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.