The Selective Solidarity of the Left

Danny Postel

In Tehran since 1999, government vigilantes have stormed a student dormitory brandishing clubs and thrashing students with chains. They have tossed one student out of a window to his death. During such raids, helicopters hover overhead, elite units of anti-riot police gather and plainclothes Intelligence Ministry agents buzz around on motorbikes. Plainclothes security officers routinely detainstudent radicals at gunpoint.

Why are American progressives by and large silent about the situation in Iran today?

How many American progressives knew who Shirin Ebadi was before she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month? Almost no one. By the same token, how many of us knew who Rigoberta Menchú was before she won the prize in 1992? Many, if not most of us: We’d seen her speak, read her autobiography, or simply had come to know her story by osmosis in activist circles.

Consider the number of Guatemalan solidarity groups that have come onto the scene over the years. How many American progressives, at some point between the early ’80s and the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, were involved, at one level or another, in solidarity work around Guatemala? Tons of us. Why the difference?

What is going on in Iran doesn’t lend itself to the kind of analytical prism through which progressives made sense of Central America during the high tide of our solidarity activism, the Reagan years. In Central America, military juntas and death squads, in concert with feudal elites and corporate oligarchs, were running the show with the active support of the United States. In a nutshell, a bloodbath of imperial domination, rapacious exploitation, scorched earth terror, and mass murder—in which the United States was complicit from top to bottom.

But what happens when people are struggling against tyranny and repression that is not being perpetrated by the United States or its proxies and when—to take the case of Iran today—the regime in question is a sworn enemy of the United States.

Let’s face it: It’s just plain uncomfortable for progressives to say anything that sounds like it could also come out of the mouth of George Bush or Paul Wolfowitz.

Jeremy Brecher argues in Foreign Policy in Focus, however, that “failure to defend human rights in such circumstances only plays into the hands of the Bush juggernaut.” Progressives must, he contends, be known as “people whose fundamental solidarity is not with one or another government but with all people who are struggling for liberation from oppression.”

We should not allow Washington’s rhetoric to have a silencing effect on us. To do so, in effect, is to let Bush and Wolfowitz do our thinking for us. Rather than accept the Bush administration’s pronouncements at face value, why not unmask them for the opportunistic propaganda they are? Why not point out that despite its rhetoric, the administration couldn’t care less about democracy and human rights? Whatever the rhetoric about supporting the student movement, the reality is, as Brecher puts it, that the administration sees Iran as “a critical source of oil and a powerful country that currently threatens—but could support—both U.S. and Israeli interests.” “Encouraging the student revolt,” he points out, “is done in the interest of Washington’s agenda, which can not be accurately described as seeking freedom, independence, and self-determination for the people of Iran.”

We must distinguish our progressive criticisms of the Islamic republic from Washington’s hollow and self-serving ones.

The picture gets further complicated, and the left gets further flummoxed, over the role of the United Sates in the Iranian context. The memory of the 1953 U.S.-sponsored coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh burns furiously in the minds of many Iranians to this day. The problem is that denunciations of the American empire today are the rhetorical dominion of the right, not the left. It’s the reactionary clergy, not the student movement, that wields the idiom of anti-imperialism.

Regime hard-liners “legitimate their suppression of the students,” Brecher points out, “as necessary to guard against ‘foreign forces.’” Indeed, the mullahs denounced the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Shirin Ebadi as “the result of the cultural hegemony of Western civilization,” a tool “intended to serve the interests of colonialism and the decadent world.” This kind of talk can throw off the ideological compasses of many progressives.

In contrast, for the students, feminists, human rights activists and dissidents agitating for pluralism and democracy in Iran today, opposition to U.S. imperialism is not the central issue. “The student movement’s principal demand,” as Brecher notes, is “to eliminate the power of the self-perpetuating theocratic elite over the Iranian government.”

A simple stance of “hands off Iran” is not what those struggling for change in Iran need from progressives around the world. Of course we should be steadfast in opposing any U.S. military intervention in Iran—that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. As Ziba Mir-Hosseini of the University of London puts it, Iran is in “a state at war with itself.” Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights and freedom of expression.

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Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and co-hosts its series of video interviews with leading scholars. He is the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma, which was named one of the best books of 2013 in The Progressive. He is a co-editor of PULSE and blogs for Truthout, Critical Inquiry and the Huffington Post. He was a member of Chicago’s No War on Iran coalition, communications coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice, and communications specialist for Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of labor unions and grassroots community organizations.
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