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Rouhani and Attacks on the Iranian Left: O Brother Where Art Thou?

“I believe we have committed heinous and horrific crimes. We were involved with espionage, treason, and disobedience. Our crimes are too grave, so much so that the Islamic Republic of Iran should mete out the severest and heaviest punishment upon us who are responsible for all these transgressions.” This quote is taken from the televised confession of Dr. Noureddin Kianouri in 1981. Kianouri was the General Secretary of the Toudeh party, Iran’s communist party, from 1979 to 1984. While he appeared ragged, fragile, devastated, and impatient, and could hardly compose complete sentences in Farsi, clearly due to tough and cruel torture, he was displayed on national television in order to tarnish his record and the image of the Toudeh party at large. The once prominent politician was shattered by this forced interview in which he, next to other leaders of Toudeh, was forced into reciting and restating whatever their interrogators and torturers put in front of them.

The Islamic regime has in fact benefited from leftist ideology and terminology by imbuing their political Shi’a doctrines with the traditional anti-imperialist lexicon of the left. Indeed, the regime’s anti-imperialism could not have been realized without this hybridization and borrowing from the Leninist tradition. Yet this indebtedness, which conferred the façade of an anti-imperialist legitimacy on the regime, could not prevent the systematic persecutions, harassments, and intimidations of leftists in the first decade of the Islamic Republic. While the regime kept receiving accolades and solidarity from the international left, only four years after the revolution the Toudeh party and other leftist organizations—such as the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedaian, Fedaian Organization, and Peykar Marxist Mujahedin—were barred and sanctioned; their leaders and many of their members were executed, imprisoned, forced into exile, or were shuttered into isolation.

This persecution of the left, whose critical theories and ideas had been hijacked and Islamized by the regime, has permeated into the political skeleton of the ruling system and has induced repeated crackdowns on leftists in the past three decades. The hostility is emblematic of the Islamic regime, which has depended on devouring the political and ideological platforms of its adversaries, Islamicizing them, and finally wreaking havoc on their original possessors. Leftists have faced vicious mistreatment by all successive governments since the revolution, albeit for different agendas and aims. But after the so-called reformer Rouhani came to power, with his allegedly pragmatic mindset and voracious appetite for the neoliberalization of the country and privatization of the economic sectors, the harsh anti-imperialism of the Ahmadinejad era seemed to wane; it has been superseded by Rouhani’s crawling and kowtowing and Zarif’s political grins toward Western governments, in order not only to lift embargos but also to open up the country for the flow of Western capital.

Loathsome Leftists

Rouhani’s sharp turn away from Ahmadinejad’s anti-imperialist agenda has provided a strong motivation for his administration to trample the leftist and critical community in Iran, while launching a fierce campaign to isolate its opponents on the left. Only a few weeks after Rouhani’s election, Hessam Al-Din Ashna, the special advisor to Rouhani on political affairs, in his interview with Andishe Pouya magazine maintained, “I ask you, when did the term ideology come into our political rhetoric? ‘Ideology’ belongs to leftist vocabulary. Mr. Rouhani’s cause is the de-leftization (chap-zodaee) of the Islamic revolution. Indeed, his cause is to eliminate left-struck-ness (chap-zadegi). Left-struck-ness is tantamount to radicalism.”[1] This interview was matched with another interview of Mahmoud Alavi, Minister of Intelligence in the Rouhani administration, in which he lamented “the extent of socialist ideas in Iran that spread hatred toward investors.” He did not fail to mention that “investors should be reassured that the only owner of the invested capital is the investor, and our responsibility is to protect the security of their investment and serve them to the best of our power”[2]. It was not hard to foresee Rouhani’s neoliberal orientations, but what remained unnoticed was his campaign, already underway, to marginalize leftist and critical activists and undermine their political power so as to pave the way for capital flows into the country, without either promoting human rights or strengthening our civil society.

This series of official caveats was followed by a campaign of mockery and derision aimed at the heritage of socialist ideas, and published in journals, magazines, and newspapers affiliated with the Rouhani administration and his conservatives. For example, Mehrnameh magazine, which is the emblem of conservative propaganda and is widely distributed in Iran, devoted one of its volumes to what it called “terrorist intellectuals,” denouncing leftist and socialist intellectuals and activists who had either been involved in armed struggle with the Pahlavi monarchy before the revolution, or who had justified and theorized it, and by extension, revolutionary initiatives and acts. Bijan Jazani, who had been a leading leftist intellectual/artist/activist, and his body of work, inspired a generation of leftists and radical socialists, and also the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedaian, a radical leftist organization that aimed to overthrow the Pahlavi monarchy before the revolution and the Islamic regime after its takeover, were specifically vilified with this terrorist label. One can easily see how Mehrnahmeh has been assigned the task of advancing the “de-leftization” cause of the Rouhani regime by equating leftism and socialism, and any critical radicalism that seeks to fundamentally change our political climate, with terrorist radicalism so as to empower conservatives whose only goal is the neoliberalization of the Iranian economy, while maintaining the political status quo. The magazine stepped up and intensified its attacks by ridiculing Marx as a “wrecking poem” and his thought as “an opium for people” on its cover in another issue.

This propaganda campaign against the left, when they are not allowed to engage in critical dialogues due to their official banishment from public debate, has been exacerbated in the course of the nuclear negotiations, during which many respectful leftists have not supported Rouhani’s initiatives toward reaching a sustainable deal, since they did not want to be absorbed into the propaganda machine of the conservatives and subordinate their political independence to the political fancies of the regime. This lack of support for the negotiations and its prosaic box of political change provided a proper excuse for the conservatives to smear leftists and radical socialists as pro-war dissidents who were caricatured as warmongers and Zionists that want to drag Iran to yet another war. Thus, the conservatives were able to contrive a pro-war or pro-peace dichotomy, in which those who don’t support the deal and negotiations, leftists included, are denounced as sell-out compradors and traitors who work at the behest of foreigners. Rouhani, and the conservatives use this strategy to marginalize radical and critical domestic voices in order to advance their neoliberalization program and render it as the only viable alternative solution to our crises, which range from the sword of Damocles that ISIS dangles over our neighboring countries, to the shadow of Ahmadinejad, to Western sanctions.

Janus-faced Rouhani, SSDD?

Rouhani has introduced an ideological shift in the rhetoric of the Islamic regime since he has been dampening the anti-imperialist discourse of the revolution, but his belligerent attitudes toward leftists, which he maintains, is by no means an exception in the history of the Islamic regime. The Islamic regime has always had a limited circle of elites, in which political power is shared; however, all members of this circle, from all political hues, have an agreed-upon convention to kill off the influence of independent radical opponents who are not willing to join the regime’s political platform. Carl Schmitt’s distinction between constituted power and constituent power helps us to understand why leftists, and other radical opponents, are the pariahs of the system.

Schmitt makes an astute distinction between constituted power (the power that rests with the sovereign to implement law) and constituent power (which is the power of the people through which the sovereign is authorized to rule). Constituent power for Schmitt is “a power that, though it is not constituted in virtue of a constitution, is nevertheless connected to every existing constitution in such a way that it appears as the founding power, . . . and for this reason it cannot be negated even if the existing constitution might negate it.”[3] The constituent power characterizes the collective will of people whose constitutionality may not be reflected, and this power could also be turned into a floating signifier justifying the dominant constituted power; however, this passage to the institutionalized and constituted power may have little to do with the law-generating will of people. The original power of people may push the political momentum for change, but it may yet slip into an abysmal political vacuum and then lose its centrality, as a result of which the unifying and stifling voice of the constituted power, or the sovereign’s power in Schmitt’s observations, abnegates this plural and heterogeneous voice of people.

To elaborate: after the 1979 revolution in Iran, constituent power was the strong will of people for change; the will crystalized in the revolution itself; and it was the founding power of the revolution that materialized itself in the first draft of the constitution in 1979, according to which Iran was meant to have a semi-presidential system almost comparable to the French Fifth Republic, in which political and social freedoms were granted, and the will of people was supposed to provide a base for political power, shifts, and alterations in Iran. Vali-faqih, the Islamic supreme leader, interestingly, had no status in this draft, the draft that was voided later as a result of the pressure of the political powers that strove to restrict the power of people and interpolate Vali-faqih as the highest political authority. This later force managed to thrust its will onto the people and transfer the plural and democratic will of people, their constituent power, into a stifling constituted power that uses its law-maintaining violence and power to form ummat-vahede (the monolithic Islamic nation), or a homogenized, submissive, thwarted, and ideological mass. The image of this ideologically constructed nation not only made its way to the ideological propaganda of the regime, according to which Iranians are painted with the brush of the regime’s ambitions, but also unfortunately was widely broadcast in the Western media so as to misrepresent the Iranian people as the burners of American flag, potential terrorists, bomb-carriers, and anti-Semites who want to wipe out Jews and Israelis.

This historical passage from constituent power to constituted power, from the chaotically plural power to an institutionalized and bureaucratized one, and from the multiple voices to the strangled one after the revolution, helps us understand why leftists and critical opponents of the regime have repeatedly been assaulted after the revolution. In particular, after Rouhani took over executive power in Iran, this assault has intensified and escalated since the independence of leftists, alongside other regime critics, has represented a serious barricade to the neoliberalizing of the country. The repression of the left, and by extension all radical dissidents of the regime, however, has produced an ossifying of independent social and political institutions, the freezing political ambitions of people for change, and a promotion of conservative mentalities in the population. In sum, this repression has facilitated the smooth transition from constituent to constituted power.

Although Rouhani’s neoliberal shift marks a profound change in the political climate of Iran, one still needs to understand how this historically oppressive constituted power, the one that failed the revolution, has enabled Rouhani to marginalize leftists and radical voices. While the turn toward the West may have beguiled many progressives, convincing them that changes are on the way and the revolution is shedding its basic oppressive forms, we need a soberer approach in order to clearly understand the evocation of Rouhani’s Schmittian constituted power, and how it has dismantled and sapped our civil society during the past three years. While many analysts have been navigating the details of the nuclear deal, the increasing force of the repressive apparatus of constituted power has slipped off their radar. Yet repression takes the shape of the amplified rate of executions after the Rouhani’s election, recent trends toward long prison sentences for working class and labor activists and teachers, and an increasing number of raids into the homes of activists, students, and dissidents throughout the county. As Mohammad Reza Nikfar, an Iranian intellectual, maintained, in his essay after the presidential victory of Rouhani, the battle in Iran today is not between supporters and opponents of the regime, since the regime has long proved its political and moral bankruptcy; the real battle is between conservatives[4]—including not only the regime’s conservatives but also the many who do not believe in the regime but who think of the conservatives as a vessel for change—and progressives, or between what I call regressive progressives and progressive progressives, who refuse to submit their will to the conservatives around Rouhani. Leftists and other radical opponents play a pivotal role in this pitched battle over the future of Iran.

O Brother Where Art Thou?

While the anti-imperialist reputation of the regime has encouraged many leftists to gloss over human rights abuses in Iran or to tilt their solidarity and accolades toward the regime, and while they consider these abuses and violations a secondary issue of no importance, and possibly even part of neoliberal propaganda campaign, the sad story of the systematic oppression of domestic leftists by the regime, and in particular by Rouhani and Iranian conservatives, substantiates the inefficiency of anti-imperialist critiques when the persecutions of domestic political dissidents, leftists, and avant-gardists is disregarded. This negligence does not weaken imperialism, as demonstrated by Rouhani’s neoliberal twists and turns, but only caters to the market of Islamic fundamentalism, human-rights abusers, and scandalous perpetrators whose antipathy and hostility victimize left-wing and right-wing dissidents alike.


1. Author’s translation. From an interview posted at

2. Author’s translation. From the Fars News Agency,

3. Carl Schmitt, On Dictatorship, cited in Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 34.

4. Radio Zamaneh,

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