Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2020

Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow”, the film that launched the Iranian New Wave

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

About a month ago, Shalon Van Tine, the young and brilliant Marxist film critic that joined me in an interview by Eric Draitser, messaged me on FB: “I had a lot of fun talking to you on the podcast today! Since you like Iranian cinema, have you ever seen The Cow? I absolutely love that one.” I messaged her back: “Never saw ‘The Cow’ but am familiar with its importance. Loved doing the show with you, btw. Our tastes are very similar.”

About a week ago, I decided to see if the film was available as VOD. Not only was it available, it was just one of a vast library of Iranian films, many with subtitles like “The Cow”, that are archived on the IMVBox website. It is entirely free without subtitles and only $2.49 with. There are 323 films with English subtitles, including “The Cow”. For anybody with the least bit of interest in one of the world’s great filmmaking industries, IMVBox is indispensable.

Made in 1969, “The Cow” (Gaav, in Persian) was like the ship that launched a thousand new wave films in Iran. Well, maybe not a thousand but certainly a hundred. Directed by Dariush Mehrjui and based on a screenplay by his good friend Gholam-Hossein Saedi, it is set in an impoverished farming town in southern Iran. It is so poor that Masht Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) is considered wealthy because he owns just one cow. It is not even clear if the cow is productive in the conventional sense because we never see Hassan milking her. She is much more of a pet that he dotes on. When he feeds her hay in the barn (more of a shed, really), he always puts some straw in his mouth to encourage her. It is almost as if he is worshipping the cow like a Hindu.

Perhaps, Mehrjui had the films of Satyajit Ray in the back of his mind since “The Cow” evokes the Apu Trilogy. As is the case with Ray, Mehrjui refuses to idealize rural life. At the start of the film, we see children hazing the village idiot with none of the elders chiding them. It is only when the most respected of them, a man named Islam, steps in that they back off.

When Hassan goes off for some business in a nearby town for a couple of days, the villagers are shocked to see in his absence that the cow has died unexpectedly, with a pool of blood close to her mouth. Dreading the impact this would have on him, they bury her and agree on telling him a story about her running off when he returns. No matter how many of them reassure him that this is what took place, he simply refuses to believe them. She had no reason to run off, he insists. Like someone in mourning, he retreats to the barn and sits inconsolably next to her stall. After a day or so, he snaps psychologically and assumes her identity, even to the point of consuming straw this time for real. It is up to Islam and two other villagers to seek help for him. They tie a rope around his waist, as if he were a farm animal, and begin on a long trek to the closest city where they hope to find a mental hospital to take him in.

I should add that although Mehrjui is often viewed as a disciple of Satyajit Ray or the Italian neo-realists, there is one scene toward the end of the film that reminds me of the very end of Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, at least visually. It is a long shot of the three villagers hauling Hassan by a rope toward the city, like Death leading Bergman’s characters off in the distance in a macabre dance. Bergman is on top, Mehrjul below:

Although funded by the Shah’s film company, he refused to allow it to be seen abroad since it went against the grain of his “modernization” posturing. After the Shah was overthrown, Ayatollah Khomeini gave the film his blessing, thus allowing this first seed of the new wave to grown into many new flowers.

If you are familiar with the work of either Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, you will recognize the similarity immediately. Like Mehrjui, they made films on location in remote rural villages with nonprofessional actors. However, for key roles such as Hassan and Islam, Mehrjui chose professionals with distinguished careers. Ezzatolah Entezami, who played Hassan, would have had 56 credits as an actor when he died in 2018 at the age of 94. “The Cow” might have been in his first film but he began as a stage actor in 1941.

In addition to being tuned into Western culture as director and writer, Mehrjui and Saedi were the Iranian counterparts of the 60s radical movement, with hopes that they could put an end to the monarchy alongside the political radicals.

As for Western culture, Mehrjui was less than impressed with the UCLA film school where he enrolled back in 1959. He dropped out and began learning how to make films on his own. His take on UCLA was most astute: “They wouldn’t teach you anything very significant… because the teachers were the kind of people who had not been able to make it in Hollywood themselves… [and would] bring the rotten atmosphere of Hollywood to the class and impose it on us.”

Like many of the movement activists, Mehrjui initially welcomed the “anti-imperialist” Ayatollah Khomeini, who was much more supportive of “The Cow” than the deposed monarch. It didn’t take him long to figure out that Khomeini was about to impose clerical rules on the film industry. In 1981, he went into exile in Paris but returned to Iran four years later after deciding that he could still make films with integrity in Iran where clerics ruled—unlike Hollywood, where the dollar ruled.

Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi was much more of a revolutionary than Mehrjui and paid for it dearly. Wikipedia reports that in 1953, after Mohammad Mosaddeq was toppled, he and his younger brother were arrested and imprisoned at Shahrbani Prison in Tabriz. As members of the Tudeh party, they were prime suspects of “subversion”. He got in trouble again as the editor of Alefba, a literary magazine with fearless political independence, when he was arrested in 1974 and then tortured by SAVAK, the Shah’s version of Bashar al-Assad’s Mukhabarat. Once Khomeini came to power, Sa’edi continued to be a defender of political freedom and working-class power, but in exile. In 1985, when he was living in exile in Paris, he suffered severe depression over his political disappointments and became an alcoholic, dying of cirrhosis in 1985.

November 23, 2019

The world is blind to the reality of class struggles in Iran

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

March 7, 2019

3 Faces

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

For those who appreciate the kinds of films that get recommended here, there is very good news. Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York. I consider Panahi to be the greatest living filmmaker and this his greatest film. He is not only a master filmmaker, he is also the main voice of the Iranian democratic movement working in the arts. For his outspoken defense of the Green Movement and the democratic rights in general of Iranians, he was arrested for making propaganda against the Islamic Republic in 2010 and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Additionally, he was banned from making films for 20 years and from giving interviews to foreign media.

In a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, he continued to make films under very difficult circumstances including the 2011 This Is Not a Film that was shot on a digital camera in his home during his house arrest. With “3 Faces”, he has returned to the form that made him famous. Like his 1995 premiere film “White Balloon”, it is an affectionate look at traditional society in Iran but like his 2003 “Crimson Gold” and the much sharper 2006 “Offside”, it contains his ongoing critique of Iranian society. If in the past he targeted the Islamic morality state apparatus, in this new film his focus is on the age-old patriarchal norms of the countryside that help to keep the clerics in power just as is the case in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. What gives “3 Faces” its power is the ambivalence Panahi feels toward traditional society. It inspires his art at the same time it underpins a social and political system that tried to ban his films.

The film begins with Jafar Panahi in the driver’s seat of a car playing himself, while in the front seat next to him sits a well-known actress named Behnaz Jafari who is also playing herself. As they head down a highway at night, Jafari is watching a video that was sent to Panahi but really intended for her eyes. A young woman in a remote village in the Azeri region of Iran has decided that her family’s refusal to allow her to go to a conservatory in Tehran makes life not worth living. We watch her advance toward a noose hanging from a branch in a cave, placing it around her neck, and finally jumping to her death or so it would seem.

Panahi and Jafari are driving toward the village of Saran in the East Azerbaijan Province to discover whether the aspiring actress named Marziyeh Rezaei (also played by herself) is really dead or whether she has faked a suicide to get the attention of the two powerful celebrities.

Most of the dialog in the film, except that between the three principals identified above, is in the Azeri dialect of the Turkish language that only Panahi and Marziyeh understand. Much of the film consists of Panahi chatting with elderly residents of Saran who are obviously nonprofessionals and likely played by the actual men and women living there.

When Panahi and Jafari stroll through the local cemetery to see if they can find a fresh grave for Marziyeh, they are startled to see an octogenarian woman lying in an open grave with a candle in her hands. She explains that she is rehearsing for her funeral but gives no indication that her death is imminent. The candle is meant to keep snakes away at night, a scourge that God visits on the wicked. Are you wicked, Panahi asks, you seem to be without sin. She replies that god only knows.

Another old-timer, a man in his 70s by the looks of his grizzled face, has a chit-chat with Jafari late at night in the village. He has come back from his new son’s circumcision with the boy’s foreskin in a small cloth sack. A wide-eyed Jafari asks what he will do with it. He explains that if you bury a boy’s foreskin near a penitentiary, he will grow up to be a criminal but if you bury it near a university, he will grow up to be a doctor or an engineer. Like Panahi and the old woman in the open grave, she takes it all in without scoffing. Later she presents the foreskin and an accompanying letter to Panahi from the old man that he should present to an actor from the golden age of Iranian film. When Jafari tells him that the actor is out of the country, he asks if Panahi can present it to him the next time he is traveling abroad. She explains that the Panahi is not permitted to leave Iran and the actor is not permitted to enter the country. This is about as close as the film comes to commenting on the repressive norms of the Islamic Republic.

The film wrestles with the dichotomy between traditional values and the urgent need for modernization. An elder tells the famous director and actress that Marziyeh was “empty-headed” and that acting was not going to be of much use in a village that is desperately in need of doctors. Look around, he tells them. There is a satellite dish on every house that allows them to see Jafari’s TV shows but no place to go if you become ill.

In a way, the real star of the film is the village of Saran itself that is nestled on a mountaintop and whose homes and streets look pretty much like they looked a century ago. If Iran ever becomes a thoroughly modern republic based on the right of women to live fulfilled lives, there has to be a way for the solidarity of village life to continue. As someone who grew up in a village of 500 people nestled in the Catskill Mountains, Saran resonates with me. My village has been savaged by the collapse of the tourist industry but perhaps Iran can mediate between tradition and modernity in the future. What it certainly doesn’t need is a bullying imperialist power like the USA to foist its own warped ideas about “modernity” on a people who have one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.

 

January 8, 2019

First Iranian Film Festival at the IFC Center in NYC

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 8, 2019

Ever since 2014, I have made the case for Iranian films on CounterPunch (see links to the articles below).

At the risk of sounding like one of those reviewers addicted to superlatives for Hollywood films that appear in full-page ads in the NY Times, let me say that the five films I have seen in advance of the Iranian Film Festival that opens next week at the IFC Center in New York on January 10th beat the pants off of Roma, Widows, The Favourite, The Green Book or any other films that have the inside track for Academy Awards.

They incorporate the elements that have draw attention to Iranian films worldwide for the past forty years, including a swan song for Abbas Kiarostami, a director/screenwriter that Martin Scorsese describes as having “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” It is a supreme irony that a state with a well-deserved reputation for censorship is capable of serving as an incubator for great art but then again the greatest music ever written catered to the tastes of both church and nobility.

Let’s be grateful that the batch of five films discussed below, which push the envelope of Iranian cultural norms, can still be made. To some extent this reflects a cultural thaw under Hassan Rouhani who is determined to open up the country’s economy to foreign investors, even if Donald Trump is just as determined to keep the doors closed. I was ecstatic to see that one of the five films was directed by Jafar Panahi who I consider one of the world’s greatest directors. Though under house arrest between 2010 until 2015, he was still defiant enough to make a film in 2011 on an iPhone inside his home titled “This is Not a Film” that was up to his usual high standards. He still cannot leave Iran, even if in film circles he is considered to be on a par with Kiarostami.

At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, I advise seeing as many of these films as possible at the IFC. They will remind you of not only how films can reach the level of fine art but provide insights into a country that is as important geopolitically as any on earth.

Continue reading

 

 

February 14, 2018

Tehran Taboo; Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 14, 2018

If you want to understand the social contradictions in Iran that lead to periodic explosions like those that took place recently, there is no better resource than Iranian film. Often risking repression, which at its most extreme cost the life of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, filmmakers put a spotlight on the grievances of large parts of the population, especially women and those who have not benefited from the wealth-producing oil rentier state.

New Yorkers have an unparalleled opportunity to see Iranian film at its best this month from two unheralded directors. On February 14th, the Film Forum will be showing “Tehran Taboo”, a noirish animated feature by Ali Soozandeh who lives and works in Germany after leaving Iran in 1995 at the age of 25. I have no doubt that “Tehran Taboo” will get my nomination as both best foreign-language and animated film for 2018. It is the story of three women dealing with different aspects of a suffocating patriarchy and one young man trying to live the life of a free artist in an unfree society. On February 23rd, the Anthology Film Archives will be showing a retrospective of Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentaries that address Iran’s deep-seated gender and class injustices. While Iranian film is best known in the West for the narrative works of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi, Oskouei deserves pride of place alongside such masters. His work has appeared at over 400 film festivals in over 50 countries and earning him over 90 awards, so it is high time for a retrospective here and now.

Continue reading

January 7, 2018

The role of Iran’s water crisis in the recent protests

Filed under: Ecology,Iran,water — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

On January 2nd, an NY Times article about the protests in Iran included a couple of paragraphs that caught my eye:

For decades, those living in Iran’s provincial towns and villages were regarded as the backbone of the country’s Islamic regime. They tended to be conservative, averse to change and pious followers of the sober Islamic lifestyle promoted by the state.

In less than a decade, all that has changed. A 14-year drought has emptied villages, with residents moving to nearby cities where they often struggle to find jobs. Access to satellite television and, more important, the mobile internet has widened their world.

In a nutshell, these are exactly the sort of social/ecological contradictions that helped to pave the way for the Syrian revolution as I pointed out in an article titled “Syria, Water and the Fall from Eden”, where I quoted a high-level government official:

There is no more rain, but there are more and more people. We forget that we are living in the desert here and that more than a quarter of the Syrian population now lives in Damascus. We have no water anymore and our Barada River cries. In the plain, in the Ghuta, it’s the same thing: there used to be five large springs there that fed the crops. They have all dried up.

–Nizar Hussein, agricultural engineer, Barada & Awaj River Authority, Damascus, Syria

In going through 16 years of articles on Lexis-Nexis about the drought in Iran, I came across a Financial Times article dated August 21, 2014 that cited a high-level government official who was just as terror-stricken:

Thousands of villages rely on water tankers for supplies, according to local media, while businessmen complain shortages are a daily hazard in factories around Tehran. At least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces will have to be evacuated over the next 20 years unless the problem is addressed, according to a water official who declined to be named.

The situation may be even worse than that, says Issa Kalantari, a reform-minded agriculture minister in the 1990s. “Iran, with 7,000 years of history, will not be liveable in 20 years’ time if the rapid and exponential destruction of groundwater resources continues,” he warns, adding that the shortages pose a bigger threat to Iran than its nuclear crisis, Israel or the US.

It is important to understand that the migration of countryside people to the cities of Syria and Iran was not exclusively made up of people like the Joad family in “Grapes of Wrath”. It did not just include farmers but those tied into the agrarian economy as well– such as farm equipment vendors and their workers, shopkeepers, professionals and the like. When the farm is the hub of a wheel, the spokes will certainly be affected when it is removed.

Most dramatically, Iran has suffered the loss of major sources of water in the last few decades that were as much of a cultural landmark as they were economically critical. It would be somewhat analogous to the Rio Grande river drying up in the USA (a not far-fetched comparison in light of this article.)

On September 18, 2001, the NY Times reported that Lake Hamoun, Iran’s largest body of fresh water and one of the largest in the world, had turned into a desert. The drought was to blame but so was the geopolitical conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which controlled a major dam on the Hirmand River that fed Lake Hamoun. Despite a 30-year-old agreement that allowed some water to flow even in dry years, the Taliban cut off the supply. After the Taliban were ousted, the American-supported regime had just as little interest in cooperation with Iran for obvious reasons. As I pointed out in my review of Müşerref Yetim’s “Negotiating International Water Rights: Resource Conflict in Turkey, Syria and Iraq”, this is not uncommon:

Competition for Euphrates and Tigris water has reverberated in domestic politics, especially in Iraq and Turkey. Following the March 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, Iraq began to step up suppression of the Kurdish movement in the north. This prompted Syria to undermine Saddam Hussein by reducing the Euphrates flow. In effect, the conflicts between states in the Middle East over strategic goals almost inevitably spills over into the conflicts over water.

Lake Urmia, another key water resource, was also deeply impacted but in this instance, drought was conjoined with government mismanagement to create an environmental disaster as the Guardian reported on September 6, 2011. This time it was not an Afghan dam that was drying up a lake but the 36 dams within Iran built on rivers flowing into Lake Urmia. Since Urmia was a salt lake, the ecological impact would be catastrophic for farms surrounding it. When salt lakes go dry, the salt diffuses into the surrounding terrain and will kill crops such as almond and garlic found near Lake Urmia. It is also necessary to understand that its loss would be a major loss to the Azeri people who lived in the region. This video shows a protest held in September 2011 about the pending loss of the lake.

One other example should give you an idea of the gravity of the situation. Zayanderud is a river whose name means “life-giving waters”. In the FT article referenced above, you discover that it has flowed through Isfahan for more than 1,000 years from its source in the Zagros Mountains to the vast wetlands of Gavkhooni south of Isfahan. But the FT now described it as “a vast, gravelly beach, a dead stretch of sun-baked land that winds through the heart of Isfahan”. A man quoted in the article has the exact profile of those who were raising hell a few days ago:

“No water in this river means I had to leave my farmlands in the town of Varzaneh and work for the Isfahan municipality for 15,000 tomans [$5.6] per day,” says Afshin as he cuts weeds on the riverbed.

A loss of this river meant that about two million people who depend on agriculture have lost their income, according to Mostafa Hajjeh-Foroush, head of the agriculture committee of the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce. “If this situation continues they should think of changing jobs,” he adds.

Despite the FT’s obvious neoliberal bias, its analysis of how this came about is quite accurate. Under Ahmadinejad, profits generated through the sale of oil helped to prop up a water distribution system that was unsustainable. As a rentier state, Iran’s economy was based on handouts rather than the production of manufactured goods. Ahmadinejad targeted the farmers as a primary source of support without regard to the broader consequences for the nation. Cheap oil and subsidies made the massive use of pumps feasible just as was the case in Syria. As groundwater became more and more diverted into growing water-hungry crops like melons for the export market, the mostly urban population had to pay the piper. According to the UN, groundwater extraction nearly quadrupled between the 1970s and the year 2000 while the number of wells rose fivefold.

To give you an idea of how irrational such practices can become, the Trend News Agency reported on November 7, 2017 that Iran continues to prioritize the agri-export sector even as increased production yields fewer revenues. Last year exports increased by 15 percent but their value fell by 9 percent.

Watermelon was an exception to the norm. It registered an 18 percent and 33 percent growth in terms of volume and value respectively. This is a water-consuming commodity par excellence and as its name implies is mostly water. Some economists in Iran argue that Iran is actually exporting water in a period of drought.

As the drought and the misuse of water resources began to take its toll on society, Ahmadinejad came up with a novel excuse. In 2012, he made a speech claiming that the drought was “partly intentional, as a result of the enemy destroying the clouds moving towards our country”. Supposedly Europe was using high tech equipment to drain the clouds of raindrops. As might be expected, Global Research found this plausible. To bolster its case, the conspiracist website informed its readers:

Hollywood just released a film on Weather Modification gone mad titled, ‘Geostorm’ right after the worst hurricane season in a century. The film is about a network of satellites designed to control the global climate landscape. The plot of the film is that the satellites turns on Planet Earth with the intention to destroy everything in it by causing catastrophic weather conditions including hurricanes and earthquakes.

“Geostorm” earned a 13% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic opining that a Sharknado or two could have livened things up.

Not to be outdone by Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai-Nejad from the city of Isfahan that lost its legendary life-giving waters blamed the drought on—who else—impious women. In a sermon, he offered this version of why the lakes and rivers were running dry: “They have brought me pictures that shows women by the side of the dry Zayanderud river. These actions will ensure the upper stream of the river will become dry too. Believe me it is true. You may ask yourself why European countries with so much crime and sin have so much rainfall … God punishes the believer, for remaining silent and letting girls take pictures by the river as if they were in European countries.”

Although the Ayatollah might be dismissed as Iran’s version of the idiot living in the White House, he reflects a deep structural problem in the political system that militates against a solution to these deeply entrenched policies that are typical of the short-term mindset of rentier states. With the revenues generated by oil exports, it is likely that the elites will not pay much attention to the overall need for a sustainable economy but to seek out technical solutions, the most recent of which is the use of desalination plants.

Ahmadinejad, the conspiracy theorist, initiated something called the Caspian Project that envisioned a vast network of pipelines that pumped desalinated water to the major cities. This was met with skepticism by the nation’s water and environmental experts who warned that the infrastructure necessary for such a system would cripple fragile agricultural communities and ruin ecosystems, especially near the desalination plants. These massive operations separate the salt from the incoming water and funnel the brine byproduct back into the ocean. In so doing, it has caused irreparable damage to marine life. In effect, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are also heavy financing requirements that are just as onerous as those involved in building nuclear power plants. If Iran is in a race to build a society that has a future, it is probably a big mistake to use technologies so wedded to the past.

There is only one scholarly article that deals with these intractable problems, which fortunately can be read online. Titled “Iran’s Socio-economic Drought: Challenges of a Water-Bankrupt Nation”,  it reviews the main causes of the crisis in terms geared to a mainstream audience. The section on the role of agriculture is worth quoting in its entirety:

The agricultural sector uses up to 92 percent of Iran’s water. Due to having an oil-based economy, Iran has overlooked the economic efficiency of its agricultural sector in its modern history.10 The desire for increased agricultural productivity has encouraged an expansion of cultivated areas and infrastructure across the country. However, this sector is not yet industrialized and is suffering from outdated farming technologies and practices leading to very low efficiency in irrigation and production.

The agricultural sector in Iran is economically inefficient and its contribution to gross domestic product has decreased over time. Irrigated agriculture is the dominant practice, while the economic return on water use in this sector is significantly low, and crop patterns across the country are inappropriate and incompatible with water availability conditions in most areas. Recently, concerns about the embodied water content of produced and exported crops have increased, but business still continues as usual as interest in crop choice by farmers is mostly correlated with crop market prices and their traditional crop choices in the area.

The claimed interest in improving the living conditions of farmers is inconsistent with their relative income, which has decreased over time due to increasing water scarcity and decreasing productivity. Forced migration from rural to urban areas has been observed in some parts of the country where farming is no longer possible. However, agriculture continues to play a major role in the country, providing employment to more than 20 percent of the population. This role will remain significant as long as alternative job opportunities are unavailable in other sectors such as services and industry. The recent turmoil in Syria underscores that a loss of jobs in the agricultural sector can cause mass migration, creating national security threats and serious tensions.

While I would agree with the general analysis presented above, I would not call the protests a “national security threat”. If anything I have confidence in the ability of ordinary working people to solve the nation’s problems once they overthrow the Maserati-driving elites and their clerical allies and begin to build a society based on the common good rather than personal gain. Iran has long-standing revolutionary traditions that will acquit the country well as the state lurches unsteadily into an approaching storm that will pose very sharp class contradictions.

January 4, 2018

The Iranian People’s Uprising

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 12:28 am

Iranian People Rise Again
By Reza Fiyouzat

Starting on Thursday December 28, spontaneous demonstrations broke out in different towns and cities across Iran. The protests broke out over economic issues such as high inflation and high youth unemployment, with the trigger being the sudden hike in price of eggs and chicken. The protesters, however, soon took up more politically oriented slogans, attacking the leaders of the regime with slogans such as, “People are begging and Mullahs rule like they’re gods!”

Regardless of how long these protests last and what the outcomes may be, these protests have proven once again that the Iranian regime is fundamentally incapable of addressing people’s most basic social and economic needs, and that is why for forty years it has depended on brute force to control the population. But, rule by brute force alone cannot last forever.

Deep-structure poverty has once again pushed the population over the edge. This uprising did not just happen out of the blue, though; it is the culmination of many smaller and more localized protests over a variety of social issues that have sent people to the streets in the past year.

But, first let’s see what has pushed people in Iran to take to the street once again, on a mass scale, across the country, in big cities just as in small towns; towns that most western readers have never heard of, nor will ever remember.

Continue reading

May 22, 2017

The business of America is business

Filed under: Iran,Saudi Arabia,Trump — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Calvin Coolidge: The business of America is business

If the overarching goal of the USA is to use Saudi Arabia as its chief partner in a proxy war on the “axis of resistance” in the Middle East, then it can be said that Donald Trump is continuing with the policy of his predecessor Barack Obama and one that Hillary Clinton would have continued as part of the “neoliberal” foreign policy supported by John McCain, the NY Times op-ed page, and me–according to my intellectually-impaired detractors.

On the other hand, for NY Times reporters Ben Hubbard and Thomas Erdbrink, the visit was a departure from Obama’s foreign policy favoring Iran:

In using the headline address of his first foreign trip as president to declare his commitment to Sunni Arab nations, Mr. Trump signaled a return to an American policy built on alliances with Arab autocrats, regardless of their human rights records or policies that sometimes undermine American interests.

At the same time, he rejected the path taken by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr. Obama engaged with Iran to reach a breakthrough nuclear accord, which Mr. Trump’s administration has acknowledged Iran is following.

One has to wonder why the two reporters ever thought that there was a “return” to an American policy built on alliances with Arab autocrats given Obama’s actions as opposed to his high-falutin’ words. In a 2002 speech he called upon the Saudis to “stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent” but as President he sold $115 billion of arms to the Saudis, which was $30 billion more than George W. Bush ever did and even $5 million more than Trump’s deal.

Gareth Porter, a well-known supporter of the “axis of resistance” must be particularly disappointed in Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia since his foreign policy was supposedly a repudiation of Hillary Clinton’s hawkish stance. In a January 20, 2017 Middle East Eye article titled “US intervention in Syria? Not under Trump”, Porter expressed relief that Trump would cut off funding for the jihadi groups in Syria:

The US military leadership was never on board with the policy of relying on those armed groups to advance US interests in Syria in the first place.

It recognised that, despite the serious faults of the Assad regime, the Syrian army was the only Syrian institution committed to resisting both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

It seems likely that the Trump administration will now return to that point as it tries to rebuild a policy from the ashes of the failed policy of the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, for the very first time in the six year war in Syria, the USA has deliberately struck Assad’s military. The first instance was to retaliate for the Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas attack; the most recent was an air strike against a convoy of militias advancing on a base where United States and British Special Forces were training Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. Pirouetting as nimbly as Baryshnikov, Porter warned Commondreams readers about Trump agreeing to the Pentagon’s “permanent War in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria” but held out hope that “judging from his position during the campaign and his recent remarks, Trump may well baulk at the plans now being pushed by his advisers.” This distinction between Trump and his bellicose advisers James Mattis and H.R. McMaster based on Trump’s “remarks” is a reminder that P.T. Barnum was right when he observed that there is a sucker born every minute. Doesn’t Porter understand that if Trump said it was a sunny day, you need to to bring an umbrella with you when you go outside?

On April 18th, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote a letter to Paul Ryan assuring him that Iran was living up to the agreement made with the Obama administration not to develop nuclear arms even though the letter referred to Iran’s support of “terror” in the Middle East. Tillerson sounded very much as if he was Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State on April 10th in the aftermath of the bombing of a Syrian air base (largely ineffectual) with his statement that Assad’s reign was “coming to an end”. One supposes that these words carry about as much weight as Obama’s frequently repeated call for Assad to step down.

Meanwhile, Al_Masdar news, the former employer of neo-Nazi/Assadist Paul Antonopoulos and a reliable source of “axis of resistance” opinion, has good news for those who hoped that the Trump/Putin détente could be salvaged:

Russia’s Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford confirmed in their phone conversation the readiness to reinstate the memorandum of understanding on safe flights over Syria and to draw up more measures so as to avoid any conflicts, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday.

“Syria was in focus of the talks in the light of the agreements, reached in Astana on May 4 this year, on establishing de-escalation zones in some regions of Syria,” the ministry said in a statement.

The Astana talks began in Khazakistan in early January. Sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Syria, they were supposed to lead to a truce and eventually an end to the war. The USA sent observers to Astana but did not push for “regime change”, even from the peanut gallery. Last week the rebel delegation boycotted the talks because Assad had violated the truce. Syria blamed Turkey for the breakdown at Astana but the idea that it was opposed to the general aim of the talks to consolidate Assad’s rule over the carcass that is Syria today appears ludicrous given Erdogan’s bromance with Putin that grew out of Turkey’s anxieties over the US-Kurdish military ties plus the need to reestablish commercial relations with Russia to counteract a deep economic slump.

Five days ago Trump announced that a waiver on sanctions on Iran would continue even with added restrictions. Relaxation will continue unabated in all likelihood given the election of Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who favors “globalism” as the people at Global Research might put it.

The verbal belligerence to Iran must be weighed against the USA’s continuing support for the Shi’a sectarian state in Iraq and its obvious willingness to abide by Assad’s continuing rule despite the two military strikes in 2017. If Trump and his generals were genuinely for prosecuting a proxy war with Iran and Russia, the first thing they would do is arm the rebels against Assad. However, as was the case with Obama, the rebels are expected to fight ISIS, not the blood-soaked despot whose brutal sectarian dictatorship helped ISIS take root.

In May 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry advised European banks to proceed full speed ahead investing in Iran, even if American banks still could not. It didn’t take too long for American corporations to take advantage of the thaw. On April 4, 2017 Iran signed a deal pay Boeing  $4 billion for 60 jets to refurbish its aging state-owned airline. I am generally not in the business of playing Nostradamus but I am predicting that Trump will okay the deal. After all, Calvin Coolidge got it right when he said that the business of America was business.

As the WSJ reported on March 28, 2017 in an article by Asa Fitch and Benoit Faucon, those European corporations Kerry encouraged will take advantage of profit-maximizing opportunities that it will be impossible for the USA to resist, especially when it comes to someone as nakedly devoted to corporate interests as Donald J. Trump:

After years shunning Iran, Western businesses are bursting through the country’s doors — but U.S. companies are noticeably absent.

Dozens of development projects and deals have been hammered out since Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers in 2015 lifted a range of sanctions. Among them, France’s Peugeot and Renault SA are building cars. The U.K.’s Vodafone Group PLC is teaming up with an Iranian firm to build up network infrastructure. Major oil companies including Royal Dutch Shell PLC have signed provisional agreements to develop energy resources. And infrastructure giants, including Germany’s Siemens AG, have entered into agreements for large projects.

Chicago-based Boeing Co. last year got the go-ahead to sell 80 aircraft valued at $16.6 billion to Iran. But for the most part, deals involving U.S. businesses are few and far between.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., have steered clear of Iran since the nuclear accord. A Ford spokeswoman said the company was complying with U.S. law and didn’t have any business with Iran. GM is focusing “on other markets, and other opportunities,” a spokesman said.

Peugeot has taken notice. Its Middle East chief, Jean-Christophe Quemard, said Peugeot’s early entry has left U.S. rivals in the dust. “This is our opportunity to accelerate,” he said last month.

U.S. companies are at risk of losing lucrative deals to early movers into a promising market of 80 million people, analysts say, setting off skirmishes among European and Asian companies eager to gain an edge on more-cautious U.S. competitors. But as latecomers, U.S. companies likely won’t face a learning curve in dealing with the political risks and the bureaucratic difficulties in Iran.

Apple Inc. explored entering the country after the Obama administration allowed the export of personal-communications devices in 2013, according to people familiar with the matter. But the company decided against it because of banking and legal problems, the people said. Apple declined to comment.

U.S. companies usually need special permission from the Treasury Department to do business with Iran. Further complicating matters for U.S. companies: President Donald Trump during his campaign threatened to rip up Iran’s nuclear deal, and he hit the country with new sanctions shortly after taking office. On Sunday, Iran imposed its own sanctions on 15 U.S. companies, mainly defense firms.

The nuclear deal removed a range of U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions in 2016 that had held back Iranian energy exports and put the brakes on foreign investment. But while food, medicine and agricultural products are exempted from U.S. restrictions, U.S. products are available in Iran often only through foreign subsidiaries or third-party importers.

Peugeot, officially known as Groupe PSA SA, is aiming to hit annual production of 200,000 cars in Iran by next year in conjunction with its partner Iran Khodro, after the two signed a 400 million euro ($432 million) joint-venture agreement in June. Already, the pace of both Peugeot’s and Renault’s car sales in Iran has more than doubled.

Asian companies, mainly Chinese ones, have had a growing presence in Iran. Some have stepped up activities since the nuclear deal, including China National Petroleum Corp., which joined France’s Total SA in a preliminary agreement to develop a major Iranian gas field in November.

Iran has caught the attention of a broad spectrum of investors beyond autos, with foreign companies selling everything from gas-powered turbines to mining technologies in the country.

Government-approved foreign direct investment shot up to more than $11 billion last year, official figures show, from $1.26 billion in 2015. Pedram Soltani, the vice president of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, said more than 200 foreign business delegations have visited Iran since the nuclear deal took effect.

“We see what’s happening in the U.S. and Mr. Trump’s comments,” said Ghadir Ghiafe, an Iranian steel-industry executive who is exploring partnerships with South American and European companies. “Our businessmen don’t pay much attention to it.”

Foreign companies still face daunting obstacles to doing business in Iran. Iran placed 131st out of 176 countries for corruption in a ranking by Transparency International last year. It also has major economic problems, including high unemployment and a banking system saddled with bad loans.

Large international banks remain reluctant to re-establish links with Iran despite the nuclear deal. That reluctance has made transfers of money into and out of Iran a challenge.

Western banks such as Standard Chartered PLC, BNP Paribas SA and Credit Suisse Group AG have generally refused to handle transactions to Iran for fear of running afoul of banking sanctions that remain. Chinese and smaller European banks have attempted to step into the breach, even though many companies remain concerned about the regulatory environment.

Some large multinationals — including infrastructure giants and major oil companies — are keeping a close eye on the U.S. in case sanctions snap back into place. Shell, Total SA and OMV AG of Austria have signed memorandums of understanding for deals in Iran but have yet to complete terms.

Last month, Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said the company would wait for clarity from the Trump administration before completing a $4.8 billion investment in the country’s South Pars offshore gas field.

But many foreign companies are finding the country’s growth hard to ignore.

The International Monetary Fund recently estimated the economy grew 7.4% in the first half of the Iranian fiscal year that ended this month, rebounding from a decline in the previous year. Meanwhile, a surge in demand has pushed consumer spending in Tehran to $5,240 per capita so far in 2017, up about 11% compared with 2016, according to Planet Retail, a London research firm.

American deals with Iran will go full steam ahead. That’s my prediction based on the fundamental laws of capitalism, a system that allowed IBM, Coca-Cola and Ford to do business with Nazi Germany even after WWII had begun.

May 19, 2017

Documenting Discontent: Talking With Jamsheed Akrami About Iranian Cinema

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:16 pm

Three years ago Jeff St. Clair affixed the title “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” to my review of the Iranian director’s 1999 masterpiece “The Wind Will Carry Us”. I, of course, would not only answer yes to his rhetorical question but would go one step further and argue that Iranian filmmakers collectively have been making the greatest films for the past 30 years at least. They are the equivalent of the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and early 60s but paradoxically produce great films under the heavy constraints of a clerical state that not only puts obstacles in their path but drives some of the elite figures into exile or in the case of Jafar Panahi kept under house arrest.

Recently I was fortunate enough to view four documentaries about Iranian film by Jamsheed Akrami, a Professor in the Communications Department of William Paterson University in New Jersey, that were made between 2000 and 2013 and are now available from Arab Film Distribution, which markets DVDs to institutional customers such as university libraries and film departments.

The price is too steep for the average CounterPunch readers but I strongly urge film professors, Mideast studies faculty members and any other academics concerned about the problems of artists in an authoritarian society to set aside money for the films when they are preparing their budget for the next fiscal year. Akrami, who has a supreme mastery of Iranian politics and cinema, is an accomplished interviewer who adroitly blends the words of these stellar filmmakers with excerpts from their work that are spellbinding.

Although I have reviewed well over twenty films by Iranian directors since the early 2000s, including nearly every film Abbas Kiarostami has made, and have read scholarly treatments on Iranian film, I was surprised by how little I knew while watching Akrami’s documentaries. Even if you have never seen an Iranian film, the documentaries will still engage you intellectually and politically since they relate to the nagging problem of artistic freedom globally.

Continue Reading

January 2, 2017

MRZine: goodbye and good riddance

Filed under: Iran,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:41 pm

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-11-34-18-am

After a decade of pumping out propaganda for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Baathist dictatorship in Syria, MRZine is no more. In a farewell note, editor Yoshie Furuhashi, who never wrote more than 2 or 3 articles for the online publication and none at all for its parent print magazine Monthly Review, stated that she is being reassigned to do translation for the institution founded by Paul Sweezy 67 years ago as a voice of the independent left.

Furuhashi’s hiring was a perverse act and likely the decision of MR board member John Mage, who like Furuhashi has a scanty publication record. Around the time that she was being considered for this post, she had been at war with subscribers to Marxmail, the mailing list I created in 1998, LBO-Talk, Doug Henwood’s listserv created the same day as mine, and PEN-L, a mailing list geared to economics professors in the spirit of URPE. For Furuhashi, these 3 mailing lists, which were among the most prominent in Marxist cyberspace, only served as a receptacle for her pro-Ahmadinejad messages that came across as leaflets being dropped from an airplane.

Her devotion to the Islamic Republic was the culmination of a several years long disaffection from the American left, including a brief membership in Solidarity. Like many young radicals, the realization that socialist revolution was not around the corner came as a bitter disappointment. Instead of taking the “longer view” of history as articulated by Monthly Review editor Paul Baran, Furuhashi was attracted to the Ahmadinejad presidency like a moth to a flame. Why fritter away your time in a small and isolated socialist group in the USA when you can become a minister without portfolio for a government that she considered even “more socialist” than Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela?

Not everybody at Monthly Review was happy with MRZine turning into something that prefigured the turn toward RT.com on the left. Seven years ago, Barbara Epstein resigned from the MR board because she found the pro-Ahmadinejad material on MRZine unacceptable. Three years earlier 17 Iranians living outside of the country wrote an open letter to Monthly Review with the same complaints. Despite Epstein’s resignation and the open letter, John Mage rejected the idea that MRZine was pro-Ahmadinejad. Of course, as is the case with all such matters, the people who owned Monthly Review were not under any obligation to meet anybody’s expectations. Who knows if Mage or John Bellamy Foster would still regard MRZine as having a diversity of views on Iran and Syria today? If you did a mathematical analysis of the tweets that appeared on its home page, you will find that there about 100 pro-Assad tweets to every one against the dictator. But like I say, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

I had the foolish idea ten years ago that MRZine might have functioned in the same spirit as the Guardian (the now defunct American leftist weekly newspaper) and Monthly Review that were both launched around the same time as part of an attempt by the left to reach out beyond the CPUSA’s orbit. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s American Socialist, the Monthly Review was not a “line” publication but much more of a forum for the Marxist left to discuss and even debate its differences.

In a NY Times obituary for Paul Sweezy in 2004, John Bellamy Foster is quoted about the original vision of its founder:

“The Monthly Review was attractive to people who were leaving the Communist Party and other sectarian groups,” said John Bellamy Foster, a co-editor of the publication now. “It was and is Marxist, but did not hew to the party line or get into sectarian struggles.”

That might be true to some extent about the magazine but clearly not of MRZine. There certainly was a party line and it certainly did involve itself in sectarian struggles. Everybody understood that Yoshie Furuhashi was the last person in the world to be hired as an editor if the intention was to stay above the fray. Her history was that of a one-person sect that had a program of defending the “axis of resistance” to the point of self-parody. In March of 2011, when Assad’s cops had castrated a 13-year old boy who had been caught protesting the dictatorship and left the dead body on his parents’ doorstep, Furuhashi wrote one of the few articles under her name for MRZine that showed her true colors:

Millions of Syrians rallied all over Syria, pledging loyalty to the country, in support of Bashar al-Assad, on 29 March 2011.  The dialectic of the regime and the opposition in Syria, it is safe to say, is neither like Tunisia and Egypt, nor like Iraq and Libya.

Moreover, the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma.  Perhaps not altogether inconsequential in the age of celebrities.

This was the Furuhashi that had antagonized hundreds if not thousands of subscribers on listserv’s such as Marxmail, LBO-Talk and PEN-L. Her article was pro-regime propaganda and blatantly so, the sort of thing that people like Rick Sterling, Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett have become infamous for. After six years of genocidal=like war, there are more and more articles now that assess the role of this sector of the left. Among them is one written by Santiago Alba Rico, a Spanish-born philosopher and writer based in Tunisia. Titled “Aleppo, the tomb of the left”, it is unsparing in its judgement of the Yoshie Furuhashi’s of the world.

In short, a large part of the Arab, European and Latin American left has sacrificed internationalism to a geostrategic order in which the peoples and their democratic struggles no longer have any friends and in which this left, irrelevant and in retreat now throughout the world, has let the regimes against which the “Arabs” rose up in 2011 advance without resistance. We have understood nothing, we have done nothing to help, we have handed over to the enemy all our weapons, including conscience. After Syria democracy is retreating everywhere. Aleppo is indeed the tomb of the Syrians’ dreams of freedom, but it is also the tomb of the global left. Just when we need it most.

 

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.