Ahmadinejad, an anti-imperialist - really?

It is necessary for world opinion to progress beyond the crude binary opposition of the enemy image if we want to understand the true nature of the Iranian regime, and if we want to avoid war.

I don’t really know how I should begin.  Maybe the best way to begin is to directly address the Cuban students from the University of Havana who made up the audience for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his trip to Latin America on January 11, 2012. The President of the Islamic Republic denounced capitalism during a speech on the third leg of his trip to forge friendships with his Latin American allies, most of them thorns in Washington's side. "Thankfully we are already witnessing that the capitalist system is in decay," Ahmadinejad said. "On various stages it has come to a dead end—politically, economically and culturally."

"You see that when it lacks logic, they turn to weapons to kill and destroy," he added.

Commentators on the far left on one hand, and the reactionary right on the other, are both prone to argue that the policies of President Ahmadinejad have an ‘anti-imperialist’ or even a ‘socialist’ motivation. They adduce as proof the seemingly close relations between the Iranian government and Latin American states, most notably with the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

As a young writer and I’d like to think, a progressive, I have been giving this a lot of thought. Is Ahmadinejad really ‘anti-imperialist’?  This question has provoked extensive debate not only among the Iranian left and democratic forces, but between these forces and the extremist neo-liberal forces in Iran. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and competition among the great powers of the world over global markets, there has been some ambiguity, to say the least, about the global scene for many progressive forces. What I want to argue is that both these forces have their own reasons for describing Iran in this way, but in taking advantage of the situation like this, they are also misrepresenting the facts of the case. Progressives in particular are letting the Iranian people down.

During the period that I have been living in Germany as an independent journalist in exile, media across the political spectrum have interviewed me, with the sole exception of the leftist press. Unfortunately, at the peak of the struggle of the Iranian people, the voice of progress and left forces of the world did not resonate as it should have done in support of the popular movement in Iran. In some cases, Iranian activists were deeply saddened to witness the same kind of clichéd rhetoric and superficial characterization of the existing situation that mobilized support for the so-called ‘Velvet Revolutions’, stirred up by western powers, and particularly the US.  

Even worse, others on the left concluded that Ahmadinejad’s government represents the majority of the masses. Yes, the Islamic Republic has been in a quarrel with the US from the day it was established. But this hostility stems from the deeply reactionary and anti-modern nature of the regime. It was this, in fact, that was behind the slogan of, "Down with the USA" with which they crushed thousands of anti-imperialist and left forces in a calculatedly vicious and systematic manner. The suppression of the left and liberal forces continues to this day. What Ahmadinejad and his cronies represent is not ‘progressive’ but deeply regressive. They want to take the Iranian nation back 1,400 years.

Meanwhile, in the past thirty years, under the pretext of the threat coming from the Islamic Republic, Americans have deployed military forces to many parts of the Middle East. This game, referred to as a war on ‘political Islam’ was specifically invented by western powers to address a very particular conjuncture. To date, this game has been a costly one for the people in the Middle East in general and for Iranians in particular.  Today, the Iranian regime claims to be opposed to the United States, but it just happens to be the case that the terms "imperialism" and "syndicalism or trade unionism" are also banned from its vocabulary. 

Liberals and leftists in Iran have in vain tried to raise their voices so that they can be heard by those who claim to strive for ‘another and better world’. Thus far, this effort has been futile. The intimacy, for example, between the head of the Iranian government and some Latin American governments such as that of Hugo Chavez shocks and deeply saddens Iranian progressives. Their unconditional support for Iran’s Ahmadinejad and his regime, which is under the control of the Supreme Leader and other Mullahs, is unfathomable. How can it be in any way consistent with the basic belief in democratic and socialist values that they claim to uphold?  Though they talk about opening up new fronts to fight corporate greed and imperialist interests, regrettably all they do is to slavishly follow the obsolete approach of, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

A review of the events of recent months in Iran and the economic plans of the current government, shows clearly that Iran is pursuing the prescriptions of the World Bank and IMF, prescriptions which in reality are against the interests of ordinary people, especially the working class. Several trade unionists and human rights defenders have recently been sentenced to unjust terms of prison and others remain in arbitrary detention in Iran, often in horrendous conditions, with the only aim to sanction the legitimate exercise of their human right activities, amid the continuing repression of Iranian civil society. Iran’s workers are fighting to protect their rights and their livelihoods. Prohibited by law from unionizing freely and independently, they are battling for decent wages, better working conditions and job security. They want their voices to be heard and their labour rights to be respected. The response of the government to workers’ demands has been brutal with some trade unionists serving long prison sentences. 

The passing of the current ‘economic plan bill’ with such indecent haste hands over capital, lock stock and barrel, to a bunch of military people, i.e. the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij.  The elimination of subsidies for the labour force is part of this monopolization plan.  This reveals the true underlying orientation and nature of the Islamic regime. President Khatami, between 1997 and 2005, also had a strong inclination toward a neo-liberal economy. But his government, unlike the current one, was unable to implement this approach, when they realized just what it would take to control all the negative aspects of the policy of so-called "structural adjustment".

So, dear friends in Cuba, I would say, it is astonishing for progressive forces in Iran to behold a country like yours, which was placed under a US economic embargo for more than forty years, turning the face of camaraderie and friendship towards such a reactionary and backward regime as the current one in Tehran. If you have the chance, you surely have a right to ask the Cuban leadership how they can justify their defence of a regime that has imprisoned and/or executed hundreds of progressive and leftist forces. Have they never heard of Khavaran Cemetery?  In 1988, after thousands of political prisoners, most of whom were leftists and liberals, were executed en masse, they were buried in Khavaran. These were the potential leaders of change in their society.

There is a particular moment in my experience which I would like you to think about. It came at the end of my lengthy struggle to be an independent journalist in Iran. There are no independent publications in today's Iran. For some time there was the possibility of writing for some of the ‘religious reformist’ papers and I could sense the thirst for information and knowledge. Numerous articles of mine were published in the history, politics and culture pages of the high-circulation daily Shargh, and were well received. But gradually, the routine censorship and ever-increasing pressure, including warnings from the office of the head of the country to these reformist publishers severely diminished the space for my collaboration with the printed media in Iran until it became impossible; such was the hysteria induced  among the ‘religious reformists’ against independent or radical and left groups.

So I began a weblog under my own name, when net publishing was very young indeed in Iran, and found to my delight that articles including quite a number of links to the news sites in various Farsi and global media were visited daily by hundreds of Farsi-speaking visitors from all over the world, including the remote rural areas of Iran. Working for the electronic daily "Rooz" (RoozOnline), on many articles, reports and interviews with various authorities and members of the Islamic parliament about current issues, was the next step. A step too far. The security forces raided my house and confiscated my computer, my rough drafts and archives. They even took my poems and my university work; the screenplays I had written as a student of cinema. Four days later I was detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Court. Then there were many days of solitary confinement and interrogation while a large archive of 10-years of professional journalistic work was on the interrogator's table in the infamous detention centre 209 of the Intelligence Ministry within the notorious Evin prison.

Interrogators in the Islamic Republic call themselves ‘experts’. They questioned me about every single one of my writings, wanting to know my ‘motivation’ in doing ‘this’! I of course had to explain the reasons for my opposition to the executive order [of the Supreme Leader] on the Article 44 of the Constitution, which deals with the privatisation policies of the regime. But they wanted me to answer for every word especially on two fronts, i.e. the left and the media. They were unhappy that I did not cooperate with them.  They suggested that at least I might become a ‘reformist’. I told them many times that I was not their ‘co-worker’. I spent the entire period of my detention, which involved torture and mostly psychological torture, in solitary confinement. After 60 days in solitary confinement I had lost 11 kilos.

In the end, they packed me off to the general ward of the prison to keep company with the fraudsters and drug addicts while they originally assigned bail for me at 500 million toomans (~$500,000) which was unprecedented for a journalist. Later on, with the efforts of my family my mother who herself is a journalist and political activist and under pressure from the media, my bail was reduced to 100 million toomans (~$100,000) and the collateral was the house that belonged to my father, a young engineer from the ambitious revolutionary generation and one he worked hard for.

But I digress. What I wanted to say is this. The words of one of my interrogators will always be stamped on my memory. I remember him telling me repeatedly that ‘justice’ may be good, nevertheless I must understand that today and the foreseeable future belongs to capitalism. How ‘rogue’ is that?

        
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What we expect from the progressive forces and our friends across the world is a twofold response. Firstly, we expect solidarity with the popular movement in Iran in the form of pressure upon your own governments to consider the disastrous situation of human rights in Iran whenever they have dealings with the Islamic Republic. 

And then those who are the true supporters of the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy should say, “No to economic sanctions, no to war and no to what is called ‘humanitarian intervention’.” For as Jean Bricmont, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain, once wrote, “‘humanitarian imperialism’ uses human rights to sell war.”  

About the author


Soheil Asefi is an Iranian journalist in Berlin. He left Iran three years ago after a ten- year professional experience in major Iranian media outlets. He had been in prison and was released on bail.   He came to Germany as the guest of the City of Nuremberg under the project "Writers in Exile" funded by the German Pen Center. Since then he has been writing for local German newspapers.  He is the recipient of the Hermann Kasten award in Germany.