The recent wave of protests in almost every Iranian province but two, and the brutal crackdown by the Iranian state security apparatus have once again divided opinion, analytically as well as politically, across the Western left.
Some explanations have sought to assimilate the protests into a capacious narrative revolving around the global revolt against “neoliberalism,” with a view to the Iranian government’s reduction of subsidies and ongoing marketization of education, healthcare, heavy industry, and beyond. Others have rightly refused the Iranian state’s own cynical binarization of “peaceful protestors” versus “rioters” and have instead sought to understand the incineration of hundreds of banks and other visible signs of class oppression through the lens of a Thompsonian “moral economy.” In the absence of regularized, or even tacitly agreed channels for civil and peaceful protest amongst the poorest strata beyond Tehran (and even then, it is tenuous), we might see them as venting focused and cool-headed rage against those forces deemed immediately liable for their misery. These are crucial perspectives and bring valuable analyses to bear on what gave rise to the protests and how the Rouhani government’s incompetent execution of the subsidies reform became the straw that broke the camel’s back. Social scientists and historians will surely debate the genealogy and causes of the protests for many years to come.
For our more immediate purposes, however, it is essential to understand that these protests are partially a domestic story and relate to manifold economic and political grievances that have long become inextricable. The internet blackout and Iranian state’s violent and unflinching repression of the protests leaves it condemned in the eyes of an ever-proliferating panoply of Western-funded NGOs, the assiduously curated “court of international opinion,” as well as many of its own citizens.
This interjection makes no claim to an exhaustive account of recent events, but has been conceived with an eye to supplementing nuanced commentaries and penetrating delineations of Iran’s post-revolutionary political economy, and to sharpen reflection on both the imperial context of the recent protests, as well as the inevitable debates within the western left regarding how best to orient itself vis-à-vis the latter.
- A key aspect of the current crisis—one which is regularly understated, if not effaced entirely—is the complicity of those of us residing in the Global North in the collective punishment of over eighty-one million Iranians through and by means of one of the most comprehensive and unrelenting sanctions regimes in modern history. That sanctions regime has left no Iranian unscathed, with the sole exception of those elites who in many ways benefit from it and profit from the black markets, smuggling, currency speculation, rentierism and the ever-widening net of securitization, they foster. We need not fall into the cliché-ridden and deeply flawed defense of the Iranian state as either the embodiment of “anti-imperialist resistance” (though its role as an anti-status quo power undeniably conditions Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh’s hostility toward it) or an imperfect articulation of a developmentalist state with social democratic characteristics, to acknowledge the profoundly detrimental and destructive impact of the Trump administration’s economic war on the country, the welfare of its people, and the prospects for peaceful political transformation. It is an effective economic blockade dragooning the energy sector, banking and finance (including its central bank), foreign investment and foreign exchange reserves and targeting basic foodstuffs, lifesaving medicines and much else besides. The war is near total and unremitting, and it has already taken many lives.
To be clear, it is not that everyone in the Global North can be said to benefit directly from sanctions against Iran or that everyone benefits equally. Of course, there are huge and widening disparities of status and wealth within the Global North itself for which, in distinct ways, the “wages of whiteness” and “labor aristocracy,” endeavor to compensate. The point is rather that Washington’s unparalleled financial power to impose an economic blockade of this magnitude and breadth is the by-product of an imperialist international political economy undergirded by American military might, and where the ongoing global transfer of surplus value from South to North continues apace.
- While each imperial intervention is distinct and varies according to local conditions, there are undoubtedly tried and tested strategies and models which exploit the adversarial state in question’s socio-economic and demographic vulnerabilities, as well as its own capacity for brutishness, ineptitude, and the alienation of its citizens. In the case of Iran, the Trump administration has been exceedingly clear that its objective was to immiserate the most vulnerable strata of Iranian society so that they might spill into the streets and force the state to enter negotiations with Washington from a position of weakness (if not overthrow it altogether). Brian Hook, the Trump administration US Special Representative for Iran expressed palpable glee at the protests unfurling before his eyes. Clearly, the protestors are not pawns, and they are not mindless automatons enacting imperialist machinations. They are protesting because of genuine pain and anguish and the fact that they are barely able to make ends meet. While the Iranian government shares ample blame for this situation, there is simply no getting away from the fact that the precipitous decline in the Iranian economy, where the IMF projects a startling 9.5 percent contraction for 2019/2020, as well marked increases in poverty rates, is intimately bound up with Trump administration policy. In fact, it was its publicly avowed objective.
- But the imperial strategizing does not end there. US imperialist aggression is designed to exacerbate and aggravate internal contradictions, disgruntlement and crises, not fabricate them whole-cloth. The United States welcomes the Iranian state’s predictably brutal response to the protests and its casting of the poor as rioters. Meanwhile the Iranian state (at least for the time being) relies on middle class fears of the unknown to restore “security and order.” The profoundly compromised human rights-NGO complex, often funded by the very same governments sanctioning Iran, have moved swiftly to condemn the Iranian state’s response and document violations in graphic and grueling detail. This, in turn, generates a slew of additional reasons to stigmatize, isolate and sanction the targeted nation and underwrite its pariah status. Any kind of engagement to break the deadlock is mercilessly vilified. And it is on this point that US military and financial power makes adept use of liberal norms to lubricate the wheels of its war machine, press its advantage, and further a campaign of collective punishment and brutalization. In the Global North, we cannot lose sight of the complicity of our governments—and by extension, ourselves—in this process of immiseration and depredation. Zak Cope describes it thus, “the material benefits associated with living in an imperialist country accrue to all but the poorest and most oppressed sections of Global North society. As such, it is not simply capitalists of the North whose incomes derive in large measure from imperialism but, to varying degrees, all citizens of the developed countries.” As the direct and indirect material beneficiaries of imperialist capital accumulation on a global scale we should be the last ones to efface empire’s colonial effects. Recognition of this structural dynamic does not and should not preclude expressions of solidarity with the myriad struggles of Iranians for democratic control in tandem with recognition of their right to self-determination. But it does demand a little more reflection and self-awareness when articulating political positions and pronouncements. The examples of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates make pertinent counterfactuals: the United States would in all likelihood look unfavorably upon democratic control if Iranian elites were instead aligned with US political and economic goals, as they had been under the Shah.
- We can and must recognize that our own primary responsibility, by virtue of our situatedness in the imperial heartland, lies in challenging the role of our governments in spearheading imperial violence against Iranians and the Global South more generally. There are clear and tangible routes for challenging our national security state’s unwavering aggression and endless wars from within the Global North. Electoralism and advocacy for a better foreign policy are surely important, but unlikely to suffice, and it is hard to imagine anything less than a complete overhaul of the “permanent war state” and its repurposing for peaceful ends as resolving the issue. The historic and continuing relationship between social democracy in Europe and imperialism abroad shouldn’t be lost on any of us. Arguably, taking our own governments’ militarism as our chief point of departure delineates a somewhat clearer path to change: break the imperialist cycle of violence by transforming the states in which we actually reside and live. Indeed, one could maintain that the same clarity of purpose is lacking in condemnatory letters in English by the doyens of critical theory and Continental philosophy. While such verbalized solidarity may give succor to some, it is just as likely that they will be instrumentalized to galvanize a campaign of economic strangulation that feeds on moral outrage and spectacles of suffering giving rise to desperate calls “to do something, anything!” This is not to say people should stop writing letters or expressing solidarity in good conscience. Rather that there needs to be reflection on our own orientation with respect to empire; it is inadequate to condemn at the expense of eliding how we are implicated in turn. Location, tone, context, and audience matter and our speech acts have illocutionary and perlocutionary force on the discursive terrain of empire, whether we like it or not.
- Questions of assigning blame and condemnation are important and cannot be dispensed with. The Iranian state ultimately bears responsibility for the violence it has unleashed against its own citizens. But it should also be understood how these mechanisms of condemnation hew closely to a liberal international legal order, itself incapable of challenging the Trump administration’s imperial de-development of Iran by means of a unilateral economic war and, in the coming years, perhaps worse. The examples of Iraq and the UN Oil for Food program, the invocation of Right to Protect in the case of Libya, and the restoration of Yemen’s “internationally recognized government” forcefully demonstrate the manner in which international legalese is summoned to the ends of collective punishment and military humanism. As long as we ignore these dynamics and our own imbrication within the global political economy of empire, and the commitment to change the modus operandi of our own states, we are missing a crucial part of the story.