Hands Off the People of Iran conference report

On Saturday December 13 some 70 members and supporters of Hands Off the People of Iran met in London for the campaign’s second annual conference. Chris Strafford reports

hopi1Our activists come together to critically assess both shortcomings and achievements and to plan for the coming year in light of political and economic developments. Mark Fischer (chair) opened the conference by explaining that Hopi has done well over the last year but it is very necessary to “up our game”. He wanted to do this in part by using the conference to strengthen the steering committee.

Comrade Fischer listed the previous year’s activities. Hopi has held over 30 meetings up and down the country, a successful weekend school, press conferences with Iranian students, going to TUC congress and most significantly the growth of affiliates, with the Labour Representation Committee, Public and Commercial Services union and Aslef, the train drivers’ union, backing Hopi. The website also came under scrutiny for being hard to update and to navigate. The website is now being overhauled to make it more dynamic and workable (look out for video reports of the 2008 conference for instance).

Comrade Fischer also said that it is important to sort out national material, as we are “only scratching the surface” of the support that Hopi could tap into. He ended his review of the year by stating that our political profile has grown within the workers’ movement and within Iran itself. When Hopi politics have been taken to conferences and meetings we have in general received overwhelming support. Our politics are “common sense for working class activists”. In Iran itself Hopi slogans are being frequently used. Comrades in Iran are delighted to receive support on such a principled basis.

No illusions in Obama

Yassamine Mather (CPGB),  member of Hopi’s steering committee, gave an overview of the world situation and the situation in Iran. Comrade Mather was adamant that the “threat of war has not and will not diminish” and that it is important to keep building the movement against an Israeli or a US strike on Iran. This was something of an opening salvo against those who believe that the election of Obama has somehow diminished the threat of war. Certainly with the economic crisis the chances are that imperialism will become more belligerent over the next period – not less, as comrades from Permanent Revolution argued.

Comrade Mather also stressed that nuclear proliferation was not the cause of the threats against Iran. There are those in the workers’ movement who are using the nuclear question to excuse Israeli aggression.

Torab Saleth (Workers Left Unity Iran), moving motion 1, ‘The political situation, war and imperialism’ said that it is only through our approach can we build the anti-war movement and that it is not about whether or not we need a broad movement. Hopi, he said, has shown over the last year that our politics can draw in a broad spectrum of supporters. If the imperialists manage to stage a velvet revolution it would lead to “another 20 years of semi-fascist dictatorship”. Comrade Saleth also outlined the dangers facing the anti- war movement and democratic forces inside Iran (for the text of his speech see pages 8 and 9).

The debate over whether the election of Obama, the economic crisis and the collapse in world oil prices have significantly affected the likelihood of military action against Iran was the most contentious political issue at this year’s conference. Stuart King (PR and Hopi steering committee) wanted to amend the motion to state that the threat of war against Iran has decreased and that it is solidarity work and building up a campaign against sanctions which should be the main area of work over the next period.

The debate that followed on this was very one-sided with only three comrades speaking in favour of the amendment. A large majority were far from convinced that the threat against Iran has decreased, let alone that Hopi should go into battle with such a statement. Anne McShane (Hopi Ireland) urged conference to look at the appointments made by Obama since he was elected. They show we can expect more of the same. It would be tactically inept for Hopi to state publicly that the threat against Iran has somehow decreased. No one has a crystal ball and can see exactly what is going to happen.

The amendment was heavily defeated, whilst the main motion was passed overwhelmingly. This is a debate that should go on, and is going on throughout the Middle East. Illusions in Obama will evaporate sooner or later, so it is the movement that got him elected that we should look to and encourage them to fight for what they elected him to do.

Time for a new movement?

The state of the anti-war movement in Britain is pitiful: branches are defunct and thousands of activists have drifted away. On top of this, the STWC leadership is dominated by the minority faction in the Socialist Workers Party and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. In other words, a clique that is actually thoroughly unrepresentative of the real movement.

No-one on the left can deny the decline of the STWC or its cowardice when it comes to Iran. So what to do? Mike Martin (Hopi Sheffield) moved motion 2, which basically argued for Hopi to take the lead in reviving the anti-war movement by going around STWC. There was sympathy for the motivation but strong doubt about the politics. Hopi should work within the STWC, not set itself up as an alternative. Comrades said that it was important to build and participate in the STWC and get the ban on Hopi lifted as soon as possible. Comrade Martin’s motion was clearly defeated.

Student solidarity

Conference was addressed by Iranian student leader Behrooz Karimizadeh (Students for Freedom and Equality) on the history of the student movement and its current composition and course.

The students’ movement in Iran had a long history of opposing the state – whether the state of the shah or the current state which was born out of the post-1979 counterrevolution. The student movement has also vacillated throughout its existence between reform and revolution. However, illusions in the reformist faction were overcome after the suppression and murders carried out by the reformists in 1999.

The current movement has less illusions in imperialism as well. One only has to look at the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan to see that US bombs will not bring freedom. The current generation of students in Iran is more leftwing and has a leadership which is increasingly composed of Marxists.

Comrade Karimizadeh stressed that this movement acts in opposition both to imperialism and to the Iranian theocratic regime. The crisis that is gripping the world is being exacerbated by sanctions in Iran. Inflation is currently at 30% and has left Iran at the mercy of the IMF and a new wave of neoliberal shock treatments. He also explained how it is important to give support to the third player in Iran: that is, the working class and the democratic movements. He ended by declaring that our “internationalist duty must take precedence over everything else”. This was met with cheers. During the discussion afterwards Behrooz described the links between the students‘, workers’ and the women’s movements and the collapse of Islam as a political trend among students.

Workers’ movement

Hopi has won the backing of the Public and Commercial Survices union and the train drivers’ union, Aslef. Over the next year we should look to gain more support not just at a national level, but also in local union branches and trades councils.

Dave Vincent, who won the PCS to back both STWC and Hopi, opened the session on unions by attacking the nationalist sentiment that is being pushed with the ‘our boys’ sentiment.

It is through working class action that wars can be stopped  and it is important for Hopi to spread its roots deeper into the trade unions, so that when the time comes for such action, it has already gone some way in winning the arguments. Comrade Vincent ended his introduction by insisting that the main enemy is at home.

Comrade Mather outlined the workers’ struggles inside Iran and their increasing desperation, as sanctions throw thousands out of work or leave them without wages every week. She warned that the threats and sanctions against Iran are hindering the independent organisation of the working class.

A motion submitted by Hopi Manchester and moved by myself urged a better organised presence within the trade unions. It is important for supporters to go into their unions and get affiliates. It is also important to have publicity material readily available. Terry Brotherstone, University and College Union Scotland president, said that discussions on the issues raised by Hopi has begun within his union. The Manchester Hopi motion was passed unanimously.

Smash the sanctions

John McDonnell MP who has been an active supporter of Hopi over the last year, moved the motion to launch a ‘Smash the Sanctions’ campaign submitted by Vicky Thompson and backed by Hopi Manchester. He questioned whether the threat of war had receded because of the election of Obama. Hopi should not let its guard down and  he was “anxious in the extreme” over the coming period.

Sanctions have crippled Iran, and the history of sanctions have shown that the loss of life can be massive.  So it is important for anti-war activists to build a campaign against the growing regime of sanctions on Iran. Comrade McDonnell correctly pointed out that this campaign is not to aid the regime but to aid the people. The bureaucrats and political elites in Iran easily get around sanctions to do their business. It is the working class and ordinary Iranians who are suffering, and it is vital not to let them “suffer in silence”. He also said that he will work through his links with the trade unions and within parliament to push the anti-sanctions campaign and get as many people behind it as possible.

There was a lot of discussion on the launch of this initiative. The sanctions on Iraq and Zimbabwe give us the opening argument. Sanctions against Iraq blocked surgical equipment and much needed medicine and this led to huge numbers of needless deaths.

Charlie Pottins, a member of the Jewish Socialist Group and the Hopi steering committee, said that sanctions are intended to destroy production and drive the working class into an existence which would not give them the time to grow in political confidence. He argued that it should be the tasks of the workers’ movement where possible to engage in sanction-busting actions like those that have been organised for the besieged inhabitants of Gaza. Other comrades warned that it will be an uphill struggle. Sanctions are often seen as a soft alternative to war. Nevertheless, the motion was passed – once again unanimously.

Beyond the Watford Gap

The final discussion of the day was on motion 5 and 6, which sought to overcome some of the shortcomings of Hopi over the last year. Vicky Thompson, PR and Hopi steering committee, moved motion 5, saying that it was in the best possible spirit and wanted to see Hopi more accessible to supporters up and down the country.

The discussion on Hopi’s organisational strengths and weaknesses was full of practical suggestions such as helping with travel expenses and organising events to coincide with steering committee meetings. Motion 5 was passed with a healthy majority making motion 6 void.

The day was a clear success. While the founding conference was dominated by the need to clarify the politics, this year there was a healthy balance of political debates and practical planning for the next year.

A new steering committee was elected with many organisation and shades of opinions represented: Yassamine Mather (CPGB), Mark Fischer (CPGB), Stuart King (PR), Marsha Jane Thompson (LRC), Torab Saleth (Workers Left Unity), Jim Jepps (Green Party), Ben Lewis (Communist Students and CPGB), Israeli socialist Moshé Machover, David Broder (the Commune), Tina Becker (CPGB), Charlie Pottins (Jewish Socialists Group) and Vicky Thompson (PR).

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