Workers are growing in confidence, reports Yassamine Mather
Over the last few weeks, following the show trials of ‘reformist’ personalities and the imposition of even more severe forms of repression in Iran, the nature of protests has changed considerably.
However, demonstrations continue on a daily basis in Tehran and most other Iranian cities, with numbers attending ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. Reports from the working class neighbourhoods of Tehran, such as Ekbatan, Apadana and Karaj, and from the white-collar suburbs of Tehran Pars, indicate that anti-government demonstrations take place every night and often lead to confrontation between protesters and Bassij militia.
Last week dozens of political prisoners started a hunger strike in Evin prison and on the first day of Ramadan families of those arrested in recent protests gathered outside calling for the immediate release of all political detainees. There are daily protests in factories and workplaces against the political and economic conditions and in some provinces, including Khorassan, there is news of peasants protesting against confiscation of their land by religious authorities. Five hundred peasants from Sarakhss have staged a sit-in for the last week in front of Mashad’s main petrol station, complaining about the use of religious legislation to expropriate their land.
The crisis in the government continues, with clear divisions between the conservative ‘principlists’ and the proposed government. On Thursday August 20 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled a cabinet boasting 11 new faces, including three women. Loyalty to the president seemed to be the main factor, as ‘conservative’ and ‘reformist’ MPs alike condemned the nominations. Clearly Ahmadinejad will face an uphill struggle getting them passed by the majles (parliament). Even the principlist faction seems to be opposed to most of the nominations, guaranteeing months of uncertainty and the continuation of the political crisis. According to the ILNA news agency, speaker Ali Larijani complained: “The ministry is not a place for apprenticeship; it is a place that requires expertise and experience”.
Iran’s defence minister-designate is on an Interpol ‘wanted’ list over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Argentina. Interpol put out a ‘red notice’ for Ahmad Vahidi in 2007 over the Buenos Aires attack that killed 85 people. As for the women appointees, they were clearly chosen for their ultra-conservative views on everything – including women’s rights. These comments from Fatemeh Ajorloo, Ahmadinejad’s choice for minister of social services, speak volumes: “… it is men who go for khastegari [the custom of a man asking for a woman’s hand] and they remain responsible for the marriage. This is great: that is how society should operate. Why did the family break down in the west? Because women went to work and men lost their true role.” That was from a speech in defence of quotas for university entrance – the government believes too many women are going into higher education.
Ajorloo is also a defender of new legislation before the majles entitled ‘Efaf’ (chastity). She is in favour of a ‘uniform’ for Iranian women of all ages – a long black chador (a tent-like covering from head to toe, pinned under the chin) and, to be fair, she herself is a walking advertisement for this bizarre attire, as revealed by her official photos.
However, even tame Islamist women like Ajorloo are too much for Iran’s clerics. A number of senior ayatollahs have expressed opposition to Ahmadinejad’s decision to nominate women ministers. On August 22 conservative MPs told the media that leading Iranian clerics – including grand ayatollahs Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Lotfollah Safi Golpayghani – had “doubts about choosing female ministers and want Ahmadinejad to reconsider”, according to the Tehran Emrouz newspaper.
Defending his nominations for ministerial posts, Ahmadinejad managed to offend almost everyone by comparing his outgoing health minister, Kamran Lankarani, to a peach that any man would want to eat! A conservative MP, Ali Ghanbari, said it was beneath the president’s dignity to compare his minister with a fruit. A video of Ahmadinejad’s peach comments has been widely circulated on the internet and posted on blogs and social networking sites.
As the protests continue and news of atrocities in prisons and detention centres spreads, the anger against the ineffectiveness of ‘reformist leaders’ – some of whom are clearly involved in behind-the-scene deals with the conservative faction – grows.
The super-rich ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani is in the process of being rehabilitated in the centres of religious and political power. He was consulted by the supreme leader in the nomination of the new chief justice and attended his inauguration ceremony. Rafsanjani’s August 22 statement urging Iran’s political factions to follow orders from the supreme leader, had all the hallmarks of a new conciliatory move. Rafsanjani has also reportedly reiterated his previous call to politicians and the media to “avoid causing schisms” and “take steps toward the creation of unity”. Clearly for Iran’s ‘reformists’, the survival of the Islamic regime remains paramount.
Over the last two months ‘reformist’ presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi have done very little to improve their standing, falling far short of the expectations of their most ardent supporters. However, as news of the torture and death of protesters detained after recent demonstrations spread, first Karroubi and then Moussavi realised that unless they acted they would lose any credibility. First came the statement by Karroubi that he was enraged by the torture of demonstrators and then both men issued statements condemning the torture and rape of detainees – ‘reformist’ leaders say 69 protesters died in the post-election violence.
Although one should welcome any condemnation of torture, some of us cannot help remembering comrades who died under torture when Moussavi was prime minister and Karroubi was a close ally of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini – he was head of the Khomeini relief committee and the Martyrs’ Foundation between 1979 and 1989. Let me mention one in particular – comrade Nastaran, with whom I shared a room in Kurdistan. In the autumn of 1983 she left our Kurdistan Fedayeen base, having been given responsibility for a workers’ committee in south Tehran.
Nastaran was arrested a few months after returning to Tehran and, although she had tried to swallow her cyanide tablet (a standard practice among arrested Fedayeen members), she did not manage to commit suicide. Fellow prisoners, who saw her between the day of her incarceration and her untimely death are unanimous in describing the frightening state to which she was reduced following months of torture. She “couldn’t stand on her feet”, she had been lashed so many times. She “couldn’t see – her eyes were too swollen from all the beatings” …
Over the last week I have not stopped thinking about Nastaran. Maybe if messrs Moussavi and Karroubi had done something about torture in those days, she and thousands like her who died in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic would still be alive. But, of course, had they done so, their beloved Islamic Republic, the regime they still want to save, would not have survived the protests of the last three decades.
In 2009 the religious judiciary denies all accusations of torture and rape of prisoners as baseless – the detainees making these claims cannot even produce the basic prerequisite for a prosecution: witness statements from four male adults!
In the meantime the trials of ‘reformist’ leaders have continued and have featured on a tragicomic show on state TV. In addition to the ministers of ex-president Khatami and ideologues of the Islamic ‘reformist’ movement such as Saeed Hajjarian, the conservative faction is now trying in absentia German sociologists Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas!
Hajjarian, the prosecutor said, once met Habermas, who was famous for his theory of civil disobedience, according to which it is permissible to refuse to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government, or of an occupying power, without resorting to physical violence. The accusations against Weber were not mentioned in court (presumably because he died in 1920), but the Shia conservatives clearly do not like him either!
Last week Moussavi, Karroubi and Khatami launched a new front: the ‘green road to hope’. As the title suggests, this a road to nowhere, yet it is already clear that the front, which aims to “unite the opposition from below” with branches in every city and community, is organised from above. As time goes by, another generation of young Iranians is learning through practice not to have any illusions about reformists leaders whose only concern remains their tattered political careero:s. Yet in the absence of a powerful left, there is little prospect for real change in Iran.
If up until June 2009 factory owners and the government blamed the ‘world economic crisis’ for non-payment of workers’ wages, job cuts and mass unemployment, after June they have had another excuse: the protests paralysed the economy and that is why workers cannot be paid. No doubt Iran’s economy is in serious trouble, yet it is mainly the working class, the wage-earners, who are paying the price.
Over 1,500 major Iranian companies are on the verge of bankruptcy and they include major firms such as the Arak Automobile Factory and Azar Water Company. Iran Khodro, Iran’s main car plant, was only saved by an injection of over $1 billion by the government in early August. Managers of this factory and other major companies are encouraging workers to accept redundancy packages so that they can conform with the government policy of only employing temporary contract workers (Ahmadinejad’s last minister of labour had promised that by 2010 100% of Iran’s workforce will be employed on such contracts).
But workers are resisting. Kashan textile employees are amongst those staging demonstrations against the non-payment of wages – they have not been paid for 22 months. These workers have pointed out that their dispute with managers predates the current political crisis. This month there was a major dispute at the Pars Wagon Company, when workers destroyed the canteen in protest at non-payment of wages, smashing windows and breaking tables and chairs.
And workers in Haft Tapeh staged a noisy sit-in on Friday August 16 as part of a long-standing struggle with the factory’s management. They are demanding the implementation of an agreed job reclassification, increased wages, better overtime pay, an end to the logging of every task and no more sackings of contract workers.
There are also directly political protests in workplaces. On hearing of an impending visit by Ahmadinejad, workers at the Bandar Abbas shipyard threatened to go on strike in mid-August, saying they would not allow a “coup d’etat president” to visit.
News coverage of events in Iran often concentrates on what is happening amongst the ruling circles, but Pars metal workers protesting against job cuts, low wages and poor working conditions for the last six months say they will continue their protests until the media inside “Iran’s capitalist hell” is shamed into broadcasting their demands.
In other developments, a new formation in Tehran, the Council in Support of Iranian People’s Struggles, has become more active. It includes political organisations, women’s groups and sections of the independent left in opposition to the entire regime and in support of workers’ struggles.
Clearly most of these protests would have gone on irrespective of the political turmoil. However, the events of the last few weeks have given a new momentum to workers’ actions, whose slogans are now more political and less defensive. They are lasting longer and pose a real threat to the efforts of all factions of the regime to control the political situation and maintain the status quo.