In 18th century Vienna, where intellectuals and flaneurs liked to hob nob in the city’s fabled cafe scene, there was said to have been an infamous saying: “What’s in the newspaper today? Are the Turks killing or are they being killed?” The quote was meant to caustically symbolize the safety of the European metropolis and its emotional distance from the Ottoman Empire, which had come so close to conquering the city just decades before.
Such emotional distance was characteristic of many of the initial American reactions to the shocking news that Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force, responsible for the country’s military operations abroad, had been eliminated while visiting Iraq in an assassination ordered from the White House. This is typical. The “forever war” has been a feature of American life for decades, although a relatively small number of American lives have been lost in this conflict. Meanwhile, total misery and destruction is reserved for people from lands whose names most Americans struggle to pronounce.
As an Iranian socialist living in the United States, my own reactions couldn’t be more different. I might be as physically far from Baghdad as my Manhattan neighbors, but my life and that of my loved ones are bound to events in the Middle East with a thousand threads. From the outset, I had two sets of reactions to the news: shock and worry for what may come; and a moment of reflection of who Soleimani was and what his life and death meant for our region.
Allow me to start from the first.
Like most Iranians, I was immediately gripped with that scariest of questions: what if war is to break out between Iran and the United States? America’s assassination of Soleimani, a top military leader of a sovereign nation, contravenes the most basic aspects of international law — a body of civil regulations that the United States has honored more in breach. This was also a reckless provocation, a high-risk play of brinksmanship so obviously and pathetically linked to Donald Trump’s political calculations in an election year.
As American teenagers were wistfully joking about “World War Three” on Twitter, even the best-humored people from the Middle East could hardly let out a laugh. People from places such as Aleppo or Basra know too well bitter taste of war; they’ve seen it in the last few years: entire families destroyed and broken, entire societies collapsed. There is nothing abstract about war. It is felt by blood and flesh of human beings.
As an opponent of the Iranian regime, I have been barred from visiting my homeland for more than 11 years — a fate shared by tens of thousands of fellow Iranian dissidents. To visit friends or family, we are forced to meet in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the United Arab Emirates. These visits have become harder and harder since the economic sanctions hurt the purchasing power of average Iranians, and as the visiting options of Iranian passports have become increasing narrower.
Just last week, I was in Tbilisi, which is now filled with Iranians who have left their beleaguered nation for a second chance at life. I travel to Tbilisi often and it is there that I have managed to meet up with my cousins, aunts, and uncles, and where I recently took my grandmother to see the city’s old mosque.
Less than 24 hours after I left Tbilisi for New York, news of the Soleimani assassination broke. As I was gripped with worries of a possible war, I thought of my beautiful 23-year-old cousin and her endless laughter. She works in a clothing store and wants to start a fashion brand some day. I thought of that other cousin who once studied in the holy city of Mashhad in order to become a cleric. We still exchange books tips.
I thought of my grandmother and all the sadness she has lived through. Her children were arrested as leftist activists in the early years after the 1979 evolution. Her nephew was killed in the devastating Iran-Iraq War. Her grandchildren left Iran for exile. Somehow, she still manages to smile and be kind to everyone, including the neighborhood cats.
Wars don’t discriminate. An attack on Tehran could put an end to the lives of this very real people whom I loved, and many more like them.
But I would be a hypocrite if I feared for the lives of my fellow Iranians while forgetting about thousands of Syrian and Iraqi lives destroyed by Soleimani and his acolytes. If I feared for war on Iran but forgot the many war crimes committed by the soldiers of my own nation, under the command of Soleimani, in the Arab nations of our region. If I forgot the very real fear that grips millions of Israelis when Soleimani’s allies promise the destruction of Israel just as their leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, brazenly denies the Holocaust.
Yes, it is possible to both loath the U.S. assassination of Soleimani as a dangerous provocation and to shed no tears for Soleimani. On social media, I saw many family members in Iran mourning Soleimani as a “war hero” who had fought ISIS, while conveniently forgetting his violent suppression of the revolutions in Syria and Iraq.
I couldn’t afford to forget for two reasons. First, my social media feed included a Syrian friend living in New York who was unable to hide his glee at the death of a man who had been responsible for the killing of so many of his compatriots. “My first wish for the new year is granted,” he said on Facebook. I saw similar reactions from other Syrian friends living in Beirut, Berlin, California, and Brazil — all of whom had been forced out of their countries by that brutal war in which Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar Assad, remained in power with Soleimani’s help.
The second reason was my identity as an internationalist leftist. For me, the best of the global left has long been its tradition of cosmopolitan solidarity — one that stands up to the misdeeds of one’s own nation abroad. Just as many European Marxists refused to back “their own” armies in the bloodbath of First World War, and just as American socialists stood up to the crimes of the U.S. in Vietnam, it is the duty of Iranian progressives to stand up to the nationalist myths that Tehran propagates and oppose Iranian interventions in the region.
The name “Soleimani” had become synonymous with oppression in countries such as Syria and Iraq. In 1867, Karl Marx said that the British workers could not be free so long as their country continued to withhold freedom from the Irish. Today, it is clear that Iranians won’t see freedom so long as the Islamic Republic helps prop up the tyrant of Damascus, suppresses the protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and threatens the people of Israel with destruction.
The death of Soleimani might help the regime in Tehran spread its nationalist poison, but socialists must make clear a simple truth: the interests of ordinary people of this region, the people of Tabriz, Mosul, Homs, Nablus, and Ashkelon, are one and the same — opposition to war, opposition to economic deprivation, and opposition to autocracy. It is the job of progressives to build a political front that represents these transnational interests beyond the borders that divide us.