Yassamine Mather, Hopi chair, looks at the social upheaval englufing Iran and the tasks of internationalists
The election campaign of the four presidential candidates was largely ignored by the majority of the population until early June, when a series of televised debates triggered street demonstrations and public meetings. Ironically it was Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s fear of losing that prompted him to make allegations of endemic corruption against some of the leading figures of the religious state, including former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, former interior minister and adviser to supreme leader ayatollah Khamenei.
In doing so he crossed one of the red lines of the Islamic regime. Once that was done, the floodgates were open. The language used by all three of his opponents – Moussavi, Karroubi and Rezaii – became more colourful. As Ahmadinejad continued to rail against 20 years of corruption and political and economic interference by the “economic mafia” associated with important figures, including Rafsanjani (currently chairman of the ‘assembly of experts’ charged with electing the supreme leader), his opponents wasted no time in using equally strong language to condemn his own presidency, pointing out the worsening economic situation, mass unemployment and 25% inflation, as well as Iran’s “embarrassing international profile”.
In response to these accusations, Ahmadinejad’s election campaign made some historic claims. Apparently he is the man who brought Islam to Venezuela and Latin America! He has secured a written apology from Blair (prompting a denial by the foreign office). And he is the only president who is so feared by the US that it has been forced to drop regime-change plans for Iran. At times Iranians must have thought their president and his supporters lived in a parallel universe.
In just 10 days the two opposed factions between them managed to expose every unflattering aspect of the 30-year-old Islamic regime. No-one in opposition could have done a better job – no-one else had such in-depth knowledge of the levels of corruption and incompetence prevalent among the inner circles of power.
It was unprecedented for the authorities, including Ahmadinejad’s government, to tolerate the various election gatherings and slogans. But the eyes of the world were now on Iran and the regime put on a show: Bassij militia and Islamic guards turned a blind eye to women who failed to adhere to Islamic dress code for the duration of the campaign. Comrades and relatives inside Iran were telling us the atmosphere was like the pre-revolution days of 1979. Political discussions were held at every street corner, political songs of the late 70s became fashionable amongst a generation born long after the February uprising.
Those who had advocated a boycott of the elections were constantly reminded that it was the mass boycott of the 2005 presidential elections that had allowed Ahmadinejad to come to power. Consequently many life-long opponents of the regime reluctantly decided to vote, if only to stop the re-election of the incumbent. On polling day the regime’s unelected leaders basked in the euphoria of a large turnout, yet they were already facing a dilemma: how to keep control in the post-election era.
If Mir-Hossein Moussavi did become president, those who voted for him would expect serious change and the supreme leader was well aware that neither he nor the new president would be able to meet expectations. That is why he and the senior religious figures around him decided to do what most dictators do: rig the elections and declare Ahmadinejad the winner. Nothing new in such measures; but the supreme leader and his inner circle made two major miscalculations: they underestimated the anger and frustration of the majority of the population; and they failed to realise that the high turnout could only mean a massive ‘no’ to Ahmadinejad and, by proxy, to the entire Islamic order.
Added to this was the sheer incompetence of the vote-rigging. In previous presidential elections, the vote had been announced province by province. This time the results came in blocks of millions of votes. Throughout the night the percentage of votes going to all four candidates changed very little. It seemed obvious that the interior ministry was playing with the figures to make sure the overall percentages remained constant.
Early on Saturday morning, the supreme leader congratulated Ahmadinejad, which was seen as official endorsement of the results. But by Sunday afternoon, under the pressure of impromptu demonstrations, he was forced to reverse this decision, and called on the council of guardians to investigate the other candidates’ complaints. By the afternoon of Monday June 15, with a massive show of force by the opposition – over a million demonstrators on the streets – he was instructing the council of guardians to call for a recount. By Tuesday there was talk of new elections.
Had our supreme leader studied the fate of that other Iranian dictator, the shah, he would have known that at a time of great upheavals, as in 1979, once the dictator hesitates and dithers he loses momentum, and the thousands on the street become more confident.
The slogans and militancy of demonstrators in Tehran and other Iranian cities is today the driving force in Iran – and not only for the supreme leader and his entourage. These slogans also dictate the actions of the so-called ‘official opposition’. The meek, scared Moussavi, whose initial response to the vote-rigging was to seek a reversal of the results by the “centres of Shia religious guidance”, suddenly gained courage and appeared at Monday’s protests. After promising that he would protect people’s votes, he could not ignore the tens of thousands who on Saturday and Sunday were shouting, “Moussavi, return my vote”, “What have you done with our vote?” and even one of the students’ slogans, “Death to those who compromise”.
There can be no doubt that Ahmadinejad’s press conference and victory rally on Sunday played a crucial role in increasing the size of the anti-government demonstrations on Monday and Tuesday. As riots were taking place all over the capital, the reference to Iran as a “very stable country” reminded many of the shah’s claims that Iran was an island of tranquillity, less than a year before he was overthrown. In response to a reporter’s question about protests in Tehran, the president referred to his opponents as “dust and tiny thorns”. A comment that he will regret forever, as the huge crowds on Monday and Tuesday kept taunting him.
Demonstrators in Tehran are also shouting slogans adapted from those of 1979, often prompted by leftists and students: “Tanks, guns, Bassij are not effective any more”, “Death to the dictator”, “Death to this regime that brings nothing but death”. Clearly the supreme leader’s standard response of bussing in supporters from the countryside to put up a well-orchestrated show of force (as they did for Sunday’s and Tuesday’s pro-Ahmadinejad rallies) does not work any more. Sunday’s event failed miserably, with reporters claiming that many of those arriving by bus could only speak Arabic. By Tuesday some of Ahmadinejad’s non-Iranian supporters arrived at the rally with yellow Hezbollah flags. As Mr Ahmadinejad has no supporters amongst Sunni Arabs in the Khouzestan province of Iran, if these reports are correct one could guess that participants at the state-organised rallies included the thousands of Shias invited in June every year from Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan to participate in the events commemorating the anniversary of the death of Khomeini.
It is difficult to predict what will happen in the next few days. However, one can be certain that nothing will be the same again. No-one will forget the fact that both factions crossed many ‘red lines’, exposing each other’s corruption, deceit and failure. No-one will forget the obvious vote-rigging that makes a mockery of ‘Islamic democracy’ – when Moussavi called it a “charade” he was only echoing the sentiments of the masses.
On Tuesday another presidential contender, Mehdi Karroubi, said: “This week ‘the republic’ was taken out of the Islamic regime”. No-one will forget that the immediate response of the regime to peaceful protests was to arrest, beat up and shoot opponents. No-one will forget that at least seven people have been killed in these protests.
There is little doubt that Moussavi /Karoubi/Khatami and Mohsen Rezaii will look for compromises and will ultimately sell out. However, these protests have gained such momentum that already in Tehran people compare the plight of Moussavi (if he does become president) with that of Shapour Bakhtiar – the last prime minister appointed by the shah, whose government lasted a few short weeks before the revolution overthrew the entire regime.
However, before the British left gets too excited and starts sending its blueprints for revolution to Iran, let us be clear about some facts: working class organisation remains very weak during this crucial period; most of the Iranian left is as confused and divided as it was in 1979, but now, of course, it is much smaller. Repression against labour activists and leftist students is harsher than ever.
Yet students’ and workers’ organisations have been very active in the anti-government demonstrations and they have managed to change some of the slogans of the protests, turning anti-Ahmadinejad slogans into slogans challenging the entire Islamic ‘order’. There was talk of a one-day general strike. However the organisations discussing this decided to try to improve the left’s intervention in current events before contemplating such ambitious calls. We should not expect miracles, but one can see that unlike the Iranian exile left (some of whom have benefited from the largesse of organisations offering regime-change funds, while others have tailed rightwing-controlled international trade unions) the left inside Iran has been conscious of the revolutionary potential of this period and, given its relative weakness, is doing what it can to make an independent, principled, but systematic intervention. That is precisely why the authorities’ attacks on university campuses, where the left is strongest, have been so severe; and why we must do all in our power to support comrades in Iran.
When it comes to predicting Iranian politics, no one can claim to have a crystal ball. However, it is reassuring to see that the unique position Hands Off the People of Iran took – against imperialism, against the threat of war and for the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime – has been vindicated by the events of the last two weeks. Imagine what would have happened if during the last year we had witnessed a military strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear industry, or various US plans for regime change from above had materialised. Political Islam in Iran and the region would have been the undisputed winner of such a scenario. We were right to argue that positive change can only happen from below and from inside Iran and we will continue to maintain this position.
At the same time, these events have exposed the ignorance of groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, whose leaders kept informing us about the virtues of Islamic democracy in Iran. We have seen the selection of candidates by an unrepresentative nominated council of guardians; the role of the supreme leader in inventing the results of an election; and the brutal repression of legal and official opponents. If that is what the regime can do to its own, one can imagine the kind of treatment reserved for its opponents.
But even under the threat of beatings and executions, an overwhelming majority of the Iranian people have shown that they do not believe SWP-type apologia. No-one in their right mind should ever make such claims again. Hopi’s judgement was correct and we did not compromise our principles; that is why, now that the Iranian working class is in need of international solidarity more than ever, we are in a good position to help deliver it.