[Marxism] The Iranian left

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 7 18:29:37 MST 2006

What's Left of Reform


[from the November 20, 2006 issue]

One steamy hot Tehran afternoon late this past spring, Ahmad Saei 
received a letter that struck him as especially odd. A professor of 
law and international relations at Tehran University, he was used to 
receiving a daily notice addressing mundane school matters--religious 
holidays, ceremonies, talks on campus. That day's mail, however, was 
different. Written on behalf of the university administration, the 
note announced that the university would be sorry to lose four 
longtime professors to retirement as of the fall. He scanned down, 
surprised to see that the charismatic head of the faculty of law and 
political science--of which he was a member--was on the list. Just 
below that, he saw his own name--first, middle, last. He took a long 
sip of his black tea, shut off his computer and walked to his first 
lecture of the day.

Saei's "retirement" took almost everyone by surprise. He had been a 
professor at Tehran University since the late 1970s, when this and 
other campuses throughout the country were caught up in heady 
political storms that ended in a revolution. He had long considered 
himself among the revolutionaries; like thousands of other young 
people of his generation, he had agitated for the overthrow of the 
US-backed Pahlavi monarchy. But something had changed. A 
self-described reformist, Saei does not seem to share the vision of 
the new set of men who have been running the country since last 
year's presidential election. "They want to make the university yek 
dast [made of 'one hand']," he told me of the country's leadership. 
"But it will take a second revolution to do that."

One year into office, a second revolution may not be that far removed 
from what Iran's new leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has in mind. A man 
of now famously humble origins who rose from simple foot soldier of 
the Revolutionary Guard to become mayor of Tehran, the president has 
made no secret of his plans to return his country to what he has 
obliquely referred to as "true Islam." Ahmadinejad's stance is 
anti-corruption, anti-decadence, vehemently anti-imperial. He fancies 
himself a rock star of the people (he has been known to dive into 
adoring crowds), a king of the photo-op, a sort of Gamal Abdel Nasser 
of the Iranian street. Speaking to a rapt group of university 
students during the first week of September, the new president 
blithely equated secular education with the evils of colonialism, 
continuing, "Students should shout at the president and ask why 
liberal and secular university lecturers are present in the 
universities." Ahmadinejad's comments may augur grim changes. Dozens 
of professors have already been sent packing. And as the new academic 
year begins, there are rumors that many more will soon follow.

At Tehran University, the dismissal of the professors inspired 
unrest. On the heels of the first set of retirements last spring, 
students organized a sit-in that devolved into two days of 
demonstrations, spilling out of the faculty of law and into the 
courtyard, and continuing into the night at the university 
dormitories some miles away. At the stark, military-style dorms, the 
demonstrators appropriated sundry causes beyond the fate of the 
professors--from the publication of a cartoon some weeks before that 
had offended Iran's ethnic Azeris, a Turkic-speaking people who make 
up a quarter of the population, to living conditions in the 
university dorms and more general political gripes. There, students 
clashed with plainclothes security as well as police, ending in 
injuries and arrests. For some, this seemed an eerie throwback to 
1999's violent clashes at the same site over the closure of a number 
of reformist newspapers, in what were the most significant student 
protests in Iran's recent history.

Elaheh, a student at the university, counts herself among a small 
group of self-proclaimed Marxists on campus. She brushed by me one 
day at the faculty of law, just one week after the biggest of the 
demonstrations. A busted, splintery door in the faculty's main hall 
marked the site where rioting had poured out of this space. "The 
traditional culture of revolt here has been the left. Our parents 
were revolutionaries in 1979; now we're carrying on the fight they 
started," she explained.

For some students frustrated by the failure of the reformists and the 
rise of a president bent on turning back the clock, the left has a 
distinct appeal. The reformists spoke of human rights and democracy, 
quoted Habermas and Hegel, and had a committed following among the 
country's intellectuals. Out of sync with most Iranians' daily 
realities, their lofty talk didn't resonate with people more 
concerned about making ends meet--hence the election of Ahmadinejad, 
a plain-speaking candidate whose motto was social justice.

The left has a significant history in this country--from the 
short-lived reign of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who dared to 
nationalize Iranian oil in 1951, thereby inspiring a coup backed by 
Iran's US and British patrons, to Ali Shariati, one of the 
intellectual architects of the 1979 revolution who lent a socialist 
reading to Shiism. Come 2006, Che Guevara caps are fashionable in 
university halls, and (rough) translations of Adorno and Marx abound. 
Today's fledgling left has its own publications, too; printed on 
inexpensive newsprint, their covers boast hammers, sickles, factory 
icons. Some of them have an explicit orientation targeting the 
working classes. The bolder among them were vocal last winter when a 
transportation strike climaxed in the closing of Tehran's bus 
drivers' syndicate. On International Workers' Day this year, these 
student groups, along with a coalition of women's rights activists, 
gathered in solidarity with the striking workers.

But these movements--students, advocates of workers' rights, people 
agitating for women's rights, even the reformist press--remain small, 
fractured, isolated. The students' knowledge of the left's origins 
and legacy is spotty. The bus drivers have not been able to mobilize 
since their syndicate was closed and their leader imprisoned. And 
little seems off-limits to the machinery of Ahmadinejad's government; 
in August Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi sent a letter to 
the international community revealing that her organization, the 
Tehran-based Defenders of Human Rights Center, stood to be shut down 
by the Interior Ministry--purportedly for not having the proper 
permit. In early September, Shargh, perhaps the last reformist 
newspaper still standing, was forced to close its doors.

Amid modest bouts of activism, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice 
and the American foreign policy she orchestrates have all but called 
upon Iranians to rise up against their regime. A new Office of 
Iranian Affairs at the State Department has taken the place of the 
portentously named Office of Special Plans, while this past summer, 
in response to a request from Rice, Congress appropriated $66 million 
to bolster the prospects for democracy in Iran--expanding satellite 
broadcasts, aiding political dissidents as well as Iranian 
organizations inside the country and out. Seemingly harmless enough, 
the initiative has in fact made life even harder for some members of 
Iran's embattled civil society.

"We're not going to play host to colored revolutions here," Habib, a 
student at Allameh Tabatabai University told me one day in reference 
to the transitions that have overtaken the likes of Ukraine, Georgia 
and Kyrgyzstan. "It will be our blood that spills red the second we 
are linked to the Americans."

The mere prospect of being linked to foreigners, especially 
Americans, is an uncomfortable one. The April arrest of philosopher 
Ramin Jahanbegloo on charges of colluding with the United States to 
carry out a "velvet revolution"--a reference to the Czechoslovakian 
experience of 1989--is a testament to the changed terrain. 
Jahanbegloo, while not politically active, had hosted such foreign 
intellectuals as Richard Rorty, Timothy Garton Ash and Antonio Negri 
in Tehran in recent years. The fact that he was once a fellow at the 
National Endowment for Democracy certainly did not help his case.

Almost across the board, Iranians resist the prospect of being helped 
by "the American money." The dangling cash has become a darkly comic 
subject as, for many, perhaps the only government they dislike more 
than their own is an American one they associate with double 
standards and overzealous meddling that goes back more than a 
century, reaching deep into their psyches. Complicating matters, a 
number of prominent American conservatives have become, you could 
say, unlikely champions for Iranian freedom--from columnist Andrew 
Sullivan, who has tried to bring attention to the fate of the 
country's homosexuals, to the American Enterprise Institute's Michael 
Ledeen, who has lamented Iran's treatment of its ethnic minorities. 
Both are vocal advocates of regime change.

Amin, a 50-something dealer in secondhand foreign-language books in 
Tehran, explained his sentiment: "Am I unhappy? Yes. But do I want 
American-style modernity? No. Their democracy is like fast food, 
parachuted in by people who know nothing about us," he told me one 
day as students mined his cramped space for books in English.

This past spring, some signs indicated that the Bush Administration 
was in the midst of developing military plans to take out the Tehran 
regime, reported most prominently by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. 
And in recent weeks this magazine and Time have reported that a 
"prepare to deploy" order was issued to US warships, dispatching them 
to the Persian Gulf to hover just off Iran's western coast.

But despite an endless stream of US admonishments and military 
muscle-flexing, Ahmadinejad and his camp have never seemed quite so 
smug. In September the Iranian president was in New York for the 
opening meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. There, he 
bemoaned the fate of occupied peoples the world over, warned of the 
dangers of using the UN as a tool for "threat and coercion" and 
finally defended his country's right to develop nuclear energy. At 
the Council on Foreign Relations he worked a room packed with 
scholars and dignitaries, answering every question with one of his 
own, engaging in a dizzying game of circumlocution that left many in 
the audience exasperated. In just about all his public addresses, 
there is a distinct triumphalism in tone, an unnerving 
self-confidence. And why not? Iran holds all the right cards in 
neighboring Shiite-dominated Iraq, oil prices continue to soar, the 
Bush doctrine of magical transformation in the region is sputtering 
and the Tehran regime is basking in the gains of what has been 
roundly deemed a Hezbollah victory over Israel in Lebanon (Iran is 
Hezbollah's greatest backer, though the extent and nature of that 
backing is a subject of contention). It thus comes as little surprise 
that Ahmadinejad denied the UN access to key sites in late August, 
after it demanded a freeze on the country's uranium enrichment 
program. Though it seems likely that Iran will face some form of 
sanction, the Iranians, insisting that the enrichment is for peaceful 
purposes, seem hardly to care.

And so as Iran and the United States trade insults, and the press 
engages in a sort of nuclear fetishism, it is members of Iran's civil 
society--women's rights activists, educators, student leaders--who 
may have to pay the greatest cost. Hemmed in by their own state, they 
are also disenchanted by the anti-regime mantras of a largely Los 
Angeles-based opposition that spans everything from exiled leftists 
to monarchists to a humdrum former monarch's son who has written a 
pocket guide to democracy (he announces that he will come back as 
king only if the people will it). Add the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq to the 
mix--a bizarre, cultlike socialist-Islamist outfit that is perhaps 
best known for inspiring self-immolation among some of its most 
devoted members--and you see that the alternatives are few. The 
government, in turn, announces that you are either on our team or 
theirs. In this picture, anything in between gets all but squeezed out.

In early June I walked into a raucous meeting of a women's group in 
South Tehran. Seated around a tiny table, the women were mostly in 
their 20s. I had interrupted an argument in progress; they were in 
the midst of planning a demonstration to bring attention to the place 
of women in the country's revolutionary Constitution of 1979, though 
they were not settled as to the exact form their demands would take. 
Some thought it was their duty to call for a referendum on the 
Constitution at large. Others seemed to find this unwise, unrealistic 
at best, and opted instead to focus on specific aspects of the 
Constitution that were unfriendly to women--such as laws governing 
custody or marriage. These were things, argued one of them, that 
women of all social classes could relate to.

I asked what was perhaps an obvious question--or at least the 
question everyone has tended to ask since the last election: Had 
their work changed at all in the past year? Bita, a young leftist 
among the assembled, answered me with an analogy:

"We are back to the time of the revolution. America is once again the 
devil. This is pounded into us. And so, like the early years after 
the revolution, being a feminist--what we do--is targeted as 
something foreign, American, not from here. Even working at an NGO 
means you are not loyal, that you're working for foreigners and you 
are against your own country."

Less than three months before, on March 8, International Women's Day, 
this group was among hundreds roughed up in a downtown park. As one 
woman read the organizers' manifesto, she and others encountered 
electric batons and tear gas wielded by Revolutionary Guards, members 
of the Basij (a paramilitary branch of the guards) and plainclothes 
vigilantes. Ahmadinejad's second revolution seemed to be taking form.

"We weren't surprised," Leila, among the organizers of the Women's 
Day event, told me about the attack. "And we're prepared to take it again."

Less than two weeks later, I woke to receive e-mails and text 
messages announcing that a downtown demonstration had been broken up 
even before it had the chance to begin. The young women I had just 
sat with were among at least seventy rounded up and held at various 
locations throughout the city. I thought of Leila's marked 
nonchalance and wondered if I was in fact the only one taken aback by 
the news. They seemed to have known that for their generation, many 
of them too young to remember the revolution their parents once 
fought for, the battle has only just begun. 

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