U.S. Solidarity with Iran
As members of a feminist collective founded in part to support the massive post-election protests in Iran in 2009 while opposing all forms of U.S. intervention, we take this opportunity to reflect on the meaning and practice of transnational solidarity between U.S.-based activists and sections of Iranian society. Both protests against and expressions of support for Ahmadinejad are articulated under the banner of support for the “Iranian people.”
In particular, critics of the Iranian regime have advocated the use of “targeted sanctions” against human rights violators in the Iranian government as a method of solidarity. Despite their name, these sanctions trickle down to punish broader sections of the population. They also stand as a stunning example of U.S. power and hypocrisy, since no country dares sanction the United States for its illegal wars, torture practices, and program of extrajudicial assassinations. Some “anti-imperialist” activists not only oppose war and sanctions on Iran but also defend Ahmadinejad as a populist president expressing the will of the majority of the Iranian people.
In fact, Ahmadinejad’s aggressive neo-liberal economic policies represent a right-wing attack on living standards and on various social welfare provisions established after the revolution. We offer an alternative notion of and method for building international solidarity “from below,” one that offers a way out of “lesser evil” politics and turns the focus away from the state and onto those movement activists in the streets.
From 1990 until 2003, a U.S.-led U.N. coalition placed crippling financial and trade sanctions on Iraq in an ostensible effort to weaken Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime. Sanctions, we were told, amounted to a humane way of combating intransigent authoritarianism around the world while avoiding mass bloodshed. The complete collapse of the Iraqi economy during 13 years of sanctions coupled with the inability of ordinary Iraqi people to access banned items necessary for their day-to-day survival—such as ambulances and generators—led to over half a million Iraqi civilian deaths. Furthermore, the sanctions were an utter failure in their purported primary goal—thwarting the Hussein regime while avoiding full-scale war. Finally, in March 2003, the United States and a small “coalition of the willing” began a full-scale military intervention in Iraq, which has shredded the fabric of Iraqi society and left a network of permanent U.S. military bases—and Western oil companies—behind.
Some form of sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran has been in place with little effect for more than 30 years. But since President Barack Obama took office, the sanctions have been amped up. In June 2010, a U.S.-led U.N. coalition passed the fourth round of economic and trade sanctions against the Islamic Republic since 2006. The stated goal: limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Soon after, the European Union imposed its own set of economic sanctions. A month later, with the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), President Obama signed into law the most extensive sanctions regime Iran has ever seen.
It should not be surprising, given the United States’ historic attempts to control Iranian oil, that CISADA’s primary target is the management of the Iranian petroleum industry. These sanctions would penalize any foreign company that sells Iran refined petroleum products, which are a necessity for the country’s primary industry, as well as for the everyday functioning of modern life. This winter, shortages of imported refined gasoline forced the Iranian government to convert petro-chemical plants into makeshift refineries that produce fuel loaded with dangerous particles. As a result, the capital city of Tehran has been plagued by unprecedented levels of pollution, shutting down schools and businesses for days at a time and leading to skyrocketing rates of respiratory illnesses and at least 3,641 pollution-related deaths.
Parts and supplies for a great deal of machinery—and not only those potentially associated with nuclear industry—are denied entry into Iran; indeed, one of the deadly examples of the effects of these sanctions in recent years has been the spate of crashes by commercial Iranian aircraft due to faulty or out-of-date parts.
No member of any Iran-based opposition group—from leaders of the “green” movement, to activists in the women’s and student movement, to labor organizers—has called for or supported the U.S./U.N./EU sanctions against the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, leaders from virtually all of these groups have vocally opposed the implementation of sanctions precisely because they have witnessed the Iranian state grow stronger, and the wellbeing of ordinary Iranians suffer, as a result. The U.S. government’s long record of either complicity with or silence regarding the treatment of dissidents in Iran—from the 1950s when it helped train the brutal SAVAK torture squads right through to the post-election crackdown in 2009—makes it nothing if not hypocritical on the issue of human rights in Iran.
The Spectrum of Support
In stark contrast to the range of groups protesting the Iranian president and the Islamic Republic’s policies, some 130 activists from antiwar, labor and anti-racist organizations took an altogether different approach in September 2010, attending a dinner with Ahmadinejad hosted by the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. According to one attendee, the goal of the dinner was to “share our hopes for peace and justice with the Iranian people through their president and his wife.” During two and half hours of speeches, activists embraced Ahmadinejad as an ally and partner in the global struggle for peace and, with few exceptions, ignored the fact that his administration is responsible for a brutal crackdown on dissent.
Rather than listening to the millions of Iranians who protested unfair elections and political repression, these activists heard only the siren song of Ahmadinejad’s “anti-imperialist” stance, his vehement criticism of Israel, and his statements about U.S. government complicity with the September 11 attacks. Many of these groups are numerically small organizations with histories of denying atrocities carried out by heads of state that oppose U.S. domination.
One of the most bewildering misrepresentations of Ahmadinejad outside Iran has been around his economic policies, which are often represented by the U.S. left as populist or even pro-working class. In reality, the extent and speed of privatization in Iran under Ahmadinejad has been unprecedented and disastrous for the majority of the Iranian people. Recently, despite vast opposition even from the parliament, the government annulled gasoline and food subsidies that have been in place for decades. The massive unregulated import of foreign products, especially from China, has made it impossible for agricultural and industrial domestic producers to survive. These hasty and haphazard developments have severely destabilized Iran’s economy in the past few years, leading to rocketing inflation (25–30 percent) and growing poverty. Unemployment is very high; no official statistics are available, but rough estimates are around 30 percent, creating fertile ground for recruitment into the state’s military and police apparatus (similar to the “poverty draft” in the United States).
The 1978–79 revolution was one of the most inspiring popular uprisings against imperialism and homegrown despotism the world has seen, successfully wresting Iran away from U.S. control over Iranian oilfields and ending its role as a watchdog for U.S. interests in the region. Denunciations of U.S. imperialism were a unifying rallying cry and formed a key pillar of revolutionary ideology. However, in the more than 30 years since, the Iranian government has, like all nations, ruthlessly pursued its interests on the world stage. Despite its anti-American/anti-imperialist rhetoric, Iran cannot survive without capital investment from and trade with other “imperial” nations, without integration into a world market that is ordered according to the relative military and economic strength of various states.
The Iranian government’s support for Palestinians scores it major points with many leftists in the United States and around the world. While the Iranian government does send material aid to Palestinians suffering under Israeli blockades and in refugee camps in Lebanon, it has also manipulated the situation for purposes that have nothing to do with Palestinian liberation. Using money to buy support from Palestinians and financing and arming the Hezbollah army in Lebanon are crucial ways the Islamic Republic exerts its influence in the region.
Currently no form of independent organizing, political or economic, is tolerated in Iran. Attempts at organizing workers and labor unions have been particularly subject to violent repression. No opposition parties are allowed to function. No independent media—no newspapers, magazines, or radio or television stations—can survive, other than websites that must constantly battle government censorship. The prisons are full of journalists and activists from across Iranian society. Prisoners are deprived of any rights or a fair trial, a violation of Iranian law. Iran has the second-highest number of executions among all countries and the highest number per capita. In January 2011, executions soared to a rate of one every eight hours.
The women’s movement has been another major target of repression in the past few years. Dozens of activists have been arrested and imprisoned for conducting peaceful campaigns for legal equality; many have been forced to flee the country, and many more are continually harassed and threatened. Women collecting signatures on a petition demanding the right to divorce and to child custody are often unfairly accused of disturbing public order, threatening national security, and insulting religious values.
Ahmadinejad’s anti-immigrant positions and policies are the harshest of any administration in the past few decades. The largest forced return of Afghan immigrants happened under his government, ripping families apart and forcing thousands across the border (with many deaths reported in winter due to severe cold). Marriage between Iranians and Afghan immigrants is not allowed, and Afghan children do not have any rights, not even to attend school. Moreover, government has been repressive toward different ethnic groups in Iran, particularly Kurds. It is promoting a militarist Shia-Islamist-nationalist agenda and escalating Shia-Sunni divisions.
Despite the many differences between the individuals and groups represented at that dinner with Ahmadinejad, what the overwhelming majority of them have in common is a mistaken idea of what it means to be anti-imperialist or antiwar. Part of the confusion may stem from a distorted notion of what it means to speak from inside “the belly of the beast.” In other words, the argument goes, those of us in the United States have a foremost responsibility to oppose the actual and threatened atrocities of our own government, not to sit in hypocritical judgment over other, lesser state powers. But in the case of the vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent inside Iran, not judging is, in practice, silent complicity. If anti-imperialism means the right to criticize only the U.S. government, we end up with a politics that is, ironically, so U.S.-centric as to undermine the possibility of international solidarity with people who have to simultaneously stand up to their own dictatorial governments and to the behemoth of U.S. power.
Solidarity: Concrete and from Below
There is no contradiction between opposing every instance of U.S. meddling in Iran—and every other country—and supporting the popular, democratic struggles of ordinary Iranians against dictatorship. Effective international solidarity requires that the two go hand in hand, for example, by linking the struggles of political prisoners in Iran with those of political prisoners in the United States, not by counterposing them.
Internationalism has to start from below, from the differently articulated aspirations of mass movements against state militarism, dictatorship, economic crisis, and gender, sexual, religious, class, and ethnic oppression, in Iran, in the United States, and all over the world. For activists in the United States, this means being against sanctions on Iran, whether they are in the name of “human rights” or the nuclear issue. It means refusing to cast the United States as the land of progress and freedom while Iran is demonized as backward and oppressive. Solidarity is not charity or pity; it flows from an understanding of mutual—though far from identical—struggle.
For solidarity to be effective, it must be concrete. U.S.-based activists need to educate ourselves about Iran’s historic and contemporary social movements and, as much as possible, build relationships with those involved in various opposition groups and activities in Iran so that our support is thoughtful, appropriate to the context, and, ideally, in response to specific requests initiated from within Iran. It is our hope that these struggles may be increasingly linked as social justice activists in the United States and Iran find productive ways of working together, as well as in our different contexts and locations, toward the similar goals of greater democracy and human liberation.