Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reply to a Challenge over Iran by Mike Ely

The Kasama essay ” A question to the left on Iran: Can the people make history or not?” appeared as an opinion piece on ”Links: International Journal for Socialist Renewal.” In response, a thoughtful challenge was posted called “A Question for Mike Ely” (AQME). The author of this challenge chose to remain anonymous.

I would like to answer some of the key issues raised by this AQME commentary. I will excerpt pieces of AQME below and follow each with a brief response. To see the full text of AQME, read it on the Links site.


“The Iranian government is “reactionary”? What are the most reactionary governments in the Middle East? Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. In fact, what country in the whole Middle East is more democratic and anti-imperialist than the Islamic Republic of Iran? Syria? Morocco? Turkey? Need I continue?”

Mike Ely:

My understanding is rather sharply different. All of the countries you mention, including Iran, are deeply emeshed in the imperialist system. I don’t see any of them as any “more anti-imperialist” than the other.

In all of them, except for Israel, the people suffer terribly from the dynamics of that imperialist system. Israel, an artificial settler state, is a different creature — it is dependent on imperialism for its very existence, and is propped up to serve as a key proxy power enforcing the odious “stability of this strategic region. (After the fall of the Shah of Iran, the U.S. has sought as strategic “three legged stool” regioinally — rooted in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, with Egypt heavily-funded into a corrupt passivity.)

There is a long history of states in this region aligning first with one, then with another imperialist power — jumping blocs, shifting alliances. For example, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq over the 70s and 80s switched sides in the international conflict between the U.S. and Soviet dominated war blocs.

Iran was very closely aligned with the U.S. before 1979 (under the Shah). After the emergence of the Islamic theocracy, those ties weakened. Iran was no longer seen as a stable U.S. “strategic partner,” and it no longer played a direct role as an American military proxy (as the Shah did in Oman etc.)

But covert relations continue between Iran and both the U.S. and Israelis — based on a common growing strategic opposition to Iraq’s government. I have written elsewhere reminding readers of the crucial role that this covert Israeli-Iranian connect played in the famous Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan years.

In subsequent years, the Iranian theocrats have strengthened their strategic relations with a second tier of imperialists (specifically Russia, Germany and France) — relations built through trade that mocked U.S. calls for embargo, marked by European opposition to U.S.-Israeli war threats, and based on common strategic interests.

There is nothing anti-imperialist about any of this. It is the political superstructure of an economy integrated into the imperialist world markets.

Some people equate public “anti-U.S.” rhetoric in the third world with “anti-imperialism.” And using similar methods, they once painted the Soviet bloc of the 1970s as “progressive,” and since have attempted prettify oppressive states like North Korea’s feudo-revisionist monarchy, Serbia’s chauvinist Milosovic regime in the 1990s, or Iran’s oppressive theocracy now.

But we don’t live in a uni-polar world where the U.S. is the only imperialist operating. Imperialism is a economic world system — it has (historically and inevitably) different conflicting centers within it, and minor states have always found themselves pressured to align with one against the other — in the constant rivalries.

The current Iranian government has (especially since the U.S. occupation of Iraq) come into sharp strategic conflict with the U.S. But that hardly makes them “anti-imperialist” in any sense that matters — and it certainly doesn’t change their acutely reactionary character vis-à-vis their own people.


There is a media campaign against Iran since 1979 because the Iranian government is anti-imperialist and nationalist.

Mike Ely:

The media campaign against Iran was conducted because the rise of Iran’s Islamic republic broke an important strategic alliance that the U.S. had relied on to dominate the Middle East.

The weakening of such alliances, at that time (1979), was part of a rising global crisis within the world system — as U.S.-Soviet rivalry both polarized international relations and (also, secondarily) gave some smaller states more “room” to play off one power against the other.

That previous “room” was affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the U.S. believed it has a historic opening to make outrageous and unprecedented demands for unipolar hegemony over the whole world. Some smaller countries found outside that hegemony were dubbed “rogue states” and ”the axis of evil” — but under the surface of Bush’s rhetoric, the main challenge to American hegemony has (all along) centered on the emerging strength of capitalist China, the slowly-gathering strategic recovery of Russia, and the long-term strategic interests of Western Europe.

Iran’s rhetorical defiance of the U.S. cannot be seen apart from the larger divisions and emerging rivalries within the world imperialist system.


I would think that the US Congress vote to support Mousavi’s demonstrators would be taken as a sufficient certification of what his movement represents.

Mike Ely:

No. You can’t look at some paper resolution of the U.S. Congress and deduce (certify) the nature, meaning or essence of complex events. The world is not that simple. And this highlights the ways certain arguments are rooted in a negation of thinking and analysis.

First, The U.S. hopes for “regime change” in Iran — especially to help consolidate U.S. control in Iraq. And (from that perspective) supports the uprising in Iran. But that does not define that uprising, or determine its character.

Second, you continually equate the upsurge in Iran with Mousavi and his program. As if “what his movement represents” defines the demands and potential of a defitant popular uprising. This is a serious misunderstanding. The events the election called into being need not end up serving one side or another within the Iranian establishment (or serving the U.S. imperialists either).

Third, the U.S. has historically supported many movements that undermine governments or rival powers. Not all of them were crude U.S. proxies. (The Nicaragua contras come to mind as an example of paid CIA proxies.)

But this is not always the case that the U.S. only supports forces that are inherently and profoundly pro-U.S. or “pro-imperialist.” World War 2, in particular, is full of counter examples. The U.S. supported many movements that opposed Japanese and German imperialism — and supported them with arms and funds. And many of them turned out to be rather revolutionary — including Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh in Vietnam and Mao’s communist forces in Yenan. It also included radical nationalist forces in Indonesia and the Philippines. By your method, the simple fact of U.S. support would “certify” that they represent something “pro-imperialist.”

Here is the essence of it: Imperialist powers like the U.S. seek to undermine and destabilize government that don’t serve their particular strategic interests. That subversive process (which amounts to forms of covert political and economic warfare) often encourages internal political movements of various complextions. And the conflict also often encourages political turmoil among the masses of people — that can generate openings for all kinds of political expression (including radical, revolutionary expressions).

It is not true that the undermining of the Islamic Republic can only serve U.S. interests. It may very well help drag millions of Iranian people into political life — and create openings for politics and events that serve none of the existing governments and powers.


Why would we be “prettifying” the Iranian government by pointing out simple factual information – that the US media anti-Islamic Republic campaign is based on seeking to overturn the gains of the 1979 revolution?

Mike Ely:

The very idea that there are “gains” of 1979, that the U.S. wants to “overturn” is bizarre to me — and goes far beyond mere “prettifying.”

The revolution of 1979 was a broad, popular revolutionary movement against the brutal U.S. agent, the Shah of Iran. That revolution ended when the Islamist forces came to dominate it. It was crushed by their consolidating theocracy. Progressive, secular, revolutionary and communist forces were persecuted and driven from the political stage by harsh repression.

Though the Iranian Islamists used (and still use) “revolutionary” rhetoric — they imposed a brutal theocratic state, imposing truly feudal thinking and odious social conditions on the people by fascist means.

What possible “gains” can you be talking about? The veil? The sexual segregation of life? The creation of fundamentalist surveillance networks and vigilante committees that snoop into people’s intimacies and thoughts? The harassment of women on the street for not covering enough, or for showing makeup, or for being out alone? The intense restriction of thought and culture — and the promotion of only the slavishly conformist and submissive cultural expressions? The Koranic law concerning rape, or theft, or thought, or education? The rounding up, torture, humiliation and execution of any progressive or communist they could capture?


Were we prettifying Saddam Hussein when we opposed the US invasion of Iraq?

Mike Ely:

Some people did prettify Saddam Hussein — and still do — using assumptions, methods and misrepresentations similar to the AQFME piece. The fact is that Saddam Hussein was a creature of imperialism — one of the U.S. henchmen who, like Noriega, or Diem, was cut loose and targeted when he fell afoul of his original masters.

The burden on us (particularly here in the U.S.) is to oppose, with special focus, moves designed to strengthen and consolidate the most oppressive and powerful empire in world history — U.S. imperialism. And there is a great deal to be done in regard to war threats (and war justifications) against Iran.

However sharply and firmly opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq — and now the real threats against Iran — does not require the slightest misrepresentation of often-ugly regimes as somehow “progressive” and “anti-imperialist.”

It is possible to simply say “we must not support big dogs brutalizing small dogs.”


Ahmadinejad, himself born into rural poverty, clearly has the support of the poorer classes, especially in the countryside, where nearly half the population lives. Why? In part because he pays attention to them, makes sure they receive some benefits from the government and treats them and their religious views and traditions with respect. Mousavi, on the other hand, the son of an urban merchant, clearly appeals more to the urban middle classes, especially the college-educated youth… Why is there so little discussion of the issue of class in this election?… I’m a worker, and a former union organizer. When I watched the videos and viewed the photos of the pro-Mousavi rallies in Tehran and other cities, I didn’t feel elated – I felt a chill.

Mike Ely:

There is no reason we should adopt such crude reductionist class politics. Often hangmen and butchers are elevated from among the poor — while lofty revolutionaries often emerged from among the more educated.

The changes the world needs will not be wrung out of surly revenge populism or trumpeting most backward sentiments found among the rural poor. It will come from a fusion of history’s most enlightened thinking with the radicalism of a movement truly serving the oppressed.

You write that Ahmadinejad treats ” religious views and traditions with respect.” Is that what you call a theocracy? “Respect” for the poor?

Here in the U.S., the ugliest Christian fundamentalist forces also play at populist “cultural wars” — raging against the “elites” of New York, and the supposed anti-biblical arrogance of the college educated. Anti-semitism has always played on a hatred of the rich and cosmopolitan. Similar “respect” for the most backward of America’s rural culture would leave women barefoot and pregnant, and Black people facing separate water fountains.

I spent years as a communist organizer in the coalfields of America’s rural bible belt and understand well how fundamentalist religion is exploited for sinister purposes. And I feel no “chill” when anti-government actions erupt first among the urban and educated. That’s how new politics and movements often erupt.

Perhaps your view of socialist politics requires a kneejerk hostility toward the middle classes, toward college students, or toward bohemians and yuppies. But there is no reason to embrace those prejudices.


“A big issue in …is how to interpret Article 44 of the country’s constitution. That article states that the economy must consist of three sectors: state-owned, cooperative and private, and that “all large-scale and mother industries” are to be entirely owned by the state…. In 2004, Article 44 was amended to allow for some privatization. Just how much, and how swiftly that process should proceed, is a fundamental dividing line in Iranian politics. Mousavi has promised to speed up the privatization process. And when he first announced he would run for the presidency, he called for moving away from an “alms-based “ economy (PressTV, 4/13/09), an obvious reference to Ahmadinejad’s policies of providing services and benefits to the poor.”

Mike Ely:

You see the struggle between state capitalism and privatization as some big dividing line. But capitalism reorganizes itself constantly — with different trends and fashions emerging to serve the restructuring of the moment.

Ahmadinejad’s policies provide some “services and benefits” to the poor? Perhaps. That kind of paternalistic trickledown is a quite common technique for the political stabilization of resource-rich countries — certainly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are good examples. Or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. So what? Does such that make them less reactionary? More anti-capitalist? More defensible? Less odious?


The whole idea that tossing Ahmadinejad out of office would make it easier to change U.S. policy toward Iran is, in my opinion, very naive.

Mike Ely:

I have not heard anyone put forward this naive argument — i.e. I suspect it is a straw man.

My personal enthusiasm for the upsurge in Iran is that it carries with it possibilities for the development of a new revolutionary generation there — which may accomplish much in the future.

Further: The 1980s combination of U.S./CIA support for the Afghanistan fundamentalists killers and the rise of Islamist theocracy in Iran did much to boost reactionary fundamentalist politics over secular leftist politics in major parts of the world. And I believe that the popular discrediting of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship will help undermine and reverse that influence of politicized Islam globally — and help open more openings for more secular and revolutionary popular movements.

And finally, as a basic stand rooted in a whole structure of analysis, I believe we should affirm that it is just when people rebel against reactionaries. And people rising up should not stand alone.

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