Insurgent Iran and Leftist Confusion
By Reese Erlich
June 29, 2009 - 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
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
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
1. Assertion: President Mahmood Ahmadinejad won the
election, or at a minimum, the opposition hasn't proved
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."
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
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
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,
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?