by Simon Jones
July 15, 2003
We must take with a grain of salt the sensational reports recently of 'thousands' of students demonstrating in Teheran. True, the general public appear to be frustrated with the 'democratization' process, with low turnouts in recent local elections and frustration with both the clerics and the 'reformers'. But there is more than a bit of confusion about what the focus of the demos is and how broad the support for them is.
Ostensibly the focus is the privatization of the universities, but this is in fact one of the reformers' latest policies, and the main student organizations are closely associated with the reformers. To the extent that they represent traditional student leftist concerns, they are protesting the failure of the 1979 revolution to deliver its promises of a more prosperous and egalitarian future. But some demonstrators have gone as far as calling for the hanging of spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei (perhaps some black humor?) and others - for the resignation of President Khatami, so it's hard to take them as more than the Teheran elite letting off steam. And why do we accept the mainstream press's labelling of those against the students as "thugs" and "reactionaries". Confused? I hope so. That's because Iran is a complex country, full of contradictions.
What is clear is that actively destabilizing Iran is shaping up to be the key to the neocon strategy of eliminating any 'third way' for Islamic countries, ALL of which are in crisis, whether it be direct occupation by the US (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar et al), or stuck in an authoritarian time-warp, either secular (Syria, Egypt, et al) or religious (Saudi Arabia and Iran).
Of them all, Iran is the only one that has made substantial steps towards some kind of representative democracy. Despite its own traumatic upheaval and revolution in 1979, PLUS invasion by Iraq and a raging civil war next door in Afghanistan, not to mention an ongoing vicious insurgency supported by the US in Iraq, its human rights record is without a doubt the best of the lot. It has a healthy independent culture - its cinema is the envy of the world, and it is eager to reach out. We must act to bring it in on our side.
We are the victims of the mainstream press in our view of Iran. While the pro-Palestine, anti-Bush/ Iraq war movement is 'progressive' in the West, the same 'movement' in Iran is dubbed by our newspeak as 'reactionary'. We are told that Iran is a basket-case economy, with high unemployment and corruption. But in fact the Iranian revolution produced many quasi-socialist features: the nationalization of banks, prohibition of interest, and '4-year' plans. Education and health care are also state-provided. Importantly, the currency is not part of the international speculative system and is state-fixed. These advantages over a neoconned IMF-produced economy are not to be scoffed at. Just ask Argentina.
We are bombarded by negative human rights reports by Amnesty International and the State Department. But in recent years, along with a genuine democratic upsurge, hundreds of NGOs have been formed. (1) A perusal of Amnesty International's reports shows a very passionate and vocal opposition, defiantly organizing, striking, and speaking out. Of course, this means lots of arrests (look in the mirror!), but it seems the Thermador is over - the execution of political dissidents has stopped, replaced by lots of angry threats and then reprieves and amnesties. Death penalty - yes, floggings - yes. Amputations (mercifully) - no longer (AI).
It's not an American-style secular democracy. In Islam, whether we like it or not, there is no 'separation of church and state'. That doesn't mean it's inherently bad. Unlike Christianity, which disdains the material world and gives Caesar his due, for Islam the mission of mankind is to build a just moral and spiritual order on earth. Bravo!
Take a break from our 'embedded' press. The Iran English Daily is free online (http://www.iran-daily.com), and it admits the alignments politically are much more subtle than just conservative vs reformers. Khatami is popularly called the Iranian Gorbachev these days, and indeed, in many respects he is a political Trojan Horse, privatizing and working closely with the IMF/WB.
If we advocate secularism (and the IMF road) for Iran, say, in the interests of human rights, it's clear whose 'human rights' will flourish: the current elite's. The gap between the rich and poor will rapidly widen, and there will be no room for social welfare. Clearly many protesters are naively pro-western - our pop culture is a powerful cultural Trojan Horse in Iran, as it is around the world. Apart from a few brave human rights dissidents, the keenest discontents (though not marching with the hot-blooded students) I'm sure are the budding capitalists, who crave the commercial freedom of the West, and are eager to join the American Empire as a junior partner. Be sure they will be the first to send their profits offshore, scoop up state industries, and repress workers and students when the last remnants of morality are swept from the economy. Those are not MY allies, thank you very much.
No, rather than rooting for the reformers to take what little morality is left out of their economy and join the Great Satan's imperial marketplace, I would argue we could even learn a thing or two from Iran about putting morality back into our economy. Don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating compulsory prayer at work or mass conversion to Islam. Rather, social justice for God's children.
The point with approaching a country like Iran is to show as much respect and understanding as possible, to be willing to deal at least nominally with the powers-that-be rather than just going for the high profile Hashem Aghajaris (who often have their own personal agendas), and to make any criticisms in a non-threatening way.
In 1947, as the anti-communist hysteria picked up steam in America, Einstein told the Overseas News Agency: "At present, the non-democratic countries constitute less of a threat to healthy international developments than the democratic nations, which enjoying economic and military superiority, and have subjected scholars to military mobilization." Just replace non-democratic (i.e., Communist) with Muslim for an update. We are the problem these days, not Iran. It is our intellectuals who have largely sold out to the budding empire. It is our troops who are invading other countries.
The peace movement, we are told, is the second superpower now, so let's not shrink from developing our diplomacy skills, be it stopping bulldozers in Palestine or reaching out to members of Washington's latest Axis of Whatever. To paraphrase Churchill: "I'd make a pact with the devil himself to defeat imperialism."
Say it together now: "WE ARE THE NEW SUPERPOWER." Let's show some solidarity with the most powerful anti-imperialist country around, which has no designs on other nations, is actively striving for peace - and is very much in the sights of the US war machine for these very reasons. This should be our latest stop in the struggle to turn the tide of US militarism and get back on the road of peace and disarmament. Our activism must be based on building trust, even when we disagree on many issues with our potential allies. Maybe Iran can even provide a positive example for such deathbed cases as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Simon Jones is a Canadian freelance journalist living in Uzbekistan. He writes for Peace Magazine (Toronto) and has published pieces in Counterpunch and YellowTimes.org. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Some Iranian NGOs I found on the net: Association of Graduates of Tehran
Faculty, Center for New Thinkers of Civil Society, Women's Association Loving Peace and Social Justice Peace Center of Iran email@example.com