The US administration preferred Islamists to leftists, says Yassamine Mather
Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the February 1979 uprising in Iran has been marked by dozens of scholarly seminars in Europe, numerous documentaries produced by the Persian-language media, as well the usual military parade inside the country.
Documentaries produced outside Iran concentrate on memoirs of key players who are still alive – from the wife of the ex-shah, Farah Diba, and the officials of the Pahlavi court, to Abolhassan Banisadr, one of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s closest allies in 1979, who is now in exile in France. Most of them have made similar comments on previous anniversaries of the Iranian revolution, but this time quotes from American general Robert Huyser’s reports (originally declassified in 2015), which have been repeated by a number of news agencies, give us a better idea of US plans after the shah’s departure.
Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic have peddled various conspiracy theories about Huyser’s secret mission of January 1979. However, the published documents show the confusion emanating from the Carter administration, which was trying to manage events thousand of miles away, in circumstances where it had failed to understand the reasons behind mass protests against its favourite Middle Eastern tyrant. One of Huyser’s main tasks was to encourage the shah to leave the country and to stop a potential military coup by generals loyal to him. According to BBC World Service journalist Kambiz Fattahi, who has studied the state department’s declassified documents, 10 days after the shah’s departure, Khomeini sent a message to Washington offering a deal:
If president Jimmy Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.1
Khomeini’s note to the president was declassified in 2016, but it is only now, on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, that comments and analysis of it have become well known – shedding more light on the Carter administration’s secret negotiations in the crucial weeks after the shah’s flight from Tehran. While, as I have pointed out, Huyser’s main mission was to stop pro-shah generals from organising a military coup, he had in fact given the generals the green light for such a coup if the left was in a position to take power. In other words, the secret deal demonstrates that the US administration was more fearful of the left than the Islamists – particularly the working class, whose strikes had paralysed the country. In the true tradition of US ‘foreign intervention’, not least during the cold war, it was better to ally with the Islamists against secular and leftwing forces.
The plan agreed between the Carter administration and Khomeini (via his secular advisors) was to hold back the workers’ movement and organise a smooth transfer of power to Khomeini. What shattered those plans was the involvement of homafars (technicians and junior flight crew) in the Iranian air force, who took up arms against their commanders in support of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Guerrillas on February 11-12.
As I have written on a number of occasions, in February 1979 we were not facing a situation of ‘dual power’ in Iran. While the Islamists were powerful before the uprising, leftwing activists were the last to be released from prison. In fact Islamists had faced far less repression under the shah than the left – holding meetings in mosques and other religious institutions had been tolerated. They were also much better off financially, benefiting from donations from the bazaar. That is why the religious movement was far better organised than the left and other secular forces. In addition the left was politically confused, made many mistakes and allowed the Islamists to outmanoeuvre them.
Looking back at the film reels of 40 years ago, it is interesting to see how the current situation in Iran is hardly what was envisaged at the time of the February revolution. In late 1978 and early 1979 two of the common slogans on demonstrations were: ‘Bread, work, freedom!’ and ‘Equality, independence!’ Forty years on, I do not think anyone in their right mind would argue that Iranians has won ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’, let alone democracy. The supreme leader dominates the political agenda, while presidents are ‘elected’ from a pre-selected list of supporters of the current order. Prisons are full of labour and civil rights activists, and the Shia religious order cannot even tolerate opposition from within its own ranks. Leaders of the reformist green movement have been under house arrest for the last 10 years.
That is why, when I was asked to talk at a seminar to mark the 40th anniversary, I decided to speak on ‘“Equality” and its relation to “independence”.
Needless to say, the Iranian people would not have rebelled against the shah had it not been for the massive gap between the rich and poor. In the absence of any financial support for the peasantry, the shah’s ‘land reform’ had impoverished the countryside, while the massive exodus to the big cities created sprawling shanty towns.
Two parallel universes existed – not just in terms of income and standards of living, but also in terms of culture. The secular upper classes in north Tehran looked down on the poor and even the lower middle class. The word chadori (the long cloak worn by religious women) was used by westernised, upper class woman as a derogatory term. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, certain forms of ‘cultural capital’ were valued over and above others – they helped or hindered social mobility just as much as income or wealth.
Far from being a ‘conspiracy by the west to depose the shah, because he was getting too powerful’ (one of the theories put forward by Iranian royalists), the uprising was a direct result of the failures of the shah’s regime to respond to the economic crisis that followed the boom of the early 1970s. Most skilled workers faced a drop in their living standards in 1976, while the ‘White Revolution’ in agriculture had left massive numbers of peasants landless and penniless, forcing them to seek seasonal jobs in the big cities. Recession left them unemployed and destitute. In addition to the above two groups, the small independent producers had been forced out of business, and sometimes made bankrupt, by the decision of Iran’s chamber of commerce to shore up the already privileged position of the big capitalists. Corruption and the rule of a clique around the royal court meant that many traditional merchants, often associated with the bazaar, were deprived of large profits available to the more privileged sections of the ruling class.
Such decisions, exemplifying the arrogant dictatorship of the royal family, fuelled widespread political discontent, while the suppression of leftwing and in fact all secular opposition allowed sections of the clergy and the Islamic movement to mobilise what was in reality class discontent in the name of religion. The clergy, which had survived the repressive measures of the shah’s dictatorship by making compromises with the regime, was in a much better position to benefit from political discontent than secular and socialist groups, who had lost many in their ranks through execution and imprisonment. In the summer of 1978 religious demonstrations in major cities were led by the clergy, financed by the bazaar and supported by independent producers, the urban poor and students.
After the revolution, as protests against inequality and for better wages and working conditions continued in factories and throughout the oil industry, the new Islamic government attacked protesters and labour activists. For a regime whose main support was based in the bazaar and amongst small capitalists, defence of private property became paramount.
In addition, the non-homogeneous (multi-class) mix in the Islamists’ camp necessitated a policy of denying class struggle, or at least marginalising it and removing it from the political agenda. This social bloc, united under the umbrella of religious culture, had no other way of surmounting the class antagonisms within it between the poor shanty-town dwellers and the much better-off bazaaris. The new religious state needed ‘unity’, and it therefore quickly developed a hatred of the left, which wanted to continue the struggle, and champion independent working class action. In the first month after coming to power the new regime used paramilitaries and civilian supporters to attack workers’ protests. In March 1979 those attending a meeting of oil workers in Tehran refinery were attacked by Hezbollah and Bassij militias, who were shouting Hezb faghat hezbollah: ‘Only one party – Allah’s party’.
New and weak
The Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) was the only time when the state took welfare measures such as issuing coupons to most of the population. The harsh conditions created by the war masked some of the underlying inequalities within the country. But even then the rich and powerful were able to pay bribes to prevent their sons being sent to the front – some even found ways to send their offspring abroad to avoid conscription. In other words, there was not much equality in terms of those who were sent to the front, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost their lives.
The end of the war was marked by the country’s re-integration into the world economy. The death of Khomeini led to the appointment of a new supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who was by comparison relatively weak – not yet the dictator he was to become in later years. He was completely loyal to Akbar Rafsanjani, the senior cleric who had nominated him as vali faghih (‘guardian of the imbecile’, or supreme leader). The international domination of finance capital and globalisation, as well as the ascendency of a powerful ‘reformist’ faction in the Iranian regime, paved the way for a massive post-war reconstruction plan, entirely in line with the new capitalist world order. No-one pursued this more eagerly than ayatollah Rafsanjani, who was already a businessman with a considerable personal fortune. It is this period that marked the beginning of an ever widening gap between the rich and the poor in Iran’s Islamic Republic.
This is the time when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund became involved in aiding Iran’s economy – a situation that has lasted until today, despite the Islamic leaders claims of ‘independence’. These institutions drove the policy of privatisation and the maximisation of profit for the sake of ‘growth’ (plus the ending of welfare subsidies).
The following report by the World Bank in October 2018 gives a reasonable summary of the situation:
Iranian authorities have adopted a comprehensive strategy encompassing market-based reforms, as reflected in the government’s 20-year vision document and the sixth five-year development plan for the 2016-2021 period … On the economic front, the development plan envisages an annual economic growth rate of 8% and reforms of state-owned enterprises, the financial and banking sector, and the allocation and management of oil revenues among the main priorities of the government during the five-year period.2
However, in Iran – as elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism – there was no ‘trickle-down effect’. There was no reduction of the gap between the rich and the poor, let alone fulfilling promises of ‘equality’. While clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters have made billions of dollars from sanction-busting and the black market, ordinary Iranians have faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to the shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. No doubt the display of grotesque wealth is adding insult to injury, but the supreme leader does not pay much attention to the injury.
Last year a New York Times reporter was shocked by what she saw in a programme screened by the pro-government Press TV:
It was not just the wealth that struck me, but how freely Iran’s ‘one percenters’ flaunted the symbols of western decadence without fear of government retribution ….
After a revolution that promised an egalitarian utopia and vowed to root out gharbzadegi – the modern, westernised lifestyles of Iran’s cosmopolitans – how have some people become so rich? Much of Iran’s wealth, it turns out, is in the hands of the very people in charge of maintaining social justice. Hard-line clerical leaders, together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, have engineered a system where it is largely they, their family members and their loyal cronies who prosper.3
The son of an Iranian diplomat, Sasha Sobhani, who apparently has half a million followers on Instagram, recently posted photographs from his travels to Greek islands. There he was sitting on the deck of an expensive yacht drinking champagne. Under one post he wrote: “How long will you be jealous of me?”
In other words, nothing is left of the egalitarian slogans of the February uprising. Today most young Iranians laugh at their rulers’ claims of pursuing ‘social justice’ and, just as in February 1979, Iranians live in two parallel universes. Gold-topped ice cream, Lamborghini and Porsche cars in north Tehran are a world apart form the real life of millions of Iranians who face hunger and lack of basic medication, not to mention the tens of thousands who still live in shanty towns, such as Nassir Shahr just outside Tehran. In addition, the dominance of superficial, US-type celebrity culture, spread widely via social media amongst well-off sections of Iranian youth, means that the rich flaunt their wealth shamelessly – increasing the anger and resentment felt by the majority of the population.
The poverty line in 2018 was set at approximately $480 a month per household. This means that 33% of the population – more than 24 million Iranians – live below that poverty line. The median income for an average household is only $885, leaving those above the official poverty line struggling to make ends meet. The top one percent spend 86 times more than the poorest one percent. According to the Iranian paper Donya-e-Eqtesad, “The bottom 10% of the population spend one 14th of the sum spent by the richest 10%.”
When Donald Trump reimposed sanctions against Iran, following the US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in November 2018, Iran’s oil and banking sectors were hard hit. The currency lost more than half its value last year. No need to remind readers that those in power, or close to the centres of power, are not affected by these new sanctions. They can still buy goods using unreal government rates of exchange – selling them at the highly inflated, semi-official price, thus securing huge profits. In addition those related to centres of power have a monopoly over the distribution of food and medicine. Most of them have amassed their astronomic fortunes through control of the black market during the era of sanctions. This group is using its expertise in sanction-busting in the growing black economy sector to accumulate yet more wealth at the expense of the working class and the poor.
Khamenei and increasingly the government under president Hassan Rouhani tell Iranians that the ‘sacrifices’ they are making are worth it, because, after all, Iran is now politically independent. This is not quite true. The nuclear deal signed in 2016 was in fact a sign of submission to western dictat. Speaking to crowds gathered for the celebrations of the February uprising, Rouhani said the country was in a “state of war”, and, as Iranians increasingly question the price they have to pay for this celebrated ‘independence’, the obvious reality is that it is meaningless, given the country’s economic dependence on global capital. Economic sanctions have had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy precisely because of this dependence – at least in terms of the importation of basic goods.
If you intend to take on the world hegemon, it helps if, in addition to economic independence, you enjoy overwhelming support within your own borders. But this can hardly be achieved if you accuse workers who protest at the non-payment of wages of being agents of foreign powers; if you arrest every lawyer who dares represent a leftwing activist; if you accuse retired teachers and state employees demanding payment of their hard-earned pensions of being spies!
On the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution the Iranian state went through the usual routine of massed street celebrations, while Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and US president Donald Trump exchanged Twitter insults.
Trump wrote: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”
Zarif responded: “#40YearsofFailure to accept that Iranians will never return to submission. #40YearsofFailure to adjust US policy to reality. #40YearsofFailure to destabilize Iran through blood & treasure. After 40 yrs of wrong choices, time for @realDonaldTrump to rethink failed US policy.”
The clerics and their government managed to get tens of thousands of Iranians to attend celebrations. However, the majority were soldiers, teachers, school pupils and government employees. Footage shows that there was none of the enthusiasm or spontaneity of 1979. In contrast last month’s demonstrations at the Haft Tapeh sugar plant and the workers’ protests in Ahvaz in mid-January all showed that the spirit of 1979 is alive and well. If there is going to be any change in Iran, it will come from these forces – and definitely not the supporters of ‘regime change from above’ sponsored by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Iran’s workers will once again use May Day to remind the religious state and ‘reformist’ Islamists alike of their power, writes Yassamine Mather
As May Day approaches, Iranian workers are preparing demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities. Over the last few weeks everyone from ‘reformist’ leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from employers to labour groups, agrees that the number of workers’ protests and the radicalisation of their slogans marks a new phase in Iran.
Largely unseen by the world media, thousands of strikes, slow-downs and sit-ins by workers challenge the government’s drive to privatise the economy. Iran’s workers are also aware of their role in the overthrow of the shah and once again they will use May Day to remind the religious state and ‘reformist’ Islamists alike of their power. A recent statement by a coalition of workers’ organisations clarifies this: “We millions are the producers of wealth, the wheels of production. Society moves only because we move it” (The Epoch Times March 25).
Since the start of the Iranian new year (March 21) workers have protested against the setting of the official minimum wage at the equivalent of $303 per month. Six independent workers’ organisations have argued that this is a third of the poverty line, which is actually $900. There is also worker opposition to government attempts to abolish subsidies in line with IMF/World Bank diktat. However, what will distinguish this year’s May Day protests will be the political slogans – already seen on posters and leaflets distributed in Tehran and other major cities in Iran.
Many posters feature the slogan, ‘Death to the dictator’, alongside workers’ demands for the right to organise and the right to strike. Statements issued by workers’ organisation include demands for the freedom of all political prisoners and an end to the use of military and paramilitary forces against demonstrators and protesters. Teachers are preparing for a week-long strike starting on May 1 to demand an end to interference by the religious state in the school curriculum, as well as better wages and conditions.
Over the last few years workers attempting to celebrate May Day have been arrested and prosecuted – some have been sentenced to prison and lashings. The prominent labour leader, Mansour Ossanlou, remains in prison, along with other worker activists, such as Ebrahim Maddadi, Farzad Kamangar and Ghaleb Husseini. This May Day we should do all we can to defend these activists and join Iranian workers in their call for the release of all political prisoners in Iran.
The charter of workers’ minimum demands, jointly issued by Iran’s four main independent trade unions, includes:
Unconditional recognition of independent workers’ organisations, the right to strike, to organise protests, the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of political organisation.
Abolition of the death penalty, and the immediate and unconditional release of jailed workers and other social activists.
Immediate increase in the minimum wage based on workers’ input through their representatives in workers’ general assemblies.
No abolition of subsidies. All unpaid wages should be paid immediately without any excuses.
Job security for workers and all wage-earners; an end to all temporary and so-called ‘blank signature’ contracts; removal of all government-run organisations from the workplace; drafting of a new labour law through direct participation of workers’ representatives elected by their general assemblies.
Abolition of all the discriminatory laws against women; the ensuring of full and unconditional equality of women and men in all social, economic, political, cultural and family fields.
Mohammad Reza Shalgouni is a founder-member of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar) and has been elected as a member of its central committee on a number of occasions. He spent nine years as a political prisoner in Iran under the shah and today is an active supporter of Hands Off the People of Iran. Yassamine Mather interviewed him for the Weekly Worker
Could you explain the origins of your organisation and the space it occupies on the Iranian left?
Before answering your questions, I see it as my duty to thank your party, and especially the comrades involved with the Weekly Worker, for your coverage of issues concerning the movement of the Iranian people and working class. I hope your efforts can help eradicate the obvious misunderstandings of large sections of the western left.
Rahe Kargar started its activities in the early summer of 1979 and those who founded the organisation were mostly ex-activists of the guerrilla movement, who during their incarceration in the shah’s prisons had come to the conclusion that armed struggle had not only failed to weaken the dictatorship, but that it harmed the relationship between the left and the working class.
Rahe Kargar was one of the first organisations of the left that pointed out the reactionary nature of the Islamic Republic and more importantly deduced from this that the Iranian revolution was defeated once the clergy took power. The clergy was a force that would undoubtedly suppress the movement and independent workers’ organisations, as well as all aspects of modern culture (without which socialism would have no significance). It was with this analysis that, in the midst of widespread general optimism stemming from those who considered the ‘massive popular presence on the streets’ as a definite sign of the victory of the revolution, we drew attention to the threat of fascism and the need to confront its formation.
From our point of view, it was important to pay attention to the characteristics of the new dictatorship and to confront the forthcoming threat. Unlike a substantial section of the left, we considered the clergy and their influence and government as the main threat and, inspired by Marx’s analysis of the ruling classes in England and France in the 1850s, we said that, although the clergy in power is defending the interests of the bourgeoisie against workers and toilers, it has its own interests when it acts as a governing caste. And that this is a result of a Bonapartist equilibrium resulting from the simultaneous weakness of both the bourgeoisie and the working class, the two main classes in society, at a time when neither can take political power.
Rahe Kargar started its existence in opposition to the Islamic Republic and has continued to struggle against this regime. But we have always had clear and firm anti-imperialist positions and we categorically oppose any imperialist intervention in Iran or anywhere in the Middle East. We have always been against the dependence of opposition forces on foreign powers.
From the beginning we opposed the dominant traditional position of the Iranian left, concerning the ‘stage of the revolution’ or defence of the bourgeois democratic revolution, and we have always insisted that a durable democracy in the specific conditions of Iran is impossible without the working class coming to power. That requires independent mass organisation of the class in the political, economic and social arena and this cannot be achieved solely through party organisations. That is why non-party, mass organisations of the workers and toilers can also play an important role. In addition, party organisation might take the form of a number of socialist and workers’ parties, which can form a united workers’ front.
Two other issues that distinguish Rahe Kargar from other leftwing organisations in Iran are:
1. the attention we pay to the issue of nationalities in Iran (a multinational country); we defend the right of the country’s nationalities to self-determination, while emphasising the need for voluntary, democratic unity;
2. the destructive confrontation between tradition and modernity (a form of schizophrenia in our country) and putting an emphasis on the importance of keeping in touch with leftwing religious forces, which maintain a democratic and class understanding of religion and strive for a class alliance of workers and toilers.
In our opinion these are essential conditions for the class unity of the proletariat.
Can you give us an overview of the current situation, including the role of the reformists, the process by which sections of the movement became radicalised and the role of the working class?
In order to understand the dynamics of the current anti-dictatorship movement we must pay attention to a number of issues:
First, although this movement expressed itself in protests against rigged elections, its origins predate June 2009. In other words, in order to understand the situation we must remember that the gatherings in June in support of the reformists had nothing to do with people’s illusions about the elections or the reformists’ programme, but were mainly due to opposition to the institution of the vali faghih (Shia supreme religious leader). In fact these elections were similar to 1997, when people voted for Khatami mainly to confront that institution (the supreme leader wanted Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri to be elected at that time) and it should be said that at least during the last 10-12 years, the majority of Iranians have either participated in or boycotted elections as means of expressing opposition to the ruling dictatorship.
Second, the Islamic Republic has major differences with other dictatorships in the third world. We are dealing with a regime that came out of a mass revolution and for a while it did have considerable influence amongst the masses. The Iran-Iraq war (one of the longest of the 20th century) and political pressure by the United States and its allies throughout most of the last three decades have added to the regime’s need to mobilise its mass base.
However, the Islamic regime is also a rare entity amongst world governments in that the clergy has imposed religion as the dominant force in the state apparatus, denying people’s sovereignty even on a theoretical level and in its constitution. In addition, the Islamic Republic is a plural or multi-centred dictatorship, which so far has not succeeded in destroying its own factions and has not become a dictatorship run by a single individual.
Given the above, elections play a different and a more important role in this system compared to most third world dictatorships. Here the principal organs of power are not electable and elections are limited to the lower echelons within the power structure, which are controlled by the structures nominated by the supreme leader. Elections are above all a means to hide the absolute dictatorship foreseen in the constitution and to mobilise the masses, convincing them of a defining role in state policies. Elections are also a means by which the state organises relations between its own factions (its inner circles) and as a result of this the regime has no alternative but to take its elections seriously. So, once candidates have been screened by the Council of Guardians, there is less vote-rigging, compared with other dictatorships. That is why open electoral fraud disturbs the balance of forces in the regime, not only exposing its absolute despotism, but creating difficulties for regulating relationships between its factions.
Third, the Islamic Republic is a religious dictatorship. In this regime civil repression complements political repression. The regime considers daily and constant control over people’s lives as its raison d’être and this repression creates widespread popular resistance. Throughout the last three decades we have seen a weary, direct and indirect mass resistance to the regime’s efforts to impose sharia law and this has played an important role in the erosion of the regime’s support base. In this confrontation, middle layers of society have played an active role, especially in the major cities. That is why some foreign observers (erroneously) refer to the current protests as the revolt of the middle classes.
Fourth, although at the time of the revolution the religious leadership benefited from considerable influence and this was reflected in the support for the governments stemming from the revolution, the imposition of velayat faghih (guardianship by the supreme leader) created many contradictions, which not only forced the government into constant confrontation with society’s daily life and therefore confrontation with large sections of the population, but also created problems within the clerical hierarchy and the religious establishment.
These factors led to a situation where the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic was seriously challenged (in both the political and religious spheres) especially after Khomeini’s death and this precipitated the loss of it support base. In fact the appearance of the reformists (who mainly came from the ‘left’ faction of the regime, or the ‘imam’s line’ group in the first decade of the existence of the Islamic regime) and their victory in the 1987 presidential elections, has no other significance but a sharpening of this crisis of legitimacy. Efforts over the last 12 years by the office of the supreme leader to control the influence of government reformists were mainly attempted through the strengthening of organs under the direct control of the leader and rendering meaningless elected bodies. All this broke down the equilibrium that had previously existed, and it is no coincidence that the crises of the political and religious legitimacy of the regime have coincided.
The office of Iran’s supreme leader is not only in total confrontation with the people, but at the same time most of the Shia ayatollahs who are accepted as sources of religious guidance are trying to distance themselves from him. The truth is that the traditional Shia religious governance is a form of republic (in the way Engels refers to the Protestant church as the ‘republican church’ and the Catholic church as the ‘Royalist church’), but now vali faghih is trying to change it into a royalist system, making the independence of centres of guidance impossible.
Fifth, the vali faghih system is keeping all the real levers of power directly under the control of the supreme leader. In fact under the current constitution his absolute authority is unprecedented even in comparison to absolute kings. As far as religious matters were concerned, even the kings had to accept religious authority, whilst in Iran all the power of both religious and state authorities is concentrated in the hands of one leader. Given the needs of the revolutionary period and later the requirements of war, the first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, tried to present himself as the embodiment of popular will, but during the last two decades, as the crisis surrounding the legitimacy of the regime increased, Ali Khamenei has been forced to use levers of power under his control to neutralise the general and inevitable inclinations of the people and work actively to destroy them.
As a result of this absolute ‘royalist’ power embedded in the constitution, the regime has been recognised as a naked dictatorship by ordinary Iranians. Nowadays all its armed forces are under the direct control of the supreme leader and the president cannot even send a policeman to someone’s door without his permission. The Revolutionary Guards are not only in charge of national security: they also control many of the country’s major economic activities. Today, Iran’s economy is not just divided between the private and the public sector: there is a third, very powerful sector controlled by foundations under the direct influence of the supreme leader – even the parliamentary accounts committee has no control over it. According to some estimates, the resources under the control of these ‘foundations’ account for a quarter of the country’s internal gross production. The broadcasting authority is a state monopoly under the direct control of the vali faghih. The supreme leader is in charge of one fifth of the country’s oil income.
The coincidence of the economic crisis with the anti-dictatorship movement is a sign of the explosive potential of the current situation in Iran. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, despite all the talk of ‘protecting the disinherited’, Iran’s economy has reached a more critical stage.
Unemployment is increasing at a frightening rate and, according to some estimates, amongst youth it has reached 70%. It should be noted that the 15-30 age group constitutes about 35% of the population. Before the elections, inflation was above 25%, according to figure released by Iran’s Central Bank (even after the manipulation of statistics), and despite the government’s denials it has gone up in recent months. In the first three months of Ahmadinejad’s presidency the cost of housing in most major Iranian cities rose by 1,500% and the cost of housing took up around 75% of the income of an average working class family.
Contrary to the illusions of some left groups outside Iran, Ahmadinejad’s so-called ‘pro-disinherited’ policies played an important role in worsening the structural crisis of Iran’s economy. The first term of the Ahmadinejad presidency coincided with an unprecedented rise in the price of oil and he spent a substantial part of the country’s oil income, as well as the country’s foreign exchange reserves, strengthening the social position of vali faghih. By injecting most of these resources into projects that had no economic value and only benefited the regime’s inner circles, the government created unprecedented inflation, the main burden of which fell on the shoulders of workers and toilers. It is enough to remember that, according to Ahmad Tavakoli (head of the research centre of the Islamic Majles, and one of the most hard-line Principlist-conservative factions of MPs), 46% of all the the ‘quick turnaround’ policies claimed by Ahmadinejad to confront unemployment never existed. In other words, all these claims were a cover for giving credit and low-interest loans (at times no-interest loans) to close associates of the vali faghih. Of course, had it been any different, it would have been surprising, because corruption is endemic in Iran’s Islamic Republic. In fact this regime has all the preconditions for relentless, institutional corruption. It is a rentier oil state and a brutal religious dictatorship, depriving non-believers of any rights.
Right now, according to figures released by the Central Bank, the country’s banking system is facing total bankruptcy, because the banks have provided 50,000 billion tomans (around $50 billion) in non-returnable credit, lost in handouts to the regime’s inner circles. Now, the banking system cannot even provide loans to small production units desperate for credit.
According to some evaluations, around 35% of the population live below the absolute poverty line. This means they face hunger and constant malnutrition. In addition to all this, as a result of the shortage of resources and considerable drop in oil income, the government has been forced to implement sudden measures to abolish subsides for all essential commodities, starting with the energy sector. The implementation of this policy will lead to a jump in the rate of inflation and increase poverty and destitution, making the lives of workers and toilers unbearable.
In view of all this, in my opinion the conditions are not suitable for reform. In general, reforms can only be achieved when the state is reasonably stable and the population is relatively calm and accepts the existing conditions. However, not only do people consider their situation unbearable, not only is there a lively protest movement, but the state is also at breaking point. In such conditions any retreat by the government will only encourage the people. That is why the reformists have little chance of gaining from the situation.
In reality, the electoral fraud, the removal of many reformists from power and the arrest of many of their leading figures was no more than a manifestation of the open bankruptcy of the reformist discourse in our country. It was not the reformists who rebelled against the vali faghih: it was the supreme leader who practically threw them out of the inner circles of the religious state.
In the midst of all this, the emergence of a self-instigated movement against electoral fraud propelled the reformists to the leadership of mass protests. That is the contradictory situation created by the rigged elections – reformists managed to lead the protest at the very time when the bankruptcy of the reform programme had become obvious. Clearly this situation cannot last long. We are now in the post-reformist era and the best proof of this is the growing gap between the slogans of the protest movement and the reformist discourse. The demonstrations that started with slogans like ‘Where is my vote?’ have now moved on to slogans such as ‘Death to the dictator’, ‘Death to Khamenei’, and even ‘Death to the principle of velayat faghih’.
The people’s protest movement started under reformist leadership for two obvious reasons:
1. the first protests were against election fraud and it was inevitable that candidates who lost should take pole position within them;
2. in periods of severe repression, protesters usually rely on some sort of cover to protect them – a cover that can reduce a little bit the cost of protest.
In any case, although the reformist programme was clearly bankrupt, the fact that reformists flocked to the ranks of the protest demonstrates the crisis within the regime. A phenomenon which is a necessary precondition for a revolutionary situation. Today, the presence of reformists on the side of the popular movement is a sign that the ruling order’s position is untenable. At a time when the regime cannot even tolerate reformists who abide by the velayat faghih constitution, we can see a sign of absolute dictatorship and despotism, reducing the regime’s chances of survival. Clearly this situation cannot last for a long time. However the reformists themselves have reached the end of the road – caught between the velayat faghih system and the anti-dictatorship movement of the masses, they are so hemmed in, they have lost the ability to take any initiative.
The brutal, repressive reaction of the regime in confronting the protests was one of the most important factors in the radicalisation of the protest movement over the last eight months. As I mentioned before, the protests against rigged elections (which was indirectly a protest against velayat faghih) disrupted the calculations of the regime. They had not expected mass popular interest in the elections and had even organised TV debates between candidates (a rare event in the Islamic Republic) to try and inject some enthusiasm and show the elections to be a real contest.
In the three weeks before the elections support for reformists candidates became so widespread that Ahmadinejad’s defeat was obvious to everyone. It was in this atmosphere that the vali faghih system, seeing a repetition of the 1997 elections, declared two days before the elections, via the Revolutionary Guards, that a ‘velvet revolution’ was being planned by western powers. On the day of the election itself the Revolutionary Guards staged a military manoeuvre in Tehran to stop this alleged attempt. The election headquarters of reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi was ransacked by plain-clothed security forces.
When the authorities saw the angry reaction of the masses after the announcement of the unbelievable results, they attacked Tehran University on the night of the election, killing a number of people and injuring more than a hundred. And again on June 15, when three million people were marching peacefully against the rigged results, they opened fire on defenceless protesters, killing more people and arresting hundreds. After that came the torture and rape of young boys and girls in prisons, and the death of more than a hundred political prisoners in detention. Illusions in reformism rapidly evaporated and slogans now clearly proclaimed opposition to all the main organs of the current order.
Throughout the last eight months, the shameless Goebbels-like lies of the regime has aggravated the situation. For example, they shamelessly claimed that Neda Agha Soltan, the young girl killed by the security forces, had died through a plot by a BBC reporter, even though witnesses to the attack arrested her killer and confiscated his security ID. When Massoud Ali Agha, a physics professor and supporter of Moussavi, was killed, they claimed he was a nuclear scientist and so Mossad had targeted him. All this, plus the escalating repression, has played a crucial role in reducing the reformists to a forgotten phenomenon and radicalising the youth (the main force behind the anti-dictatorship movement).
Contrary to the opinion of those who consider the movement ‘middle class’, there can be no doubt that workers and toilers have played a very important role in the current protests. For example, how can one say that the June 15 demonstration was only middle class, when Tehran’s mayor admits three million people joined the protest (in a city with a maximum of 12 million inhabitants). Of course, the workers were not raising their own slogans in this demonstration, but the same is true of other sections, such as women and the youth, whose participation in the protests is not in doubt.
We should not forget that we are currently dealing with an anti-despotic movement which is facing brutal repression. In such movements, political protests take the form of sporadic demonstrations, fighting here, fleeing there, and under such conditions workers cannot get involved in independent political struggle at their workplace or in the districts where they live. This is a point made by Rosa Luxembourg in her summation of the Russian uprising of 1905. The experience of the February revolution in Iran against the shah confirms this. In that uprising there was no sign of independent workers’ protests until the massacre of September 1978. It was only after that event (the police opened fire on demonstrators, killing large numbers), when street actions became more difficult and dangerous, that protests moved from the street to workplaces and gradually we witnessed important workers’ strikes. And, of course, at that time, until very close to February 1979, most of the workers’ strikes only raised economic and trade union demands.
At present too, despite all the arrests and repression of labour activists, workers’ protests in support of their demands has manifestly increased. A review of workers’ protests over the last eight months and a comparison of these with the same period last year leaves no doubt that the workers’ movement is on the rise. The least one can say is that without a movement based on workers, toilers and the poor (who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of the country) the current anti-dictatorship movement will get nowhere and in fact it is even difficult to envisage its continuation. Of course, the elimination of subsidies on essential goods (which is due to start in the first weeks of the new Iranian year, beginning on March 21) will no doubt lead to major workers’ protests and this can create suitable conditions for the development of class-consciousness.
We must also remember that under dictatorships people do not believe any of the government’s propaganda and in general do not consider the enemy of the government as their enemy (they are more likely to consider them as friends). In other words, that famous saying, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, gains legitimacy. In today’s Iran, where the regime’s entire propaganda is geared towards opposition to the United States, public opinion against the US is weaker than in most Islamic countries. A couple of months ago when Obama was discussing the nuclear issue with the regime, in one of the demonstrations people were shouting, “Obama, Obama, you are either with them or with us!”
However, this does not mean people are oblivious to the dangers of military action or economic sanctions. One can say with certainty that the majority of Iranians are opposed to economic sanctions and any military action against their country. In particular, the US military invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the general massacre and destruction it has created in our two neighbouring countries has had a profound effect on public opinion in Iran. There are even signs (unfortunately) that Iranians support the regime’s nuclear programme and would not even mind if their country possessed nuclear weapons. In fact the painful experience of the bombing of cities during the Iran-Iraq war and especially the indifference of western states towards the use of chemical weapons by Saddam’s regime during that war created a sense of nationalist impotence which the regime tries to use. It is no coincidence that at present the state raises the nuclear issue in order to divide the masses.
How optimistic are you regarding the future of this movement? What are the prospects of the working class putting its stamp on any regime that follows the defeat of the theocracy?
There are many reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for this movement. In fact, even if this movement dies down today and its continuation becomes impossible, what it has achieved so far will have historic consequences.
The events of the last eight to nine months have left the Islamic regime with no future. Even if it survives for a while, it will never recover from the fatal blows it has suffered at the hands of this mass uprising. The young generation, the main motor of these protests, did not witness the 1979 revolution or the bloody repression of the first decade of this regime and until recently it was preoccupied with minor changes and certainly not thinking about social revolution. This generation is now irreversibly against the very existence of the Islamic regime.
There is no doubt that during the last three decades Iran’s economy has fared worse than other countries in the region. For example, in 1977 (a year before the revolution), Iran’s gross national product per capita was 60% more than Turkey and five times more than Egypt’s. Now Iran’s GNP, despite its oil income, is only 14% ahead of Turkey, and just twice that of Egypt.
The civil repression imposed by the regime will have consequences that will be with us for a long time. It is enough to remember that Iranian girls have been deprived of participation in sport for three decades and have not taken part in any major international sporting competition. The damage resulting from this is a tragedy that is occasionally referred to even within the pages of the regime’s own educational journals. The reason is that, according to the clerics, girls’ sporting activity must not be seen from people in neighbouring buildings, for example, and this makes any form of sport in girls’ schools impossible. The absence of any rights for women has turned half of the society into second-class citizens, as far as law is concerned.
Around 15% of the country’s population – the Sunnis, who are mainly Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmens – face double deprivation because of their religious beliefs and this endangers the country’s territorial unity. It is a weapon in the hands of the US and its allies.
For all its claims of supporting the ‘disinherited’, Iran’s Islamic regime is thoroughly corrupt, it is a parasitic state, pursuing brutal, anti-worker policies. According to many estimates, the current line of poverty in Iran stands at 800,000 tomans ($800), while the official minimum wage (which is often ignored and workers are paid less) is 300,000 tomans ($300). More than 80% of workers have temporary jobs and those in workplaces of less than 10 employees (ie, the majority of Iranian workers) are officially exempt from any labour legislation. For them it is the law of the jungle. Even those activists who demand the establishment of independent workers’ organisations or workers who fight for payment of unpaid wages are arrested and tortured.
It is revealing to compare the government’s attitude towards capitalists and managers compared to its attitude to workers. Last year when the government announced a two percent rise in tax for bazaar merchants, it faced a strike by shop owners in the Tehran bazaar and the state retreated immediately.
All this shows that the current anti-dictatorship movement is the only hope for improving the plight of the working class and ordinary people in Iran. The continuation of this movement and expansion of its scope has created a suitable atmosphere for raising class-consciousness and the formation of independent workers’ organisations and no doubt will improve political conditions in favour of workers to such an extent that it will, in the words of the Persian proverb, learn in one night what usually takes a century. Of course, if the regime creates such an atmosphere of fear where workers’ participation in political and economic protests becomes more difficult and costly, there is a danger that the struggle will take a violent form, when the role of organisations associated with foreign powers would increase, initiatives from below by the working class would fade away and reactionary, anti-democratic forces would gain the upper hand.
Let us not forget that, unlike the shah’s regime, Iran’s Islamic Republic has many powerful enemies throughout the world who seek to find allies amongst the forces opposed to the regime. No doubt such a scenario will harm democratic and socialist forces within the movement and it will give the regime an excuse to link the people’s legitimate struggles with foreign powers. In my opinion the worst scenario in the current situation would arise if groups associated with foreign powers gained more influence within the opposition, because even if they do not manage to stifle the protests they will divert it from its democratic direction.
However, given the current awareness amongst social movements inside Iran, especially amongst the youth over the last 10-12 years, one can be hopeful that the anti-dictatorship movement will not be diverted from such a path. Of course, liberal discourse still dominates Iran’s political scene and the left has a steep hill to climb to overcome this problem. But if the protest continues and takes a revolutionary path, as the role of the working class increases, the conditions for the dominance of socialist thought will develop.
How do you see radical change in Iran linking in with political developments in the region as a whole?
The coming to power of the clergy in the February 1979 uprising in Iran undoubtedly played a significant role in the development of Islamic movements in the region. In my opinion, the overthrow of the Islamic Republic in Iran can play an important part in weakening the influence of Islamic movements.
The reality is that Iran’s Islamic experience is about 10 years older than other countries and so disillusionment with Islamism came much earlier than in other Muslim countries. The overthrow of the Iranian regime could increase that process in other countries, even though it might not necessarily lead to the coming to power of defenders of socialism in our country. Given the current situation in Iran and the region, such a perspective is possible.
It should be pointed out that, although liberal discourse is still powerful in Iran, the economic crisis engulfing world capitalism, the destructive effects of US military intervention, the bankruptcy of corrupt, pro-western regimes in the region and the fact that they are not tolerated – all this has created suitable conditions where, with the demise of Islamism, toilers in the region might turn towards more enlightened horizons. We are now witnessing the Islamic movements subsiding and if US military interventions stopped this decline would be faster. In none of these countries would liberalism be capable of responding to the stacked up problems of poverty, dictatorship and obscurantism, nor can it benefit from mass support amongst workers and toilers.
Right now in two key countries of the region, Egypt and Turkey, a powerful working class movement is rising and if in Iran the anti-dictatorship movement succeeds in strengthening the working class left (and in my opinion there is a strong possibility of that happening) it may be that a ‘strategic bloc’ would be created in these three key countries. A strong left in Iran, Egypt and Turkey would be in a good position to oppose not only the swagger about the ‘free market’ and neoliberalism, but also the obscurantist slogans of Islamism. In reality both currents are not as attractive as they used to be in the Middle East and if the left can learn from past mistakes and take up a democratic, radical, mass-orientated discourse, our region can move in a direction similar to Latin America.
The principal danger for the formation of such a perspective in our region is the destructive policies of the US. For example, Nato’s plans in Afghanistan and Pakistan might lead to the disintegration of both countries – a phenomenon that will be as destructive as an earthquake for the whole region, and especially Iran. Countries in the region have strong religious, tribal and cultural links and Iran has more than 2,500 kilometres of common borders with these Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tribal strife in Kirkuk could heat up dangerous nationalist strife in Iraq, strengthening such arguments in the region and producing disastrous consequences.
What are the role and tasks of the international solidarity movement with those fighting the Iranian regime?
Undoubtedly the solidarity of western organisations and parties with the Iranian people has an important subjective effect on political and social activists inside the country.
Of course, we must have a realistic understanding of this influence. The truth is that the Islamic regime has a monopoly when it come to the radio and television that is available to all and especially the lower classes. These media present everything in a distorted manner, with Goebbels-like lies, and constantly make use of the support of some western left groups who praise the regime’s anti-imperialism! This creates a certain hatred of the ‘international’ left amongst the population. Let there be no doubt: any support for the regime is met with nothing but animosity from the people it suppresses. Satellite radio and television, available to around 20% of the population, is mainly controlled by the US, UK or sections of the opposition directly or indirectly connected to foreign powers and most of them are anti-left and combine opposition to the regime with propaganda for the stance of the US and its allies.
Expressions of support for the working class movement in Iran from international progressive, leftwing organisations is mainly possible through the internet. However, although it is the most important means of communication for the majority of anti-dictatorship activists, inevitably it has a limited number of users – an optimistic estimate would be that 10% of the population has access to the internet.
Despite these limitations, though, support for the anti-despotic movement and, of course, for worker struggles plays an important role in strengthening the left and attracting the country’s youth towards socialist ideas. Let us not forget that there are already favourable conditions for the re-establishment of a strong worker-socialist movement and clear positions taken by socialist forces in the west help bring neoliberalism as well as Islamist ideas into disrepute. In my opinion the anti-war, anti-sanctions movement abroad undoubtedly has a positive influence on the Iranian people, because, as I said before, the overwhelming majority of Iranians do not want to see a repetition of the Iraqi or Afghan experience in their own country, and they have seen how it is ordinary people who suffer the burden of sanctions (Iran has already had three decades of sanctions).
But the important issue is that opposition to the imperialist policies of the US and its allies must not lead to support for the Iranian government. Unfortunately the position of certain ‘anti-imperialist’ forces in the west is as damaging as the stance of those who support military intervention and sanctions. It is vital to oppose war and sanctions, but it must never take the form of supporting the dictatorial, bloodthirsty and obscurantist Islamic Republic. We must not forget that any support for the Islamic regime discredits leftwing and socialist ideas and in practice strengthens the hand of the US and its allies. Whether they like it or not, leftwing apologists for the regime actually help strengthen the imperialist, pro-capitalist camp in our country.
Our readers have followed Rahe Kargar’s stance on many issues for over two decades. Could you explain the reasons for last year’s split in your organisation?
The reason for the split was that for quite a while a group of people had tended towards a kind of reformist anarchism and latterly they wanted to impose their anti-organisation model on the rest of us.
Of course, they were only a minority, but others who did not necessarily agree with them politically ended up supporting them organisationally, creating conditions which would have meant nothing but dissolution. This made coexistence in the same organisation impossible. Amongst the comrades who had more formulated ideas were those who followed an interpretation of John Holloway’s ‘change the world without taking power’. But they propagate a caricature version of this, portraying any organisation as stifling and they are opposed not only to the notions of a working class party and state, but even to trade unions and other workers’ organisations.
The conflict started around an article written by one of the comrades regarding the establishment of independent trade unions in Iran. This comrade warned workers that such an organisation would lead to hierarchical structures and claimed that unions, which limit their politics to economic issues, would benefit the liberals and pave the way for conciliation with capitalists. Those responsible for the website and the organisation’s paper, followed our internal rules and put this article in the ‘point of view’ section of the website and some comrades considered this discriminatory. The reality is that the Iranian working class is actually fighting to establish independent organisations and it is not our policy to leave the working class defenceless.
Another difference arose around Palestine, starting with Israel’s attack on Gaza. They thought the condemnation of Israel’s crimes must be expressed in such a way that it would not strengthen Hamas and, although this was not clearly expressed, they wanted us to condemn both sides (Israel and Hamas) equally. Our position was that Israel’s crimes must be condemned unconditionally and firmly.
Statement from Socialist Students of the Universities in Iran
In support of “European Students Union” and “Iranian Youth Network” for Europe-wide protests
Dear Comrades outside the borders of Iran!
At the anniversary of the Revolution of Bahman 1357 (February 1981), we are now witnessing the most unprecedented and inhumane violence against the Iranian people’s protests and movements, the people who after 31 years of poverty, murder, suppression and oppression have openly criticized and protested against the government which for all these years has violently denied their basic human and civil rights. This government not only has oppressed social movements such as movement of workers, students and women and political and social activists at various levels and stages, but has also invaded the private lives of ordinary people with devastating pressure and attacks.
We have witnessed in the past few months how this Islamic Capitalist Dictator government has attacked our people, whether they are men or women, young or old, in the streets, in horrific secret / underground prisons and have tortured them and kept them in detention under unthinkable conditions and situations.
We have witnessed how in recent months the chain of executions has increased and how numerous rings have been added to this chain. We have witnessed the unrealistic, theatrical-courts where arrested youth and students are forced to give confessions which are far from the truth and where they have been charged and sentenced to long-term prisons.
We believe these protests and campaigns will continue on its true path since it is based on a set of democratic and social demands which represent a vast majority of society i.e. the workers; students have always been an ally for the workers on this path to achieve their victory.
As it has been witnessed, in the past few months the student movement has experienced one of the most brilliant periods of its lifetime. It has been present through campaigns and protest and has not separated its demands from the people’s even for a moment.
The Iranian student movement has now been divided in two: half of it is in Iran and the other half is active outside the borders of Iran. In the past few months, the cohesion, cooperation and solidarity of the students outside the country has brought encouragement and hope for all student activists inside the country.
The call of “The European Union Students” and the “Iranian Youth Network” for Europe-wide protest to occur simultaneously with popular protests in Iranian cities on the 22nd of Bahman in order to oppose oppression, execution, torture, indiscriminate arrests, is another important step towards Alliance and Solidarity between our student movements inside and outside.
Therefore the Socialist Students of Universities in Iran while appreciating your efforts for this movement and other measures you take, announce their support.
Long live solidarity!
Long live the united struggle against the dictatorship!
Long live socialism!
In the run up to the anniversary of the Iranian revolution the besieged and crisis ridden regime is seeking to scare the popular movement off the streets by publicly executing those who have fought against the theocratic regime. This report comes from the website Persian2English:
Nine detainees are likely to be executed in the upcoming hours
Hanover Solidarity Center: According to latest reports from Iran, nine detainees are expected to be executed today and tomorrow in Enghelab Square.
Iranian government had announced plans for executing the nine detainees on February 2, 2010.
More information on this news to follow.
هشدار؛ احتمال اعدام چند از بازداشت شدگان در ساعات آینده
کانون همبستگی هانوفر: بر اساس اطلاعات رسیده از ایران قرار شده است ظرف امروز و فردا 9 نفری را که به اعدام محکوم کردند درمیدان انقلاب به دار بیاویزند لطفا در این زمینه اطلاع رسانی کنید