Redline’s Philip Ferguson recently interviewed Yassamine Mather, chair of the British-based Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI) movement. Yassamine is a long-time Iranian Marxist and a former activist in the Fedayeen (Minority). She is also deputy editor of the academic journal Critique.
Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us a bit about your political background and how you came to get involved in revolutionary politics in Iran?
Yassamine Mather: I come from a privileged background and I was unaware of the inequalities in Iranian society until I reached my teenage years. I went to a French private school frequented by the upper classes and it was quite by coincidence that I realised the divisions in Iranian society, poverty in the countryside and around Tehran. However my family were very political (although mainly right wing) and conversation around the table was often about politics. It was the shooting to death of a school friend Catherine Adl (the daughter of the Shah’s physician and close ally, Professor Adl) by security forces in 1971 that made me politically active. When I started university in the UK, I joined the Confederation of Iranian Students Abroad, a leftwing student organisation opposed to the Shah’s dictatorship and it was through them that I came in contact with left-wing organisations inside Iran. Membership of the Confederation was illegal and I was on the regime’s blacklist. I was in Iran in 1979 but I was not in a member of any organisation and my political activities were limited to attendance of political meetings, demonstrations.
PF: So how did you come to join the Fedayeen, as opposed to some other group? Could you tell us a bit about its politics and activities?
YM: I only joined the Fedayeen after the Majority-Minority split. Before that time Fedayeen had a centrist position regarding the Iranian regime and it was only after the split with the reformist, pro-Soviet Majority that I joined the Fedayeen. They organised workers’ groups in factories, amongst oil workers, they had student supporters on campuses and a women’s organisation . All this in Iranian cities (until repression made it impossible); they also organised peasants in Kurdistan and Torkman Sahra. The organisation had a history of being an armed guerrilla organisation, however post-1979 it was mainly a Marxist political group with the exception of Kurdistan where a civil war was going on and the Fedayeen used liberated areas in the mountainous regions for publications, a radio station and political organisation. As repression in Iranian cities got worse, from 1980 onwards, members and cadres of the organisation were sent to stay in Kurdistan. (For more about this period see: Marxism and the Iranian revolution.)
PF: How do you think the Islamists were able to outmanoeuvre the radical, secular forces in the anti-shah struggle?
YM: The Islamists were powerful before the uprising. Left-wing activists were the last prisoners to be released. Islamists had faced far less repression during the Shah than the left. Holding meetings in mosques and other religious institutions had been tolerated. They were also much better off financially, benefiting from donations from the bazaar. That is why the religious movement was far better organised than the left and other secular forces. However the left was politically confused, made many mistakes and allowed the Islamists to out-manoeuvre them even further; it would be a mistake to think the left was in a position of dual power. At that time the majority of the population had illusions about Islamists.
PF: What remains of the left forces from that era?
YM: Very little of any significance. The largest group of the left, the Fedayeen, split between the Majority (who supported Khomeini and the religious state until 1983/84) and Minority who had dozens of subsequent splits, all currently in exile. The Maoist groups have all had many splits. The Trotskyist Fourth international had some presence in 1979 but split as a considerable section of this organisation supported the Islamists’ ‘anti-imperialism’.
Some of the Kurdish organisations are now part of US-sponsored attempts at regime change from above and others are financially dependent on the Iraqi Kurdish government. There are some 30-40 Iranian political organisations of the radical left mainly in exile. Some have no more than a handful of members and supporters, a name and out-of-date website, others are more active.
PF: These days it seems more possible for different currents to speak to each other, people who in the past would have been totally hostile to each other. What sort of discussions go on among the various Marxist currents in Iran and/or in exile? What sort of collaborative work is possible between what is left over from the groups of the 1960s and 1970s?
YM: That is true there have been a number of attempts at setting up ‘left unity’ or alliances of the left amongst various organisations and the current effort unites around 20 organisations, groups. Some are political parties, organisations, others are local committees (groups of like-minded individuals supporting working class struggles in Iran with a Marxist perspective). Previously such alliances have failed because the existing differences on essential issues such as socialism and democracy do not allow any alliance. The current effort coming after lengthy discussions might have a better chance; however, at this stage, it is difficult to see how it can go beyond coordination and cooperation of a number of groups and individuals.
PF: Why do you think the theocratic regime has been able to last so long?
YM: The regime had a huge income at its disposal and managed to buy sections of the population, impose repression and wage wars on national minorities. It also benefited from inept opposition. Royalists and the right were clearly discredited long before they became part of the US regime change plans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not led to the coming to power of democratic, stable governments and this has helped; the Islamic regime has benefited from this, not only because of the failure of US-style regime change from above but also because two of its worst enemies (Saddam’s Iraq and the Taleban in Afghanistan) were removed from power.
The reformist factions of the regime have also helped it survive, in that every few years a new candidate for presidency or a campaign by ‘reformists’ has created the illusion that the regime can be ‘reformed’. While the reality is that in power the ‘reformists’ have done very little to challenge the religious state, repression etc. On economic issues there is little difference between the various factions.
PF: Could you tell us about the state of the economy in Iran at present and the state of the class struggle there?
YM: The economy is in free fall. In the first three years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, between 2005 and 2008, Iran experienced a period of growth. Since then the rate of GDP growth has fallen considerably and this was before the latest round of sanctions in 2011.
In 2012 the real GDP growth rate was -0.9%.
High oil prices in early-mid 2000s had enabled Iran to amass US$97 billion in foreign exchange reserves.
In recent years capitalists in Iran – and defenders of finance capital everywhere – have complained about the Revolutionary Guards’ accumulation of vast fortunes through the acquisition of privatised capital, precisely the pattern seen in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Those in power, often with direct connections to military and security forces, are in a position to purchase the newly-privatised industries. That is the case with many US allies in the region and an inevitable consequence of this type of ‘economic restructuring’.
According to the theocratic government’s own statistics, by 2009 one third of the state assets had been privatised (US$37 billion out of US$110 billion), 78 per cent of which occurred under Ahmadinejad’s presidency following the IMF model for structural adjustment, while the Iranian president is eager for Iran to join the World Trade Organization.
In many ways, this dismantling of the public sector resembles Russia and other East European privatisation plans in the 1990s, which turned over vast sections of the economy to oligarchs at bargain-basement prices. In Iran it is the Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran (RGCI) and its subsidiaries* followed by individuals associated with the Supreme Leader who have benefited from relentless privatisations. In the last year alone, tens of billions of dollars in state assets were handed out to the RGCI in no-bid secret deals. Before the sanctions hit in 2010, in the stock market’s largest transaction ever, an $8 billion purchase was made of the country’s telecommunication industry in a deal that is costing the RGCI next to nothing.
The sanctions are supposed to hurt the Revolutionary Guards or close associates of the Supreme Leader and senior clerics but these people own everything as I explained earlier so the so-called ‘targeted ‘ sanctions haven’t affected them.
The current sanctions have impacted oil export (down by 46%), banking, finance, insurance – including insurance of oil tankers – gold bullion. The US has now also imposed heavy penalties on sanction-busting. The goal is to create “a chilling effect on all non-humanitarian commercial trade with Iran,” noted Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracy, who added that trying to target only parts of the Iranian economy was a “game of whack-a-mole that the United States could never win.”
The annual rate of inflation was estimated at 30% in 2012; current month to month inflation is about 70%.
Beef, which used to cost 120,000 rials a kilo a year ago, is now more than 200,000. A bag of rice has nearly doubled to 70,000 rials. A can of beans more than twice what it was last January.
Unemployment amongst the young (15 to 35 years old) is estimated at around 60 per cent. In recent years, the cost of housing in most major Iranian cities rose by 1000 per cent. According to Mohammad Reza Shalgouni: “Contrary to the illusions of some leftist groups outside Iran, Ahmadinejad’s so-called ‘pro-disinherited’ policies played an important role in worsening the structural crisis of Iran’s economy. It is sufficient to remember that in the first three years of his presidency, cash reserves trebled, rising from 60,000 billion tomans (around US$60 billion) to 180 thousand billion tomans.”
Although a relatively large part of the population engages in farming, agricultural production has fallen consistently since the 1960s. By the late 1990s, Iran was a major food importer, and economic hardship in the countryside had driven vast numbers of people to migrate to cities.
Of the labour force of 27.05 million, 25% are in agriculture, 31% are in industry and 45% in services. (These are June 2007 figures.)
Every year the Iranian government announces what the new minimum wage rate would be: 21 March 2010 – 21 March 2011, US$303 per month (that’s about $NZ370 – PF). Yet for that year the government’s official poverty line was an income of US$800 per month! Most workers know that US$303 did not even pay for accommodation for a family of three or four people. However, we also have to remember that Iranian capitalists use non-payment of wages as a systematic method of increasing profits. During this Iranian year (ending 21 March 2013) millions of workers faced delays of six months to a year waiting for the payment of the official minimum wage. Most workers’ protests in the last few months have focussed on the single slogan “we are hungry”.
Corruption across the regime has contributed to the economic crisis. In 2012, the Islamic Republic was perceived as one of the most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. It ranked 133rd, tied with Russia, Kazakhstan, Honduras and Guyana, out of the 176 countries and territories that were ranked from least corrupt to most corrupt.
The sanctions have also had consequences for people’s health. Patients with cancer, muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neurone disease) are among those most at risk. The death of a 15-year-old with haemophilia last November was the first to be directly attributed to sanctions. But hundreds of thousands of Iranians with life-threatening illnesses are unable to get the treatment they need. The rich are travelling abroad for any basic health issue but medics warn of an impending health crisis unless essential drugs become available.
PF: What is the position of women’s rights and the rights of national minorities in Iran?
YM: On March 8, 1979, tens of thousands of Iranian women took part in the first major demonstration against the newly-established Islamic Republic of Iran, following the forced imposition of the hijab. The women’s slogans were: “I say it every moment, I say it under torture: either death or freedom!” “Freedom is neither eastern nor western: it is universal!” “Death to censorship!” “In the dawn of freedom, the place of women is empty: revolution is meaningless without women’s freedom – we do not want the hijab!”
Since that day and for over 30 years, hard-line fundamentalists have tried to impose their rules on Iranian women and youth. However, even these clerics agree that they face a cultural crisis. The majority of the youth and the women’s movement openly reject fundamentalist Islam, and the generation born after the Islamic regime came to power is amongst the most secular sections of Middle Eastern society, campaigning for the separation of religion from the state.
With the exception of a minority of the middle and upper classes, Iranian women have traditionally suffered from patriarchal laws and practices both within the family and at work. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, however, the plight of Iranian women has worsened, the rigid imposition of the veil (hijab) has reinforced discrimination and prejudice against women. Many families refuse to send their daughters to high school. In higher education girls are discouraged or prevented by the state from studying or working in fields and activities considered ‘masculine’, such as engineering, mining, the judiciary. . . It is in opposition to the state that many women pursue such studies.
There is discrimination against women in sport and recreation. Participation in some sports is discouraged, and in recreation most facilities are rigidly segregated and rarely available to women. Many have called this a system of apartheid against women. The Ministry of Education in the Iranian government recently reported that 94% of schoolgirls were unfit, as they did not participate in sport or physical education.
The combination of enforced hijab-wearing and segregation is used to limit women’s access to state education, sports and other facilities. In other words, the system is geared to institutionalise women’s confinement to the home. These policies facilitate the objective of turning women into second-class citizens.
As they become teenagers, girls are driven more and more into a world dominated and manipulated by their male relatives. They can be given away in legal marriage without their knowledge or consent while still in their childhood. The legal age of marriage for girls is nine.
Discriminatory Islamic laws govern the private and public life of women: they have to follow a very specific and restrictive set of dress codes – a full veil or complete headscarf and long overcoat are the only accepted forms of dress. The law discriminates against women in inheritance, giving them at most half of the share of their male counterparts. According to the laws of Hodud and Qessas, the life of a woman is worth half that of a man, with the implication that a man killing a woman and sentenced to death may only be executed if the victim’s family pays the murderer half of his death dues. Article 6 of this law states that the bereaved family has to pay the murderer’s family to get “Islamic justice” (a life for a life). Article 33 of the Hodud and Qessas states that women’s testimony is not valid in homicide cases unless it is supported by at least one male witness. According to Iran’s Islamic laws, women are considered generally unfit to be witnesses; their power of observation is considered half that of a man. And women have officially been considered too emotional and irrational to be judges.
Of course, in other religions equally anti-women rules and regulations are to be found. What differentiates Iran or US-occupied Iraq from other Islamic states, however, is that the Qur’an dictates civil and judicial law. In other words the basic democratic demand of separation of state and religion does not apply – quite the opposite.
Additionally, Islamic marriage laws as applied in Iran are amongst the most repressive in the world in terms of discrimination against women. While men are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time in permanent marriage, plus an unlimited number of women in what is known as “temporary marriage” (siqeh), women who do not adhere to strict monogamy are considered criminal and may be brutally and savagely stoned to death in public. This legal Islamic punishment for extra-marital affairs is carried out regularly in Iran.
Men control the lives of their wives, their daughters and their unmarried sisters. In Islamic societies women need a male guardian throughout their lives, to give them legal permission to travel, to study, to marry, etc. As no consent is required for sexual relations inside marriage, wife-rape is common and even wife-beating is tolerated in the process (with a Qur’anic verse that legitimises wife-beating in the case of “disobedient women”). Abortion is illegal, but the rising number of terminations is testimony to its use as a form of contraception.
Until 1996, as far as divorce was concerned, the man had almost a free hand to divorce his wife, while the woman had only a limited recourse to the legal system. Even after reform of the laws regulating separation, a woman can only file for divorce in exceptional circumstances. The extent of this discrimination was best exemplified by reports recorded by the Iran Human Rights Working Group: a court had taken 14 years to approve a divorce request from a woman who complained she was tortured by her husband. She was reporting new incidents of abuse every year. She had agreed to drop all financial demands against her husband, and finally had to contact Iran’s prosecutor-general directly (who reported that she “shivered violently” whenever her husband was mentioned) to get her divorce. In another case, the process took eight years.
The divorce law is also designed to punish recalcitrant women, bringing them poverty and destitution, and leading them to resort to unusual tactics in order to obtain minimum maintenance for their children. In most cases women have to forfeit financial claims in order to obtain divorce, even if the proceedings were initiated by the man. Iranian law states that a male child above the age of two and a female child over the age of seven must live with their father. Even the father’s father is given priority over the mother in custody matters.
In marriage, discrimination against women goes still further. A virgin woman (whatever her age) has no right to marry without her father’s consent (or her paternal grandfather’s, in the absence of the former). A Muslim woman has no right to marry a non-Muslim (a right her male counterparts have – with some limitations). And a divorced woman has to wait for a set period before remarriage (but there is no waiting period for a divorced male). These Islamic practices and laws have created a suitable environment for widespread abuses and atrocities against women.
Most women do not report incidents of rape outside marriage because the victim has more to lose. First she will be accused of bringing dishonour to her own family and in some cases might even be killed by family members. Second, she fears prosecution under the morality laws: the punishment for “unIslamic” behaviour is to be flogged or stoned to death, especially if a woman is judged by the court as being a willing partner.
While the laws of Hodud and Qessas prescribe “equal” punishments for men and women, it is women who suffer from these barbaric measures. A married man having an affair with an unmarried women can always claim they were “temporarily married”. But a woman in a parallel position has no such defence and would face the horror of death by stoning.
The discriminatory laws regarding women’s rights cover a wide range of areas in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, in addition to the anti-women labour laws and social policies. These have had devastating results, causing economic deprivation and the social isolation of women and their children. Iranian women have been fighting hard against these injustices, but have had very limited success in the face of the overwhelming power of the religious state and its many institutions.
Whatever interpretation of Islam we take, the Qur’an is quite specific that women who disobey their men may be beaten. Should we accept this on the pretext of respecting Islamic values, and in order to combat racism? To do so would be to ignore what has been done to secular women in Islamic societies – to women who choose not to obey the rules. In Tehran teenagers who do not abide by the full Islamic dress code (showing a fringe under their headscarf, for example) are regularly arrested, flogged and made to sign a statement saying they will cease to “behave as a prostitute”.
Iranian women have fought against every one of these policies and it is to their credit hat they have forced the regime to retreat from some of the worst.
PF: Iranians I have spoken to have mentioned different strands within the regime. Can you tell us about what internal conflicts there are in the Iranian establishment?
YM: The reformist leaders of the 2009 presidential elections, Moussavi and Karoubi are, as you know, under house arrest and that ‘faction’ of the regime is very much in retreat. I have always argued that they never wanted to challenge the Islamic regime and we would not have seen any genuine ‘reforms’ even if Moussavi had come to power. In many ways, as I said before, the existence of factions and the illusions they create help the regime’s survival.
As we predicted in HOPI’s interventions, once the reformist faction was marginalised in terms of government executive power, conflict between Ahmadinejad’s government and the parliament, or majlis, deepened. The main parliamentary group, known as the principlist faction, is headed by the speaker, Ali Larijani. The conflict has paralysed the state, with Ahmadinejad angrily withdrawing a number of bills presented by his government, claiming that they had been changed beyond recognition as they passed through various majlis committees. Ahmadinejad and Larijani are currently involved in a major battle.
One can also talk of another faction – the ‘pragmatists’ led by former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Mohsen Rezai – has also been critical of the government. The majlis is accusing Ahmadinejad supporters in banks and a major industry of being involved in multi-billion tomans corruption and Ahmadinejad is making counter-accusations against the Larijani brothers. The Revolutionary Guards, which control large parts of the economy, are also reportedly corrupt. The most powerful military organisation in Iran has charitable foundations (bonyads) that are tax-exempt and largely free of government scrutiny. The Guards have also been linked to illicit smuggling and narcotics trafficking. Some veteran officers have reportedly amassed significant wealth as the factional fighting intensifies and various factions are keen to expose their rivals.
PF: What sort of social base and popular support does the regime still have?
YM: The regime has a base mainly amongst those whose survival depends on payment from the regime, a vast religious militia (the Bassij) and the Islamic guards. Probably 3-5 million, including families of members of these forces. They have no social base amongst the poor, shanty town dwellers, peasants and they never had a social base amongst workers.
PF: Can you also tell us about what different strands there are in the opposition, especially in the democratic movement itself? Also, the democratic movement of several years ago seemed to run into the problem that the regime was prepared to unleash violence on it and the movement had no means of dealing with that. How do you think a mass progressive democratic movement can deal with this?
YM: It is true that the regime unleashed repression on the democratic opposition, however the mass movement was betrayed by the leadership of the Green movement who were more interested in negotiations with the leaders of the regime and kept calling for restraint and retreat. They called on demonstrators to “remain silent” during some of the largest protests and they refused to address workers’ demands for better wages. They distanced themselves from the more radical demands put forward on the demonstrations, yet that did not save them from house arrest. A mass movement can defeat this if it is a truly revolutionary movement with no illusions about sections of the regime and if it addresses workers’ demands.
PF: My impression is that younger opponents of the regime tend towards left-liberal politics. Are Marxist ideas making any headway among them?
YM: That was true in the 1990s and early 2000s. An inevitable consequence of the triumphalism of the West at that period. The economic crisis not just in Iran but thoroughout the world, US wars in the region has change dtaht considerably.
In more recent years we have seen a radicalisation of the student movement and many would describe themselves as Marxist. In addition the defeat of the reformist movement (the Green movement) has also led to a situation where young Iranians have began to challenge the entire regime from a leftwing point of view .
PF: HOPI has campaigned strongly against US measures against Iran and the threat of an American military assault on the country. Do you think a US attack on Iran is really likely given the quagmire Washington found itself in both in Iraq and Afghanistan?
YM: I don’t think the quagmire will stop Washington; in the midst of a serious economic crisis war can present a way out. However, right now, the US and its allies seem to be confident that they can bring down the Iranian regime and judging by the devastating effects of the escalated sanctions they might be right.
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 your view of these things?
YM: The coming to power of the Islamic government signalled the defeat of the Iranian revolution, there was nothing progressive about it in 1979 and there is nothing progressive about it now. It is a ruthless, religious dictatorship with misogynist ideology, it tried to impose Islamic behaviour in the private and public life of a population who refused to accept this. Hence the duplicity and the reality of Iranians living two separate lives: one pretending to be religious outside the house with increasing disillusionment with religion in private. All this was before the corruption scandals and accusations of the involvement of senior clerics in prostitution and drug rackets made a mockery of the “pious, moral” Shia Ayatollahs.
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 the current state of political Islam, in terms of its popular support, and what prospects do you see for either rebuilding, or creating a new, secular left in the Middle East? Have the Arab Spring movements strengthened secular progressive forces?
YM: Political Islam is popular in the countries where pro-Western, secular forces are in power, so with the exception of Iran that is true of most of the Middle East and North Africa. However this is partly because the population still have illusions about political Islam, partly because even under repressive circumstances, religious groups had more room to manoeuvre than left-wing or secular-nationalist forces and partly because the religious groups benefit directly or indirectly from extensive funds originating in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries.
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?
YM: They should show solidarity with the Iranian working class by promoting their demands, while campaigning against war and sanctions. Sanctions have caused mass unemployment, spiralling cost of living. The current conditions of poverty and destitution make it difficult for workers to mobilise and organise against the regime.