Torab Saleth, a leading activist in the Iranian Workers Left Unity current and a prominent figure in the British-based Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI) campaign, was recently interviewed by Philip Ferguson of the Workers Party.
Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us a bit about Workers Left Unity - how it came into existence and what work it does?
Torab Saleth: Workers Left Unity was formed in exile in the early 1990s, as one of the earliest responses to the crisis of the Iranian left (following its decimation in the early 80s at the hands of the counter-revolutionary theocratic regime). WLU is an independent organisation based on individual membership and an agreed minimum uniting all radical socialist currents cooperating towards a new regroupment of the socialist left. We come from many different traditions, principally from backgrounds in the Fedayeen minority and in Iranian Maoism and Trotskyism.
I cannot claim we have succeeded in our objectives, but we were aware even at the start that it will not be easy to do so, especially in exile. We do, however, still firmly believe that the only viable solution for the radical left inside Iran is to start a similar type of project. We are hoping to be in a position to participate in and influence such projects if and when they begin to take shape inside Iran.
WLU has thus been active abroad for many years initiating or participating in solidarity campaigns with the struggles of Iranian workers, women, students and nationalities. It has also organised many discussions and debates around major programmatic issues facing the left. It publishes a regular bulletin and has a site which comrades can visit for further information.
PF: Could you tell us about the state of the class struggle in Iran at present?
TS: Immediately after the February 1979 insurrection, the masses were on the rise whilst the new counter-revolutionary capitalist regime was trying to re-consolidate the shattered bourgeois state. This was alas a short-lived period, which ended with a victory for the ruling classes and a wave of state repression beginning as early as the summer of 1981. The new Islamic Republic managed to roll back every gain of the revolutionary movement and unleash one of the most vicious repressive regimes seen in modern history. This lasted well into the 1990s when in the face of a deepening economic crisis a new wave of protests demanding reforms began to take shape.
A faction within the theocratic regime itself, which had been calling for reforms from within since the presidency of Rafsanjani, managed to rise to power on the back of this new mood of the masses and dominate both the presidential and parliamentary elections. The new period of expectations opened up many avenues for a resurgence of the struggles against theocracy. But this period was also short-lived as the new liberal reformist faction proved unable to even confront, let alone break with, the Islamic regime.
The masses, having rapidly lost their illusions in this leadership, have become increasingly radical in their demands and a lot more ready to confront the authorities directly. But on the other hand the Islamic regime has become once again totally dependent on naked repression in its dealings with the masses.
Under the cover of a US threat of war the more hard-line factions of the regime, particularly forces associated with the repressive apparatus (the pasdaran army and the security services) have now taken over most levers of political and economic state power.
For such a regime, a threat of war or even the war itself can become “a godsend!”, as Khomeini described the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. Under that war the theocracy established itself. Using the threat of this new one it is defending its life against the rising tide of the revolution and readjusting the levers of power in its own favour.
In this, the latest period, we are witnessing a sharper political break with the regime. On the one hand, a further radicalisation of the masses and a new rise to political influence of socialist currents. On the other hand, a further shift of power towards the most fascistic factions of the capitalist regime. This is undoubtedly going to throw open huge socio-economic confrontations in the near future, whatever the outcome of the current war threats from the United States.
While the opposition within Iran has no voice and no leadership, it is numerous. Dissatisfaction more or less includes everybody; even some of those directly the employees/receivers in the religious side of the state apparatus itself. Thus the potential for a new revolutionary crisis in Iran is growing to explosive dimensions.
PF: What is the position of womenâ€™s rights and the rights of national minorities in Iran?
TS: Ever since the defeat of the revolutionary movement at the hands of the new clerical regime, the Iranian masses have faced a brutally repressive political order many times more vicious than the Shahâ€™s Savak [secret police] state.
This regime has accepted no bounds in its butchery. Mass arrests and summary executions are its bread and butter. No dissidence whatsoever, not even an Islamic opposition, is allowed. Islam itself has now become a singular state religion. What the last two Shahs tried against the mullahs and never achieved has now become official by the mullahs themselves.
This regime has so far executed more than 30,000 political prisoners. There are, therefore, no independent voices and no legal representations of such voices. In a way no-one knows what people think. People are not allowed to express what they think; at least not in an organised form. Of course there are protests but these are only tolerated insofar as the given balance of force does not yet make feasible their suppression. But suppression is always the eventual outcome.
No-one has therefore any rights whatsoever in Iran, including women and national minorities. You could without exaggeration call Iran a totally lawless capitalist theocracy. Any section of society which dares to stand in the way of the ruling class, which is linked to a myriad of more or less mafia-type organisations, is simply crushed.
It was not accidental that the first attacks against the Iranian masses were precisely against women and national minorities. Like every other counter-revolution in history it first picked on the weakest links inside the male-chauvinistic Iranian society as only a counter-revolution knows how to gather up all the dark forces of history. First it enforced the Islamic hijab on women and then more or less immediately sent troops to crush the Arab and Kurdish minorities.
Today, the very same counter-revolution does not even tolerate dissent within its own loyal supporters, let alone the opposition to its rule.
PF: Do you think a US attack on Iran is really likely given the quagmire Washington is in, both in Iraq and Afghanistan?
TS: It is difficult to predict if and when the current occupation of the Middle East by the US army may extend inside Iran. After all, given the experience of Iraq, US imperialism does not need reasons. It cooks them up when it needs them. Given this mentality of the American ruling class which is now facing an even worse prospect of decline than prompted it into the Iraq war, my simple answer would be - why not? The world that capitalism has dug out for us can enter wars at any time and anywhere. Iran is just another example. Of course, both sides could make a deal; as they have been trying hard for so many years to do.
Donâ€™t forget that without a deal with Iran and the help Iran gave to the occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US Army would have failed even more miserably and much earlier. In fact the mood of the vast majority of Iranians can be expressed as “no to USA-led war, and no to an international peace with the Islamic Republic!” This explains what the Iranian regime itself is trying to achieve out of the current stand-off on the question of nuclear development. The best outcome for the Iranian regime would be a kind of international recognition of its legitimacy.
The fact that the Iranian masses oppose this war does not mean that they want this brutal regime to be internationally legitimised. My own prediction is that the latter will prevail, and in the short term they will make that deal. But even deals do not necessarily stop wars. A unilateralist, crisis-ridden and declining USA cannot tolerate an independent military force in the Middle East. This contradiction can easily lead to wars. The rest is just window dressing for the mass media. In a way war is already there in the region as a whole. And within that region, the USA is already at war with Iran, directly, on many fronts. But it is difficult to see how the USA can invade Iran itself. After spending billions and billions on a velvet revolution that has so far failed miserably, it knows that with its current strength it cannot stomach another long-term occupation and at least not in Iran.
This pragmatism can also drive it towards a military campaign solely reliant on aerial bombardment. This indeed is, according to leaked documents, what the US military is actually planning. The order on their table is not to plan an invasion but an aerial bombardment which disables Iranâ€™s capabilities of retaliating and prevents its army from reaching the Gulf. Such a policy, if put into action, will undoubtedly strengthen the Iranian regime for decades to come at the expense of probably total economic devastation for the Iranian masses and probably over two million dead.
PF: Some people on the left in the West argue that defence of Iran against threats and various measures by the US and other Western powers means defence of the existing regime in the Iran. Some even argue that the regime is a product of a revolution and so is at least partly progressive. What is the WLU view of these things?
TS: These are my own personal views. We do not have “an official” WLU line on these questions. But as far as I am concerned, and I think this is a view we share not only in WLU but also in Hands Off the People of Iran, the defence of Iran against imperialist war is nothing but the defence of Iranian people. These very people are right now under brutal capitalist repression by the clerical regime in Iran and its henchmen in the pasdaran army and its embodiment in government in the shape of Mr Ahmadinejad. Many leaders of this regime should be tried in independent international tribunals for crimes against humanity.
Of course, the amount of damage Iranâ€™s rulers could do in the world is nothing compared to the damage already being done by our so-called democratically-elected President Bush. But this does not justify us in abandoning the international support for the struggles of the Iranian masses against this regime. Just because there is a threat of war, it does not mean the class struggle has stopped. The Iranian regime has used this threat to intensify repression. It now imprisons and tortures known oppositionists with the trumped-up charge of “endangering national security”. This has been the regimeâ€™s answer to workers demanding independent organisations and to women, students, nationalities, and minorities demanding liberty and equality. The overwhelming majority of the population went into a revolution demanding the overthrow of precisely such types of regimes. If modern history has shown anything it is the fact dictatorships donâ€™t last forever. Repression cannot eventually stop the rise of the next Iranian revolution.
PF: One major reason for the rise of so-called political Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism, appears to be the compromises made by secular nationalism with imperialism, for instance the case of the PLO and others. How would you analyse that growth and what prospects do you see for either rebuilding or creating a new secular left in the Middle East?
TS: In Iran, the Shiite hierarchy has always been part of the ruling class. Both inside the Iranian and international left there have always been apologists for Khomeiniâ€™s leadership, trying to paint this so-called political Islam as a kind of petty bourgeois movement, conveniently forgetting that since the 18th century right up to the present day the Shiite hierarchy in Iran has been the biggest landlord. The reason they managed with the help of their traditional allies/twins, the bazaari merchants, to take over political power in Iran in 1979 had nothing to do with religion but politics.
Firstly, the bankruptcy of other major political currents (in the Middle East mainly either bourgeois nationalist or pro-Moscow currents) has transformed them into a viable alternative. Helped of course by the fact that in a region under political repression for decades, the religious hierarchy has had the economic backing and the orgnisational muscle to take over the leadership of mass movements.
But secondly, and I think this is more important, the main reason why the more traditional layers of the ruling classes appear to be on the rise in the whole region is to do with imperialism itself. Imperialist-dominated capitalist growth which reproduces and strengthens backwardness has not weakened these traditional layers, as opposed to the more modernist bourgeois currents - it has actually given them a lot more economic room for manoeuvre. Like everybody else in our global age, the clergy can also finance globally!
Furthermore, imperialism itself has increasingly, over the last half a century, turned to such currents to safeguard its interests in the region. For example, without the direct help and intervention by US imperialism in 1978-79, Khomeini could not have taken power.
PF: What do you think progressive people in the West can do that would be of most assistance to the working class and oppressed of Iran?
TS: The best help progressive people in the West can give the whole of humanity is to turn any war abroad into a civil war at home. Until the world capitalist system is overthrown the threat of another devastating war is always there. In terms of the current campaign I think us socialists should emphasise two points rigorously.
One, that it is capitalism which is causing these wars and, instead of tail-ending various “humanitarian” sentiments, offer a clear socialist critique of this war.
Secondly, that the Iranian regime is right now one of the most viciously repressive capitalist regimes anywhere in the world, daily imprisoning and torturing Iranian people. Thus we must say no both to the imperialist war and to the Islamic republic This is why we chose Hands Off the People of Iran for our campaign.
There are two tendencies within the current anti-war movement for which we should watch out. The Iranian regime itself has mobilised its lobbies abroad, and in a number of countries various anti-war coalitions have either knowingly or carelessly accepted them as legitimate currents. To have some credibility these would admit that certain criticism can be levelled against the Iranian regime, but always such criticisms are very muted and presented as a means of then turning and saying, “But the main danger is now the imperialist threat and we must therefore concentrate on defending Iran rather than criticising its government.” This type of argument, even though blatantly silly, is actually similar to the so-called anti-imperialist line of some organisations in the West which even call themselves socialists.
Hidden under such opportunistic arguments is the fact of forgetting the urgent need for defence of actual struggles inside Iran. The comical outcome of such a policy is to make someone like president Bush look more democratic than some of our so-called anti-war currents.
And, of course, the second danger is falling for the lines of Western media and various institutions which have suddenly become interested in the plight of the Iranian people. These are all simply preparations for a later media velvet revolution.