The last days of fundamentalist Iran

As it became clear over the last few months that US-UK hostilities against Iraq would take the form of all-out war, Iran's Islamic government defined its foreign policy as one of 'active neutrality'.

May 1, 2003
7 min read

In reality, of course, Iran is anything but ‘neutral’ about the war: the supporters of ‘regime change’ in Iraq include many Iran-based Iraqi exiles; war might present Tehran’s Shi’a allies with an opportunity to join the new administration in Baghdad; and Iran was one of the few countries in the region where the state made no attempt to organise an anti-war protest until after the war had begun (even then – 28 March – it was clear that many in Tehran were opposed to the demonstration).

Nevertheless, president Mohammad Khatami’s chief strategist Said Hajjarian argued that since regime change in Iraq was inevitable Iran had to remain neutral so as to accomplish two goals: ‘that the next regime in Baghdad will not be hostile to Iran, and… that we are not [Washington’s] next target’.

Typically, the Iranian government has used rhetoric to condemn ‘US aggression’ while holding extensive talks with the UK government regarding the details of regime change in a bid to ensure a role for its allies both inside Iraq proper and in Kurdish areas.

International isolation of the Iranian regime and unpopularity at home have left it with no choice, even if Tehran’s not entirely explicit support for the US-UK offensive has led to comments about ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’. Iran took a similar position in 2001 when it supported the US attacks on Afghanistan. It hoped to benefit from changes in US foreign policy, but no sooner was the war in that country over than Washington identified Iran as part of ‘the axis of evil’. Recent statements from the US make it clear that Iran is high on a list of possible next targets for ‘pre-emptive strikes’.

The failures of theocracy

Twenty-three years after coming to power, the Iranian clergy presides over a country where abject poverty, drug addiction, and prostitution (including child prostitution) have become major social issues that threaten the fabric of Iranian society.

The gap between the rich and poor is wider than ever. Official statistics put unemployment at 16 per cent, but the real figure is much higher. Hundreds of thousands of workers haven’t been paid for months, and government figures admit that more than 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

The experience of reform from within, which began with Khatami’s election, is considered a failure by both the supporters and the opponents of the Iranian president. The abysmal low turnout in recent local council elections was the nail in the coffin of reformist Islam in Iran. After more than two decades of fundamentalist rule, Iran has the largest secular opposition movement in the Middle East as most people identify ‘religious’ government as their main enemy.

Large numbers of workers who have not received any salaries for anything from six months to three years demonstrate regularly outside their workplaces. Millions of unemployed workers made redundant through mass privatisation (a policy demanded by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in return for billions of dollars of loans) are among the regime’s most determined opponents. And the youth and women who have suffered from the interference of religion in every aspect of their private lives are increasingly dissident too.

The economics of a capitalist state, even one that calls itself an Islamic Republic, necessitate an organised society. Within the Islamic regime itself most of the battles of the last decade have been about the religious state’s inability to deal with the current world economic order: on the one hand there are those who still believe in the rule of sharia; on the other those who have decided that the only way the regime can survive is if it establishes the rule of law in a free-market capitalist state.

The current president is of the latter party. His presidency has coincided with unfettered privatisation, as well as limited relaxation of the interference of religion in the private lives of the Iranian people.

Inevitably, other arguments typical of capitalist ruling circles (between statist reformers and laissez-faire evangelists) have also been aired in Iran’s parliament, the Majlis. But in both economic and political spheres the first Islamic state has predominantly been and is increasingly becoming a capitalist dictatorship with strong nationalist and religious overtones.

Iran’s ‘anti-Islamic’ foreign policy

Contrary to those who believe it is ‘Third Worldist’, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy was never anything other than a continuation of the Shah’s pursuit of regional power. Over the last decade Iranian real politic has been dominated by highly nationalist competition with Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

To become a regional power, Iran pursues a pragmatic rather than an Islamist foreign policy. This is despite all the rhetoric we hear from its leaders. In pursuit of its fierce competition with Turkey, for example, Iran supported Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan – simply because Turkey backed the latter.

When Iran opposed the Taleban advances in Afghanistan, Tehran’s propaganda talked of the Taleban giving a bad name to Islam. In reality, the defenders of Hezbollah in Lebanon could not have been too worried about the public image of Islam; the main concern was that Saudi and Pakistani money, competing with Iran for domination in Afghanistan, supported the Taleban. And Iran has kept contacts and reasonable relations with Israel, mainly because the enemy of its enemies (the Arabs) must be a friend.

Of course, Iranian leaders have made a great deal of their support for the deprived Muslims of the world. Given their total mistrust of Sunni groups, this has effectively amounted to support for a handful of Shi’a community groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan.

This policy has left Iran isolated in the region, and explains its ‘active neutrality’ in the current war. In fact, even the Islamist rhetoric of the Iranian regime is coming to an end. Last year’s dialogue with the UK and US on the Afghan war and this year’s covert support for ‘regime change’ in Iraq signal a final shift in the policy.

As far as Iran is concerned, and irrespective of how long the Islamic regime remains in power, we have come to the end of the road with Islamic fundamentalism. New diversions threaten genuine change. Bombarded with Western propaganda, the youth and sections of the women’s movement have many illusions about ‘Western democracy’.

Opposition figures – even among those claiming to be on the left – choose to forget that many of Iran’s social and economic problems have more to do with the capitalist nature of the Iranian state in the current world order than its Islamic characteristics. These problems cannot be simply resolved with political change from above.

There is no doubt that the failure of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran has led to an unprecedented rise in secularism, and there is every reason to believe that the regime ‘could crumble from within’ – just as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld claims. However, the possibility of a US-UK military attack could divert the opposition, and a nationalist backlash could prolong the Islamic regime.

Irrespective of what follows, it is the responsibility of the left to use the experience of Iran’s Islamic government to expose the failings of political Islam – both in the economic-social sphere (poverty, corruption, etc) and in the international arena (ie, anti-Western rhetoric instead of genuine anti-imperialism).

And inside Iran we need to link anti-capitalist campaigns against unemployment, non-payment of salaries and destitution with daily struggles for freedom and democracy. It is essential to show that Iran’s social, economic and political ills are interlinked, and that many of these problems are the inevitable consequences of the ‘new world order’.Yassamine Mather is a member of the coordinating committee of Workers’ Left Unity-Iran.


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