It’s not clear to what extent the removal of sanctions can be seen as a victory for the Iranian regime, as some have argued. Less still is it clear that the removal of sanctions in Iran is a blow to the movement for democracy and social justice in the region broadly, or in Syria or Iran more particularly.
It is not even clear at this stage which part of the regime and Iranian ruling class might perceive it as a victory, apart from the group of centrists around President Rouhani; given that Rouhani’s administration promised to bring the negotiations to an end as a campaign promise. Within Ayatollah Khamenei’s circle however, things are more complicated. We cannot miss for instance that a series of his “red lines” have been crossed, including pre 2003 levels of access to iran’s nuclear program. Interestingly, the ultra conservative elements of the IRGC have condemned these negotiations in the same terms as Netanyahu and the U.S. Republicans as a deal done “at any cost”. That Khamenei is left looking slightly outplayed by these events is clear from what was his, if you like, “catchphrase” throughout the negotiations under Rouhani and Zarif; “I have no objections, but I am not optimistic”.
(This could of course be described as a tag line that most people in the Middle East have learned to make their own over the past three hundred years.)
To perceive them, as some commentators have done, as something like a victory for the Iranian regime, within the context of Syria or otherwise, is to make three mistakes. First, that there isn’t a unitary regime to talk about. In the same way, there isn’t a unitary Iranian public opinion. Actually, it seems that public opinion like the regime itself, is split with regards to Syria. With opinions ranging from anti-Arab proto-imperialist bigotry, a sense of solidarity with others fighting a non-democratic regime, to a “stop wasting our money on foreign adventures” little-Iranism. A progressive understanding of the lifting of sanctions should be clear on the idea that the lifting of such sanctions can help to exacerbate these fissures.
Second, that in many ways, the terms of the deal represent a step back from Iran’s original negotiating position, especially that supported by Khemenei, to the extent that he had public ally tied himself to supporting the legacy of Ahmadinejad’s negotiating position. We can see this in the fact that a number of the so-called “red lines” that Khemenei had set have been broken. Whether we want to talk about access to Iranian nuclear facilities or the scaling back of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Third and most important, the deal radically alters the balance of social forces and social narratives around the struggles for democracy and social justice in the region. You only have to look at political and economic affects of the sanctions against Iran to perceive this. In last year’s Norouz speech, Khemenei told the country to ‘deal with’ an unofficial unemployment rate of 50% and public sector wages up to 6 months in arrears, rampant inflation and a lack of acces to the basic ‘good things of life’, the long term imprisonment of those holding once respectable political views, by the standards of the Iranian regime, and the arbitrary closing of newspapers. He named this Iranian year “the year of the politics and economy of resistance”.
The Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi satirised this view in a song where he blamed everything from the poor quality of prayer mats manufactured in China to the price of tomatoes grown in Iran and the shutting of newspapers on the “global arrogance” of American Imperialism. Similarly, underground rapper Gdaal satirised the emergence of a super rich, sanctions-busting 1% of the regime and their newfound wealth because of the sanctions in a song that compared their sons to princelings of the dying Qajar state.
In terms of the tasks facing the democratic and left movements in Iran and in the region, two particularly egregious examples of damage done by sanctions are worth noting. First, as even Rouhani’s presidential adviser on the environment Maryam Ebtekar (of “sister Mary” during the hostage crisis fame), Iran is a country in ecological crisis, a considerable proportion of which is as a result of “emergency economic measures” enacted under an administration trying to meet the extraordinary economic conditions of the sanctions.
The large-scale restructuring of water provisions, for instance, has contributed to a situation in which last year, three of Iran’s provinces were under red alerts due to water shortages. I take it as granted that readers would link this increasingly apocalyptic assault on the commons to an assault on democracy. Whilst pressure from Iranian environmentalist groups had helped to bring some of these issues to an international stage, under the sanctions conservative media were framing the ecological campaigns as almost a “fifth column” and justifying severe state repression for people protesting the drying out of Lake Urumiya and the Zayandeh River.
It is only under the cover of “resisting sanctions” that a government brought to power on the anti imperialist slogans of national development, national dignity and national solidarity can stand aside and watch a 5000 year old country, proud of its green land and its four seasons dry into an arid desert. In Persian “zayandeh” means “life giving”, and the river has given life to Esfahan since the Bronze Age. It has been bone dry for all but three months of the past six years.
Second, the repression that again under the excuse of the “economics and politics of resistance” has faced the nascent rebirth of the Iranian working class movement, whilst the Iranian regime has spent the last 30 years crushing every trace of left and democratic opposition using the myth of the coup d’état around the corner, with the workers movement and the struggle for national minority rights bearing some of the most violent aspects of this.
This is why it is so important that the sanctions have been lifted, and this is why this could provide the space for the movement in Iran to make links with those that should be their brothers and sisters in other countries.
To be clear, the left has always understood that the sanctions placed against countries like Iran help them. That section of society that wants to live in a developed country whether with regards democracy and social justice, rights for women and national minorities or access to the ‘good things in life’ will always be opposed to an international campaign that has effectively contributed to choking those desires for thirty years. And for thirty years this has meant that that section of society is to some degree insofar as they are opposed to that campaign, lined up on the same side as their ruling class.
A rise in living standards and the lifting of sanctions makes it far more likely that the democratic opposition can thrive and that through this thriving it can make the necessary links with the non sectarian and democratic and non imperialist dependent parts of the opposition in Syria and the rest of the region.
The Islamic Republic has always thrived on an oppositional relationship to the major imperialist powers. Every time it has failed to live up to the ideals of the Great Revolution of 1979, it has relied on a real or imagined threat from outside, with the spectre of the coup against Mossadegh hanging like a nightmare on the memory of the social classes that are fighting for more democracy and equality. Ignoring the liberties taken with the histories of both leaders it is worth remembering Khamenei’s speech to the UN as a young President; “We are not liberals that you can toss aside like Allende or Mossadegh.”
It is absolutely true, and indeed unsurprising, that the first set of sanctions to be lifted include ones that directly benefit the Iranian regime’s actions in Syria; be they the personal ones against Ghassem Solaymani or those against the Qods brigade of the IRGC. To see what a change this will make to the situation of the democratic movement in Iran, how clear it will make the tasks it faces, we have to look at the repression it has faced in the last thirty years. As Ervand Abrahmian argued in Tortured Confessions the 1988 massacre of political prisoners by the regime can be seen as an example of what the regime will do to feed the myth that it is always encircled, always under attack. A generation who participated in the Green Movement, or watched it from the sidelines, have been sold the line that Soleymani (the man who argued publicly for the crushing off he student and youth movements of 2001 and 2009) is defending them from genocidal anti Shia sectarians in Syria, with the west supporting those sae sectarians. Let’s see how long that lasts now.
The lifting of these sanctions doesn’t immediately mean the coming of some glorious new day for the working classes and the democratic movement in Iran or Syria or anywhere else. However it is a necessary part of that struggle and should be understood as such. We might not be optimistic, but we can certainly have no objections.