Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses tens of thousands of Iranian voluntary forces (Basij) at the Azadi Stadium in the Iranian capital Tehran, Iran, on October 4, 2018 . Picture by Parspix/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Anti-imperialism comes in various shapes and forms in Iran, ranging from hard-nosed to soft-bellied. However, with the rise of reactionary forces, the history of anti-imperialism in post-revolutionary Iran has been the triumph of the latter. The 1979 Revolution in which the religious forces seized the power and tried to redirect the anti-imperialist discourse, brought the long-term Iran-America honeymoon to an end. It led to a misconception among western intellectuals that the Iranian government is at the forefront of resistance against American imperialism. There were also some people among the secular Iranian intellectuals who endorsed this anti-imperialism – most importantly Tudeh Party (Party of the People) that was the admirer of imperialist discourse of the Islamic Republic, until the regime imprisoned and executed its main leaders in 1983.
The hostage crisis in 1979 marked a turning point in Iran-United States relations. It derailed the leftist anti-imperialist discourse and turned it into shallow rhetoric against the so-called Great Satan with the unifying slogan ‘Down with America’.
Thirty years later, when Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad took power, even some western intellectuals fell for a misleading vision that considered him a leftist fighting against the dominant global system.
Cartography of a revolution
In order to understand the history of anti-imperialism in Iran, a retrospective reflection on the ’79 Revolution is necessary. To cut a long story short, the Revolution happened at the dawn of the neoliberal counter-revolution, which brought Thatcher and Reagan to power. The first decade of the Revolution coincides with the alteration of the global scene: the cold war was about to come to an end and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Leftists and anti-colonialists all over the world, the main agents of anti-imperialist discourse, were forced to retreat. In Iran, the first decade was that of antagonism between the forces involved in the ’79 Revolution. The dominant political Islamism that came out of it suppressed all the rivals, including the secular leftists and the liberals, which culminated in the 1988 massacre. It ended up in a new ambivalent order in which it opposes politically what it endorsed economically.
The regime follows the World Bank instructions and IMF discipline, subjugating workers and their few trade unions, implementing the structural adjustment program, establishing itself as a low-wage market for capital. The political economy of the Islamic Republic is in accordance with the world order, serving the one percent local oligarchy that is anything but anti-imperialist.
Yet in terms of political rhetoric, it presents itself as an anti-imperialist regime, considered by the so-called international community as a ‘rogue state’. The international policies of the Islamic Republic, its regional alliances and animosities that sporadically shift in contrast to the United States- Israel- Saudi Arabia camp to spark the flames of Sunni-Shia divide, can be explained in these terms. The regime takes full advantage of the regional demography, the existence of Shia minorities in every corner of the Middle East. Ironically, any western intervention in the region plays into the hands of the Islamic Republic. As the central governments fall apart, these minorities reorganize themselves to find their allies.
‘Neither war nor peace’ strategy
The Janus-faced nature of the Islamic Republic manifests itself in the principle of ‘neither war nor peace’ on the international scene. Indeed, it engages in both coercion and cooperation simultaneously, though the balance between these two facets in the exercise of power may shift from one period or administration to another. After eight-years of Iran-Iraq war, this principle has always guided the Iran-America relations. It constitutes a gray zone in which the government can utilize the confusion on both sides: whenever necessary the war threat comes to the fore, allowing the government to intensify the domestic suppression. When the threat is unable to mobilize the international consensus, the government slips into negotiations with the West, without reducing the scale of domestic oppression.
The move toward negotiation and peace in this case is, however, not drastic enough to keep the war threat on the table. As a result, we are faced with a fluid, vague, indeterminate situation in which the government can still use the advantages and drawbacks of war threat as well as an unsustainable peace, both in terms of domestic and international policies.
Despite the geopolitical power asymmetries between the US and the Islamic Republic, the continuation of ‘neither war nor peace’ situation is in line with the United States interests. It allows both to hold sway over the region, even if by proxy wars. Moreover, there has been some clandestine cooperation between the two behind the scenes, most importantly the Iran–Contra scandal, that betrays the hollowness of the Iranian anti-imperialist megaphone.
Looking at this picture, it is hard to buy into the anti-imperialist rhetoric proposed by the Islamic Republic for decades. All the same, shallow anti-imperialism continues to create its new agents. In recent years, a heterogeneous array of journalists, social media activist, think tanks, organizations, ex-politicians, former ambassadors, and European academics have cropped up to propagate, intentionally or unwittingly, the Islamic Republic rhetoric, by appealing to its role in confronting with the United States.
Though with different motivations, they constitute a pseudo anti-imperialism by demonizing the United States’ president Donald Trump and providing the Islamic Republic with a human face. This generation of media activists mostly lives abroad, whether born in Europe, Britain, and North America or migrated to these countries. They idealized the western democracies in their hometowns, found liberal-democratic promises at odds with their reality, and turned to a kind of shallow anti-imperialism by inflating their Iranian identity.
Overlooking the history of anti-imperialism in Iran – the nationalization of Iran oil industry by Mohammad Mosaddegh – and in the region, they substitute anti-imperialism with a superficial form of anti-Americanism in post-revolutionary Iran. Imperialism, in their view, is not a stage in the global development of capitalism, but rather a geopolitical competition.
With no illusions of being exhaustive or all encompassing, here are three components of this pseudo anti-imperialism, interconnected with each other.
1. They lack a fine-grained structural analysis of imperialism. This kind of anti-imperialist discourse does not put the new world order into question, but merely roots for the underdogs. It prefers the Islamic Republic to gain global and regional leverage, rather than challenging the very global and regional relations based on domination.
2. It is indifferent to the reproduction of the global power relations, based on coercion, at the local level. The result is a discourse unconcerned about the bourgeois-democratic rights of citizens such as freedom of assembly, freedom of unveiling, freedom of expression. Their position reflects more that of the powers-that-be than that of the people. They have nothing to say about the popular struggles of the past four decades, or the suppression of workers, teachers, students, and women in Iran. They are not only silent on the analysis of current struggles in Iran, but also cannot provide empirical evidence of domestic politics for the intellectuals and academics around the world.
3. The third feature has to do with state-based international relations. All they do is to discuss the geopolitical competitions in the region and the balancing role of Tehran, which means neglecting the international solidarity of popular struggles throughout the region. Their statist internationalism leads to a simplified description of periphery countries, and they try to prove the US is not much better than those countries. Instead of insisting on the solidarity and equality of all Middle Eastern people, they focus on asymmetries among the Middle Eastern governments, asking for the hegemony of one over another.
In doing so, they reduce anti-imperialism to anti-Americanism, and then to anti-Trumpism, which would make sense if they located it in a history of capitalist imperialism, not just at the level of the US administrations. At the level of Tehran domestic politics, they consider a distinction between the two factions of the regime, hardliner versus reformists, without paying attention to the rigid structure of the Islamic Republic. Their political hypocrisy is revealed as they were silent to Obama’s sanctions on Iran, when Ahmadi-Nejad was in power.
Shallow anti-imperialism is heavily emphasized in the way in which the Islamic Republic typically views and presents itself to the rest of the world, though here there is as much myth-spinning as truth-telling. The more general truth is that the Islamic Republic and the United States are, above all, ideological supplement to one another. They feed each other ideologically.
Without the domestic despotic rule of the Islamic Republic posed as a democracy, as well as its imperial policies in the region, American bellicosity of ‘the axis of Evil’ would appear empty. In the same vein, however, without the history of American military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, as well as the dark history of coups in Latin America, Iran and elsewhere, the Islamic Republic would have no grounds for reactionary anti-American discourse.
This is not to say that they are commensurable powers but that, in order to gain control and preside over the world economy, the American dominance needs a political exception, a country outside the civilized world in opposition to which the totality of capitalist civilization is constituted. Though it has been shifted constantly during the past decades, from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Gaddafi, the Islamic Republic has been always the main exception that has made the American dominance possible.
The religious governments of Iran and Israel also supplement one another in the same fashion. As we have witnessed, any structural change in the Middle East, the kind that the Arab revolutions aspired to bring about, has been responded by Israel distastefully. It seems that the survival of Israel in the region is bound up with the current state of the Islamic Republic in relation to Hezbollah and Hamas.
So the real conflict lies not between Iran and the United States, but between the poor people of the Middle East and their corrupt oligarchic rulers, and in the case of Iran, between the Iranian people and the plutocratic oligarchy of the Islamic Republic. It is a conflict best exemplified by the urban poor of the Arab revolutions – those masses that poured into the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, etc., in 2011 – in contrast to Gulf Cooperation Council policies. It is worth recalling that when Jordanians began to protest just recently against the austerity measures in early June 2018, three Gulf Arab states pledged $2.5bn in aid to Jordan to stabilize the kingdom and stifle a popular youth movement.
For those Gulf States and the corrupt theocratic autocracies very little can be said. But advocates of shallow anti-imperialism need to answer a series of crucial questions. Do they try to campaign for solidarity between diverse struggles in the region? Do they defend the practical freedom of assembly, trade unions, parties, and so on in autocracies like Iran? Do they start petitions and initiatives with the help of intellectuals and independent activists against discriminatory laws in the Islamic Republic, most importantly the compulsory veiling? Do they battle against a religious, sexual, ethnic, political, apartheid regime, regardless of defending this or that faction of the Islamic Republic? Do they agree that the nuclear programme has had a devastating impact, economically and politically, on the lives of ordinary Iranians? Do they support a popular effort on impeding such programme beyond the international rivalry of corrupt politicians?
What is at stake in the leftist ‘third way’ is to oppose the nuclear programme from the outset which will take the very deal off the table by a popular agency. If one puts the state-centered perspective aside, one can realize that not a deal between certain governments but a strong bottom-up opposition toward a nuclear programme is the only way to prevent further escalation in the region.
Popular agency in Iran is not a mystical formulation. It has been determined, at least during the last decade, by the 2009 as well as 2017/2018 protests. Since the 2017 protests, it has taken on the form of daily activism all around the country. The latest example of such agency is to be found in a recent speech by Esmail Bakhshi, a representative of the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane complex workers. After long successive strikes, he insists on the formation of independent workers unions as the only way out of the current predicament.
On such quaint agency, a structural change of current Iran is built. A democratic Iran, hopefully a democratic region, unfettered from capitalist relations of corrupt leaders and oligarchic kings, will be able to confront capitalist imperialism. The first prerequisite of fighting imperialism is to fight the imperialist relations at home. Trump is nothing but one of the blathering dummies of the American-style corporate democracy at work. To fight Trump, one needs to fight their own domestic Trumps.