If translations of the mainstream, expatriate Iranian media’s coverage of the US election were to be widely distributed, Donald Trump’s angry supporters would realise that they were not so alone. In addition to the known international Trump allies such as Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro, some opponents of the Islamic Republic were also saddened by Trump’s defeat in the election. Surprisingly, in the online polls conducted by these expat media outlets, a high percentage of their Iranian audience, e.g., in one case nearly 85%, were in favour of Donald Trump. These were ordinary people and passive spectators who wished that Trump’s victory would end the life of the Islamic Republic’s tyranny. The motivations of those in these two categories, ordinary people and the opposition, were fundamentally different. The right-wing bloc of opposition likes Trump out of hope, but ordinary people’s fondness for Trump was born out of despair. In this article, we will discuss why this fundamental difference is what turns Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election into something that ultimately advances the fight against the Islamic Republic.
Hopeful opposition and unscrupulous Donald
A few nights before the announcement of Joe Biden’s final victory in the presidential election, a debate was held on Iran International TV, a privately owned, UK-based satellite and terrestrial TV channel. This debate was a clear indicator of the hope the right-wing bloc of the Iranian opposition had for the continuation of Donald Trump’s presidency. The participants in this debate included a republican supporting Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah of Iran; a monarchist who wanted to restore the constitutional monarchy, again led by Reza Pahlavi; and someone who identified himself generally as a “leftist”. These three agreed on two things: that Donald Trump’s victory would benefit the opposition as well as the Iranian people, and that most left-wing opponents of the Islamic Republic still do not have the wisdom to identify such an important issue and leverage international tensions for the “national interest”. Their faces, however, showed that they were losing the last glimmer of hope, and they spoke with regret of a great missed opportunity, which can only be interpreted as referring to a Trump-led US military intervention to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Short of a military strike, Trump did almost everything he could against the Islamic Republic. Immediately after winning the last election, he withdrew from the nuclear agreement, the Islamic Republic’s agreement with the United States and some European countries to suspend Iran’s nuclear programme. He tightened sanctions against Iran as much as possible, even circumventing international law, and put many government officials on the sanctions list. The Revolutionary Guards, one of the official military institutions of the Islamic Republic, has entered the list of “terrorist groups”. Most importantly, he ordered and directly monitored the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Quds Force Commander-in-Chief and a key actor in advancing the Islamic Republic’s regional policies. In recent years, Qasem Soleimani was the main government official after the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, who designed and implemented many state policies even without informing the elected government. The only remaining means of pressure that brought hope to the right-wing bloc of the opposition in Trump’s second term was a direct military intervention. But of course, the insignificant retaliation by Iran on two US bases in Iraq failed to inspire further escalation. The disappointment of this bloc was captured in a joke by one of the left-wing opponents of the Islamic Republic: “Leaders of Iran’s right-wing opposition, who now see themselves as president, king and ministers of the future government, woke up in the middle of the night and, in their robes and pyjamas, took themselves to urgent meetings of several exiled governments to plan for the hours after the US military strike. But they returned to their beds disappointed and heartbroken at the announcement of Trump’s speech by a White House spokesman.”
The right-wing bloc of the Iranian opposition refused to accept Trump’s defeat in the presidential election until the last moment. They followed the race in the remaining states minute-by-minute, despite Trump’s loss being clear already. They finally hoped for “legal” action by the president and his entourage to perhaps turn the tide in Trump’s favour in the final act. However, the game was over, at least for them. Of course, the end of the game does not mean an end to Iran’s international tensions with countries hostile to the Islamic Republic, nor does it mean an improvement in the economic situation of the people, which has been the main cause of riots, uprisings, protests and strikes in Iran over the past four years.
First, Iran’s return to the nuclear deal will not be easy. Iran’s position is internationally weaker than when the treaty was concluded. Qasem Soleimani, the main driver of the Iranian government’s regional policies, has been killed. Iranian-affiliated armed organisations in Iraq have been severely weakened. Tensions in Lebanon and the aftermath of the explosion in the port of Beirut have diminished Hezbollah’s popular influence in Lebanon. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has so far escaped overthrow in its civil war, also needs to reduce its international tensions and will probably not be willing to accompany the Islamic Republic to hell.
Moreover, two important trials against the Islamic Republic are currently running in Europe. One is against Assadollah Asadi, the third secretary of the Iranian embassy in Vienna, along with three infiltrated Iranian government officials accused of attempting to bomb the large annual meeting of the People Mojahedin of Iran (MEK), in which many European and American officials alongside thousands of Iranians attended. The trial took place in a Belgian court, and this is the first time an Iranian diplomatic official has been arrested and tried on such charges. The second trial is related to Hamid Nouri, a former prosecutor at Gohardasht Prison. He was accused of complicity in the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, during which at least 5,000 political prisoners, most of them serving prison sentences, were executed based on the order of a special committee appointed at the time by the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. Nouri has been arrested by a Swedish prosecutor and his trial is likely to begin soon.
Also, right after the US presidential election, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief military officer of Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated, most likely by Israel, in the Iranian capital. So, in less than a year, the Iranian government has lost two of its most important figures in attacks by other states. Under these circumstances, returning to the deal will not be a simple matter. In particular, Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal at a time when the Iranian government was under pressure to disarm the missiles, and a return to the deal would mean the resumption of tensions over missiles that the Islamic Republic and its allies in the region are armed with. Besides, the resumption of the nuclear agreement does not mean economic development for the Iranian people and an end to the miserable situation in which they live. Of course, Iran’s economy will benefit a little compared to today. But taking into account structural corruption, spoliation, embezzlement and the implementation of neoliberal policies, it is unlikely that the Iranian working class will see any of the expected prosperity if the deal is re-signed.
This is hardly a prophetic viewpoint, and can be reached just by taking a look at the set of developments that took place in Iran after the nuclear agreement. The conclusion of this treaty in 2015 was accompanied by much publicity that promised the economic situation of the Iranians would soon change for the better. While the government was preparing the conditions for foreign investment in the country and sending its overt and covert ambassadors to encourage foreign investment in Iran, an organised attack was launched on labour protection laws. The reform of the Social Security Act, planned at the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, was implemented, and the government submitted plans to parliament aimed at amending the pension and labour laws in line with their neoliberal economic policy. The result of the nuclear agreement for the working class was further deregulation of the workforce – this was the Iranian government’s offer in the deal. A gift to European investors who need assurances in advance of finding cheap labour that has no rights, nor any unions that can enable a collective action against capitalist exploitation. It is worth mentioning that even after the US withdrawal from the deal, the Iranian government met its other international commitments including further privatising public facilities, eliminating subsidies and liberalisation of prices; all based on the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
We must ask now which hopes were lost by the frustrated right-wing bloc of the Iranian opposition. Not only the dream of US military action, initiated by Trump and causing the Islamic Republic to fall; at least some of them expected that through US military intervention, the successor regime to the Islamic Republic would be ‘clarified’ and, naturally, each of them saw himself as heading up a new, US-sponsored government. Throughout the Trump administration, this part of the opposition hosted a pitiful competition. Reza Pahlavi, son of the last king of Iran overthrown in the 1979 revolution, has a forty-year record of establishing failed parties and coalitions. For instance, just a few months before the US presidential election, he formed yet another coalition called the New Covenant, in which he called on all opposition forces to come together, regardless of their different backgrounds, presumably under the leadership of this self-styled prince. Despite the excitement of the mainstream exile media about the formation of this “coalition”, for those familiar with Reza Pahlavi’s patchwork of political activities even in the last decade, there was nothing new. A few years ago, with the same program, the same call and the same theme, Reza Pahlavi tried to form an organisation called the “National Council of Iranians”. The organisation lasted only a few months and with the escalation of the power struggle among its members, it collapsed without being able to take the slightest effective action. In recent years, a different group of supporters of Reza Pahlavi have announced the establishment of a new organisation every few months, none of which has had a better fate than the previous ones. They were thrilled to hear a few slogans in favour of Reza Pahlavi’s father and grandfather, the only kings of the overthrown Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, which was preparing to run the country in the future. A few months after the December 2017 uprising, a group of neo-liberal youth in favour of Reza Pahlavi, some of whom funded by organizations such as the Milton Friedman Foundation, announced the formation of a new organization called Farashgard. This organisation included programs to fight “black reaction” meaning religious forces and “red reaction” meaning leftist and communist forces. Shortly after the formation of Farshgard, another organisation of Reza Pahlavi supporters called Phoenix was announced. This one involved a group of experts in various fields to plan for the future of Iran after the Islamic Republic. It did not take long for the two organisations to face multiple splits, each of which was followed by a wave of revelations and mutual accusations. In the run-up to Donald Trump’s presidential election, Reza Pahlavi personally called for the formation of the New Covenant coalition, possibly to enable future lobbying in Trump’s second administration.
In addition to Reza Pahlavi’s supporters was the arguably more strange case who backed Donald Trump and his government officials; those were the supporters of the MEK organisation. This organisation is a remnant of an armed left-wing Shiite Muslim movement that, from its inception in the mid-1960s until a few years after the Iranian revolution, opposed imperialism as much as the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic. The MEK organized several military operations against American agents and institutions in the 1970s. For instance, when Richard Nixon visited Iran in May 1972, the MEK arranged a series of bombings at the offices of the Iran-US Association, General Motors, and the Pan-American Company. In the same month, the organisation failed to assassinate Air Force General Harold Price, the US Deputy Chief of Staff in Iran, but Price was seriously injured. His successor was not as fortunate: Colonel Lewis Lee Hawkins, the new Deputy Chief of Staff, was assassinated in June 1973 by a team of MEK members. The MEK became one of the largest political organisations in Iran with the victory of the 1979 revolution. A few years after the revolution when the political atmosphere was still open, the MEK like many organisations and revolutionary parties stressed the need to continue the anti-imperialist struggle, including putting an end to all military, political and trade agreements between Iran and the US. However, during the suppression of the 1979 revolution by Khomeini and his supporters, the MEK was one of the main organisations attacked by repressive forces. The importance given to suppressing this organisation was partly due to its growing popularity and relatively high operational capacity in the years after the revolution, despite restrictions and threats, and partly related to the difference in the organisation’s doctrine of Shiism. The MEK subscribed to a progressive, modern ideology which was strongly influenced by Marxism, and this led to a serious rivalry between this organisation and the populist, counter-revolutionary current led by Ruhollah Khomeini in attracting the oppressed and deprived masses. This rivalry eventually led to a bloody showdown in which more than 30,000 members of the organisation were murdered in various ways during the first decade of the Islamic Republic.
Faced with this bloody battle, the strategies and tactics of the MEK failed one after another, and the heavy toll in lives forced the organisation to make tactical and strategic retreats. The continuous attacks on the MEK as well as the diplomatic manoeuvres of the Islamic Republic imposed a form of pragmatism on the organisation over the years. In addition to the fact that the execution of MEK supporters has never stopped and continues to this day, the Iranian government has taken measures to prevent the organisation from settling anywhere else. All of this together has gradually brought the organisation closer to the most right-wing political factions in international politics.
The leadership of the MEK was based in France after their departure from Iran in July 1981. However, in 1986, the government of François Mitterrand, seeking to de-escalate tensions with the Islamic Republic, issued an ultimatum: that the MEK end their activities in the country and leave France. Given the situation, the leadership of the organisation preferred to move to a country that not only shared a border with Iran, but also was at war with it, instead of reducing its activities and especially stopping the armed struggle inside Iran. The MEK’s departure for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eventually led to the formation of a large military camp near Iran, which was called “Ashraf City” by the MEK. During this time, the MEK had two main tactics: “making the Iranian regime futureless” by assassinating influential government leaders, and “cutting off the regime’s fingers” by assassinating low-ranking government officials in streets. Both tactics failed and incurred heavy casualties in the MEK. While these operations did not weaken the Islamic Republic, and in some ways strengthened it, the organisation conducted several successful direct military operations from Iraqi territory. This semi-professional military force was called the “Liberation Army”, and was formed by mobilising forces at Camp Ashraf and recruiting members from outside and inside.
The most famous of these operations, however, was unsuccessful. “Forough Javidan” began in July 1988, only a few days after the Islamic Republic adopted an eight-year ceasefire resolution in the war with Iraq. The ultimate goal of this operation was, of course, to conquer Tehran by the MEK. The operation resulted in a heavy defeat for the MEK, and thousands of the organisation’s paramilitary forces were killed on the battlefield long before they reached Tehran. At the same time, and unrelated to this military operation, the Islamic Republic under the rule of Khomeini massacred nearly 5,000 political prisoners in less than two months, most of whom had already been sentenced and were serving their terms. The majority of massacred political prisoners were members or supporters of the MEK, and the rest were associated with various leftist and communist organisations. This time, it was the Islamic republic that aimed to make the MEK “futureless” by executing their activists.
Defeat in the Forough Javidan operation, as well as the end of the Iran-Iraq War, marked a definitive end to direct military tactics. The MEK has not been able to carry out such an operation since. Finally, during the US occupation of Iraq, the MEK military’s forces were disarmed. Since then, with the Islamic Republic expanding its influence and the formation of several Iranian-backed paramilitary forces, the encamped MEK members have become good prey for Iranian terrorist operations. The Islamic Republic wanted to close Camp Ashraf and expel the MEK from Iraq.
Through utilising international lobbies, the MEK resisted this call to the greatest extent possible. However, Camp Ashraf was eventually closed and they were forced to move to an abandoned US military base near Baghdad Airport called Liberty. During this transfer, forces whose nature is still unknown but who were definitely affiliated with the Islamic Republic entered Camp Ashraf in September 2013, killing 52 high-ranking members and leaving seven others missing. The fate of the missing is still unknown.
The message of the Islamic Republic was clear: Given their increasing influence in Iraq and their regional development policies, they were no longer willing to tolerate the presence of the MEK in a neighbouring country. This tendency was demonstrated by the numerous deadly missile attacks on Camp Liberty. Eventually, after much struggle, members of the MEK moved to European countries. A large group of them were housed in a camp in Tirana, the Albanian capital, which the MEK refers to Ashraf 3 as a symbolic replacement for Ashraf and Liberty Camps. The Islamic Republic did not leave the MEK alone, and after this transfer, all sorts of unknown Iranian traders were found in Eastern European countries, especially Albania, who were suddenly interested in doing business in those countries. The conflict between the Islamic Republic and the MEK is still ongoing.
In the meantime, sometimes the imperialist powers have used the MEK as a playing card. During Mohammad Khatami’s presidency in Iran, when the West believed that the path to dialogue with the Islamic Republic would be opened for Western governments, the US and EU added the MEK to their lists of terrorist organisations, in 1997 and 2002 respectively. As a result, the activities of this organisation were severely restricted or banned. Following the end of Khatami’s presidency, when it became apparent there would be no loosening up in the relationship, the EU removed the MEK from its list of terrorist organizations in January 2009 and the US government in September 2012. The delay before the US’s actions that time must have been related to the disputes that the US government, as the occupying power in Iraq, had with the organisation’s forces there.
Eventually, through a collection of imposed restrictions, violent repressions, as well as their own failings, the MEK has been transformed from an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, leftist organisation. Through this transformation, they approached the most right-wing parts of international politics. Also, the fundamental shift in their class orientation was plainly manifested in the 10 point plan designed for the hypothetical government after the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Point 8 of the program emphasised: “We recognize private property, private investment and the market economy. All Iranian people must enjoy equal opportunity in employment and in business ventures. We will protect and revitalize the environment.” It was through such steps that the MEK became one of Reza Pahlavi’s main rivals in attracting the attention of Trump administration officials. For these forces, it did not really matter whether Rudy Giuliani or Mike Pompeo, meeting Reza Pahlavi’s supporters or attending MEK conferences, were being serious when calling their hosts an acting power in the future of Iran. Instead of addressing the previous defeats and impending disunity, they raised supporters’ hopes in a Western saviour from the regime, and that they would be the main option supported by the great powers after the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
There were other forces, of course, who bet on Trump, from small and large separatist parties and organisations in areas under national oppression, to people like journalist Masih Alinejad. The latter dreamed of riding her popularity (represented by Facebook likes) into a new government brought about by Trump. That is why most of these forces expanded their ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia during Trump’s presidency, with Saudi Arabia, in particular, providing them with huge financial support as a means of stirring up trouble for the Islamic Republic. With the approach of the US presidential election and the announcement of numerous polls indicating the possibility of Trump losing, some of these groups tried to suddenly become impartial observers and separate their fate from the declining US government, though still proclaiming that a Biden victory would not benefit the Islamic Republic. However, the reaction of their supporters in the days after Trump’s defeat, in attacking those who argued against them, as well as in the form of mass mourning rituals for the loss of “Trump’s golden opportunity”, showed that this sudden u-turn has not even been able to change the opinion of their own supporters.
On November 13th 2020, when the US presidential election’s result was announced, many hopes were dashed: the hope of transferring power from the ruling mullahs of Iran to forces already committed to protecting Western interests in Iran and the region. Now, as much as Israel and Saudi Arabia are concerned about their regional interests after the defeat of Donald Trump, a large part of the Iranian right-wing opposition bloc is worried, not for the prospects of the Iranian people, but their own future.
Desperate people will not win
Successive uprisings of Iran’s lower class from December 2017 to November 2019 changed the entire Iranian political scene and opened new horizons. First, the political function of the Iranian reformists seems to have ended, for an unknown period. This was marked by the slogan in the streets: “Reformists, Conservatives, Your Story is Over”, and tells us about a new chapter in the struggle in Iran.
The gaps between these successive uprisings were filled with unprecedented sit-ins, rallies, and strikes across the country. However, the widespread repression and intimidation by the repressive apparatus, including execution of some of those who took part in the uprising has been the cause of occasional desperation in the masses.
This sense of desperation has, of course, been exacerbated by the escalation of international sanctions, the brutal implementation of austerity policies, and the organised looting of public resources by the corrupt regime. People are getting poorer every day. Hour by hour, the essential items are becoming more expensive, and some such as medicines and health supplies have become scarce. Public misery in the strict sense of the word is expanding. It is not only the poor, but the middle class who are also gradually thrown into a whirlpool of poverty and misery. These people, however, feel empowered during each uprising, and again disempowered when the uprisings fail. Social struggle, of course, is not a straight line and has always had its ups and downs. Social struggle in all past experiences has been a series of simultaneous defeats and victories, advances and setbacks. Every revolutionary movement proceeds more or less with its own vague and mysterious laws. Thus, the feeling of despair of the masses is not lasting. The next uprising is neither predictable nor preventable while the living condition of the people stays the same. A living condition that the Islamic Republic can neither change nor desire to change.
This despair, however, has been intensified by false hopes. The mainstream media abroad and the right-wing Iranian opposition have been propagandising for the last four years that the task of the Islamic Republic will be clarified during the presidency of Donald Trump. They have repeatedly told people not to worry as Trump will back up Iranian movements, unlike Barack Obama, who denied effective support to the Iranian people in the 2009 protest movement. They have repeatedly written to Trump, thanking him for his decisive action and calling for tougher sanctions to bring the Iranian regime to its knees. They appeared in the media to advocate for effective sanctions to weaken the Iranian government, and promised the people who were being crushed under the pressure of deprivation that they would get rid of the Islamic Republic if they endured the situation for only a short time. Instead of reinforcing the collective subjectivity of the people, which they did not believe in, they asked the people to give their agency to Trump and wait for the President of the United States to complete the task. Despite the report of some journalists claiming that the Iranian people hoped for Biden’s victory in order to escape public misery by lifting sanctions, wherever reliable statistics were available, a high percentage of Iranians hoped that Trump’s presidency would continue, including the viewers of the mainstream, opposition media outside Iran. Immediately that the election result looked clear, the mainstream media reporters started promoting another false hope: with the advent of Biden’s presidency, economic problems, poverty and deprivation will end, and businesses will thrive.
This is the difference between the “hope” of the people and the “hope” of the right-wing opposition bloc. Both hopes were equally false, but that of people was negative, and that of the right-wing opposition was affirmative. People’s support for Trump was born out of despair, and the despair itself has made them intensified their helplessness, whereas the right-wing opposition hoped for the upcoming US president to support them against other rivals in coming to power. Under bombardment by the propaganda of the right-wing opposition during Donald Trump, the Iranian people were encouraged to do nothing because, according to these exiled knights, “they can never accomplish anything alone and without outside support.” Iranians had to wait for Trump and his allies to accomplish the task, and of course the main reason for this propaganda was that the right-wing opposition was not sure how much chance they would have of gaining political power through a revolutionary change from below. Then instead, they invested all to convince the White House that they are the appropriate alternative for the post-Islamic Republic era.
The false hope of an improved economic situation under Joe Biden’s presidency will, on the other hand, be soon revealed to the poor and the underprivileged. Exactly similar to Rouhani’s promises, collected under the slogan of “prudence and hope”, which did not last long, and his presidency was marked by the most widespread uprisings experienced by the Islamic Republic. The downtrodden will soon realize that even if Iran and the United States return to the UN Security Council and international tensions are eased, their real living conditions will not change. They will continue to be attacked by austerity policies, perhaps more severely than before, and public resources will continue to be looted by various mafia gangs of the Islamic Republic. The most important benefit of defeating Donald Trump in the US presidential election for the working class of Iran is that from now on, everyone knows that the waiting period is over and they must rise to their own liberation.