Iran, sanctions and the left

– Tim Bowron

Since 2002 when details of Iran’s nuclear program first came to light there has been much talk on the part of Western politicians and journalists about the need to prevent the regime from developing uranium enrichment and other technology that could potentially be used in military applications.

As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which all nations are guaranteed the right to enrich uranium to a level needed to make fuel for nuclear power, Iran is obliged to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). However for the first 18 years of existence Iran’s nuclear program remained a secret and no IAEA inspections were carried out, a fact which more than any other has caused the Iranian regime to be viewed as untrustworthy by the West.

What most Western commentators fail to understand is that Iran might have had a very good reason for not openly declaring the existence of its nuclear program, when you consider the fate of the nuclear reactor at Osiraq in neighbouring Iraq which was completely obliterated without warning by the Israeli air-force in 1981 – in accordance with Israel’s policy of preventing any Muslim nation from acquiring nuclear capability, however peaceful. Indeed, as one of Israel’s own leading military historians, Martin van Creveld put it: “Obviously, we don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons and I don’t know if they’re developing them, but if they’re not developing them, they’re crazy.”

Meanwhile the state of Israel itself not only has nuclear weapons but has consistently refused to sign up to the NPT.

Since 2003 Iran has allowed unprecedented access to the IAEA inspection teams (when was the last time the nuclear programs of the Western imperialist powers were subject to this kind of scrutiny?), however in the case of Iran it would seem that there is a double standard at work here.

The Iranian government, we are repeatedly being told, has crossed “crossed the line” by deciding to end the freeze on its nuclear activities which it had itself voluntarily imposed during negotiations with the European Union from November 2004 until late 2005. It was only after those negotiations collapsed, essentially over the EU’s insistence that Iran import all of its fuel for nuclear power generation from the West and abandon any attempt at self-sufficiency, that the decision to reopen the Natanz facility was taken.

Since late 2005 Iran has been locked in a standoff with the West over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and implement the so-called “Additional Protocol” which would allow IAEA inspectors to carry out their inspections without giving any prior notification (again, something that it would be very hard to imagine any Western government permitting on its territory).

There remain strong suspicions that despite its declarations to the contrary the Iranian regime is in fact trying to develop nuclear weapons technology, although both the IAEA and US intelligence agencies have so far failed to find any conclusive evidence of this. In fact, the most recent US National Intelligence Estimate (from December 2007) stated with “moderate-to-high confidence” that Iran currently does not currently have any nuclear weapons although it insisted that the Iranian regime is still looking to develop them in the medium to long term.

Meanwhile between December 2006 and March 2007 the United Nations passed a number of sanctions against Iran, mainly targeting the sale of nuclear-related technology as well as the offshore assets of the state bank Sepah.

In March this year additional harsher sanctions were introduced which banned the sale of any items which could have a potential military application as well as mandating inspections of all goods being shipped in or out of the country. More Iranian banks have also had their offshore assets frozen and visa bans have been imposed on many Iranian government officials.

All of these sanctions were supported by the New Zealand government.

More recently the US and its allies have been calling for even tougher sanctions which will affect not just the Iranian regime but also the people of Iran themselves, while also brandishing the threat of military strikes.

As I have already pointed out, the hypocrisy of the Western campaign against Iran’s nuclear program alone makes the moral case for sanctions highly dubious (especially since the US just concluded an agreement for the sale of nuclear technology to India, which unlike Iran has a confirmed nuclear weapons program and is not even a signatory to the NPT!).

But a more fundamental question which deserves to be asked is will such sanctions (with or without the added inducement of US air strikes) actually do anything to weaken the position of the undoubtedly reactionary and unpleasant regime in Tehran? Unfortunately many leftists who have few illusions in the democratic credentials of governments such as those of Israel and the US seem inclined to support Western intervention against Iran on the grounds that it will weaken or even topple the theocratic Iranian regime and create a space for trade unions and other “civil society” to flourish.

However the experience of the last five years has been exactly opposite – in response to the deteriorating economic and political situation in Iran the “moderate” (i.e. liberal capitalist) wing of the theocratic regime represented by Mohammad Khatami which drew most of its support from the bazaari merchant class has been shunted aside by the more hard-line elements represented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose powerbase lies in the state security apparatus.

With the imposition of UN sanctions and the threat of foreign invasion in the air the government of Ahmadinejad has been given the perfect pretext to brutally repress all domestic dissent in the name of “national security”. Strikes such as those of the 3000 workers employed by the Vahed bus company in Tehran who wanted to form an independent trade union have been met with scores of arrests and the indefinite detention and torture of the strike leaders.

Likewise the student movement in Iran which since the defeat of Khatami has become increasingly radicalised has also come under intense persecution. Following a December 2007 protest to mark the anniversary of the deaths of several revolutionary student martyrs at the hands of the Shah’s royalist forces in 1953 over 60 student leaders were arrested and several of the most prominent charged with “plotting against the Islamic regime”. In a number of cases the prosecution has argued that the student movement activists are acting in concert with and accepting money from Western governments, hoping to discredit them.

The job of the Iranian revolutionary left and working class activists is thus made all the more difficult by the atmosphere of permanent siege created by Western attempts to meddle in the domestic politics of Iran. This situation has obvious parallels with the way in which the war with Iraq in the 1980s was used by Ayatollah Khomeini to justify the suppression of the shoras or workers councils which had been the original driving force behind the 1979 revolution before it was hijacked by the Islamists, as well as the executions of thousands of members of communist groups such as the Tudeh Party, Fedayeen and the supporters of the Trotskyist Fourth International who were seen as rivals for the leadership of the revolution.

As Iranian Marxist Torab Saleth points out in a recent interview in our paper The Spark, the 1st Persian Gulf conflict was openly welcomed by Khomeini as a “godsend” as it was

…under that war the theocracy established itself. [Now with] …the threat of this new one it is defending its life against the rising tide of the revolution and adjusting the levers of power in its favour.

The radical left in Iran is rebuilding its forces, with groups such as Iranian Students for Freedom and Equality providing the driving force behind the protests of last December. Much of their popularity derives from the fact that unlike other forces opposed to the Islamic regime they have not allowed themselves to be compromised by accepting dirty money from the CIA or other Western sources, as unfortunately happened to the Fedayeen guerrillas based in Kurdistan during the 1980s or the Peoples’ Mujahedeen. However the tighter the imperialist encirclement of Iran becomes the easier it will be for the Islamic regime to find a pretext to jail and put to death these courageous activists.

Here in New Zealand the task for the left must therefore be to oppose all imperialist sanctions and military intervention against Iran while at the same time extending avoiding falling into the trap of becoming apologists for the mullahs. Already organisations such as Hands Off the People of Iran which brings together Western and exiled Iranian leftists are playing a vital function in providing a welcome “third camp” and counterpoint to the lesser-evilism of those leftists who advocate a simple choice between Washington DC and Tehran. It is our clear and obvious duty to join with these efforts in arguing that the emancipation of the Iranian people is a task that belongs to the Iranian workers and students themselves, and to extend our full political and practical solidarity to our Iranian comrades wherever possible.


  1. I think also it is important for us in New Zealand to provide strong support to any Iranian asylum seekers detained in NZ prisons or threatened with deportation. I know the Workers Party have been very staunch supporters of this campaign.

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