Iranian demonstrations have given a real boost to working class opponents of the regime, writes Yassamine Mather
Every year November 4, the anniversary of the 1979 take-over of the US embassy in Tehran, is marked in Iran with a state-organised demonstration outside the building that used to house the American ambassador and his staff. On that date 30 years ago militant Islamic students stormed the embassy and took 71 hostages. Nineteen were released within weeks, but the remaining 52 were held for 444 days.
The ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the ‘US hostage crisis’ was no different from recent years: a lacklustre ritual addressed by an insignificant minister. However, no-one in Iran will ever forget November 4 2009. It was the day when illegal demonstrations in at least six separate locations in Tehran and 20 cities and university campuses throughout the country overshadowed the state-organised event. As the national broadcasting service was showing live pictures of the gathering outside the former US embassy, shouts of “Death to the dictator” from protesters on neighbouring streets and squares were so loud that it was difficult to hear the minister’s speech. In Tehran the six locations were Enghelab Square, Ferdowsi, Haft Tir, Enghelab Square, Vali Asr and Vanak Square.
Revolutionary guards had issued stern warnings that they would not tolerate any protest demonstrations, and the night before dozens of political activists were arrested. On the morning of November 4 itself, government offices closed their doors at around 10am to stop employees leaving their workplace to join the protests. The ministry of the interior deployed special units of anti-riot police, many on motorbikes, as well as the religious bassij militia, to block main roads, intimidate potential demonstrators and attack any gathering. Yet despite all these measure, by all accounts – including admissions in the pro-Ahmadinejad press – tens of thousands of Iranians joined the protests against the regime.
Highly significant was the absence of any slogans regarding the rigged elections. Four months and 22 days after the June 2009 presidential poll, demonstrators in Iran have clearly moved on. Even the BBC Persian Service, that staunch defender of the ‘green movement’, had to admit in its broadcasts and analyses what most of the left has been saying for some time: as a result of the impasse within the factions of the Islamic regime the protests are no longer about the results of the presidential elections. Protesters are now challenging the very existence of that regime. ‘Reformist’ leaders are tailing the masses.1
The advice of their ‘leaders’ – most of whom, with the exception of presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, did not even dare show their face at the demonstrations – was totally ignored. Fellow ‘reformist’ candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi had spent the previous 10 days warning everyone against “radical” slogans that would only “benefit the enemy”. Yet demonstrators did the exact opposite.
Even the bourgeois media had to admit that the radicalisation of the demonstrations has marked a new phase in the life of the opposition. The main slogans that dominated the day were directed at the supreme leader himself: “Our guardian is a murderer [the supreme leader’s official religious title is ‘guardian of the nation’]. His rule is null and void” (Vali ma ghateleh velayatesh bateleh), plus the usual “Death to Khamenei, death to the Islamic republic”.
The crowds were also at odds with Moussavi over the nuclear issue. In late October he and Karroubi met to discuss the recent US-EU offer to Iran, and made it clear that they considered Ahmadinejad’s response to be a sell-out. Moussavi was quoted by his own website Kalameh as saying: “If the promises given are realised then the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined.” Yet for the first time in many years, it looked like the nationalist defenders of a nuclear Iran had no supporters amongst the protesters, whose slogans were very clear: “We don’t want reactors, we don’t want the atomic bomb.”
A week earlier, Moussavi, after a lot of dithering, had called on his supporters to back the November 4 demonstrations, yet on the day he failed to show up at any of the protests. His supporters claimed he was prevented from leaving a cultural centre by the security forces, but witnesses deny this. For all his faults, Karroubi, the 70-year-old cleric, showed more courage. He was prepared to join the demonstrations, even though one of his bodyguards was badly injured and ended up in hospital.
In another qualitative development angry demonstrators tore down posters of Khamenei and trampled all over them in what were unprecedented scenes. The man who is supposed to be god’s representative on earth (for Shia Muslims) was called a murderer and his image defiled by demonstrators wiping their feet on his posters.
Most of all, though, November 4 will be remembered as the day Iranians realised their strength and found the courage to stand up to the regime’s supporters and security forces. A number of bloggers have remarked on how government supporters leaving the official gathering hid memorabilia and photos of the supreme leader that had been dished out at that event when they saw the huge number of protesters in neighbouring streets.
There were many reports and films of the bassij and militia attacking protesters, especially women. However, there were also many incidents where demonstrators confronted those forces and actually got the better of them. In some incidents old women defended young protesters and shamed the security forces into retreating.
Some protesters have also taken up a new chant: “Obama, Obama – either you’re with them or you’re with us.” On the face of it, this does not sound like the most radical of slogans. However, this is a country obsessed with conspiracy theories regarding foreign interference and it was the first time since 1979 that Iranians have directed a slogan at the leader of the hegemon capitalist power in the face of such conspiracy theories. It should be noted that since Irangate2 no-one in Iran takes slogans like “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” shouted at official demonstrations seriously.
A number of foreign reporters were detained, most of whom have now been released, together with an Iranian journalist working for Agence France Presse. The stupid leaders of the regime had thought that by making such arrests they would stop the world hearing about the protests, but the reality is that now Iran has millions of reporters, with their text messages, emails and video footage captured on mobile phones. Perhaps the regime will consider banning all electronic equipment in their desperation to stop the ‘wrong’ news spreading.
The demonstrations have given a real boost to working class opponents of the regime. For the first time in many years they are finding allies in their struggle against the Islamic government. Sections of the left, including Rahe Kargar, have been talking of setting up neighbourhood resistance committees and clearly, given the vicious attacks by security forces on the growing opposition, such committees are necessary. For the first time in many years Iranians are discussing the need for the masses to be armed to confront the state security forces, while maintaining their opposition to ‘militarist’ tactics.
But the regime will not give up easily. More than 200 people were arrested in Tehran and the provinces on or around November 4, while a number of labour activists from the Haft Tapeh sugar cane company have been sent to prison for organising strikes. There are unconfirmed reports that despite many efforts to save the life of Kurdish leader Ehsan Fattahian, he was executed on November 11 in Sanandaj Central Prison. Ehsan’s 10-year prison sentence for membership of an illegal Kurdish organisation was recently changed to execution for no apparent reason.
Hundreds of protesters remain in prison and we must do all we can to support and defend them. Let us step up our solidarity with the working class and democratic opposition.
- See BBC Newsnight report, including interview with BBC Persian Service presenter: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPgi2LUNdqI
- See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran%E2%80%93Contra_affair for a summary of the ‘Iran Contra affair’, also known as ‘Irangate’.