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Dancing to the US tune

This article first appeared in the Weekly Worker July 17 2008

Suddenly, the SWP-backed Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran has no problem in criticising the Iranian government, writes Nick Jones

On July 10, around 200 people attended the ‘Iran: war and media’ meeting, which was put on by Campaign Iran (CI) in London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In October 2006, Campaign Iran had been set up as an amalgamation of campaigns led by the Socialist Workers Party and the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (Casmii), which came together to form CI as an umbrella organisation.

Some new significant development has clearly occurred since then, as all the main speakers at the meeting openly supported the ‘reformists’ in Iran and criticised the Ahmadinejad-led regime. Either Ahmadinejad has decided to dump his former apologists in London or his former apologists have decided to place their hopes in a new ‘reformist’-left alliance in Iran.

At a meeting in April 2007 Casmii spokesperson Abbas Edalat assured us that there are “no forces in Iran who are fighting both against the threat of an imperialist intervention and the regime” (Weekly Worker April 26 2007). Arguing (successfully) against Hands Off the People of Iran’s affiliation to the Stop the War Coalition last year, he told the conference that you cannot condemn any move to invade Iran if you also tell the “ordinary member of the public” that it is headed by a “vicious, repressive regime”, as this would only “confuse” workers who were “already confused by the massive demonisation of Iran” (Weekly Worker November 1 2007).

He said Hopi should not be allowed to affiliate because its politics of opposition both to war and the regime was “divisive”. A line that has been repeated by SWP members up and down the country - the last time less than two months ago, when SWP delegates tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Public and Commercial Services union affiliating to Hopi (see Weekly Worker May 29).

It is unclear how much the position of the SWP itself has shifted, as the only SWP speaker on July 10, CI spokesperson Alys Zaerin, muddled her way through a short speech without saying much at all. She mentioned in passing the “alleged state repression” in Iran, suggesting that the speakers that were to follow her introduction would provide a “far more accurate portrayal” of the situation than that presented by US propagandists. She herself did not comment on the nature of the Tehran regime, stressing instead how the US hardly goes around the globe “spreading democracy” and noting that “one percent of the US population is currently in jail”.

The next speaker, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, is described by Casmii as “an Iranian journalist and spokesperson for Association of Press Freedom (Iran)”. Amongst Iranians he is more well known for his role in the regime in the worst period of repression in the early 1980s. After the meeting, a member of the audience came up to us and told us that Mashallah was actually a member of the Revolutionary Guard and actively involved in imprisoning hundreds of socialists and democrats - something we cannot verify.

Whatever his former allegiance, he is now an open supporter of the ‘reformist’ faction and in particular of former president Mohammed Khatami. Shamsolvaezin suggested that during Khatami’s presidency, the US committed the “massive mistake” of adopting a discourse of penalisation, which had held back Iran’s transformation into a democracy - “a policy that I really could not and still cannot understand”.

The US had created an atmosphere of fear in Iran, he said, that enabled the coming to power of Mahmood Ahmadinejad in 2005. Instead of seeking to avoid a situation leading to “destruction and devastation”, Shamsolvaezin said the US should have taken a different approach. George Bush was clearly ignorant of the Iranian proverb about the Persian cat - if treated kindly it “will dance for you”, but it will fight you “like a lion” if you corner it.

He suggested that an alliance with ‘reformist’ elements within Iran, such as Khatami, was the way forward for forces of opposition to the current government. He plugged the newly formed National Peace Council, which is now prominently promoted on Casmii’s home page. He said that “the Iranian people desire that the rulers open their doors to the breeze of freedom”.

This generally pacifistic sentiment was echoed by the next speaker, Lily Farhadpour, billed as a journalist and representative of Mothers For Peace (Iran). She noted correctly that war is conducted not just through military force, but through the use of sanctions and other measures. However, she said, the Iranian anti-war movement is neither discussed in Iran nor projected in the foreign media.

In her view, there are three categories within the official Iranian media, which are all more or less controlled by the regime: the fundamentalists, the ‘reformists’ and the “others, who care only about fashion and cooking” and who consider anti-war sentiments to be largely “western inventions”. Farhadpour described how the fundamentalists and the US ruling class have the same interest in promoting war - they are “singing the same song”, she suggested. Coupled with internal repression, this has resulted in the increased importance of dissident websites and internet blogs to provide a space where a degree of freedom and opposition may be exercised. She too spoke favourably about the National Peace Council.

Cat on a leash

In the short question and answer session that followed, CPGB member Tina Becker welcomed the change of heart among Casmii supporters and their new-found willingness to criticise the Iranian theocracy. However, she asked, “Don’t the radical demands of the thousands of students and workers in Iran show that many Iranians want more than just the return of Khatami and the reformists?”

She pointed out that thousands of Iranians are suffering from and demonstrating against the harsh imposition of neoliberal market policies enforced by Ahmadinejad. But Khatami and his government had been responsible for implementing exactly the same type of neoliberal policies. Even according to the theocracy’s own figures, the cuts and privatisations demanded by the IMF and World Bank have resulted in 20% of the 70 million population living below the poverty line.

“Aren’t you trying to put the Persian cat on a leash if you ask the workers, students and national minorities to scale down their radical movements?” comrade Becker asked - and was told by an SWP member to “sit the fuck back down”, while others heckled her.

The responses of the main speakers were hardly more constructive. Lily Farhadpour sarcastically thanked her for “all the time she spends thinking about Iranians. But you don’t look Iranian to me. Shouldn’t you keep out of Iranian politics and instead focus on what Brown is doing?” Her nationalistic take was applauded by a small section in the audience and greeted with a nod and a smirk by baroness Haleh Afshar (grandee of the British Council and United Nations Association, awarded an OBE in 2005 for services rendered), who was translating into Farsi. To be fair, a few also booed Farhadpour for her disgraceful comments.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin replied that when he was young, he too used to think along similar lines: “But I have learned that Iranians are very conservative. They talk about revolution during the day, but when they come home from work they want to put their feet up and talk about poetry.” I think he must have been thinking about his own personal development, because the small matter of the 1979 revolution - one of many examples of the political commitment and militancy of many Iranians - gave the lie to his contribution.

Whose ‘regime change’?

To conclude, two of Casmii’s platform speakers spoke openly in favour of that faction of the regime that the US believes it can do business with. The Bush administration has recently allocated more than $400 million to step up its covert operations against Iran. The aim? To “undermine Iran’s nuclear ambitions” and install a new government through “regime change”. Who would fit the bill? One thing is certain: ‘reformists’ like Khatami would continue to enforce neoliberalism and continue to attack the working class.

Hands Off the People of Iran supports all the democratic movements of workers, students, women and national minorities that are fighting for “regime change” from below, while simultaneously mobilising against imperialist interference, sanctions and war. By contrast Casmii and CI seem prepared to back anyone but those workers, progressives and democrats.