To anti-war and peace activists living in the United States, the first year of the Donald Trump administration has been cause for increased mobilization. The prospect of a major new conflagration being unleashed by the Pentagon seems to grow by the day. From the outset of his presidency, Trump has advanced the threat of frightening possibilities as far the U.S. war machine is concerned, most recently taking to Twitter to declare that he had a ‘bigger nuclear’ button than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and bragging about the history of the U.S. being the only country to use it. To be certain, these are times in which the anti-war movement must be extremely vigilant.
It isn’t merely that Trump’s tongue seems erratic and his trigger finger slippery. There is continuity as far as an aggressive approach to countries that defy the diktat of the United States are concerned. For those who have been paying close attention, Trump’s policies don’t fundamentally break with those of past administrations. They may in some ways appear more hawkish than those of the Obama administration, but the hit list that was made visible by the foreign policy establishment in the aftermath of 9/11 remains largely intact today.
At that time, George W. Bush declared the ‘axis of evil’ to include three countries: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Bush, of course, went to war in Iraq, but couldn’t foresee the debacle it would become for his administration and the region. Obama, although drawing down the number of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be known for his rampant use of drones across the region, as well as an architect of the NATO bombing campaign of Libya that has turned the country into a failed state. His administration’s tacit support for al-Qaeda type rebels in Syria has contributed to the destruction of that country.
As we move in 2018, Trump has insured that the U.S. will remain in Iraq, has increased the number of forces in Afghanistan, and isn’t showing a willingness to leave Syria anytime soon. Most importantly, Trump has carried the Bush and Obama mantle of spewing the most hawkish rhetoric toward North Korea and Iran. Along with his now somewhat more refined policy toward China, these countries have formed the basis for his administration’s ‘hit list’.
Trump Targets Iran, Street Protests Develop
Trump’s announcement in November that he would not be certifying the so-called ‘Iran nuclear deal’, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), showed that his administration was serious about not only throwing aside a key agreement that has contributed to world peace, but about the overthrow of Iran’s government. (This led me to choose to write my first article for The Region on that very topic, entitled ‘Is Trump Pushing for War Against Iran?’)
In the final week on 2017, the largest street protests since the aftermath of 2009’s election began taking place in dozens of cities across Iran, ostensibly about economic grievances. There is no doubt that the country’s economic problems have been aggravated by the sanctions regime imposed upon it by the U.S. A key part of the strategy of Washington in its aspirations for regime change has always been to facilitate the collapse the economies of targeted countries. Their hope is that such conditions produce a feeling of necessity for people to rise up and replace the existing government with a client regime more amenable to U.S. interests.
Trump, in his smug and condescending fashion, took to Twitter to voice his support for these demonstrations, declaring in one tweet “Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”
History has taught us some very important lessons about the role of the United States in the world. One of these is that generally where the U.S. supports a protest movement, it has ulterior motives other than the benefit or well-being of the people of that country. This is obvious in the example of Iran. Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has been a thorn in the side of the United States. A wave of nationalizations and a new, independent foreign policy meant that Iran has been ‘lost’ much in the same way China was after the 1949 communist revolution’s triumph, albeit to very different forces within society.
Are the Protesters Doing the Work of Imperialism?
However, despite the aspirations of the U.S. to facilitate the overthrow of the Iranian state, this doesn’t mean that this is the only contradiction worthy of our analysis. It is unfortunate that far too many western progressives and leftists use an extremely unnuanced and frankly harmful logic when analysing protest movements like the one currently unfolding in Iran. This logic can be defined as reducing what’s taking place to a single contradiction: the U.S. opposes Iran’s government, therefore Iran is objectively anti-imperialist. Thus, any protest movement unfolding is objectively pro-imperialist, as it can only aid the forces of empire and the Pentagon.
This position is no doubt understandable, especially considering the recent history of the U.S. in the region. Not only was there the Iraq catastrophe that essentially destroyed and fragmented the country, but the Libya and Syria fiascos saw the U.S. play a major destabilizing role. What is true for each of these countries – Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran – is that they were/are all outside of the orbit of western hegemony. They can be said to be governments that have had/do have nationalist orientations. In other words, they have refused to play ball with the rules put forward by the U.S.
At the same time, there is also something deeply distressing about seeing communists in the west smear the demonstrators as nothing more than agents of an attempted ‘color revolution’. It is true that in some cases, there are protesters who are calling for the return of the monarchy that ruled the country for thousands of years prior to the events of 1979. Others advance reactionary slogans in regards to the Iranian state’s support for Palestinian liberation, wishing for a return to the Shah era’s close relationship with the colonial entity of Israel.
However, in many other situations, the protesters are leftists, communists, socialists, and feminists – in other words, people who hold the same ideologies as those who are often at the forefront of the U.S. anti-war movement. Given the history of the repression of the left in Iran, it’s perplexing to see western leftists give uncritical support to the clerical government’s assault on protesters that has included leaflets being distributed on the ‘evils of Marxism’.
One example of the more progressive elements in these demonstrations can be seen in the slogan advanced by radical students at Tehran University: "Neither King, nor the Supreme Leader! We don't want to choose between bad and worse!”
The Decimation of Iran’s Left
Iran’s Islamic Revolution could undoubtedly only be solidified by destroying any major Marxist or secular force that had played a key role in the events of 1979.
It was unquestionably Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was the leading figure of that struggle against the Shah, but the communists and other leftists who existed in their tens of thousands also exerted a major influence upon the demonstrations that eventually led to the overthrow of the monarchy.
Initially, the country’s dominant communist organisation, the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party, deemed a tactical alliance with the Khomeinist leadership to be necessary for the advancement of the country’s anti-imperialist struggle. However, that alliance quickly collapsed as the Islamic Republic unleashed a wave of terror on a mass scale, banning any semblance of socialist ideology. The repression reached its apex in 1988 when Khomeini issued a fatwa paving the way for the execution of thousands of political prisoners. Leaders of the Tudeh Party who survived the repression often appeared on national television to confess their previous ‘sins’ of belonging to Marxist parties and declaring their allegiance to the principles of the Islamic Revolution.
With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, the alignment of global forces changed substantially. This brought countries that defied the global hegemony of the United States closer together, regardless of their ideological differences. Khomeini’s assertion that Marxism was an evil ideology and the USSR the ‘lesser Satan’ (the U.S. being the ‘Great Satan’) seemed less relevant than unity in the face of a seemingly unhinged superpower. Therefore, it should hardly be surprising that revolutionary governments such as those in Cuba and Venezuela have forged closer relations with the government in Tehran, and have declared their opposition to the recent wave of protests. After all, Venezuela’s Bolivarian government knows full well what it’s like to face violent street protests egged on by the U.S. establishment.
Anti-Imperialism vs. Proletarian Internationalism
This, of course, brings forward the contradiction of anti-imperialism vs. proletarian internationalism. Due to the intense wave of repression that the clerical government unleashed in the 1980s, the left has been essentially decimated in Iran. It is also no surprise that as a result of this, the protests currently taking place across the country lack revolutionary leadership or the predominance of left-wing slogans. However, dozens of Marxist groups continue to exist in a clandestine fashion and have been active in calling for support for the ongoing protests in Iran.
This raises a very acute question for the left in the imperialist metropoles about what solidarity should really entail in this situation. Should it manifest as solidarity with an anti-imperialist government that comes into contradiction with imperialism – no matter how reactionary is may be – or solidarity with leftist forces struggling on a progressive, democratic platform while making clear that U.S. imperialist intervention should be firmly opposed? The western left needs to decide if it believes that Mao Zedong’s maxim ‘it is right to rebel against reactionaries’ holds true in every circumstance – or if it believes that it should only be right to rebel against reactionaries who side with the United States. This is a complex question, and one of great seriousness.
Some anti-war activists in the U.S. posit that the most important role at moments in which it appears that the U.S. establishment is beating the drums of war is to defy the ‘demonization’ campaign in the mainstream media that wets the appetite for a possible war. However, one can also argue that it does nothing to really advance the progressive cause of a people – in this case, the people of Iran – to practice ‘prettification’ of a government that frankly has nothing in common with the politics or kind of social order advocated by the left.
Iran’s Left on the Protests
At this point, it may be helpful to look at how several of Iran’s banned left-wing organizations are viewing developments.
The Party of Labour of Iran (Toufan) has said of the protests:
All social and political sectors of the society are participating in these protests, from communists to revolutionaries from ordinary masses to organized forces, from the monarchists to reactionary and pro-imperialist Mojahedeen and to individual agents of Zionists and imperialists. This uprising is spontaneous, mainly by the youth, it does not have an organized leadership at this moment. Despite all shortcomings, this uprising is a genuine expression of discontent of the general population from four decades criminal rule of the Islamic Republic. The protest movement started with economic demands and is moving forward towards political issues.
In the Middle East, the U.S. imperialists and Israeli Zionists are trying to penetrate any movement against the regimes that do not bend to their dictates. This is particularly true about Iran. The presence of agents and lackeys of the US imperialists and Israeli Zionists in a movement does not necessarily express the nature of the movement. In the present uprising in Iran, the role of these agents is not dominant. This is a spontaneous movement from bottom-up and not from top-down. At the same time, the communist left, and progressive forces must be very vigilant and analyze the erroneous slogans and stands that are expressed in the marches and expose the nature of them to the masses.
In addition, the largest communist organization of Iran, the Tudeh Party, has said of the demonstrations:
The majority of the people of the homeland today want to put an end to the despotic theocratic regime; to end the oppression and injustice; and bring about the establishment of freedom and social justice. These demands can only be achieved through a joint struggle of all the national and freedom-loving forces without foreign intervention. At the same time, it should be noted that under the critical conditions of the current dangerous regional tensions, the regional reaction - supported by the Trump administration in the US and the right-wing government of Netanyahu in Israel - is seeking to distinctly impact the developments in our country and to replace the current reactionary regime with another reactionary regime.
The Communist Party of Iran (CPI), whose leadership is based in exile in Berlin, has released several statements on the protests. One of these reads in part:
The regime that is in the process of intimidating the people makes massacres of defenceless citizens and does not listen to international protests and public opinion. With the persistence of people's rightful protest in the streets or within the framework of the progressive social movements, the workers' movement , women, youth, the revolutionary movement of Kurdistan, can be fought in strikes using flexible tactics. It has become clear that in the absence of freedom of political parties today, with no leadership and without a clear strategy on the streets, anger is expressed. And they hate this regime, more than ever…
It is clear from not only these statements, but those of countless other left-wing activists both on the ground in Iran and in exile, that they refuse to see the choice in their country as one narrowed down to ‘pro-U.S. imperialist lackeys’ and ‘anti-imperialist theocrats’. The politics of despair doesn’t factor into their decision to rebel against the government or fight for the kind of society they wish to live in, although they are evidently cautious in light of the machinations of the west and the recent history of the region in the post-Arab Spring period.
Beyond the Politics of Despair
At this moment, it is no doubt important that U.S. leftists and anti-war activists see as their principle responsibility opposition to the war cries of the Trump administration. The main enemy will always be at home.
However, we should be deeply cautious about labelling those who see the necessity in rebelling in Iran as nothing more than agents of the United States. Isn’t revolutionary politics, Marxism and global geo-politics much more complex than that?
To quote an Iranian communist writing on the blog ‘The Blanquist’:
“In a world filled with reactionary governments, whether the US or Iran, leftists and the people generally do not have to pick between them. There is the possibility for other openings where radical and revolutionary forces can learn, organize and act. The politics of “lesser evilism” in regards to foreign affairs follows the same logic as on the domestic front – it is a politics of lowered expectations and cold cynicism that denies the possibility of revolution. This simplistic approach denies the ability of the people to learn complex politics and act with their own agency.”
The politics of revolution is about daring the imagine the unimaginable, doing the unthinkable, and not settling for narrowed horizons. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, I defended communist and socialist activists in the U.S. who were on the frontline of protests against his victory. Those protests were dominated by liberal supporters of Hillary Clinton, leading many geo-political analysts to see it as ‘America’s color revolution’ since Trump was seen as defying the establishment. The conspiracies held that these protests were nothing more than orchestrated events put on by George Soros, and that those radicals within the ranks of the movement were objectively aiding the so-called ‘deep state’. Yet, revolutionaries made it clear they weren’t Clinton supporters, and were fighting for something outside of the bounds of what appeared possible at this instance, refusing to settle for the lesser-evil politics of Clinton or Trump, and attempting to re-orient society toward a socialist vision.
We should afford Iran’s revolutionary elements the same respect, and at the very least not pile scorn upon them. Perhaps the bigger lesson to be learned for revolutionaries in western metropoles is that not everything that comes into contradiction with the U.S. should be supported in a knee-jerk and blanket fashion. The world is indeed far more complicated than this, far more complex than a binary dichotomy would suggest. Our world demands better, and Iran’s Marxists and radicals deserve for us to be take more seriously the question of what solidarity should really look like.
*Article image from the "green revolution" protests of 2009 in Iran.