement, including the Fedayeen (Majority). The gathering was probably Europe’s answer to U.S. attempts to achieve regime change through more conservative figures. In Iran, however, no one has any illusions in any of these forces, although the type of government envisaged by the U.S. and EU to replace the Islamic regime is clear. As Fariborz Raees Dana put it to Hopi, they are made up of a combination of neoliberal capitalists, reformist Islamists and maybe supporters of the ex-shah—all backed by military forces in the army and Sepah ground troops.
3. Finally there are those who oppose imperialist war, sanctions, and call for the overthrow of the Islamic regime from below.
Of course, in this category one can distinguish between a number of groups. For example, sections of the deluded exiled left are calling for the formation of a “third front.” It would be tremendous if working class forces were capable of stamping their authority on a movement for democracy directed against both imperialism and the regime. But, apart from anything else, the phrase implies that Tehran is somehow on a par with the U.S. Yet Iran’s Islamic regime is a weak third world dictatorship on the brink of collapse, while the U.S. remains a world hegemonic power with long-term designs on the region. However, although the firepower the regime is able to muster cannot be equated with the military threat posed by the U.S., the threat of war has played a crucial role in the survival of the Islamic regime and will continue do so.
For the U.S.’s plans for regime change, Iran’s national minorities play an important role—plans to divide the country have long been part of the Pentagon’s plans. Just as the U.S. found allies against Saddam Hussein amongst Iraq’s Kurds, so a number of Iranian Kurdish groups are now totally dependent on U.S. funds. Others proudly tell us they only accept funds from the Iraqi government of Jalal Talabani.
Of course, national minorities—not least the Kurds— have every reason to despise the Islamic regime that has been responsible for the worst forms of cultural and political repression, while maintaining the shah’s policy of deliberate underdevelopment. However, the route many appear to have chosen to achieve their “liberation” will only lead to disaster.
In the midst of all this confusion, today more than ever, both inside and outside Iran, Hopi’s clear, principled slogans—No to imperialism, no to the Islamic regime—have shown what true solidarity means. We have stepped up our activities and plan to do much more over the next few weeks.
It is in this context that the sad story of the Committee for Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (Codir) should serve as a lesson to all those on the left who might now tell us that in the face of imperialist threats we must support Iran’s Islamic regime. Codir—a campaign associated with Iran’s discredited official communist Tudeh Party—is now campaigning against war and against the regime, claiming on its website: “Codir, established in 1981 and based in London, has campaigned to expose human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
You do not need to be a historian or an expert in the politics of the Iranian left to know that the above statement is a blatant lie. Between 1979 and 1983-84 Tudeh and all its affiliated organisations, including Codir, supported the Islamic regime of Iran and cooperated with its repressive forces both inside and outside the country. One of Tudeh’s specialities was to spy on, harass and insult other activists of the left. When I was in Kurdistan, my family fell victim to one such attempt by Tudeh in Iran and Codir in the UK. In the first years of the Iran-Iraq war the party called on its members and supporters to become “soldiers of Imam Khomeini.”
However, in 1983-84, almost all of Tudeh’s leaders were shown in official videos confessing to “treason,” “subversion,” and “horrendous crimes,” praising the Islamic government and proclaiming their newfound recognition of the superiority of Islam over atheism. But it was not enough to prevent the jailing and execution of hundreds of Tudeh militants.
In the 1990s Tudeh tried to recover from this disastrous episode by rewriting its own history and pretending it had always been part of the opposition to the regime. However, for the majority of Iranians, including youth, its conversion to opposition politics came too late. Today no one takes Tudeh seriously. Let us hope those sections of the British left that are telling us this is not the time to oppose the Islamic regime will learn the tragic story of Tudeh and its Codir front before it is too late.
Yassamine Mather is a member of the editorial board of Critique, a Journal of Socialist Theory, published by the Centre for the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements at Glasgow University. She works in the Departments of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Glasgow University. She has written articles on the Iranian revolution and Islamic fundamentalism.