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.
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.
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.