A fight for more freedom and openness

Kouross Esmaeli is an Iranian-American independent journalist and filmmaker with Big Noise Films. He is also producing a new Web-based news series, Boomgen TV, which airs weekly television broadcasts about events in Iran. He talked to Hadas Thier on August 3.

THERE’S BEEN a lot of debate within the U.S. left about the character and aims of the protests in Iran. Much of the left is arguing that we shouldn’t support the protests, despite their mass, democratic nature, and that because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is vilified by U.S., Israeli, and other Western governments, that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. What do you think about that argument?

THAT ARGUMENT is based on a very crude understanding of class and social movements and the way change comes in society. There’s a very false notion that Ahmadinejad is the Muslim Hugo Chávez. The people who think that way are basing their ideas on very shallow rhetoric that Ahmadinejad has learned since he has been president, looking at the world stage and the way it was going, and learning some words from various leaders, especially in Latin America. People presume that since he says some very similar sounding sentences that he’s comparable.

The fact is that when Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005, there were a lot of questions about that election. The fact that the Revolutionary Guard, the main military force inside the country, has gained so much ground under his presidency—and it participated in the elections four years ago—has raised a lot of doubts and complaints that maybe even those elections were rigged, especially by the military. And ever since coming into office, the proof is in the pudding. Ahmedinejad has made a lot of promises to poor people, for sure. He has gone around the country and talked in the most underdeveloped parts of the country, to the poorest peasants, and the urban poor; and he has made a lot of promises, pretty much none of which he’s delivered.

Under his presidency, the rate of privatization has increased significantly. In fact, just ten days ago, Ahmadinejad’s oil minister announced that the building of all oil refineries will be handed over to the private sector. This is further proof that, contrary to the fantasy of Ahmadinejad as the populist leader of a strong socially-based state, he is speeding up privatization as a way of creating cronies rather than increase democratic participation by the poor people whose support he has been cynically courting.

Ahmadinejad is a neoliberal in his actions but a populist in his words. It’s important that people understand that and not fall for his words. Unfortunately, some very fringe elements on the left here are taking him at face value. Most Iranians don’t take him at face value. Even people who might not be in the streets demonstrating right now don’t take him at face value because of the economic problems of the country, and the fact that under president Ahmadinejad things have not gotten better. People received few benefits before the elections, and there is talk of investigating him for buying votes. People will take that money but it doesn’t mean that he has a wide base of support or that he represents in any way a change in the class structure of Iran, or a change in the priorities of the country in terms of social welfare for its citizens. None of that has happened.

SOME WRITERS have dismissed the protesters as middle-class and upper-class students and business people. There was a piece on MRZine by Bizhan Poya who wrote: “Freedom and democracy for Iran is the main (if not the sole) slogan of these Don Quixotes. This is such a middle-class (or even upper-middle-class) slogan.  Before anything else, the working people need jobs, living wages, affordable health care, and free education for their children.” How would you characterize the protests?

YOU HAVE to divide the answer into two sections. First: it’s not real that Ahmadinejad means more jobs for poor people or changing the priorities of the Islamic Republic to becoming a greater social welfare state or in any sense building an infrastructure that allows for community participation and a deepening of social democracy. That is not true. They’re wrong about that.

And two: I would not disagree with the notion that the demonstrators are, numbers-wise, if you look at the neighborhoods where the protests are strongest, that it is a middle-class led movement. I think that’s true. But why do these people think that simply because middle-class people are making a demand, that their demand must automatically be invalid? I think the reason why the movement has not died down, the reason why it has actually gotten bigger—two days ago there were huge demonstrations on the fortieth day since the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan and others, and there were confrontations with the police—that there is a sense that what these middle-class people are saying is not just in their class interest. They’re demanding greater openness, greater freedom for the whole country. 

It is not the case that the working class resents them for this demand or are against it. It’s not yet the case that the working class is joining them, but the demand that they’re making is not anti-working class by any means. That’s a very crude notion, that demands for a more open political system are inherently against the interests of the working class. So within the working class of Iran right now some are demonstrating while others are silent, and there is no indication that the popular base of the regime sees the recent demonstrations as threatening or against their interests.

As far as the organized working class, Ahmadinejad has attacked them and done everything he can to demobilize them. As the example of the bus drivers of Tehran proves, as the example of the sugar factories in eastern Iran—where there were demonstrations—proves, there have been heavy crackdowns on the working class. The Islamic Republic came into being because the working class of Iran supported the revolution. The people who run Iran know the dangers of an organized working class. And because the oil industry is such an important part of the economy, Iran’s rulers know that if the struggle spreads, if the organized working class begins to take up these demands, it really could be the end of them. They’ve been very aware of this and they’ve cracked down. And any leftist who sees that as part of a greater good for the working class, doesn’t understand what a working-class movement is about. 

WHAT DO you think of this idea that Ahmadinejad is a consistent anti-imperialist and that because he stands up to the United States. that he should be supported.

IT IS not Ahmadinejad who is a principled anti-imperialist, it is the regime that came out of an anti-imperialist revolution that keeps it so. But at the end of the day, being a principled anti-imperialist doesn’t justify oppressing your own people. The sections of the American left who say this about Ahmadinejad are intellectual descendants of folks who justified the internal repression under the Soviets. Just because the Soviets supported the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions and many other anti-imperialist causes didn’t justify their own police state nor was this fact enough to keep the Soviets from falling apart internally. The Islamic regime needs to learn that same lesson if it is to continue to rule over its people. The people who are justifying Ahmadinejad for his anti-imperialism are basically saying, “Our values are more important than the lives of the Iranian people.” I am glad they are generally irrelevant.

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN recently wrote an article on the character of the protests in Iran. And one of the things that he notes is that a lot of the folks who are dismissing the protests and arguing that Ahmadinejad was fairly elected have quoted one particular poll that was taken before the election by a U.S.-based pollster to back their claim.

THE POLL was taken more than three weeks before the elections. It was a poll that was taken from outside of Iran. Two things: One is that Iran is not a country where polling happens a lot. People don’t trust polls, don’t know what to say to polls, and there is apprehension about talking to a stranger on the phone and telling them what you really believe. So people could very easily have been saying things that they think they should say, rather than what they really believe. And two, campaigning in Iran doesn’t start until two weeks before the elections. So when the campaign started in Iran and Mir Hossein Mousavi’s popularity was rising along with the incredible response he was getting, all that started after these polls were taken. By all accounts the kind of movement he created took everyone by surprise. None of that could have been reflected in the polls.

WHAT IS the relationship between the protests and what’s happening at the top of Iranian society? What do you make of the recent splits in the conservative camp?

I THINK what’s happening is that the demonstrations in the streets are causing some of the political disagreements that have existed in Iran for the past thirty years to boil to the surface much faster than they would have. That’s what popular movements do. You do hear on the streets of Iran, “Down with Khamenei!” “Down with the Islamic Republic!” “We want a Republican Iran, not an Islamic Republic!” And that’s a small section of the demonstrations.

And then you have the mainstream of the Islamic Republic. And the mainstream still, I believe, is the reformists and the conservatives, both of whom have got members in Parliament who are fighting each other openly right now. And then you have a far right wing that’s developing and these are people who believe that there’s no reason for Iran to be a republic—that it should be an Islamic system without being a republic because the people cannot always be trusted. When the Islamic Republic was created, Khomenei said that our legitimacy comes from god and from the people’s support. There are some fringe elements who say we no longer need the people’s support. We need a true Islamic society and having open elections like this just weakens us. This has been brewing.

Now the cleric Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi has openly come out and said this, and the argument is that that’s what Ahmadinejad represents, and that’s what his cabinet represents. And he is basically trying to surpass the clerical base of the regime, of the ruling clique, and bring in people who are more fundamentalist, more religiously conservative than the clergy, people who believe that it’s time to take society in to our hands, to do what we can to facilitate the coming of the messiah. No one knows what Ahmadinejad believes, but we do know that those are the people he’s surrounding himself with.

The question now is the role of the Revolutionary Guards. Ahmadinejad was favored by the Revolutionary Guards. They supported him in the last election, they supported him in this election, and they had a direct hand in the elections in terms of organizing the vote, busing people in and out of polling places, and carrying ballot boxes to and from election centers. The Revolutionary Guards have played more and more of a political role inside Iran and we know they were very much behind Ahmadinejad.

Now that there’s a split between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, it really remains to be seen what happens to the Revolutionary Guards. Is there going to be a split within them or are they going to go with Khamenei? Legally and constitutionally, the highest power in the country, the commander-in-chief, is the Supreme Leader. And of course he plays a big ideological role inside the country and people see him as the bedrock of the regime. 

If the fight between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad continues to be drawn out, it’s very possible that the Revolutionary Guards will break from Ahmadinejad and no longer support him. And we’re seeing signs of this happening, signs of Khamenei trying to take back his authority. The head of Parliament has said that it’s very possible that there will be some investigation into Ahmadinejad’s actions, the way he ignored Khamenei’s order to get rid of his vice-presidential pick, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. What we’re looking at is the conservative mainstream putting a check on Ahmadinejad, within the framework of the Islamic Republic, and trying to come to terms with the reformist mainstream. It’s not clear whether any of that will happen. But that’s where the political match lies right now.

WHAT ROLE do you think that progressives, radicals, and people supporting democratic aims should play here in the United States?

WE’RE LIVING in the country that is most mistrusted in Iran, and most heavily interested in what happens in Iran. Our primary goal is to keep this country in check, keep the people who run this country from meddling or even looking like they’re meddling in Iran. I think Obama took a very good stand rhetorically when the elections first happened, but he’s being pushed by all sides, and by the outrage from Republicans. Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham are asking why are we not acting like we’re the supporters and even the sponsors of what’s going on in Iran? That’s being pushed from many sides, and we have to make sure we stop that. It basically gives tools to the right wing in Iran. If Ahmadinejad can convince people that this is American plot, then he’s going to be able to regain a lot of the legitimacy that he’s lost.

That’s the kind of role that the right wing in this country can play. It’s looking like America’s meddling is good for the right wing in two ways: You either pull the people in the streets of Iran, the reformists, toward America and toward relying more and more on outside support, and if they don’t come toward us, then it’s best to destroy them. Because the least best thing for America is a more democratic Islamic Republic, is an Islamic Republic that continues to be this anti-imperialist force in the region, but one that is more at peace with it’s own people, that’s got more support internally. That’s the worst that could happen for America and the right wing in this country. So they either want to co-opt this movement in Iran, or they want to destroy it. And we have to make sure they do neither.

I also think it’s important, the visibility. And I’ve become more and more convinced of this as I’ve been talking to people. People in Iran knowing that people outside are looking and being inspired by what’s going on in Iran—it helps, it really makes a difference in terms of people’s mood, people’s sense of confidence. Ultimately this has to happen inside Iran and the way that the Iranian people deal with their own regime, but the sense of solidarity from outside makes a difference. And if we’re inspired we need to show that inspiration in creative ways—in ways that further that push for democracy in Iran, without falling into “this is the way for Iranians to look more like Americans.”

We have to figure out creative ways to make that happen. There was some discussion about whether we should go and wrap the Statue of Liberty in green. There was a big debate among people who are trying to organize and people realized that that’s not the right thing to do. We don’t want to tie what’s going on in Iran with the biggest symbol of the United States. That could actually work against everybody—people in Iran and the anti-imperialist left in this country. So the idea came up, why don’t we go do something in the Audubon Ballroom? Why don’t we go and take a symbol of greater struggles for freedom in this country and try to tie that to what’s going on in Iran. And these are the kinds of creative things that I think we have to argue out and come up with in order to support what’s going on in Iran and show the right kind of support, tie what’s going on in Iran with our own struggles here for greater freedom and democracy.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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