Today, people around the world are taking to the streets for an International Day of Action against war with Iran. The protests are in response to the Trump administration’s dangerous warmongering with Iran and offer an opportunity for the U.S. left to revive antiwar organizing. As we do so, we cannot overlook the renewed wave of uprisings that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa. We must build solidarity with these movements and connect their struggles to ours.
Nearly a decade has passed since the start of the Syrian revolution that turned into a civil war and proxy war involving Iran, Russia, the U.S., the Gulf States and Turkey. The bloody conclusion to the Syrian revolution is a lesson in what happens when foreign powers turn a country into a battlefield.
After a long period of counterrevolution, a new wave of revolts has swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Going further than the 2011 Arab Spring, these popular uprisings have opposed authoritarianism, neoliberalism, poverty, corruption, religious fundamentalism and sectarianism. The protesters are mostly working-class and unemployed youth. Women have been active participants and often in the forefront. The movements have not been satisfied with the ouster of regime figureheads but demand a radical change to the socioeconomic and political system.
Since October, Iraq has faced the largest protest movement since the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule. However, both the U.S. and Iran aim to derail this uprising through their militarist actions. Iran, too, is now gripped by a growing nationwide uprising.
What are some of the challenges posed by the events in Iraq and Iran? What are the responsibilities of the U.S. left in helping to promote a principled antiwar movement and international solidarity?
Iraq’s Uprising Challenges Authoritarian Regime, U.S. and Iranian Imperialism
On October 1, 2019, hundreds of Iraqi protesters demonstrated in Baghdad. Initiated by workers and unemployed youth from the slums, the movement quickly spread to Shiite-majority cities in the south and center, drawing in diverse layers of society including students and workers. Some expressions of protest have also been seen in Kurdish and Sunni-majority areas. The protesters are united by a rejection of Iraq’s corrupt authoritarian political system and opposition to foreign intervention in their country.
Demonstrators in Baghdad have repeatedly attempted to cross the Jumhuriya Bridge to enter the Green Zone, the former headquarters of the U.S. occupation that now houses various government buildings and the U.S. embassy. At the other end of the bridge, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square has transformed into the center of ongoing nationwide protests. The movement is transcending sectarian divides as illustrated by the popular slogan, “No to muhasasa, no to political sectarianism.”
Following the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the U.S. and sections of the Iraqi political class imposed a government based on muhasasa ta’ifa (a sectarian apportionment system). Modeled after Lebanon’s system, muhasasa ta’ifa promised ethno-sectarian proportional political representation through a quota system. In practice, it institutionalized sectarian divides and damaged the sense of national unity. Iran quickly moved to bolster Iraq’s new Shi’a-dominated government.
Iran’s growing hegemony in Iraq is a consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Today, most of Iraq’s powerful political parties and militias have ties to the Iranian regime. The U.S. also partnered with many of these proxy militias in the fight against ISIS.
The ongoing Iraqi uprising, which faces new challenges due to the flare in U.S.-Iran tensions, continues to pose a democratic challenge to the political and social order. The Iraqi government and paramilitary forces have responded with brutal repression, killing more than 500 people and wounding 19,000 others. Iranian-backed militias — including the powerful Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — have joined government security forces in opening fire on unarmed protesters. In the face of this bloody crackdown, demonstrators have been undeterred, continuing to convey their desire for self-determination through the popular slogan, “We want a homeland.”
Iranian leaders view the uprising as a threat to Iran’s influence in Iraq and beyond. Iranian-backed militias have worked with Iraqi government forces to kill, kidnap and intimidate protesters. Iran justified its crackdown by accusing the U.S. of being behind the uprising. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused “enemies” of instigating anti-Iran protests in Iraq. The head of the PMF told reporters in Baghdad that, “We know who stands behind these protests. The plan to bring down the regime has failed.”
U.S. and Iran tensions, which have now escalated into acts of war on Iraqi soil, have also posed a great danger to the Iraqi popular protests.
On December 27, 2019, the Iranian-backed Shi’a militia group Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shi’a paramilitary group that is part of the PMF, killed a U.S. military contractor. Two days later, the U.S. responded with lethal strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah bases, killing at least 25 and injuring 55 people. On December 31, the Iranian-backed PMF stormed the Green Zone and attacked the U.S. embassy.
In response, on January 3, Trump significantly escalated the conflict by ordering U.S. strikes that led to the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassim Suleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the PMF. Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated. In response, on January 8, Iran struck Iraqi bases that house U.S. forces — but only after alerting Iraq, and by proxy, the U.S. military command — about the impending attack.
The December U.S. embassy attack by the Iranian-backed PMF was in part an attempt to co-opt the Iraqi movement and break the unity of protesters along sectarian lines. In this context, it is significant that the mostly Shiite Iraqi protesters have raised anti-imperialist slogans such as “Iraq first, no to America, no to Iran, no to war.”
Since the start of the movement in October, Iraqi protesters have clearly opposed all foreign influences, especially the U.S. and Iran. In the wake of Suleimani’s assassination and the U.S.’s refusal to remove troops from Iraq, thousands of protesters rallied across the country, chanting “Screw Iran! Screw America!” and unfurled a banner in Tahrir Square that read, “Keep your war away from Iraq.”
As Iraq’s uprising challenges Iranian influence, similar dynamics are unfolding in Lebanon’s “October Revolution” that rejects all of the ruling political parties including Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful regional proxy force. The Iranian regime also faces mounting opposition at home.
Iran’s November Uprising Continues Despite Trump’s Assassination of Suleimani
Trump’s decision to assassinate Suleimani illustrates his “maximum pressure” strategy to counter Iran. Pivoting away from Obama’s soft power approach, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed harsh economic sanctions. These sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, which was already severely damaged due to Iran’s regional imperialist interventions and government corruption. The results have been starvation, death and suffering of ordinary Iranian people. The tight sanctions also economically isolate Iran, making the government more dependent on China and Russia.
In mid-November 2019, initial mass protests erupted across in response to an increase in fuel prices and continued on the basis of broader demands, such as an end to the Islamic Republic and its military interventions in the region. Like in Iraq, the majority of protesters are unemployed youth who are fed up with government corruption, religious fundamentalism, discrimination, authoritarianism and militarism. The Iranian regime attempted to crush the protests with an internet blackout and violent repression that, according to Reuters, led to the murder of 1,500 protesters. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 others have been arrested and remain in detention.
The assassination of Suleimani allowed the government to stoke up nationalism and divert anger away from domestic issues for a few days. However, the displays of nationalist sympathy in Iran have been replaced by mass fury over Iran’s January 8 downing of a Ukrainian airplane that led to the death of all 176 people on board. Iran had denied responsibility for three days but finally admitted the truth in the face of incontrovertible evidence. That admission set off a new wave of protests on January 11.
The Iran mass protests have now intensified, and the enraged public shows that the majority are deeply opposed to this regime. The ongoing uprising marks the most radical protests since the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, with protesters chanting slogans such as “Death to the oppressor, Whether King or the Great Leader” and “Our enemy is here.” Young women and men are on the streets in equal numbers, with women leading in many cases. The protests also oppose Iran’s interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine, and have the potential to become a social revolution.
Opposing U.S. Imperialism at Home
In the face of all these developments, we need a strong antiwar movement to stand up to Trump and show solidarity with the people involved in the uprisings in Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East and North African region as a whole. Despite the U.S.’s constant state of war since 2001, the antiwar movement in this country has been weak for a long time. The recent “No War on Iran” rallies that were called immediately following the assassination of Suleimani show that we are in the early stages of building up a new antiwar campaign. Today’s International Day of Action against war with Iran is a step towards revitalizing former antiwar networks and reengaging the U.S. left in antiwar organizing.
Building a strong U.S. antiwar movement requires listening to the progressive and revolutionary voices inside the countries that are being targeted by U.S. imperialism. In the case of Iran, this means supporting the uprising instead of siding with the Iranian regime as the lesser of the two evils.
A statement by the students at Amir Kabir Polytechnic University in Tehran lays out this position:
The only way to escape the current crisis is to return to a policy based on people’s democratic rights, a policy that will not rush into the arms of imperialism due to its fear of despotism, and one that in the name of resistance and fighting against imperialism will not legitimize despotism. Yes, the only way to reject and escape the current situation is to equally reject both despotism and imperialism.
This statement can help give direction to the U.S. left at a time when a new antiwar movement is growing against Trump’s reckless acts of war against Iran. It shows that it is not enough for antiwar activists to say, “U.S. troops out of everywhere.” We also need to show our solidarity with Iranians standing up to their authoritarian regime. One concrete way of doing so is to demand the immediate release of political prisoners who include workers, teachers, feminists, students, environmental activists and other oppressed people. Even those political prisoners who have been temporarily released on heavy bail await sham trials under false charges.
The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have opened doors for the U.S. left to create links of solidarity with labor, feminist, anti-racist and environmental struggles in the region. As socialists, it is our responsibility to actively forge these links and create dialogues, not only for the sake of people in the region, but for the sake of strengthening similar struggles in the U.S.