Debate: How Should Anti-Imperialists Respond to Iran’s Political Crisis?

A recent Socialist Voice article, Iranian Workers in Action for Democratic Rights, by Robert Johnson and John Riddell, provoked an online debate about how anti-imperialist activists should defend Iranian sovereignty in response to the political crisis there. Because this debate reflects broader disagreements in the left around the world, we are publishing two submissions by Stansfield Smith, together with responses from Johnson and Riddell.

All four contributions originally appeared as comments to the Socialist Voice article:

  • “A poorly veiled way of taking sides in Iran” (Stansfield Smith)
  • “Self-determination and democratic rights are two aspects of the same question” (Robert Johnson and John Riddell)
  • “Support workers movements – but not regardless of the context” (Stansfield Smith)
  • “Siding with Ahmedinejad against imperialism does not mean siding with him in his repression” (Robert Johnson and John Riddell)

We welcome further comments on the issues raised in this discussion.

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‘A poorly veiled way of taking sides in Iran’

By Stansfield Smith, June 29, 2009

Your statement is better than what I have seen in Links, the RCP paper, ISO paper, CP, or IMT, but it still not very good.

1. The most important activity people in imperialist countries should be doing is exposing the imperialist campaign against Iran. You now consider this incidental. The CIA and NED, as you must know, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize Iran. Iran is surrounded by countries with U.S. troops. It is blockaded by the U.S. The Big Business media, as you must know, was not simply reporting on they called Iran’s democracy movement, but was instigating it.

These are examples of the primary issues Marxists should be exposing to the public.

2. So far there has never been presented evidence of election fraud on the scale that would overturn Ahmadinejad’s vote. As the protestors against him were calling for the overthrow of the government, should the Iranian government, which was just approved by a large majority vote, simply let them do that? Should a government chosen by the majority in an election just surrender to the forces of the losing candidate? I am sure the Big Business media would call that a victory for the “democracy movement.” As the losing candidate was the choice of imperialism to be president of Iran, and neither he or the movement behind him, denounced the role that imperialism was playing in his campaign, it certainly is reasonable that any anti-imperialist nationalist government should take repressive measures once they warned demonstrators to stop. (And this repression, if the number is still 17, includes eight government police killed by anti-government people.)

3. We should normally support workers movements, but not regardless of the context of the whole class struggle. Any progressive workers movement that does not denounce its being used in an imperialist campaign against an anti-imperialist government is forfeiting its legitimacy and credibility.

We have seen events somewhat reminiscent of this, probably Poland in the 1980s being the most well-known, Walesa never denounced the imperialist role in Poland, and moved steadily to the right over time. Solidarity discredited itself, and Poland became a de facto U.S. colony, all accomplished via a democratic revolution.

Similarly, your printing of articles from workers struggles against the government of Iran right in the middle of an imperialist campaign against Iran strikes me as quite insincere. Is this not participating in the imperialist campaign in a back-handed way?

4. You state, “Progressive activists in Canada should not take sides between the competing factions in Iran ‘s capitalist class, nor should we try to instruct the Iranian people on how the present crisis might be resolved. These questions can only be settled by the Iranian people themselves.”

But then you state the following, which is nothing but a poorly veiled way of taking sides in Iran:

“We should, however, support the right of the Iranian people to communicate freely, to demonstrate, and to form trade unions and other popular associations independent of government supervision or control. We should support calls for freeing political prisoners and for an end to the repression.”

Your first paragraph quoted here would sound more sincere if you eliminated the second and then followed it with this:

“At the same time, we should strongly oppose attempts by imperialism to take advantage of this crisis, and call for an end to sanctions and other forms of foreign oppression of the Iranian people.”

However, you do make it seem like the attempts by imperialism to interfere in Iran are hypothetical, while in fact imperialism is intimately involved. Again, the primary task for us in imperialist countries is to oppose the imperialist campaign against the gains of the Iranian revolution. That is the most effective way we can ensure the democratic rights of the Iranian people.

* * * * *

‘Self-determination and democratic rights are two aspects of the same question’

By Robert Johnson and John Riddell, July 11, 2009

Thanks to Stansfield Smith for a thoughtful comment on our article, Iranian Workers in Action for Democratic Rights.

We heartily agree with his main point, that the central activity regarding Iran in imperialist countries must be to oppose the imperialist campaign against Iran. This activity has gained new urgency as the imperialist powers renew their campaign against Iran, taking diplomatic reprisals, planning new sanctions, and revving up for a possible Iraq-style campaign of “regime change.”

U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden has now declared that Washington may not restrain Israel from a military attack on Iran – an obvious threat of a U.S.-sponsored aggression in one form or another. It should be a wake-up call as to the real stakes in the Iran question.

We also agree that we in the imperialist countries should not support the media campaign to overturn Iran’s election results or line up behind the Mousavi opposition faction among Iran’s capitalist rulers. Nor should we support the pro-Ahmadinejad faction in its dispute with what is clearly a substantial proportion of the Iranian people. The Iranian people must be allowed to decide these matters, free of foreign interference.

We stated these points strongly in our article. What, then, are Stansfield Smith’s objections?

Many issues here are worth discussion. But in our opinion, the central issue relates to our advocacy of support to “the right of the Iranian people to communicate freely, to demonstrate, and to form trade unions and other popular associations independent of government supervision or control. We should support calls for freeing political prisoners and for an end to the repression.”

Quoting this passage, Stansfield Smith states that it is “nothing but a poorly veiled way of taking sides in Iran.”

Yes, supporting democratic rights for the popular masses is a way of taking sides – but not for imperialism, as Smith implies, but for Iranian sovereignty. During the 30 years since the Iranian revolution, the Iranian popular masses have been the main bulwark of resistance to imperialism, leading the people’s defense against the imperialist-backed invasion of the 1980s and holding firm against the continued imperialist sanctions and conspiracies to this day.

To be an effective force for Iran’s defense, Iran’s masses need to be able to speak, organize, and assemble – including, when they wish, to raise criticisms of the present government or defend themselves against exploitation.

This fact must be apparent in Iranians’ intensive utilization of the democratic rights which they already possess, which are more extensive than in U.S. client states in the region such as Jordan, Kuwait or Egypt. We are confident that Stansfield Smith joins us in defending the democratic rights that exist in Iran today.

Elections in all capitalist countries are channelled and manipulated by the wealthy and powerful. That is true of Iran as well as of Canada, to say nothing of Canada’s ally Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with no elections at all. Canada’s rulers have no right to preach to Iran about democracy.

But democratic rights in Iran are restricted in ways that are harmful to working people in Iran and that have led to considerable disaffection. In the statements we reprinted, workers call for the right to form unions freely and for these unions to function without mass arrests and police persecution. Such a reform would strengthen Iranian popular sovereignty and improve its defenses against imperialism.

Moreover, workers in Iran, just as in Canada, need freedom to defend themselves against the impact of capitalist exploitation in the neoliberal era. Expansion of worker rights should be supported in Iran as in Canada.

Venezuela today provides us with a striking example of how to organize defense against imperialism by building a dense network of unions and popular committees to draw working people into political action.

Of course Iran must take firm action against imperialist plots and disruption. But this must not become an excuse for anti-worker repression. When workers strike to receive back pay, for example, this cannot be dismissed as an imperialist plot.

To repeat: our main responsibility toward Iran is to oppose imperialist threats against its sovereignty and the hypocritical media campaign aiming to demonize the country and its institutions. However, in defending Iran, we must recognize that national self-determination and democratic rights for the people are two aspects of the same question: popular sovereignty. Defense of Iran includes speaking out against repression that bears down on Iranian working people and weakens the country’s ramparts against imperialist attack.

* * * * *

‘Support workers movements – but not regardless of the context’

By Stansfield Smith, July 15, 2009

John Riddell in reply states, “We also agree that we in the imperialist countries should not support the media campaign to overturn Iran’s election results or line up behind the Mousavi opposition faction among Iran’s capitalist rulers.”

Does this mean that you now repudiate what was in your article, where you take Teachers union statement and print it without criticism:

“The Teachers’ Organization of Iran, further, supports the goals of Messrs. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and calls on the election authorities to annul this election and undertake a free election.”

If you recognize that you should not support the media campaign to overturn Iran’s elections, what do you think you were doing by printing that Teachers Organization statement?

You approve of the Vancouver group, which states they:

“sends warm greetings and solidarity to all those who are rallying for democracy and justice in Iran and abroad this week. We share your commitment to a peaceful and just resolution of the disputes brought to the surface by the recent presidential election in Iran, and your desire for Iranians themselves to determine the future of their country.”

The Mousavi supporters are rallying for “democracy and justice” and the Ahmadinejad supporters were not? That view is taken straight from the corporate media. If there was no fraud more substantial in any bourgeois election, and if there is no fraud of such a size to show that Mousavi won the election – and there has been no evidence of that yet, then the Iranian people have spoken in their election.

And the interests of democracy and justice would mean we respect the will of the Iranian people to overwhelmingly re-elect Ahmadinejad. Why are the supporters of the losers in the election the supporters of “democracy and justice”? That is the view of the corporate media, not the view of Iranians. If that is not the case, where is the evidence Mousavi won the election?

The Vancouver group goes on:

“We demand the release of all arrested workers, students, and political prisoners.” In their statement, they do not mention that 7 volunteer government militia members were killed by protesters. The Vancouver group does not qualify their statement by saying “except for those guilty of crimes, which included murder.” They demand that ALL those arrested be released.

There is no other way to regard their statement except as one that gives legitimacy to the imperialist campaign against Iran.

In addition, I will repeat what I wrote in my first letter, which you did not address:

3. We should normally support workers movements, but not regardless of the context of the whole class struggle. Any progressive workers movement that does not denounce its being used in an imperialist campaign against an anti-imperialist government is forfeiting its legitimacy and credibility.

As I said before, your statement is better than what I have seen in Links, the RCP paper, ISO paper, CP, or IMT, but it still not very good.

* * * * *

‘Siding with Ahmedinejad against imperialism does not mean siding with him in his repression’

By Robert Johnson and John Riddell, July 27, 2009

Thanks again to Stansfield Smith for his penetrating questions.

To reiterate, for us in Canada, the central issue posed here is the necessity of supporting Iran against imperialism – and that includes supporting its government, headed by President Ahmedinejad, in that confrontation.

But we have no cause to take sides in the present dispute among Iran’s rulers. Nor do we have cause to condemn Iranians who have taken a position for one side or the other.

Stansfield Smith’s comments focus on the need to differentiate between the world’s imperialist countries and countries, like Iran, that suffer imperialist oppression. We agree that it is necessary to forge alliances of countries prepared to resist imperialism, on whatever level, and to defend them against Empire. This is certainly the ABC of revolutionary politics in today’s world. It is the essence of the policies of revolutionary Cuba and its ALBA allies, and explains their firm defense of Iran in the present context. Their policy applies the spirit of socialism at a governmental level.

It is disturbing that many socialists in imperialist countries do not grasp this principle.

However, siding with Ahmedinejad in Iran’s struggle with imperialism does not mean siding with him in his repression of the recent protests. In our opinion this was a spontaneous outpouring of protest, initially not planned or organized by the Mousavi leadership. It is false to claim, as the Iranian government does, that the protests were inspired and organized by U.S. and British imperialism – although we do not doubt that they have made every effort to take advantage of the situation. The crisis that erupted last month over the election results is only the latest in a series of crisis that have occurred in Iran in recent years as working people have attempted to defend and extend their democratic rights. The struggle to form independent unions has been an important aspect of this broader trend.

The current crisis is deeper and more sustained than its predecessors, reflecting the profound challenges facing Iranian society. Although the movement has been heavily repressed and driven from the streets, the strivings that it expressed remain an weighty factor in Iranian political life.

At present, two factions within the Iranian leadership appear to be waging an extended struggle for power. One faction is headed by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the other by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. They are conducting their struggle mainly behind closed doors; we know very little about the substance of their differences. But each of these leading figures has a long history as a leader of the Iranian government. There is no evidence that any of them have acted as a Trojan horse for imperialism; their policies on the issue of Iranian sovereignty have been essentially similar. During their rule each of them has repressed political dissent, labour organizing, and pro-democracy movements. They have acted to safeguard the interests of Iranian capitalists at the expense of the working people.

Smith states that a workers’ movement that permits itself to be used in an imperialist campaign forfeits its credibility. If we wish to apply that concept, surely the place to start is right here in Canada, where our Labour Congress shares responsibility for Canadian government crimes in Palestine, Haiti, and elsewhere. Yet no one suggests we should withdraw support for struggles by workers in Canada for union rights.

We have no cause to lecture Iranian workers about anti-imperialism. They have stood firm against imperialism for 30 years, and if they protest now, it is not in favour of fraudulent U.S.-style “democracy” but for basic rights of speech, assembly, and unionization. It goes without saying that if these rights are persistently denied, in the name of defending national sovereignty, this casts discredit on the national movement and creates an opening for the CIA.

Smith objects to us publishing the position of the Iranian teachers’ union. We think that the voice of Iranian workers on the crisis deserves to be heard. We published statements by three different workers’ organizations, presenting a range of views. We stated our own position in the introduction to the article.

Smith also objects to the call of the Vancouver antiwar coalition Stopwar.ca for “the release of all arrested workers, students, and political prisoners.” He states that this gives “legitimacy to the imperialist campaign against Iran.” But in its statement Stopwar – which unites a wide range of political currents – unambiguously opposes imperialism’s attempts to use the crisis to undermine Iran’s right to decide its own future. This appeal remains one of the very few statements on Iran to combine respect for the democratic rights of working people with a firm axis of opposition to imperialist intervention. This is an example of effective defense of Iranian sovereignty that is well worth emulating.

3 thoughts on “Debate: How Should Anti-Imperialists Respond to Iran’s Political Crisis?

  1. hernan

    From Argentina: interesting debate.
    Just an example. When in 1982 we went on war against England led by a military dictatorship that was assasinatin our comrades and friends we stood firmly against England intervention and defending our country, but attacking our government. This is not abstract politics. We where calling to all the workers and poor classes to withdraw support to the crazy adventure of a criminal regime and to turn this fight for demacracy into a fight against imperialist attacks. The military rule was backed by England and USA for years before the war, and they where happy to see how they were getting rid off all the leftist. But then, as Saddam later, they did a “mistake” and became the fierce dictators. The problem is that the moyority of the English left supported the attack as if it was only against the military rule, without realizing that in this way they where enforcing Mrs Tatcher rule in England (and she was reelected), and also giving the military more speech to destroy the left inside.
    Now is the same: some leftiest in imperialist countries use abstract arguments to attack Iran “fascist” government instead of doing what they should do first of all: attacking their own goverment at home to weaken their chances of intervention abroad.

  2. Stan Smith

    Socialist Voice can’t publish an article in the middle of an imperialist campaign against the Iranian government called “Iranian Workers in Action for Democratic Rights,” which are all criticisms of the Iranian government, and then also try to claim
    “To reiterate, for us in Canada, the central issue posed here is the necessity of supporting Iran against imperialism – and that includes supporting its government, headed by President Ahmedinejad, in that confrontation.”
    Hopefully, your latter statement is meant to be a self-criticism of your previous article.

    As I said, the most important activity anti-imperialist activists in the West should be doing is opposing the imperialist campaign against Iran. That would mean writing an article along these lines:

    In early 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requested $75 million “in emergency funding to step up pressure on the Iranian government, including expanding radio and television broadcasts into Iran and promoting internal opposition to the rule of religious leaders.” She stated at the time, “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.”

    In 2007 that the CIA “received secret presidential approval to mount a covert ‘black’ operation to destabilize the Iranian government,” a policy that “would be consistent with an overall American approach trying to find ways to put pressure on the regime,” retired CIA officer Bruce Riedel told ABC. Seymour Hersh reported a “major escalation of covert operations against Iran,” worth $400 million, “designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership.” One source familiar with the presidential order told Hersh that its purpose was “to undermine the [Iranian] government through regime change,” and involved “working with opposition groups and passing [out] money.” As always with how the U.S. “intelligence” agencies spend their massive budgets, the potential for additional unreported operations is great.

    USA Today reports that “The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President Bush.” Part of the purpose of the $15 million Near Eastern Regional Democracy Initiative, a Senate Appropriations committees spokesman told USA Today, “is to expand access to information and communications through the Internet for Iranians.”

    Edward S. Herman and David Peterson in “Iran : Riding The “Green Wave”
    http://informationclearinghouse.info/article23160.htm

    go on to state:

    “When Tehran’s executive branch accuses the U.S. Government and foreign NGOs of trying to foment a “velvet” or “color revolution,” this is the modus operandi that Tehran has in mind. Given the U.S., U.K., and Israeli investment in destabilization and regime-change in Iran, we believe it highly plausible that strategy exists for mobilizing Iran’s dissident youth via both samizdat and the foreign media beyond their country’s borders that feed-back into the consciousnesses of the Iranian street and the executive branch, altering the relation between the two, in precisely the sense that U.S.-based nonviolent action-operatives and foreign regime-changers have been advocating for use in Iran for years.

    In short, the protests are certainly not entirely “home-grown” and have a pretty clear link both to direct destabilization campaigns and to the massive destabilizations imposed upon this region of the world by the United States and its allies just this decade alone. It is also interesting to note that Peter Ackerman, the founding chair of the U.S.-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and a former chair of the right-wing Freedom House, along with the ICNC’s founding director and president Jack DuVall, once cynically cautioned that for a destabilization campaign such as this to be maximally effective against Iran, it “should not come from the CIA or Defense Department, but rather from pro-democracy programs throughout the West.”

    None of this is to deny the reality of a massive democratic surge inside Iran on a scale unseen since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. But it is to question how well we understand the role of state-of-the-art communications technology in mobilizing the demonstrators, and how truly “indigenous,” autonomous, and independent they are from foreign meddling and influence, where foreign powers have invested considerable resources and know-how in these modern regime-change campaigns.”

    We should be bringing to light the covert imperialist campaign to undermine the Iranian government, how it uses “democracy movements” to confuse and sucker people otherwise educated in the ways of imperialism, to go along with its aims. (We may note that it is never mentioned there is a “democracy movement” in Honduras right now.) Considering how confused so many are, this is an important task.
    Imperialism used this type of campaign quite well last year in their anti-China “Free Tibet” campaign. So well, in fact, that basically the only ones in the West who sought to expose it were the Chinese living here. We saw this type of campaign under President Clinton with his anti-Yugoslavia “Free Kosovo” campaign. Many who call themselves progressive and leftist climb onto this bandwagon (albeit with “criticism” to show their own “independence”) and even routinely call as “Stalinist” those who maintain an anti-imperialist position.
    You state the Vancouver anti-war group “uambiguously opposes imperialism’s attempts to use the crisis to undermine Iran’s right to decide its own future. This appeal remains one of the very few statements on Iran to combine respect for the democratic rights of working people with a firm axis of opposition to imperialist intervention.”
    Their statement boils down to stating they support the color revolution in Iran, but oppose imperialist interference, conveniently ignoring that imperialism’s key instrument of interference in Iran right now is the velvet revolution.

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