Common Dreams Online magazine : IV414 - June 28, 2009
Iran and Leftist Confusion
When I returned from covering the Iranian elections recently, I was surprised to find my email box filled with progressive authors, academics and bloggers bending themselves into knots about the current crisis in Iran. They cite the long history of U.S. interference in Iran and conclude that the current unrest there must be sponsored or manipulated by the Empire.
That comes as quite a shock to those risking their lives daily on the streets of major Iranian cities fighting for political, social and economic justice.
Some of these authors have even cited my book, The Iran Agenda, as a source to prove U.S. meddling. Whoa there, pardner. Now we're getting personal.
The large majority of American people, particularly leftists and progressives, are sympathetic to the demonstrators in Iran, oppose Iranian government repression and also oppose any U.S. military or political interference in that country. But a small and vocal number of progressives are questioning that view, including authors writing for Monthly Review online, Foreign Policy Journal, and prominent academics such as retired professor James Petras.
They mostly argue by analogy. They correctly cite numerous examples of CIA efforts to overthrow governments, sometimes by manipulating mass demonstrations. But past practice is no proof that it's happening in this particular case. Frankly, the multi-class character of the most recent demonstrations, which arose quickly and spontaneously, were beyond the control of the reformist leaders in Iran, let alone the CIA.
Let's assume for the moment that the U.S. was trying to secretly manipulate the demonstrations for its own purposes. Did it succeed? Or were the protests reflecting 30 years of cumulative anger at a reactionary system that oppresses workers, women, and ethnic minorities, indeed the vast majority of Iranians? Is President Mahmood Ahmadinejad a "nationalist-populist," as claimed by some, and therefore an ally against U.S. domination around the world? Or is he a repressive, authoritarian leader who actually hurts the struggle against U.S. hegemony?
Let's take a look. But first a quick note.
As far as I can tell none of these leftist critics have actually visited Iran, at least not to report on the recent uprisings. Of course, one can have an opinion about a country without first-hand experience there. But in the case of recent events in Iran, it helps to have met people. It helps a lot.
The left-wing Doubting Thomas arguments fall into three broad categories.
1. Assertion: President Mahmood Ahmadinejad won the
election, or at a minimum, the opposition hasn't proved
Michael Veiluva, Counsel at the Western States Legal
Foundation (representing his own views)
wrote on the Monthly Review website:
"[U.S. peace groups] are quick to denounce the
elections as ‘massively fraudulent' and generally
subscribe to the ‘mad mullah' stereotype of the current
political system in Iran. There is a remarkable
convergence between the tone of these statements and the
American right who are hypocritically beating their
chests over Iran's ‘stolen' election.
Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton
University, New York, James Petras
"[N]ot a single shred of evidence in either written
or observational form has been presented either before
or a week after the vote count. During the entire
electoral campaign, no credible (or even dubious) charge
of voter tampering was raised."
Actually, Iranians themselves were very worried about
election fraud prior to the vote count. When I covered the
2005 elections, Ahmadinejad barely edged out Mehdi Karoubi
in the first round of elections. Karoubi raised substantive
arguments that he was robbed of his place in the runoff due
to vote fraud. But under Iran's clerical system, there's no
meaningful appeal. So, as he put it, he took his case to
On the day of the 2009 election, election officials
illegally barred many opposition observers from the polls.
The opposition had planned to use text messaging to
communicate local vote tallies to a central location. The
government shut down SMS messaging! So the vote count was
entirely dependent on a government tally by officials
sympathetic to the incumbent.
I heard many anecdotal accounts of voting boxes arriving
pre-stuffed and of more ballots being printed than are
accounted for in the official registration numbers. It seems
unlikely that the Iranian government will allow meaningful
appeals or investigations into the various allegations about
study by two professors at Chatham House and the
Institute of Iranian Studies at University of St. Andrews,
Scotland, took a close look at the official election results
and found some major discrepancies. For Ahmadinejad to have
sustained his massive victory in one third of Iran's
provinces, he would have had to carry all his supporters,
all new voters, all voters previously voting centrist and
about 44% of previous reformist voters.
Keep in mind that Ahmadinejad's victory takes place in
the context of a highly rigged system. The Guardian Council
determines which candidates may run based on their Islamic
qualifications. As a result, no woman has ever been allowed
to campaign for president and sitting members of parliament
were disqualified because they had somehow become
The constitution of Iran created an authoritarian
theocracy in which various elements of the ruling elite
could fight out their differences, sometimes through
elections and parliamentary debate, sometimes through
violent repression. Iran is a classic example of how a
country can have competitive elections without being
2. Assertion: The U.S. has a long history of meddling
in Iran, so it must be behind the current unrest.
Jeremy R. Hammond
writes in the progressive website Foreign Policy
"[G]iven the record of U.S. interference in the state
affairs of Iran and clear policy of regime change, it
certainly seems possible, even likely, that the U.S. had
a significant role to play in helping to bring about the
recent turmoil in an effort to undermine the government
of the Islamic Republic.
Eric Margolis, a columnist for Quebecor Media Company in
Canada and a contributor to The Huffington Post,
"While the majority of protests we see in Tehran are
genuine and spontaneous, Western intelligence agencies
and media are playing a key role in sustaining the
uprising and providing communications, including the
newest electronic method, via Twitter. These are covert
techniques developed by the US during recent revolutions
in Ukraine and Georgia that brought pro-US governments
Both authors cite numerous cases of the U.S. using covert
means to overthrow legitimate governments. The CIA
engineered large demonstrations, along with assassinations
and terrorist bombings, to cause confusion and overthrow the
parliamentary government of Iran' Prime Minister Mohammad
Mossadegh in 1953. The U.S. used similar methods in an
effort to overthrow Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002. (For
more details, see my book,
Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future
Hammond cites my book The Iran Agenda and my interview on
Democracy Now to show that the Bush Administration was
training and funding ethnic minorities in an effort to
overthrow the Iranian government in 2007.
All the arguments are by analogy and implication. Neither
the above two authors, nor anyone else of whom I am aware,
offers one shred of evidence that the Obama Administration
has engineered, or even significantly influenced, the
Let's look at what actually happened on the ground. Tens
of millions of Iranians went to bed on Friday, June 12,
convinced that either Mousavi had won the election outright
or that there would be runoff between him and Ahmadinejad.
They woke up Saturday morning and were stunned. "It was a
coup d'etat," several friends told me. The anger cut across
class lines and went well beyond Mousavi's core base of
students, intellectuals and the well-to-do.
Within two days hundreds of thousands of people were
demonstrating peacefully in the streets of Tehran and other
major cities. Could the CIA have anticipated the vote count,
and on two days notice, mobilized its nefarious networks?
Does the CIA even have the kind of extensive networks that
would be necessary to control or even influence such a
movement? That simultaneously gives the CIA too much credit
and underestimates the independence of the mass movement.
As for the charge that the CIA is providing advanced
technology like Twitter, pleaaaaaase. In my
commentary carried on Reuters, I point out that the vast
majority of Iranians have no access to Twitter and that the
demonstrations were mostly organized by cell phone and word
Many Iranians do watch foreign TV channels via satellite.
A sat dish costs only about $100 with no monthly fees, so
they are affordable even to the working class. Iranians
watched BBC, VOA and other foreign channels in Farsi,
leading to government assertions of foreign instigation of
the demonstrations. By that logic, Ayatollah Khomeini
received support from Britain in the 1979 revolution because
of BBC radio's critical coverage of the despotic Shah.
Frankly, based on my observations, no one was leading the
demonstrations. During the course of the week after the
elections, the mass movement evolved from one protesting
vote fraud into one calling for much broader freedoms. You
could see it in the changing composition of the marches.
There were not only upper middle class kids in tight jeans
and designer sun glasses. There were growing numbers of
workers and women in very conservative chadors.
Iranian youth particularly resented President
Ahmadinejad's support for religious militia attacks on
unmarried young men and women walking together and against
women not covering enough hair with their hijab. Workers
resented the 24 percent annual inflation that robbed them of
real wage increases. Independent trade unionists were
fighting for decent wages and for the right to organize.
Some demonstrators wanted a more moderate Islamic
government. Others advocated a separation of mosque and
state, and a return to parliamentary democracy they had
before the 1953 coup. But virtually everyone believes that
Iran has the right to develop nuclear power, including
enriching uranium. Iranians support the Palestinians in
their fight against Israeli occupation, and they want to see
the U.S. get out of Iraq.
So if they CIA was manipulating the demonstrators, it was
doing a piss poor job.
Of course, the CIA would like to have influence in Iran.
But that's a far cry from saying it does have influence. By
proclaiming the omnipotence of U.S. power, the leftist
critics ironically join hands with Ahmadinejad and the
reactionary clerics who blame all unrest on the British and
3. Assertion: Ahmadinejad is a nationalist-populist
who opposes U.S. imperialism. Efforts to overthrow him only
help the U.S.
wrote: "Ahmadinejad's strong position on defense matters
contrasted with the pro-Western and weak defense posture of
many of the campaign propagandists of the opposition...."
"Ahmadinejad's electoral success, seen in historical
comparative perspective should not be a surprise. In similar
electoral contests between nationalist-populists against
pro-Western liberals, the populists have won. Past examples
include Peron in Argentina and, most recently, Chavez of
Venezuela, [and] Evo Morales in Bolivia."
Venezuela's Foreign Ministry
wrote on its website:
"The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela expresses its
firm opposition to the vicious and unfounded campaign to
discredit the institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
unleashed from outside, designed to roil the political
climate of our brother country. From Venezuela, we denounce
these acts of interference in the internal affairs of the
Islamic Republic of Iran, while demanding an immediate halt
to the maneuvers to threaten and destabilize the Islamic
From 1953-1979, the Shah of Iran brutally repressed his
own people and aligned himself with the U.S. and Israel.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran brutally repressed
its own people and broke its alliance with the U.S. and
Israel. That apparently causes confusion for some on the
I have written numerous articles and books criticizing
U.S. policy on Iran, including Bush administration efforts
to overthrow the Islamic government. The U.S. raises a
series of phony issues, or exaggerates problems, in an
effort to impose its domination on Iran. (Examples include
Iran's nuclear power program, support for Hamas and
Hezbollah, and support for Shiite groups in Iraq.)
During his past four years in office, Ahmadinejad has
ramped up Iran's anti-imperialist rhetoric and posed himself
as a leader of the Islamic world. That accounts for his
fiery rhetoric against Israel and his denial of the
Holocaust. (Officially, Ahmadinejad "questions" the
Holocaust and says "more study is necessary." That reminds
me of the creationists who say there needs to be more study
because evolution is only a theory.) As pointed out by the
opposition candidates, Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel
and Jews has only alienated people around the world and made
it more difficult for the Palestinians.
But in the real world, Ahmadinejad has done nothing to
support the Palestinians other than sending some funds to
Hamas. Despite rhetoric from the U.S. and Israel, Iran has
little impact on a struggle that must be resolved by
Palestinians and Israelis themselves.
So comparing Ahmadinejad with Chavez or Evo Morales is
absurd. I have reported from both Venezuela and Bolivia
numerous times. Those countries have genuine mass movements
that elected and kept those leaders in power. They have
implemented significant reforms that benefitted workers and
farmers. Ahmadinejad has introduced 24% annual inflation and
As for the position of Venezuela and President Hugo
Chavez, they are simply wrong. On a diplomatic level,
Venezuela and Iran share some things in common. Both are
under attack from the U.S., including past efforts at
"regime change." Venezuela and other governments around the
world will have to deal with Ahmadinejad as the de facto
president, so questioning the election could cause
But that's no excuse. Chavez has got it exactly backward.
The popular movement in the streets will make Iran stronger
as it rejects outside interference from the U.S. or anyone
This is no academic debate or simply fodder for bored
bloggers. Real lives are at stake. A repressive government
has killed at least 17 Iranians and injured hundreds. The
mass movement may not be strong enough to topple the system
today but is sowing the seeds for future struggles.
The leftist critics must answer the question: Whose side are