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Rights + Justice

Iran: Whose Side Are We Really On?

Growing revolt should topple some easy assumptions here.

Terry Glavin 29 Jun

Terry Glavin, who writes his Dissent column for The Tyee, recently was awarded the B.C. Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence.

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Protester in Tehran.

The uprising changes everything.

That's what you will hear these days across the spectrum of the Iranian diaspora, from exiled intellectuals, trade unionists, student activists, Marxists, and liberals. The uprising changes everything, and not just inside Iran. No matter what happens next, the uprising will cause convulsions in contested fields of struggle from Afghanistan to Palestine.

Already, the spectacle of angry masses thronging the streets of Iranians cities is holding out the promise of a great awakening in "progressive" politics from Berlin to Seattle. In Canada, what was once unspeakable is now unavoidably central to any serious discussion of the Iranian cause and what it demands of us.

Mehdi Kouhestaninejad, a senior Canadian Labour Congress officer who has spent more than a decade waging a tireless and often lonely struggle to forge effective links between Canadian and Iranian trade unions, says he can't remember the last time he was so filled with hope.

"In the West, the Left sees only the Ahmadinejad propaganda -- death to the U.S., death to imperialism. It claims it is anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, but the people in Iran know that this is baloney," Kouhestaninejad told me. "We have to challenge our attitudes. We have to recognize that there is no connection between the Left in the West and the Left in Iran."

For years, Kouhestaninejad and his CLC colleagues have tried to change all that, but they've been up against a politics that divides the world into two camps, with American-Israeli imperialists on one side and a "resistance" of plucky Islamists on the other. It's politics that divides the world's workers against themselves, and absurdly situates Ahmadinejad in the same camp where the western "Left" pitches its tent.

Canadian Labour Congress sent appeal

In Canada, the result has been a kind of stupefaction that has rendered the Left practically useless to the life-and-death struggles that have been underway in Iran for years, and which have now reached a crisis.

Only last month, the CLC was trying to rouse its affiliates to an urgent appeal from an international labour coalition representing 170 million workers, calling for a global day of protest in solidarity with Iran's persecuted trade unionists. There were protests planned from Wellington, New Zealand to Lagos, Nigeria, but in the days before Iran erupted, there was still no sign of any Canadian response.

Then, suddenly, more than a million protesters were marching in the streets of Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and other cities. Even as the Iranian theocracy responded with tear gas, bullets, and mass arrests, Kouhestaninejad, 44, could still see cause for hope. "Finally, everyone is beginning to wake up to Ahmadinejad and his phony slogans of anti-imperialism," Kouhestaninejad told me.

But history turns on a dime. Iran's brave trade unionists, student leaders, and pro-democracy activists are now facing their darkest hour since 1981. Back then, the good guys lost.

That was when Khomeinist reactionaries seized the helm of the 1979 revolution, turned on the country's republican forces, and carried out mass executions of secularists, socialists, feminists, and liberals. Back then, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's deranged, ruthless and antisemitic president, was one of ayatollahs' most loyal and enthusiastic torturers.

An invitation to lend support

Now, Iran's military-clerical caste is facing its most serious challenge ever, and one of the few cards left in Ahmadinejad's hand is the free pass he gets from "anti-imperialists" outside Iran.

It's what has made Kouhestaninejad's work such a desperate, uphill battle. It's also isolated the younger generation of Iranian-Canadian activists who have sprung into action in direct support of Iran's pro-democracy movement. It's kept their activism mainly confined to the Iranian-Canadian community, and reduced the mobilization to a mainly ethnic phenomenon.

It's all a bit of a mystery to Mohsen Amiri, a 28-year-old engineering science student at Simon Fraser University. Amiri was a key organizer of one of the first Canadian rallies, a June 14 event at Canada Place on the Vancouver waterfront. Amiri has been pulling together friends to attend rallies ever since, but he says many of his non-Iranian fellow students, even the ones he most expected to show up, have simply stayed away.

"All of them are fans of Ahmadinejad," Amiri said. "I think they are confused."

The confusion is especially pronounced in the case of students recently arrived from Arab countries, North Africa and Asia. "They like Ahmadinejad, and I can understand that, because in these countries the government wants somebody to blame for their situation. So they say, 'I don’t like the U.S. and I don't like Israel.' And so they become fans of Ahmadinejad."

As for the confusion among otherwise intelligent and literate Canadian leftists who don't have the excuse of having been tutored by authoritarian propaganda all their lives, Amiri says he can't explain it.

But the confusion is no mystery to Arash Abadpour, a 30-year-old computer science student at the University of Toronto and a keen observer of the Iranian pro-democracy movement. Abadpour's website, a key source of news for Iranian reformers, is now one of the most popular websites in Iran.

"Ahmadinejad has been very successful in selling himself as an anti-imperialist in the West," Abadpour said. "The way he opposes the U.S. and Israel, he has been able to present himself as a voice of the anti-imperialist movement."

A fat lot of good it was doing him as the uprising ended its first week, though. Thousands of ordinary Canadians were showing up at Iranian-led demonstrations and candle-light vigils across the country.

Rallying solidarity in Canada

As the uprising staggered into its second week, bloodied but still alive, Kouhestaninejad remained upbeat about everything. By mid-week, Canada's labour unions were starting to show signs of life. Some unions were starting to show an interest in the long-planned Friday, June 26 international day of solidarity after all. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and other unions were gearing up for last-minute rallies in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

Then it looked liked the old stupefaction was setting in again. The Iranian regime's propaganda line -- the pro-democracy protesters are merely disaffected upper middle-class "rioters" and the uprising is the work the CIA spies, Zionist plotters and British agents -- was starting to show up in "left-wing" circles everywhere.

After Venezuela's president and left-wing icon Hugo Chavez rushed to Ahmadinejad's side with regurgitations of the ayatollahs' claims about shadowy imperialists, the pile-on was in full swing.

James Petras, a senior member of the Canadian Dimension editorial collective, jumped to the regime's defence, dismissing reports of widespread Iranian outrage as a fabrication of the "Zionist-mass media line."

Zafar Bangash, a Khomeinist fanatic who doubles as the director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought and a spokesman for the Toronto's Stop the War Coalition, weighed in. To Bangash, Ahmadinejad's woes were all the fault of "the Muslim-hating West" and its agents in the mansions of North Tehran.

On Canada's west coast, the Mobilization Against War and Occupation issued a statement sneering at the "crocodile tears" being shed for the Iranian protesters and declared: "Iran's elections and disputes are an internal matter."

Tool of US imperialists?

Kouhestaninejad soon found himself back to fending off the persistent complaint that has so confounded efforts to build bridges between Iran's unions, feminists and student activists and their estranged Canadian counterparts: he was just playing into the hands of the American imperialists.

Then he had to field questions from "progressive" journalists about American and Israeli spies behind Iran's young activists. "I tell them, 'they are not puppets of any agency, don't insult their intelligence.' You should see the attacks I'm getting now from the anti-imperialists in Toronto," he said.

The rot runs deep.

It's commonplace on the Left to pretend that the rot is confined to marginal pseudo-left groupuscules, and that it's no big deal that a Left-Islamist alliance has captured the key posts in Canada's "anti-war" movement. But if you keep your eye on what Kouhestaninejad calls the broken connections between the Left in the West and the Left in Iran, you'll notice that it matters.

In March, following shocking reports that Afghan president Hamid Karzai had approved a "rape law" to appease Afghanistan's Shia minority, anti-imperialist groups claimed a stunning propaganda coup. Their argument went like this: It just goes to show, Canada's role in Afghanistan has nothing to do with protecting women's rights, it's just like the Taliban days, we're just propping up these horrible government, and it's all just a U.S.-run military occupation. Troops out.

That soon became the received wisdom.

But if Canadians had been paying attention to what the Left in Iran has been saying they would have known that it was all rubbish.

Where the rape law was written

The Afghan "rape law" was written in Tehran. It drew directly from the "Law Supporting the Family," which stalled in the Iranian parliament in 2008 following an open revolt led by Iranian women. The law was brought to Afghanistan by its Afghan proxy, the hated Afghan cleric Mohammed Asif Mosehni. In Kabul, Mosehni does Tehran's dirty work from his own opulent mosque, with his own madrassa, television station and radio station. He even runs an Afghan version of Iran's "morality police" to harass and terrorize Afghanistan's Shia minority.

"So long as we don't change the regime in Tehran, we will continue to have terrible problems, and not just in Iran," Kouhestaninejad said. "We will have problems in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. The regime has its fingers in everything. For as long as the regime is there, we will have these problems, and they will not go away."

And so long as the Left in Canada pretends that this is just somebody else's business, the rot will not go away. It's done enough damage already.

It is our business.

Defending a dictatorship

It was only a few weeks ago that NDP MP Olivia Chow, Toronto Star columnist Linda McQuaig and CBC pundit Heather Mallick were all rushing to the defence of the renegade British MP George Galloway, the Iranian regime's most brazen and slobbering apologist in the English-speaking world. They happily parroted Galloway's false claim that Ottawa wouldn't let him keep his "anti-war" speaking engagements in Canada for fear of what he might say about Canada's role in Afghanistan. McQuaig went so far as to praise Galloway for possessing "the mental toughness of Noam Chomsky and the showmanship of Mick Jagger."

As soon as Tehran's streets began filling with masses of protesters two weeks ago, Galloway declared himself against the Iranian uprising and for the regime's ruling Guardian Council. Galloway issued his verdict from the platform of his own long-running, regular program on Press TV, the regime's English-language propaganda network.

It is not that Galloway has changed. Iran is the same totalitarian state he and his supporters were defending last year and the year before that. Neither did Iran’s farcical June 12 election change anything.

Tehran's ayatollahs still run a blood-stained, belligerent and authoritarian theocracy where all non-Islamist political parties are banned, semi-literate clerics choose who can run for office and who cannot, and independent trade unions are banned. The clerics control the news media, foreign policy, and the army. Their morality police roam the streets arresting women if they look too "western" and their Basiji militiamen roam the campuses looking for pamphleteers to beat up. None of that has changed.

A revolt gaining traction

What's changed is that the long campaign for Iranian democracy, for workers' rights, and for the hundreds of union leaders, journalists and human rights activists in Iranian prisons, has at last started to gain some global traction. What's changed is that the tireless efforts of Kouhestaninejad and his colleagues at the CLC, the International Trade Union Confederation, the International Transport Workers Federation and Educational International are starting to pay off.

"We are in good shape," Kouhestaninejad told me last Thursday. "We are in very good shape."

But mainly, what has changed is this business about Ahmadinejad's free pass, and the cynical, stupid politics that allow him to have it. What's changed is that the leaders of the uprising are demanding the regime's isolation, and they mean it. What's changed is that now, anyone who excuses or accommodates the regime's propagandists, agents and apologists in Canada’s trade unions, social-justice networks, anti-racism campaigns or student organizations, is an enemy of the Iranian uprising.

The uprising changes everything.

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