Discussion Points: Iran Student Protest

This June, vigilante forces attacked nonviolent Iranian student protesters, charging them on motorcycles and assaulting them with batons, chains, and knives.  Instead of protecting the students against the vigilante attacks, the Iranian government threatened to punish the students severely.   It arrested over 4,000 people.   Continuing repression of the student movement, combined with deep popular unrest, are likely to keep the Iranian conflict in the global spotlight.

Normally, the global peace movement and the global left would respond to repression by an authoritarian, theocratic regime with outrage and protest.  But so far there has been a deafening silence.   The reason is probably not, as some have alleged, that they don’t care about democracy and human rights when they are trampled by opponents of America.   More likely it is due to wariness about intervening in a complex, multi-player drama in which it is easy to have an impact completely contrary to what one intends.  The purpose of this piece is to promote the discussion that is needed to help the movement see its way clear to a more forthright, but responsible, response.  That discussion may also help clarify other situations in which the peace movement and the left must respond to opponents of US imperialism that are also tyrannies. 

Iran has had a strong and recurring internal conflict between autocratic and democratic tendencies.  Its first constitutional movement forced the shah (monarch) to accept an elected parliament nearly a century ago, and powerful democratic movements have arisen repeatedly since. 

In 1953, the nationalist National Front movement, based in the urban middle class and led by Muhammad Mossadegh, pushed to nationalize the British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  Newly elected US President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to cooperate with a British plan to overthrow the Mossadegh government.  The coup was successful, and the shah was established as a virtual dictator.   He froze out the democratic nationalist elements who had backed Mossadegh and, with strong backing from the US, ruled by tyranny, terror, and torture.  The US succeeded in taking Iran’s oil industry from the British.  US policy designated Iran, along with Israel, as its “surrogate” for control of the Middle East. 

A recently disclosed aspect of the CIA operation is that it included unprecedented political mobilization of the traditionalist, fundamentalist Shiite religious leaders known as the mullahs.   As Gabriel Kolko put it, the US “eliminated a secular, middle-class nationalism.”  As throughout the Middle East, “rebellion and discontent” increasingly took “fundamentalist Islamic forms and ideologies.”  

Resistance to the shah grew as the regime become more and more repressive.  In 1978 massive street demonstrations led to bloody confrontations with the shah’s police.  The shah’s peasant-based army disintegrated.  The revolutionary movement had many tendencies, but the religious leaders who had first been politicized by the CIA ultimately won out.  In 1979 the shah fled into exile and Iran was declared an Islamic republic.  While elections and some other democratic forms remained, the mullahs possessed ultimate power and used mass executions, long incarcerations, and vigilante violence to impose their will.  

Over the course of the 1990s, a new Iranian generation came of age who increasingly despised the tyranny and corruption of the regime and the poverty and isolation to which it was consigning the country.  A reformist movement elected Mohammad Khatami president.  According to Human Rights Watch, today

“Iran is caught in a continuing power struggle between elected reformers, who control both the presidency and parliament, and clerical conservatives, who exercise authority through various offices including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the judiciary and the Council of Guardians, and elements of the security forces.”

Many students and many others have lost faith in the non-confrontational strategy of the elected reformers.  A quietly but carefully conducted poll in 2002 showed broad opposition to the regime’s policies.  

The current protests, the latest in a series, began with student opposition to a plan to charge tuition at state-run universities.  The protests spread to a dozen cities, the demands deepened to include full democratization, and support spread to many adults who came out with their children and honked horns in support of the student demonstrators.   The movement is self-organized and nonviolent and has wide public support.

The student movement’s principal demand is to eliminate the power of the self-perpetuating theocratic elite over the Iranian government and to allow the elected government to rule without the “guidance” of the mullahs and their allies.  One widely discussed means to do so would be a referendum giving full authority to the elected government. 

This situation appears a straightforward confrontation of idealistic young democrats and repressive fundamentalist authoritarians.  But it is embedded in a context of geopolitical manipulation that complicates the picture.

The US has implacably opposed the Islamic Republic.   In the Iran-Iraq war it even supported Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Iran.  This is hardly because the US has sought a democratic Iran — it supported both the mullahs and the shah at one time or another.  Rather, it sees Iran as a critical source of oil and a powerful country that currently threatens – but could support – both US interests and those of Israel.

Germany, France, Britain, and Russia have taken advantage of US isolation from Iran to develop ties with the regime and profit from its oil wealth.  According to the New York Times, France for example is “committed to the stability of the Islamic Republic.”   European support for the regime has led many of its opponents to see the US as their only potential savior.

As part of its post-9/11 bluster, the Bush administration declared Iran part of the “Axis of Evil” and has made numerous threats against it.  It has seized on recent indications that Iran is continuing its quest for nuclear weapons – initiated by the shah — as an opportunity to amplify those threats.   It has pressured the European Union, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency to encourage Iran to accept tighter monitoring of its nuclear programs.

Currently the Bush administration is divided on Iran policy.  The mainstream conservatives in the State department have been inclined to support the “official” reform movement.  The neoconservatives in the Department of Defense see an opportunity to promote a revolution in Iran that will install a pro-US government.

The Bush administration has repeatedly hinted that it might pursue an Iraq-style attack and occupation.  National security advisor Condoleezza Rice, echoing the threats that preceded the US attack on Iraq, recently warned of a “‘Made in America’ solution” if multilateral action does not produce results.  “Sometimes one has to fight wars to deal with tyrants.”   Notwithstanding such implicit threats, the problems of managing the aftermath of a US attack on Iran would appear to be an awesome deterrent. 

President Bush recently praised the student protests as “the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran.”   This comes as US troops regularly censor the media and shoot down demonstrators next door in Iraq.  While the Bush administration may wish to use student protest to destabilize the situation in Iran, the US government is notorious for promoting revolts that it is not willing then to protect – witness the US-encouraged uprisings by Kurds and Shiites in Iraq after the Gulf war that Saddam Hussein was allowed to suppress with extreme brutality.  It is unlikely to have scruples about cheering on the Iranian students to destruction.  While the Bush administration is happy to encourage the student revolt, it does so in the interest of its own agenda, which can not be accurately described as freedom, independence, and self-determination for the people of Iran. 

The actual impact of Bush administration destabilization efforts is difficult to evaluate.  Bush’s endorsement of the student movement may already have helped hardliners legitimate their suppression of the students as “foreign forces.”   On the other hand, fear of foreign intervention may also serve as a constraint.  For example, after the start of the student demonstrations, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state television, “I call on the pious and the [conservative cadres] not to intervene whenever they see riots.”  Two days later, a right-wing militia pledged not to take part in the street skirmishes. 

This may lead some supporters of democratization to see US threats as a way to accelerate reform.  But that presumes that democratization really matters to the Bush administration.  In fact, the mullahs are less likely to respond to US threats by conceding democracy and human rights to their own people than by offering concessions suited to the real Bush agenda – such as oil deals and helpful policies in Iraq. 

For the peace movement and the left, this situation presents several interlocking dilemmas.  How is it possible to promote human rights and democracy in Iran without strengthening the drive of the US to dominate the world in general and the Middle East in particular?  How is it possible to oppose European support for the Islamic Republic without undermining the development of a much-needed united front for the containment of US aggression?  How is it possible to encourage disarmament and restrict the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while discouraging US threats against Iran and other countries? 

The problem is in some ways parallel to that faced by the international peace movement in the 1980s when repression of nonviolent anti-authoritarian revolts in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe coincided with aggressive US military expansionism.  At that time, the European Nuclear Disarmament movement developed a sophisticated strategy that simultaneously increased pressure for human rights in the East and for demilitarization in the West.  Today we need to develop a democratic alternative to the tyranny of the mullahs, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the devastation that the US has wreaked on Afghanistan and Iraq and now threatens to visit on Iran. 

The goal for the global anti-war movement and the left should be a nonviolent transition to a democracy with human rights and freedom from domination by outside powers.  The movement should aim to empower the  Iranian people against both mullahs and the US, the EU, and anyone else who would treat them as pawns for their own agenda.

The obvious first step is to demand that the Iranian regime release all political prisoners regardless of their beliefs and end the suppression of protesters’ human rights by its own agencies and those of vigilante groups.  Just as clear is the need to support the peaceful struggle of the Iranian people for democracy, including a referendum to decide their own future.  An important aspect here is the demand that European countries and the EU end tacit and active support for the suppression of human rights and democracy by the Iranian regime.

International support for human rights played a major role in the democratization in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.  History indicates that outside support for governmental legality can have a substantial impact in Iran as well.  In 1996, a German court implicated Islamic Republic leaders of assassinating opponents in Berlin.  Several European countries then briefly cut diplomatic ties with the regime.  The ruling had a huge impact on Iranian opinion, contributing substantially to the reformist President Khatami’s landslide victory. 

Support can take the form of action as well as words.  In Poland, labor and left activists smuggled printing presses, fax machines, photocopiers, and other means for mobilizing the public to Solidarity.  Satellite broadcasts are already playing a significant support role for the Iranian movement.  More direct contact, ranging from support delegations to the kind of volunteer human rights observation and nonviolent intervention provided by the “Internationals” in Palestine, would be difficult but appropriate.  So would a campaign for international human rights monitors.  

Such an approach is almost the opposite of a US “liberation” that imposes “democracy” and “human rights” through war and occupation, on the model of Afghanistan and Iraq.  The international movement should present the demand for human rights and democratization in Iran alongside its demands for an end to US occupation in Iraq and Israeli occupation in Palestine.   

We also need to lay out an approach to the problem of weapons of mass destruction that provides an alternative to Bush administration policy of unilaterally threatening to “Saddamize” anyone it doesn’t want to have such weapons.  A good starting point is to demand that all countries support the Syrian UN proposal to make the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.  This obviously implies that the US and other powers must address the issue of Israeli nuclear weapons in discussions of eliminating weapons of mass destruction.  And for any effective response to proliferation, the existing nuclear powers must meet their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by moving promptly toward the elimination of their own nuclear weapons.  In such a context, specific demands that Iran not build nuclear weapons and that it comply with IAEA demands for answers to questions about its nuclear program are appropriate, but they need to be combined with negotiations to provide Iran other means of security against military attack.

Iran is only one of many countries that appear to oppose the Bush administration’s imperial juggernaut, but that also suppress the human rights of their own people.  It is always a temptation for the peace movement and the left to soft-pedal our critique of such regimes out of a feeling that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  It is particularly hard to find a balanced position when the US government is utilizing the flaws of those regimes it opposes to justify aggression against them while ignoring the equal or greater crimes of those it supports. 

Failure to defend human rights in such circumstances only plays into the hands of the Bush juggernaut, however.  One of the strongest supports of the Bush administration, especially with the media-manipulated American people, is the belief that US overthrow of regimes like those in Afghanistan and Iraq free people from tyranny and establish human rights and democracy.  The movement to terminate the Bush juggernaut shoots itself in the heart when it fails to identify another and better way for people to liberate themselves from oppression.  We can’t afford to provide any justification for the charge that we are the defenders of tyrants.  Let us instead be known as people whose fundamental solidarity is not with one or another government but with all people who are struggling for liberation from oppression. 


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