Ayob Rahmani of the International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran (IASWI) spoke to Solidarity.
What do you think about the build-up to war?
I do not think full-scale war — invasion of Iran by the US and its allies — is going to happen. It seems impossible, given the problems the US and its allies have in Afghanistan and Iraq. Politically and militarily they failed to achieve what they intended.
Iran is a big country with around 75 million people and with a bigger and stronger army in a strategic position in the Middle East.
They don’t have the military capacity to put troops into Iran. US is a declining economy and cannot afford another big war.
However, there is a possibility of a military strike against Iran, from the air or the sea. The US has the biggest military force in the world, and no other army can stand up against it in a conventional war.
If they strike against Iran they can destroy military bases, missile bases, factories, and infrastructure in Iran and bring down its military and economic capability. This is the danger.
And they could give the green light to Israel?
At the moment Israel is more keen to strike Iran than the US. The pro-Israeli lobby has been pressurising the American government to strike against Iran. But Israel will not strike Iran without getting the green light from the US. They are trying to persuade the US and the British to get broad agreement, that if the situation gets out of hand from their point of view, there will be a strike against Iran.
The main point here is the Islamic regime’s strategy — the fact that it wants to be recognised as a major power in the region. Neither Israel nor the West want that. But the Iranian government is not against American imperialism or against capitalism — the Iranian economy is part of the global capitalist economy.
Iran still is a regional power, despite the eight-year war with Iraq. But the problem for the Iranian government remains that the West doesn’t recognise it as a major power; they don’t trust them. The Iranians have their foreign policy in the region — in Afghanistan, with their support for Hamas and Hezbollah — and the Americans and the West in general are opposed to this policy. And of course the Iranian regime has a good relationship with the Syrian regime and fully supports Assad’s regime.
If either America or Israel make a strike against Iran they are going to embroil themselves in a regional conflict, conducted by Iranian proxies in the region...
That is true. The regime will try to attack US military bases, troops and interests in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and will try to attack Israel directly or indirectly by using Hizbollah in Lebanon. Even some Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, would not be immune from such attacks. In such a scenario, the whole region would be engulfed by a conflict with unforeseen consequences. This is what now makes America and its allies cautious in making a decision to strike against Iran militarily.
We should stand against the threat of military action from a working-class point of view.
But America is very good at waging proxy war. It has been successful at this since the Second World War — and not so much at full-scale wars. It was successful in arming the mojahedin in Afghanistan and overthrowing the Soviet Union-backed government in the 1980s. Another example is the success of the US-backed Contra paramilitaries in the war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
How does the situation in Syria affect the calculations?
The US wants to see the back of the Assad regime. But they can’t do what they did in Libya — military strike by Nato. The Americans (but also Qatar and Saudi Arabia) are supporting the opposition but so far they haven’t been successful. In Homs the Syrian regime have suppressed the opposition and destroyed part of the city, killing many civilians; but arms are being provided to some sections of the opposition: the Free Syrian Army, for example.
The Syrian regime is one of the most repressive in the Middle East. But there are different communities living together — Sunni, Shia Allawi (the biggest group), Kurds, Druze and Christians — and they are not united against the regime. Many still support Assad, because they fear what might happen afterwards. We don’t know the opposition. Some of them are definitely Islamic fundamentalist. Fear of that gives the regime a base. But that does not mean the regime will survive.
If the Assad regime falls Iran will lose its most powerful ally in the Middle East.
What position do you take on the policy of America and its allies towards Iran?
Because of the sanctions the economy is deteriorating very quickly. Even with all the planned sanctions Iran will be able to sell some of the oil at lower prices to India, China, or some other countries, but it will still have a big effect.
The key sanction is the one they have put on the Iranian Central Bank. They can’t spend dollars even on basic food imports.
The economic sanctions and forthcoming oil embargo (from July) is against the Iranian government, but is more of a burden to the Iranian working class and the majority of the people. We have a very rich capitalist class in Iran and they can buy whatever they want — including food and consumer goods.
The official rate of inflation, according to the government, is 22%. But the real rate of inflation over the last six months, according to independent economists, is 40%. The price of basic food has increased. The Rial is in free fall and has lost half of its value against the US dollar in the last two months. There is a fear that in the near future there will be a scarcity of food. Socialists must condemn these sanctions.
Unemployment is already high and it will increase further. Iranian factories need to import raw materials and parts and this they can’t get. In many factories people haven’t been paid for months.
We should not forget the example of the sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s. Even with the Oil for Food programme, 500,000 children died.
We also have to stand against military action. The imperialist powers do not have the right to strike against Iran. They are pursuing their own interests, not those of the Iranian people. Working people in Britain or in America and elsewhere do not have any interest in any war.
But at the same time we should not forget that the Iranian regime will use the economic sanctions and the possibility of a military strike as an excuse to increase the suppression of the people. The regime will try to militarise the political atmosphere. That is good for them.
I was in Iran when the Iran-Iraq war started. At the time Khomeini said the war was a “gift from God”. In a sense he was right. The war killed 500,000 people in Iran, maybe the same in Iraq, but for the ruling class it was an excuse to suppress the Iranian working class, the left, socialists and women, and impose a dictatorship, with their rigid interpretation of Islam, on society which continues to this day.
During and after the revolution in Iran in 1979, there were independent working-class organisations in oil and other industries and strong left-wing political parties. They used the war as an excuse to suppress all of this.
Immediately after the end of the war in 1988, they executed thousands of political prisoners.
When socialists and progressive forces have a rally or demonstration against the threat of military action or sanctions against Iran, they should not forget what is happening in Iran now to the workers and others. They should say what is the nature of the regime. But this is not what the Stop the War Coalition is doing.
At a demonstration at the American Embassy organised by the Stop the War Coalition in December last year, we went, and had our own banner and so on. There was a whole series of speakers, but none of them mentioned the political prisoners in Iran’s prisons. This is wrong.
But unfortunately this is the overall policy of the left in the UK. For a left group like the SWP, anti-imperialism means that you stand even with the reactionary forces against imperialism.
Just before the invasion of Iraq, two million people were on the streets of London. I was one of them. It was good. But there was nothing on that demonstration to say we do not agree with Saddam Hussein or with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Imagine you are a worker activist in prison in Iran. When you hear that socialists, trade unionists and progressive organisations in the West are staging a campaign regarding Iran, you naturally expect that they support you and call for your freedom. But we do not see this.
Worker activists in Iran are paying a heavy price. For example, Mansour Osanloo, the president of the Tehran bus workers’ syndicate, spent nearly five years in prison just for setting up an independent working-class organisation. And many of these worker activists are in prison as we talk. How can the left demonstrate against sanctions and the threat of military strike against Iran but not demand freedom for trade unionists and other political activists?
Socialism is the movement of the working class. We should base our theory on the practice and interests of the working class.
You have to stand against both governments. To do anything else is not going to defeat imperialism.
The SWP said they opposed the Iran-Iraq war but said we should not oppose Khomeini’s regime because the war was a proxy war on behalf of Western imperialism.
We knew that the West were mostly supporting Iraq against Iran. But also at a certain stage the West tried to shift the balance because they didn’t want either Iraq or Iran to win and become a major power in the region — that would unbalance things for their Israeli ally.
During this period the SWP said that the working people of Iran should not go on strike in the military section of the economy. Why not? Because, they said Iran was fighting imperialism — Iran’s enemy is supported by imperialism.
Yet a significant part of the Iranian left were against the war but at the same time against the Iranian regime. They stood for peace, for democratic rights and for workers having the right to organise.
The rhetoric that the Iranian regime use against imperialism or that the Taliban use against imperialism is just rhetoric. They make this rhetoric from a reactionary point of view — to help them suppress their real enemy, the working class.
What state is the Iranian opposition in?
There is no big organisation, but there are networks of committed people, using the internet to communicate and so on. The Iranian government does not tolerate independent organisations of any kind, especially trade unions. From 2005, when bus workers and sugar workers set up independent workers’ unions, they were immediately suppressed.
Iranian people were very aware of what was going on with the Arab uprising. In February 2011 there was a demonstration in Tehran in support of the uprising in the Middle East and north Africa, but it was immediately put down. That indicates that the opposition is there.
There are many strikes and demonstrations in Iranian factories, big and small. These are over factory closures, non-payment of wages and so on. I don’t think the regime will have the same success in using the war to repress workers.
But increased poverty won’t automatically lead to a revolution. Of course there may come a time when people can’t take any more. But this cannot be predicted. On the other hand, the government is aware of this danger and that puts pressure on them. This guides the reasoning of the US and EU. They are trying to get the Iranian government to the negotiating table and impose their own policy on them.
The red line for the Iranian regime is to stay in power. If they realise they can’t survive without compromising, they will back down.
Ahmedinejad talked about “wiping Israel off the map of the world”. Then people who support military action said “this is the most irrational regime in the world. They will use the nuclear bomb against, for example, Israel”.
But how do you define irrationality? The Israeli government has the nuclear bomb — are they rational? Or the US? Or the British government?
I am not defending the Iranian regime but they are rational. They know their own interests. They use this phrase about Israel to get more support in the Middle East.
But they do not go to war against Israel. They support reactionary forces against Israel because of their own interests. They say they are against the powers in the West, they are against imperialism. But at the same time until recently they have had a good relationship with the big European countries, they are part of global capitalism.
But the Iranian regime is not just another capitalist regime. It is a theocracy, it is fascistic, it is more ruthless...
Yes, they are ruthless, yes, it is a theocracy, but that does not mean it is irrational. Any government can be irrational. For example, the Israeli government attacked south Lebanon in 2006 and were defeated by Hizbollah. That policy was irrational, it was against their own interests.
But the Iranian regime with a lot to fight for will want to ruthlessly maintain its own power; so the very fact of Iran getting nuclear weapons makes for a dangerous situation.
As socialists we oppose all nuclear weapons anywhere. The Iranian regime says that it does not want to build a nuclear weapon. Indeed no one can prove that the Iranian regime is building the nuclear bomb. They are suspicious. In my opinion the Iranian regime is using the process of talks and wrangles over the enrichment of nuclear material as a lever, to say to powers in the West that Iran should be recognised as a major power in the Middle East. For example, alongside Turkey, which is playing a bigger role in the region.
The Iranian regime also thinks that if they can get nuclear weapons no one will dare to attack Iran or try to change the regime. They look at North Korea. The US and the West don’t like the policy of North Korea (just as they don’t like Iranian foreign policy) but they don’t dare to strike against them.
But the power play is making the west more hostile...
The regime knows, as we know, that the US and Israel have a devastating capacity to destroy not just Iran’s military capability but also its infrastructure and economy. If the regime survived such an attack it would be ruling a country with a destroyed and ruined economy. Faced with any real possibility of that, the regime has to give up its regional ambitions and obey the terms dictated by Western or even regional powers. At the same time the Iranian regime knows that the US has to take their response into account when making a decision to strike Iran. The regime is not immune to the sanctions; it is very dangerous economically and politically for them. If the Iranian regime calculates it is going to fall, it will retreat, but not before that. Now it says it is ready for talks.
What should we do about solidarity and opposition to sanctions and war?
We should do our best to organise a big campaign against sanctions and the threat of military action against Iran. But at the same time we should not forget that the Iranian regime does not represent the people.
We should support the Iranian working-class struggle and progressive movements in Iran, and we should highlight this in our campaign against sanctions and military treats. Trade union organisations in the UK should say they want to investigate what is happening to worker activists in Iran and call for freedom for political prisoners. That will encourage the activists in Iran.
But this cuts across the dominant ideology of the left and some trade union organisations.