October 12, 2007 -- ANXIOUS to create what they call "a global progressive front," Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela are sponsoring projects to underline "the ideological kinship of the left and revolutionary Islam."
The theme - hammered in by Ahmadinejad during his recent visit to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia - inspired a four-day seminar organized by his supporters at Tehran University last week (partly financed by Chavez).
The hope was that the conference would produce a synthesis of Marxist and Khomeinist ideologies and highlight what the Iranian leader has labeled "the divine aspect of revolutionary war." But the event itself proved rather embarrassing.
The conference title was "Che Like Chamran," a play on words designed to emphasize "the common goals" of Marxism and Islamism. It honored Mostafa Chamran on the 26th anniversary of his death, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the death of the Cuban-Argentine guerrilla icon Che Guevara.
Chamran was a Khomeinist militant of Iranian origin who became a U.S. citizen in the '60s before traveling to Lebanon, where he founded the Amal guerrilla group. He entered Iran in 1979 and helped the mullahs seize power. Appointed defense minister by Khomeini in '81, he died in a car crash a few months later.
The conference had three guests of honor: Mahdi Chamran, a brother of Mostafa and an Ahmadinejad associate, and Che's daughter Aleida and son Camilo.
Aleida, a pediatrician who lives in Havana, wore the mandatory Khomeinist hijab, while her brother had grown designer stubble to please the hosts. Also attending were an array of aging European and Latin American "Guevaristas" and Lebanese Hezbollah cadres.
At first, the conference was all clear sailing as participants agreed that the sole source of world evil was America and its "earth-devouring ambitions."
The Khomeinists were pleased to hear their European and Latin American guests denounce "America's criminal plans to attack the Islamic revolution," and insist that Iran had every right to develop its nuclear capabilities. The aging Guevaristas were equally pleased as their hosts praised the dead T-shirt poster boy as "a fighter for universal justice."
Mahdi Chamran claimed that Ahmadinejad, Chavez and "the leaders of the revolution in Nicaragua and Bolivia" belong to the same family of "strugglers for universal justice." Another Khomeinist speaker, Mortaza Firuzabadi, invited all anti-American forces to accept the leadership of Ahmadinejad's revolutionary regime. "Our aim is to free the downtrodden humanity and restore the violated rights of all nations," he said. "In this global jihad, we recognize no frontiers."
Things went pear-shape thanks to one keynote speakers, Hajj Saeed Qassemi, whose title is "coordinator of the Association of Volunteers for Suicide-Martyrdom." Praising the late "Che" as "a true revolutionary who made the American Great Satan tremble," he "revealed" that Guevara had been "a truly religious man who believed in God and hated communism and the Soviet Union."
"Today, communism has been consigned to the garbage can of history as foreseen by Imam Khomeini," Qassemi said. "Thus progressists everywhere must accept the leadership of our religious, pro-justice movement."
Demanding the right to respond, Aleida Guevara told the conference that Qassemi's claim might be based on a bad translation: "My father never mentioned God," she said as the hall sighed in chagrined disbelief. "He never met God."
The remarks caused a commotion amid which Aleida and her brother were whisked away, led into a car and driven to their hotel under escort.
Qassemi returned to the podium to unleash an unscripted attack on "godless communists." He called on "the left in Latin America and elsewhere" to clarify its position. He claimed that Guevara and his "Supreme Guide Fidel Castro" had decided to hide their religious beliefs in order to secure Soviet support."
"Both were men of God and never believed in socialism or communism," he asserted. "The Soviet Union is gone," he emphasized. "The leadership of the downtrodden has passed to our Islamic Republic. Those who wish to destroy America must understand the reality and not be clever with words."
A few hours after the incident, the Guevara siblings attended another meeting, this time organized at Amir-Kabir University by a group called the Mobilization of the Downtrodden Militia. Camilo Guevara confirmed his sister's earlier remarks but insisted that "progressists everywhere" focus on fighting America rather than probing each other's personal beliefs.
By the end of the day, the two Guevaras had become nonpersons. The state-controlled media, which had given them VIP billing, suddenly forgot their existence. The anniversary of Guevara's death was mentioned in passing with no reference to his Marxism.
The Islamic Republic bans all non-Khomeinist ideologies, but two are specifically punishable by imprisonment or death: socialism and liberal democracy.
The two Guevaras, who left the Islamic Republic in some haste, managed to anger some Iranian progressists. The siblings refused to mention the mass arrest of workers' leaders throughout Iran in the last few months or condemn the current wave of repression against trade unions, women's organizations, teachers and farm workers.
"These people don't give a damn about the toiling masses," says Parviz Jamshidi, a lawyer for imprisoned trade unionists. "To them workers represent nothing but an abstraction, an excuse for appearing left and chic. They don't see that the Khomeinist regime is at war against the poorest sections of our society."