"We know where you live"

Working for a western magazine in Iran, Maziar Bahari finds that he has acquired some surprisingly c

I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I met Mr Mohammadi. In fact I met three Mr Mohammadis in four days. Mohammadi is the nickname of choice for the agents of Iran's ministry of intelligence - the country's equivalent of the CIA. They have other nicknames as well, most of which are variations on the names of Shia imams such as Alavi, Hassani and Hosseini. I guess the names don't indicate a rank or anything (I have to guess, because Mr Mohammadi doesn't tell you much. He asks the questions).

Mr Mohammadi is responsible for the security of Iran. That includes protecting the values of its government. It's a tough job. It's like being in charge of Britney Spears's public image. The values change so often that the officials who put former colleagues on trial today are careful not to be incarcerated by the same people tomorrow (who may well have jailed them in the past). Mr Mohammadi's job is to keep the integrity of the regime intact and to stop those who plan to undermine the holy system of the Islamic Republic. But what does undermining mean? And what if it is the government that is doing the undermining (as it does constantly)? These questions seem to puzzle Mr Mohammadi. So he is more than a little paranoid and edgy these days. When he calls you for questioning, you don't know if he's going to charge you with something or seek your advice.

These days, Mr Mohammadi's main concern is that the American fifth column, disguised as civil rights activists, scholars and journalists, is destabilising the Islamic Republic. The US government has, after all, allocated $75m to promote "democracy" in Iran. It is also giving $63bn in military aid to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel to "counter Iran". The US would love to have agents in the country to take the money and spend it wisely. There are so many social and economic problems in Iran, that if someone wanted to exploit them to create dissent it wouldn't be difficult to do so. But most activists I know inside Iran wouldn't touch the money with a bargepole and resent the American government much more than their own. In the meantime, the Iranian government tries to find foreign perpetrators and domestic accomplices instead of solving the root causes of dissent, such as mismanagement of the country's economy, poverty, internal migration and drug addiction.

In the 1980s and 1990s, intelligence agents were rough and scary, but nowadays they politely call you for tea at some fancy hotel or other to question you. I never understood their fascination with hotels. Why can't you just meet them in their offices? Or why don't they come to your office? Anyway, when you enter the hotel room you are offered a range of non-alcoholic drinks. Mr Mohammadi is very generous with his beverages. As soon as you finish your tea you are offered Nescafé, then some kind of juice, then Fanta, Pepsi, etc. But he never offers anything solid. Why can you drink tea while being asked about plots against the government but not have a biscuit? Does an interrogation over a kebab lunch make it less trustworthy?

Hotels and beverages

These questions pop into your head while you're enjoying the comfort of not being in Mr Mohammadi's presence. He has killed many people in the past. And you know that he is capable of violence again if he thinks it necessary. Mr Mohammadi's counterparts in the numerous parallel security apparatuses (intelligence units of the judiciary, Revolutionary Guard and the police) still have not caught up with his methods. Recently a number of students and labour activists were arrested and instead of being offered tea or Nescafé they spent days in solitary confinement and were beaten with electric cables and batons. But Mr Mohammadi's ministry of intelligence is supposed to be the main agency. It is certainly the most professional, and polite.

I met the three different Mr Mohammadis while on assignment for Newsweek magazine. I was writing an article about the suppression of civil society and civil rights activists in Iran.

Day one: I've set up an appointment with a teachers' union leader at a cafe. I am supposed to meet him after an exam at the high school where he teaches. The teacher doesn't show up on time. I wait for an hour. Even by Iranian standards he is late. I call him on his mobile but it is off. Strange. He was so keen to talk the day before, so what has happened? I then get a call from his mobile.

"Who is that?" the caller asks. It is not the teacher. "I'm Bahari from Newsweek." "News what?" "Week." "So you're a journalist. Will call later." I learn that the teacher was arrested during the exam and sent to prison. An hour later I get a call from a "private number". It is a new voice. He is much more pleasant. "Could you come to the . . . Hotel at three this afternoon?" asks Mr Mohammadi. It's been a while since I've been summoned. Naturally I oblige.

Mr Mohammadi has become more polite, cordial and strangely reassuring. He sneaks a smile when I ask him, "Why am I summoned here?" He used to give me an angry look that would mean he was the one in charge. He begins by asking simple questions about me and my work: who am I? How long have I worked for News week? Why did I want to meet the teacher? Have I ever met him before? What is the angle of my story? Easy questions to answer. Mr Mohammadi is quite relaxed. He scribbles in his notebook while I talk and every now and then exchanges a smile with me. There's nothing remotely amusing about what I'm saying, but Mr Mohammadi keeps smiling. That makes me think: what is so interesting about the banality I'm spewing here? Is he really taking notes or is he doodling a fish? Is it a dead fish? When is he going to let me out of here? Is he going to let me out of here?

I get tired of talking after a while. Then, like Muhammad Ali in the seventh round of his fight with George Foreman, Mr Mohammadi snaps and starts to challenge me. He keeps on smiling. I wish he wouldn't. Why do I think an American publication is interested in talking to Iranian dissidents? Was I given a list of questions by American paymasters to ask the dissidents? Have I ever been to any conferences in the US or Europe? Have I ever met any dissidents in Europe or the US? How did I come to be chosen as Newsweek's correspondent in Iran and not someone else? Mr Mohammadi is now targeting my integrity as a journalist, explicitly trying to make a connection between me and a dissident, suggesting that we both work as agents of the Great Satan and that we are part of a bigger plot to topple the Islamic government.

Half-hearted interrogation

If this session had been with previous Mr Mohammadis a few years ago, I would be scared of a pending trial and imprisonment for something I had never done - a destiny that befell many of my friends and colleagues. But what makes this Mr Mohammadi tolerable is his half-hearted approach to the whole thing. His expression is not a grin or a smirk. He almost feels sorry for himself and asks for your sympathy. He looks genuinely confused and somehow out of his depth. His bosses have come up with a conspiracy theory and asked Mr Mohammadi to validate it. He is a smart man and has been down this road many times since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It's never worked in the past and he really doesn't think it will work now. Mr Mohammadi knows that he's wasting his time and mine. He knows that his government should reform itself if it wants to survive. As the former minister of intelligence, Ali Yunesi, (who was removed from office by the current president) put it the other day: "Transforming the opposition into our supporters should be the main security strategy of the government, but unfortunately these days we not only fail to do that, but change our supporters into the opposition."

But a job is a job. And Mr Mohammadi has to pay rent and put food on his family's table. He wraps up our session with a few farewell sentences that all other Mohammadis use: "I hope you don't think it's personal. There are people who want to take advantage of your good intentions. We just want to protect you." And then the punchline: "We know where you live."

Day two: I'm meeting a labour union activist. I've set up an appointment with him for 3pm. I'm supposed to see him after he's found out the nature of the charges against him in an upcoming trial at the Revolutionary Courts headquarters. The activist is late for our appointment. I try to contact him, with no success. I call a friend of his: the activist has been arrested.

When I get home, a friend calls me from London and says that I've been accused of being an intelligence agent. Earlier this year, I made a film for the BBC about the MEK, an Iranian terrorist group that opposes the Islamic government. The film exposed the group's cult-like aspects and its collaboration with Saddam Hussein and the Americans. In the film, we also showed how the Iranian ministry of intelligence deals with MEK prisoners relatively humanely - not torturing or killing them as they did in the 1980s, but treating them as cult members rather than terrorists. This progressive approach is converting former MEK members into supporters of the government. As a result, the MEK now accuses me of being an agent of the mullahs. I should tell this story to Mr Mohammadi if he calls me again.

Day three: another Mr Mohammadi calls: "The . . . Hotel at 11am." Mr Mohammadi likes my MEK story but wonders what the reasons were behind making the film. "When you make a film or write an article you do it because you think it's an important story. I really don't need ulterior motives for doing my job, sir." He doesn't look convinced.

"But . . ." and he goes on asking me the same questions as Day one's Mr Mohammadi. And he smiles the smile as I start answering him. I give the same answers: "There is nothing surreptitious about what I do, sir. I'm just a journalist doing my job. I just report what I see around me. If there's poverty, I report that. If there are terrorists, I write about them. And now when you arrest all these people, wouldn't it be strange if I didn't talk about them? Don't you find it bizarre that the MEK calls me an agent in your pay and you question me as if I'm a guerrilla fighter?"

Mr Mohammadi says that he is sorry for the trouble. He then gives me a modified farewell spiel. The conclusion remains the same: we know where you live.

Day four: I've been meeting feminist activists to find out why 15 of them were sent to jail and how they were treated in Tehran's Evin Prison. Apparently, their Mr Mohammadi was not that different from mine. He smiled and tried to find a connection between them and the government of the US. Less than an hour after I leave the house of my last interviewee, I am invited to tea at a hotel. This time it's different, more upscale.

Finally, Mr Mohammadi's smile is gone. "There is one thing that you forget in your mature government theory." I feel that he is finally coming out of his bureaucratic shell. "I've heard that you've studied in Canada." "Yes." "Good. Now imagine if Iran has 250,000 soldiers in Canada and Mexico [roughly the number of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan] and then allocates a budget to help civil rights movements in the US, let's say to the Black Panthers or a Native American movement, wouldn't Americans be paranoid? We know our problems much better than anyone and we do our best to tell those who are responsible about the social maladies you just talked about. But this is Iran. It takes ages for anything to happen. In the meantime we have a vicious enemy to deal with: the US. It's determined to topple our government by any means necessary. As Tom Clancy says, the US is: A Clear and Present Danger."

The Islamic regime change

I don't know how Mr Mohammadi will react to my writing about these encounters. Not too happily, I guess. He strongly advised me not to talk about them with anyone. But it's important to know that Mr Mohammadi has changed. And if he can change, the Islamic regime can change. I'm still not convinced by his point about the American threat. Throughout its history, the Islamic Republic has looked for foreign enemies and has usually found them in abundance. Yet on many occasions it has undermined its own legitimacy by linking genuine domestic opposition to its foreign enemies. It's time for the international community, especially the US, to accept that the Islamic Republic is a force to be reckoned with and deserves as much respect as any other sovereign nation. But it is equally important for the Islamic Republic to realise its own maturity and act responsibly. Maybe instead of a conference on the myth of the Holocaust, our president could organise a conference entitled "Islamic Republic of Iran: 28 Years of Trials and Tribulations".

On a more personal note, the change can start with the government treating its citizens with respect. I know Mr Mohammadi knows where I live. He doesn't have to brag about it.

Maziar Bahari is an Iranian journalist and film-maker. This article first appeared in Index on Censorship, volume 36, number 3

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet