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Iran Today: Democracy, Dissent, Repression and Solidarity

Date Published: 

<i>The following is an edited transcript of an event held at the Brecht Forum in New York on July 13, 2009.</i>

<b>Leili Kashani:</b> As many of you know, millions of Iranians took to the streets in the aftermath of the disputed June 2009 presidential elections. Many have been arrested and held in undisclosed locations throughout the country. Torture is being used to both terrorize dissidents and to force them to make false confessions about their links to the United States and to Israel. What is at stake, I think, is the future of a country of over 70 million people.

We must remember that Iranians are not victims who need Westerners to come and save them, but agents in a just movement of their own making. In thinking through these issues we must be particularly vigilant, because across the political spectrum in the United States, people have either misread events in Iran, or have exploited them to further their own agendas.

Ervand, the opposition are being labeled as counter-revolutionaries, but this is not the first time that the post-revolutionary government has used a theocratic, anti-imperialist nationalism to crush democratic forces in Iran. Can you talk about the longer history of this phenomenon?

<b>Ervand Abrahamian:</b> Well, instead of dwelling too much on history, I would like to focus on the use or misuse of history in this case. The main propaganda against the reform movement has been that this is a “velvet revolution” done by the US and the British, and for people in Iran who know about the [CIA coup in] 1953, it is easy to fit into that narrative—here is another case of the imperial power undermining popular sovereignty and trying to overthrow the regime. And this plays an important role in the Left here, because everyone knows about 1953, so it is easy to jump from that and say that the US and Britain are behind what is going on now.

The problem with that is facts. Here when you look at the interpretive or real facts, you will find that the Obama Administration was taken very much by surprise, and is rather awkward with this crisis. It doesn’t like this mass movement in Iran; it would rather that it went away. This crisis actually puts a spoke in the wheels, because now both the Right wing and liberals in the United States are saying how can you deal with a regime that is illegitimate to people in the streets? So that’s why actually the Obama Administration has been quite distant from it.

On the whole, if you look at British and American papers, the journalists who are now most understanding of Ahmedinejad tend to come from the Right wing, and journalists who were in the past sympathetic to the Islamic Republic are the ones who are most critical of the election. So there has been a great shift there. The facts are, the Obama Administration, as soon as it came in, has made far more changes with its Iran policy than anywhere else. So it is in that context that this uproar has happened, and that has really complicated the Administration’s policy. They would rather quiet this thing down and proceed with the negotiations. So the whole idea that the US is trying to repeat the 1953 coup is really science fiction, there is no evidence actually, the only evidence is coming from people who are being tortured.

<b>Leili Kashani:</b> Hamid, I would like to ask you to characterize this movement on the streets of Iran. What are their demands and aspirations? Are people on the streets of Iran risking their lives for Mousavi, or is this movement bigger than and separable from him?

<b>Hamid Dabashi:</b> There is so much noise happening here in the United States and also from Iran that we need to constantly fine-tune our radios in order to actually hear what is happening. The noises here are obvious. The hypocritical US Congress, the night before the election, was about to pass even more severe economic sanctions on Iran. As soon as the demonstrations started, suddenly Mr. “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran” [John McCain] appeared with a green bandanna on his head. That’s one sort of noise, the abuse of this movement by the neo-cons. The oppositional forces, the monarchists, the mojahedins, etc. are the obvious other ones.

My other concern is, for those of us who have a memory of the Iranian Revolution, for us not to impose those on this movement. I am on the record as having identified this movement as a “civil rights movement” and not as a revolution. I do not believe that this is either a coup, or a revolution in the making. What I have been saying is that when these people poured into the streets in their hundreds of thousands, this is exercising Article 27 of the constitution, according to which they are entitled to peaceful rallies, provided they are not armed and, two, that it is not against Islam. So, they were unarmed, and throughout the initial demonstrations at the top of the chants were the words “Allah-hu-akbar,” much to the chagrin of the fanatical seculars around the world. As a result Article 27 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic entitles them to these rallies.

It has now become very fashionable to bash the Left for not recognizing this movement for what it is, for being critical of it, for saying that the CIA or the Saudis had something to do with it, and so forth. Let me ask you to zoom back to prior to June 12. Why is it that the Left in fact has every legitimate reason to be concerned about what is happening inside Iran? Very legitimate reasons, because the geopolitics of the region were such—Iraq was in a mess, after eight years of Bush; Afghanistan continues to be in a mess; Israel continues to steal Palestinian land; Gaza is under military blockade. And for all his pomp and ceremony, we are yet to see any change in President Obama’s regional politics. So we are just half a year out of the nightmare of the Bush Administration, and nothing miraculous has really happened for us to drop our guard.

This is up until June 12. What happened after June 12 is that Iranians threw a monkey wrench into the geopolitics of the region. The question of whether or not the election was rigged is now moot. The government says it was not rigged, three oppositional candidates say it was rigged. But millions of Iranians have poured into the streets and the idea that the election was rigged is now a social fact, namely people believe in it, they have put their lives on the line, scores of them have been killed, thousands of them have been arrested and incarcerated. The state of military siege is all over for us to see—whether or not the election has been rigged has become effectively a moot question.

Now, given this monkey wrench that the Iranian election has thrown, on July 9, something extraordinary has happened. A very progressive cleric wrote asking for legal opinion from Ayatollah Montazeri. He asked, what does he think of the authority of someone who is presiding over a constitution or a society that millions of people think is illegitimate. In response to this, Ayatollah Montezeri wrote a fatwa saying that such a person is illegitimate—in no uncertain terms meaning both Ayatollah Khomeini and Ahmedinejad. In other words, from the bosom of the Islamic Republic—not from people who have for some reason or another problems with the Islamic Republic—the constitutional, juridical, and religious foundation of the Islamic Republic is now being questioned.

Now, where we anti-war activists stand here, there are three possibilities. One is to say well, screw Iranians, they shouldn’t have voted. Too bad Iranians voted, too bad they are out in the streets in their millions, too bad they want democracy. Stick to the geopolitics of the region, and if something is happening in the streets of Teheran, this is the CIA; this is Saudi money. Another is to say no, this is a revolution in Iran—so to hell with Palestinians, to hell with Iraqis, to hell with the geopolitics of the region, this is a national uprising, let’s go for it. Either of those two positions are very easy, but they are flawed.

The challenge that the Left today faces is in fact sticking up for principles—opposing economic sanctions, opposing allocation of money to support regime change, opposing the neocon/neoliberal coalition against Iran, opposing US and Israeli military operations against Iran, and opposing the useless opposition like the monarchists. But please, don’t dishonor the needs and sayings and aspirations and hopes of millions of people, who didn’t just pour into the streets over the last four weeks or so—this is the continuation of a history that has been going on for 200 years. It goes through phase after phase, and in my judgment, this phase is to secure civil liberties within the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

Please, my leftist, progressive friends, whenever you see me go to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, please don’t think I am going gaga. From the very first sentence I have had problems with it, and it categorically distorts Iranian political culture. But that’s the constitution that the “true of faith” have given to these kids. And it is within that constitution that their civil rights, the right to question this tabulation is guaranteed. That balance, I think, is important for those of us outside to have ethical solidarity, and in terms of recognizing the veracity, grassroots, inborn significance of this movement.

<b>Arang Keshavarzian:</b> Let me just start by saying that in general terms I agree with Professor Dabashi, that the best way to characterize this is as a civil rights movement. It’s very naïve to start talking about a revolution, I don’t think the participants in any of the events of the last few months envision themselves as revolutionaries, but they do envision themselves as citizens.

From being in Iran until June 15, I can say that the language used in the streets, in shared taxis, and around lunch tables on June 13 was the language of citizenship, the language of rights. This language obviously has a long, historical trajectory but it also has a more immediate source as well, and this really has to do with the campaigning, the strategizing of the Mousavi camp. Throughout their one month of campaigning, and especially in the televised debate, Mousavi and his aides really pushed this idea of “rule of law.” They really hammered Ahmedinejad for his systematic violations of the rule of law, regulations, checks and balances that are in place within the structure of the Islamic Republic. On the morning of June 13, people woke up and said, “Oh, all those things we heard about for the last few weeks, all those violations we see yet again in this dramatic sense.” I think this is one of the reasons this movement is a movement around civil rights, political rights, transparency.

Let me now go back to why people thought their rights as citizens and active participants were violated. I’m one who thinks there was a degree of manipulation, vote-rigging, whatever you want to call it. I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t tell you what percentage was moved around. If you tell me that Ahmedinejad still won, I would probably accept that. Whatever the result is, and this is what is important for us outside to realize, it is not so much about who won and who lost as much as it is about how this election took place. The violations, the irregularities, the lack of transparency started very early on, before election day. One thing early on that worried and angered the opposition candidates was the mobile voting stations. There were around 14,000 mobile voting stations, Iran always has had mobile voting for hospitals and so forth, but this number was very high and made it very difficult for observers to observe what was going on. There was also a large number of extra ballots printed that to this day have not been fully accounted for. Then finally on the evening of June 12, one of the main headquarters of Mousavi was attacked and ransacked, several of his strategists were arrested, they were released and then re-arrested the following day. I could talk about some other issues, but I am also of the opinion that we have gone beyond June 12 and what did or did not happen.

Now this argument that whatever, even if one, two, three million votes were not counted, it doesn’t matter because Ahmedinejad is popular because he is a man of the people, he is popular with the working class, popular with the rural population, the urban poor and so forth. And conversely Mousavi is just a bourgeois dilettante who listens to classical music and lives in north Teheran and so on. This is a very problematic characterization on many fronts.

The image of Ahmedinejad as a champion and the vanguard of the working class struggle is very problematic. Let me break that into two issues: One is the rural issue. There is a lot of evidence that shows that he has never been popular among the rural population—his support base is in urban Iran, and has always been in urban Iran. He in fact has unwound some of the rural, agricultural policies that in fact Mousavi had initiated in the 1980s. So that notion is very problematic.

The issue of him supporting the working class—in his four years in power he has enjoyed roughly $200-300 billion of oil revenue, and he has distributed it in large quantities to a large number of people. Absolutely any Iranian of lower class has benefited from these outlets. However, the urban poor are not the only people who have benefited from these outlets—it’s quite clear, as members of Parliament and newspapers have pointed out, a lot of this oil wealth has gone to enterprises closely aligned and directly beholden to the foundations and the Revolutionary Guard. So the distribution of oil revenue has not been only to the poor.

More important for us, as progressive organizations, in his four years in office Ahmedinejad has systematically attacked independent organizations of the working class. It includes the attacks on the bus drivers, it includes the teachers, and includes the notaries when they tried to start an independent association. So one of my questions to my friends on the Left is: Back in 2004, 2005, 2006, how come we did not speak out against the systematic destruction of attempts by working class Iranians to organize themselves?

<i>Leili Kashani facilitated this discussion, and is a Ph.D. student in the joint program in History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. She has been a student council member at The International Society for Iranian Studies, and is an editor at Arab Studies Journal.

Ervand Abrahamian is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baruch College, City University of New York. He has authored numerous books and articles, and has spoken publicly about Iran over the last three decades.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and has been regularly commenting on the political crisis in Iran through various media outlets.

Arang Keshavarzian was in Iran during the 2009 presidential election and is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is on the Editorial Committee of the Middle East Research and Information Project.</i>