Mehdi Kia examines the state of the movement against the clerical regime
It is now four months since the coup in Iran, thinly disguised as presidential elections. Even though the victors of the coup appear to have succeeded in consolidating themselves and the opposition forces have apparently been pushed back into defensive positions, the massive anti-government demonstrations on September 18 – the last Friday of the month of Ramadan, Quds day, which is traditionally given over to anti-Israel demonstrations – show that there is much life left in the opposition.
Whatever happens over the next weeks and months, the Islamic regime has walked out of its fortress, crossed over the moat and the drawbridge has been irrevocably destroyed behind it. There is no going back. In this article I will outline the reasons for this conclusion, and go on to describe the achievements, the weaknesses and some of the lessons for the progressive forces fighting the regime in Iran. Hopefully there may also be some lessons for the left abroad, confused as it appears to be as to how to interpret the scenarios beamed at it from Iran. In writing this article I am hugely indebted to Ardeshir Mehrdad, with whom I have had many conversations, but I take full responsibility for any errors of fact, interpretation or analysis.
The people of Iran woke up on June 13 to face a regime that was in fundamental ways different from the one that had been in power when they went to bed. The night before, an hour before the polls closed, the news of Ahmadinejad’s victory with about 63% of votes appeared on the official Pars web site.
One of my friends saw this and in her astonishment rang friends and her brother abroad. But by the time they logged on the page it had been taken down, to reappear about two hours after the polls closed. The figure was to remain more or less the same throughout the next two days as count after count came in. It was a unique example of vote-counting – backwards. Anyone doubting not only the fact that a fraud had taken place, but that its scale was grotesque, must be a believer in Ahmadinejad’s halo1 and his claim to be in touch with the ‘occulted’ 12th Imam. The fraud was clearly part of a plan laid out weeks before by the sepah pasdaran (revolutionary guards). At one stroke they had removed large sections of the clerical establishment from power.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic is a curious amalgam. One arm is a top-down ‘caliphate’, headed by the velayat faqih, who has absolute and unquestionable power over all civil and political society.2 The other arm is a bottom-up ‘republic’, where an executive president and a parliament – the Majles – are elected by direct ballot. These make up the twin-structures of the Islamic Republic.
However, at every level the ‘republic’ is subordinate to the ‘caliphate’. Not only are representatives of the leader implanted into every organ of state, but also he is the head of the judiciary and the military-security apparatus. He chooses the Guardian Council that vets, and can reject out of hand, all candidates and also all laws passed by the Majles.
Yet the elections are not entirely sham. They have allowed the various factions of the regime to gain positions of influence within the power structure using the electoral process. Moreover, the presidency (and its cabinet) has executive power and the leadership depends on it to run the day-to-day affairs of the country.
The June ‘election’ was the last chapter in a political project master-minded by the pasdaran (revolutionary guards) and the osulgran (principled) faction, whose fundamental goal is to rid the country once and for all of the factionalism that has blighted the ruling elite since the beginning.3 Having previously conquered the town councils and then the Majles, the osulgran considered it essential to ensure that the presidency remained in its hands. This was to be the last chapter in the project to remove the factionalism of the regime and achieve yekparchegi (loosely translated as ‘uniformity’) – a continuous aim since the early days of the regime.
Out went the ability of the various factions to use the election process to manoeuvre for power and influence. Out went the ‘republic’ from the ‘Islamic Republic’ amalgam. The revolutionary guards and a handful of mullahs more or less linked to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, have cleared the way for the unencumbered ‘caliphate’ – or have they?
The scale of the fraud was such that the people erupted. The streets of Tehran were flooded by thousands who were outraged at the audacity of the ‘results’. Everyone expected some cheating, but not such brazen fraud. Clearly Ahmadinejad subscribes to Goebbels’ dictum that if you make a lie big enough people will believe it – how could anyone lie so blatantly if it was not true? But the people had seen the scale of participation in the voting and witnessed the pre-election fever. Over the last 30 years this degree of voter mobilisation has always meant that the protest vote has been higher.
The shock to the pasdaran was genuine, and I think the revolutionary guards were caught off guard. They had already put in place ‘security precautions’, such as the suspension of mobile phone SMS services, in case of any protest. But the sheer numbers on Tehran’s streets had not been anticipated. So the pasdaran held back as the scale of demonstrations escalated to nearly three million people by the third day. Then, as the protest gradually lost its natural momentum, they moved in and clamped down until demonstrations of no more than a few hundred people were possible.
It is worth reiterating that in the first days the entire security apparatus available to the regime was mobilised. They had pulled out all the stops. If they had lost that day, it is difficult to imagine what would have happened next. They did not take the risk of confrontation, but bided their time, hoping – correctly, as it turned out – that street protest would slowly exhaust itself.
The day three million pairs of feet marched Tehran’s streets was the day the reformist leaders instructed the demonstrators to walk in silence. They did that after slogans of “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei” had been heard on the previous days. There could not have been a better example of the limitations of the reformist movement. Stuck between wanting to remain within the constitution of the Islamic Republic and the obvious pressure from below to go beyond, they found themselves performing absurd contortions.
For example, they tried to insist that peaceful demonstrations are constitutional, even though they knew full well that in the very same constitution it is the Council of Guardians which decides what is legal. And when Khamenei, the supreme leader, told the people to stop fussing over a few million votes4 and go home the reformists had the stark choice of shutting up or joining the real opposition to the regime. The final death agony of the reformists is the first main gain of the post-election movement.
As significant was the evolution of the slogans which progressively marginalised and ultimately threaten to sideline and negate the reformist leadership. They went from “What happened to my vote?” through “Death to the dictator”, “Death to Ahmadinejad” and “Death to Khamenei”, to finally “Esteqlal, azadi, jomhuri irani” (“Independence, freedom, Iranian republic”). They shouted this in the streets and, when this became impossible, from rooftops at night. All the main red lines were being crossed. The near sacred ‘leader’ not only became an object of jokes, but people were calling for his death. This had not happened for 30 years and would have been unthinkable to the majority of Iranians even a few months ago. Taboo after taboo was being broken.
The significance of the last slogan cannot be underestimated. “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic” was the pivotal call of the 1979 revolution – the first two words describing the content and the last the vehicle by which these were supposedly to be realised. This was a democratic, anti-imperialist revolution that contained the illusion that these goals could be achieved through an Islamic regime. By discarding the Islamic Republic but keeping the first two components, the people shouting this slogan were making a clear link with the revolution of 1979, declaring it to be unfinished, while reiterating its democratic and anti-imperialist aims and proclaiming the new, secular vehicle that was to bring them about.
While the slogan is only in its infancy, it betrays the seeds of a true anti-Islamic Republic uprising that is both democratic and independent of foreign influence. No ‘colour revolution’ here! This is the second gain of the post-election movement.
The third achievement was the forging of new links and the rudimentary skeleton of independent organisations. The involvement of youth, and particularly students, at the election headquarters of the reformist candidates allowed the creation of new acquaintances, friendships and political links that were consolidated further over the ensuing street demonstrations. The fact that some of the leadership of these street and neighbourhood actions has been won by the left is noteworthy.
Fourth, when even sections of the ruling elite are forced to admit to and protest against beatings, torture and even rape, then you know that all the curtains have been torn apart. They even tortured the son of a member of the usulgaran (principled) – the victors of the election. Of course torture is not new to the regime and has been well documented by human rights groups. Those reformist leaders who protest today know that very well – some had even participated in interrogations, and served in governments when torture and execution were being conducted on an industrial scale. Neither is rape a new political weapon – at one stage it was systematically carried out against female political prisoners to make sure they could not enter heaven.5 Grieving families in 1981-83 were given not only the bullet that killed their loved one (and charged for the cost), but also a ‘marriage’ ring by the pasdar who had raped them. That was the macabre ritual of some of the rapes that took place in the prisons of the regime.
This time rape of both men and women was used as a weapon of terror. To admit to this is to cross another red line. The ethical pretensions of the first “rule of Allah on earth”6 in modern times lies in ruins.
Fifth, the very fact that the protest movements have broadly kept under the ‘green’ umbrella is a sign of the maturity of the Iranian people. There is not one green movement, but several; or, as someone said, many colours are subsumed under the green banner. At one extreme are the followers of the defeated reformist candidates, Moussavi and Karroubi. At the other, radical sections that clearly want to overthrow the Islamic regime, including the left. In between are various shades of groupings, mostly not at all clearly defined.
More importantly they are in a state of flux. This is a movement in development. Most of the tendencies within it are gelatinous and not clearly demarcated from other tendencies. The amorphous mass of protestors are linked through what they do not want. What they do want is in the process of evolution, and evolves at different rates and sometimes in contradictory ways. Thus at any given moment incompatible positions and views may be held by individuals.
At present the reformist leadership provides the radical elements with an umbrella of relative safety. That the physical crackdown, savage as it has been, has been less so than when the regime was liquidating enemies that were clearly outside its own circle – the left and the mujahedin – is evidence of this.
Finally there was the ability of the protestors to use all modern means of communication: SMS, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube projected every move, every protest, every battle, every beating and most shootings across the world. Blogs and internet sites updated the world on a minute-to-minute basis. Internet-savvy youth circumvented all efforts to block the information flow. Countless servers abroad were used to bypass the regime’s censorship.
The Iranian protest movement became truly internationalised. The entire world saw Neda Aqa-Soltani’s last dying moments. Her child-like innocent eyes as they glazed over with death looked out at all of us, and indelibly imprinted that look in the global memory. The brutal extinguishing of Neda’s young life, a life with such hope, so courageous, also sounded the death knell for the regime which pulled the trigger.
The achievements were underwritten by blood. Over a hundred killed, thousands beaten, tortured, raped. Many broken spirits forced to confess on television to absurd links with foreign embassies and agents. Mass trials. More confessions – some, like the one by Said Hajjarian, a former interrogator and one of the theoreticians of the reformist movement, verging on the comic when he blamed foreign textbooks used at the universities for the corruption of youth. And now the first death sentence.7
This is the heavy price that was paid, and is being paid, as thousands remain in prison and arrests continue daily. But, without wishing to belittle the savagery, it is much less severe than what we saw in the attack on Kurdistan in 1979, in the bloody crackdown of the left and Mujahedin in 1981-83 and in the massacre of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.
Perhaps among the costs we should also list the tactical mistakes made by the opposition. The reformist leadership was overtaken by events at every turn. Moussavi himself admitted in the early days that he followed where the people led. Where the reformists did give directions, these were often mistaken ones, handicapped by the reformists’ contradictory position of being, on the one hand, Islamic regime insiders and, on the other, at the head of an oppositional movement that has no choice but to go beyond the regime if it is to achieve its aims.
Silencing the millions on the one day when their overwhelming numerical advantage could have dealt a serious, even potentially mortal, blow to the revolutionary guards (at least in Tehran, where the regime had mobilised all the forces at its disposal) was a huge tactical mistake. So was sending them into the street day after day in diminishing numbers against an increasingly confident and brutal security apparatus. Calling on them to gather in absurd places, such as in front of parliament, where they clearly were meant to impress the waverers among the Majles deputies. All it did was place a few thousand people in a place with no real means of escaping the rabid revolutionary guards or one million-strong basij militia and their thugs in civilian clothes.
The street was an arena of struggle during the 1979 revolution precisely because the numbers on the street kept on increasing. When it became obvious that the numbers prepared to risk death and almost certain beating was declining, a change in tactics would have been sensible for any imaginative leadership.
The insistence on using slogans that only addressed the issue of elections was yet another error committed by the reformists – again arising from their real quandary. This weakened the ability of the protest to become linked to other social movements – eg, the women’s or national movement. It would have made sense to carry slogans defending the various other democratic demands of the peoples and nationalities of Iran. There was a unique opportunity to unite the various social movements into a larger mass. And to draw the population of south Tehran, the shanty towns and the poorer areas of the various cities into what has been predominantly, though not exclusively, a youthful protest movement in the northern suburbs.
Most critical has been the failure to unite with the rapidly escalating workers’ movement. During the same period workers have been active across the country in numerous strikes, sit-ins, hostage-taking, occupations, road blocks and demonstrations. The economy of the country is in free fall and inflation is rampant. Large sections of Iranian industries are on the verge of bankruptcy. Hundreds of thousands of workers are being laid off or see their jobs on a knife-edge. The casualisation of labour, laying off full-time workers and replacing them with part-time contract workers – on so-called white contracts8 – has made the life of the working people of Iran impossible. Inflation has made already poor workers destitute. Here is a minefield of actual and potential human material for self-organisation and protest.
Finally the protest still remains predominantly in the capital, Tehran. While there have been demonstrations in Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad, Kurdistan and other towns, they have been somewhat less extensive.
What the movement lacks is determined organisation. And what is missing is an organised, united left with a clear view of its aims, a clear strategy and a clear understanding of the tactical steps necessary to arm the amorphous and multi-faceted mass movement with political direction. This is a moment that may only come once in a generation. As the bard said, there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. The tide is in flood and the chance may not return again for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately most of the forces that are either masquerading as left or are genuinely on the left inside (and indeed outside) Iran have a rather binary, black-and-white vision of politics. Movements are either to be supported outright or rejected out of hand. Yet, on closer inspection the current protest movement in Iran can be seen to be made up of multiple, overlapping circles, with boundaries that are continuously in flux. The contours of these multiple ‘green’ movements are vague and are continuously being dissolved and reformed into new shapes.
This binary view of life and politics is best demonstrated by the attitude of the left to the reformists. Either they reject them outright, ignoring the fact that the reformists, used wisely, can help open up the space for the working class and the struggle for democratic rights. Or they fall behind the reformists, mouthing only the slogans they think are acceptable to them.
One view has in reality no tactics to fulfil its strategy – whether it is a democratic republic or socialism. The goal becomes a mere slogan, an article of faith, like a religious mantra. It remains a distant utopia, since the groups upholding it have no policy to lead us from A to Z.
The other view essentially ditches strategy (if there ever was one), replacing it entirely with tactics. The tactic of the united front becomes the strategy – an aim in itself. These groups become appendages of the reformists, mere followers, mouthing their slogan “Hameh ba ham” (“Everyone together”). Worse, they act as the police of the reformists, fearful of any slogans that might upset the balance, which in practice means only allowing those chosen by the reformist leadership.
Neither group can ever hope to lead the present protest movement out of its current impasse. What is needed is the vision, and leadership, that can utilise a variety of tactics in order to broaden and deepen the current protests, and most importantly to push it beyond the limited aim of a rerun of the latest election. We have seen the seeds of this broader movement in the slogans that have surfaced here and there, as discussed earlier. What is now needed are tactics that allow this passage through the mountain passes ahead; to transform the seeds of a movement into a movement proper.
I will summarise a few points that I believe need addressing, without in any way claiming that these are exhaustive.
First, it is important to realise that at this juncture the reformists do impart an umbrella that provides relative safety for the broader opposition. The fact that the regime cannot slaughter its errant ‘children’ (what it used to call the khodiha – insiders) with the same equanimity and savagery that it can outsiders is witnessed by the reduced scale of the repression compared to previous waves. A vigilant, radical leadership would use this umbrella, without falling under its shadow, and only for as long as it provides a cover. But a radical leadership would pursue its own independent programme and push the movement towards the adoption of tactics that will ensure its deepening and strengthening.
Secondly, one such tactic is the linking of the various social movements – women, nationalities, religious, etc – with the current protest movement. One of the gravest error of the reformist leadership was to ignore everything but the ‘vote’. Demands that relate to these democratic rights should be incorporated in the current struggle, allowing a broader section of society to participate.
Thirdly, a key movement that is currently boiling over with anger is that of the working class – a movement that is fighting for its very survival in the face of neoliberal policies and mass layoffs. There has been little, or no, effort to link the post-election protest movement to the nationwide working class protests which have been escalating over the last two months. Physical and material support for the protesting and striking workers is vital – and vital now. It was the combination of massive street demonstrations and a general strike that broke the back of the shah. Radicals within the protest movement should be aiming towards a general strike by supporting and deepening the present dispersed working class struggles.
Fourthly, the massive unemployment in the country also means that there is a large constituency of the poor – those living on the margins of society in the countless shanty towns surrounding our major cities. Inflation hits these millions harder than any other group, and increasing unemployment constantly adds to their number. These people essentially organise at the neighbourhood level and have been over the years in a continuous fight with the state for the means of life.
Their battle is mainly in the basket of consumption, avoiding taxes, trying to get services such as electricity and water free, over roads, etc. Their main form of struggle is in the streets.9 Their ongoing everyday fight for survival must be linked with the general movement for democracy. These people played an important role in the 1979 revolution. They can do so again.
Fifthly, no real use has been made of the weapon of civil disobedience. For a state desperate for legitimacy, this is a very powerful weapon. A universal campaign to stop paying for water, electricity, municipal tax, etc will greatly weaken the state. These too can be organised at the local as well as national level and is another important possibility for self-organisation.
The use of mass street demonstrations needs to be rationalised. To expect millions to march day in day out shows a poverty of tactics. People will do so only if each day brings out more people than the day before. Otherwise you expose the bravest and most radical of the protestors to arrest and worse. The successful Quds day demonstration showed that, when such protests are chosen wisely, the regime is forced to hold back from the massive repression of demonstrators. The time to call people onto the streets is when they are expected to be on the streets, and stream out with their own independent slogans.
The protest movement has been internationalised, but sadly a large section of its real constituency – the left and progressive forces abroad – are stuck in the swamp of a simplistic, third-worldist ‘anti-imperialism’ lacking class content. It is truly pathetic to see support for a regime whose president communicates with a ghost that died 1,100 years ago, whose regime sacks workers in their millions as part of a neoliberal privatisation policy, whose security forces shoot down peaceful demonstrators. Article after article shows this utter poverty of ideas, the disastrous notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.10
There is a saying in Iran, ‘We have little hope of any help from you. At the very least stop harming us.’11 The Iranian left abroad has a clear duty to teach some of its comrades the truths about Iran, help them out of their theoretical cocoon and gain their active support for a principled opposition.