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 otherwise.
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 wrote:
“[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.”
“On the day of the 2009 election, election officials illegally barred many opposition observers from the polls.”
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 God.
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 vote rigging.
A 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 un-Islamic.
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 democratic.
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 Journal: “[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, wrote:
“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 to power.”
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 of Cuba.)
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.
“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.”
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 current demonstrations.
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 of mouth.
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 U.S.
3. Assertion: Ahmadinejad is a nationalist-populist who opposes U.S. imperialism. Efforts to overthrow him only help the U.S.
James Petras 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 Revolution.”
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 left.
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 high unemployment.
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 diplomatic problems.
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 else.
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 you on?
Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich covered the recent elections in Iran and their aftermath. He is the author of The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis. (Polipoint Press).