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How is it possible to oppose the violent suppression of Iranian protest while still condemning U.S. sanctions on Iran?

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us today.

The reaction to the protests in Iran has been really complex. They erupted in November when the government raised gasoline prices, which is directly connected to the isolation of Iran for the sanctions imposed by the United States after they pulled out of their joint comprehensive plan of action, or as is popularly known, the Iran Nuclear Deal. That caused huge economic damage to Iran, and especially to its people, the working people, the middle-class, the poor people of Iran. Iran’s international involvements also played a role. What we’ve heard: at least 200 people who have been killed. Other estimates say a thousand, and I don’t know who quite to trust, but people have been killed, and thousands apparently had been imprisoned.

Though Iran is a theocratic state, and an authoritarian state, much of the left and those that oppose the sanctions by Trump’s administration are in a quandary as how to respond, not wanting to fall prey to the Western capitalism’s war against Iran. On the other hand, the working people of Iran are in fact, in revolt. Now, even the seminarians in Iran are burning down their own seminaries. It’s getting really complex, and in this complicated world, how do you parse all of that out? What’s really happening here, and what should we be thinking about in terms of who we support all this, and what to say in our discussions and in our movements?

We’ll explore that with our guest, Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi, who is a lecturer and assistant professor of comparative political theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London. His new book is called Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran. Eskandar, welcome back. Good to have you with us here on The Real News Network.

ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI: Hi, Marc. Thanks so much for having me. Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: I tried to outline there in the opening the real complexity here. I’ve seen people in the press here in the United States, one of the great figures to the left Angela Davis refuses to condemn what’s happening in Iran so as not to fall prey to what’s happening with the United States; and others have done the same. But it’s not so simple.

ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI: No, I completely agree. I think the problem is that more often than not, it’s sort of an either or. So we either have to condemn the sanctions we oppose what we see as American Imperial aggression. Obviously, I think there needs to be, of course, an acknowledgement of Trump’s withdrawal of the nuclear deal, the United States treasury’s targeting of all forms of foreign investment, any kind of money coming to Iran, Iran’s oil revenues, gas revenues, foreign exchange reserves, even humanitarian aid. I think this needs to obviously be front and center and be acknowledged. But saying that, we can obviously acknowledge that the Trump administration’s objective is to immiserate the poorest and most vulnerable of Iranian society. I think we can say this very, very clearly. It’s actually the avowed aim and objective of this administration.

But at the same time, there’s no way we can in any way excuse the Iranian state’s response to this, which has been violent. It’s been actually shooting live ammunition on again, the poorest and most vulnerable of Iranian society. There is no getting around this. There is no justifying this. I don’t see why we can’t do both. Surely, if we’re obviously objecting to the collective punishment, which has been obviously enacted against Iran. I think Americans do have a primary responsibility to obviously criticize and push back against this. They can at the same time stand in solidarity with the poorest, the most deprived. Really, the great irony of all this is that the Iranian revolution of 1979 held itself up as a revolution of the oppressed.

It was meant to obviously really overturn what was seen as this one-man dictatorship that was with the backing of the United States, again; a sort of a monarchical regime which had been installed by the CIA in an MI6 coup d’etat in Iran. This revolution was meant to stand up to and against this. It was meant to obviously reinstate justice, social issues around social justice, democracy, and all these sorts of things; or freedom more broadly. We’ve reached a point, unfortunately, where it’s actually shooting on the poor and the disenfranchised. This is obviously a very, very sad state of affairs. It is very difficult to often thread the needle because obviously we cannot be blind to the war machine in the United States. At the same time, we can’t justify or excuse or try and actually just rationalize the behavior of the Iranian state.

MARC STEINER: So, let me try this in three parts. One of the things that you mentioned, the 1979 revolution–and there are a lot of people that I’ve interviewed and known over the years who took part in that revolution in 1979 that overthrew the Shah. But then, many of those people that I interviewed, some were jailed by the new regime, and many fled to Britain and France, the United States, and other countries because they were on the left and they were activists, and so they had to leave Iran. There’s that aspect of it. I’m curious. First, what is the debate going on among the left, especially inside the Iranian exile community? I mean, what are people wrestling with, with this issue?

ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI: I mean, the Iranian left of course is itself as sectarian and fractured can be potentially be–

MARC STEINER: As any left in the world can be.

ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI: As any left. Iran as well. But they sometimes though hate each other as much as they hate the regime. So you have to obviously distinguish between those who are obviously in exile… And yeah, I mean like any revolution, there is this period of extreme violence often. And there is often a process whereby a certain group or faction takes power. You can see this obviously in the French revolution, you can see this in the Chinese revolution, you can see this in the Russian revolution. I mean, the Iranian revolution isn’t exceptional. Obviously, it’s often quite disconcerting for people simply because it’s a very unusual situation where we see Islamists take power through a popular revolution. Obviously the Iranian revolution very much was a world revolution, had repercussions within the broader region which we’re still feeling in many ways through to the present, as well as the world more generally.

Of course I think the exile community is one thing, but I also think we need to return to the question of what are Iranians within Iran… what are the debates being held there? There’s obviously an Iranian left, which in many ways is closer to the ground and very critical. So for instance, we do see students inside Iran who are very, very vocal. Many of them are or see themselves as being on the left. They are extremely critical of what they see as the execution of new liberal policies or policies of privatization in the domains of education, healthcare and other things. These are absolutely, very, very legitimate. At the same time they do oppose… And again, I don’t want to be speaking on anyone’s behalf. That’s not my position.

MARC STEINER: No, no. I understand, but in a broad sense everything you’re saying is broad feelings.

ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI: It’s my own observations, and just following things through Persian social media, and people who are on the ground, and students who are participating in these things, and other voices of intellectuals; yeah, I think there’s a huge amount of criticism with the Iranian state of Rouhani, of his undemocratic kind of militancy. He’s in many ways really shown that he has no reformist credentials. I mean, I did actually write an article back in 2013 when he was elected, and I said people need to be very realistic in their appraisal of him because this is a man who came through the security establishment. He didn’t have any reformist bonafides at all. If anything, actually he was quite well known for pushing out those who were seated on the Islamic left. He then later became quite a staunch reformist, and actually were calling for democratic reform.

He was really elected for two reasons. One was to basically undertake or spearhead the diplomatic charge with the West, and achieve the nuclear deal, which he did, and he’s an experienced diplomat. He was the head of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, and obviously that was really his expertise and he managed to achieve that. The problem was that he did not foresee that Donald Trump would succeed Barack Obama. Another thing that he was obviously elected on what would seem to be one of his strong suits, was that he’s going to actually sort out the Iranian economy. He’s basically part of a faction which is often referred to as sort of the executives of the reconstruction; those who basically came to this realization as far as they were concerned that yeah, Iran does need to integrate with the global economy. It needs to reform. It needs to reform its economy, its domestic economy at home. It needs to undertake privatization and create a better climate for private investment; and undertake privatization.

We’ve obviously seen this ongoing in recent years, where formerly state-owned companies have found themselves privatized and actually given to some private investors. But what this program has more often than not done: One, they’ve actually put labor under immense pressure. They’ve also engaged in massive corruption. They’ve stripped these companies. They’ve sold off their assets and they’ve really just left nothing but just nothing. This is why we’ve actually seen over the last couple of years huge amounts of protests, whether it’s in Haft Tappeh where there’s actually the famous sugar cane factory, or all of the sort of the automobile industry, or various others, amongst teachers, and what not. We have seen actually, a lot of protests, very different occupational kinds. The recent protests are something else though. They’re of a different order and a different nature.

MARC STEINER: If you juxtapose that, what’s happening internally–the contradictions Iran faces just internally as a theocratic regime–the other side is this. If you have Brian Hook, who now oversees US policy in Iran, was quoted in this article, in the Atlantic as saying that we should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Pressing those regimes on human rights was one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically. He said that also in the context of Iran. I mean clearly, the United States government is using the demonstrations in Iran against Iran, and for the US interests in opposing, and trying to create regime change. So that’s where the difficulty comes in.

ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI: It’s a very, very cynical process. To be honest, we’ve seen this time and again; whether it’s human rights, whether it’s women’s rights, with all sorts of things. These are instrumentalized. These have an inherent value and we should obviously take these very seriously. But the reality is that these have been instrumentalized by the Trump government, which is actually as far as I’m concerned, actually are violating the human rights of 80 million Iranians. And it actually has the gall then to turn around and say that they actually care. They don’t certainly, actually. They’re really just instrumentalizing all of this to further isolate Iran, to further actually turn the screws.

And they really don’t care about the Iranian people as far as I’m concerned. Their policy demonstrates it. Because if an administration is literally targeting humanitarian aid, drugs… And I have actually got, personally, relatives who are struggling to find medicines that they actually need. I mean how can anyone talk about respect for human rights while the actual reality of American policy flies in the face of this.

MARC STEINER: He said, this is, I mean this is where the complexity is, as I said a moment ago. I mean, this is, on the one hand supporting the working and working people if Iran in their struggle for a decent society but not falling into the hands of Western capitalists in the United States and Trump to destroy the Iranian nation. I mean, so it’s a really difficult situation.

ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI: No, it is. It is. And, it is relatively bleak at the moment. At least traditionally–or at least in the last 20 or 30 years; at least since 1997–middle-class Iranians, and actually Iranians across the board, would try and use the limited electoral system within Iran to try and actually basically elect candidates who were somewhat closer to their demands or who they thought would actually be the lesser evil. We saw it to some extent with the election of Rouhani in the last election when he was up against Ebrahim Raisi, who is a very, very hard line conservative, and a figure who’s actually now the head of the judiciary; a notorious sort of record of human rights violations and whatnot. One of the main reasons, I think, for the middle-class to vote in the last election for Rouhani’s return to the presidency was exactly to forestall Raisi’s election.

But then again, I mean the problem is that centrists in Iran, and even reformists to some extent who have been largely marginalized and repressed since 2009, they really have been banking on their electoral strategy to mobilize people to participate in the system. It’s been, “Okay, if you don’t elect us, you’ll get this; you’ll get much worse.” But it’s not a positive program. It’s not actually like a roadmap to basically create or generate the conditions under which a deeper, peaceful transformation to a more democratic regime might occur. The problem obviously, is because the reality is, and honestly even for the reformists of great integrity, they basically are very wary that there is a genuine threat by the United States. And they are worried that any opening will be used to destabilize and basically generate the conditions that we saw basically in whether it’s in Syria or whether it’s in Libya.

So these actually are genuine conversations that people in Iran are having, saying, “Okay, many do want, obviously, a more democratic system, but not at the cost of the country being torn apart.”  And this is a dilemma, and there’s no easy answer to this problem. But it is a debate which is being had, and it’s a very serious one.

MARC STEINER: It is difficult. In the end you have to figure out how you support the working people of Iran, without supporting the effort to destroy Iran by Trump and the West.


MARC STEINER: So, there we have it. I’m glad we straightened that out.


MARC STEINER: No, seriously. Thank you for the analysis. I appreciate it. Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi joins us from London. Thank you so much. Looking forward to talk to you again as we follow this story and more.


MARC STEINER: Take care. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Love to see your questions and comments. Take care.

Studio: Bababtunde Ogunfolaju, Cameron Granadino
Production: Genevieve Montinar, Cameron Granadino, Andrew Corkery

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Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a lecturer and assistant professor in comparative political theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London. His new book is called “Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran."