[This article is based on a talk given at the United National Anti-War Coalition (UNAC)Conference on 24 March 2012 in Stamford, Connecticut. It was part of a workshop called,“Solidarity Not Intervention,” organized by Raha Iranian Feminist Collective. Just before thisworkshop, the conference overwhelmingly voted down a resolution put forward by Raha andHavaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions, and State Repression that read: “We opposewar and sanctions against the Iranian people and stand in solidarity with their struggle againststate repression and all forms of outside intervention.”]The popular struggles against dictatorship known as the Arab Spring have transformed the notionof self-determination for people in the Middle East from an abstract ideal into a concrete reality.This ideal has long inspired anti-war activists in the US who have worked to expose US claimsof spreading democracy, liberating women, or relieving humanitarian crises through militaryintervention. When organizing against justifications for war in Afghanistan and Iraq thatcentered on the oppressive policies of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s rule, we have argued: thepeople can liberate themselves and will be more able to do so when sanctions and bombs don’tthreaten their very existence. Of course, it was hard to sway many people who ended upsupporting these invasions as a painful but necessary form of “liberation,” as some kind of lesserevil to local forms of oppression.Most recently, in the case of Libya, we saw some sections of the anti-war movement embrace theidea that Western bombs could be used to support self-determination—at best an oxymoron andat worst a plan for more civilian deaths and the reassertion of US control over the direction ofpopular rebellions. In Syria, this debate continues to rage, with the US already providing formsof support for some opposition groups. In this context, an anti-war movement that wants tooppose all forms of foreign military intervention—including wars in the name of democracy andhuman rights—must have something to say about the state repression that greets any genuinestruggle for self-determination if our support for this ideal is to have any concrete meaning.The increased sanctions and growing threats of military intervention against Iran—all thoseoptions President Obama keeps reminding us are “on the table”—demand that we rise to theoccasion and urgently rebuild an anti-war movement that can resonate with millions of people inthe US, in Iran, in the Arab countries, and around the world. This article offers perspectives fornot just opposing war but also standing in solidarity with a new wave of popular struggle.The Green Movement and the Arab SpringTo many ordinary Iranians, the link between the Green Movement and the Arab Spring wasimmediate and obvious. “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyed Ali,” was the chant thatechoed in the streets of Tehran on 14 February 2011, when Iranians risked their lives todemonstrate in solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. “Sayyed Ali” is a reference tothe Supreme Leader of Iran, and they were calling, not for new elections as in 2009, but foraltering the very foundations of the government. That same government paid lip service tosupporting uprisings against US-allied states, but sent riot police and militias out to prevent itsown citizens from taking that support to its logical conclusion. Unable to gather in centralsquares as they did in the summer of 2009, protesters took to the streets in neighborhoods aroundthe city. The neighborhoods that saw the most activity that day were in the poor and working
class sections of southern Tehran. This should be no surprise: ordinary Iranians have beensuffering from neoliberal austerity measures, high unemployment, inflation, governmentcorruption, censorship, and the brutality of security forces—a list that could just as easilydescribe the conditions that led to revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.We need to write the story of the Green uprising back into the story of the Arab Spring in orderto understand the internal dynamics of Iranian society and to see clearly where the lines ofsolidarity must be drawn. Most media coverage hasn’t made this link; instead, reporting hastended to reflect the nationalist divisions in the region and to assume there is a hermeticallysealed entity called the “Arab World.” Any mention of Iran during the Tunisian and Egyptianrevolutions was made only in regard to the Iranian state and debates over its relative influence inthe region; Iranian people have been rendered invisible.But the reality is that when millions of Iranians took to the streets in 2009, the election resultswere just the latest outrage; they provided an opportunity for people to demonstrate theirfrustration with the overall conditions of their lives. At this time, there was already a studentmovement, a women’s movement, a labor movement—all struggling to survive. The popularuprising of that summer was not controlled by any politician; it was not funded or controlled byUS agencies or any other outside power (accusations that Mubarak made as well, and that theEgyptian military continues to make). Imperialist countries always have their spies and covertoperations, but it would be a travesty to the Iranian people, or the Egyptian people for thatmatter, to credit foreign governments with having that much power and to so grossly distort whatactually happened—and the lasting impact on Iranian society.The Green uprising was a collective decision to resist, a decision to face down fear of police andprisons and torture and death, a willingness to risk everything for the chance to transform anintolerable present into hope for a very different future. It drew in people from the working andmiddle classes, in cities across the country, and it shook the government to its core. In response,the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown of arrests, lengthy prison sentences, gang rapes andother forms of torture, expulsions of students and faculty from universities, curriculum purges,and executions. Many activists have been forced underground or into exile.In short, the crisis within Iranian society led millions of people to want to do, to try to do, whatTunisians and Egyptians have since done; the difference in Iran is that the movement wascrushed. It is our hope that this is temporary, and that the Iranian people have the chance to tryagain.Unfinished BusinessThe Green Movement and the Arab Spring derive from the same crisis: the nation states thatcame to power after the decolonization movements of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s maintained class,gender, and other hierarchies and enriched a ruling clique at the expense of the majority ofpeople. The hopes and promises of decolonization have largely been deferred, as people havehad to face the double burden of national dictatorships and the relentless interference of the US(among other imperial nations). The Green uprising and the Arab Spring are post-colonial revoltsand we have think through how to relate to them. We have to ask: what are the continuities with
the past and what are the new conditions we face? The continuities are easier to see: we have theongoing aspirations and violence of US imperialism and we have growing inequality driven bycapitalist competition and crisis. What is new is the form resistance has taken: in Iran, Tunisia,Egypt, and elsewhere, the popular revolts that emerged have largely targeted nationalgovernments, not imperialism. They have not been led by traditional political parties and haveopened up space for mass participatory democracy and new forms of organizing. Neocolonialismand neoliberalism have created new splits within different sections of local ruling classes (see,for example, Paul Amars analysis of the Egyptian military’s business interests), and made itpossible for the grievances of poor, working, and middle class people to coalesce in massmovements against authoritarianism.Formal, national sovereignty failed to meet people’s needs and the long-deferred demands fordemocracy, dignity, and equality are back on the agenda. We also have new possibilities forsolidarity, as we have never before had so much potential for interconnection and identificationamong and between our different struggles. Who would have thought union activists in Madison,Wisconsin or anarchists in New York City would cite Tunisian and Egyptian people as theirinspiration for a renewed resistance to oppression and inequality in the US? Since September2011, Occupy Wall Street has carried the message of a conflict between a global one percent anda global ninety-nine percent into the mainstream, evoking Tahrir Square again and again tolegitimize its own tactics of taking public space.What Kind of Anti-War Movement?In many ways, it was easy to support the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, whether you were along-time leftist or someone watching the news who found the power and dignity of theprotestors deeply compelling. Because these revolts were massive, non-violent, and againstcorrupt US-backed dictators, solidarity was instinctive and immediate among those who considerthemselves part of the anti-war left in the US. The question of whether or not to take a positionon an internal struggle within a country not our own was not an issue anyone raised.However, this does become an issue, it seems, when the dictatorship people are resisting is not aUS ally. Many of the activists who work together in UNAC have made precisely this argumentwhen it comes to the case of Iran, that we should simply say “US hands off Iran” and leave it atthat. But it is precisely in these cases, where things don’t line up so neatly, that one must putformulaic responses aside and apply some fresh thinking.Given that US imperialism is often packaged as an intervention on the side of the oppressed, Ivery much understand the recourse to a position that we should simply stay out of other people’sbusiness and focus on the actions of our own government. People will liberate themselves,period. Of course, even non-military forms of western "aid" can work to undermine self-determination. The complicity of many NGOs, of the Peace Corps, and of other organizationsoriginating in US Cold War foreign policy has been well documented. Supporting these “soft”forms of interventionism, however, is entirely different from offering solidarity to an indigenous,grassroots movement. Solidarity has long been a slogan among labor and the left. The case ofIran tests our ability to make this word meaningful.
I want to challenge, from within the anti-imperialist left, the idea that we, activists based in theUS, shouldn’t take a position on internal affairs of Iran.If we don’t support Iranians struggling in Iran for the same things we fight for here, such as laborrights, abolition of the death penalty, and freedom for political prisoners, we risk a politicallydebilitating form of cultural relativism. At best, we are hypocrites; at worst, we show an inabilityto imagine Iranians as anything other than passive victims of western powers. Ironically, thisechoes racist and Orientalist stereotypes of the kind that most anti-war activists would hasten todecry. And yet, by what name do we call this refusal to recognize the full humanity of Iranianpeople and their heroic struggle against state repression? How do we say we are againstimposing the privations of sanctions, against subjecting the Iranian people to the violence ofUS/Israeli bombs, but are willing to take no position when those same people are subjected toviolence by the Iranian government? This would make us an anti-war movement disconnectedfrom social justice and life on the ground for ordinary Iranians; it would mean we have lost ourmoral compass.At a time when America’s overseas empire is threatened by popular uprisings in West Asia andNorth Africa and is trying to figure out how to regain control over the region, we can no longerformulate our position solely in national terms, solely in relation to the US state; this is a cop outand it is not an adequate response to the actual demands of global solidarity.The phrase “solidarity” is empty if we are not permitted to imagine or care about the lives ofpeople different from ourselves, if their lives and struggles and aspirations can never become asreal as our own. This is not about mapping our political programs or cultural biases on to anyoneelse; it is about recognizing that you may be different from me—I may be in the belly of thebeast and you may be in a country targeted by the US—but our liberation is inextricably linked.As you go, I go, and even if I don’t know you and can’t pretend to fully represent you, I am asresponsible to you as you are to me as we are to that very notion of basic human dignity thatgovernments everywhere trample upon daily. It means that the outrage I feel when an Egyptianwoman is stripped and beaten in Tahrir Square is part of the outrage I feel when an Americanwoman is beaten into a seizure by the NYPD in Zuccotti Park. And this is part of the outrage Ifeel when Iranian women’s rights activist Bahareh Hedayat is sentenced to nine and a half yearsin prison. Solidarity means acknowledging that, even though we are all different, none of us canabsolve ourselves of the responsibility to fight for a world where no one is imprisoned forresisting inequality and oppression.Strategic ImperativesIf we agree with this perspective in principle, we then have to think strategically about the bestway to build a large and effective anti-war movement. Some people think the way to do this is tohave points of unity that cater to the lowest common denominator. This is sometimes called theunited front approach. But when it comes to Iran, we have an example of how any strategy, whenundertaken without thinking through the actual politics involved, can produce the opposite of itsintended results. By voting against standing in solidarity with the Iranian people’s struggleagainst foreign intervention and state repression, UNAC has prioritized unity with supporters ofthe Iranian government (such as the American Iranian Friendship Committee and the Workers
World Party) over the potential to build a broad anti-war movement. Refusing to say anythingabout repression in Iran cuts the anti-war movement off from the majority of Iranians (in Iranand in the diaspora) as well as the majority of people in the US who will need an answer to theirconcerns about human rights violations in Iran that is more compelling than the one coming frompro-interventionist circles. UNAC’s application of the united front keeps the movement small byceding the moral high ground of human rights to the same forces that used this human rightsrationale as an excuse for occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, unity withsupporters of the Iranian government means that every anti-war rally is turned into pro-government propaganda broadcast on Iranian state television—a slap in the face to millions ofIranians whose resistance and suffering both become invisible once again.In 2009, when many Iranians and others in the US came out in solidarity with the Greenuprising, we in Raha saw our role as doing all we could to channel that solidarity away fromsupport for any outside intervention on behalf of human rights, freedom, or democracy. Weargued for the need to free all political prisoners, from Guantanamo to the Iranian prison Evin; toend the death penalty in the US and in Iran and everywhere; in other words, to build solidaritybetween our movements here and the movements there. Our role was to always point out that thebest way to support women’s rights in Iran, for example, is to build a thriving movement forwomen’s rights here that will then be in a position to do joint, grassroots solidarity, rather thanlooking to the UN or NGOs or any government. That summer, the US had engineered a coup inHonduras, so we went on the green solidarity marches in New York City with signs that said “Noto militarism from US to Iran to Honduras” and a banner that read “Liberation Comes fromBelow.”We believe there should be some relationship between an anti-war position and social justice.For example, Ron Paul is against war on Iran, but we probably wouldn’t consider him welcomein UNAC. We cannot say we don’t want people to be starved or bombed, but if they areimprisoned and tortured we have no comment.We need to connect with the concern and outrage that millions of people, from all backgrounds,feel about the repression in Iran and channel it away from intervention into solidarity. In order todevelop a political perspective adequate to the challenges we face, we must draw from ourtheoretical traditions and adapt them to the present.Nothing Less Than LiberationFor ordinary people throughout the Middle East, there have long been two sources of oppression.Throughout modern Iranian history—from the Constitutional Revolution beginning in 1905, tothe movement for nationalization of oil in the early 1950s, to the Iranian revolution in 1978-79—Iranians have had to fight against both colonialism, or “estemaar,” and despotism, or“estebdaad.” Often imperialism and despotism work hand in hand, as in Egypt under Mubarakand in Iran under the Shah; but sometimes these interests conflict over who will primarily benefitfrom the exploitation of the people and resources of the nation and region.As a feminist collective, Raha stands in another long tradition of women of color feminists, inthe US and around the world, who have faced multiple sources of oppression that are not the
same but that are both intolerable. Women have had to resist male domination coming fromimperialist and state policies that affect our most intimate relationships. For example, justbecause we don’t think the solution to patriarchal violence against women in the US can befound in the prison-industrial complex doesn’t mean we should silently submit to it either.Feminists have had to think dynamically about the connections between different forms ofoppression, and have refused to accept that they must settle for any of them.The unfinished struggle for national liberation that began with movements for decolonization andthat continues today is also the unfinished struggle for women’s liberation. Women played acentral role in overthrowing the Shah but were then told that their equality was secondary to thefight against imperialism. Over and over again, women have been told to wait. But we have seenthat when national sovereignty is consolidated at the expense of women, we are no longer talkingabout a project of self-determination, but instead, of transferring power to a new patriarchalruling class. Anti-imperialism has since become the cynical rhetoric of the Iranian state; thus,this rhetoric alienates the majority of the people who suffer under its rule.If anti-imperialism is going to become meaningful again to people in the region AND to peoplein the US—and indeed it must if there is any hope for genuine democracy—than it cannot besevered from the larger struggle for human liberation.A feminist anti-imperialist perspective maintains that it is not only possible, but imperative, tosimultaneously stand against all forms of outside intervention in Iran and against all forms ofdomestic oppression targeting ordinary Iranian people. We are committed to building thebroadest movement possible to stop the US government, the European Union, and any otherforeign power from further destabilizing and threatening the lives of our brothers and sisters inIran. But this must be an ethical movement that makes no apologies for the torture andimprisonment of dissidents and that expresses solidarity with popular resistance in Iran. Here andeverywhere, we must oppose militarism, prisons, censorship, torture, and the death penalty. InRaha, we believe that genuine liberation comes from below—from the self-activity of masses ofordinary people—and that this is the broadest, most compelling starting point for organizing aneffective opposition to empire.