On the 21 May 2018, an informal group of UK-based Iranian academics initiated and published an open letter to the European Union’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini. The letter was motivated by a desire to respond to US President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, known in official circles as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The letter’s message was simple: the European Union must do everything within its power to ensure the Iran nuclear deal survives, support peace and dialogue, and work to see that the Iranian people enjoy the material benefits of the 2015 accord. The caliber of support for this intervention showed all of us involved that international solidarity was alive and well. Furthermore, many share our fears over the increased likelihood of either indirect or direct war between the United States (and its allies) and Iran as an immediate corollary of the JCPOA’s demise. During the process of collecting signatories, of which I was a part, we managed to forge a broad coalition spanning a diverse range of professions and political orientations. The list included globally recognized intellectuals such as Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Nancy Fraser, David Harvey, Joan Wallach Scott, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, and Slavoj Žižek. The list also featured eminent scholars of the Middle East such as Ervand Abrahamian, Talal Asad, Juan Cole, and Hamid Dabashi, scientists and artists such as Shirin Neshat and Taraneh Alidoosti, the female lead of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning The Salesman.
The letter, however, also provoked a visceral and often vitriolic backlash. Within the space of fifteen minutes of publication, a deluge of cyber-attacks targeted the website hosting the letter. Its database was hacked and deleted twice. Ultimately, we had to move the website to a more secure server. But apart from this challenge, the letter received a raft of often shrill denunciations, occasionally from quite unexpected quarters. One signatory, a prominent Iranian academic, even confided to me that he had never been the subject of so much scorn and derision for signing a letter of this sort in the course of his long and distinguished career.
The letter in support of the Iran nuclear deal was never about uncritically justifying the policies of the Iranian political system, either at home or abroad. Nor was it ever intended to deny its history of repressing civil liberties and unwanted political challenges. The letter was never concerned with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s supposed penchant for neoliberalism, corruption, and economic mismanagement, sanguinity vis-à-vis the altruism of the European Union, the many shortcomings of the reformist political class, or the inequity of the nuclear proliferation regime. Rather, the letter was initiated to help counter the threats posed by economic sanctions and war, and defend the Iranian people’s struggle for self-determination, as well as advocate for conditions under which they might continue to both deepen and extend the democratic processes and movements within their own country.
In this article I would like to, in a strictly personal strictly personal capacity, adumbrate and analyze the various partisans opposing the letter, and by implication, opposing the survival of the Iran nuclear deal. For all intents and purposes, we can group most of these partisans into four broad camps: (1) Trump, the neoconservatives and their Iranian supporters; (2) the straggling vestiges of the Pahlavi dynasty and their assorted devotees; (3) the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and its formidable lobbying machine and foreign backers; and (4) specific elements on the Iranian left propounding a crude variety of “third way” politics. The narrative of regime change in the age of Trump is increasingly prevalent, even suspiciously so. It is therefore essential to furnish not only an analytical response, but a political one which highlights the bankruptcy of many of the “alternatives” currently on offer.
Trump and the Neoconservatives
Trump’s stance on the JCPOA has been clear since the early stages of his campaign. He decried it on many an occasion as the “worst deal I think I have ever seen negotiated” and vowed to dispense with it at the first opportunity. Whether this was because it was former US President Barack Obama’s signal foreign policy achievement or due to the influence of major donors such as Sheldon Adelson, the often-erratic Trump has at least been consistent in terms of his unabated enmity toward Iran. Despite his then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, incumbent Secretary of Defence James “Mad Dog” Mattis, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all certifying Iran’s compliance with the agreement, Trump proceeded to pull the United States out of the diplomatic accord. Soon after, Tillerson’s replacement, Mike Pompeo, threatened the “harshest sanctions in history.”
Apart from Trump’s antipathy toward the JCPOA, he has surrounded himself with individuals who have not only announced their opposition toward the deal, but have assiduously and unflappably advocated for direct military confrontation and regime change in Iran. It is worth recalling that the neoconservative mantra in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was “the road to Tehran lies through Baghdad.” The two most notable personalities in this lineup are Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Pompeo declared in late 2014, “it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” Bolton has been a near-permanent fixture on Fox News and has written countless op-eds, including in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, where he has called for a full-blown military assault against Iran. Bolton, of course, had been US ambassador at the United Nations during the Bush adminisration and is notorious for his dogged championing of the illegal US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. His reaction to the carnage his administration had unleashed is telling: “what we should have done is said to the Iraqis: ‘You’re on your own. Here’s a copy of the Federalist papers. Good luck.’”
Political elites inside the beltway have been advocating these policies of confrontation and regime change for a long time. They are not new or specific to the Trump administration. Certainly, cleavages persist within the US ruling class on how Iran policy should be envisioned and prosecuted. But it is important to be aware that when the occupant of the White House changes, a material and institutional configuration of thinks tanks, lobbyists, and special interests remains in place. In the case of Iran, they implacably advocate aggressive, crippling sanctions and regime change, while continuously producing disinformation in order to sow confusion and muddy the waters. Anyone who disagrees with this principle is berated, cowed, and accused of “appeasement.” In the case of Iran, perhaps the best personification of the enforcer is Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). The organization has in the past received ample funding from Sheldon Adelson, who famously called on the US government to deploy a nuclear bomb against Iran. The FDD has also recently had its cosy relationship with officials from the United Arab Emirates laundered in public. Dubowitz, both during the process of the JCPOA’s negotiation and ever since its conclusion, has squarely focusedon its destruction. He has proven himself to be a formidable and unrelenting adversary, but hardly capable of single-handedly pulling off such a feat. It took the unexpected election of a far more responsive president for his ambition to be realized.
Iranians in the employ of the FDD were quick to attack the letter to Mogherini. They issued their response in Persian, casting the original letter as a treasonous act of betrayal. This was all the while Dubowtiz and his cohort celebrated significant capital flight from Iran and the Iranian rial’s plummeting value. The obscenity of it all is only compounded by those instances in which these diehard devotees of Ronald Reagan evoke the struggles of working-class Iranians and striking workers protesting poor working conditions, deteriorating living standards, and wage arrears. These interjections are part of a wider and constant US-based lobbying operation to increase economic pressure, tighten the screws, and foment economic chaos in the hope that it will lead to the present political order’s collapse. The FDD is arguably the most pro-active on Iran in this configuration, but similar calls can be heard from the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Washington Institute for Near East Policy, among others. The pursuit of this strategy is indiscernible from calls for direct military intervention, if and when, deemed necessary. According to those who champion such policies, military intervention could be instigated on the pretext of a hypothetical Iranian “race to the bomb,” something Benjamin Netanyahu has near-obsessively floated, or just an opportune moment, once the Iranian state is regarded to be at its most vulnerable. In any event, such ideologues and lobbyists are very clear in their aspirations for regime change.
Monarchists and the Mojahedin-e Khalq
Among those who consider themselves members of the Iranian “opposition” are the monarchists and People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. The former is a far looser network inspired by and active under the aegis of Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed shah and the erstwhile crown prince. Much like the late shah before him, he is reputed to have received direct US government support. The monarchists, at least those most proximate to Reza Pahlavi, call for regime change not through overt violence, but through “peaceful” means and civil disobedience with support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Though it should be noted that he has openly called for armed struggle as a “final option” against the present Iranian system in the past. Realizing there was little enthusiasm or realistic prospect of such an eventuality coming to pass, he adopted the mantra of civil disobedience, while repeatedly calling on the United States and its European allies to enforce punitive measures against Iran. All this while he has waxed lyrical year after year to Western journalists and political leaders about the Islamic Republic’s “imminent demise” for the last three decades.
In 2009 Pahlavi told The Telegraph, “What the outside world needs to understand is the more the feet of the regime are put to the fire, the weaker it becomes. The threat from their own people is the only leverage that will matter, on the nuclear issue especially, much more so than endless rounds of failing diplomacy.” In the same interview, he defended multilateral sanctions against Iran and even dangled the country’s hydrocarbon resources as a possible inducement to action: “What about trying to end this stranglehold that Russia has on oil and gas supplies to Europe? You're still dilly-dallying. Soon it will be too late.” But Pahlavi nevertheless insists “I want to do something for that piece of real estate I call home.” Still, the more radical among the spectrum of monarchists unapologetically call for full-scale military intervention against Iran.
When Trump announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Pahlavi wholeheartedly welcomed it: “The JCPOA experiment proves again that for the Iranian people and the international community the issue is not the deal (or absence thereof) - it is the nature of the regime”. The fact of the matter is that even while calling for civil disobedience, Pahlavi believes full well that vigorous economic sanctions will stoke the flames of discontent, and that Trump’s abandonment of diplomacy and adoption of a policy of confrontation makes war ever more likely. He also surely knows that both have repercussions for ordinary Iranians. Pahlavi often tries to shield himself from criticism by claiming he supports “smart sanctions.” But of course, he was deafly silent against one of the most crippling sanctions regimes of modern times, which was implemented against Iran under the Obama administration between 2012 and 2015.
But a palpable fixation with reclaiming the peacock throne he still believes to be his legal right trumps any negative consequences that might befall the Iranian people. This comes through in his repeated interviews with the far right’s Breitbart News, which continues to dutifully refer to Pahlavi as the “crown prince” and in his open letter to Trump shortly after his election. In that letter, Pahlavi would proclaim that the Middle East and “free world face an existential threat from radical Islam, which is a direct by-product of “Khomeinism” and its revolution in Iran in 1979...This regressive ideology has spread like a cancer across the globe”. Here, Pahlavi can be seen trying his utmost to ingratiate himself to the incoming Trump administration by transparently appealing to its virulent Islamophobia and depict the Islamic Republic as an “existential threat”.
Pahlavi’s view of how regime change might be brought about is reminiscent of Kanan Makiya’s much-maligned assertion that “People will greet the [US] troops with sweets and flowers.” As the former broadly framed it: “Intensifying ‘the struggle’ until Iran’s government implodes; initiating a transition process; holding popular elections for a constitutional assembly; enshrining secularism and democracy; free and fair voting for a first parliament and government.” As the Iraqi experience shows, this is a rose-tinted, Panglossian, and dangerously naive view, assuming Pahlavi even believes such hollow rhetoric himself. In another recent interview in the aftermath of the 2018 protests that rocked some seventy cities inside Iran, Pahlavi called for a unified opposition, where he envisioned himself playing the role of figurehead. It appears that both the deposed heir and those close to him sense that the next few years could well be the best opportunity they will ever have to receive open and full-throated support from a US administration and perhaps even an endorsement akin to the Iraq Liberation Act under US President Bill Clinton in 1998, and which arguably set the United States on the inevitable path to war.
As for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) or Mojahedin-e Khalq, a dubious group increasingly known to the American public through coverage in the US mainstream press. Its origins lying in the mid-1960s, the group became a fervent advocate of armed struggle against the Shah’s regime, assassinating several US citizens in the process. But following the 1979 revolution, it essentially lost the struggle for power with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers. The PMOI subsequently set up bases in Iraq and extensively collaborated with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and until his overthrow. Its quixotic assimilation of Islamic identity, often brutal and authoritarian treatment of its members, and a Stalinist cult of personality have been hallmarks of the organization since that time. In more recent years they have sought to rebrand themselves as the “democratic” opposition, despite being overwhelmingly reviled by Iranians across the board. They have engaged in the extensive lobbying of US politicians, some of whom have spoken at their events. These include Newt Gingrich, Elaine Chao, Rudy Giuliani, and Bolton. The latter is believed to have been paid by the shadowy organization upward of $180,000 for his speeches. At a speech delivered in Paris, Bolton not only referred to the PMOI as a “viable alternative”, but even vowed to his enraptured audience that they would be celebrating the Islamic Republic’s overthrow in Tehran by 2019. In 2012, after much lobbying on their behalf, the US government removed the group from the list Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Perhaps of even greater importance is the enormous base of operations the PMOI has established in Albania following their internationally brokered exit from Iraq in 2016. Former members have testified that the organization receives extensive financial support from Saudi Arabia. Some claim considerable ties and cooperation with the Israeli state. When Israeli foreign intelligence (Mossad) assasinated Iranian civilian scientists, it is believed to have received significant help from the PMOI. In short, an organization which had a long history of violence and terrorism, including the assassination of countless Iranian state officials is regarded by one of President Trump’s chief advisors as the best hope for Iran’s future.
Needless to say, anybody who dares to question this logic of advocating US economic and military warfare against Iran is painted in Manichean tones. They are excommunicated and reviled by this complex and conflicting network of political and advocacy groups for regime change as stooges of the Islamic Republic, in the pay of the ruling clerics, and/or lobbyists for the hierocracy. They are badgered and harassed online at every turn. This cast of characters and their committed partisans are generally only capable of ad hominem and defamatory attacks. To such an extent that even the shah’s one-time son-in-law and last ambassador to Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi, was not spared from such calumny when he authored a letter to Pompeo criticizing the threat of a military attack against Iran. The great irony, of course, is that Zahedi and his father, Fazlollah Zahedi, played a crucial role in the CIA-MI6 orchestrated 1953 coup which overthrew the popular nationalist premier Mohammad Mosaddeq, reinstalling the shah. The elder Zahedi would replace Mosaddeq as prime minister and the shah who would go on with the backing of the United States to uproot all political opposition to his rule.
The Self-Immolating Left and the Perils of the “Third Way”
Perhaps one of the more surprising sources of opposition to attempts to save the JCPOA are small clusters of socialist groups and commentators. Despite many leading Iranian progressives and left-wing intellectuals signing the open letter to Mogherini, and other leftists across the United States and elsewhere circulating it in support, certain elements within the left have been vociferous in their opposition and seething with resentment. One obvious point of divergence with the monarchists and the PMOI is that these socialist currents do not receive foreign patronage. Rather, they see themselves as striking an independent path and in fact have their own very distinct histories. Their genealogies of resentment are complex and manifold. First, there are those rather marginal communist groups, who suffered considerably and were driven into exile in the course of the first decade following the revolution. They understandably detest the Islamic Republic with a passion. Rather than partake in analysis, they are largely preoccupied with their all-consuming hatred of the current Iranian political system and see any reprieve in the struggle for its overthrow as inherently grotesque and treasonous. In this regard, their ideological position apropos the Islamic Republic is formally equivalent and homologous to that of their Iranian neoconservative counterparts. It is safe to say that such groups have a negligible following and hold on the public imagination.
The second cluster resides inside Iran and constitutes a new generation raised on a steady diet of Persian translations critical theory. The Frankfurt School, Alain Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben are their latter-day apostles. This constellation is not so much a group, as it is a lifestyle choice with its own ethos, cafes, sartorial preferences, and gurus. In certain respects, it could be understood as a etiolated iteration of Perry Anderson’s account in Considerations on Western Marxism, of the transition from the generation of the Second International where there had been a profound unity of theory and praxis, which has since given way to a generation in which that unity has been irrevocably shattered. The Iranian left’s conception of its own devastating defeat in 1979 and very real repression, at least for some, gave way to melancholia and a turn inward. There are indications that this has slowly begun to change among a younger generation of Iranians, but it is still too early to ascertain whether it will amount to anything of substance, despite actual workers’ struggles entering a new period of vibrancy.
In recent years, certain individuals and elements in this constellation have latched onto the notion that anyone who does not take the path of their postulated “third way”—namely, repudiating US empire and the Iranian system in its entirety—has effectively sided with the latter. In this analysis, support for the JCPOA’s survival falls under this label. While prima facie there is certainly something to be said for such a position, its articulation leaves much to be desired, and in fact merits serious challenge, especially when it oftentimes uncritically regurgitates US administration talking points.
This line of thought describingt he Iran nuclear deal as a “false choice” between “imperialism and authoritarianism” suffers from a series of fatal occlusions and rarely surpasses abstract generalities, slogans, and wishful thinking. It lacks any analysis of the concrete consequences of the JCPOA’s destruction and the profound geopolitical power asymmetry between U.S. empire and the Iranian state. While one can certainly concur that a great many Iranians reject imperial interventionism and desire a more democratic system, the idea that attacking the ever-fragile JCPOA is a way to realize such an outcome is a fallacy. It is reminiscent of the argument made by some in the US context before the 2016 presidential election that Trump’s election as president would exacerbate the “contradictions of the system” and lead to a potentially revolutionary outcome; a reckless species of accelerationist apocalypticism. These advocates of the “third way” are symptomatic of the complete abandonment of concrete and practical politics, amounting to little more than a moralistic narcissism and exercise in virtue-signaling. Their overriding desire is to conform to the archetype of the lone and courageous intellectual, who partakes in abundant critique of false idols, to which few serious people actually cleave, in an effort to demonstrate his or her own righteousness, purity and rectitude. But to little practical end, proffering next to nothing in terms of solutions attentive to the concrete challenges and predicaments before us. Appealing to “popular agency” as if it were an almost quasi-mystical force in human history that will inexorably yield “liberation” is far from sufficient. The gravity of the situation is deserving of a more thoughtful response.
Moreover, the United States and Iran are simply not equivalents on the geopolitical scale. At the most basic level, the known US defense budget will soon well exceed 700 billion US dollars compared to Iran’s paltry 14.1 billion US dollars (2017). The United States remains the world’s only remaining superpower. It has major naval and military bases dotting the Persian Gulf and troops stationed in several of Iran’s neighbors. The United States has launched military attacks and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and has fueled the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. The point is not to justify Iran’s counterinsurgency doctrine to prop up its long-time ally in Syria or its influence in Iraq, where it collaborated with US forces in the fight against ISIS. Rather, the point is to emphasize the obvious: they are not two equally matched states or powers by any criterion. Analysis worth its salt must incorporate this fact. Iran has been under an arms embargo since the revolution and has limited defense capabilities. The United States is also crucial to fueling a regional arms race as Mohammad bin Salman’s most recent visit to Washington and the much-publicized latest round of arms sales, vividly illustrate. In this maelstrom, the JCPOA, for all its faults, was a point of stability at an extremely precarious international conjuncture, which a sometimes-myopic focus on the Iranian system within an exclusively national frame leads them to ignore. Rather than situate Iran within a wider regional and international context, insularity and parochialism has convinced them that the Islamic Republic is exceptional and that its many deficiencies are nowhere else to be found. This is not to say that we should sacrifice national politics and struggles on the altar of geopolitics, but that critical analysis should aspire to hold both in a singular, albeit dialectical embrace.
Another point which is neglected in the “third way” analysis, at least those of the cruder variety, is that unrest in targeted states such as Iran, is framed in a profoundly different manner from the imperial core (though differences certainly exist). Any expression of dissent and discontent in Iran, of which there is undoubtedly a great deal, is cast as the imminent demise of the “regime”. One would be very surprised to find comparable levels of unrest in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Morocco, framed in the same light. Similarly, a general rule of thumb is that the American imperium behaves in a profoundly different way when a “rogue state” and official enemy is afflicted by domestic unrest, compared to when an ally faces challenges of legitimacy at home. In the case of adversarial nations, the U.S. will often consciously mobilize resources to capitalize on instability, exacerbating it in the process, while in the case of its allies, it is quick to speak of “stability” and shore up its longstanding relationships with the country’s invariably US subsidized security apparatuses. The case of Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain versus Syria and Libya being illustrative of just such a dynamic. It should come as little surprise that the United States wants those states which refuse to align with its objectives in the region to be weak, ineffective and fundamentally dysfunctional, while it desires its allies to be strong and have a firm grip on power, however, morally reprehensible their rule. Ordinary citizens of countries on either side of the divide are on the receiving end of a raw deal.
The Problem with “Regime” Talk
While one can certainly speak of Iranian state and society as two analytically distinct notions, as Timothy Mitchell argued many years ago, the lines that are drawn are often arbitrary and themselves the effect of power. When both the right, but also many on the left, speak of the “regime” versus “the people,” the distinction is not innocent. Rather one which is itself usually value-laden and ideologically loaded and, also presents various problems of its own. Apart from overlooking the ways in which there are myriad linkages between state and society and the manner in which the state itself is very often embedded within and constitutive of social relations, more importantly, it desensitizes us to the reality that the fate of the Iranian state and the Iranian people are intricately intertwined. Any war against the Iranian “regime”, will perforce have devastating repercussions for the Iranian polity as a whole, just as it very clearly has had in the cases of Iraq and Libya. The UN oil-for-food program in Iraq and the turmoil of the Arab uprisings have shown us that US empire has neither the ability, nor even the willingness to limit the depredations of economic sanctions and military adventurism and their consequences for civilians. While neoconservatives and groups like the PMOI, are completely indifferent to these material consequences, which they can facilely write off as “collateral damage”, it is hard to see how anyone of avowed progressive leanings and opposed to imperial wars can ignore this unsavory reality. When perhaps the majority in the self-styled opposition abroad and its framework for understanding political change in Iran are thoroughly overdetermined by the deus ex machinaof American economic warfare and/or military invasion (dubbed by them of course as “liberation”), it is hardly a surprise that a humble open letter to a European diplomat to preserve the nuclear deal provoked such vehement denunciations and was understood as resisting “essential” and “necessary” measures on the part of the United States to overthrow a much-loathed regime. Moreover, it neglects the fact that Iranian sovereignty is a hard-won achievement, one for which much blood has been split during the course of the twentieth century, and it will be defended once again.
For those who strive from European capitals and Washington for “regime change” very little can be said. They are committed to the myth of American exceptionalism, whether they know it or not, or at the very least are smugly satisfied with their Faustian bargain, in the hope that they might one day return triumphant to rule Tehran. But for progressives and people on the left opposed to the nuclear deal’s preservation a series of crucial questions must be posed. Does one dispute that the collapse of the nuclear deal inflames the likelihood of further devastating conflict in the Middle East? What is one’s actual position on U.S. sanctions and the political and economic consequences of the deal’s collapse for ordinary Iranians? Does one think U.S. economic and military pressure will lead to “democratisation” in Iran? If one does, the case needs to be laid out in black-and-white so people can judge for themselves. Hiding behind armchair radicalism is neither cogent, nor responsible. If one is opposed to war then why oppose diplomacy and dialogue and mischaracterize a letter advocating such? These are some of the questions which self-professed progressives and socialists enraged by the letter to Mogherini, and also the call to save the Iran nuclear deal and make it work for the majority of the Iranian people, must contend. But perhaps even more significantly, certain elements within in the left publicly advocating this crass version of the “third way” outlined above must be forcefully challenged if it is going to result in the enervation of international solidarity and the anti-war movement, and if it is going to contribute to the latter’s paralysis, self-immolation and ultimately, its inability to coherently resist the very real imperial threats facing Iran and the broader region.
Support for the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 was and continues to abide by the idea that despite its flaws the JCPOA was a historic agreement, which for a brief and transient period reduced the likelihood of yet another man-made catastrophe. In the last four decades, the Iranian people have participated in and endured a revolution, fought an eight-year war with Iraq in which they were isolated and their opponent received superpower support to devastating effect, and have more or less been continuously sanctioned to varying degrees ever since. They should not have to endure another decade of the same, or even worse, a war of unpredictable proportions. The JCPOA was limited in aspiration and there was only so much it could ever achieve. Its fragility was visible to all, but it was better than the alternatives, and a beachhead through which the Iranian people, in all their variegated diversity, could continue to advance their own self-determination.