On Saturday, February 25, dozens gathered in Toronto for a lively discussion and exchange on the threat of war on Iran, featuring voices from anti-war groups, students, academics, and concerned members of the public. The forum, organized by the group Science for Peace, and the diversity of the speakers selected, represented a serious attempt on the part of the organizers to initiate a much-needed debate about how to build an effective and responsible anti-imperialist politics in the city in response to the growing imperialist intervention in Iran. In this piece, I will review some of the major points of debate in the forum, and draw on these discussions as an entry point into evaluating the state of the broader anti-war movement on Iran. These reflections provide a rudimentary contribution towards a critique of the tendency of some anti-imperialists to adopt uncritical sympathies for authoritarian states.
Recap of the Forum
The speakers at the session addressed a range of key questions in the current struggle between the imperialist powers and Iran, including the functioning of global networks of power (Robert Latham), Canada’s role in the demonization of Iran (Yves Engler), the need for transnational struggles against militarization in a multi-polar world (Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi), and the geostrategic relations between Iran, Russia and Israel (Yakov Rabkin). However, what sparked controversy during the Q&A session were the positions put forth by Sara Flounders and Shadi Chaleshtoori.
Flounders, representing the International Action Center (IAC) was the keynote speaker for the event and presented a talk on the geopolitical interests of the US empire in attacking Iran. She argued that the real target of the imperialist powers is the achievements of the 1979 revolution, specifically pointing to the nationalization of oil and assets, the growing opportunities made available for Iranian women, the building of key infrastructure, and population control through the promotion of contraception. Any attack on Iran, she argued, would “bring dictatorship back” to the country, referring to the authoritarian rule of the Pahlavi era. Flounders further suggested that, in achieving these aims, imperialist powers would collaborate with all and any opposition movements within Iran, and warned against the dangers of such alliances.
Chaleshtoori’s talk addressed the tendency of what she called the ‘reactionary Left’ to, at best, engage in silent complicity in the atrocities of brutal dictatorships, and, at worst, support or romanticize the violent practices of these states. Making the case that a responsible anti-imperialist position by the Left must include a condemnation of the repression of broad-based dissenting populations in countries such as Iran, she argued that there is no contradiction between opposing US meddling in Iran and supporting the struggles of Iranians against dictatorship. Chaleshtoori stressed that a responsible anti-imperialist discourse is always a position of solidarity, not with the state but with the voices and struggles of the people on the ground.
Flounders responded to Chaleshtoori’s remarks by suggesting that it is a waste of time to add to the demonization of Iran at an anti-war meeting when the mainstream media accomplishes this task on a daily basis. She added that addressing internal Iranian politics is not within the domain of an anti-war movement and argued that as anti-imperialists our only role must be to stand in opposition to American imperialism as the biggest threat currently facing the world. Flounders offered a similar response when asked by an audience member about the current situation in Syria, reiterating her position that there are essentially two options available for anti-imperialists: to oppose Assad or oppose imperialism; only the latter, she argued, is within the domain of anti-imperialist activism.
Flounders’ position that anti-imperialists should not be concerned with the internal dynamics of target countries – thus presenting such concerns as secondary or external to the work of anti-imperialists – was contradicted by her expressed sympathies towards the Islamic Republic and celebration of its so-called successes. This position is also called into question given her involvement in rallying support for the Iranian regime. In October 2010, Flounders, representing the IAC, travelled to Iran alongside other anti-war activists to meet representatives from Iran’s House of Latin America (HOLA) with the goal of building a movement in opposition to war and sanctions against Iran.i While HOLA is described by its founders and supporters as a ‘non-governmental organization’ established to promote cooperation between Iran and Latin America, its claim to NGO status strains credibility given its close ties with the Ahmadinejad administration. Featuring Ahmadinejad at many of their events and activities and advancing his official line on international and domestic relations, HOLA has served as little more than a cheerleader for the Iranian president.
Needless to say, the involvement of individuals and organizations with such a troubling relationship with the Iranian state within the anti-war movement should be disturbing to all Leftists who see their political project as one encompassing a simultaneous opposition to both authoritarianism and imperialism. Unfortunately, silence on Iran’s domestic repression and brutal authoritarianism and the delegitimization of the resistance struggle has not been limited to political activists who openly celebrate the Iranian state. These silences are also put forth by Leftist activists who espouse them not as a result of their direct affiliations with the state, but as a ‘strategic’ or ‘expedient’ political move in the face of the threats of imperialism.ii
A morally and politically principled anti-imperialism must reject both romanticization of and ambivalence toward brutal states such as the Islamic Republic. The Iranian government has violently and systematically repressed and annihilated popular dissent – most notably through the practice of mass executions, imprisonment, rape, torture and interrogation of thousands of Leftist activists in the first post-revolutionary decadeiii; has relied on capital punishment to penalize its citizens, including minors, for such activities as smuggling and extra-marital affairsiv; has encouraged the rapid neoliberalization of the economy – particularly accelerated under the Ahmadinejad administration – which has resulted in the dispossession of the working poor and the growing enclosure of the commons in the interest of the political and economic elitev; and has denied women the most basic rights and freedoms while exploiting them in the labour market as ‘cheap’ and ‘flexible’ workers in feminized jobsvi.
These are not matters that we easily dismiss here in the West; in fact they constitute the core concerns of our local struggles. Why, then, do such questions become so de-prioritized, ignored, neglected, or worse, willfully denied or supported by some on the Left when posed in relation to states targeted by imperialist interests? What explains this hypocritical abandonment of principles with which we so passionately defend rights in our own local contexts? What kind of international solidarity is being practiced when the object of our solidarity is only to defend the sovereignty of a state in the face of imperialist aggression but not also to end the suffering and oppression imposed by that state on broad segments of its population?
Certainly, problematic positions within the Left regarding how to approach authoritarian states that are also in contradiction with imperialist interests did not just emerge in recent years and have featured consistently in debates within the Left for some decades. For instance, organizations such as the IAC have in the past championed states such as North Korea (hailed as ‘socialist Korea’), expressed solidarity with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, and defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That these same groups should support states like the Islamic Republic of Iran or Syria is indeed consistent with their past practice of maintaining implicit and explicit sympathies towards corrupt regimes.
Towards More Imaginative and Principled Solidarityvii
Moving towards a more imaginative and principled Left would require that we cease to conceptualize world politics as a Manichean divide between two rigid camps: the imperialist powers, consisting of US, Israel and their European and Arab allies on one side and the ‘anti-imperialist’ powers, such as Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and their Latin American allies on the other. This strict dichotomization has tended to delegitimize popular uprisings in the heart of so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ centres (such as Iran and Syria), often by labeling them as bourgeois, as agents of imperialism, or as forces of the destabilization of the anti-imperialist core. Meanwhile, popular resistance against states friendly to imperialist powers (such as in Egypt) are unquestionably praised, supported and championed according to this worldview. Reproducing the neo-conservative discourse of ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ and the tired cliché of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, this outdated analysis also functions to reproduce itself, through a self-fulfilling prophecy that legitimates the continued survival of an obsolete discourse by relying on an obsolete lens to view international politics.
This polarized view is the remnant of a Cold War understanding of the division of global power between the US and the Soviet camp – an understanding that led to devastating alliances then and is all the more facile, irrelevant and dangerous now. And a more nuanced position does not necessarily entail raising the spectre of a ‘third’ or ‘non-aligned’ camp either. Rather, it necessitates a rejection of the division of the world into homogenous groupings altogether. Nor does the rejection of a ‘two-camp’ view signal ‘the end of history’ or the emergence of a ‘post-ideological’ world in which ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ ideologies no longer meaningfully apply. Instead, it raises complex, historically contingent questions about how we define international solidarity work on the broad Left.
A principled Leftist project on international politics would also define its role not merely in opposition to imperialism, but more importantly, in solidarity with the emancipation of all people, which includes liberation from the authoritarianism of supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ forces. Rather than conceptualize imperialism as an abstraction, divorced from the complex realities faced by its victims on the ground, we on the Left must define our solidarity first and foremost with the people. Anti-imperialist politics have all too oftentime and again, either willfully or inadvertently, become the voices of solidarity with states targeted by imperialist aggression, often relying on the language of ‘self-determination’ to argue for the liberation of these states from the yoke of imperialism. This regressive form of solidarity has not only supported the preservation of perverse regimes at the expense of the fundamental rights of their own people;, it has denied people residing under these authoritarian states the right to their own self-determination, from both dictatorship and imperialism.
Supporting the self-determination of people living under authoritarian states does not entail uncritical and unwavering support for all social movements within these societies. However, while we need not abandon productive critiques of existing or emerging opposition movements (as, for example, this author maintained on aspects of the ‘Green’ movement in Iran), this should not entail dismissing the authenticity, legitimacy or significance of the grievances of the dissenting publics. It is also utterly unjustifiable to turn a blind eye to the reality of the brutal and deadly crackdown on dissent, regardless of the grievances being uttered. Moving towards a more principled approach to solidarity requires the recognition of fights for democratic rights and freedoms as more than ‘bourgeois’ desires. A truly democratic Left must place demands for dignity, basic rights, and political freedoms at the forefront of its project of emancipation, rather than treat such struggles as secondary to the ‘real stuff’ of anti-imperialism and class struggle.
As the need for a strong anti-war movement becomes ever more critical in the current climate, it is essential that the dominant voices in the mobilization against imperialist intervention remain principled positions that refuse to allow such opposition to adopt the form of uncritical defence of the regime under attack. In building a strong anti-imperialist movement, open and critical debate about our assessment of the internal dynamics of the country whose sovereignty we are fighting to defend remains imperative. Opposition to authoritarianism must constitute a defining principle of all Leftist anti-imperialist struggle – a principle that cannot be compromised on the basis of political expediency or geostrategic considerations. While the need for broad-based alliances against war-mongering is indeed urgent, so too is the necessity of serious debate about what constitutes a responsible and principled anti-imperialism.
Nasim Forouzan is a writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ii For examples of typical reasons offered for such ‘strategic’ silences, see Chaleshtoori: http://www.zcomm.org/war-on-iran-by-shadi-chaleshtoori
iiiSee, for example, this Amnesty International Report on the 1988 massacre of political prisoners: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE13/021/1990/en
ivIn 2010, Iran was reported to have carried out a minimum of 252 executions, second to China in numbers on a global scale: http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty/death-sentences-and-executions-in-2010
vKaveh Ehsani, Survival through Dispossession: Privatization of Public Goods in the Islamic Republic: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer250/survival-through-dispossession
Billy Wharton, Selling Iran: Ahmadinejad, Privatization and a Bus Driver Who Said No:
vi Valentine Moghadam.2000. Women’s Socio-Economic Participation and Iran’s Changing Political Economy. In The Economy of Iran: Dilemmas of an Islamic State, ed. Parvin Alizadeh.
Hammed Shahidian. 2002. Women in Iran: Gender Politics in the Islamic Republic.
vii For some examples of recent writings espousing a similar critique, see:
Bassam Haddad: ‘The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria while Opposing Military Intervention’
Vijay Prashad: ‘The Left and the People: Extending Hamid Dabashi’s Critique’
Raha Feminist Collective: ‘Solidarity and its Discontents’
Niloofar Golkar and Shourideh Molavi: ‘Fallout from the June 2009 Protests in Iran: Political Inconsistencies and Pressing Questions’. Upping the Anti12
Shokoufeh Sakhi: ‘Iran and Cultural Imperialism’