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Iran: regime crackdown disguises weaknesses in the face of opposition

“Khameneii, Khamenei, your guardianship (velayat) is dissolved”

“Khameneii, Khamenei, your guardianship is dissolved”

Mehdi Kia co-editor Middle East Left ForumKargar) discusses the mass movement in Iran and the weaknesses of the theocratic regime. This article is from the magazine Permanent Revolution and was written in November.

The coup in Iran, that took place through the June presidential elections, gave the appearance of the regime being firmly in the saddle. But in Iran appearances are deceptive. The large antigovernment demonstrations that took place on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan (18 September), and again on the anniversary of the occupation of the US embassy on 4 November, not only showed an opposition that is alive and well, but one becoming progressively more radical. Whatever happens over the next months the Islamic regime has crossed three bridges that have collapsed behind it. There is no going back. The road can only be downhill all the way to the abyss.

Firstly by excluding a significant portion of the ruling clergy from the corridors of power it has seriously disrupted the accepted practice of power sharing among the numerous factions of the regime. This ability to maintain unity, manoeuver and change tactics, has been a key to the survival of the regime through thirty years of upheaval. How else could a government with an ideology based on a nomadic mercantilism run a moderately advanced capitalist economy without imploding at the first decision forced on it by modern life? Factions were the inevitable product of every major decisionmaking moment over the last three decades. And the ability to keep the regime together while swinging frantically from one policy direction to another was its secret of survival. This regime has survived from one crisis to another through creating structures such as the Expediency Council to paper over the inevitable divisions.1 At one stroke the 2009 election coup removed many of those safety valves.

Secondly the country saw a three-million strong demonstration on June 17 that confronted the entire security apparatus of the country, an apparatus clearly taken off guard at the size of the turnout.

It was the inability of the reformist leadership to seize the moment that saved the government’s neck.

Faced with the masses on the streets, the pasdaran (revolutionary guards) did not risk a confrontation, but bided their time hoping, correctly as it turned out, that the street protests would slowly tire themselves out. Then as the protest gradually lost its momentum the security forces moved in and clamped down until demonstrations of no more than a few hundred people was possible.

Yet the people adapted quickly using “official demonstration days” (such as the anniversary of the occupation of the US embassy) to stage their own counter-demonstrations.

All the while the slogans have become increasingly radical. What began innocuously as “what happened to my vote” went through “Khameneii, Khamenei, your guardianship (velayat) is dissolved”2 to ” “death to the dictator”, “death to Ahmadinejad” and “death to Khamenei”. Taboo after taboo was broken and red line after red line was trampled upon. Nothing is sacred, not even the semi-divine supreme leader. This is a watershed.

The third body blow to the system has been the final discrediting of the reformists. They have been consistently trailing the people, lamely trying to keep up, or begging them to tone it all down.

Their marginalisation can be seen from the radicalisation of the slogans despite their entreaties.

Notwithstanding the desperate efforts of the western media, both print and broadcast, to cast the opposition as a “green” movement whose sole purpose is to overturn the election results, the opposition has increasingly become multicoloured, clearly targeting the entire Islamic regime. The efforts of the reformist movement to “reform” the unreformable was always doomed, but now can be seen in all its contradictions. 

Radicalisation

Since September we have witnessed a greater spread of the opposition movement to cities and towns other than Tehran. The November demonstrations also took place in Tabriz, Shiraz, Isfahan, Najaf Abad, Ahwaz, Shahre Kord, and many other towns.

The opposition is also being radicalised. This is shown in the evolution and radicalisation of the slogans, which have progressively marginalised the reformist leadership. The transformation of “what happened to my vote” finally to esteqlal, azadi, jomhuri irani (independence, freedom, Iranian Republic) has profound implications. “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic” was the pivotal slogan of the 1979 revolution, the first two demands describing the content and the last the institution by which these were supposedly to be realised.

This was a democratic, antiimperialist revolution that was under the illusion that these goals could be achieved through an Islamic regime. By discarding the Islamic Republic but keeping the first two components, the people shouting this slogan today are making a clear link with the revolution of 1979, declaring it unfinished, reiterating its democratic and anti-imperialist aims, and proclaiming the new, secular government that could realise it.

While the slogan is only in its infancy, it has increasingly become more prominent. It betrays the seeds of a true anti-Islamic Republic uprising, that is both democratic and independent of foreign influence.

The slogan was supplemented on the 4 November with “na dowlate coup d’etat; na mennate amrica” (“neither the coup d’état government, nor relying on America”). No “colour revolution” here!3 The radicalisation has gone hand n hand with increasing prominence of left activists. The escalating casualty figures and arrests on the streets goes hand in hand with an increasing street presence of people from the poorer areas of south Tehran. But most striking is the continuous high profile of women activists – battling the basiji thugs in civilian clothes.

We have also witnessed a broadening of the demands to include those of women, of nationalities and other social movements, and of course the right to demonstrate. But in particular we have seen the early steps in bringing together the ever-growing protest movement of the workers with the general anti-regime movement.

Workers are protesting against job losses, real cuts in wages and destitution – a fight for their very survival in the face of neo-liberal policies of mass layoffs and privatisation. There are clear signs that the need to link the two movements is being increasingly recognized by the grass root leadership on both sides. Calls to set up neighbourhood resistance committees by the left are welcome but clearly only a beginning on a long road.

 Broadening and deepening

The old left, both Iranian and non-Iranian, is largely confused about what is happening in Iran today. The protests are either portrayed as a fully-fledged uprising, or more commonly, as another “colour revolution”. It is neither.

What we are witnessing in Iran is not an uprising in any real sense, let alone a revolution. However the seeds of an uprising have been planted, which if tended properly, can grow into an uprising that will unite the various springs of protest into one giant river with a single goal. The slogan of “independence, freedom, Iranian Republic” can provide one such goal. For this to be achieved a number of steps have to be taken. The grass root leaderships of the opposition need to be able to use everything at their disposal to widen, but also deepen, the movement.

To broaden the movement, it is necessary to draw in the disparate social movements, each with their own individual demands, into one huge movement that encompasses these demands. Thus the youth, the women, the nationalities and all the other movements have to be drawn into a co-ordinated single movement. Already youth and women play a critical role in the opposition and have been instrumental in its radicalisation.

The execution of Ehsan Fattahian, a Kurdish left activist, and the imminent execution of Shirko Moarefi another Kurdish activist, shows the regime’s dread of the active involvement of the nationalities of Iran.

The movement must also learn to use the relative safety of the umbrella provided by the reformists without falling under their spell. The fact that the regime cannot slaughter its errant “children” (what it used to call the khodiha – insiders) with the same equanimity and savagery that it can “outsiders” is witnessed by the scale of the current repression, bad as it is compared to previous waves when literally thousands were slaughtered. A vigilant radical leadership will use this umbrella for as long as it provides a cover while pursuing its own independent programme, pushing the movement to adopt tactics that will ensure its deepening and strengthening.

To deepen the movement requires, more than anything, the linking of the workers’ protest movement to the general movement for democracy. The workers’ protest movement has reached levels not seen previously. Most recently oil workers, central to the Iranian economy, have began to flex their muscles.4 In Iran today it is impossible to have a meaningful and lasting democracy without the self-organisation of the working class. The only democracy that has a chance of surviving the inevitable imperialist onslaught must have at its head the only class that is, by its very existence, opposed to imperialism.

Imperial domination functions, and is imposed, through the subjugation of the working class, and only the self-organisation of this class can stand up to this domination. Undoubtedly the working class of Iran is still not organised as a class. This generation of workers has not even experienced real trade unions. Moreover the massive unemployment in the country creates a large constituency of the poor, living on the margins of society in the countless shantytowns surrounding our major cities, providing real organisational challenges.

 Leadership

But perhaps critically an uprising, let alone a revolution, cannot take place without a leadership that can see the road ahead clearly and lead the movement towards its goal. That leadership, which can weave the various strands of the movement into a single party and ensure that the fruits of victory are not handed to the imperialists or to another reactionary regime, as happened after the 1979 Iranian revolution, can only come from the left. Only the left can lead an uprising beyond regime change into a change in the social structure of the country. A change not just in political relations, but in the economic relations of the people.

But for this we need a left in Iran with a vision and the understanding of how to achieve this. Not much of either is visible in what passes for the left today. A “left” that looks up to a regime whose president communicates with a ghost that died 1100 years ago,5 whose regime sacks workers in their millions as part of a neoliberal privatisation policy, whose security forces shoot down peaceful demonstrators and expects it to oppose imperialism, does not deserve that name. To these comrades we say “the sun is out in Iran. Get out from under your umbrellas”. No. We need a left with a vision. Yet that left is being born in Iran as elsewhere, though it has a long way to maturity.

And a final word for that section of the left abroad, like James Petras, Monthly Review and others, who have become an apologist for Ahmadinejad’s regime. We say to you, “if you cannot help us, if you cannot support the struggles in Iran, at least don’t harm us”. By all means oppose imperialist pressures on Iran. Keep up the opposition to sanctions with every weapon at your disposal; sanctions can only harm the people of Iran without damaging the regime. And of course stop any military adventure against Iran. You help us with that and the people of Iran will deal with their regime. It may take time, there may be many more sacrifices, but we will prevail in the end.

The Iranian coup four months on

Mehdi Kia examines the state of the movement against the clerical regime

It is now four months since the coup in Iran, thinly disguised as presidential elections. Even though the victors of the coup appear to have succeeded in consolidating themselves and the opposition forces have apparently been pushed back into defensive positions, the massive anti-government demonstrations on September 18 – the last Friday of the month of Ramadan, Quds day, which is traditionally given over to anti-Israel demonstrations – show that there is much life left in the opposition.

Whatever happens over the next weeks and months, the Islamic regime has walked out of its fortress, crossed over the moat and the drawbridge has been irrevocably destroyed behind it. There is no going back. In this article I will outline the reasons for this conclusion, and go on to describe the achievements, the weaknesses and some of the lessons for the progressive forces fighting the regime in Iran. Hopefully there may also be some lessons for the left abroad, confused as it appears to be as to how to interpret the scenarios beamed at it from Iran. In writing this article I am hugely indebted to Ardeshir Mehrdad, with whom I have had many conversations, but I take full responsibility for any errors of fact, interpretation or analysis.

The coup

The people of Iran woke up on June 13 to face a regime that was in fundamental ways different from the one that had been in power when they went to bed. The night before, an hour before the polls closed, the news of Ahmadinejad’s victory with about 63% of votes appeared on the official Pars web site.

One of my friends saw this and in her astonishment rang friends and her brother abroad. But by the time they logged on the page it had been taken down, to reappear about two hours after the polls closed. The figure was to remain more or less the same throughout the next two days as count after count came in. It was a unique example of vote-counting – backwards. Anyone doubting not only the fact that a fraud had taken place, but that its scale was grotesque, must be a believer in Ahmadinejad’s halo1 and his claim to be in touch with the ‘occulted’ 12th Imam. The fraud was clearly part of a plan laid out weeks before by the sepah pasdaran (revolutionary guards). At one stroke they had removed large sections of the clerical establishment from power.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic is a curious amalgam. One arm is a top-down ‘caliphate’, headed by the velayat faqih, who has absolute and unquestionable power over all civil and political society.2 The other arm is a bottom-up ‘republic’, where an executive president and a parliament – the Majles – are elected by direct ballot. These make up the twin-structures of the Islamic Republic.

However, at every level the ‘republic’ is subordinate to the ‘caliphate’. Not only are representatives of the leader implanted into every organ of state, but also he is the head of the judiciary and the military-security apparatus. He chooses the Guardian Council that vets, and can reject out of hand, all candidates and also all laws passed by the Majles.

Yet the elections are not entirely sham. They have allowed the various factions of the regime to gain positions of influence within the power structure using the electoral process. Moreover, the presidency (and its cabinet) has executive power and the leadership depends on it to run the day-to-day affairs of the country.

The June ‘election’ was the last chapter in a political project master-minded by the pasdaran (revolutionary guards) and the osulgran (principled) faction, whose fundamental goal is to rid the country once and for all of the factionalism that has blighted the ruling elite since the beginning.3 Having previously conquered the town councils and then the Majles, the osulgran considered it essential to ensure that the presidency remained in its hands. This was to be the last chapter in the project to remove the factionalism of the regime and achieve yekparchegi (loosely translated as ‘uniformity’) – a continuous aim since the early days of the regime.

Out went the ability of the various factions to use the election process to manoeuvre for power and influence. Out went the ‘republic’ from the ‘Islamic Republic’ amalgam. The revolutionary guards and a handful of mullahs more or less linked to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, have cleared the way for the unencumbered ‘caliphate’ – or have they?

The protest

The scale of the fraud was such that the people erupted. The streets of Tehran were flooded by thousands who were outraged at the audacity of the ‘results’. Everyone expected some cheating, but not such brazen fraud. Clearly Ahmadinejad subscribes to Goebbels’ dictum that if you make a lie big enough people will believe it – how could anyone lie so blatantly if it was not true? But the people had seen the scale of participation in the voting and witnessed the pre-election fever. Over the last 30 years this degree of voter mobilisation has always meant that the protest vote has been higher.

The shock to the pasdaran was genuine, and I think the revolutionary guards were caught off guard. They had already put in place ‘security precautions’, such as the suspension of  mobile phone SMS services, in case of any protest. But the sheer numbers on Tehran’s streets had not been anticipated. So the pasdaran held back as the scale of demonstrations escalated to nearly three million people by the third day. Then, as the protest gradually lost its natural momentum, they moved in and clamped down until demonstrations of no more than a few hundred people were possible.

It is worth reiterating that in the first days the entire security apparatus available to the regime was mobilised. They had pulled out all the stops. If they had lost that day, it is difficult to imagine what would have happened next. They did not take the risk of confrontation, but bided their time, hoping – correctly, as it turned out – that street protest would slowly exhaust itself.

The day three million pairs of feet marched Tehran’s streets was the day the reformist leaders instructed the demonstrators to walk in silence. They did that after slogans of “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei” had been heard on the previous days. There could not have been a better example of the limitations of the reformist movement. Stuck between wanting to remain within the constitution of the Islamic Republic and the obvious pressure from below to go beyond, they found themselves performing absurd contortions.

For example, they tried to insist that peaceful demonstrations are constitutional, even though they knew full well that in the very same constitution it is the Council of Guardians which decides what is legal. And when Khamenei, the supreme leader, told the people to stop fussing over a few million votes4 and go home the reformists had the stark choice of shutting up or joining the real opposition to the regime. The final death agony of the reformists is the first main gain of the post-election movement.

As significant was the evolution of the slogans which progressively marginalised and ultimately threaten to sideline and negate the reformist leadership. They went from “What happened to my vote?” through “Death to the dictator”, “Death to Ahmadinejad” and “Death to Khamenei”, to finally “Esteqlal, azadi, jomhuri irani” (“Independence, freedom, Iranian republic”). They shouted this in the streets and, when this became impossible, from rooftops at night. All the main red lines were being crossed. The near sacred ‘leader’ not only became an object of jokes, but people were calling for his death. This had not happened for 30 years and would have been unthinkable to the majority of Iranians even a few months ago. Taboo after taboo was being broken.

The significance of the last slogan cannot be underestimated. “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic” was the pivotal call of the 1979 revolution – the first two words describing the content and the last the vehicle by which these were supposedly to be realised. This was a democratic, anti-imperialist revolution that contained the illusion that these goals could be achieved through an Islamic regime. By discarding the Islamic Republic but keeping the first two components, the people shouting this slogan were making a clear link with the revolution of 1979, declaring it to be unfinished, while reiterating its democratic and anti-imperialist aims and proclaiming the new, secular vehicle that was to bring them about.

While the slogan is only in its infancy, it betrays the seeds of a true anti-Islamic Republic uprising that is both democratic and independent of foreign influence. No ‘colour revolution’ here! This is the second gain of the post-election movement.

The third achievement was the forging of new links and the rudimentary skeleton of independent organisations. The involvement of youth, and particularly students, at the election headquarters of the reformist candidates allowed the creation of new acquaintances, friendships and political links that were consolidated further over the ensuing street demonstrations. The fact that some of the leadership of these street and neighbourhood actions has been won by the left is noteworthy.

Fourth, when even sections of the ruling elite are forced to admit to and protest against beatings, torture and even rape, then you know that all the curtains have been torn apart. They even tortured the son of a member of the usulgaran (principled) – the victors of the election. Of course torture is not new to the regime and has been well documented by human rights groups. Those reformist leaders who protest today know that very well – some had even participated in interrogations, and served in governments when torture and execution were being conducted on an industrial scale. Neither is rape a new political weapon – at one stage it was systematically carried out against female political prisoners to make sure they could not enter heaven.5 Grieving families in 1981-83 were given not only the bullet that killed their loved one (and charged for the cost), but also a ‘marriage’ ring by the pasdar who had raped them. That was the macabre ritual of some of the rapes that took place in the prisons of the regime.

This time rape of both men and women was used as a weapon of terror. To admit to this is to cross another red line. The ethical pretensions of the first “rule of Allah on earth”6 in modern times lies in ruins.

Fifth, the very fact that the protest movements have broadly kept under the ‘green’ umbrella is a sign of the maturity of the Iranian people. There is not one green movement, but several; or, as someone said, many colours are subsumed under the green banner. At one extreme are the followers of the defeated reformist candidates, Moussavi and Karroubi. At the other, radical sections that clearly want to overthrow the Islamic regime, including the left. In between are various shades of groupings, mostly not at all clearly defined.

More importantly they are in a state of flux. This is a movement in development. Most of the tendencies within it are gelatinous and not clearly demarcated from other tendencies. The amorphous mass of protestors are linked through what they do not want. What they do want is in the process of evolution, and evolves at different rates and sometimes in contradictory ways. Thus at any given moment incompatible positions and views may be held by individuals.

At present the reformist leadership provides the radical elements with an umbrella of relative safety. That the physical crackdown, savage as it has been, has been less so than when the regime was liquidating enemies that were clearly outside its own circle – the left and the mujahedin – is evidence of this.

Finally there was the ability of the protestors to use all modern means of communication: SMS, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube projected every move, every protest, every battle, every beating and most shootings across the world. Blogs and internet sites updated the world on a minute-to-minute basis. Internet-savvy youth circumvented all efforts to block the information flow. Countless servers abroad were used to bypass the regime’s censorship.

The Iranian protest movement became truly internationalised. The entire world saw Neda Aqa-Soltani’s last dying moments. Her child-like innocent eyes as they glazed over with death looked out at all of us, and indelibly imprinted that look in the global memory. The brutal extinguishing of Neda’s young life, a life with such hope, so courageous, also sounded the death knell for the regime which pulled the trigger.

The costs

The achievements were underwritten by blood. Over a hundred killed, thousands beaten, tortured, raped. Many broken spirits forced to confess on television to absurd links with foreign embassies and agents. Mass trials. More confessions – some, like the one by Said Hajjarian, a former interrogator and one of the theoreticians of the reformist movement, verging on the comic when he blamed foreign textbooks used at the universities for the corruption of youth. And now the first death sentence.7

This is the heavy price that was paid, and is being paid, as thousands remain in prison and arrests continue daily. But, without wishing to belittle the savagery, it is much less severe than what we saw in the attack on Kurdistan in 1979, in the bloody crackdown of the left and Mujahedin in 1981-83 and in the massacre of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

Perhaps among the costs we should also list the tactical mistakes made by the opposition. The reformist leadership was overtaken by events at every turn. Moussavi himself admitted in the early days that he followed where the people led. Where the reformists did give directions, these were often mistaken ones, handicapped by the reformists’ contradictory position of being, on the one hand, Islamic regime insiders and, on the other, at the head of an oppositional movement that has no choice but to go beyond the regime if it is to achieve its aims.

Silencing the millions on the one day when their overwhelming numerical advantage could have dealt a serious, even potentially mortal, blow to the revolutionary guards (at least in Tehran, where the regime had mobilised all the forces at its disposal) was a huge tactical mistake. So was sending them into the street day after day in diminishing numbers against an increasingly confident and brutal security apparatus. Calling on them to gather in absurd places, such as in front of parliament, where they clearly were meant to impress the waverers among the Majles deputies. All it did was place a few thousand people in a place with no real means of escaping the rabid revolutionary guards or one million-strong basij militia and their thugs in civilian clothes.

The street was an arena of struggle during the 1979 revolution precisely because the numbers on the street kept on increasing. When it became obvious that the numbers prepared to risk death and almost certain beating was declining, a change in tactics would have been sensible for any imaginative leadership.

The insistence on using slogans that only addressed the issue of elections was yet another error committed by the reformists – again arising from their real quandary. This weakened the ability of the protest to become linked to other social movements – eg, the women’s or national movement. It would have made sense to carry slogans defending the various other democratic demands of the peoples and nationalities of Iran. There was a unique opportunity to unite the various social movements into a larger mass. And to draw the population of south Tehran, the shanty towns and the poorer areas of the various cities into what has been predominantly, though not exclusively, a youthful protest movement in the northern suburbs.

Most critical has been the failure to unite with the rapidly escalating workers’ movement. During the same period workers have been active across the country in numerous strikes, sit-ins, hostage-taking, occupations, road blocks and demonstrations. The economy of the country is in free fall and inflation is rampant. Large sections of Iranian industries are on the verge of bankruptcy. Hundreds of thousands of workers are being laid off or see their jobs on a knife-edge. The casualisation of labour, laying off full-time workers and replacing them with part-time contract workers – on so-called white contracts8 – has made the life of the working people of Iran impossible. Inflation has made already poor workers destitute. Here is a minefield of actual and potential human material for self-organisation and protest.

Finally the protest still remains predominantly in the capital, Tehran. While there have been demonstrations in Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad, Kurdistan and other towns, they have been somewhat less extensive.

The lessons

What the movement lacks is determined organisation. And what is missing is an organised, united left with a clear view of its aims, a clear strategy and a clear understanding of the tactical steps necessary to arm the amorphous and multi-faceted mass movement with political direction. This is a moment that may only come once in a generation. As the bard said, there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. The tide is in flood and the chance may not return again for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately most of the forces that are either masquerading as left or are genuinely on the left inside (and indeed outside) Iran have a rather binary, black-and-white vision of politics. Movements are either to be supported outright or rejected out of hand. Yet, on closer inspection the current protest movement in Iran can be seen to be made up of multiple, overlapping circles, with boundaries that are continuously in flux. The contours of these multiple ‘green’ movements are vague and are continuously being dissolved and reformed into new shapes.

This binary view of life and politics is best demonstrated by the attitude of the left to the reformists. Either they reject them outright, ignoring the fact that the reformists, used wisely, can help open up the space for the working class and the struggle for democratic rights. Or they fall behind the reformists, mouthing only the slogans they think are acceptable to them.

One view has in reality no tactics to fulfil its strategy – whether it is a democratic republic or socialism. The goal becomes a mere slogan, an article of faith, like a religious mantra. It remains a distant utopia, since the groups upholding it have no policy to lead us from A to Z.

The other view essentially ditches strategy (if there ever was one), replacing it entirely with tactics. The tactic of the united front becomes the strategy – an aim in itself. These groups become appendages of the reformists, mere followers, mouthing their slogan “Hameh ba ham” (“Everyone together”). Worse, they act as the police of the reformists, fearful of any slogans that might upset the balance, which in practice means only allowing those chosen by the reformist leadership.

Neither group can ever hope to lead the present protest movement out of its current impasse. What is needed is the vision, and leadership, that can utilise a variety of tactics in order to broaden and deepen the current protests, and most importantly to push it beyond the limited aim of a rerun of the latest election. We have seen the seeds of this broader movement in the slogans that have surfaced here and there, as discussed earlier. What is now needed are tactics that allow this passage through the mountain passes ahead; to transform the seeds of a movement into a movement proper.

Looking forward

I will summarise a few points that I believe need addressing, without in any way claiming that these are exhaustive.

First, it is important to realise that at this juncture the reformists do impart an umbrella that provides relative safety for the broader opposition. The fact that the regime cannot slaughter its errant ‘children’ (what it used to call the khodiha – insiders) with the same equanimity and savagery that it can outsiders is witnessed by the reduced scale of the repression compared to previous waves. A vigilant, radical leadership would use this umbrella, without falling under its shadow, and only for as long as it provides a cover. But a radical leadership would pursue its own independent programme and push the movement towards the adoption of tactics that will ensure its deepening and strengthening.

Secondly, one such tactic is the linking of the various social movements – women, nationalities, religious, etc – with the current protest movement. One of the gravest error of the reformist leadership was to ignore everything but the ‘vote’. Demands that relate to these democratic rights should be incorporated in the current struggle, allowing a broader section of society to participate.

Thirdly, a key movement that is currently boiling over with anger is that of the working class – a movement that is fighting for its very survival in the face of neoliberal policies and mass layoffs. There has been little, or no, effort to link the post-election protest movement to the nationwide working class protests which have been escalating over the last two months. Physical and material support for the protesting and striking workers is vital – and vital now. It was the combination of massive street demonstrations and a general strike that broke the back of the shah. Radicals within the protest movement should be aiming towards a general strike by supporting and deepening the present dispersed working class struggles.

Fourthly, the massive unemployment in the country also means that there is a large constituency of the poor – those living on the margins of society in the countless shanty towns surrounding our major cities. Inflation hits these millions harder than any other group, and increasing unemployment constantly adds to their number. These people essentially organise at the neighbourhood level and have been over the years in a continuous fight with the state for the means of life.

Their battle is mainly in the basket of consumption, avoiding taxes, trying to get services such as electricity and water free, over roads, etc. Their main form of struggle is in the streets.9 Their ongoing everyday fight for survival must be linked with the general movement for democracy. These people played an important role in the 1979 revolution. They can do so again.

Fifthly, no real use has been made of the weapon of civil disobedience. For a state desperate for legitimacy, this is a very powerful weapon. A universal campaign to stop paying for water, electricity, municipal tax, etc will greatly weaken the state. These too can be organised at the local as well as national level and is another important possibility for self-organisation.

The use of mass street demonstrations needs to be rationalised. To expect millions to march day in day out shows a poverty of tactics. People will do so only if each day brings out more people than the day before. Otherwise you expose the bravest and most radical of the protestors to arrest and worse. The successful Quds day demonstration showed that, when such protests are chosen wisely, the regime is forced to hold back from the massive repression of demonstrators. The time to call people onto the streets is when they are expected to be on the streets, and stream out with their own independent slogans.

The protest movement has been internationalised, but sadly a large section of its real constituency – the left and progressive forces abroad – are stuck in the swamp of a simplistic, third-worldist ‘anti-imperialism’ lacking class content. It is truly pathetic to see support for a regime whose president communicates with a ghost that died 1,100 years ago, whose regime sacks workers in their millions as part of a neoliberal privatisation policy, whose security forces shoot down peaceful demonstrators. Article after article shows this utter poverty of ideas, the disastrous notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.10

There is a saying in Iran, ‘We have little hope of any help from you. At the very least stop harming us.’11 The Iranian left abroad has a clear duty to teach some of its comrades the truths about Iran, help them out of their theoretical cocoon and gain their active support for a principled opposition.

Notes

  1. Ahmadinejad has claimed that during his recent speech to the UN general council a halo appeared over him. He has repeatedly said that he is in direct contact with the 12th Shia imam Mahdi, whose occultation occurred in the 10th century and whose reappearance will herald the day of judgment.
  2. Article 5 of the constitution describes his role in this way: “During the occultation of the vali al-asr (may god hasten his reappearance), the vilayah and leadership of the ummah devolve upon the just and pious faqih, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful and possessed of administrative ability, he will assume the responsibilities of this office in accordance with article 107.”
  3. See A Mehrdad, M Kia, ‘Regime crisis and the new conservatives’ Weekly Worker September 8 2005; and www.iran-buletin.org: www.iran-bulletin.org/IB-MEF-3/presidentialelections_edited.htm
  4. The regime ultimately accepted that there could have been up to three million fraudulent votes – not enough to upset their safe margin of ‘victory’.
  5. It is believed that virgin girls will automatically go to heaven, whatever their sins.
  6. Article 2 of the constitution states: “The Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in the One God (as stated in the phrase, “There is no God except Allah”), His exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands.”
  7. www.iranhrdc.org/httpdocs/English/pdfs/PressReleases/2009/Statement%20on%20execution%20of%20Zamani.pdf
  8. See Y Mather, ‘Misogynist torturers cling on to power’ Weekly Worker August 27.
  9. See A Bayat Street politics New York 1997.
  10. See, for example, www.wsws.org/articles/2009/sep2009/iran-s21.shtml
  11. Ma ra ze kheire to omidi nist, shar maresan.

A Different Regime

Through his election coup Ahmadinejad has initiated a military-style government, argues Mehdi Kia

The Islamic regime in Iran has entered an irreversible turning point. In the first instance, on the morning of June 13 2009 it was fundamentally different from what existed before. At the same time the events of the last two weeks have freed the opposition from much of its illusions in the possibility of reform within the regime. The way is now open for moving toward new horizons. Let me explain.

The regime that rose out of the revolution of 1979, after the bloody suppression of any democratic content, was essentially a government by a particular section of the Shia clergy who believed in the concept of velayate faghih – put simply, the absolute rule of a supreme leader as a “just and knowledgeable religious jurist”. The mullahs who refused to accept this interpretation of Islam were marginalised and excluded from the corridors of power. The constitution of the Islamic regime gave the faghih supreme and absolute power over every decision-making apparatus of the state. The mantle of this all-powerful supreme leader was naturally taken up by ayatollah Khomeini.

It must be remembered, however, that this regime rose out of a revolution which indisputably incorporated virtually the entire population of the country. Hence a parallel structure was created where the executive president, the majles (parliament) and later the municipal councils were chosen by elections.

But the elected organs could not make any decisions that were not acceptable to the leadership. The council of guardians, a body appointed by the supreme leader, was set above them to vet all candidates for elective office, and all the laws passed by the majles. The prime role of elections was to provide legitimacy for the non-elected power structures. Hence the frantic efforts at every election to get the people out to vote.

Thus elections in Iran are not free in any accepted sense of the word, since no candidate, nor any legislation, can pass the hurdle of the unelected council of guardians that is not acceptable to the leader. But elections for such organs as the majles and the presidency had an important subsidiary role. An understanding of this role is important if we are to understand the meaning of the coup d’etat orchestrated by Ahmadinejad, in alliance with a handful of clergy.

The Shia clergy is by its very essence a fragmented entity. This arises from the concept of taqlid (emulation) – which, simply put, means that any Shia believer can follow whichever mullah that takes his or her fancy. In essence the Shia clerical establishment is not hierarchical, but multifocal. It has multiple, and potentially infinite, centres of taqlid, each with its own unique collection of followers. Add to this the complexity of adapting the laws of a religion laid down over a millennium ago to a modern industrial state, and you can see the setting for the constant splitting of the ruling ayatollahs into factions, at almost every major decision-making juncture.

Elections allowed the different factions of the clergy believing in the rule of the faqih to test out the legitimacy of their solutions, and by inference their position in the ruling hierarchy, by reverting to the popular vote. Thus the factions would fight over the popular vote and would use this to manoeuvre in the corridors of power. Hence the regime that Khomeini bestowed on the country was in no way democratic for the population of Iran, but allowed a large amount of freedom, indeed a form of internal democracy, within the ruling clergy.

Interestingly the people of Iran, deprived of any real voice in government, have used the rivalry between the factions to manoeuvre and obtain some breathing space. They did this alternatively by their vote or the boycott of that vote. One can only understand the massive turnout to elect Khatami in 1997, and the massive boycott of the majles elections in 2004 in this light.1 The same can be said of the massive turnout in the present elections. They also very astutely used the fight between various factions as a defensive shield behind which they fought for their own democratic goals.
Ahmadinejad’s coup

That it was a well planned coup and not something concocted at the spur of the moment can be seen from two observations. Firstly the chorus of Revolutionary Guard commanders who congratulated Ahmadinejad on his certain victory and gave their support for it in the weeks before the election. And, second, by the fact that the official Fars News website declared victory for Ahmadinejad two hours before the polls closed, with a percentage of votes which remained unchanged until the final count.

Ahmadinejad orchestrated his previous victory four years ago like a military operation.2 This time he announced it like a victorious Caesar, even before the results of the battle could possibly be known. That was no coincidence. He was declaring to the world, and to the Iranian people, that the rule of the ayatollahs is over. The rule of the military-security machinery has begun.

What Ahmadinejad engineered, in alliance with a large section of the security apparatus and a handful of mullahs, was to essentially deprive the clergy of their ability to use elections to increase the power base of their particular factions inside the regime. This was not a flash in the pan. The election coup had been systematically organised over the last 12-15 years. It began with mobilising and the methodical winning of all electable and non-electable organs – starting with the mayorships of major cities (Ahmadinejad is an ex-mayor of Tehran), the municipal council elections, the majles and the presidency of Ahmadinejad in 2005.

In parallel the military-security apparatus became a major economic force in the country.3 The coup on June 12 was the logical next, and last, step in a long process by which those that called themselves the osulgaran (‘principled’) have been catapulted into undisputed power. The mass protest by the clergy4 can be explained by the fact that they have been unceremoniously thrown out of the power structure of Iran.

The regime that took power last week showed its fangs early. Not only did the thugs it unleashed beat up protestors, but they smashed their way into the homes of people who had given them sanctuary. They forced their way into university dormitories across the country to wreck everything in sight and indiscriminately beat the students. The arrest of politicians, journalists, students and demonstrators is taking place daily.

The overall aim of the osulgaran faction, to which Ahmadinejad belongs, is to do away with the factional nature of the Iranian regime and have a top-down, unified, military-style government with a population which supports it unequivocally and by acclamation without being allowed to organise in any form. This is to be a united country, under an undivided, single and monolithic regime, preparing for war, with an economy that reflects those aims. The unorganised ‘people’ are to be mobilised when and if necessary to act as fodder for that war.

You can glimpse this structure in the victory speech made by Ahmadinejad a few days after the election. There he dismissed and derided political parties and appealed to the people to stay on the scene to defend the country.

A capitalist regime, using extreme nationalist populist slogans, ruling the country through thugs and being acclaimed by a public not permitted to organise in any form other than what is dictated from above, and with militaristic, adventurist ambitions! Have we not seen this before?
The people

The second consequence of the election coup is to free the Iranian people once and for all of any illusions as to the ability of the regime to reform. The final explosive demise of the election escape valve releases the people of Iran from the grip of, or hopes for, a reformist option.

They showed that understanding when they defied calls by the front runner in the election, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, to stay at home. Indeed, not for the first time we saw the spectacle of the reformists running after the people so as not to be thrown aside. Both Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi had to make an appearance in that and subsequent demonstrations, clearly desperate to regain the initiative. And at each step they have struggled to keep up with the popular anger.

The strident call of supreme leader Ali Khamenei for suppression of the demonstrations, the warning that any bloodshed would be laid at the door of the reformists and the subsequent savage attacks on street protests will further push the reformist leaders into the margins. The road is now open for the entire structure to be challenged from below.

This will be a difficult road. The reasons are not hard to discern. The regime has shown that it has no difficulty in mounting savage repression. This is an ideological regime, organised on fascist lines and fighting for its life. It has a well organised and financed body of Revolutionary Guards, as well as the voluntary bassij to do its deeds. While both of these will undoubtedly have within them large sections who are sympathetic to the popular movement, it is unwise to underestimate the power of ideology and even more the hierarchical structure of these organisations making the bassij foot-soldier far more likely to obey the orders to shoot than the conscript army of the shah.

Moreover the leaders of the regime are children of a revolution, an eight-year war with Iraq and a 30-year suppression of any popular protest. They did this efficiently in 1997, when several cities erupted; they did it again when they bloodily put down the student movement four years ago. They have been organised on a national scale with the sole purpose of keeping the population in order. They are used to repression and have had a lot of practice at imposing it.

On the other side the people are leaderless. They have been denied the right to organise in any meaningful way for over half a century, with only brief interludes of real freedom. The systematic, bloody repression of the left and all progressive forces has left its mark. Many of the exiled organisations are atrophied and are totally divorced from the country. Within Iran a new left has undoubtedly emerged, but it has yet to organise in any effective form, or even to polish its ideological understanding of the dynamics of Iranian society and the world. The working class has been in a life and death struggle with daily survival in an economy that has been in a spiral of decline.

This setting does not favour the development of working class organisations that can politically challenge the regime. Yet there are tactics that the opposition to the regime can adapt which will allow it to overcome its weakness.
Tactics

In the face of certain savage oppression, and in the process of producing organisation, the struggle has to utilise tactics that take its weaknesses into account and play on its strengths. Any tactic that paralyses the regime yet puts the people out of reach of the security apparatus is more likely to succeed. Already youth on motorcycles have been using these tactics to get news of street battles to different parts, drawing the security forces into side alleys, where they become fragmented, disappearing into people’s homes when under attack, chanting “Death to the dictator” from rooftops at night, and making intelligent use of SMS, email, twitter, Facebook, etc to communicate with each other and get their message abroad.

Among other tactics that can be used are mass strikes – or, to be more accurate, stay-at-homes: ie, unofficial strikes. This keeps protestors away from the forces of repression, but paralyses the regime by depriving it of its workforce. As we go to press, there has indeed been a call for a stayaway on June 23 and for three days of mourning between June 23-25. Despite all that has been written about the Iranian revolution, it was this tactic, and not massive street demonstrations, that broke the back of the shah’s regime. Moreover, any such act of mass civil disobedience is difficult to suppress.

The organisational deficit of the protestors can be turned into an advantage by concentrating on local neighbourhood networks that will be much less easy to destroy than a central leadership. This form of organisation has the added advantage of being excellent teaching grounds for the experience of direct democracy. The highly creative use by the youth in Iran of modern means of communication allows for coordination of protest – the aim being to paralyse the state. Finally we have the age-old Iranian tactic of sanctuary – in an avowedly Islamic regime it is very difficult to attack people taking sanctuary in a mosque or shrine. Thus one can use the weakness of the regime to strengthen the opposition.

The battle will be long and bloody. Yassamine Mather has already highlighted some of the difficulties that lie ahead.5 However, we are on the slow but upward spiral to an Iran where different groups can gather and organise around their specific needs. And where we can have the kind of democracy that allows the working people of the country, those not owning the means of production, to organise towards a truly democratic socialism.
Notes

1. See Middle East Left Forum: www.iran-bulletin.org/IBMEF_1_word%206%20files/Election%20to%207th%20majles_with%20pict.htm
2. See A Mehrdad and M Kia, ‘Regime crisis and the new conservatives’ Weekly Worker September 8 2005; and Middle East Left Forum: www.iran-bulletin.org/IB-MEF-3/presidentialelections_edited.htm
3. See A Mehrdad and M Kia op cit for a detailed discussion of the rise of the neo-conservatives.
4. The majma johaniune mobarez (Association of Combatant Clerics) was one of the first organs to protest at the coup. On June 22 it published an announcement that challenged the supreme leader outright – a totally unprecedented phenomenon.
5. Yassamine Mather, ‘Death to the Islamic republic’ Weekly Worker June 18; and also on www.iran-bulletin.org