hands off the people of iran conference report

by David Broder

On Saturday 13th December I attended the conference of Hands Off the People of Iran, a solidarity campaign not only opposed to military attacks, “surgical strikes” and sanctions against Iran, but also supporting struggles against the régime waged by the workers’ movement, women’s and student organisations.

Just over sixty people attended, which was slightly down on last year, no doubt largely because the threat of a US or Israeli military attack on Iran seems lesser now that the US government and its allies are making deals with Islamist élites in order to extricate themselves from Iraq.

After a report on the last year’s activities, there was a general discussion on the current situation, led by Torab Saleth. This particularly focussed on the seemingly more “pragmatic” attitudes to foreign policy now held by the American ruling class, as symptomised by their majority support for Barack Obama in the recent presidential election and the weakening of the neo-conservative voice on Capitol Hill.  Torab and several speakers from the floor warned that the situation could change suddenly, particularly given the continuity shown by Obama’s appointments, the risk of the US ruling class lashing out under pressure from the recession, and even the possibility of an Israeli “surgical strike” without Obama’s approval. A further consideration is, of course, the weakening of the Iranian economy with the collapse in world oil prices.

In any case the situation is in many ways unpredictable because (i) the Obama administration and the Iranian régime are not utterly irreconcilable and could easily reach accommodation: the latter supports the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and aggressively implements IMF neo-liberal reforms (ii)  nor are their relations purely “rational” or reflective of greater economic or strategic dynamics.

A motion on the general situation had been put forward by the outgoing steering committee, but the Permanent Revolution group proposed an amendment mentioning the “lessening” of the war threat and its immediacy,  and thus advocating a focus on resisting sanctions. Although most present approved of a campaign against the sanctions (which, after all, largely hurt the working class most sharply and thus galvanise the régime, as in the case of  Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), most people felt that the flux and potential radical change in the situation meant it would be mistaken for us to pass a motion saying that we ought to lesson our focus on anti-war campaigning in the coming year, and the PR amendment only received six votes. A second motion by a comrade from Leeds arguing that HOPI ought to try and fill in for the (in)activity of the Stop the War Coalition won no support, however, and HOPI will continue to try and seek affiliation to Stop the War (rebuffed last year) and push for change from within the organisation that unites most anti-war activists.

After lunch, Behrouz Karimizadeh from the Iranian student organisation Freedom and Equality (see here), who was imprisoned for several months in winter 2007-spring 2008, gave an interesting talk on the history of student activism in Iran – including the large 1950s left and the Iranian revolution – its state today and the different currents of opinion among the Iranian student activist scene. I asked whether Freedom and Equality had links with workers’ movement organisations, whether young workers took part in Freedom and Equality activities and what they thought of trade union leaders such as Mansour Ossanloo and Mahmoud Salehi: Behrouz then described his group’s support for the bus workers’ strikes, at which he had been arrested, and stressed the importance of the workers’ movement, who themselves also solidarise with student  struggles. He similarly commented in response to another question that Freedom and Equality, which is itself somewhat heterogenous although explicitly socialist, supports women’s rights and backs all feminist organisations against repression, regardless of ideology, albeit focussing solidarity on the more radical elements of the women’s movement.

Although Behrouz’s talk on the student movement was excellent, I thought perhaps the conference ought to have spent more time looking at the state of other movements against the régime and how they are affected by imperialist pressure and sanctions.  The HOPI website does not – as it stands – consistently report on what strikes and demonstrations take place in Iran, and although over-extensive examination of the currents of opinion within the workers’ movement would not really relate to practical activity of our own (as Yassamine Mather remarked, we ought not “intervene” in disputes within a movement we support as a whole), more focus on making people aware of the living class struggle in Iran and more of the “colour” of Iranian society would help our cause in promoting the idea that the working class can itself shape the world, not just “our” rulers and their armies.

The discussion on trade unionism in the afternoon was largely on the subject of winning support for HOPI in trade unions and spreading our ideas, rather than trade unionism in Iran itself: perhaps this reflects a problem raised by the CPGB’s Mark Fischer in the morning, namely that HOPI materials are of a general character and not updated as regularly as they might be. Several of these points were raised at the conference, for example the idea of film showings and photo-galleries about Iran at meetings.

The fact that at the conference we discussed such issues of direct practical relevance – including the location of steering committee meetings – was itself very useful, in that the event had the feel of a meeting designed to improve the campaign’s efficacy rather than just a rally congratulating ourselves on our correct views and success in getting a hearing. A particular change in focus will be the new campaign against the sanctions on Iran, as advocated at the conference by John McDonnell MP. Making apt criticisms of “Obamania” and possible false senses of security, McDonnell argued that sanctions have in the past had various different roles, partly as a “soft” means of besieging the country concerned and preparing for war and partly  seeking to undermine the régime via pushing the population into desperation, but in fact strengthening the régime’s ability to corruptly administer resources and hold the masses in thrall as a shield against external threats. A campaign against sanctions combined with and unbending anti-war stance will furthermore help us sharply delineate ourselves from CIA-backed “solidarity” and “pro-democracy” initiatives, which are not only counter-productive in that the régime can easily point to the people behind them, but are also reactionary in their ambitions and execution, looking to topple the current régime but opposed to significant democratic and workers’ rights.

The conference furthermore elected a steering committee to oversee this work, composed of 4 CPGB members (Mark Fischer, Ben Lewis, Tina Becker, Yassamine Mather), 2 PR members (Stuart King, Vicky Thompson), myself, Torab Saleth (Workers’ Left Unity Iran), Jim Jepps (Green) Charlie Pottins (Jewish Socialist Group), Marsha Jane Thompson (Labour) and Moshé Machover.

The conference offered much promise for the year ahead, and we should seek to further strengthen our solidarity with comrades in struggle in Iran.

7 thoughts on “hands off the people of iran conference report

  1. Can the US come to an accommodation with the mullahs? Possibly, but I think the evidence remains that the US sees Iran as a regional competitor in an are that is strategically important for it. Not just because of oil reserves, but because of access into Central Asia, which is rapidly becoming the world’s main source of raw materials. That is the reason the US has placed so many bases in the Stans, and come to arrangements with various dictators. Its probably also one of its main reasons for going into Iraq.

    I personally would not describe Iran as imperialist, or even sub-imperialist, but it is certainly expansionist, it seeks to extend its influence throughout the region, and throgh its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, its links to the Shia groups in Iraq, and its economic activities on its border with Afghanistan it has been somewhat succesful in that. This has to be seen as a threat not just by the US, but by the US’s Sunni clients in the region, and by Israel. It is perhaps, one reason for the change of US tack in giving support to Sunni groups in Iraq, for the support given to Fatah, and reportedly even to Al Qaeda linked groups in Lebanon. Given Obama’s statements that he is prepared to take any action to deal with Iran I think the likelihood remains that either a US attack, or an Israeli attack acting as the US proxy remains likely.

    If this is a war between two expansionist powers that is one thing, but as I have said before, if it is a war of conquest against Iran, then socialists must be in favour of a defence of Iran, despite the nature of its government. In reality it is only the working class, which will be able to mount an effective, and progressive defence, but initially in any war large numbers of Iranians will rally around the Government. If they are to be won to a socialist position socialists cannot refuse to offer joint actions with the forces of the State, whilst mainting strict political and organisational independence from it, and maintaining criticism of it.

    In terms of anti-war activity in Britain I would repeat points I have made in discussions on the permanent Revolution website. Whilst, opposing war by our own imperialist state, socialists have to point out from the beginning that it is impossible to atually prevent a bouregois state going to war when it is intent on doing so – the huge mobilisation against the Iraq war should have demonstated that. As Trotsky pointed out you cannot control the foreign policy of a bouregois state. Only control of the State itself permits that. Udder such conditions the main focus of socialiss has to be on direct working class action to frustrate the war activities of that state – strikes against the shipment of war materials, movement of troops etc. combined with propaganda aimed at and conducted within the armed forces themselves.

    It is important not to engender petit-bouregois pacifist notions about preventing wars by putting pressure on the bouyregois state through demonstrations and other methods of mobilising public opinion. Only class struggle can frustrate war plans, only the overthrow of the bouregois state can prevent it going to war when it is intent on doing so.


  2. The important thing here is to understand that the Israeli threat is real. The Iranian people have a right to defend themselves. If the Iranians strike first against the Israelis: that is their right.


  3. Marcus,

    Certainly there is some possibility that the Israeli air force could attack Iran even without direct US backing. We should adamantly oppose and condemn any such move, as well as the sabre-rattling and sanctions which give credibility to the arguments of chauvinists and so overlay/hamper class struggle.

    I don’t agree that the Iranian ruling class has some God-given “right” to secure a balance of weaponry/arms with the Israeli ruling class, nor that we should think it acceptable for them to “strike first”.

    I think you will struggle to find many Iranian working-class activists or leftists who would be in favour of the massive galvanisation of the régime and its armies which such a step would represent.

    It is an odd expression “such-and-such nation have a right to defend themselves”, aping the language and indeed the attitudes of right wing and national-security obsessives in the Western media. As in previous posts, you counterpose nations and their security concerns without having anything to say about the internal political and class differences/dynamics of all of the countries concerned.

    One of the main reasons we are against sanctions is that they rally people behind the Iranian régime, who can say that the country is under siege and thus the “nation” has to stand together… under, of course, the full control of the state apparatus, who also have a strong position as regards allocating relatively meagre resources.

    Perhaps you think the Iranian ruling class (not “the Iranian people”, who do not control the army), which supports the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and implements IMF-sponsored reforms, is “oppressed” by world imperialism and thus has the right to do such as it pleases. But how can its triggering a conflict which would weaken the position of the regional working class, and indeed your advice that the working class should support it, make any sort of steps towards defeat imperialism, i.e. modern capitalism as a whole?


  4. I agree with Dave’s position here entirely. If Israel launched an air attack on Iran’s nuclear or military facilities we should condemn it, we should oppose it, before, during and after. But such an attack would be a limited conflict between two expansionist powers in trhe region. Marxists would have no reason to support either in such a conflict, certainly not to support an Irabnina retaliation let alone pre-emptive strike.

    Only in the event of an attempt to intervene directly in Iran through a war of conquest should Marxists advocate a defence of Iran, and then only on the basis of maintaining their own independence. In the event simply of hostilities between Iran and Israel, Marxists should adopt a position of revolutionary defeatism. That is they recognise that without overhtorwing the bouregoisie there will be war. Marxists have to accept that situation and continue their struggle within it, using the militarisation for their own ends to arm and train the workers. They continue their propaganda and struggle against the bouregoisie within that context and attempt to turn the war by those means into a war against their own bouregoisie.

    Trotsky’s last writings during 1939 are instructive on this in what he said in “On Conscription”, and “More Thoughts On Conscription”, in Writings 1939-40.


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