War and democracy in the Middle East

Martin Luther King famously said that “The Vietnamese must look upon us strange liberators.” So must the Iranians in the age of Trump think the same, and not only those who support the regime.

Speaking on Radio 4 a supporter of the Trump administration explained that appeasing dictatorships was not a good idea. Neither is supporting them. The US rulers have generally not appeased dictatorships, they have courted them and in many cases helped them to come to power. They have armed them to the financial benefit of their arms manufacturers and war machine. Whilst the theocratic dictatorship in Iran is an enemy of Washington, that in Saudi Arabia, with all those beheadings and extra-judicial killings, is of course, a friend. The rights or lack of them of their citizens has never been a major consideration of the American rulers foreign policy. Oil, money-making, and their strategic interests have been their only guide.

The Middle East has suffered the consequences of imperialist interference for more than 100 years. The dictatorial regime in Tehran is a direct consequence of the US/British overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran, which destroyed the chance of the development of democracy. In the case of Britain it was defending ‘its’ oil in Iran. Mossadeq had the audacity to decide that the oil was Iranian and nationalise it. Imperialism old and new was never about a ‘civilising mission’ it was always about plundering material resources. The ruling class of these two ‘great powers’ supported the barbarous regime of the Shah of Iran. Given the absence of any democratic openings the mosque was the only place in which those opposed to the dictatorship could discreetly organise.

The Iranian people, even those who are opponents of the Islamic state and the rule of the mullahs know that the US rulers couldn’t give a damn about their interests. Many will be quietly happy at the death of Soleimani, head of the barbarous “Revolutionary Guards” (comparable in its methods to the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK) but they understand that Trump’s action is a gift to the regime which enables them to call for “national unity” against “the Great Satan”. The Tehran regime is driven by religious sectarianism (they are the purveyors of the “true” faith). Together with Russia the Iranian state’s intervention in Syria was crucial is preventing the downfall of the Assad dictatorship. Soleimani was the organiser of his state’s intervention in other states. He was not a terrorist in the strict sense, but an organiser of state terror. The USA, of course, know all about state terror.

Arab Spring

Whatever the type of regime, be it military or theocratic dictatorships, the Arab Spring reflected the striving of a new generation for freedom of thought and action, the right to chose how to live their lives without state or religious coercion and oppression. The uprising in Syria in 2011 was a revolutionary democratic movement against the Assad dictatorship. The idea that these people had been manipulated by foreign powers, is one that has always been used by dictatorships whatever their type. It is an expression of their contempt for their people, dismissing them as dupes. It is an argument which has been repeated by erstwhile anti-imperialists who ended up in the camp of Assad.

If the situation in Syria became more complicated later, it was the result of the influx of reactionary jihadists and Iranian supported forces, on either side of the divide. Religious fundamentalism, be it Sunni or Shia, is only interested in imposing an oppressive religious regime on these peoples.

What should guide the labour movement in terms of its orientation and policy regarding the Middle East? The Labour Party has long held an ‘Atlanticist’ outlook. The ‘special relationship’ with the USA was rooted in the idea that the two countries that had fought German fascism, were henceforth mobilising the ‘free world’ against the threat of an expansionist Soviet Union. This was fraudulent. The ‘free world’ consisted of (what remained of) the British Empire and Jim Crow apartheid USA which, after the second world, gave us the witch-hunting phenomenon of McCarthyism. Later on New Labour worshipped at the shrine of the “shared values” which Britain was supposed to have in common with America. That took us down the road to Iraq and the lies of Blair. The consequence for Iraq was the destruction of its social fabric and the emergence of religious sectarianism.

Working class internationalism

One of the candidates for Labour leader recently twinned “progressive patriotism” with the support of Lancashire cotton industry workers for the boycott of the Southern States in the American Civil War. This action was in fact selfless working class solidarity not ‘patriotism’. It was in the best tradition of the working class in Britain.

Recently an Iranian Graphic Artist made a comment which was directed at Americans. She said:

“The world isn’t divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. Our governments are very much the same.”
(Marjane Satrapi)

Even if she doesn’t mention the working class it hints at the approach which the labour movement should take. Workers the world over have more in common with each other than they do with their rulers. Working class internationalism should be our guide rather than conceptions of ‘national interest’ or diplomacy.

Democratic struggles

From the point of view of working class organisations it is necessary to oppose Trump’s action, any further moves towards war against Iran, and any British government support. At the same time it is necessary to support the democratic and workers struggles across the region, against the dictatorships, whatever form they take. In Iran itself, despite the incredibly difficult conditions under which the workers movement has to operate, voices can still be heard against the theocratic dictatorship. So the International Workers Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran says

“Say no categorically and proactively to US warmongering and stand firmly in solidarity with the working class and the poor and oppressed people of Iran, and not the tyrannical Iranian regime, and help strengthen anti-capitalist, anti-poverty and social and economic justice movements in Iran and across the region.”

The struggle for democracy and liberation in the region must also include “the only democracy in the Middle East”. It was no accident that whilst Trump did not inform Britain or other European governments about Soleimani’s assassination he did give prior notice to Netanyahu. The Israeli regime has been quite willing to collaborate with dictatorial regimes in the Middle East and on the international level even with anti-semites such as Orban in Hungary. It remains an occupying power and absolutely controls the occupied territories, even Gaza, through its control of the air, the sea and the borders. As I have explained elsewhere Israel cannot be both a Jewish and a democratic state. The Israeli rulers have no interest in supporting democratic struggles against the Arab or Persian dictatorships be they military or religious. In any case the fact is that no individual or party can stand in elections if they openly call for Israel to be “a state of all its citizens” rather than “a Jewish state”. Netanyahu’s argument with an actress who had the temerity to suggest that Israel was “a state of all its citizens” underlines that it is only “a state for some of its citizens”. The struggle for democracy in the region should therefore include support for those forces, Jews and Arabs in Israel, fighting for equal rights for all its citizens and against Jewish supremacy and oppression of Palestinians both in Israel and the occupied territories.

My enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend

Whether it be military dictatorship as in the case of Egypt, theocracy as in Iran or Saudi Arabia, the Syrian dictatorship supported by Russia and Iran, or the absolute control which the Israeli state imposes on the people in the occupied territories, the struggle for democracy is something that the labour movement should support consistently. My “enemy’s enemy is my friend” is a credo which leads you to support autocrats and dictators. It is a similar method to that of supporting the “socialist camp” which identified socialism with the gulag.

Support for workers/trade union struggles, struggles for democracy, for freedom of expression, for separation of state and religion, should be the guiding principles of the labour movement. The Arab Spring may have been defeated in the short-term, but the recent mass movements in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, underscore that the struggles for democracy and a decent life, free from oppression, cannot ultimately be silenced. The task of overthrowing these regimes rests with the peoples oppressed by them. They can look for no friends amongst the rulers in Washington, In Tehran, or in Westminster. But they should be able to find allies in the workers movement here and in other ‘western’ countries.

Martin Wicks
January 10th 2020

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