Yassamine Mather calls for support and solidarity for workers in Iran
If anyone was in any doubt about the continuation of the political crisis in Iran, demonstrations on Friday September 18 in Tehran, Tabriz, Mashad, Shiraz, Isfahan and elsewhere put an end to that.
Tens of thousands of Iranians, ignoring repeated warnings by the security forces, used the state-sponsored demonstrations for ‘Qods day’ (Jerusalem day) on the last Friday of Ramadan to voice their opposition to the government and the clerical regime’s supreme leader. Undeterred by two months of executions, arrests and show trials, the opposition used the opportunity to fill the streets and voice their protests.
Earlier, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had once again done harm to the Palestinian cause by repeating his abhorrent holocaust-denial claims: “The holocaust was a false pretext for the establishment of Israel in 1948. It is a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim … Why shouldn’t we be allowed to research this? … All western governments are victims of a Zionist conspiracy that dictates their foreign policy.” Never mind capitalism or imperialism – it is all to do with conspiracies. Many will remember anti-Semites making similar remarks in the 20th century.
But it is not just this anti-Semitic message that helps the Zionists. A section of Iranian youth who have heard nothing but empty rhetoric about Palestine, all mouthed by a reactionary dictatorship, are not as supportive of the Palestinian cause as older generations. In a country where the majority of the population live in poverty, those who are foolish enough to believe the Shia state’s exaggerated claims relating to financial support for Hezbollah or Hamas blame such largesse in ‘foreign aid’ for their own destitution.
However, last Friday was mainly about opposition to Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and Ahmadinejad. The demonstrators were shouting for the Iranian government to go, with slogans such as: “Death to the dictator. We will revenge our dead. Death to Khamenei. Coup d’etat government, resign, resign! Dictator, dictator, have shame; the Iranian people are ready to revolt – this is our last warning.” A number of slogans were addressed to the bassij (Islamic militia) – some calling on them to stop siding with the oppressors and join the people, others warning them of the consequences of killing protesters.
A minority were shouting a reactionary, nationalist slogan: “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon. My life for my country.” This was a reference to the regime’s support for Palestinians in Gaza and Shias in Lebanon, and it was promoted mainly by rightwing forces. This slogan had been rejected out of hand the week before the demonstration by sections of the left.
A statement by the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar), distributed last week, reminded Iranians of their shared destiny with the oppressed in Palestine and Lebanon. Saying that Palestine should not be equated with Hamas. Rahe Kargar pointed to the unprecedented solidarity shown by people throughout the world for the protest movement in Iran. The leaflet called on demonstrators to reciprocate this internationalism and proposed the slogan, “Wake up – Iran has become Palestine”.
This was a timely reminder for sections of the Iranian left, many of whom are increasingly tailing bourgeois liberal politics rather than coming up with a leftwing alternative. The Iranian working class cannot struggle for power in one country; if we are serious about ditching the Stalinist idiocy of socialism in one country, the tasks of the Iranian working class cannot be limited to the borders of Iran. More importantly, whether Iranian rightwing nationalists like it or not, it is the US and western powers who in recent months have associated the two issues of Iran and Palestine more than ever before.
In late August news from the Middle East was dominated by claims that Barack Obama had managed to convince Israel to freeze its construction of new West Bank settlements in exchange for the US adopting more stringent policies regarding the Iranian nuclear plan. Soon afterwards, especially following the visit of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Europe, leaders in London, Paris and Berlin were singing from the same song sheet. We were ‘reliably’ informed that US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell was preparing to announce the resumption of peace talks by the end of September. The American promise to take a firmer line against the Iranian nuclear plan was supposed to convince Jerusalem it needed to get on board the initiative. The US, Britain and France plan to pressure the UN security council to expand sanctions against the Islamic Republic, including sanctions on its gas and petrol industries – a move that is claimed will destroy Iran’s already collapsing economy.
Less than a week after these pronouncements it became clear that Israel had officially approved the construction of more than 500 new homes in the occupied West Bank. This is in addition to Netanyahu’s refusal to apply any freeze at all to the colonisation of Greater Jerusalem, or to stop construction projects that have already been started. The new homes will be built in six settlements – all of which are included in the blocs Israel wants to retain under any peace agreement, according to Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper.
On the other hand, despite news of direct talks to be held in early October, threats of military action against Iran are increasing. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal in early September warned Obama that the United States must quickly put a stop to the Iranian nuclear programme, otherwise Israel will bomb the facilities: “An Israeli strike on Iran would be the most dangerous foreign policy issue Obama could face,” the paper declared. Another Republican hawk, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, maintains that additional sanctions alone will not be enough to make the Iranians abandon their nuclear ambitions. William Cohen, who served as defence secretary during the Bill Clinton presidency, says that “there is a countdown taking place” and that Israel “is not going to sit indifferently on the sidelines and watch Iran continue on its way toward becoming a nuclear power.”
Netanyahu has skilfully used the huge general onslaught against Obama by the forces of the US right, with whom the Israeli PM is allied. Together they have managed to deflect the pressure on Israel to freeze colonisation of the occupied territories, and divert attention to the Iranian ‘threat’. At the moment it seems that the US right and their Israeli ally are ahead. George Mitchell’s trip to the Middle East got nowhere, and it is unlikely that Obama will make any progress in talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
We in Hands Off the People of Iran have always maintained that threats of further sanctions and war have nothing to do with the alleged development of Iranian nuclear weapons. All the evidence suggests that the Iranian regime’s plan is (eventually) to achieve nuclear weapons capability, rather than actually produce nuclear weapons.
However, we are witnessing a conflict between two alternative US strategies regarding Iran’s future role in the region. During his election campaign Obama seemed prepared for some accommodation, allowing the Islamic regime limited regional influence in exchange for better cooperation with the US. But the US right and Israel preferred to continue the Bush policy of no accommodation, tighter sanctions, regime change from the outside and the threat of military action. The American promise to take a firmer line against the Iranian nuclear plan was supposed to convince Jerusalem to get on board the initiative, yet less than a year into the Obama presidency, pressure from Israel and the US right – at a time of political uncertainty in Iran, combined with Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denial – has ensured there is no progress in this area. The threat of an Israeli military strike against Iran, as well as the possibility of new sanctions, is today as serious as ever before.
Whichever way one looks at the problem, the issues of Palestine and Iran cannot be separated. Yet an oppressive regime in Iran cannot be a genuine ally of the Palestinians; and the liberation of the Iranian people cannot be achieved while the region continues to suffer war, occupation and repression.
On September 18, prompted by the left, some demonstrators in Tehran had the right slogans: “Whether in Gaza or in Iran, stop killing people; Iran has become like Palestine.” The dominance of this slogan in the Tehran demonstration showed the presence and effective role of the left. The demonstration was also unique in a number of other ways. As many commentators have said, it marked a new phase in the continuing struggle between the government and the Iranian people. The massive turnout almost two months after the protests of June and July prove the vulnerability of the unpopular president and government.
The composition of the protest differed from earlier demonstrations, in that protesters in Tehran and in other major cities were almost uniquely from the poorer districts. The middle classes only came out mid-afternoon, when reports of the size of the demonstrations assured them of safety. It was the first real nationwide protest – tens of thousands came out in Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad, Tabriz, Rasht, etc. Older women were present in large numbers, probably for the first time since the recent wave of demonstrations started. According to many accounts, Iranians had left their homes in the morning of September 18 fearful that they would be in a small protest surrounded by vicious bassij militia. Only when they reached the agreed assembly places did they become aware of how large the protests were.
Many recount with joy the fleeing of the state’s ‘Hezbollahis’ and their oversized speakers, once they realised how big the opposition protests were going to be. In many of the films on the internet, the faint voices of pro-government demonstrators are being drowned out by slogans from the much larger and more militant opposition. Before the demonstration, it had become clear that Ahmadinejad and his government favoured using the full might of the state to frighten the population. However, the supreme leader and his allies in the conservative faction of the regime, increasingly worried that further repression might challenge the very existence of the Islamic regime, tried to portray the Qods demonstration as a day of ‘national unity’. In the end, of course, the day exposed the deep divisions in Iranian society for all to see.
Although tear gas was used and a number of people were arrested, the level of force use against the demonstrators was less than on previous demonstrations and certainly less than threatened. It will be interesting to see how the protesters will react to this clear retreat of the supreme leader.
Another important factor regarding the September 18 protest was the continuation of the protests at an important football match in the evening. The spectators’ anti-government slogans could be heard for miles around the stadium, but the national radio and television company was forced to abandon live coverage of this rather crucial game between Estghlal and Steel Azin, blaming faulty cameras in the stadium! Foolishly the match was broadcast live on radio, so very few people in Iran are in any doubt about the nature of the state broadcasting authority’s ‘technical’ difficulties. In another victory for the demonstrators on the same day, Ahmadinejad was forced to cut short an interview on national TV, as shouts of “Death to the dictator” could clearly be heard during the broadcast.
No doubt the events that day will shape the coming weeks and months. Schools and universities are opening this week, although many campuses will remain shut until November. The experiences of the demonstration and the football match clearly show that, as soon as a crowd gathers, political opposition to the regime will be voiced. On the other hand, short of calling for a curfew and direct military rule, how can the government avoid public gatherings? And, if it does go towards a curfew, how will reformist opponents within its own ranks react? Are they going to ban football matches? Will they close down universities and high schools?
In a clear sign of retreat, Khamenei’s speech at the end of Ramadan continued a theme taken up earlier in September, in an attempt to pacify sections of the opposition. Khamenei had earlier rejected the idea that foreign powers were involved in the country’s post-election demonstrations: “I do not accuse leaders of the recent events of being stooges of aliens, including the US and Britain, since it was not proved for me. We should not proceed in dealing with those behind the protests on the basis of rumours and guesswork.”1 On September 20, with ‘reformist’ ex-president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani standing a couple of metres from him, he warned government supporters against accusing opposition members of wrongdoing without proof: “While a suspect’s own confession was admissible, his testimony or accusations could not be used to implicate others.”2 A clear dismissal of the show trials which have dominated the government’s agenda in the last few weeks, where ‘reformist’ prisoners accused Rafsanjani and fellow reformists Mohammad Khatami and Mir Hossein Moussavi of collaborating with foreign enemies.
Khamenei’s speech has pacified leaders of the ‘reformist’ movement, as shown by Rafsanjani’s conciliatory tone in a speech to the council of experts on September 22.3 But it is clearly too little too late as far as the protesters are concerned.
In another development, ayatollah Hosein-Ali Montazeri (once the designated successor to Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini), has replied to a letter from Moussavi, who was seeking guidance, in this way on September 22: “The path to reforming the current system is a very difficult one: the entire regime has lost credibility … A government that was supposed to be the pride of Shias throughout the world has turned the youth and the masses in our country against Islam and religion.”4
The September 18 protests came after three weeks of intensified workers’ protests. In Pars Wagon (train carriage makers), workers angry at non-payment of wages smashed tables and chairs in the canteen. In the Iran Khodro car plant, workers commemorated the death of a fellow worker who collapsed after working three successive shifts. Similar workers’ protests took place in Arj (manufacturer of electrical household goods), Arak Aluminium and many other workplaces. Although most of these protests started off in support of economic demands and against closures, whenever the security forces appeared this prompted the use of the now familiar slogan of “Death to the dictator” – an echo of “Death to the shah”, which dominated the workers’ protests of 1978-79.
Workers in Iran need our support and solidarity – against both imperialist threats and the repressive religious state.