Below is a transcript of this talk which was given by Yassamine Mather, chair of HOPI, in August 2011.
At a time of revolutionary upheavals in Arab capitals, the burning question is, how did the Islamic regime in Iran survive the mass protests of 2009-10, when millions took to the streets of major cities to express their opposition to dictatorship?
However, a more fundamental question concerns the 33 years’ longevity of the Iranian government – and, of course, the two issues are related. Starting with the easier question – the regime’s ability to survive the protests of 2009-10 – I echo the reasons given by comrade Mohammad Reza Shalgouni of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran: regimes that are politically independent of the US and the west are less sensitive to international pressure regarding ‘human rights abuses’, etc and this is true to varying degrees of Syria, Libya and Iran. In addition, the leaders of such regimes have no escape route: their foreign bank accounts are all frozen. Unlike Egyptian or Tunisian officials, no-one associated with the Iranian government can expect asylum in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. In other words, Iran’s rulers, like Bashar Assad of Syria and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, have nowhere to go and no fortune stashed abroad. Hence their tenacity and determination to fight for their survival.
I have spoken in the past about the political reasons behind the failure of the 2009-10 protests. One should remember the abysmal leadership of the ‘reformists’, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and their inability to address the protest movement’s anti-dictatorial demands and calls for an end to the rule of the vali faghih (supreme leader), ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The anti-dictatorial movement evolved considerably between June 2009 and the winter of 2010 – from a protest against electoral fraud during the presidential elections to a movement challenging the very existence of the religious state. However, the leadership of the green movement had no intention of questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. In addition, the complete dependence of the protest movement on the ‘reformist’ media and networks became one of its main weaknesses – the youth wanted to continue the protests, while the green leaders became concerned with saving the regime.
Another factor was the late arrival of the working class movement. There were few slogans for workers’ rights during the protests of June-July 2009. This had changed by the end of the year, but by that stage the protest movement was facing massive repression. The frustration of the Iranian youth at the lack of major protests this summer in Tehran and other cities is palpable, as expressed in this joke: “In 2009 we asked, where is our vote? In 2010 we asked, where are our leaders? In 2011 we are asking, where are the protestors?”
However, I want to concentrate on why the regime has survived more than three decades.
In fact there are a number of recurring themes throughout the period of Iran’s Islamic Republic. One of the most important is the fact that the rulers of the clerical regime thrive in times of crises: if there were no crises, they would have to create them in order to survive. Of course, the constant imperialist threat has helped – the danger of war and sanctions throughout the last three decades has inflamed patriotic sentiments, allowing the regime to blame ‘foreign enemies’ for all its shortcomings, and to justify repression.
Another recurring theme is that of terror, repression and the imprisonment of large numbers of political opponents, which have helped the regime to survive.
Last, but by no means least, is the fact that the Islamic regime has always benefited from the support of a solid base amongst sections of the population, albeit of a mercenary nature in recent years. This base started as devoutly Shia, but in my opinion there is nothing religious about what remains of it. Those who currently support the Islamic regime in Iran benefit materially from this support, either as paid members of various institutions or as beneficiaries of foundations, and so on. The future of this section of the population is totally tied to that of the regime and it will remain loyal to the Islamic state to the bitter end. This base is regularly used in confrontations with the protest movements, both as organs of repression – the bassij militia, the revolutionary guards – and in state-organised counter-demonstrations.
It is important to remember that this regime came to power after a revolutionary uprising that lasted more than two years. Yes, it hijacked the movement, misrepresenting its slogans and aspirations, and was counterrevolutionary from the day it took over. But this is not a government that came to power through a coup d’etat or foreign intervention. The regime was able to consolidate its base amongst the bazaari community, in rural areas and sections of the urban poor.
Two key events
The Islamic Regime has benefited and still benefits from an adventurist foreign policy. I have never used the term ‘anti-imperialist’ in referring to Iran – it is an insult to genuine anti-imperialists. However, despite its total economic integration into the world capitalist order – it pays more attention to World Bank directives than koranic verses – in foreign policy Iran follows its own nationalist-religious agenda, which is at times anti-western.
We Iranians have a long history of ‘shame’. Alexander the Great defeated Persia in 334 BC (we don’t consider him that great for burning down Persepolis), and the Arab conquest of Persia in 644 is not something we are proud of. In more recent times Iranians faced the partition of the country between tsarist Russia and the British empire, then Soviet and allied occupation during World War II, and the CIA coup of 1953. In a rather perverse and crude way the foreign policy madness of the regime has appeared to some Iranians as revenge for all this ‘shame’ – a cleaning of the slate: we were not going to remain the only idiots in the Middle East with a special relationship with Israel, as we had in the 1960s and 70s.
Iranians felt a sense of shame regarding the shah’s subservience to American foreign policy and in this respect two events in the first years of the Islamic regime play a significant role – not only in fooling the masses, creating a false sense of national pride, but also in shaping the organisation of the religious state, its structures and the way it would behave in future. Those two events are the takeover of the US embassy in 1980 and the war with Iraq.
As far as both events are concerned, Iranians were not alone in being fooled by the Islamic regime. The Soviet Union, the Tudeh Party, the Fedayeen Majority and almost the entire Trotskyist left were united in hailing the November 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran as an anti-imperialist act. It was nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it was a deliberate move by the Islamic regime – at the height of class struggles by workers continuing the strikes of the revolutionary period, at a time of protests by students, women and national minorities against the regime – to divert attention from these struggles and to use the excuse of an impeding US attack (to free the US hostages held in the embassy) in order to increase its repression against revolutionary forces. When the embassy was taken over, workers who went on strike were told they were CIA agents, women who protested against the forced wearing of the veil or misogynist legislation were labelled foreign agents, and so on. This event certainly demonstrated to the regime the value of an external enemy.
After that came the Iran-Iraq war – in some ways a continuation of the US hostage saga. Let me make it clear that I do not share the widely held view that Saddam Hussein attacked Iran. In the first weeks after the war started Marxist groups such as Peykar and Fedayeen Minority were right to point out that wars are the continuation of politics by other means and that the Iranian regime’s incitement of rebellion amongst Shia Iraqis amounted to aggression. In some ways Saddam saw this as preparation for war and fell into the trap of starting the conflict – not unlike his intervention in Kuwait.
Nevertheless, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had turned the entire Kurdish population against the Islamic regime. This led to unrest and civil war in Iran’s Kurdish provinces, weakening considerably the ability to defend the western borders against an Iraqi invasion. But the war, when it came, was a gift to the Iranian regime, allowing it to build up its organs of repression, the Revolutionary Guards and bassij (to complement the forces inherited from the shah’s time: the army and the secret services).
Despite the negative effects in terms of destruction of infrastructure and the death of half a million Iranians, at the same time the war strengthened the state’s ability to control day-to-day affairs. There were major food shortages and rationing, and the state became the provider of food, distributing fuel coupons and later introducing subsidies (some of these were only ended a couple of months ago under International Monetary Fund pressure). The new religious state created a social security system, especially benefiting the families of the ‘war martyrs’ – we are talking about a few million people. Already one could see a section of the population becoming dependent.
Iran’s main weapon during the war against Iraq was its larger population – the regime was encouraging a higher birth rate. Ironically this later created problems, as the youth born during the war are today amongst the regime’s most ardent opponents. Their teenage years coincided with a different period in Iran’s contemporary history – the ‘reformist’ presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami – during which they began to develop their opposition to the religious state.
It should also be noted that the majority of the left supported Iran in this war – even after ‘Irangate’, when it became clear that Iran’s ‘anti-imperialism’ was a sham. In 1986 it was revealed that Iran was buying weapons from the US – it instructed the Lebanese Hezbollah to release US hostages to smooth the deal and payment for the weapons were made into a Swiss account belonging to the Nicaraguan Contras (who were, of course, supported by the CIA).
Ironically a war that was supposed to be fought to spread Islam was portrayed by Khomeini and other Islamic leaders in a nationalist way. Battle names were taken from the Sassenide wars against the (Islamic) Arab invasion in the 7th century – in fighting Iraq we were supposedly avenging the defeat of the Sassenide dynasty. An opportunist, ‘pro-Iran/anti-Arab’ stance adopted time and again by the Shia clergy to benefit from patriotic/pan-Iranian sentiments.
The war consolidated the base of the regime. I have always maintained that throughout the last decades – prior to the revolution, during the revolution, during the war – the regime was not supported by the urban working class, which remained opposed to fundamentalism. However, the Islamic state had support amongst slum-dwellers, sections of the peasantry and the bazaar community (shopkeepers and stallholders, but also bazaar employees).
French sociologist Olivier Roy describes these classes, some recently urbanised, as schizophrenic sections of developing Islamic countries: envying and hating the west at the same time. They have given up on gaining from modernisation in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor is constantly growing and have sought refuge in fundamentalism. There is some truth in this as far as Iran is concerned.
The lumpenproletariat in some of the poorest parts of Tehran were amongst the first volunteers to join Hezbollah. These sections of the population considered the Iran-Iraq war to be their war – the clerics employed highly emotional symbolism to encourage them to become cannon fodder. Readers may have heard about the green plastic ‘keys to heaven’ that were distributed at schools to encourage youngsters to join the armed forces. On numerous occasions those on the front in the south of the country reported seeing the 12th Shia Imam on a white horse arriving in a dust storm – the regime actually paid actors to put on these theatricals gimmicks.
Families of ‘the martyrs’ were compensated for their loss by better food rations and better housing – a practice that lasted long after the war. Ordinary Iranians too supported the regime during the war, as – especially after the initial months – they saw it as Iraqi aggression against their country. The regime used the war to draw on patriotic sentiments in order to build its own base. Senior revolutionary guards were deployed to replace army commanders and generals in a process aimed at reducing the role of the professional army.
There is considerable evidence now, including in the memoirs of former leaders of the regime, that during 1986-87 Iran could have used its superior military position to end the war on more advantageous terms. But Khomeini refused to accept UN resolutions and other international proposals, claiming they were not in Iran’s interest. In reality he favoured the war’s continuation because of the role it played in consolidating the regime’s power. In the end Iran was forced to concede defeat – in Khomeini’s words: “We have to swallow the poison and accept the ceasefire.”
Waves of terror
The war coincided with the first wave of terror in 1980-81, when leftwing prisoners were declared enemies of the nation and many were executed.
At the end of the war and following a foolish adventure by the Mujahedin (an attack in western Iran with tanks provided by Saddam Hussein), the regime took revenge by executing thousands of political prisoners held in Iranian jails, many of whom had been incarcerated since the first days of the Islamic order. The process was horrific. Prisoners were taken to a court, where the Islamic judge (often a cleric) asked them if they had been brought up by a family of believers (practising Muslims). Most of the prisoners inevitably replied ‘yes’, and they were the ones who were executed. The clerical regime’s reasoning was that if you were brought up in a Muslim family and you had become a communist you were waging war on god. If, however, your family were not practising Muslims then you had an excuse.
According to Rafsanjani, 8,500 prisoners were killed in this second period of black terror during September 1988. The Iranian left believes the figure to be much higher – maybe 15,000 or more.
These two periods of terror not only cost the lives of a generation of Iranian leftwingers: it also affected tens of thousands of political prisoners who experienced that terror and have since been released from prison. Many are still traumatised by what happened in Iran’s Islamic dungeons. The Iranian government’s policies during this period make for an interesting case study in how a regime imposes terror.
The end of the war was the end of the religious phase of the regime and Rafsanjani’s coming to power was the period of ‘reconstruction’.
Iran was a new market and everyone wanted to invest. The French wanted to build car plants in the country, while the Italians proposed rebuilding Iran’s petrochemical industries. This was a period of relative boom lasting until 2005 – during the Rafsanjani-Khatami presidencies Iran had a growth rate of around five percent.
Foreign companies, of course, had to negotiate with senior clerics – both in the government, but also as members of the new ruling class. Suddenly clerics whose economic roots had been in the bazaar were involved in international relations with major industrial capital, with the IMF and the World Bank – the Shia clergy was finding its place in global capitalism.
At the same time those in power realised the benefits of asking émigré capitalists, as well as engineers and technical experts, to return – or at least to invest some of their money in Iran. A new class of capitalists was also emerging internally in the shape of the aghazadeh ha – sons and occasionally daughters of senior clerics.
This was also a period of massive urbanisation. The failure of many land reforms, both during the shah’s rule and then under the Islamic regime, meant that by 2005 67% of Iran’s population were living in urban areas. This is a very high figure, demonstrating the great speed with which the rural population is falling. State spending during this time – much of it resulting from oil income – had a certain trickle-down effect. The number of workers in manufacturing and in services increased dramatically. There was a lot of money around and some of Iran’s senior clerics started investing abroad. The Rafsanjani family reportedly bought property in Belgium, while other senior clerics invested in the Gulf states.
Even in those years the regime was well aware of the threat posed by the working class. The state paid a lot of attention to two significant sections: oil workers and those in car manufacturing. Work in both industries was ‘outsourced’ – given to contractors. If you talk to oil workers today they will tell you everyone in the refinery works for a different company and those in the repairs section have different working conditions from those in production. In car manufacturing, Iran Khodro workers will tell you that in the same production unit you could have workers associated with up to 10 contracting companies and here too different workers have different pay and conditions of employment.
This was, and remains, a deliberate policy, pursued for the single purpose of breaking solidarity amongst workers. Later the same policy was driven by the IMF and the World Bank, and in 2010 president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s minister of labour announced that by the end of the year 100% of Iran’s workers would be employed on contracts. It is said that the worker signs his/her name on a piece of paper and the employer then adds the terms and conditions.
This is also the time when profound contradictions started to emerge. It is difficult to maintain such a level of interaction with foreign capital and technocrats and still keep up the belief in Shia imams on white horses. That is where Khatami comes in. He could quote western philosophers, had read Locke and Hume, and sections of the Iranian population were impressed by this and the fact that, unlike Khomeini, Khatami was capable of speaking a couple of sentences without making dozens of basic grammatical mistakes.
Khatami also spoke out in support of personal (not political) freedoms. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic young Iranians have complained of the lack of basic freedoms: the freedom to listen to the music they like, wear the clothes they prefer, hold the hand of their boyfriend/girlfriend … Khatami and the ‘reformists’ relaxed some of the stricter Islamic rules imposed in the first 14 years of the regime. Whatever one can say about Khatami’s politics and his subsequent abysmal period as president, in 1997 he was popular. I would classify this phenomenon as another factor in the longevity of the Islamic regime.
The ‘reformist’ factions of the religious state have played an important role in the survival of the regime through the false hope they have generated. I do not agree with those sections of the Iranian left that say there is no difference between the many factions and that all of this infighting is just a charade. There are clearly major differences and there are economic reasons why these differences exist. However, the factions of the Islamic state are all counterrevolutionary: they are all anti-working class, and against genuine freedom and democracy.
There were many problems with Khatami’s first presidential term and he and his faction paid for this later on. First of all, the economic situation became increasingly favourable for the rich and unbearable for the poor, and so the more fundamentalist factions of the regime could falsely claim to defend the underclasses and the dispossessed. In addition there was Khatami’s political record. His rule did coincide with the acceptance of slightly more tolerant approaches to personal freedoms, but it also saw the serial political murder of the regime’s left and nationalist critics. Although it is possible the ministry of intelligence and other state forces might not have obeyed him, the Iranian president did not stop, or punish those responsible for, state-organised murder. He kept talking of setting up a ‘commission of enquiry’, but this never materialised.
Under the ‘reformists’, in addition to the relaxations mentioned above, sections of the press loyal to the Islamic order had more leeway. However, Iranians saw little change in terms of political freedom and, in the meantime, illusions in the ‘reformists’ helped the survival of the regime. Khatami bought eight years for the Islamic Republic.
Three decades after the revolution, the Islamic state has come to an understanding with the middle and upper classes – it would be wrong to assume that the classes originally opposing the revolution have remained opponents of the regime.
The anti-working class policies of the theocracy, its repression of striking workers and its adherence to neoliberal economic policies have enabled Iranian capitalists to accumulate huge fortunes. This coexistence of repressive religion and capitalist exploitation also feeds into another of the main factors aiding the longevity of the regime: its shameless duplicity and corruption. Everything in Iran has a price in terms of the bribe associated with it. If you want to go to hospital you can pay a bribe to jump the queue. The same is true if you need a passport, a bank account …
If you have a son or a daughter in prison you pay a bribe first to the arresting authority or the local committee holding them, then to the revolutionary guards or their commanders – in the case of a political crime you will need to pay a much heavier bribe to a senior cleric to get your relative out. And all these ‘officials’ will charge a different rate well known to the population.
Corruption is endemic. In fact Iran is ranked amongst the most corrupt countries in the world by the Transparency Agency and large sums of money are involved. In one specific incident a wealthy family decided to celebrate their daughter’s marriage in a European city at a cost of around £500,000 – they calculated that moving the entire wedding party to another continent would be cheaper than the total of bribes necessary to hold the ceremony in Tehran. Non-payment would risk interference and interruption by revolutionary guards checking if a mixed-sex gathering was taking place or if the guests were consuming alcohol.
Of course, the same family could rely on the revolutionary guards to break up a workers’ protest outside the factory they own without having to pay a penny in bribes. Here the interests of the religious state and the westernised capital-owning class coincide. Bribes are for ‘morality’ or political offences.
Hands Off the People of Iran has written a lot about the 2009 protests and the rather strange conflict currently unfolding between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. I do not want to imply that it is more important than previous crises. However, the stand-off between the Iranian president and the supreme leader could have serious consequences for both sides. In some ways it was inevitable that, once the ‘reformists’ were out of the picture, the other factions of the regime would fall out.
Ahmadinejad is accused of being a member of the traditionalist-Shia Hojjatieh society, although he denies this. Hojjatieh members believe that religion should not be reduced to the level of day-to-day issues: the interference of the religious state in social matters – alleviating poverty and hardship, etc – could delay the reappearance of the 12th Shia Imam. Ahmadinejad came to power promising to eradicate corruption (for which he accused Rafsanjani and his family of being responsible). However, during his presidency corruption has got worse and the gap between the rich and the poor is much wider than it was during the time of the ‘reformists’, so the Iranian president seems to have returned to his Hojjatieh roots.
Despite its religious language, however, this conflict has its roots in who owns what, who is buying which privatised industry, bank or service, and who controls major institutions, such as the Foundation for the Martyrs or the Foundation for the Dispossessed. At present a fierce battle is taking place between the new entrepreneurs at the top of the revolutionary guards and older money concentrated in the hands of a few senior ayatollahs and their immediate families.
These clerics have sided with the supreme leader and some of the attacks on Ahmadinejad have been unprecedented. His supporters are now called the ‘deviant faction’ and his closest advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, is called a freemason and an Israeli spy (probably the worst insult under the Islamic regime). Such accusations were never levelled against the ‘reformists’. Moussavi may have been called many names and they said he had lost his way, but never was he labelled a Mossad agent.
All this has led to interesting developments, including a call by Khatami to use the opportunity to side with the supreme leader and participate in the coming parliamentary elections. This, of course, is complete madness for the majority of the young who took part in the anti-dictatorial protests: to them Khamenei is the main enemy. This shows once more that the role of the ‘reformists’ has been to maintain the regime in power.
State of limbo
Sanctions have played an important role in the current dire economic situation. A number of countries have not paid, or paid after a long delay, for the oil they have bought from Iran. India did not do so because it was fearful of sanctions imposed by the US on countries trading with Iran.
The production and export of oil has been hampered because of old equipment, but Iran cannot import replacements because of sanctions and has consequently lost its position as the second largest exporter of oil. Most of Iran’s banks are on the US sanctions list with serious consequences for the economy. The rate of growth dropped to 0.1% in 2010 and the IMF has predicted zero growth for 2011. Unemployment is around 25%, according to government figures. The Iranian left believes it to be much higher, especially amongst youth, where it is said to be as high as 60%.
Iran has ended food subsidies, in compliance with IMF demands. However, while the IMF praises Tehran’s economic policies, ordinary people have reacted by refusing to pay their utility bills. We are now in an election year and we can expect more protests against price rises and for jobs and democratic rights.
Election years have also been a time of horse-trading between the various factions of the regime and this year will be no different. Here one should emphasise once again the problem presented by Rafsanjani, Khatami, Moussavi et al: they actually hold back the anti-dictatorial movement they claim to head. Several blogs within and beyond the green movement are useful for clarifying the current state of debate. On the one hand, the supporters of the ‘reformist’ leaders accuse anyone who calls for the overthrow of the current regime of favouring violence and armed struggle. On the other hand, young activists argue that building false hopes in the religious establishment will only prolong the life of the current dictatorship. The ‘reformists’ put a lot of emphasis on the ‘rule of law’, but under the Khatami presidency the supreme leader overruled the legal system if and when it suited him. In other words, if you refuse to challenge the role of the supreme leader (the ‘reformists’ have made it abundantly clear they will not do so), then the rule of law is meaningless.
In 2009 I pointed out we were seeing the beginning of the end of the Islamic republic. Nothing demonstrates this more than the current bitter squabbles between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. However, I am not saying this end will necessarily come about in the way we would wish. The United States is now feeling quite confident about the way sanctions are destroying Iran and my feeling is that it is expecting some sort of disintegration.
In a way, the current state of limbo, where there is a level of confrontation between the various factions of the regime at a time when anti-dictatorial protests persist, is not necessarily bad for the left – our younger comrades should be more patient. This period provides a breathing space, and allows new debates to take place, with some of the preconceived ideas about the Islamic regime being discarded (the various factions are themselves doing a very good job of exposing each other’s multi-billion-dollar corruption deals).
The generation born during the Iran-Iraq war is now questioning the basic tenets of the reformist movement and the possibility exists that the current situation will not just see factional opposition, but a powerful movement for genuine democracy and social advance.