[Marxism] Phil Gasper on Iran

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 4 16:51:11 MDT 2009

ISR Issue 67, September–October 2009


Which side are you on?

Why are some U.S. leftists siding with the repressive Iranian regime 
against pro-democracy protesters?

At the beginning of August, the government of Iran launched a trial 
against more than 100 of its most prominent opponents, claiming that 
they had conspired with foreign governments to overthrow the Iranian 
regime by organizing a campaign to discredit the legitimacy of the 
country’s presidential election in June. Among those accused were former 
vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former deputy interior minister 
Mohammad Atrianfar, former deputy economic minister Mohsen 
Safai-Farahani, former deputy speaker of the Parliament Behzad Nabavi, 
and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, as well as various Iranians 
living outside the country. That the conservative theocratic Iranian 
government, which has faced widespread street protests since the 
disputed election, should respond to its critics in this way was perhaps 
not surprising. Sadly, however, over the past few months, similar 
accusations have been leveled against the protesters by sections of the 
U.S. left.

In fact a fierce debate has been raging on the left about the character 
of the protests in Iran and whether or not anti-imperialists in this 
country should support them. Neo-Stalinist groups like the Party for 
Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the organization from which it split 
a few years ago, the Workers World Party (WWP), have predictably 
denounced the protesters as stooges of Western governments, and accused 
them of being secretly funded by U.S. government organizations like the 
National Endowment for Democracy.

Both PSL and the WWP operate on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is 
my friend, and have a history of supporting the repression of popular 
movements that challenge regimes that are opposed by the U.S. 
government. In 1956, the WWP supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary to 
crush a mass workers’ rebellion calling for greater freedom, and which 
had begun to establish factory councils. Similarly, the WWP backed the 
suppression of Solidarity, the mass independent trade union in Poland in 
the early 1980s, and the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on the 
Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In the case of Iran, the argument is 
that simply challenging the regime—no matter how repressive it may 
be—plays into the hands of the U.S. and other Western imperialist 
powers, who would dearly like to reverse the results of the country’s 
Islamic revolution in 1979.

Similar arguments have been made by a variety of other influential 
figures on the left including the Marxist sociologist James Petras, 
radical media critics Edward Herman (who has co-authored several books 
with Noam Chomsky) and David Peterson, and Yoshie Furuhashi, editor of 
MRZine, the daily Web magazine of the socialist journal Monthly Review. 
In fact MRZine has turned itself into a forum for critics of the Iranian 
protests and for apologetics for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 
leading one member of the Monthly Review editorial board to resign.

Much of the controversy has focused on the election itself, in which 
official results gave Ahmadinejad an unexpected landslide victory over 
the main opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. With an official 
turnout of 85 percent, Ahmadinejad was awarded 63 percent of the votes 
versus Mousavi’s 34 percent. The results were so hard to believe that 
they resulted in the biggest street protests in Iran since the 1979 
Revolution. But Petras, Herman and Peterson, Furuhashi, and others all 
argue that there is no serious evidence that the results were rigged. 
According to Herman and Peterson, for example, in an article published 
in late July, allegations of “massive vote fraud and a possible Mousavi 
majority are not based on any credible evidence whatsoever.”

Herman and Peterson point to a preelection poll that gave Ahmadinejad 34 
percent of the vote and Mousavi 14 percent. But it is worth noting that 
the poll was conducted by telephone from outside the country by the 
Washington organization Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public 
Opinion. As the Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian points out, “the 
name and location of the polling organization” may well have influenced 
the results.

In any case, the poll was taken in May, several weeks before the 
election. Abrahamian notes, “Once the actual electoral campaign—by law 
restricted to just ten days—got started, the race became much tighter.” 
Abrahamian points to three factors that may have shifted public opinion:

     • First, a series of TV debates in which Ahmadinejad was generally 
thought to do poorly. Herman and Peterson dispute this, claiming that 
Ahmadinejad won the debates, but their only source for this is Time 
magazine journalist Joe Klein, who does not speak Farsi;

     • Second, Mousavi’s reputation as a populist who reduced income 
inequality when he was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s;

     • Third, the role of the women’s movement, spurred into activity by 
the prominent role of Mousavi’s wife, an outspoken defender of women’s 
rights, in the campaign.

The result was huge demonstrations around the country in favor of 
Mousavi. With the race apparently tightening, many observers expected 
that Ahmadinejad would not win over 50 percent of the vote and there 
would need to be a runoff. Newsweek cited an internal Iranian government 
poll that indicated that Mousavi would win twice as many votes as 
Ahamdinejad. According to Abrahamian, “To preempt this, the Interior 
Ministry, which was running the election and was headed by a millionaire 
friend of Ahmadinejad, acted decisively, giving Ahmadinejad not just a 
majority but such a resounding one that dwarfed the votes gained by his 

Abrahamian cites considerable circumstantial evidence that the elections 
were fixed:

     The [Interior] minister purged unreliable civil servants from the 
electoral commission. He restricted the number of permits issued to poll 
observers; prevented some of them from entering the 45,000 polling 
stations; set up more than 14,000 mobile electoral trucks (making the 
vote easy to fiddle); printed far more ballot papers than there were 
eligible voters; cut off communications to Mousavi and [another 
reformist candidate, Mehdi] Karroubi’s headquarters on the day of the 
elections (Mousavi’s office in Qom were torched in a mysterious attack); 
and, as a clincher, at the end of the election day, broke precedent by 
not having the ballots tabulated on the spot but instead rushed to the 
ministry where they were “counted” by his aides.

There is additional evidence. Farideh Farhi, an expert on Iranian 
elections at the University of Hawaii, with detailed knowledge of 
district-by-district voting trends concluded that the result was “pulled 
out of a hat.” According to an analysis by the British non-governmental 
organization Chatham House (mentioned but rejected as speculative by 
Herman and Peterson), in order for Ahmadinejad to have won the 24.5 
million votes awarded to him in the official tally, in a third of the 
country’s provinces he would have needed to receive the support “not 
only all former conservative voters, all former centrist voters and all 
new voters but also up to 44 percent of former reformist voters—despite 
a decade of conflict between these two groups.” And Sadeq Saba, an 
Iranian affairs analyst for the BBC, found that instead of being 
reported by province, the “results came in blocks of millions of votes,” 
with each candidate receiving almost exactly the same percentage in each 
block, with no significant regional differences in the vote, a result 
that went against “all precedent in Iranian politics.”

But whatever the results of the election, critics like Herman and 
Peterson are convinced that the ongoing protests that followed at the 
very least play into the hands of Western imperialism and may have been 
orchestrated from the outside. They describe the protests as “yet 
another campaign that fits well with one of [the U.S.] government’s 
longest-running programs of destabilization and regime change.” And they 
argue that calling for solidarity with the demonstrators “encourage[s] 
leftists to pull down their natural defenses against U.S. imperialism.”

Going beyond this, they claim “the protests are certainly not entirely 
‘homegrown’ and have a pretty clear link both to direct destabilization 
campaigns and to the massive destabilizations imposed upon this region 
of the world by the United States and its allies.” Herman and Peterson 
even claim that opposition groups may have deliberately goaded the 
Iranian government into cracking down as part of a master plan: “it 
wouldn’t be surprising if the Iranian financiers of the Mousavi campaign 
had concluded that they could achieve their political objectives best, 
not at the ballot box in June 2009, and not by arguing their case before 
the rigid bodies of Iran’s executive branch, but by tailoring their 
messages of dissent to foreign audiences, taking to the streets to 
provoke repressive responses by state authorities.”

These allegations are deeply insulting to the millions of people who 
have participated in the demonstrations, and in particular to the dozens 
who have been killed by the authorities and the thousands who have been 
arrested and sometimes brutally tortured. There is certainly a long 
history of failed U.S. attempts to destabilize the current Iranian 
regime, but there is no evidence that the continuing protests are in any 
way the result of outside manipulation. Indeed, both the leadership at 
the top and the movement on the streets have been unequivocal in their 
opposition to such interference, and in particular to the long history 
of U.S. intervention in the region. In the end, Herman and Peterson’s 
case comes down to nothing more than a rhetorical demand for supporters 
of the protesters to demonstrate that no Iranians are on the CIA payroll.

It is also nonsense to maintain that leftists cannot both unequivocally 
oppose U.S. imperialism and support the struggle for greater democracy, 
political freedom, women’s rights, independent unions, and other 
significant reforms in countries that are on Washington’s official 
enemies list. To maintain otherwise is by extension to believe that it 
would be better for movement activists in Iran simply to go home and 
tail behind the Ahmadinejad government because it is on the official 
U.S. enemies list.

Those who believe that the protests in Iran are strengthening U.S. 
imperialism are also missing the real dynamic of what is going on. The 
world economic crisis has created a huge split in the Iranian ruling 
class over both domestic and foreign policy, which has created an 
opening for a movement from below to emerge. While politicians like 
Mousavi and former president Ali Rafsanjani are attempting to use the 
protest movement for their own purposes, they have been pushed to take 
more radical positions as a result of the street demonstrations, 
deepening the split and making it impossible for the movement to be 
completely repressed. In late July the death of two young protesters in 
state custody and reports of the torture of political prisoners created 
such public outrage that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 
was forced to close the detention center involved and denounce the 
treatment of the prisoners held there.

And while the demonstrators’ demands began as relatively modest, the 
dynamic of the protest movement has created the possibility of a much 
greater radicalization. As Abrahamian, for example, rightly notes, “By 
denouncing children of the [Islamic] revolution as foreign-paid 
‘counter-revolutionaries,’ Kahmenei, Ahmadinejad and their allies have 
alienated a considerable proportion of the population—maybe even the 
majority—and could end up transforming reformists into revolutionaries.” 
To point this out is not to entertain fantasies of the imminent 
revolutionary overthrow of the current regime, but simply to be aware 
that the current crisis has created the possibility of rebuilding a 
genuinely left-wing revolutionary current in Iran for the first time 
since the left was wiped out by the Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 
1980s. The future course of events in Iran is impossible to predict, but 
the potential emergence of a new left opposed to both U.S. imperialism 
and the current Iranian regime, is something that all genuine supporters 
of socialism and liberation can only embrace.

Phil Gasper is the editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to 
History’s Most Important Document (Haymarket Books, 2005) and a member 
of the ISR editorial board.

More information about the Marxism mailing list