Iran: Supporting civil rights in the context of imperial history

The 43 year old Iranian regime’s lethal rampages round its neighbourhood have increased of late and reek of desperation. It has, for instance, again bombed exiled Iranian Kurdish camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. It destroyed the house – comically described as an Israeli drone base – of a Kurdish company chief, near the American consulate.

All this violence is to peddle the big lie that Kurds, Zionists, and Americans (“the Great Satan” to regime hardliners) are fomenting a home-grown revolution from below.

Tony Blair writes in his Institute’s recent polling report on the protests that “the Iranian people have undergone a secularisation and liberalisation faster than any society in the Islamic world, despite living under the rule of Islamists for decades.”

Or, perhaps, because they have. This echoes Vaclav Havel’s depiction of a grocer’s shop in Communist Czechoslovakia dutifully displaying Communist mantras to which most people turned a blind eye.

Iran’s regime has been hollowed out by popular contempt and contrasts between official piety and widespread corruption and hypocrisy. Many Iranians secretly dance and drink – or want to leave the country. TBI polling shows most Iranians oppose compulsory hijabs and are increasingly irreligious.

The fuel had been building up for years. The spark in September was the killing of a 22 year old Kurdish woman by the “morality police,” which detained her for showing too much hair – “bad hijab.” Her name was Mahsa Amini although her Kurdish first name of Jina was officially banned.

Mustafa Hijiri, the leader of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (@PDKI), who once showed me his bombed headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan, recently told the Socialist International that the uprising is unprecedented in scale and intent.

There have been demonstrations in all provinces of Iran. Its football squad refusing to sing the national anthem spoke volumes as did scenes of students celebrating America trouncing Iran in the world cup. Nearly 500 have been killed on the streets. Hundreds more have been maimed with calculated brutality – paramilitary misogynists have targeted women’s faces and private parts. Public hangings have begun.

Previous protests sought to reform the system but Iranian democracy is a rigged sham and voting turnout is increasingly puny. Demonstrators now demand regime change. People want to live on their own terms.

The uprising also embraces liberating women using the old Kurdish slogan, Woman, Life, Freedom – Jin, Jiyan, Azadi. Women cannot travel without a man’s say so, sing, dance, or watch football matches. Divorcees lose their children and women are legally half the worth of a man. Quite rightly, Iran was expelled from the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Hijiri also notes growing links between Iran’s ethnic groups, Persians, Kurds, Arabs, Turks, and Balouch, despite the regime’s policy of divide and rule.

The unknown factor is whether members of the security apparatus will switch sides, but body cameras force them to show brutality or face repercussions.

There is global sympathy for the demonstrators against the regime’s well-oiled war machine although it is not yet a powerful solidarity movement. Where’s the Stop the War Coalition when it might actually prove useful?

There is a lingering hard left affinity with the regime as part of the Axis of Resistance to America, (and now a major supplier of drones to Russia). CND once invited the Iranian Ambassador to address its conference. If only the current regime were so keen on “banning the bomb”.

The 1979 revolution was initially supported by the Iranian left, which was quickly purged and executed as the Mullahs wrenched Iran into an addled theocracy.

However, the revolution had roots in the humiliations visited on Iran by rapacious Western interests in the colonial era’s Great Game. America and the UK (“the Little Satan”) conspired in 1953 to overthrow a Prime Minister who wanted to nationalise oil. The Shah assumed the Peacock Throne and his opulent and deeply unequal White Revolution ended by machine-gunning protesters at mosques, as has happened recently.

This, notes former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in his thorough and candid history, underpins the Iranian saying that “behind the curtain there’s always an Englishman” to which the Foreign Office riposte is that only Iran still thinks the UK is a superpower.

We must take history on the chin. The imperialism that matters most now, however, is that of the Iranian state which exports fighters and arms to destabilise Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya and threatens dissidents in the UK. A viable nuclear bomb would bolster that and even eliminate Israel, Palestinians included. The PDKI’s vision of federal, democratic, and secular Iran could transform the Middle East.

The intrepid and imaginative battle by Iran’s women and young people as well as its national minorities deserves full-hearted moral support. The regime may collapse soon or much later. No one knows. International solidarity needs stamina and fresh witness information. Local parties could invite a PDKI speaker.

We should prepare to help a new Iran. That could mean training unions, civil society groups, MPs, and civil servants, sending fact-finding delegations, and encouraging soft power institutions such as universities to modernise education.

Iran would undoubtedly seek commercial ties and tourism to boost an isolated and backward economy and maximise jobs, prosperity, and diversification from oil. Mutual respect and mutual benefit are the keywords.

Straw notes that this ancient civilisation was pioneering tolerance and respect for different peoples and faiths over two thousand years ago when Britain was savage, poor and had no written language. Iran’s freedom through its people’s efforts and with our support could be an inspiring game-changer.

This is the first in a series of columns covering Labour’s foreign policy challenges. The author, Gary Kent, studied International Relations, has been a Labour member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987 where he has focused on Anglo/Irish and Anglo/Kurdish relations. He writes in a personal capacity.