War on Iran

On February 25, 2012, Science for Peace organized a teach-in titled “The Geopolitics of War and Sanctions Against Iran” at the University of Toronto. Activist and writer Shadi Chaleshtoori spoke on the state of the American and Canadian Left on Iran. The following is an edited version of the talk.  

Good afternoon. My talk will largely be a response to a disturbing political direction of Leftist anti-war discourse on Iran. I am speaking to you today as someone who identifies herself with the Left, and who has worked for many years to push forward a political position and discourse within the Iranian community in the city, and within social justice circles in the city, that is politically radical with an anti-racist, anti-Zionist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and feminist framework. During these efforts, I have found that, often, in the process of wanting to push forward a political position of conscience, Leftist activists end up, at best, reproducing and, at worst, even supporting or apologizing for political repression, securitized anti-immigration discourse, state-imposed violence, or patriarchal social relations.

The political position that I, along with others in the Left, am putting forward is that:

Opposition to war has to go hand-in-hand with opposition to other forms of oppression;

A responsible anti-imperialist position by the Left must include an uncompromising condemnation of brutal dictatorships;

We cannot study the geo-political and regional situation in strict isolation and ignorance of Iran's domestic situation. So, we cannot honestly and responsibly discuss the geo-politics of war and sanctions on Iran today without considering what is happening within the country itself, and how the average working class Iranian is affected; and finally,

Our anti-war position on Iran must include opposition to Iranian state-repression against its own broad-based dissenting population.

Some basics about US power and intervention in the Middle East, especially in Iran, that Leftists, students of the region, and social justice activists know, bear repeating: US imperialism has no serious interest in democracy, self-determination or emancipation. As it stands, there is extensive internal interference in Iran by Western and Israeli forces, in the form of assassinations of nuclear scientists, economic sanctions, divestment and preparations for an attack. The US has a long record of hypocrisy – committing its own crimes against the human conscience while condemning those of another state.

This understanding of imperialist violence should be a basis for an anti-imperialist and anti-war position that does not apologize for brutal state dictatorships, even if these dictatorships happen to agree with us in opposing imperialism . Instead, Leftists too often adopt a reactionary position rhetorically defending repressive and authoritarian regimes and claiming an anti-imperialist logic to do so.

As an example, we can look back to the devastating and problematic Leftist reactions to the post-2009 elections protests in Iran, and learn from those mistakes when formulating our anti-war positions on countries like Iran, and countries like Syria, today.

The 2009 elections sparked a sharp debate in the North American Left about the protests in Iran. One position in this debate was to defend the election results, promote Ahmadinejad as the legitimate President and criticize and in some cases even demonize, the Iranian protesters and opposition activists on the streets. This position argued that post-electoral analysis of results at the ballot box showed that there was not very much electoral fraud, and therefore the opposition was trying to undermine a fair election.

But a focus on the poll results and the legitimacy of the vote counts at the ballot boxes is insufficient to argue that the elections were legitimate. The elections were accompanied by a series of violent clampdowns by the security forces of the Iranian state against dissenting elements within the Iranian population. On key national occasions since the 2009 elections, various voices of opposition inside Iran took to the streets, university campuses, public squares, cemeteries, community centers, highways, mosques, and other places to demonstrate their dissent to the ruling regime.

On all of these protests, and with the state's interpretation of anti-government rallies as “illegal gatherings,” protesters were faced with a heavy presence of armed and under-cover government vigilantes. The long and ongoing post-election campaign across Iran of mass arrests, simulated mass trials, forced confessions after extensive torture, rapes of both males and females in prisons, raiding of houses, abductions, violent attacks on the streets, and detentions in prisons and solitary confinement without charge by the security forces, was aimed at dissolving any opposition and further suppressing criticism.i

Through their confrontations with Iranian state-violence, protesters illuminated the hypocrisy of the Islamic Republic: a government positing itself as a speaker against imperialism, oppression and exploitation has become one of the biggest violators of the rights, the fundamental rights, of its own people.ii

It is this message that those Leftists who defended the regime not only ignored in 2009, but even went so far as to try to delegitimize. And it is this message that many anti-war activists continue to neglect today.

What were the consequences of a significant proportion of North American leftists taking a position in support of the Iranian regime in 2009?

First, reactionary Leftists based their arguments on assumptions about the identity of the opposition movements in Iran, presenting the situation in Iran as a clear-cut battle between an upper and middle-class bourgeoisie from the neighborhoods of Northern Tehran on the one side, and an impoverished lower class collective of workers, loyal to Ahmadinejad on the other side.iii Here, all criticism of the regime's repression was indiscriminately claimed to be based on a pro-Western and imperialist position.iv

In effect, the argument was that: If you condemn Iranian state violence, you are promoting Western imperialism. So, Iranians are only protesting on the streets because America tells them they should be. The unimaginative and limited choice this argument gives dissenting Iranians is: brutal dictatorship or Western imperialism.

The second major reactionary Leftist position was a reading of the Islamic Republic both as a democratic state system, and as an anti-imperialist and revolutionary beacon in the Middle East. This reductive analysis falsely implies that any force opposed to American imperialism and Zionist colonialism should be supported for playing a progressive and revolutionary role. So the position is that Islamic Republic should be supported because it is challenging regional imperialism – regardless of anything else it does in the region or of the crimes it commits against its own people.v

The third devastating position Leftists have also taken is on the unrestrained resistance of Iranian protesters against heavily armed government forces. Leftists would argue that because protesters decided to resist and defend themselves violently against the state's security forces, one therefore cannot condemn the regime’s security establishment for its severe repression.vi In doing so, Leftists would ignore that the situation was violent for decades before the contested 2009 elections.

The reactionary analyses I'm pointing to by Leftists reveal a few major challenges for us. Many solidarity activists in the West simply do not know how to navigate around internal dissent in Iran, (or Syria, in the context of US-Israeli regional violations). This inability (or unwillingness) to align with progressive and radical voices within Iran results in the adoption of apologetic and neo-Orientalist positions, and political inconsistencies.

The blatant hypocrisy and inconsistency of Leftists on Iran was particularly acute during the ‘Arab Spring’, or the popular uprisings in numerous Arab states, which peaked last year and still continues.

Suddenly all of the criticisms Leftists hurled against Iranian protesters became virtues of the Arab uprisings, especially the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. For example, the use of anonymous online videos, blogs, political limericks, poets, and open letters as a vital form of creative resistance under a repressive state were seen by Leftists as a virtue in Tunis and Egypt. But in Iran, Leftists deemed the online videos, statements, letters and independent reports as non-credible, illegitimate or non-representative of Iranian grievances.

Leftists would also point to upper-middle class youth in Tahrir Square to show the diversity of social classes in the uprising against the Dictator Mubarak. But in Iran, Leftists pointed to upper-middle class participation on the streets to reduce the Iranian uprising to an upper class movement, or a ‘Gucci Revolution’.

So, what kind of anti-war position should we take?

I hold that our opposition to war has to go hand-in-hand with opposition to other forms of oppression, including brutal dictatorships. This means that if our anti-imperialist position only looks at the geopolitics of war and sanctions, then it is an incomplete position. Our anti-war position on Iran, as with our anti-war position on countries like Syria, and even Libya, also has to include a position against the brutality of their authoritarian regimes.

One response to this, by many anti-imperialist and anti-war activists, is the common argument: We do not want to take sides on internal Iranian politics. As Canadians we are only concerned with what our government does.

I disagree with this for four reasons.

First, 'organizing as Canadians' is a nationalist discourse that implies that it is only as 'Canadians' that we can contest the actions of the Harper government. This makes the anti-imperialist struggle exclusive, and inaccessible to non-status peoples and indigenous communities who do not wish to – or simply cannot – confront Harper's oppressive policies as a 'Canadian'.

The second point, which I have alluded to, is that we simply cannot separate our international positions from their domestic context. When forming our anti-imperialism we cannot discuss geo-political confrontations without considering the domestic situations involved.

As an example, lets take the status of women in Iran. Liberal and conservative voices in Canada and the US will point to the unequal legal status of women in Iran, as they did in Afghanistan in 2001, and the repression of women's rights activists to point to the need for a military invasion. As anti-imperialists we reject the call for a war on Iran, but we also have to acknowledge that the repression of women and feminist activists in Iran is a reality that should be condemned. It is to the detriment of the Left, when the imperialist neo-conservatives are talking about repression in countries like Syria, Libya and Iran, and we are not. When Leftists ignore gender repression, we give the stage to pro-war voices to place gender apartheid in Iran through their racist, Zionist, Islamophobic and orientalist lenses.

The third point I would make in response to the common anti-imperialist argument is that if you do not take a clear anti-oppression position, you are supporting the oppressor. In the context of vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent inside Iran, not judging is, in practice, silent complicity.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should not forget that an anti-war position is also a position of solidarity. But we have to ask ourselves: solidarity with what? With the regime or with the humans living under its repressive rule? The reason we are anti-war is also because we do not believe it is in the interest of ordinary Iranians to have a war. We do not want the Iranian people to suffer what the people of Afghanistan and Iraq are still trying to recover from, and we understand very clearly that the stakes are much higher should there be a war in the region today, given the level of instability that exists after the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

A US-Israeli attack on Iran would not be an attack on Iran as an 'abstract imagined community'. It will be a military invasion on the Iranian people, on human beings on the ground, and part of developing a political position against war means to responsibly interact with the voices and struggles of the Iranian people against oppression.

There is absolutely no contradiction between opposing every instance of US meddling in Iran – and in every other country – and at the same time supporting the popular, democratic struggles of ordinary Iranians against dictatorship. Effective international solidarity requires that the two go hand-in-hand. Otherwise, if anti-imperialism means the right to only criticize the US government, we end up with a politics that is so US-centric that it prevents us from achieving a solidarity with Iranians who have to simultaneously stand up to their own dictatorial governments and to US imperial power.

To end, a solidarity that does not understand the struggles of the people you are in solidarity with as your own struggle, is the kind of solidarity that perverts itself. In the case of Iran, and Syria, part and parcel of our anti-war position as Leftists has to include a position against the brutality of these authoritarian states. A politically consistent and responsible Leftist anti-war position requires nothing less.

Thank you.


iFor an account of the incidents in 2009 and 2010 at key occasions in Iran, see: Shadi Chaleshtoori. "The Need for Consistent Politics In the Wake of 22 Bahman." Socialist Project. Retrieved 2012-02-20 from: http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/311.php.

iiIbid. Indeed, in a recent statement, the RAHA Iranian Feminist Collective points out anti-imperialism is not on the agenda of any major issue-based opposition group in Iran. They write: “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.” These are points of agreement with Iranian opposition groups upon which Leftists and anti-war activists can build a responsible and consistent political position. See RAHA Iranian Feminist Collective, 19 Feb 2011 “Solidarity and Its Discontents” Retrieved 2012-02-20 from: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/683/solidarity-and-its-discontents.

iiiFor example, established Leftist scholar, James Petras, crudely posited Ahmadinejad's so called “working class, low income, community based supporters of a ‘moral economy’” against "upper-class technocrats supported by Western-oriented privileged youth who prize individual life styles over community values and solidarity." Writing as if the violence of government sponsored vigilantes was not present within what he called “the privileged gates of Tehran University,” Petras indiscriminately limited all criticism of the regime's severely repressive measures against the protesters to a pro-Western and imperialist position. See: Petras, J. 18 June, 2010. Iranian Elections: The ‘Stolen Elections’ Hoax.” Global Research Online. Retrieved 2010-07-20 from: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=14018. A similar position was asserted by Leftist Eric Walberg in an online article in Znet. In a devastating comparison with the political situation in Venezuela, Walberg not only limited the anti-government protests to a “US/Israeli agenda,” but also depicted them as an elite “stand against the clearly populist, essentially Leftist Ahmedinejad.” The last three words of this characterization of Ahmadinejad indicate a clear ignorance of the Islamic Republic's decades-long record of Leftist repression. Emphasis added.


vFor example, British MP and human rights activist George Galloway endorsed this approach with descriptions of the Islamic Republic as a democratic state. While acknowledging some limitations within the Iranian Regime, Galloway adopted the position that the events in 2009 were the playing out of “Iranian-style democracy.” In a one-hour special on Iran’s national English language news channel Press TV, Galloway declared: “[Iran’s] form of democracy is its form of democracy. And they are entitled to their form of democracy as I am entitled to the democracy in my own country… It is the democracy that the Iranian people’s constitution provides for.” Galloway continued: “Everything has to be looked at in its context. In the context of the Persian Gulf there are no elections anywhere, in any of the other countries.” See: Galloway, G. 18 June, 2009. “Elections in Iran – Live Questions to George Galloway”. Press TV Online. Retrieved 2010-07-21 from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11B_CTF5JvQ.

As Leftists, the devastating politics of such a position should be evident. Galloway says that the lack of transparent, functioning democracies in the region is a fair basis for denying Iranians the right to resist their own devastating political system. In doing so, he ignores the decades of struggles of Iranians against the perversity of their existing repressive state apparatus. Moreover, the idea that because Iranian laws sanction the existing state system we therefore cannot condemn its practices and policies is completely unfounded. Leftists should never accept formal state laws as justifications for their brutality, whether at home or abroad. For example, when fighting against Israeli apartheid, we would never say that the third-class citizenship of Palestinians in Israel is justified simply because that is “Israeli style democracy” and leave it at that. Nor would we justify Israeli policies of occupation and apartheid by pointing out that they happen to be legally enshrined in Israeli law and that there is a Supreme Court through which they can be dealt. These are not positions we take on criminal states like Israel, and they should not we positions we take on criminal regimes like the Islamic Republic.

viFor example, at an event hosted by the Hamilton Coalition Against the War in January 2010, long time anti-war activist Phil Wilayto distributed a booklet entitled An Open Letter to the Anti-War Movement – How Should We Respond to the Events in Iran? Claiming that the election results were legitimate, Wilayto held that Iranian protesters were West-sponsored, English speaking, of high income, and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the champion of the working class. Revealing the extent of his faith in Ahmadinejad, and support for the Islamic Republic, Wilayto’s booklet included a startling focus on determining “who started the violence” during the protests. Wilayto concludes that “it actually was the protesters who initiated the violence,” and thus, one cannot condemn the regime’s security establishment for its severe repression. “What exactly was the government supposed to do?” asks Wilayto, ignoring that the situation was violent for decades before the contested 2009 elections. And in doing so, he also abandoning democratic principles to defend a notoriously repressive regime. This argument is actually also employed by the Islamic Republic itself. The Iranian government's reading of its own democratic benevolence allowed its spokespersons, on multiple occasions, to publicly declare and justify the need for a violent response by the state against the protesters. See: Wilayto, P. 10 July, 2010. “An Open Letter to the Anti-War Movement – How Should We Respond to the Events in Iran?” Noted from a US Peace Delegation’s Journey through the Islamic Republic. PDF.  

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