The attempt by the two wings of the Iranian regime to shelve their differences is unlikely to defuse the mass movement, writes Yassamine Mather
More than two weeks after the demonstrations of December 27 2009, the political repercussions of these events, and the reaction to the anger and radicalism of the protesters, continue. Clearly now no-one, from the government to the ‘reformists’, to the revolutionary opposition, has any doubt that the current protests are no longer about who should be the ‘president’ of the Islamic Republic, but represent a serious challenge to the very existence of the religious state.
Ashura is a day of mourning for Shia Muslims, as they commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Mohammed in 680AD. In December 2009 it coincided with the seventh day following the death of a clerical critic of the regime, ayatollah Montazeri. Throughout Iran hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets with slogans against the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. When security forces attacked, the crowds fought back. Tehran was “covered in thick smoke from fires and tear gas” and there was “hand-to-hand combat between security forces and the protesters,” with reports of street battles in other major cities.1 For the first time in the last 30 years, many women came out into the streets to join the demonstrations wearing no headscarves or hijabs.
At a number of locations in Tehran security forces were forced to retreat, as demonstrators burnt police vehicles and bassij posts and erected barricades. There are videos showing instances where police and bassij were captured and detained by demonstrators and three police stations in Tehran were briefly occupied. Demonstrators also attacked Bank Saderat in central Tehran, setting it on fire.
The government’s reaction was predictable. Since December 27 bassij and pasdaran (revolutionary guards) have been unleashed to impose further repression. Hundreds of people have been incarcerated. The summary arrest of leftwing and worker activists, the death sentences issued against left political prisoners, the sacking of workers already in prison are part of a deliberate attempt by the regime to impose an atmosphere of terror.
Ultra-conservative clerics have also called for the arrest and execution of ‘reformist’ leaders. In a speech on January 9 the supreme leader told government security forces and the judiciary to act decisively against “rioters and anti-government demonstrators”.
Despite the bravado of Khamenei, there are clear signs that the demonstrations of December 27 have divided the conservatives further on how to respond to the protests. While supporters of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly call for more arrests and even the execution of political opponents, the ‘principlist’ faction2 within parliament is preaching caution.
On January 9, a parliamentary committee publicly blamed Tehran’s former prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, a close ally of Ahmadinejad, for the death of three prisoners arrested during anti-government protests in June 2009. The committee found that Mortazavi had authorised the imprisonment of 147 opposition supporters and 30 criminals in a cell measuring only 70 square metres in Kahrizak detention centre. The inmates were frequently beaten and spent days without food or water during the summer.
Ali Motahhari, a prominent fundamentalist parliamentarian, told the weekly magazine Iran Dokht: “Under the current circumstances, moderates should be in charge of the country’s affairs.” He suggested Ahmadinejad should also be held accountable for the deaths in Kahrizak and for fuelling the post-election turmoil. Iranian state television is broadcasting debates between ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ conservatives, in which Ahmadinejad is blamed by some for causing the crisis.
There are two reasons for this dramatic change in line:
1. The December 27 demonstrations were a turning point, in that both conservatives and ‘reformists’ came to realise how the anger and frustration of ordinary Iranians with the political and economic situation is taking revolutionary forms.
2. The principlists are responding to a number of ‘proposals’ by leading ‘reformists’ as a last attempt to save the Islamic Republic. Fearful of revolution, ‘reformist’ leaders from the June 2009 presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi to former president Mohammad Khatami have made conciliatory statements, and the moderate conservatives have responded positively to these approaches.
In a clear sign that ‘reformists’ have heard the cry of the revolution, Moussavi’s initial response to the Ashura demonstrations was to distance himself from the protests, emphasising that neither he nor Mehdi Karroubi had called for protests on that day. His statement on January 1 entitled ‘Five stages to resolution’ (of the crisis) was a signal to both his supporters and opponents that this was truly the last chance to save the Islamic regime from collapse.
Western reportage of the statement concentrated on his comment, “I am ready to sacrifice my life for reform.” Of course, Iranians are well known for their love of ‘martyrdom’, from Ashura itself to the Fedayeen Islam in 1946,3 to the Marxist Fedayeen (1970s-80s). Iranians have been mesmerised by the Shia concept of martyrdom, inherited from Sassanide ideals, a yearning to put their lives at risk for what they see as a ‘revolutionary cause’. But Moussavi will no doubt go down in history as the first Iranian who is putting his life on the line for the cause of ‘reform’ and compromise!
His five-point plan is seen as a compromise because it does not challenge the legitimacy of the current president and “presents a way out of the current impasse” in order to save the Islamic Republic, basically demanding more freedom for the Islamic ‘reformist’ politicians, activists and press, as well as accountability of government forces, while reaffirming his allegiance to the constitution of the Islamic regime, as well as the existing “judicial and executive powers”. The preamble to the proposal explains very well Moussavi’s message to the supreme leader and the conservative faction: it is not too late to save the regime, but this could be our last chance.
It reads: “Today the situation of the country is like an immense roaring river, where massive floods and various events have led to its rising and then caused it to become silted. The solution to calm down this great river and clear its water is not possible in a quick and swift action. Thinking of these kinds of solutions that some should repent and some should make deals and there should be some give and take to solve this great problem is in practice going off the track … I also believe that it is still not too late and our establishment has the power to accomplish this important task, should it have insight and a respectful and kind view toward all of the nation and its layers.”
This statement was followed on January 4 by a ‘10-point proposal’ from the self-appointed ‘ideologues’ in exile of Iran’s Islamic ‘reformist’ movement: the former Pasdar, Akbar Ganji (nowadays introduced on BBC and CNN as a “human rights activist!”), Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, Abdolali Bazargan and Ataollah Mohajerani.4
Fearful that the Moussavi plan will be seen by many as too much of a compromise, the group of five call for the resignation of Ahmadinejad and fresh elections under the supervision of a newly established independent election commission to replace that of the Guardian Council. In the last few days both Khatami and another former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, have publicly declared their support for the compromise, while condemning “radicals and rioters”. Khatami went further than most, insulting demonstrators who called for the overthrow of the Islamic regime.
All in all, it has been a busy two and a half weeks for Iran’s ‘reformists’, terrified by the radicalism of the demonstrators and desperate to save the clerical regime at all cost. Inevitably the reformist left, led by the Fedayeen Majority, is tailing the Moussavi-Khatami line. However, inside Iran there are signs that the leadership of the green movement is facing a serious crisis.
None of the proposals addresses the most basic democratic demand of the Iranian people: separation of state and religion. A widely distributed leaflet and web post inside Iran entitled ‘Who is the leader of the current protest movement in Iran?’ refers to comments made by ayatollah Taleghani 31 years ago,5 at the height of the revolutionary movement. Taleghani, faced with a similar question, replied that it was the shah who led the protest movement because the repression he imposed and his inability to compromise caused it to move forward day by day. The leaflet concludes that the current force leading the movement is supreme leader Khamenei, who by his words and actions is fuelling the revolutionary fervour.
Working class response
In every event Iranians see real and imaginary parallels with the 1978-79 uprising that led to the shah’s downfall. Last week the publication of Khamenei’s alleged escape plans and the revelations that senior clerics had arranged to send their fortunes abroad to avoid sanctions and the consequences of an uprising reminded Iranians of January 1979, when the shah and his entourage were busy making similar arrangements.
The Iranian left is not immune to such nostalgia. Arguments about the ‘principal contradiction’ and ‘stages of revolution’ seem to dominate current debates. While some Maoists argue in favour of a ‘democratic stage’ of the revolution, citing the relative weakness of the organised working class, the Coordinating Committee for the Setting Up of Workers’ Organisations (Comite Hahamhangi) points out that the dominant contradiction in Iran, a country where 70% of the population lives in urban areas, is between labour and capital. They point out that the level and depth of workers’ struggles show radicalism and levels of organisation and that the Iranian working class is the only force capable of delivering radical democracy.
Leftwing organisations and their supporters are also discussing the lessons to be learnt from the Ashura demonstrations. Clearly sections of the police and soldiers are refusing to shoot at demonstrators and the issue of organising radical conscripts in order to divide and reduce the power of the state’s repressive forces must be addressed. In some working class districts around Tehran and other major cities the organisation of neighbourhood shoras (councils) has started.
The current debates within the ruling circles have had no impact on the level of protests undertaken by workers and students. There are reports of strikes and demonstrations in one of Iran’s largest industrial complexes, Isfahan’s steel plant, where privatisation and contract employment have led to action by the workers. Leftwing oil workers/employees are reporting disillusionment with Moussavi and the ‘reformist’ camp amongst fellow workers and believe there is an opportunity to radicalise protests in this industry despite the fact that close control and repression has intensified over the recent period.
Last week a number of prominent labour activists, including Vahed bus worker Mansour Ossanlou, who are currently in prison (some incarcerated for over a year) were sacked from their jobs for ‘failing to turn up at work’, which prompted protests in Vahed depots and the Haft Tapeh sugar cane plant. In late December workers at the Lastic Alborz factory went on strike demanding payment of unpaid wages. This week workers have been holding protests at dozens of workplaces, including the Arak industrial complex, the Mazandaran textile factory, at the Polsadr metro construction and in Tonkabon.
Over the next few weeks Iranian workers will face major challenges. Even if the two main factions of the regime achieve a compromise, it will be unlikely to defuse the movement. In fact the conciliatory line of Moussavi and Khatami is certain to further reduce their influence amongst protesters. However, if the religious state is able to reunite, it will be more difficult to attend demonstrations, call strikes and hold sit-ins, etc.
Whatever happens, Iranian workers will need our solidarity more than ever. That is why Hands Off the People of Iran is currently planning a week of solidarity and fundraising actions in February – check the Hopi website for more details (www.hopoi.org).
1. New York Times December 29 2009.
2. One of the groups in the conservative faction of the Iranian parliament.
3. Fedayeen Islam was one of the first truly Islamic fundamentalist organisations in the Muslim world. It was founded in Iran by Navab Safavi in 1946 for the purpose of demanding strict application of the sharia and assassinating those it believed to be apostates and enemies of Islam.
5. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmoud_Taleghani.