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’).
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.