“Bomb bomb Iran,” the 2008 presidential candidate John McCain sang, and President Trump is now closer than ever to acting on this imperialist fantasy. Early on Friday morning, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad assassinated Iran’s second-in-command Qassem Soleimani and four others including a top Iraqi militia chief. Iran’s government vowed “vigorous revenge.” Trump, in turn, threatened cultural genocide, saying he will “HIT VERY HARD AND VERY FAST” sites “important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” Many on the U.S. Left justly seek to hit the streets to demand peace. After all, we must not let the region’s already devastating wars escalate even further. At the same time, we must make sure that our protests do not whitewash the Iranian government and its regional imperialism.
Our first starting point should, of course, be a clear opposition to U.S. sanctions and war on Iran. In 2013, I confronted a prominent lobbyist over his support for sanctions on Iran. Even though his organization acknowledged the sanctions were already “strangling” the country and causing “higher unemployment,” his group wanted to expand the sanctions and explore a “military option.” I responded that Iran’s government had indicated a willingness to pursue a peaceful resolution to the nuclear proliferation issue. Sure enough, Iran and the United States reached an agreement with the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump acted recklessly in 2018 by leaving that deal and reinstating sanctions that effectively restrict Iranians’ access to food and medicine. Trump’s attack on Soleimani was an unnecessary act that could greatly escalate the region’s already unbearable warfare.
But let’s not shed tears over the death of Soleimani. He was an imperialist butcher who oversaw brutal repression and genocide. As a top general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), he commanded militias that slaughtered civilians in Iraq. He deployed 50,000 Iranian troops to fight on Assad’s side in Syria, where the allied Syrian, Iranian, and Russian governments are responsible for 9 in 10 civilian deaths. The IRGC armed and funded reactionary groups in Lebanon and Yemen and had a policy of “shooting to kill” protesters in Iran.
“No to Iran, no to America!”
As we figure out how to respond to this chaotic situation, our next starting point should be to listen to Middle Eastern anti-imperialists, democrats, and socialists:
- Masses of protesters in Iraq on Sunday chanted “No to Iran, no to America!” They called for both “occupiers” to leave their country.
- The Anarchist Era Collective, based in Iran and Afghanistan, wrote that “Qasem Soleimani has long tormented the people and we congratulate the survivors of his crimes in the Middle East, particularly Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And while we are glad for the death of this war criminal, we declare our strong opposition to the possibility of a state war (between US state terrorism and Iranian state terrorism).”
- The Worker Communist Party of Iran denounced both “Islamic [Republic of Iran] terrorism and American militarism” and called Soleimani “one of the most vicious terrorists of the Islamic regime.” They hoped Iranians would “step up the struggle for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic in Iran and its expulsion from Iraq.”
- The Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists, whose leadership includes the Iranian-American Freida Afary, urged supporters to “Oppose U.S. and Iran War by Showing Solidarity with Uprisings.” Their statement called Soleimani a “criminal reactionary” but said, “his assassination represents nothing affirmative for the popular uprisings in Iraq and the region.”
One of the most compelling responses was by the Iranian socialist exile, Arash Azizi. It was titled “You don’t need to mourn Qassem Soleimani to be deeply worried.” He described his reaction to news of the drone strike:
“I thought of my beautiful 23-year-old cousin and her endless laughter. She works in a clothing store and wants to start a fashion brand some day. I thought of that other cousin who once studied in the holy city of Mashhad in order to become a cleric. We still exchange books tips.
I thought of my grandmother and all the sadness she has lived through. Her children were arrested as leftist activists in the early years after the 1979 evolution. Her nephew was killed in the devastating Iran-Iraq War. Her grandchildren left Iran for exile. Somehow, she still manages to smile and be kind to everyone, including the neighborhood cats.
Wars don’t discriminate. An attack on Tehran could put an end to the lives of this very real people whom I loved, and many more like them.”
Azizi added, “But I would be a hypocrite if I feared for the lives of my fellow Iranians while forgetting about thousands of Syrian and Iraqi lives destroyed by Soleimani and his acolytes. If I feared for war on Iran but forgot the many war crimes committed by the soldiers of my own nation, under the command of Soleimani, in the Arab nations of our region. If I forgot the very real fear that grips millions of Israelis when Soleimani’s allies promise the destruction of Israel just as their leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, brazenly denies the Holocaust.”
There is much agreement from these Middle Eastern voices that we need to support dissident Iranians, and others in the region, who have risen up to demand liberatory social transformations. Freida Afary reports that protesting Iranians are mostly unemployed and students and include many women. While they initially opposed fuel price hikes, they have expanded their demands to include an opposition to Iran’s regional imperialism. After all, the funds going toward militarism and nuclear programs could be spent instead on social programs.
I would add that we should continue to support Iran’s dissident prisoners including Soheil Arabi, an Anarchist who is serving a decade-long sentence for criticizing the regime on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Iranians and Iranian-Americans deserve our support as they are marginalized in the United States. More than 100 were detained by border agents on the U.S.-Candian border this past weekend and were questioned about world politics.
A principled global anti-war movement would take its cue from these democrats and leftists that are on the ground in the affected region or that have very deep familial and cultural ties to it. Unfortunately, that has not happened in the United States.
Disturbing Red-Brown Crossovers
With shameless hypocrisy, some of the most prominent so-called “anti-war” activists are practically eulogizing an imperialist genocidal war criminal! In the process, we have seen many instances of a disturbing “red-brown” crossover between neo-Stalinists and far-rightist.
There is some historical basis for this. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Moscow-affiliated Tudeh Party sided with the right-wing theocrat Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against leftists and democrats. Even though Khomeini’s regime was highly oppressive to women, dissidents, and others, what mattered to Tudeh was Khomeini’s hostility toward the West. The Left ended up supporting a very right-wing regime (as has been an unfortunate recurrence since the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact).
So it should not be a surprise that Sunday’s rallies in the United States, planned by the neo-Stalinist ANSWER coalition and Code Pink, stabbed the Middle East’s uprisings in the back and found a disturbing amount of far-right support. The white nationalist Richard Spencer promoted ANSWER’s rallies on his Twitter account. Spencer has called Jews “Little fucking k***s” and said of African Americans, “My ancestors f***ing enslaved those little pieces of s***.” ANSWER director Brian Becker’s radio show Loud & Clear repeatedly hosts far-right conspiracy theorists (such as “Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, anti-Semite Alberto Garcia Watson, alt-right figure Cassandra Fairbanks and militia movement leader Larry Pratt”).
Max Blumenthal, who spoke at an ANSWER rally, took to Twitter to falsely insinuate that Trump was acting under Israel’s orders. When Trump tweeted a U.S. flag after the attack, Blumenthal responded, “You misspelled the Israeli flag.” Now, I am a staunch anti-Zionist and BDS supporter, so I have no interest in defending the Israeli state. And I understand that Israel and Zionists have often lobbied for war with Iran; the lobbyist I earlier described confronting happened to be the president of AIPAC. But overall Israel is a client state of the United States, so it tends to receive orders from Washington rather than giving them. It was disturbing to see the nominally leftist Blumenthal parrot the far-right conspiracies of a “Zionist Occupied Government” in Washington. Richard Spencer retweeted Blumenthal. In fact, Washington hawks have set their sights on Iran for decades, and they have made clear that their main reason is to protect long-term oil flows, not Israel. Trump has also repeatedly commented on the importance of securing the region’s oil.
Meanwhile, Blumenthal’s close collaborator Ben Norton smeared the Iranian socialist Arash Azizi as a “sellout imperialist collaborator” and falsely accused him of “providing intellectual pseudo-’leftist’ justification for this criminal US act of war against Iran.” As seen in the quotes above, Azizi resolutely opposes U.S. aggression on Iran.
At the ANSWER rally, Blumenthal celebrated Soleimani for having “rolled back Salafi jihadi forces the CIA had been backing in Syria to destabilize another independent state.” In other words, he thought that Soleimani’s participation in Assad’s genocide was something to be praised! And he said this at a supposedly “anti-war” rally!
Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin wasn’t a whole lot better. “You have to understand what Qassim Soleimani means for millions of Shia,” Benjamin wrote. “They see him as a hero who defeated al Nusra, al Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. His death will be avenged.” There wasn’t a negative word about the man widely known as a “butcher” in the region.
I was disappointed by a number of leftist thinkers that I have respected. The longtime independent journalist Arun Gupta, for example, repeatedly featured Max Blumenthal without even a hint of criticism. Gupta falsely denounced the anti-fascist Spencer Sunshine as an “anarcho-neocon” for daring to comment on Iran’s indisputable meddling in Iraq. Steve Salaita scolded leftists who “reinforce the same f***ing narrative” that imperials “millions of Iranians and Iraqis.” There was no mention of the mass movements of Iranians and Iraqis struggling against the Iranian government.
George Ciccariello-Maher chose to mock the staunch anti-imperialist Dan La Botz for “sounding like Buttigieg & Biden.” La Botz’s supposed error was that he devoted some space in his recent anti-war article to criticism of Soleimani. In fact, La Botz made very clear and upfront his steadfast opposition to war: “First, we oppose the U.S. government’s latest attack on Iran, the most recent of a series of diplomatic, economic, and military measures against the Iranian government.” When criticizing Soleimani, La Botz drew on the voices of Middle Eastern socialists.
It is unfortunate that there is such a taboo that certain leaders, speakers, and writers belonging to the allegedly anti-imperialist, anti-war movement enforce such a taboo against criticizing an imperialist war-monger.
Toward an internationalist anti-war movement
I hope that principled groups will come together and coordinate their own rallies that stand with Middle East’s uprisings, rather than against them, and that acknowledge that we won’t win over mass working-class support if we praise dictators and their generals. We can take to heart the words of a recent open letter signed by internationalists leftists around the world, “The left needs to learn from the oppressed classes to simultaneously oppose US imperialism (especially US sanctions) and the Islamic Republic’s interventions in the region.”
The Democratic Socialists of America would be able to mobilize masses of people. They could reach out to Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrant organizations. Revive the Peace Movement and the Transnational Solidarity Network would turn out many people. Many Anarchists and independent Marxists would surely join. The anti-authoritarian Food Not Bombs network would likely serve free, delicious (vegetarian and vegan) food to the protesters. Their Los Angeles chapter recently posed with a Syrian revolutionary flag to show their solidarity with residents of Idlib being massacred by the Assad regime with help from Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah.
There are many other groups and communities that would potentially turn out to such principled anti-war rallies. Many Americans resent the hypocrisy of the government maintaining austerity measures while investing fortunes in militarism. They realize that war is costly, carbon-intensive, and socially and ecologically destructive.
As for slogans, I have been using the following: No war on Iran, no tears over Soleimani! U.S. and Iranian imperialists out of Iraq! Listen to Middle East socialists!
When Americans, Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, and others around the world unite against tyranny, then we might see a real possibility of a far fairer and more peaceful world. In 2011 there were so many uprisings that social scientists spoke of a “world revolution.” In 2020, it’s possible that we’re seeing another world revolution, and I hope that we learn from the mistakes of the last one. We need (horizontal and accountable) structure and we need solidarity. We cannot afford to fall for the divide-and-conquer techniques that pitted the global Left against Syrian revolutionaries and within Syria pitted Arabs against Kurds.
I will close by quoting Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian author of Persepolis. She emphasized in an interview that Americans and Iranians have more in common with each other than they do with their own governments. I think it would be really useful for us to meditate on these words:
“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 you and me. And our governments are very much the same.”