The next few months will be decisive ones for the “war on terror” as the US steps up its pressure on Iran. The Iranian nuclear issue is back on the agenda, with the passing of another United Nations (UN) deadline and another “negative report”. This external pressure has implications for politics inside Iran.
Just one day before the UN deadline, Ramin Jahanbegloo, a prominent Iranian political philosopher, was released from Evin prison following four months of confinement.
Jahanbegloo’s release followed that of other political prisoners, including Mansour Ossanlou, president of the Tehran bus worker’s union, and Akbar Ganji, Iran’s highest profile dissident.
But Jahanbegloo’s release has been mired in controversy. In a post release interview, the university professor “confessed” that his research was being unofficially used by foreign intelligence services working under the facade of various US think-tanks.
Whether this “confession” was genuine or not, there is no doubt about the difficult pressures that Jahanbegloo and other leaders of Iran’s reformist movement are finding themselves under.
This situation has to be traced back to the late 1990s, when a strong and vibrant movement led by women and students swept Mohammad Khatami and the reformists to power.
Hopes and expectations were raised, publications flourished and debate was rife. But with the conservatives on the back foot and the reform movement at its peak, Khatami opted to hold the movement back.
At this crucial point, he chose to implement only cultural reforms and backed neo-liberal economic policies based on encouraging foreign investment.
Khatami thus failed many of those who had elected him. The conservatives quickly settled their differences, regrouped - and a backlash ensued.
From 2000 onwards, many reformist newspapers were banned and leading activists, such as 2003 Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, were imprisoned.
The reformists staged desperate attempts to regain political ground, including a sit-in in parliament against a conservative purge. But these failed miserably due to the lack of any grassroots support.
To understand this it is important to note the underlying economic dynamic behind the reformist strategy. Khatami’s predecessor Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani launched a drive to privatise Iran’s state owned industries.
Khatami continued this project with the introduction of private banks and the relaunch of Iran’s stock exchange to sell shares in government companies, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s backing.
But the flipside to the economic liberalisation pursued by Rafsanjani and Khatami was rising inequality and high unemployment.
This came back to haunt them in the 2005 presidential election. Rafsanjani’s Mercedes driving elites proved no match for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s gestures to the poor. The barely known Tehran mayor saw off the fragmented reformists to win the post of president.
Where does this leave Khatami and the reformists? Feeling isolated at home, they have increasingly looked outside for support. But with Iran now being targeted by the US, the reformists are finding themselves under even more pressure.
Take the case of Akbar Ganji, a former revolutionary guard turned reformist, whose articles linking Iranian leaders to the killings of writers and intellectuals in 1998 cost him six years in prison.
Ganji’s hunger strike found international support from none other than George Bush - the champion of Guantanamo Bay, where hunger strikers are force fed through tubes.
Similarly, and in the mother of all hypocrisies, the son of the Shah is now calling for the release of prisoners being held in a prison his father built to torture those who dared question his military dictatorship.
It’s important to make clear that activists such as Ganji and Ebadi have fiercely condemned the war in Iraq and any possible attack on Iran. Nevertheless they often end up as hostages of the pro-war camp, however indirectly.
This has led to confusing positions in recent weeks.
Ebadi, alongside counterparts in the West such as Ali Ansari, a pro-Khatami professor who works for the London based Chatham House foreign policy think-tank, has written anti-war articles in the Western press which are nevertheless Israel friendly.
These articles manoeuvre for a position on Iran that aims to avoid war, but involve negotiations, trade and relations with Western powers.
Viewed in this light, Khatami’s condemnation of US foreign policy during his recent trip to the country was more of an attack on the US’s neo-conservatives than an attack on US relations.
It is here that the anti-war movement is vital - and where certain arguments are worth reiterating to provide clarity.
First, there should be no illusions about building relations with Israel, a state that is effectively another Pentagon stationed in the Middle East.
Second, we must distinguish between the challenges faced by activists in Iran and those faced by those in the West.
Our urgent task here in Britain is to stall the US imperialist offensive by eliminating our government’s support.
Finally, it is clear that an independent movement is taking place in Iran without the need for Western interference.
In fact, it is precisely Western interference that conservative elements point to when quelling dissent.
Calls from abroad for regime change will only reinforce imperialist arguments for a regime change that comes from abroad. Changes in Iran can only come from below - and this is happening without Western intervention.
So to support Iran’s movements effectively, we must fight to remove the threats of war and sanctions that could easily suffocate them.
And only by opposing these threats unconditionally can we ensure that their courageous struggles are not hijacked by the pro-war lobby.
Don’t Attack Iran public meeting, 6.30pm, Tuesday 19 September at the University of London Union, Malet Street, London WC1. Organised by Action Iran and CASMII.