Making a stand with Iran's Green Movement

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In 2009 a mass movement was born in the streets of Iran, mobilising millions in opposition to the disputed re-election of President Ahmadinejad. Jack Farmer and Peyman Jafari spoke to author Hamid Dabashi about being an opponent of both the Iranian regime and Western imperialism


You have described the Green Movement in Iran that emerged after the 2009 presidential elections as a civil rights movement, rather than an attempt to overthrow the whole political order. Do you think the Green Movement will eventually have to pose a fundamental political challenge to the regime?

Any social movement is a living organism. You have to look at its various components and see what its political and social forces are. These forces are not permanent. They change. At the moment of its inception in June 2009 I perceived the Green Movement, and I still perceive it, as a civil rights movement predicated on the fundamental question of "where is my vote".

But from the very beginning there were more radical slogans in the movement. Even its symbolic leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, repeatedly said that the Green Movement is a movement, not an ideology or a political organisation.

It went through different phases. From June 2009 to February 2010 it went through various moments of mass social uprising and street rallies and so forth, and was brutally cracked down on. In February 2010, on the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, the whole country, and particularly Tehran, was turned into a garrison.

As a result, from February 2010 onwards, the entire history of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] of the last 30 years began to be reconsidered - not by opposition forces outside the country, but by the leading founders of the Iranian Revolution itself. Statements by Mousavi [who was the former prime minister from 1981 to 1989], now leader of the opposition, interviews by [Mehdi] Karroubi, the former speaker of parliament, began to question the most fundamental and sacrosanct issues of the Iranian Revolution and as a result began to rewrite history. This period is crucial.

In the period since February 2011, when a call came from Mousavi and Karroubi for street demonstrations in solidarity with the uprisings in the North Africa and the Middle East, it assumed a more radical stance. The movement entered a new stage, the phase of organised opposition to the state apparatus. This was expressed in the form of three components - labour unions, women's rights and students. With the events across the region it became clear that without the active mobilisation of these three components, which have always been evident in Iranian society, the movement would come to a standstill. But now, with the events in North Africa and the Middle East, the focal point shifted from national politics to transnational politics.

What I argue in my book is that the Islamic Republic faces a paradox when dealing with the Green Movement. Namely, whatever it does with it, it strengthens it. If it was repressed, it strengthened it; if it let it unfold, it strengthened it. But paradoxically, the same relationship exists between the US and Iran. If Obama sat and negotiated with Ahmadinejad, he would strengthen him; if he attacked him militarily, he would strengthen him. The events in North Africa became a game-changer. The power of the Islamic Republic was regional. So you had the US and its regional allies on one hand (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the EU) and Iran and its sub-national allies (Hamas, Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army in Iraq) on the other, and there was a standstill. This period of asymmetrical warfare became particularly evident in the July 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After 32 days of bombing by land, sea and air Hezbollah emerged stronger than before, and this was repeated in Gaza in 2008-2009 - after the Israeli military gave everything it had, Hamas was and still remains very powerful. In this context there was a standstill. Now with these revolutionary uprisings, from Morocco to Syria to Yemen, the geopolitics is changing - changing to the advantage of these democratic uprisings. The Islamic Republic is losing not only its allies - Syria is in trouble - but much more importantly, it is losing its enemies, like Egypt and Tunisia. In this context, losing its enemies is much more dangerous for the regime.

How has the regime responded to the revolutions across the region?

It's been very confused. Initially when Ben Ali and Mubarak fell, supreme leader Khamenei said this is fantastic - it's an Islamic revolution! Almost immediately leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood said, "Thanks but no thanks"; this is the Egyptian Revolution. The leaders of Iran continued to claim that these revolutions were due to the resonance of Iran's Islamic Revolution, but this is nonsense. And they had to ignore what was going on in Syria - and if we are to believe the US, Iran is actually involved in helping to suppress the democratic movement there.

How do you see Obama's role? How has it changed since he first came into office in 2009, when he said he intended to talk more to the Iranian regime?

We have to make a distinction between the domestic reflections of Obama and his global goals. Domestically, he has done some good things - loans to students, medical reform - that will probably lead to his re-election, facing this monstrous right wing Tea Party movement. As a result people like me who don't like his international policies and his subservient position towards Israel - we will rush to the poll to vote for him.

But in terms of his foreign policy, he has been pathetic, absolutely pathetic. He doesn't have the courage of his own imagination. In his negotiations with the Islamic Republic regarding the nuclear issue, he is in a very weak position. He can hardly ignore the country sitting on a massive nuclear stockpile [Israel], and pick on a country that doesn't even have the technology to produce it. I always mention the metaphor that if I have a gun to your head while you have nothing, a cop walks into the room and picks on you because, you know, you might have a gun!

So Obama is in a very weak position, and the Israel lobby in the US is very, very effective. This has dismantled any intent he may have had to freeze the settlements, etc. However, if you read his books, in his heart of hearts, I believe he is happy about these democratic uprisings. But as US president he has to pre-empt them, try to micro-manage them and control them in a way that suits US regional interests. Secretary of state Hilary Clinton goes to Egypt and says remember that your revolution is only successful because your army is our army; she goes to Tunisia and says we will be happy to provide you with services; and finally they attack Libya in order to gain a foothold in the region. So they are baffled, they are confused, they are outmaneuvered, but they are reacting.

How does all this affect the Green Movement? The Iranian regime constantly seeks to paint the movement as lackeys for the West. How do activists deal with this and oppose imperialism as well as their own regime?

Before the uprisings in North Africa, Arab progressive intellectuals would always say the US was behind the movement - and they would point to the money the CIA had allocated to overthrow the Islamic Republic. But compared to the money the US invested in the Egyptian military, this money was peanuts. Look at Libya, where the US and EU are intervening nominally on behalf of the democratic movement. None of this, in my view, discredits these movements. I still believe in the democratic uprising in Libya, despite the fact that the US and the EU are trying to take advantage of it. This is a genuine democratic movement that the US and the EU are trying to micro-manage to gain their own advantage. The same is true with the Egyptian Revolution. The Egyptian military is bought and paid for by the US - and many mini-Mubaraks are lurking there. This does not discredit the glorious Egyptian Revolution. By the same token, if the US wishes to try and take advantage of the Green Movement, this does not discredit a genuine democratic movement.

In your book you mention the diplomatic row between Iran and Britain when the Green Movement first emerged - a row engineered by the Iranian regime, drawing on the memory of the coup in 1953 in which MI6 helped to depose a democratically elected president. How does the legacy of Western imperialism impact on the consciousness of ordinary Iranians?

I think that, as a metaphor, the August 1953 coup has exhausted itself. The younger generation of Iranians don't even register it. For my generation, if ever you say "the coup of 1953" we have a knee jerk reaction!

80 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 40, 70 percent are under the age of 35 and 50 percent are under the age of 25. They don't know [about the coup] and they don't care. That doesn't mean that the West doesn't continue to interfere in its own interests. As it is doing in Libya, it will continue to interfere in its own interests. But this decoy - watch out, Western imperialism is coming - no longer silences the young generation of revolutionaries. Fighting domestic tyranny and international imperialism is part and parcel - they can perfectly compound sentences that oppose both, and not allow one to abuse the other.

Of course, in the US you have these neoconservative think tanks that have recruited Ahmed Chalabi wannabes - who keep referring to domestic abuse, women's rights abuse and so on - and arguing that the only way you can have democracy is through neoliberalism. In Tunisia and Egypt, you have two deeply neoliberal economies - Sarkozy considered Tunisia to be an extension of Europe. In the heart of these societies were two nasty dictators taking advantage of neoliberalism for their own person gains - and a revolution that begins with a young peddler who sets himself on fire out of economic desperation. Where was the democracy in that neoliberal situation?

Although the threat of imperialist intervention against Iran - like we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan - was always on the table under the Bush administration, this never prevented a democratic uprising from saying in the same sentence that it both opposes military intervention and demands democratic rights.

Doesn't that point to a paradox? The Islamic Republic has created independence, historically speaking. But Iranians are no longer content to counterpose freedom to independence.

What has pre-empted imperialist intervention in Iran is not the Islamic Republic, but the Iranian Revolution of 1977-79, which was not an Islamic revolution, but a multi-faceted revolution in which socialists, anti-colonial nationalists and Islamists were part and parcel. Through the two successive smokescreens of the US hostage crisis [52 US citizens were held hostage by Islamist students in the US embassy in Iran in 1979-81] and the prolonged war [with Iraq between 1980 and 1988], the Islamists eradicated socialists and anti-colonial nationalists and gobbled up the whole political culture.

The Islamic Republic has at times collaborated with the US, for instance over the invasion of Afghanistan. Thus independence has been achieved, but by virtue of the revolution.

Your latest book is about "comprador intellectuals". What has been the role of Iranian comprador intellectuals?

It has to do with what Chomsky calls the manufacturing of consent. When a state apparatus, such as that of the US, wants to engage in belligerent policies towards Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, it needs to fabricate a consensus that says that the humanitarian situation in these countries is so bad, particularly, say, the position of women. Suddenly you see the rise of people, who may be Iraqi, Lebanese etc, take advantage of the fact that they come from these countries, and they are suddenly given huge space to say how horrible the conditions are. Of course the conditions often are horrible. But they take a truth and wrap it in a falsehood, to justify an invasion.

These comprador intellectuals are instruments of imperialism - they are like a handkerchief that you use to blow your nose and throw away. I call their knowledge "disposable knowledge". It's the latest stage in the production of knowledge - a mode of knowledge produced mainly by think tanks. If you have a plan to invade Afghanistan, you produce knowledge about Afghanistan, and use a couple of ex-patriot Afghans to back that up. Then you may want to move on to Iraq. Then that knowledge you produced about Afghanistan is irrelevant to Iraq - it's disposable: you use it and then you throw it away.

You talk in your book about how the Green Movement has broken down false oppositions such as that between religious and secular. It seems that the women's rights movement in Iran has played a big role in this, as it has brought women together from secular and religious backgrounds.

What was key was creating an interface between the fight for women's rights and the Green Movement. The distinguished Iranian feminist and women's rights activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani articulated the specific demands of the women's rights movement in her writings beyond the binary opposition: are you secular or are you religious? In one of her latest books she takes issue with the whole notion of "Islamic feminism" which she says is a fabrication of foreign scholars - we don't know what it means.

We have legislation pertaining to the rights of mothers married to foreigners, for their children to be considered Iranian citizens so they can claim various social benefits. They go to the parliament, they lobby for the law to be changed, and then in that battle whether you go home and pray and fast or whether you don't is not relevant. The facts on the ground, the politics on the ground mean that socially it becomes irrelevant.

What role have the working class and labour movement in Iran played?

The history of the labour movement goes back way before the revolution. They were a key factor in the revolution between 1977 and 1979, particularly in the oil industry. Without their participation the revolution would not have happened. After the post [Iran-Iraq] war reconstruction, the conditions of the labouring class worsened. After the end of the war in 1989, with the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, you have this opening up to neoliberal economics that was necessary for post-war reconstruction from which a new class of nouveau riche - these new bourgeois - grew up, without any allowance for the labouring class, in the private or public sector, to form autonomous unions. Leading labour activists are in jail and are harassed. In key industries like oil the labouring class is subject to systematic intelligence control to pre-empt the formation of independent labour organisations.

But despite the fact that they are not allowed autonomous unions, when you look at the amount of labour unrest that's happening, it's astonishing - including shutting down factories. The size of the labour force in Iran is 7 million. Multiply that by four, which is the size of the average family, and that's 28 million out of a population of 72 million. It's a very sizeable force.

Hamid Dabashi's latest book, Brown Skin, White Masks, is available from Bookmarks bookshop, £14.99. It is reviewed here