The sham presidential election of June 2009 has unleashed a rainbow of political forces, writes Yassamine Mather, including an increasingly strong red component. The task of the left is to support and strengthen the red component of this rainbow, the Iranian working class, as the only force capable of bringing about democracy, and the only movement conscious of the international complexities of the current situation
Every day for the last few weeks Iranian workers have been protesting, at times in their thousands – at their workplaces, outside government offices and provincial offices complaining about job losses, non-payment of wages, privatisation … Universities have been the scene of daily protests and ordinary people have used every opportunity, even football matches, to express their opposition to the regime. At the same time a new wave of exiles, including reporters, writers, professors of literature, are leaving the country, despairing of continued repression and the ineffective ‘reformist’ leaders.
For the overwhelming majority of Iranians, however, such an option does not exist. Tens of millions of wage-earners have no choice but to continue their struggles against the regime in their daily confrontation with factory-owners and the religious state that backs them. In the words of those at Wagon Pars, who went on hunger strike last week, workers have “nothing to lose but their unpaid wages”. The 1,700 employees of Wagon Pars, manufacturer of freight wagons and passenger coaches, have been in dispute with management and the state for months over unpaid wages. In August 2009 these workers went on strike and staged a sit-in protest on factory grounds, locking the gates and preventing managers from entering.
The factory had been privatised as a subsidiary of troubled car maker Iran Khodro, after Iran’s supreme leader changed article 44 of the constitution, removing the guarantee of public ownership for key industries. Protests and threats of strike by Iran Khodro workers forced the government to retreat, showing the vulnerability of the rulers when confronted by united working class action. Iran Khodro workers have now won five of their demands, including an overtime pay rise of 20% for all workers on the production line.
Last week there were also major workers’ protests over non-payment of wages in Louleh Sazi Khouzestan (manufacturers of pipelines) and a demonstration by Tractor Sazi workers in Kurdistan, where tens of workers were sacked, while others are expected to work longer hours. Managers in most of these disputes blame the world economic downturn for the new wave of job losses. Nearly four months after the huge demonstrations of June 2009, the continuation of protests in workplaces and universities proves that opposition to the regime goes well beyond the issue of the sham presidential elections.
Sanctions and the working class
Sanctions have compounded an already dire economic situation. In the South Pars oilfields almost 6,000 contract workers are threatened with job losses, as whole fields are abandoned following news that Total, Repsol and Shell are pulling out. The current protests should indeed be seen in the light of the world economic crisis – whose effects have been felt far worse in the countries of the periphery – as well as the impact of sanctions. Iranian workers are adamant that the dire economic situation is one of the main reasons why protests continue and evolve, despite the failures of the green movement. Some of their supporters talk of the “suffocating silence” of the green movement’s leadership.1
Of course, workers’ protests in Iran are nothing new. They have been going on for years. What is different is the massive increase in their number and the introduction of political slogans, such as “Death to the dictator” or “Tanks, bullets, bassij [militia] are not effective any more”, in workers’ sit-ins, protests and demonstrations. Workers were the first section of the population to confront unscrupulous capitalists and the religious state, and their audacity paved the way for the wider opposition to develop. Now they are showing themselves the most tenacious in continuing the protests, even if the western media do not find workers’ actions newsworthy. The problems they face are enormous. Unlike the myriad well funded NGOs, some with dubious links to US regime-change funds, the Iranian working class has no source of ready income. On the contrary, their protests cost workers their meagre wages.
Reporting workers’ struggles on radio and TV is considered ideological, while giving wall-to-wall coverage to the utterances of ‘reformist’ Islamists or bourgeois liberal politicians is deemed ‘impartial’. The state can identify and punish labour activists much more easily than demonstrators. Nowhere is the state’s control more severe than in the oil industry. Worker activists discussing possible strike action are moved from their regular posts to other areas.
Yet none of the state’s increasingly repressive measures seem to deter the Iranian working class, who are turning the defensive actions of last year into more aggressive forms of protest, establishing road blocks, taking managers hostage, bringing their families to occupy closed factories and workplaces. In order to overcome the lack of news coverage of their struggles, Iranian workers are setting up their own means of communication through internet sites and email.
But the combination of proposed new sanctions and the ‘new’ economic policies of the regime will make life even harder for the majority. Just when it became clear that Iran has no intention of adhering to a proposed deal for the ‘resolution’ of its nuclear crisis2 and the US began passing legislation to impose new unilateral sanctions, the majles (Islamic parliament) discussed regulations that would sharply reduce energy and food subsidies, in compliance with long-term demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
In the US, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act (IRSA), approved by an overwhelming 414 to six margin in Congress, will allow local and state governments and their pension funds to divest from foreign companies or US subsidiaries with investments of more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector. And the house foreign affairs committee has scheduled a vote for October 28 on the Iran Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) bill. This will impose sanctions on companies involved in exporting refined petroleum products to Iran or expanding Tehran’s capacity to produce its own refined products. Similar sanctions are likely to be imposed by France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Meanwhile most US politicians and commentators agree that sanctions affecting the general population could actually bolster support for the Tehran government.
The new subsidies legislation in Iran will increase the prices of goods, including gasoline, natural gas and electricity. Similar legislation was proposed by ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami during his term (1997-2005), proving once more that, when it comes to major economic decisions, including compliance with IMF demands, the two main factions of the Islamic regime have identical policies. It is therefore no surprise that ‘reformist’ MPs, including supporters of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the main challenger in the June elections, back the measure.
With subsidies and the current rationing system, a litre of gasoline costs 100 tomans ($0.10). The new bill will raise the price to as much as 500 or 600 tomans per litre – before the effects of US/European sanctions start to bite. The measure could double Iran’s already astronomic rate of inflation, fluctuating between 15% and 30%. It will make the poor poorer, while the rich will be least affected. Ironically, legislative bodies in both the US and Iran are making sure the Iranian people will suffer this winter. Iran is the world’s fifth-largest crude oil exporter, but its eight refineries cannot produce near enough fuel for the home market.
If anyone had any doubt about the reactionary nature of the ‘reformist’ leaders, this week’s meeting and joint statement from Moussavi and Khatami should have shattered their illusions. They called for “a return to the values of the Islamic republic and to the country’s constitution”. What values are we talking about? Air raids on inhabited villages in Kurdistan in the early 1980s, when Moussavi was prime minister? Or the massacre of peasants who sheltered leftwingers in Kurdistan? The values that led to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1987, or the values behind serial political murders during Khatami’s presidency? The list of ‘Islamic values’ under Khatami and Moussavi is indeed endless. These gentlemen and the ‘reformists’ as a whole are obsessed with calling recent events a coup, as their pleas for a return to the ‘glory days’ of the Islamic republic make clear: Iran had previously been a democracy, you see – at least when Khatami was president or Moussavi was prime minister – but then in June 2009 there was a coup!
In reality, the Islamic regime’s attitude towards any form of opposition has not changed much over the last few months. Opposition groups and labour activists, women and student protesters have been arrested, tortured and executed throughout the last 30 years. What has changed is a reduction in the executive power of the ‘reformists’, who have been part and parcel of the regime. It is hard to see how one could call the current state of affairs a coup when the major players claiming to be the victims still hold their positions. Former ‘reformist’ president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) remains chair of the council of experts and chair of the national security council. Khatami’s International Institute for Dialogue among Cultures and Civilisations is not under threat. Clerical allies of the ‘reformists’ in Ghom remain free to express their opinions.
None of this, of course, makes Iran a democracy. Iran remains a religious capitalist state with all the contradictions of such a combination. However, what we are witnessing is not a coup, but divisions amongst rulers.
The events of June 2009 have unleashed a whole set of new movements in Iran. One can no longer speak of a single movement. In the words of activists inside Iran, we see a rainbow of political forces, including an increasingly strong red component. As I said at the CPGB’s Communist University in August, the task of the left is to support and strengthen the red component of this rainbow, the Iranian working class, as the only force capable of bringing about democracy – but also as the only movement conscious of the international complexities of the current situation.
However, the events of the last few years, as well as the BBC’s obsession with the Iranian clergy and ‘ayatollogy’,3 has moved much of the exiled left and some of their supporters inside Iran further into liberalism and nationalism. For these forces, mesmerised by the euphoria of maintaining ‘unity’, class politics has become a dogmatic irrelevance. Yet there have been very few times in Iran’s history when the role of the working class has been so pivotal in the political arena as it is today – as sections of the Iranian working class, in particular in the oil industry, keep reminding us.4 They are the force that continues to fight for their jobs and their livelihoods, and in doing so they are in the forefront of the battle for democracy.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the pro-Soviet Stalinist left in Iran started its analysis of the political situation from an international perspective. According to the dogma, there existed two camps, imperialism and socialism, and from that followed tactics and strategy. In an almost total reversal of that old position, we now see an Iranian ‘left’, often with roots in organisations that had pro-Soviet tendencies, looking only at Iran and analysing the region and the world through the prism of nationalism. No wonder this ex-left has become so liberal in its attitudes towards imperialism, war and sanctions.
By identifying the main enemy as the current regime in Iran with its Islamic characteristics (as opposed to its capitalist nature), this section of the ‘left’ becomes, consciously or unconsciously, part of the rightwing agenda. It seeks justice for Iranian workers from pro-imperialist trade unions; it wants tribunals financed by the Pentagon for abusers of human rights and executioners of political prisoners; it sees nothing wrong with accepting funds from western capitalist organisations to set up NGOs; when it comes to imperialism, it supports ‘third campist’ positions, choosing to ignore the predominant role of the hegemonic forces in world capitalism (this malaise goes well beyond the disintegrating splinters of the Worker-communist Party of Iran, spreading to other sections of the exiled left like a contagious disease).
That is why, at a time of political upheavals which should see the radicalisation of this ‘left’, we hear the most astonishing comments, ranging from the sublime – ‘Both Israel and Palestinians are equally at fault over Gaza’ (the Palestinians presumably for being occupied), ‘We should support a third campist position’ – to the ridiculous – crediting the bourgeoisie in western Europe for “bringing about universal suffrage” (N Khorasani, feminist activist). Our liberal left is keen to talk of social movements rather than class politics, forgetting that social movements, in Iran as anywhere else, are so divided by class, nationality, religion and politics that it is impossible to consider them a single coherent force – the women’s movement being a clear example.
The heralded movement of movements in Iran will go nowhere unless the working class succeeds in putting its mark on current events. In so doing it will inevitably have to deal with the increasing ‘liberalism’ of sections of the ex-left.
We are at the beginning of such a struggle and it will take a long time. Nevertheless the signs from debates amongst workers inside Iran are encouraging. Car workers and oil workers who face international capital in their daily protests seem unaffected by the myth of bourgeois liberal heavens that will permit the development of trade unions, apparently a precondition for all workers’ struggles! The Iranian working class – and here one should include the millions who have lost their jobs because of the neoliberal policies of finance capital – are in daily confrontation with world capitalism.
No wonder, despite their hatred of the Islamic regime, they remain the only class aware of the objective interests of the United States and it allies in controlling the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. Unlike sections of the national minorities or the women’s movement, which have become pawns in imperialist games, Iranian workers have maintained their opposition to a regime which is subordinate to the US in the global pecking order, and are conscious that their movement must draw clear lines against bourgeois alternatives and imperialist plans.
They are already taking initiatives well beyond the limited horizons of our liberal left, talking of workers’ control in the thousands of abandoned factories and plants throughout the country. They are talking of the need for unity in organising employed and unemployed workers, of the need to set up neighbourhood organisations in working class districts. They are discussing the possibility of a general strike, its likely risks and potential rewards.
They certainly have no illusions regarding any of the shades of the green movement, even though they clearly understand the unprecedented opportunities presented by the current divisions amongst Iran’s theocratic rulers. Our solidarity and our support should be with the working class – and its many allies in the women’s movement, amongst students and in the national and religious minorities.