Tag Archives: Fedayeen Majority

Divided theocratic regime paralysed by sanctions

As the US steps up it efforts to provoke regime change from above, Yassamine Mather looks at the reasons for the failure of the working class to win leadership of the opposition movement

New sanctions imposed by the United States government last week were the most significant hostile moves against Iran’s Islamic Republic since 1979. They marked a period of unprecedented coordination led by the US to obtain the support of the United Nations and European Union.

After months of denying their significance, the government of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was forced to react by setting up an emergency counter-sanctions unit, whilst Iranian aviation officials accused the UK, Germany and the United Arab Emirates of refusing to supply fuel for civilian Iranian airplanes. As it turned out, this was not true. However, the EU banned most of Iran Air’s jets from flying over its territory, because of safety concerns directly related to previous sanctions. It is said that most of the national airline’s fleet, including Boeing 727s and 747s and its Airbus A320s, are unsafe because the company has not been able to replace faulty components.

The US is adamant that ‘severe’ sanctions are necessary to stop Iran’s attempts at becoming a military nuclear power. Scare stories are finding their way into the pages of the mass media. According to US defence secretary Robert Gates, Iran is developing the capacity to fire scores, or perhaps hundreds, of missiles at Europe. Ten days after making that claim, Gates alleged that Iran had enough enriched uranium to be able to build two atom bombs within two years.

However, it is difficult to believe the Obama administration’s claims that the new sanctions have anything to do with Iran’s nuclear capabilities, which is why we should consider other explanations.

Why is there such an urgency to increase the pressure on Iran? One likely possibility is that the Obama administration has observed the divisions within the current government (between neoconservatives, led by Ahmadinejad, and traditional conservatives, such as the Larijani brothers, who control Iran’s executive, parliamentary and judicial system) and sees an opportunity for regime change from above.

After weeks of infighting between Ahmadinejad and the conservatives, involving angry accusations and counter-accusations in parliament over Azad University, this week the reformist website, Rah-e-Sabz, posted an article claiming that “the supreme leader and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani had agreed a resolution of the conflict” over who controls Azad.

The university, one of the world’s largest, is part of a private chain with branches throughout the country and is considered a stronghold of Islamic ‘reformists’. Since 2004 Ahmadinejad has been trying to reorganise its board of governors in order to take back control. When the Islamic parliament opposed his moves to replace the board, the Guardian Council, which has to approve every bill, took the side of the Ahmadinejad camp, creating yet another stalemate between the two conservative groups within the ruling elite.

The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had no choice but to intervene. He did so by ordering the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution to stop Ahmadinejad’s attempts to overrule parliament (in other words, he supported Rafsanjani, who, together with members of his family, are trustees and on the board of the university), In return Rafsanjani publicly praised Khamenei.

Some see this as a clever move. For the first time since last year’s disputed presidential elections, Khamenei has been forced to take a public stance against Ahmadinejad, resulting in a retreat by the president and his allies in the revolutionary guards. Azad University remains under the control of Rafsanjani and his family. No doubt if the rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad continues, the balance of power could shift in favour of the former president.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s bazaar was on strike for most of last week, in protest at a decision by Iran’s government to raise bazaar taxes by up to 70%. The government declared July 11 and 12 public holidays in 19 Iranian provinces, citing hot weather and dust, but there were rumours that the real reason was to conceal the possibility of strikes on those days.

All this is a reflection of Iran’s political paralysis and the state’s inability to deal with a combination of economic crisis and growing opposition amongst the majority of the population.

Crippling effects

Successive Iranian governments have denied the effectiveness of 30 years of crippling sanctions, but most economists inside the country estimate that sanctions have added 35% to the price of every commodity. Iran had been forced to buy spare parts for cars, planes, manufacturing equipment, agricultural machinery, etc on the black market, and now it will be forced to buy refined oil in the same way, causing a further jump in the rate of inflation. The smuggling of refined oil from Iraq started earlier this month, but the quantity received is unlikely to be sufficient to meet demand even during the summer months.

The new financial restrictions that came with the latest sanctions have crippled Iran’s banking and insurance sector. Iran already attracted little foreign investment, but now even China is pulling out of industrial ventures, such as the South Farse oil project. The proposed policing of ships and containers travelling to Iran means shipping insurance rates in the Persian Gulf are now the equivalent of those in war zones.

Despite the absence of the large demonstrations that followed the rigged elections of a year ago, most Iranians agree that the religious state is today weaker than it was in June 2009 (at the height of mass protests) and that could explain renewed interest in the US for regime change from above. At a time when anger against Iran’s rulers and frustration with leaders of the green movement amongst youth and sections of working class is tangible, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. From bloggers to journalists, from students to the unemployed, opponents of the regime are blaming ‘reformist’ leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi for the current stalemate – people’s patience is running out. Could it be that the Obama administration is planning to replace the Islamic Republic with a regime composed of selected exiles, à la Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq or Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan? After all, there is no shortage of former Islamists currently residing in the US who have converted to ‘liberal democracy’, including Iranian disciples of Karl Popper. Such people are paraded daily in the Farsi media and portrayed as the voice of reason.

In contrast to the hesitation and conciliationism of green leaders, others within the opposition have been stepping up their protests against the Islamic regime and two potentially powerful sections – the women’s movement and the workers’ movement – are conducting their own struggles. Yet here too Moussavi’s patronising attitude to both groups (he called on workers to join the green movement to safeguard their interests, while his wife claimed to support women’s rights) have backfired badly. In the words of one feminist activist, the green movement should realise it is one section of the opposition, but not the only voice of the protest movement.

Workers’ movement

Superficial analysts abroad labelled last year’s anti-dictatorship protesters in Iran as middle class. However, those present at these demonstrations were adamant that workers, students and the unemployed played a huge role. In May, the Centre to Defend Families of the Slain and Detained in Iran published the names of 10 workers who were killed in post-election street protests, and there is considerable evidence that workers, the unemployed and shanty town-dwellers were among the forces that radicalised the movement’s slogans (crossing the red lines imposed by green leaders, such as the call for an end to the entire regime, and for the complete separation of state and religion). In addition we are witnessing an increasing number of workers’ demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes against the non-payment of wages, deteriorating conditions and low pay. The workers’ protest movement has been dubbed a tsunami, and in recent months it has adopted clear political slogans against the dictatorship.

Last week was typical. Five hundred workers staged protests outside Abadan refinery against unpaid wages, blocking the road outside the refinery. Two of their comrades filming the action were arrested, but these workers are adamant they will continue the strikes and demonstrations next week. Three hundred Pars metal workers staged a separate protest against non-payment of wages and cuts in many of the workers’ benefits, such as the bus to and from work and the subsidised canteen, which managers of the privatised company intend to close. Similar protests have taken place in dozens of large and small firms throughout Iran. Most have moved on from purely economic demands to include political slogans against the regime.

However, we still see little coordination between these protests and workers have yet to make their mark as a class aware of its power and historic role. Despite much talk of mushrooming industrial action and even a general strike, so far we have not seen the Iranian working class taking its rightful place at the head of a national movement.

So how can we explain the current situation? A number of points have been raised by the left in Iran:

1. The working class and leftwing activists have faced more severe forms of repression than any other section of the opposition, even prior to June 2009. However, it is difficult to accept that fear of arrest or detention has played any part in the reluctance of workers to make their mark as a political force. Clearly repression has not deterred workers from participating in strikes, taking managers hostage or blocking highways. In fact incarcerated activists include the majority of the leaders of Vahed Bus Company, serving Tehran and its suburbs, the entire leadership of Haft Tapeh sugar cane workers and activists from the Committee to set up Independent Workers’ Organisations.

2. Workers have been misled by the leaders of the green movement. Yet throughout the presidential election debates they did not hear any substantial difference between the economic plans proposed by Moussavi and Karroubi, who, for example, defended privatisation, and those of Ahmadinejad and other conservatives. Workers are opposed to plans for the abolition of state subsidies. However, they remember that this was a plan originally proposed by the ‘reformist’, Mohammad Khatami, during his presidency, as part of the much hated policy of ‘economic readjustment’.

Workers are also well aware that the leaders of the green movement aspire to an Iranian/Islamic version of capitalism, where the bourgeoisie’s prosperity will eventually ‘benefit all’ – an illusion very few workers subscribe to. It should also be noted that the Iranian working class as a modern, urban force is primarily secular, with no allegiance to the Islamic state, and constitutes a growing wing of the protest movement that wants to go beyond adherence to legality and the reform of the current constitution. Kept at arm’s length by leaders of the green movement and yet incapable of asserting its own political line, the working class is facing a dilemma in the current crisis.

3. The opportunist left has diverted the class struggle. However, the Iranian working class is wary of claims made by leaders of the green movement, as well as sections of the opportunist left like Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority, that the first decade of the Islamic Republic under ayatollah Khomeini constituted the golden years of the revolution. Older worker activists realise that it was the clergy and the Islamic regime that halted the revolution of 1979 and threw it into reverse. The Khomeini years coincided with the worst of the religious repression, and it was not only the radical left who were the victims (thousands were executed), but workers in general. The state was constantly calling on them to make sacrifices, to send their sons to the battle front and produce more for the war economy, while ruthlessly suppressing workers’ independent actions as the work of traitors and spies. So, contrary to the opinion of Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority, the first decade of Khomeini’s rule – under Moussavi’s premiership, of course – were the dark years for Iranian workers and no amount of rewriting history will change this.

4. The current economic situation is so bad that the working class is unable to fight effectively for anything more than survival. Striking for unpaid wages is symptomatic of this, on top of which there is the threat of losing your job and joining the ranks of the unemployed. In other words, the defensive nature of workers’ struggles hinders their capability to mount a nationwide struggle. Of course, if this argument is correct, the situation will get worse once further sanctions bite. There will be more job losses, more despair amongst the working class.

5. Despite many efforts to create nationwide workers organisations – not only the Committee to set up Independent Workers’ Organisations, but the Network of Iranian Labour Unions (founded in response to the bus drivers’ actions and the imprisonment of their leader, Mansour Osanlou), workers have failed to coordinate protests even on a regional level.

6. The confusion of the left has had a negative impact. Workers have not forgotten how the Fedayeen Majority and Tudeh apologised for and supported the ‘anti-imperialist’ religious state. The majority of the working class was aligned with the left, and so went along with the dismantling of the workers’ shoras (councils) that played such a significant role in the overthrow of the shah’s regime. Later, during Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), the Fedayeen Majority and Tudeh advocated collaboration with the state-run Islamic factory councils, although the majority of workers considered these anti-trade union organisations, whose main task was to spy on labour activists and support managers in both private and state-owned enterprises. The Shia state claimed to international bodies such as the International Labour Organisation that the councils were genuine trade unions, even though they were set up to destroy labour solidarity within and beyond the workplace. Despite all this the opportunist left not only refused to expose their true function: it called on Iranian workers to join them as a step towards the establishment of mass labour organisations!

Revolutionary left

Over the last few years the left has publicised workers’ demands and organised support for them. Yet there have been big problems. We have seen two distinct approaches regarding the form working class organisation should take. Some advocate the need to unite around the most basic of demands in trade union-type bodies independent of political organisation. Others argue that a struggle within such a united front between reformist and revolutionary currents over strategy and tactics will be inevitable and the revolutionaries will win over the majority of the working because of the superiority of their arguments.

Then there are those who emphasise the need for a different form of organisation altogether: underground cells of class-conscious workers capable of mobilising the most radical sections of the class. Of course, it is possible to combine both options, but proponents of both strategies imply that the two paths are mutually exclusive. Those calling for a workers’ united front label advocates of cells ‘sectarian ultra-leftists’, while the latter allege that those who want to work for the creation of mass, union-type bodies are succumbing to reformism and syndicalism.

While recent attempts amongst sections of the left to discuss these issues should be welcomed, it has to be said that the working class and the left have a long way to go before the ‘tsunami’ of workers’ protests becomes a class-conscious nationwide movement capable of overthrowing the religious state and the capitalist order it upholds.

From Weekly Worker

‘Reformists’ fear revolution

 
Repression and Resistance  Repression and Resistance

 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”.

Conservative divisions

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.

‘Reformist’ compromise

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).

Notes

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.

4. http://enduringamerica.com/2010/01/04/iran-five-expatriate-intellectuals-issue-the-demands-of-the-green-movement.

5. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmoud_Taleghani.