No to unprincipled alliances Iranian workers should be careful about who they associate with

In the aftermath of the protests of late December and early January, there is a consensus that the majority of Iranians face a dire economic situation, while the poorer sections of the working class face hunger and complete destitution. Yet exiled royalists and interestingly sections of the Iranian ‘left’ outside Iran still maintain that the protests were only about democracy and against the ‘Islamic character’ of the Iranian state. As a result of this, amongst exiled leftwing groups we are witnessing yet another attempt at creating unprincipled alliances. The last time round, in 1979, uniting with clerics and Islamists against the shah’s regime ended in tragedy. This time, an alliance with royalists, US neocon republicans, Iranian supporters of Donald Trump, including the loony People’s Mojahedin sect, is truly a farce.

We are told that, since the current battles are about ‘democracy’ (necessary before the working class can get organised) and because the Shah’s son has told us he is not “seeking power”, unity of all opposition forces is necessary. Well, you might remember that ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini also promised he would not take power before he returned to Iran and look where we are now.

In the era of global capital, when we talk about democracy, especially in war-torn Middle East, we need to explain what we mean. This matters. Since 2001, the peoples of the region are weary of the ‘democracy’ delivered through regime change from above. In addition, unless we understand the reasons behind the protests and rebellions in Iran’s Islamic Republic against both factions of the regime, we will not be able to build a genuine solidarity movement and will end up betraying the aspirations of the people we claim to defend.

But first let me give a very brief summary of the state of Iran’s economy and the role of both factions of the regime in creating the disaster that is Iran’s neoliberal capitalism.

Since the late 1990s the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been senior partners in Iran’s economy, partly because of the country’s international debts and partly because capital, even in a Shia republic, is global. Finance, trade and industry are all completely intertwined with global capital. Every year representatives of the major international financial organisations go to Iran to assess what progress has been made regarding privatisation, the abolition of subsidies and so on. Ironically the first time the Iranian government was actually congratulated for meeting IMF requirements was in the second term of the populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, despite claims of leading the government of ‘the disinherited’ and looking after the poor, was in fact presiding over a period where the gap between the rich and the poor widened dramatically, as privatisation (be it in the strange form it takes in Iran, as I will explain later) was implemented.

The supreme leader, Iran’s revolutionary guards and even the ‘reformist’ government of Hassan Rouhani have all played their part. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei went as far as changing the constitution to allow the privatisation of crucial sectors of the economy, including transport, telecommunication, oil, gas and petrochemicals. The privatised and semi-privatised industries have adopted all the ‘reconstruction’ adjustments that accompany such policies, making thousands of workers unemployed and reducing most jobs to short-term contracts, some with draconian conditions. The reduction – in some cases abolition – of subsidies, the most constant demand put forward by the IMF, has created additional poverty.

No doubt new sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies helped impoverish the country, yet they enriched the leaders of the revolutionary guards, as well as the heads of those privatised companies associated with them. These groups have monopoly access to foreign markets and enjoy good rates of exchange for foreign currencies. They were therefore able to increase their private and collective wealth at the expense of the majority of Iranians.

In view of all this, how ironic it is that in the current situation some are seeking support from international capital and its internal allies – in other words, the very forces which imposed privatisation on Iran’s Islamic Republic – to ‘defend’ Iranian workers. I must admit, even by the standards of exiled politics, this takes some beating – relying on capitalism itself to relieve the economic hardship caused by the neoliberal economic policies imposed by its institutions!

There is no doubt that the privatisations, which were ‘legitimised’ by Khamenei when he changed the constitution to allow private ownership of key industries, are not carbon copies of the privatisations carried out in advanced capitalist countries, in that well-placed individuals and agencies associated with the organs of power – in particular the military and security forces – benefit from them. However, they are quite close replicas of what happens worldwide in terms of effects felt, especially in less developed countries.

Currently Iran’s economy is formed of three parts: the private sector, the state sector and the semi-state/private sector. Yet the three parts work closely with each other and, although at times there is some conflict between them, on the whole the three constituent parts coordinate their functions in line with their common interests. Meanwhile, royalists, along with bourgeois liberal politicians, tell us that Iran’s economy would prosper if only there was ‘proper’ privatisation! I can only assume they mean a privatisation where they would benefit instead of elements of the regime. Every study of the current situation shows that sections of industry belong to Iran’s old aristocracy, some of whom did not like the Pahlavis (a short-lived dynasty – 1925-79 – as opposed to the Qajar dynasty that lasted from 1785 to 1925) and did not do so well under them. Other sections of capital are owned by wealthy Iranians who returned some of their money for investment following the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Another section of the super-wealthy exploiters of the working class are former members of the revolutionary guards who became private capitalists a decade ago. Many of these and their offspring are the ‘new rich’ in Iran and, although they benefited from connections with those in power, their ideological and political connections to the ideals of the religious state have been replaced by the pursuit of personal and family interests and the accumulation of more and more wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth than the image of Iran portrayed by bourgeois liberals (including constitutional royalists!) as a country where everything is owned by the public sector and it is only the likes of the revolutionary guards who benefit.

‘United front’
That is why the ‘united front for democracy’ alongside bourgeois liberals, proposed by the reformist soft left (those who not surprisingly see no harm in accepting US or European funds for their political campaigns, those who openly or covertly support imperialist intervention, those who are allegedly on the left, yet seek further sanctions against Iran for its violation of human rights) is pie in the sky. It is a bit like asking PFI managers benefiting financially from the privatisation of sections of the NHS to join the campaign to save the health service. Yes, I know it sounds mad.

This week on social media a video has appeared which was apparently taken during a meeting of Iranian activists who are addressed via Skype by a former Iranian leftwinger in exile in London, who tells them how neoconservatives in the United States and Canada have invested a lot of time and money in “campaigns to support the Iranian working class”. I assume his advice to his new allies is to take the grievances of the poor and working class seriously.

As disgusting as this intervention is – equating genuine protests by tens of thousands of Iranians with sections of the right – it is certainly true that some of those claiming to be supporters of the Iranian working class have actively sought the support of rightwing CIA-sponsored ‘trade unions’ for a good part of the last two decades, yet our constant efforts to expose such individuals and groups have largely fallen on deaf ears.

An ideological response comes from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. This is truly amazing: “The fight for a secular democracy is a way to help workers develop their economic struggles and organisations, and to grow strong enough to pose and win support for socialist aims”.1

The AWL, together with virtually every other group from the Trotskyist tradition worldwide, has spent most of the last two decades attacking the Iranian left for supporting a stagist theory of revolution and therefore being responsible for the failure of the uprising in February 1979. Yet now it tells us that we must first have a democratic secular state in Iran courtesy of what they call “regime change”. These people must think the Iranian people are complete fools: having witnessed regime change and ‘democracy’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, can anyone seriously come out with such nonsense with a straight face? Post-2011 Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by some to be ‘democracies’, yet I am sure (with the exception of a small minority of idiot royalists, most of them in exile) there are no Iranians who envy the kind of ‘democracy’ currently to be seen in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are groups on the Iranian left with a line similar to the AWL, ranging from those who are soft on Zionism to those who openly act as apologists for the state of Israel, who are also involved. Ignoring the plight of the Palestinians is one thing, but claiming that Israel is a ‘democracy’ and therefore there is nothing wrong with its nuclear programme (both military and non-military) is another matter. Let me remind you that nuclear programmes – especially those pursued by religious states in the Middle East, such as Iran and Israel – are more dangerous than anywhere else because of the clandestine nature of nature of their installations. This makes them even more of a danger than other nuclear plants, both for their own citizens and the peoples of the world. We already know that the age of Dimona (a ‘textile factory’ which is in reality is a nuclear plant) represents a serious threat. However, our soft Zionists are adamant that in the democracy that is the occupation state none of this matters. In other words, nuclear technology in the hands of religious states are OK as long as they are not Islamic.

Of course, no-one should take the Iranian groups associated with this soft Zionist agenda seriously – the ones I looked up are splits from splits of small organisations with names that are straight out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I really like the addition of “official faction” to otherwise identical names to distinguish yet another split. These groups truly belong to the dustbin of history, but we should not underestimate the damage their ‘solidarity’ does to those labour activists in prison in Iran who are falsely accused of being associated with foreign powers. No wonder elements among the genuine left are becoming weary of ‘solidarity campaigns’ with Iran’s workers.


نه به اتحادهای غیراصولی

یاسمین میظر- برگردان: ماهان نوری
در پی اعتراضات دی ماه، اتفاق نظر عموم بر این بود که اکثریت ایرانیان با وضعیت اقتصادی وخیمی مواجه­اند، در عین حال که پایین­ترین لایه­های طبقه کارگر با گرسنگی و فقر کامل دست به گریبان­اند. با این حال، سلطنت­طلبان تبعیدی و در میان شگفتی بخشی از «چپ» مقیم خارج، همچنان اعتراضات را فقط حول مسئله دموکراسی و علیه «ماهیت اسلامی» دولت ایران می­داند. در نتیجه، در میان گروه­های چپ­گرای تبعیدی شاهد تلاشی در ایجاد اتحادهای بی قید و شرط هستیم، چنین اتحادی آخرین بار در سال 1979 با روحانیون و اسلامگرایان در برابر رژیم شاه شکل گرفت که فاجعه به بار آورد. این بار، اتحاد با سلطنت­طلبان، جمهوریخواهان نومحافظه کار آمریکایی، حامیان ایرانی دونالد ترامپ، از جمله فرقه مجاهدین خلق، واقعا خنده­دار به نظر می­رسد. Continue reading نه به اتحادهای غیراصولی

Protests by impoverished, hungry Iranians

Protest in Kermanshah, 29 December 2017

There has been a considerable amount of fake news about the demonstrations that started in Mashad and other towns in Khorassan province on the 28th of December 2017. These demonstrations have continued, five days later in Tehran, as well as in many other towns and cities across the country. The protesters are angry and fearless, and their grievances are reasonably clear. What began with outrage against rising prices, unemployment and poverty has evolved into more political slogans against corruption and against the dictator, Ayatollah Khameini.
Basic food prices have sky-rocketed in the last few weeks, with the price of eggs rising by 40% in a matter of days. In some of Iran’s major cities, rents have risen by 83% in the last 3 years alone. Mass unemployment is a big issue – particularly in the provinces where the protests emerged. The rate of inflation may have fallen from 35% under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it remains at unsustainable levels.

Despite being controlled by the factions of the Iranian regime, the relative diversity of the media inside Iran has ensured that most Iranians are aware of, and indeed well-informed about, the multi-billion dollar corruption scandals in which all factions of the regime are implicated. Rouhani’s government, senior ayatollahs associated with more conservative factions of the regime and the former populist president Ahmadinejad (who claimed to be the defender of the disinherited) are all embroiled in corruption and embezzlement. Ahmadinejad and his close allies are currently facing criminal charges of serious corruption in Iranian courts. But the upshot of both factions exposing their opponents’ bribery and fraud is that Iranians are increasingly conscious of the venality of the entire Islamic regime.

Contrary to initial claims by Rouhani’s allies, the protests are definitely not part of a plot by ‘conservative factions’ to discredit his government. In Mashhad and other cities in Khorassan province, the slogans were clear that the main target of most demonstrators was Ayatollah Khamenei. In the last few days, the most common political slogans were: ‘marg bar dictator’ (Death to the Dictator!) , ‘Khamenei haya kon mamlekato raha kon’ (‘Khamenei you should be ashamed – leave the country alone’) and  the more polite slogan, requesting that Khameni stand down: ‘Seyed Ali (Khamenei), excuse us. Now we have to stand up’.

In the northern city of Rasht there were initially anti-Rouhani slogans, but they soon became focused on the dictator himself. In Tehran, the student protesters’ chants were far more radical: ‘na eslahtalab na ossoul gara’ (‘No to the Reformists, no to the Conservative Principalists’); ‘Student-Worker Unity’ and ‘No Longer should there be a Choice between Bad and Worse’.

For all the claims of exiled groups in the extended publicity they receive from sections of the media, including BBC Persian radio (but, interestingly, not BBC Persian TV),  these protests have nothing to do with the Royalists or the Mujahedin. Following the slogans of protesters on social media, it is apparent that pro-Shah slogans have only appeared in very isolated cases, such as in the religious city of Ghom. On one occasion, in Rasht, some in the crowd shouted slogans in favour of the Shah, prompting others to respond by calling for an Iranian republic (as opposed to an Islamic Republic). Indeed, protesters are countering possible Royalist influence by shouting ‘na mir na rahbar ,na shah na rahbar’  (‘No Kings, No Shahs, No Supreme Leaders’).

The fact that the protest in Mashad coincided with a call to protest on television made by (one of) the pretender(s) to the throne, Reza Pahlavi, should not be taken seriously. He issues such calls on a daily basis and these are very rarely heeded. No, the catalyst for the demonstrations is the hunger and suffering experienced by Iranians, lead several protesters to claim that dying is better than continuing to live as they are now.

No future in the past

However, for those Iranians who think that there was no poverty or hunger under the Shah, it might be worth reminding them of a quote by Empress Farah Diba. When informed by her advisers that ordinary people were complaining that they couldn’t afford to buy meat, she responded in true Marie Antoinette style by telling the nation that it would benefit from vegetarianism.
As for corruption, it is true that the Shah’s mistrust of everyone, including former ministers, meant that only a limited circle of individuals close to the Shahs and the court benefited from rampant state fraud. The multiplicity of factions in the Islamic regime means that a far larger group of individuals and their families are beneficiaries of global capital’s riches for the wealthy in the third world. Moreover, the so-called ‘targeted sanctions’ imposed by the West between 2007 and 2015 period allowed sections of the Islamic Republic with access to both  foreign currency and internal black markets to amass astronomic fortunes. As such, the Islamic Republic is in many ways even more corrupt than the Shah’s Iran. But we live in different times.

And corruption is certainly not unique to Iran or even just to developing countries. However, in most other countries, those fed up with corrupt leaders have a chance to elect political rivals. And although it takes a relatively short time before the new rulers surpass their predecessors’ corruption , the whole process at least provides the illusion that the population has some control and can again test new leaders. But after 39 years of being in power, all factions of the Islamic Republic are steeped in corruption – even when they are in opposition.

As for democracy under the Shah, he merged what he called the ‘Yes’ and the ‘Of course’ party into one: Hezb Rastakhiz. Iran had only two daily papers, Keyhan and Etelaat. Both were pro-Shah and the lack of oppositional factions within the regime ensured that there were no exposés of dodgy dealings by the Shah’s opponents.

When it comes to repression, let us remember that the shah’s security forces, SAVAK, shot Catherine Adl, the paralyzed daughter of his own physician, while she was sitting in a wheel chair, for opposing inequality and injustice in Iran. You can guess what he did to opponents with whom he wasn’t acquainted.

Some Iranians, no doubt prompted by constant Saudi, Israeli and Western-sponsored media outlets, blame Iran’s interventions in Syria and Yemen for the worsening economic situation. This has led to nationalist slogans such as ‘No to Gaza, no to Yemen’. The regime is not blameless here either: promoting General Soleimany as an ‘Iranian’ warrior and conqueror certainly has ramifications. However, the students and youth of Tehran responded to these slogans with their own: ‘ham iran, ham ghazeh  zahmtkesh taht setame’ (‘The Poor are Oppressed both in Gaza and Iran’).

Capitalist Mullahs

The real reasons behind Iran’s economic situation are more complicated than military expenditure in the Middle East. The promised economic boom following the nuclear deal has not materialised and now doubts about the future of the deal – particularly given Trump’s outspoken opposition – have created despair, especially amongst young Iranians. In responding to the riots, Rouhani claims that poverty, unemployment and inflation are not unique to Iran. This is certainly true, but what he failed to mention is that, for all its anti-Western rhetoric, the Islamic Republic is an ardent follower of the neo-liberal economic agenda. Rouhani’s government of technocrats is rightly blamed for obeying the restructuring programmes of the IMF and the World Bank, which is one of the reasons behind the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This gap is reflective of a government that constantly strives to keep up with global capital’s demands for restructuring, for the abolition of state subsidies and for privatisation. Food subsidies have been slashed. The official rate of unemployment (12%) is a joke – the real figure is much higher, even if we take into account low-paid, precarious employment. No one has job security, unless, of course, they are associated with a stable faction the regime or the security forces.
2017 might go down as the year when neo-liberalism faced serious challenges in advanced capitalist countries. But until the recent protests, in Iran 2017 was a year in which neo-liberalism was going well – Rouhani’s government was praised for its economic performance by the World Bank and the IMF. There can be no doubt, then, that this wave of opposition took the government completely by surprise. The Ministry of Information’s pathetic calls on the population to request ‘permits to organise protests’ seems to have been ignored, for nobody believes that the state will allow such protests.

And it will certainly not allow the working class to begin to assert itself: there are calls for strikes by teachers and steel workers, but the reality is that the ‘capitalist mullahs’ (as people are calling them in the streets of Tehran) have managed to decimate the organised working class. Steel and oil workers are no longer employed by single state-owned industries. Large industrial complexes are sub-contracting every aspect of work to smaller contractors. As a result, organising industry-wide strikes, let alone nation-wide strike action (a significant factor in the overthrow of the Shah’s regime) are no longer possible.
As things stand, therefore, the protesters’ demands are quite diffuse and there is no single organising and coordinating force which can set out an alternative for the struggle. As events unfold, this factor will become all the more necessary.


There are three main things that we can do in order so support the protests in Iran:

Show solidarity with those arrested, support the relatives of those killed by the security forces and draw attention to the government’s repressive measures.

Remind anyone with illusions about the previous regime that it was no better than this one and provide clear examples rather than just repeating slogans or insulting those who entertain illusions in the past.

Expose the true nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while reminding those hypocrites like Trump that “it is the economy stupid” – the source of the current rebellion in Iran is precisely the neo-liberal economic model which he and his allies are seeking to enforce across the globe.