The bafflement about Iran so widespread on the Left has a long history. It's a problem that has vexed several progressives – Bitta Mostofi, Hamid Dabashi, Muhammad Sahimi, Reese Erlich, Saeed Rahnema, and myself among them.
The recent summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran at the end of August only compounded the problem, providing an occasion for yet more left-wing confusion. A touch of clarification is in order.
Though largely forgotten of late, the Non-Aligned Movement has played a major role in the political history of the Third World and the global Left. Formed in the early 1960s as an alternative to both Cold War power blocs, it became a vehicle for the newly decolonized states in the Global South to chart an independent path on the world stage.
Vijay Prashad recounts this important story in his wonderful book The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World. He's also written a brilliant analysis of the complex geopolitical chess board on which the Tehran assemblage was played.
The Islamic Republic saw the NAM summit as an opportunity to show the world that it is not the isolated state that the US and Israel make it out to be. "Two-thirds of the world's nations are here in Tehran," Iran's ambassador to the United Nations effused. Another regime apparatchik described the gathering as a "political tsunami" against the US and its allies. Iran not only hosted the NAM summit but has taken over the leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement for the next three years.
This kind of stuff can scramble the ideological compasses of many progressives. Iran now heads up a historic Third World alliance. It deploys anti-imperialist rhetoric and takes the US to task for being a global bully. Iranian president Mahmood Ahmadinejad enjoys cozy relations with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez (for which Iranian progressives have taken the Venezuelan leader to task). The US and Israel have threatened – and continue to threaten – a military strike on Iran, an egregious violation of international law and imperial aggression.
All of this creates bewilderment among many leftists.
Some go so far as to embrace the Iranian government outright. In a toxic screed, veteran Marxist James Petras celebrated the NAM Summit as a "Strategic Diplomatic Victory over the Washington-Israeli Axis".
But most progressives are simply flummoxed by the issue.
How do we say we are against imposing the privations of sanctions, against subjecting the Iranian people to the violence of US/Israeli bombs, but are willing to take no position when those same people are subjected to violence by the Iranian government? This would make us an anti-war movement disconnected from social justice and life on the ground for ordinary Iranians; it would mean we have lost our moral compass.
[The Raha Iranian Feminist Collective argues for] the need to free all political prisoners, from Guantanamo to the Iranian prison Evin; to end the death penalty in the US and in Iran and everywhere; in other words, to build solidarity between our movements here and the movements there.
If we don't support Iranians struggling in Iran for the same things we fight for here, such as labor rights, abolition of the death penalty, and freedom for political prisoners, we risk a politically debilitating form of cultural relativism. ...
...it is not only possible, but imperative, to simultaneously stand against all forms of outside intervention in Iran and against all forms of domestic oppression targeting ordinary Iranian people.
...this must be an ethical movement that makes no apologies for the torture and imprisonment of dissidents and that expresses solidarity with popular resistance in Iran. Here and everywhere, we must oppose militarism, prisons, censorship, torture, and the death penalty.
This is a nuanced and principled position, yet it's a controversial one in certain quarters of the Left. At its conference in Stamford, Connecticut in March, the United National Anti-War Coalition (UNAC) overwhelmingly voted down a resolution introduced by the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective and the recently formed (and hugely welcome) Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions, and State Repression that read:
We oppose war and sanctions against the Iranian people and stand in solidarity with their struggle against state repression and all forms of outside intervention.
"We cannot say we don't want people to be starved or bombed, but if they are imprisoned and tortured we have no comment," Nasrabadi contends.
I second that emotion.
By spiking the principled Raha/Havaar resolution, UNAC did precisely that: it said "no comment" in the face of repression and torture. Is that the message the US peace movement should be sending to the people of Iran?