Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee